Arequipa – The White City of Peru


After the wedding at Piura, Peru, we flew to Lima, early morning on January 06.  We were joined by Stephens, our travel companions.  The party consisted of Vijas, Ranga, Aravazhi with their better-halves and Mrs. Anita Chandramouli.  Our trip was organised by JourneYou, a travel company founded in 2011 by a team of travel professionals.  Their agent received us at Lima Airport and facilitated our check-in for the Arequipa flight. After an hour, we landed at Rodriguez Ballon International Airport at Arequipa.


Arequipa in Southern Peru is the second most populated city in Peru. It is considered one of the most fascinating areas in the country, due to its architecture, varied gastronomy, impressive landscapes, imposing volcanoes, and the deepest canyon in the world. The most prominent feature of the landscape of Arequipa is undoubtedly the majestic Misti volcano, which sits at 5,825m above sea level. ‘El Misti’ comes from the Quechua language (language of Incan Empire), meaning ‘The Gentleman.’

Prior to exiting Arequipa Airport, all our baggage was thoroughly scanned by Animal and Plant Health Service of Peru to detect if we were in possession of any fruit – a rare inspection, that too when flying within the country!  It is to ensure that no fruit flies, its larvae or eggs are brought into this region.  Passengers who were in possession of any fruit had to either consume it or discard it there.

Southern Peru has managed to eradicate fruit flies by means of the area-wide integrated application of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), a nuclear technology package developed by a joint division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  These pests used to cause annual losses of up to US$12 million to the farmers and fruit growers in Peru.


Arequipa is named the “White City” (Ciudad Blanca) due to the whiteness of the houses and buildings made using white ashlar, a volcanic stone abundantly found in the area. In the background of the photograph above is the Misti Volcano on the Left and Pichu Pichu Volcano (5,669m) to the Right.

On arrival at the Airport, we were greeted by our travel guide from JourneYou, who escorted us to our hotel.  After lunch we set out to explore the city with our travel guide.  Our first stop was Santa Catalina Monastery.


Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena was built in 1579 and it served as a cloister for Dominican nuns from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and it still houses a small religious community today. The complex is built from volcanic Sillar stone and is organized into cloisters, living quarters, a plaza, a gallery, and a chapel.  The Monastery was founded by Maria de Guzman, a rich widow, who only accepted nuns from the rich Spanish families. Traditionally, the second daughter of upper-class families entered a nunnery, supposedly to live in poverty and renounce the material world.  They had to pay a dowry on entry and they lived in luxury with servants or slaves.


In addition to the dowry, the nuns also had to bring 25 listed items which included a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. In the case of the wealthiest nuns, these included the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs.


The Orange Tree Cloister (Claustro los Naranjos) in the Monastery have three crosses set among the orange trees and these constitute the center of the Passion of the Christ ceremonies, a dramatic presentation of the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, carried out during Lent.


Apart from daily prayer and meals, the nuns took time to bake (mostly bread) which was then either eaten communally or sold to the public.  This photograph depicts what was once their kitchen with a stone water filter on the Right.


We then visited an old chapel, now converted into an art museum with over 400 restored paintings.


This is Calle Toledo, a long boulevard with a communal laundry at its end, where the nuns (probably their servants) washed their clothes in halved earthenware shell like basins.  The laundry area is surrounded by a colourful garden.  Water was diverted from the channel in the center to the washing pot by blocking it with the hand.  Everyone tried their hand at this.


Walking out from the convent through its lanes and by-lanes, we headed straight to the city-center.


When the city was founded in 1540, it all begun with the square – Plaza de Armas.  Surrounded by the Cathedral and various portals.  In the center is a fountain with a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier.


On the Northern side of the Square is the majestic Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, the most important Catholic church of the city.  Its construction started in 1540, the same year that the city of Arequipa was founded, built in ashlars (white volcanic stone) and brick vaults.  Throughout its history the church was destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes and volcanic explosions, restored after each destruction, the latest in 2001.


On January 6 Peruvians, just as many other Christians, commemorate the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Three Kings at Jesus’ manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  A large crowd had assembled at the Cathedral, with many occupying the roads  to celebrate the event.  Thus we decided not to get into the church.


