"the blue drinkable volcano"

A brief introduction

by Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
Athens 2002


Topics in this page [click on icons]:

 The island

 The architecture





Other Santorini pages by TNS:


Oia study trip The Four Elements of Santorini Architecture 2006 conference paper: full text [PDF file] / PowerPoint slides with many photos [PDF file]

  Seminars on the same theme in 2001 | 2004 | 2005

Oia study trip Santorini NTUA study trips: Snapshots from study trips by 1st yr. students of National Technical University of Athens School of Architecture [Greek text]

Waterpixels Santorini Waterpixels: A gallery of computer-processed Santorini photos with a watercolour quality
Agnes house Agnes house: An antidote to neovernacular kitsch [mirror]
Oia study trip Santorini climatic data: For those who wish to know more


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Kyr-Manolis, the 'Duke' of Oia, at his cafe [J]


'The islands with all their minium and lampblack

the islands with the vertebra of some Zeus

the islands with their boat yards so deserted

the islands with their drinkable blue volcanoes’

Odysseus Elytis The Axion Esti’ 
translated by E.Keeley & G.Savidis, 
Anvil Press Poetry 1980

The island

Santorini Archipelago ('View Image' for larger size)


The geography

Santorini (Stroggili, Kallisti or Thira during various periods) is the southernmost of the Cyclades group of islands in the centre of the Aegean Sea. It surrounds the bay of Caldera from the east, with the smaller island of Thirassia to the west & the rock of Aspronissi towards south-west. These islands are the remnants of the original conical island which existed before the great volcanic eruption (ca. 1600 BC). The Santorini archipelago includes also the islets of Old & New Kammeni, products of later volcanic activity .

The ground

The topography & nature of the ground bears the clear marks of the eruption: Towards the crater there are steep red & black rock cliffs up to 300m high, covered with light-coloured ash (aspa) and pumice. On the outer side there are low hills & long beaches with dark sand. Vegetation is scarce due to the scarcity of water, but still there are many small vineyards -and millions of daisies in spring that later yield to the summer heat.

The settlements

Compared to most other islands in Cyclades, Santorini is rather densely populated, even during winter. The volcanic soil is fertile, explaining the presence of many farming villages like Messaria, Pyrgos, Mesa & Exo Gonia, Vothonas, Merovigli or Finikia. There are also settlements of maritime origin (Oia, Athinios) and others recently developed due to tourism (Kamari,Perissa). Fira is the capital of the island, with most of the public services & commercial activities.

The past

Archaeological findings in Santorini cover the entire the Historic period. The island is considered by many to be the legendary Atlantis that suddenly vanished. Recent excavations started by Prof. Marinatos near the village of Akrotiri revealed a large settlement about 35 centuries old, well-preserved under thick volcanic ash layers, over a much older settlement as it has recently been discovered. The sound & ash of the great eruption -which seems to have destroyed the Minoan civilisation of Crete- reached Egypt and even further.

Traces of the Classic era exist in Ancient Thira. A long series of invaders, from Doric tribes to the Saracens left their marks on the local population, which has known many fluctuations in size. The Venetians gave the island its present name when they first anchored at the Riva beach in Thirassia, next to Santa Irini chapel.

The volcano never ceased to remind its presence: Its underwater branch in Koloumbos, NE of Oia, brought death to thousands of people & animals with its poisonous gases around 1700 AD. The last eruption occurred without any victims in the 1920s, when New Kammeni was formed. However the earthquake of 1956 caused many casualties & extensive damages, which forced the Greek State to implement a rare example of new group housing blending vernacular and Modern features.

The legend of Atlantis

Plato refers to an ancient civilisation that vanished due to a sudden natural disaster. The legend has puzzled many generations of historians who variously locate Atlantis in the Antilles, America, some island west of Gibraltar, Malta, or just in Plato's imagination. During recent years Greece has been considered as the most likely location of Atlantis and according to several experts Santorini is the mythical island.

We know that Thira had been inhabited before 2000 BC and that the advanced Minoan civilization existed in Crete & Thira before the disastrous eruption. That civilization suddenly disappeared about 1600 BC, a fact that was interpreted as the result of an invasion by tribes from the Greek mainland. But the Thira eruption -that took place during the same era- led Marinatos among others to believe that the great explosion not only destroyed Thira but also created a huge tsunami, which vanished the Minoan society of Crete.

