Walking Through a Postcard: Student Researcher Writes Home from Crete

For the last three weeks of our stay in Crete, we have been hearing
about the immense explosion of the volcano of Santorini that destroyed the ancient Minoan civilization here in 2000 B.C. 

We were also told about the unique landscape of Santorini, an island that is formed, in part, by an extinct underwater volcano.  When we visited the island, last weekend, none of these descriptions prepared us for what we saw:  An incredible caldera (cavity caused by violent volcanic activity as when the top of a volcanic cone is blown off), rising vertically from the sea floor to a height of more than a thousand feet.  Amazingly, on its rim was a village precariously clinging on the rocks.

On Friday July 12, after an initial delay due to project deadlines, the group set out for Santorini, a small island of about 110 kilometers north of Crete, for a weekend of sightseeing and fun.  As I said, this island was the site of a volcanic explosion so large that it is considered responsible for the demise of Minoan civilization.  What is left has since been repopulated:  The rocky cliffs are covered with unique Grecian architecture, vividly painted.  I felt like I was walking through a postcard. 


After a late departure, we arrived around 2 a.m.  Feeling tired and without direction as to exactly where we would be staying, we were met by many people that wait at the port to get the arriving tourists to come with them to stay in their hotels.  Some in the group opted to go to the youth hostel, while others found accommodations in local hotels in the town of Thira.  All seemed to work out.

It is always exciting to arrive at a place at night and wonder just what one is going to see once the sun comes up.  In our case we were all very impressed.  The pictures we had all seen in the travel books were all quite accurate.  Beauty beyond description.  It is one thing to see such a place in a book, but to go there is a different story all together.

On Saturday, we all took the bus to the northern town of Oia (pronounced “ee-a”).  This small town was perhaps the most picturesque place on the entire island.  Colorful structures crowd the cliff under an intense sun. 
We made it back to Thira for what everyone in Santorini anticipates:  Sunset.  Is there a competition between the landscape and the sunset here?  It seems so.  It is all so amazing.  All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to go to Santorini, go!

Sunday, we attempted to go to the ancient city of Akrotiri in the southern portion of the island.  We unfortunately showed up too late to take it all in, so we all went to the Red Beach instead.  It’s a beach of deep red volcanic rock, a splendid sight and a great swim.  After that, you guessed it, back to watch the sunset.  There must never be a bad sunset, except maybe in the winter.

On Monday, several of us went on a hike through the village of Thira to a costal rock formation.  After a bit of climbing we found ourselves on top with a 360 degree view of the entire island, as well as other islands in different directions.  It was a breath-taking view that I did not want to leave, but we had a ferry to catch back to Crete that afternoon.  We stayed there for a half an hour or so and then descended to a monastery below that could only be seen from where we had been.  We investigated the monastery for a short time, and then headed toward the port.

Beyond the day to day experiences of this visit, we were continuously reminded of the differences between the model of tourism that has evolved on the island of Santorini during the last 30 years, and that which we experience daily in our study of Hersonissos and its hinterland.  In Santorini, an island almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1956, the protection extended by the archeological service of Greece, and the architectural guidelines of the Ministry of Planning for the reconstruction of the island’s communities, produced a physical environment reminiscent of Santa Fe in its beauty and its architectural consistency.  This environment, with its architectural beauty and with the dramatic landscape, has succeeded in attracting tourism while also protecting the local resources. 

I contrast, the more populist tourism setting promoted in Hersonissos has meant little regard is shown for the environmental and cultural characteristics of the area.  The result in Hersonissos is a slow but steady decline of the natural and physical environment, the quality of tourism services, and the appreciation of visitors for the place.  In Santorini however, visitors respect the natural and physical setting.  Meanwhile, they help the economy and so, further contribute to the improvement of the infrastructure and the services provided by the tourism sector.

It seems as our Sustainable Development Group may have the opportunity to study these issues further in the summer of 2004, because some preliminary contacts we had with the municipal administration and with cultural groups on the island have left the impression that we may be invited to work closely with these groups on the design of a sustainable development framework for the island.

For more background on the work of the UC group in Crete, go to: http://www.uc.edu/news/NR.asp?id=570.

To read Dan MacDonald’s first letter home, go to: http://www.uc.edu/news/NR.asp?id=680.


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