Our next stop was Jesuit Church of Company, located on the South-East corner of the Square.  Its facade is an intricately carved masterpiece in ashlars.  The design of the church is Spanish, but the carvings in these stones are filled with relief and the motifs which are mostly Incan.  Construction of this church commenced in 1578, but was destroyed many times over due to various earthquakes.


Inside the church is the high altar which houses a painting of Mother Mary with child Jesus by Italian painter Bernardo Bitti, who had come to Peru in 1575.


On the either sides of the main alter there are two more beautiful altars, carved with gilded wood. It is called the “Altar of the Founders,” as it holds many images of several founders of the Jesuit order.

After the long and tiring walking tour of Arequipa city, we had dinner and returned to our hotel for a well deserved rest.

The Last Evening in Heraklion


As the night set in, we walked from our hotel to the 25th August Street.  It is now a paved pedestrian street, and boasts the most beautiful Neoclassical buildings that house banks, travel agencies and tourist shops.   This street may have been first cut by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century, the main thoroughfare of Heraklion, linking the town centre to the harbour. During the Venetian period it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street), while in Ottoman times it was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Vizir’s Market) after the Vezir Mosque. The modern name of the street relates to a tragic event. On the 25th of August 1898, during the feast of St Titus, fanatic Muslim mob slaughtered many Christians, including 17 British soldiers and the British Consul.


Walking down the street, we came to the Lions Square.  It holds the ornate Venetian fountain of four lions with water gushing from their mouths. The fountain is officially in ‘Eleftheriou Venizelou’ Square in the centre of Heraklion, but the inhabitants of the city never use the official name, usually referring to it as the Lions Square or the Lions for short. The Venetians built it in 1629 as a solution to the problem of supplying Heraklion with water, providing 1,000 barrels of water a day.


Opposite the Lions Square is one of the first and most important works of the Venetian settlers, the St Mark Church.    Next to the church on the South-West corner was a high bell tower with a clock. During the long Turkish siege of the city, the bell was used as a bomb alarm, resulting in the bell tower becoming the target of the Turkish cannons. When the Turks took over the city, the church was converted into a mosque.  The bell tower was demolished and in its place they built a minaret.  Restoration of the building commenced in 1956 and today it houses the Municipal Art Gallery.


Down the street is the Loggia (noblemen’s club), constructed in 1626-28 AD by Francesco Morosini, the same man who built the Lions Fountain. This is the fourth and final Loggia built during the period of Venetian rule. Very little information is available on the first three.  Venetian political and social customs demanded the construction of a public building in Heraklion, as a meeting-place for the nobles, rulers and feudal lords, where economic and commercial decisions were made. It was also a place for them to relax.   The building is a faithful reproduction of Palladio’s famous Basilica in Vincenza, demonstrating the significance the Venetians attached to the city of Heraklion.  . Today the Loggia has been restored to its former glory and houses the Town Hall.


In 961 AD, the Arabs were driven out from Crete, bringing the island back under Byzantine Empire. This is when the first Orthodox church of St Titus (Agios Titos in Greek) must have been built, to rekindle the Christian faith and tradition in Crete, which had declined due to the Arab conquest of the island.  Saint Titus was a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first Bishop of Crete.  At the fall of Heraklion to the Turks, all relics were removed to Venice, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of St Titus, which was returned to Heraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.  During the Turkish rule, the church was converted into a mosque known as the Vezir Mosque.  The great earthquake of 1856 totally destroyed the church. It was rebuilt in its present form as an Ottoman mosque.  The minaret of the church was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Heraklion   The church was further modified in 1925.


Heraklion, a city well known for its intense and vibrant nightlife, offers many a chance for a night out.  The night entertainment consists of modern and traditional spots to choose from. There is an interesting variety of bars and clubs and they stay open till 3 o’clock in the morning. These bars play lounge or loud music and on some live bands perform.   Many taverns host bands which play live traditional music, with dancing.  One can enjoy a dinner at the many taverns which offer delicious local Cretan delicacies, local wine and salads.