In fact, Santorini is the largest active caldera (sea crater) in the world, 5 times larger than Krakatoa between Sumatra & Java in Indonesia. The Thira eruption is estimated to have been 5 times more powerful than the one of Krakatoa that is described by J.V.Luce in "The End of Atlantis":

"Between just two days, 26-27 of August 1883, 23 square kilometers of Krakatoa disappeared after a series of explosions. The largest of all, at 10 am of the second day, was heard from Alice Springs in central Australia to Martinique in the Caribbean and from Ceylon to north Malaysia. The pressure waves created in the atmosphere travelled 3.5 times around the Earth, and heavy damages were caused to buildings up to 160 km away. The explosions created tsunamis, the biggest being 17 m high at a distance of 88 km from Krakatoa. The waves destroyed about 300 towns and villages on the neighbouring coasts of Java & Sumatra, causing the death by drowning of a large part of the coastal population, around 36,000 souls in all."

Based on the Krakatoa disaster, it is quite reasonable to believe that the Thira eruption devastated the north coast of Crete -located just 90 km away- through waves perhaps 60-100 m high travelling with a speed of 160 km/h. The volcanic ash might had covered the entire island in layers 10-75 cm thick, enough to minimise the fertility of the soil for 2-15 years.

The volcano has been active on several occasions since the great disaster. The eruption of 236 BC separated Thirassia from the NW edge of Thira, whilst Old Kammeni (Old Burned) appeared in 196 BC. The southern coast of Santorini was submerged in 1570 AD; three years later Small Kammeni was created and between 1711-12 New Kammeni emerged from the sea. In 1866 a series of eruptions lasting two years caused the islet of Aphroessa to appear and then disappear. The eruption of 1925-26 that connected Small & New Kammeni caused little damage, but the powerful earthquake of 1956 destroyed many buildings and created tidal waves up to 17 meters high.

The climate

Climatic conditions are typical for the Cyclades region, with long sunshine duration & little rainfall. Humidity is relatively high (in fact, it is the main water source for vegetation). Temperature fluctuations are rather limited throughout the year and snow is a rare event. Winds usually come from the North quite strongly (especially the meltemi in August), but sometimes the south ones are nasty too [see Santorini climatic data here].


Santorini has 3 ports (Athinios, Fira, Oia) with sea connections to Piraeus, other Cyclades islands & Crete. There are direct flights to Athens, Rhodes, Mykonos & abroad (chartered) from the long runaway of Monolithos [see tips on travelling from Athens here]. Buses & taxis on the extensive asphalt road network serve local transport, while large & small boats connect several points within Caldera. Additional local transport means include animals (donkeys & mules), a cable car (in Fira), and of course a growing number of cars & motorcycles.

The economy

Santorini is well known for its strong and tasty wines which are the major local products, the most interesting being the white nikteri (from grapes picked before dawn), the sweet red vissanto ('vino santo') and the powerful tsikoudia (strong grape schnapps, identical to grappa). The local agriculture yields a limited amount of vegetables, small and tasty. A few tomato processing old factories still exist, idle but charming examples of past industrial architecture. 
An important sector is the mining of
Theran soil (pumice), used by building industries in Greece and abroad. Shipping has always had a great historical, financial and political importance, with many local seamen and shipping tycoons. The surrounding waters are very good for fishing, but usually the demand for fresh fish exceeds the supply. The newest sector with vast & fast growth is tourism, involving a large part of the permanent and seasonal population.


The spectacular & unique landscape, the distinctive vernacular architecture and the long runaway have caused a rapid increase of mass tourism during the recent years, with all the related side effects (“collateral damage”?) on the environment & the attitude of the locals. Settlements like Kamari & Perissa are quite busy in summer, continuously growing thanks to the hordes of visitors. The port of Fira is a routine stop for every East Mediterranean cruise. There are quite a few sandy shores easily accessible by car; Kamari & Perissa beaches are crowded in summer, though there are spots with better sand & fewer people at short distance. The sea in Caldera is deep (down to 400 meters at a spot west of Merovigli) and clean, but accessible only at a few points -and by few people. Nudism is rather tolerated, especially in some less crowded spots like Koloumbos. Special attractions include the excavation site in Akrotiri, the islets of New & Old Kammeni (with black lava rocks and sulphur water warm all year), and local religious events (like in Riva on the 5th of May).


