Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece

The Volcanic Core of Santorini

Celestial Lights
Cruise "Celestyal Crystal" anchored off Nea Kameni.
solitary walk
Visitor climbs the Nea Kameni gravel trail.
good weather on the channel
Cruise anchored between Nea Kameni and Santorini and the foothills of Thira, the capital of Santorini.
Curved Entry
Ferry from another island enters Santorini's flooded caldera.
unorthodox diving
Bather jumps from a traditional kaki boat into the sea from the Santorini caldera.
through a lava channel
Traditional kaki boat travels the channel between Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni.
Lava vs Houses
Lava houses on the threshold of Oia, contrasts with the blackness of Nea Kameni's lava.
Visitor Photographs Greek Flag-Nea Kameni-Santorini-Greece
Nea Kameni's visitor photographs a Greek flag waving above the lava.
Nea Kameni's visitor photographs the houses on top of Santorini's caldera.
Visitors run up the trail-Nea Kameni-Santorini-Greece
Young friends run up Nea Kameni's gravel path.
About three millennia had passed since the Minoan eruption that tore apart the largest volcano island in the Aegean. The cliff-top inhabitants watched land emerge from the center of the flooded caldera. Nea Kameni, the smoking heart of Santorini, was born.

We woke up shortly after dawn. We went out onto the balcony of the box where we were still curious as to where the “Celestyal Crystal” had taken us that night.

As much as it took us to understand, above the inevitable Hellenic-blue Aegean we could only see part of a rough and ancient lava slope, black at the base, yellowish-brown in certain top patches.

Celestyal Crystal Cruise, Santorini, Greece

Cruise “Celestyal Crystal” anchored off Nea Kameni.

The view was out of step with the dock or harbor surrounded by white houses where we were used to mooring. Intrigued, we crossed to the opposite side of the boat.

From the upper deck, in the distance, we finally catch a glimpse of this whitewashed houses. It shared the top of an imposing cliff, in a communal balance that, more than precarious, seemed crazy to us.

Even a little sleepy, we ended up finding out what would certainly be obvious to early risers: the “Celestyal Crystal” had anchored in the middle of Thira's boiler. Barring last-minute movements, the exploration of Santorini that followed would radiate from its almost geometric and inhospitable environment to the inhabited shores. And yet, it would be from that same lava core that we would start it.

Nea Kameni's Transhipment from Vision to Reality

Half an hour later, with breakfast dispatched, we were ready for the new mission. Thira's geomorphological eccentricity – this is the Greek name for Santorini – was not long in making itself felt. We were forced to take a short transshipment of the “Celestyal Crystal” to Skala, the old port of Thira, located at the base of the island's capital.

There, we boarded a kaiki – traditional boat from Santorini – designated for the expedition. Moments later, we set sail in the opposite direction from the one that had taken us there, towards the fulcrum of the great caldera.

Get around the "Celestyal Crystal”. We sailed, for a long time, without noticing where the lava collection behind would allow us to disembark. Until, at a certain point, the proximity reveals to us a cut in the lava and a makeshift anchorage, equipped with a stairway that led to an ascending path, surrounded by small trees that were newly planted to remove some of its litho-lugbrity from the place.

We passed the deck of the kaiki to that trail and, accordingly, to the volcanic domain of Nea Kameni.

Lava and Casario, Santorini, Greece

Lava houses on the threshold of Oia, contrasts with the blackness of Nea Kameni's lava.

The expedition's guides provide explanations and warnings, some dedicated to the conservation of the island, others to the safety of visitors.

A Neo-Legacy of Thira's Thousand Year Volcanism

We are faced with the unique eccentricity of the scenery, both the surrounding blackness, formed by countless black fragments, and the cliffs that remained of the gigantic and millenary crater of the Thira volcano, the colossus that collapsed over the Aegean Sea during the most cataclysmic of its eruptions, the Minoan, estimated between 1642 and 1540 BC.

This eruption devastated not only the village of Akrotiri situated on top of the ancient crater, but also several other Minoan villages, including those in Crete (150km to the south) from which the homonymous civilization had developed and expanded.

Successive archeological and historical studies proved that, as far as surprise and victims were concerned, Akrotiri had little to do with the city of Pompeii, devastated by Vesuvius.

The lack of bodies in the buried ruins of Akrotiri proved that its inhabitants had time to observe the development of volcanic activity in Thira. And that they were able to take refuge in one of the neighboring Minoan islands, eventually on the mother island Crete.

Ascent to Nea Kameni's Sulfurous Summit

Back in Thera's present day, the guide who led us through Nea Kameni interrupts his speech to scan the horizon to the east. Note that several others kakis from Skala sailed towards us. Certain that they were carrying a torrent of people, he closes the dissertation and inaugurates the Nea Kameni walk above.

Hiking, Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece

Visitor climbs the Nea Kameni gravel trail.

We followed the main trail of the island, on a surface of slippery gravel and something dusty. In a first stretch, just and only among the dark volcanic rubble. After a meander or two, already flanked by a shallow meadow that sprouted from the lava in an unexpected golden splendor.

The higher we climbed, the more alive and exuberant this meadow revealed itself, which in the meantime gave way to a convenient condominium with a colony of wild daisies, so bright yellow that it stood out from the gold.

It wasn't just the plants that saved us from the dictatorship of the inhospitable in which we found ourselves on arrival. Step after step, the slope placed us above the lava crests, on a plane that gave us back the blue of the Aegean, the overhanging cliffs of Thera and the villages that crowned them: Oia, to the north. The nearest capital Thira to the east. And to the south, Akrotiri.