We observed that almost all restaurants had many tables outside, especially after the sunset.  Taverns and bars serve traditional local drinks like ‘tsikoudia’ and ‘ouzo’ and special snacks.


The beautiful narrow streets with its narrower lanes and by-lanes, are brimming with tourists and locals all through the night.  It may well be the most ‘fashion oriented’ city in the Greek islands.


Crete has one of the oldest and perhaps the most delicious gastronomic traditions in the world with Cretan olive oil as one of the basic ingredients of Cretan cuisine.  Archaeological excavations indicate that the ancient Cretans used to consume almost the same products as the contemporary islanders. Large jars for storing olive oil, cereals, pulses and honey we saw at Knossos palace possibly stand testimony to this tradition.   This storage habit would have helped them to survive many sieges the island experienced, mainly by the Arabs, the Venetians and the Ottomans.


We dined at a restaurant next to the Lions Square. The Menu was Greek Mussaka –  Oven baked Greek dish with layers of eggplant, zucchini, potato and minced meat; Shrimps Saganaki – shrimps with white Feta cheese cooked in spicy tomato sauce; slowly cooked goat with citrus fruits served with sautéed Cretan greens, carrot jello, Greek yogurt and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds.)

On 17 June 2016, we took the Air Canada flight from Athens to return home. At the end of the journey I would like quote Douglas Noel Adams, an English author, humourist and satirist who said ” I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”

Island of Crete and City of Heraklion


The island of Crete in the past two thousand years has changed hands many times over.  The Romans arrived in Crete as mediators  in 67 BC and settled here as conquerors. After three years of fighting, Crete became a Roman province and enjoyed a period of prosperity.  During this period it is believed that Bishop Titus converted the population to Christianity by order of the Apostle Paul.  In 285 AD, with the division of Roman Empire into Roman and Byzantine Empires, Crete came under the Byzantine Empire.

From 824 to 961 AD Crete was occupied by the Arabs. After a struggle lasting for many years, Byzantines  succeeded in freeing Crete from the Arabs and the second Byzantine Period lasted from 961AD to 1204 AD.  During this period, Byzantium nobles, European merchants and Christians from eastern countries settled in Crete and attempts were made to destroy all traces of the Arabs.  Crete was then sold to the Venetians who occupied it for the next 450 years.

Turkish attempt to conquer the island started with a pirate raid against the coastal towns in 1645.   Turks captured Crete in 1669.  The entire Cretan population deserted the city  and settled on the neighbouring islands and in Venice.

Crete was ceded to the Egyptians in 1821 from whom the Turks took over again in 1840.  Crete was not part of Greece when Greece state was formed in 1832 as it was under Egyptian control. Crete became independent in 1898 after the ‘Great Cretan Revolt’.  Crete was  united with Greece in 1913.

With the outbreak of World War II, Germans occupied Crete in 1941 The Battle of Crete was the first airborne invasion using paratroopers in military history.  Commonwealth forces, mainly British and New Zealanders, supported by the local resistance, fought hard for a week before being forced to evacuate the island.  Germans used it as a naval base to control the sea lanes in the Mediterranean Sea.  It also served as a supply base in maintaining supplies to Rommel’s Afrikan Korps  fighting in North Africa, until vacated by the Germans in July 1945.


On June 16, we decided to familiarise with the city of Heraklion and the best method was to get on the ‘Hop on-Hop off’ open double-decker bus.  Onboard audio commentary available in English, Greek, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, and Turkish, gave out information about various sites enroute.


We boarded the bus at this seaside Venetian fortress situated at the entrance of the old harbour, built by the Venetians to protect the port  between 1523 to 1540.  This two-floored fortress was built with big blocks of stone.  The ground floor used to house captains of ships and also to store food and ammunition.  The upper floor had canon emplacements.  The upper parts of the castle are Turkish additions.


Driving along the coast road, we came to the ruins of the Dominican Church of Peter and Paul. It was built in the 13th century, during the Venetian period.


This ruins are of the second church, built on the site of the original building after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1508.  During the period of Turkish rule, this church  was converted into a mosque.  It is currently being restored by the Archaeological Service.