The architecture

Zerva house in Oia [TNS 1979]


The urban fabric

The villages of Santorini still retain much of their old visual character today, in spite of greedy ‘development’. The fear of pirates was a compelling motive to select sites far from the shore, on steep cliffs or hidden val­leys. Several factors have led to high density with narrow streets & small buildings: shortage of available safe space, mutual protection from the wind & the solar heat, defence, family growth, construction materials saving, as well as the highly communal spirit of the old societies. 

In other Aegean settlements, like Mykonos & Astypalea, densities of up to one person per square meter have been reported, so one can imagine similar crowded conditions in Santorini villages -without counting the numerous domestic animals like donkeys, pigs & chicken. 

In our era, when the sea is the main attraction and sunburns are more frequent than pirate assaults, more and more settlements appear near the shore where very few buildings existed even 30-40 years ago like Kamari or Ammoudi, a trend assisted by new roads.

Major features

Le Corbusier was greatly impressed by the visual virtues of Santorini vernacular buildings when he visited the island during the CIAM conference in the 1920’s. The basic building features, like in the near-by islands, are solid volumes, thick masonry walls with small openings, the whitewashed plaster skin covering almost everything with an integrative power, the creation of composition through continuous repetition

All these elements have produced a kind of organic urban & building forms, evolving through a long response to the climatic conditions skillfully using the locally available resources, and at the same time imprinting the social evolution through time

One can say that Nature is the chief designer of that architectural style, dictating its whims on the local builders, i.e. the dwellers themselves in most cases. Climate, earthquakes, materials, and topography had been the primary design parameters, and were respected with admirable honesty & ingenuity.

Tradition, resulting from long experience, was regulating the building specifications from layout to decoration, leaving little ground for experiments or deviations from the established norms. The introduction of Neo-classical elements at the end of the 19th century must have been a radical act, adopted by rich captains who could afford showing off that they can follow the new architectural fashion which was flourishing in Europe at that time. 

A special ergonomic scale is all too obvious, very similar to the one found in ships: low doors, narrow and steep stairs, tiny inner/outer spaces. These are products of necessity rather than choice, since the dominant design rule is economy in every respect ("Small Is Necessary"). 

Certain additional features differentiate the architecture of Santorini from that of the surrounding islands: excavated buildings in a stepped-back layout and cylindrical vaults.

The excavated buildings

The slope & hardness of the ground, coupled with the need for material saving, led to the creation of vaulted caves dug into the top layer of the volcanic ash for use as dwellings, stables, wineries, etc. Their front was closed by masonry walls, sometimes used as a base for the veranda of the next house up. The deep caves are usually divided in a row of 2-3 rooms with partitions imitating the front walls. 

Typically, the front openings are the only entries of daylight & fresh air in those deep spaces; therefore ventilation & lighting are poor, increasing condensation & enhancing the development of mold

Besides the ease of construction, a major advantage of the excavated dwellings is their thermal performance. The large heat capacity of soil reduces the diurnal & annual fluctuations of indoor temperature much more than masonry walls. Thus a satisfactory level of thermal comfort is achieved in summer & winter, with a reduced need for auxiliary heating which is required mainly to reduce humidity that causes discomfort.

These cave-like structures are particularly earthquake-proof: During recent restoration works, several excavated rooms were found intact, buried behind ruined facades.

The stepped back layout

Due to the high slope of the ground, a stair-like urban structure has been developed: In many cases the roof of a house is the veranda of the next one above -or even a public street. Thus, an unusual status of 3-dimensional property has been adopted, requiring close co-operation between neighbours in issues like construction, access, sewage, etc. A result of that layout is the necessity of numerous stairs of any kind & size, and of course of brave legs & hearts.

