Greek Maymester 2012: Santorini

«Ένα», «δύο», «τρία», «τέσσερις», «πέντε», «έξι», «επτά», «οκτώ», «εννέα», «δέκα». And there you have us, numbers one to ten, scrambling into place on the minibus and sinking into our seats, bright and breezy after breakfast, hot and exhausted by the end of the day, site after site and carpark after carpark, from Santorini to Knossos to Perachora to Eleusis. Katie, Joe, Robert, Donna, Kim, Marina, David, Lizzie, Jeannine and (occasionally) Kenny: Team Greek Maymester 2012. For three weeks in late May and early June, we travelled together round 47 sites on the Greek mainland, Crete, and Santorini, leaving no stone undiscussed and no tsipouro untasted on our way.

 

Donna, Kim, Katie, David, Robert, Jeannine, Joe, Lizzie

 

Santorini

We started our travels, counterintuitively, at a complete remove from any palaces, temples, or Doric columns. We began in the Cyclades, flying out over the Aegean on our first morning for two days on Santorini (Fira). From the window of the plane we made out Sifnos, Milos and Folegandros on our way in to land, and started to get a sense of the ways in which geography – sheer cliff faces jutting into the sea; extravagant island shapes which looked as though someone had taken a bite out of the side of them – was going to be an unavoidable determining factor in our history lessons to come. Beaches, this initial overview also suggested, were going to figure heavily…

 

The Cyclades from above: Folegandros


 

Akrotiri on Fira was a challenging and exciting site with which to start our explorations. Buried in a volcanic eruption some time around the year 1628 BCE, an entire Middle Minoan/Middle Cycladic period town has now been recovered from beneath its protective lava shell. The site itself had been reopened just a month before our arrival, and we were able to walk right down the main street of the town, peering in at windows and looking down from above on the complex warrens of rooms in the larger houses – legitimized nosiness of the best possible kind! A visit to the local museum the next day helped us to populate the houses: there were brightly coloured frescoes of monkeys, rock formations, local vegetation and beautiful women in Cretan dresses; pots of all shapes and sizes covered in birds, fish, wheat patterns and even nipples; casts of the elaborate wooden furniture destroyed in the heat of the eruption but preserved, like the famous figures of the dying and the fleeing from Pompeii, by pouring plaster into the remaining cavities. Akrotiri was a site whose shadow stayed with us throughout our time in Greece – even in the museum at Marathon, right at the end of our trip, we were recognizing Cycladic pot shapes – but it felt at the same time like the tip of a whole new Greek world, distinct from both Cretan and mainland culture. Our first site was both a warm welcome to ancient Greece, and an alien land for all of us, with a heavy dose of the unexpected.

 

Frescoes from the houses at Akrotiri

 

Ancient Akrotiri was a wealthy trading town, the first of the Cyclades that a ship sailing north from Crete would land at, so we were following a time-hallowed tradition when we shopped and ate and wandered through the winding hillside streets of the main town, Fira. We also had our first swim, or at least two of our foolhardy trip-leaders did, in the crashing waves beneath a magnificent cliff face of red lava. Swimmer number one emerged from the water with a top to toe covering of seaweed, while swimmer number two emerged without his spectacles… the most adventurous of our water-borne adventures, perhaps, but by no means the last!

 

The Red Beach, Santorini

 

We left Santorini on an evening ferry to Crete (the “Flying Cat”; we should have taken the warning). It was what they call a dark and stormy night (none of us will ever mock that phrase again!) and perhaps a journey to be passed over without too much comment – Poseidon, suffice it to say, was firmly of the mind that we ought to remain on Santorini, and was not best pleased when we told him we had an appointment the next day at Knossos which we intended to keep…

About Lizzie Mitchell

PhD student in classical archaeology (Harvard). Teaching assistant on 2012 Maymester in Greece.
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