Opposite the church is the Natural History Museum, functioning under the University of Crete. It is aimed  to study, protect and promote diverse flora and fauna of the Eastern Mediterranean region.  The museum is based in a restored industrial building that housed an electric power plant.


The bus drove along the Venetian Walls  fortifying the city of Heraklion.  It is a series of defensive walls which surround the city with a perimeter of roughly 5 km, supplemented with a ditch without water and bastions.  The first city walls were built in the Middle Ages, but they were completely rebuilt by the Venetians.  The fortifications managed to withstand the longest siege in history for 21 years, before the city fell to the Ottomans in 1669.  The walls remain largely intact to this day, and they are considered to be among the best preserved Venetian fortifications in Europe.

The gate of St. George at the East of the city was demolished in 1917. The gate Jesus is at the South, the gate of Pantocrator (known and as gate of Chanias) was at the West.


St George gate on the wall connected the then Venetian town of Chandaka to Eastern Crete.   This gate was built in 1565. Its name comes from a relief decorative representation of St George, which is today exhibited in the historical museum of the city.


Gate of Jesus or New Gate (Kenourgia Porta) was built on the South side of the Venetian Walls in 1587.   The gate also hosted the pipeline which supplied water to the city.   An arched passage across the wall was constructed in the 1970s for cars.  On either side of the central doorway there are some openings corresponding to stairs, windows and secondary entrances to adjacent locations, and to rooms above and inside.  The rooms were used for storing weapons and for accommodating the guards of the gate.


We ‘hopped off’ the bus to visit the Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer born in Heraklion in 1883.  Throughout his life he received many critics, particularly from the Church, as he was trying to explain the notion of God and humans.  When his book, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ presenting Jesus Christ as a tragic figure who had been fighting all his life between the duty and mission on one side and the human desire to live a normal life on the other side, was published in 1951, the Roman Catholic Church banned it.  He left for the United States  in 1911.  As the Church had excommunicated him, he was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery when he died in 1957.  He was buried  outside the walls of his hometown as per his will.  His tomb is plain stonework and surprisingly it has a wooden cross on it.  Epitaph on his tombstone in Greek, when translated reads ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’

We hopped on to the next bus and got off to visit the Palace of Knossos built around 1900 BC.

The last leg of a long Sojourn: Heraklion, Crete

Crete is an island steeped in ancient history, lore and legend. It is the seat of the oldest civilisation in Europe. For centuries it has been attacked by many including the Romans, the Iberian Muslims, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottomans. The locals met each of these aggressors with courageous and stiff resistance.  The architectural and cultural fusion of the various attackers and the locals could be seen everywhere by the discerning eye.

Crete tickled my military mind. Two facets from military history. One, the Siege of Candia (modern Heraklion). The venetian ruled city was besieged by the Ottomans for 21 long years from 1648 to 1669. The second longest siege in military history. Despite stiff resistance the Ottoman forces were eventually victorious. And then more recently the Battle of Crete. On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched Operation Mercury, the first ever Airborne invasion in military history. The Allies and Greek forces simply capitulated in 48 hours and the island of Crete fell into German hands.

After alighting from the bus, we walked a kilometer to the Minoan Knossos Palace, a city steeped in antiquity, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the Fifth Century AD.  The palace was built on the Kephala hill and had easy access to the sea and the rest of the island.   According to tradition, it was the seat of King Minos.  The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and neighbouring islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1600 BC.

The first excavation of the site was conducted in 1878 and was followed by the long-term excavations (1900 to 1930) by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, who uncovered virtually the entire palace.  The palace was a multi-storey building with painted plaster, marble revetment and wall-paintings adorning the rooms and passages.  The palace also had a complex drainage and water-supply systems.


As we walked into the palace compound, we were welcomed by a dancing peacock.  The dance was obviously not to impress us, but the peahens in the vicinity.


Let me venture into a pictorial account. This is where the ‘West Porch’ of the palace stood, a roofed area opening onto the central court, supported by a column of which part of the gypsum base remains.


Here is a restored version of ‘South Propylaeum’ by Evans who put up a copy of the ‘Cup-Bearer’ fresco on the wall, depicting a man holding a libation vase.