The vaults

Restaurant 1800 in Oia [J]

The main building material is the abundant red or black lava stone, used with or without mortar and covered with plaster. Theran Soil, with properties very similar to cement, had been widely used from ancient times. Mortar made with Theran Soil powder was cheap, locally available and exceptionally strong. Structural timber was a rare & expensive luxury, thus the most common way to cover large or small spaces was through remarkably thin vaulted roofs, bridging the gap between the sidewalls that were much thicker in order to sustain the horizontal forces induced by the vault.  Doors & windows were usually located at the end walls which do not bear any substantial load.

More sophisticated are the cross-vaults, mainly used to increase the inner volume of churches & rich houses. A similar construction technique was sometimes applied in order to open windows on the curved surface of the vault without jeopardizing the balance of the structure.

In sharp contrast to their decorative function and high cost today, vaults had been regarded as an inferior building method in the past. A way to show off wealth was by transforming the vaulted roofs into rectangular volumes enclosed within built parapets over the perimeter walls, giving the impression of timber flat roofs behind rectangular elevations (a very obvious example of such fake semiotics can still be seen in a house in Finikia, where a thin rectangular wall facing the main street hides two lower vaults behind it). Thus, the elaborate vaulted ceilings of Oia's captain mansions are visible only from inside, as they have been hidden under such 'flat' roofs. The top part of the facades of those buildings is covered by carefully built red porous stones, that in cheaper structures are used only to outline openings.

The construction

The major construction difficulty, even today, has been the transport of building materials over cliffs & steps with the only available -and most appropriate for the terrain- means: donkeys & mules. That difficulty explains odd features such as massive rock chunks left on verandas, or half-ruined walls merged into later structures. The excavated walls of caves are sometimes 'adorned' by protruding rocks, left as they were found during construction in order not to alter the stability of the ground or to increase the transportation burden.

Contemporary refurbishing methods include the inner reinforcement of vaults with steel mesh & sprayed concrete. Hollow cement blocks have replaced local stone in external & partition walls, with negative effects on the strength of the structure and the thermal performance of the buildings. 

The housing units built by the state on several locations across the island after the 1956 earthquake is an interesting example of old forms implemented in contemporary mass production. But they do not offer satisfactory living conditions, as the thin concrete slabs & cement walls offer a much inferior thermal behaviour than the traditional stone & soil. A global comparison between the old & new building practices can lead to scepticism on which era is truly rational.

The services

The typical dwelling includes at least one cistern where the precious rainwater is collected via elaborate drainage systems. In many cases the care to collect even the last drop of rain has been a decisive factor in the form of a building. 

The washrooms were built away from the main quarters, usually above a small closet with a collection tank; its contents were periodically transported outside the village on donkeys, or just fed to the pigs of the household, thus achieving complete recycling

The single fuel available for space heating & cooking was bush branches, carefully collected from the countryside. Heating is quite often needed in the winter, especially given the high humidity at times. Portable metal stoves (mangali) were the only alternative to heavy clothes, body heat, or patience, as there are no fireplaces other than the ones in the kitchen. 

Small openings minimise heat losses, a vital fact in the not so distant era when glass was a tremendous luxury for the few -if available at all; but at the same time they decrease natural light in the interior, where the only lighting alternative was oil lamps. Lack of heating & poor ventilation inevitably lead to condensation, especially in the excavated vaults, which are surrounded by the moisture of the soil. It is easy to imagine the unhealthy living conditions under such circumstances; considering also the chronic water shortages and the presence of numerous animals, one should have a smelly rather than idyllic picture of everyday life in the past.

The forms

Topography, materials, building methods, and -above all- time have contributed to a complex uniformity in the built space. The geometric typology of the structural solids is quite simple, consisting of prisms, cylinders & domes, all being covered by a continuous plaster membrane. However, it is the combination & transformation of these few geometric primitives in many & random fashions that generate a unified totality with a strong sculptural atmosphere, amplified by light & shadow contrasts -strong or soft- according to the hour & season. Thus, the forms acquire a varying personality, enriching a walk through them with a series of visual surprises. The plasticity of the bold surfaces is enhanced by the rectangular or semi-circular openings, as by the numerous bell-towers & chimneys of many styles & sizes. 