Here and there, the meadow gave way to new huge heaps of lava that made us insignificant. A quick detour reveals a Greek flag flying at the top of one of these rock piles and, below, Nea Kameni's harbor-harbour, now teeming with kakis moored side by side.

Greek flag, Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece.

Nea Kameni's visitor photographs a Greek flag waving above the lava.

The Island's Golden Smoky Crater

We return to the spinal ramp. A few dozen steps later, we come to the highest point of the island and, nearby, with its volcanic core, a somewhat misshapen crater, largely lined by the golden meadow we had passed on our ascent, stained by steaming yellowish sulfur and pestilent to match.

In a purely visual field, the active Nea Kameni seemed to be restricted to that multicolor cave nestled close to the island's zenith.

And yet, to reach its current size and altitude of 127 meters, Neo Kameni suffered a long and intense volcanism.

The Scary Emergency of 1570

The inhabitants of Kasteli Skaros – another village on top of the toughest cliffs in Thira – first became aware of their existence in 1570, during one of the many post-Minoic eruptions of the main volcano Thira.

To his dismay, a land mass began to emerge northeast of the island of Palea Kameni and a short distance from the then capital. In that preamble, they called her Mikri (little) Kameni. The newcomer would only be “mikri” for some time. Another 150 years passed.

In 1707 Thira had a new eruption, far more overwhelming than the previous one. As recorded, the inhabitants saw two distinct islands appear, one white, the other black. In a few months, the volcanic process brought the two together. It turned Mikri Kameni into an already quite bulky newcomer: Nea Kameni.

Between 1866 and 1870, there were several new eruptions, some even larger than the previous ones, to the image of the Minoan, with its columns of smoke and ash visible in Crete and which caused the submersion of fifty houses and two chapels, one Orthodox, one Catholic.

The novelty was that the original 1866 eruption generated an active sub-volcano over Nea Kameni, around the sulfurous and pestilent crater in which we finished our ascent to the top of the island. The authorities named him Georgios, in honor of the then Greek king George I.

In that same eruption of 1866, the islanders of Afroesa and Reka appeared. They too joined, shortly afterwards, the increasingly unifying Nea Kameni.

The volcanism of 1866 generated four-year aftershocks, some of them powerful. As Thira's sunken caldera bed released more and more magma, Nea Kameni's area tripled. Certain surrounding areas emerged or submerged.

A New Approach to Thira's Always-on Volcanism

By that time, in Greece, curiosity about volcanic phenomena had increased. The Greek state sent a committee to observe the changes in Santorini. It included a photographer who took the first photographic images of an eruption.

This interest and the publicity it aroused attracted the attention of volcanologist Ferdinand Foucault who, like many other scientists or mere well-heeled curious people, could not resist visiting and studying Santorini.

Among the last was Jules Verne. The French author was so impressed by the volcanic commotion of Santorini that he included it in his work of fiction “The Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, in which he describes how Captain Nemo and his crew made the submarine Nautilus emerge in the warm water around Thira.

And they were stunned to watch the eruption of the new Georgios de Nea Kameni volcano, today, consensually considered the volcanic heart of Santorini.

We had been listening to it, photographing it and smelling it for almost fifteen minutes. It was time to return to the island's pedestrian arteries.

From where we had positioned ourselves, we could see dozens of other visitors circling back and forth above the overhanging golden carpet, some grouped together in a convenient viewpoint that allowed them to look west of the caldera.

The Unveiling of Elder Sister Palea Kameni

When we get to that point, we see the reason for your concentration. A whole new world of Thira opened before the eyes of all outsiders.

Kaki, Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece

Traditional kaki boat travels the channel between Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni.

The older sister Palea Kameni crept up a few meters from the shore of Nea, separated by a narrow channel that we enjoyed traversed by a curious assortment of boats: small sailboats, large catamarans and the inevitable kakis.

Coming from the distant Aegean Sea, which we wouldn't see if Santorini's original caldera were complete, one of the ferries that connect the Greek islands approached. It was sailing at such speed that its engines left a long, curved, white mark on the navy blue to the southwest.

Ferry, Santorini, Greece

Ferry from another island enters Santorini's flooded caldera.

Just before this vessel docks at the new ferry port, at the foot of Pyrgos, we started the return to the harbor and the khaki when we had come to Nea.

Navigating from Praxe to Nea Kameni's Hot Waters

The helmsman directs him around the island against the clock. Before entering the channel between Nea and Palea, it turns into a rocky inlet similar to the anchorage on the opposite side.

The crew tells passengers where the attraction they longed for is. One by one, they leapt from the deck into the greenish water there and swooped toward an inlet formed by the lava.

Jumping bather, Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece

Bather jumps from a traditional kaki boat into the sea from the Santorini caldera.

We followed their strokes and their example. When we got there, the complaints didn't take long. For reasons known only to local geothermals, the hot water so famous there was little more than tepid. The barely warm temperature disappointed the international entourage who had heard so much about those eccentric spas.

No matter how great the deception, Santorini's popularity would never grant an amphibious continuation of the claims.

All of a sudden, two others kakis appeared at the entrance to the cove. Knowing the competition for every corner of Nea and the procedures, the crew braced the swimmers to demand their rescue.

We got back on board. While the khaki we continued to circle the island on the path to Skala port, we dried ourselves in the scorching Mediterranean sun.

All through that back end, Neo Kameni had proven himself only and only the rough, dark mound of lava that had startled us upon awakening.

Several of the volcanologists who study it guarantee that there will soon be a new devastation. It remains to be seen of what intensity and how much it will affect the increasingly fashionable, overpopulated and overly visited Santorini.



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