The ‘Pitho’i (large storage jars) on the East side of the Propylaeum indicate that this area was used for storage.


The ‘Throne Room’ as per Evans is the room used for ceremonies with the king in his religious capacity. However, Evans believed that it was unlikely to have been a ‘Throne Room’ in the modern sense of the word.


The “Queen’s Megaron” at the South-Eastern part of the Palace is believed to be the apartment of a queen. The suite includes a toilet, bathroom, and store room, as well as a light well to provide the apartment with light during the day. This is famous for the Dolphin  Fresco,  reconstructed from fragments as a wall fresco by Evans.


The ‘East Wing Staircase’, was built into the side of the hill on top of which lies the rest of the Palace, with two storeys below the level of the Central Court. Today, a large part of it has been reconstructed in concrete.  Evans believed it to be the residential quarters of the Royal family.


The ‘Magazine’ to the north of the East wing staircase took its name from the pithoi that were found here. The jars have relief disk and rope decoration.


An open air paved narrow passage linked the Central Court with the North Entrance. On the right and left were two raised colonnades known as ‘Bastions’.  Evans reconstructed the Bastion on the West side with a copy of a restored relief fresco of a bull. The wall painting may have formed part of hunting scene.


We hopped on to the next bus at the Palace of Knossos and hopped off at Eleftherias Square to commence our walking exploration of the city centre.  In the Venetian period, Eleftherias Square was used as a training ground for the Venetian mercenary army, and was called Campo Marzio or Piazza d’Armi.   When the St George Gate was built in the 16th century, the square was renamed St George Square.   Eleftherias Square also housed circular underground granaries, in which the Venetians stored grain for emergencies such as sieges and houses a large water cistern.  During the Turkish period, Eleftherias Square was an open space.   Prior to World War II, British troops camped on the walls and trained in the square, as the Venetians had done centuries earlier. Any connections with ‘Game of Thrones?’

At the turn of the 20th century, the square was the inhabitants’ main recreation area.  The most recent restructuring was intended to give it a modern look and the air of a major European city.  The square, retaining some of its eucalyptus trees, was paved with marble and was decorated with metal pylons symbolising ships’ masts, reminiscent of the city’s maritime history. The people of Heraklion have never been happy with this new square and there are ongoing discussions about changing it and we all generally tended to agree with the locals.


In the centre of Eleftherias Square stands the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a 20th century creation.  On national days and on the anniversary of the Battle of Crete, the Heraklion authorities lay wreaths here in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for their motherland.


We then walked to Kornarou Square, named after the great Cretan poet Vincenzos Kornaros (1552-1613), who grew up in Heraklion and wrote ‘Erotokritos’. This is a romantic epic poem written in the Cretan language about the love of Erotokritos and Aretousa, often compared to ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  Kornarou Square is adorned with a fountain and a statue of Erotokritos on horseback, bidding farewell to his beloved Aretousa.  The statue was a bit confusing to us as we initially perceived it as a multi-headed and multi-legged horse with two horsemen.  On reading the information tablet we realised that it was the artist’s multidimensional depiction of the hero and his horse showcasing movement and drama of the scene.


We then moved to the Agios Minas Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Crete of the Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint Minas, who was declared the patron saint of Heraklion during the Turkish period.  It was built over the time period of 1862 to 1895. The construction was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution of 1866 to 1869. The church has a cruciform architecture with a central dome.

The name Minas is rare in Heraklion, which sounds strange for a city whose patron saint he is. The reason for this is given in an old story.  During the Turkish rule, illegitimate children were often left on the steps of the church of Saint Minas. The church took care of the children and named the boys Minas.  Thus the Cretans preferred to avoid the name.


To the Left of the St Minas Cathedral stands the original little church of Saint Minas built in 1735.  It housed the Greek Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan of Crete for the first time after the Turkish occupation.

From the cathedral, we returned to our hotel for a wash, change and rest.

 

Lunar Landscape of Nea Kameni to Heraklion


Our boat anchored at the wooden pier of Erinia cove of Nea Kameni island.  We disembarked from the boat and entered the Nea Kameni National Geological Park.  There is a two Euro entry fee and the proceeds go to support monitoring of the volcano.


Vegetation is sparse with the volcanic rocks covered by red grassy bushes and yellow sulfur deposits.  The 30-minute hike up over this volcanic mountain is moderately challenging but worth the effort for the breathtaking view that it offers.  Hikers need to keep to the track full of stones and gravel formed due to cooling lava.  Hence, proper walking shoes are a must.


As we stepped into the Geological Park, the terrain was akin to that of a lunar-landscape.  As we climbed up the hill, on the sides were solidified lava ejected by the volcano called volcanic bombs.  These are the oldest volcanic bombs on the island and were the result of volcanic eruptions of 1573.


Further walking up, we reached slopes of the dome of Mikri Kameni, the oldest lava on the island. The path that led us to the top of this dome, to the crater of 1570 eruption.


Our next halt was at the Dafne crater caused due to volcanic activity of 1925-1926.


We then came to the twin craters formed as a result of 1940 volcanic eruption.


Climbing further up, we came to Georgios dome peak.  The crater here was created in August 1940 by two large volcanic eruptions atop of the dome of George, which was created in 1866.


On top of the hill at about 127 meter we saw deposits of solidified Lava.  These rocks were formed due to cooling and solidifying of molten lava which erupted in 1950.


On the top we could see that many sensors were deployed. The seismic sensors monitor tectonic activity that may precede a volcanic eruption.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are also monitored.  With modern technology and monitoring, it is believed that scientists are in a position to forecast the volcano’s next eruption, at least a few months to a year in advance.


After spending about 90 minutes at Nea Kameni, our boat headed back to the Fira port.  As we stepped out of the boat, we could hear the cacophony of donkey drivers hailing for passengers.  The donkey is Santorini’s logo, its trademark mascot. During a Greek wedding, the bride rides a donkey to the church and back to her home.  We all decided to take the donkey ride up the 588 steps of Karavolades stairs.


These donkeys are well trained and the rider is required to sit firmly on the saddle.  There are no reigns and so the rider has little or no control over the animal’s movements.  As we sat on the donkey, they set off on the way up.  There were many pedestrians walking up and down, so also other donkeys coming down the stairs.  These donkeys steered their way through this ‘crowd’, as if they exactly knew what to do.   For the donkeys it appeared that their only aim was to reach the top as quickly as possible. The level of training was quite akin to that of the famed ‘Mule Artillery’ of the Indian Army.


On reaching the top, the donkeys stood at the donkey-taxi stand.  The drivers helped everyone to dismount.  We then had dinner at the Fira and returned to our hotel.

On June 15, after breakfast we checked out of our hotel.  Our ferry to Crete island was scheduled for 4 PM.  We then set out to explore the area around our hotel.


Economy of Santorini, like all other Greek islands, is supported by tourism.   Santorini grows a special variety of small cherry tomatoes, fava beans, yellow peas, cucumbers and white eggplants.   There are lots of wild fig trees growing all over the island.


Unlike the mainland of Greece, Santorini does not grow olive trees due to the strong winds and the lack of water.  Instead they grow a lot of pistachio trees.  The olive tree above grows between the buildings at the hotel.


From the Hotel, we walked down to Kamari beach resort.  On the Southern end towers the enormous rock of Mesa Vouno with the archaeological site of Ancient Thira on its top, 400 meters above the sea. The beach offers a wide range of facilities like sun-beds, umbrellas and various water sports.


The water is deep and blue, the sand is black.  The beach is filled with black sand and pebbles as a result of extensive volcanic activity over centuries.


We boarded the high-speed ferry operated by Minoan Lines to Heraklion, Crete.  The cruise was very comfortable and smooth.


We reached Heraklion port by 5:30 PM.  We drove to our hotel by taxi and checked in.  As the night fell, we walked to explore the city.


We walked to the largest cistern to provide drinking water to the Heraklion port. The cistern consists of two oblong vaulted chambers linked by arched openings. Light and air enter the cisterns through large light shafts on the top of the vaults.  Today, all the daily garden watering needs of Heraklion Port Authority (about 7000 litre of water) is provided from an underground cistern, built by the Venetians (People from Venice), hundreds of years ago.


Venetians also built a series of shipyards (known as Arsenali) at the southern and the eastern area of the port, in order to house and protect the activities of the building and repairing of ships.  These large, barrel-vaulted buildings were shipyards built by the Venetians and were capable of housing ships in need of protection or repair and for the construction of new vessels.


Night life in Heraklion is very hectic with shops, restaurants, taverns, discos, clubs, etc, all open till 3 o’clock in the morning.


Summer in Crete and in Greece means ‘tables outside’: The guests meet the local people and everyone joins the party.  We had Cretan cuisine for dinner and retired to our hotel.

Volcanoes of Santorini


On June 16, after breakfast we set out to visit the volcanic islands of Nea Kameni, meaning ‘new burnt’ and Palea Kameni meaning ‘old burnt’.


During the Bronze Age, Santorini was called Strongyli, meaning ‘rounded.’  Devastating volcanic eruption of 1650 BC resulted in decimation of Strongyli, creating the crescent shaped Santorini and several surrounding islands.

The island of Hiera was formed due to volcanic eruption which started around 197 BC.  In 47 AD the volcano reawakened spewing huge quantities of magma forming a new island which merged with Hiera to form Palia Kameni.  Breakup of Palia Kameni occurred between 1457 and 1458, as per Roman historian Aurelius Victor’s ‘Historia Romana’. At that time the island had a perimeter of 5,550 meters.  It gradually acquired its present shape through fragmentation by great cracks and collapse of its shoreline, with the current perimeter of only about 4000 meters. Like a slumbering demon, the volcano remained dormant for the next seven centuries. It became active again, very violently in 726 AD.

Nea Kameni is Eastern Mediterranean’s youngest volcanic landform.  It is a protected natural monument and national geological park.  In 1573 AD, about 65 years after Palea Kameni reached its present form, volcanic activity broke out resulting in the formation of a small island called Mikra Kameni meaning ‘small burnt’.  Formation of Nea Kameni commenced with the volcanic eruptions from 1701 to 1711.  Volcanic eruptions of 1866 to 1870 caused the smaller island of Mikra Kameni, to be joined with the larger Nea Kameni.  During the period 1939-1941, many eruptions occurred in Nea Kameni which changed the topography of the island.  The volcanic activity ended in July 1941.  Today, magma exists at depths of a few kilometers, giving Nea Kameni its trademark sulfur odour.


From our hotel we rode a local bus to Fira, the capital of Santorini on the West coast of the main island.  Fira is a ‘whitewashed’ town of cafes, bars, restaurants and shops, all filled with tourists.  We had to now go to Gialos, the old port of Fira to sail to the volcanic islands.   Till a few decades ago, Gialos was the main commercial port of the island.  The port now is active mostly in summer and serves only the cruise ships, the excursion boats to the volcano, and a few fishing boats.   The port is located about 275 meters below the cliff.

Alighting from the bus, we walked to the cable-car terminal to purchase tickets for the ride to the port.  The queue was pretty long and we got our tickets after about 30 minutes.  The ladies made use of this time to buy trinkets and memorabilia from the shops around, while the men stood in the queue.


There is a zigzag track of 588 steps called Karavolades stairs from the Fira to the Old Port.  There were many tourists walking up and down these steps.  There are mule-taxis, that operate on the same track, taking tourists up and down.   The Karavolades stairs have several large bends which offer magnificent view of the volcanic islands.


The fastest option to reach the old port is surely by the cable car system, commissioned in 1982.  The project was funded by Loula & Evangelos Nomikos Foundation created by the wealthy Santorini ship owner Evangelos Nomikos.   He mediated with the traditional mule drivers who were operating here and ensured that a part of the income went to the mule drivers and the rest to the city. The cable car runs every 20 minutes and a single ride takes 3 minutes. The cable car ride to the old port gave us a stunning view of the volcanic islands, bizarre cliff sides and still blue waters.


On all sides of the old port were restaurants, taverns and small shops, mostly catering to cruise ship tourists who come ashore by chartered boats as the huge cruise ships cannot berth at the harbour.  At one end of the port is the caved houses that appear stuck on to the rock and rock caves that have been created by erosion.  We booked our tickets for the boat journey to the volcanic islands and had lunch at a restaurant at the pier.


We set sail on a boat from the port at around 2 PM to the island of Palea Kameni.  After about 20 minutes, the boat anchored at the cove of Agios Nikolaos.


As we came closer to Palea Kameni island, we were greeted by steep cliffs formed by solidified lava.


The cove is formed between small cliffs filled with solidified lava rocks.  The island is uninhabited, but we saw goats grazing, presumably wild, miraculously perched on the ledges on the cliff, chewing away on the almost non-existent shrubbery.


The boat anchored about 75 meter away from the hot springs.  We had to jump seven meters from the boat deck, plunging into deep cold sea water which is greenish yellow and then swim for about five minutes towards the orange coloured hot springs.  (Attempt this only if you are a good swimmer.)  At the mouth of the hot springs stands a little Greek Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Nikolaos, the patron saint of sailors in Greece.


Due to volcanic activity in the cove area, the water is warm and rich in sulphur, iron and manganese.   This gives the water an orange colour and is believed to have therapeutic benefits.  As one swims closer to the cliff where the water is orange, one can feel the increasing water temperature.  It is slightly warm and there is no fear of getting burned.  The seafloor around the hot springs is muddy, rocky and slippery, making it difficult to walk on.

After about half hour stay at the cove, a swim in the warm waters, a view of how the earth would have evolved, the boat steamed off to Nea Kameni, the younger sister island of Palea Kameni.

Wine & Sunset at Santorini


While at Megalochori, we visited Katsoyannopoulos Vineyard for wine tasting.  The vineyards of Santorini date back almost 5000 years and are believed to be the oldest in Europe.  Volcanic eruptions left behind a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand, which together make up the soil of Santorini.   This soil, rich in essential minerals, result in wines with low pH level or high acidity.


About 1400 hectares is under vineyard cultivation in Santorini.


Lack of rain coupled with constantly blowing sea-winds has resulted in vines being grown in the “koulara” method, that is, they are woven into continuous circles to form a basket.  This protects the vines ion from the strong winds and the harsh summer sun.


After viewing the vines, we visited the Wine Museum showcasing history of wine and the life of vine-growers in Santorini from 1660 to 1970.  It was followed by wine tasting where we tasted four vines – two red and two white.  The white wines from Santorini are bone-dry with a distinct aroma of citrus combined with hints of smoke and minerals from the volcanic soil.   The dessert wines are sweet with aromas of crème, chocolate and dried apricots.


From Megalochori, we drove to the northern tip of Santorini and reached the village of Oia (pronounced ia).  It is considered to be the best sunset viewing location on the entire island. Oia is one of the most beautiful and picturesque villages of Santorini, situated atop an impressive cliff.  It offers a spectacular view over the volcanoes of Palia and Nea Kameni and the island of Thirassia.


Like the other Greek villages and cities, cobblestone paved lanes led us through the village to its Western end.  Both sides of the lanes are lined with shops selling jewellery, paintings, gifts, etc.  There are many taverns, cafes, and restaurants too.

We visited the Church of Our Panagia Platsanis located in the village centre.  It was originally constructed inside the walls of the Castle of Oia. The church was rebuilt in the village center, on higher and more stable ground following the earthquake of 1956.


As the sun was setting, the area was getting crowded.  Every parking space was occupied and also all the seats in the cafes and restaurants were taken by tourists – all awaiting the sunset.


We too took up a vantage position at a cafe to enjoy every single moment of that spectacular natural phenomenon.


As minutes clicked past, the sky appeared to have been painted with various colors like yellow and orange in striking contrast to the blue dome of the church.


The sun then turned to myriad shades of pink and purple as it went down into the Aegean Sea. Sunset over water is often both spectacular and sublime. It’s just that we often wait until we reach Greece or some such similar destination to realize how incredibly beautiful it is. After watching the sunset and dinner, we retired to our beds after a tiring day of walking in the hot sun.