The colours still embedded in the plaster of old ruins remind us of the era before the widespread white­washed surfaces of today, an attribute that originated as a cheap method for disinfecting & sun protection, imposed later as a common Greek vernacular trademark. The villages in Thirassia still remain far from the contemporary artificial 'white & blue' idea of Cycladic architecture (electricity was brought there in the early '80s), thus presenting several original examples of the vernacular use of colour.



Flying over the Caldera [TNS 1984]



Oia (or Pano Meria, Upper Side) had been one of the major towns of Cyclades. It had reached 10,000 inhabitants about 100 years ago, with shipping as its main force. The beginning of its decline coincides with the decay of commercial sailing ships. Most of its inhabitants emigrated to Piraeus & abroad, and the earthquake of 1956 delivered the final blow. During the 1960s, its houses -ruined or not- were on sale ‘for peanuts’ to those who could appreciate their value, Greeks or foreigners, while the permanent residents had been reduced to about 400.


A remarkable change takes place during the last 15 years: Visitor numbers increase sharply, bars compete with taverns, and numerous tourist boutiques follow the first one opened in 1983. Prices for ruined houses go sky-high and so does the repair cost; the official property value in Oia is among the highest in Greece (more than 3,500 EUR per square meter), but still more & more restored buildings continue to spring amongst the debris of the earthquake & time. Emigration is reversed in summer: Its ex-inhabitants or their children return to rent rooms to visitors, and the local tourism professionals are competing with others from Athens & Piraeus. The demand for accommodation still exceeds the supply, so there are many daily visitors who have to leave Oia for other locations in the evening, after they have taken some snaps of the sunset from the ruins of the old watchtower (Kastro) at the westernmost edge of the village. Thus the lucky ones who enjoy the full moon over the mercury waters of Caldera are relatively few.

The village

Oia is built on the NW end of Santorini, facing south in a fishbone layout: The main pedestrian street connects its ends across the top of the cliff, with many local branches. The length from the east end (Perivolas) to the west (Goulas) is about 3 km, but the horizontal width of the village is no more than 300m. 

A sort of ‘class planning’ can be observed: The large captain mansions with the elaborate Neo-classical ornaments are located mostly on the upper part, whilst the excavated houses of the crews are spread below, along the cliff, both being at a distance from the farmers of Finikia

At the foot of the cliff, about 250 steps below the main street, are the fishing hamlets of Armeni  on the south coast and Ammoudi on the west; between them there is the tiny islet of St.Nicolas with a small chapel dug in the solid rock and a concrete platform that used to host nudists. The asphalt road from Fira marks the northern edge of the village, with a branch towards the sandy beaches of Baxes & Koloumbos -and recently all the way down to Ammoudi. 

Oia has been officially declared as a "Traditional Settlement under Preservation Order", which means that every building project must have been approved by the planning authority in order not to alter the old style of the visual environment.

The public services

Public services in Oia are very few: Post office, a pharmacy, a bank & a doctor. In Fira there are several banks, the Greek Telephone Organisation main office, petrol stations, police and more. 

Buses cover the distance of 13km to Fira every 30 to 60 minutes until the evening when taxis become the only public transport. In summer there is limited bus service to the beach of Baxes, and also boat-taxis to Thirassia. Several tourist agencies issue boat tickets & organise local excursions.


The houses of Oia, with the alleys and terraces over "the blue drinkable volcano" of Odysseus Elytis in "Axion Esti", is the main attraction. Some additional interesting spots to explore are:

  • Kyr-Manolis old cafe,

  • the Marine Museum, with remnants of the sailing past,

  • the Goulas ruins overlooking Ammoudi & the subset,

  • the splendid view from verandas like those of Lauda & Lotza, 

  • the big church of St. George with its arched feast hall,

  • the local specialities like fried tomato balls, fava (mashed local beans) & tsikoudia, wherever can be found.

And above all, as a way to ecstasy, one should not miss the full moon over Caldera, accompanied by Bach or Pink Floyd music -or just with the sound of the night breeze over the silver waves far below...

Oia lit by full moon [TNS 1984]


Lonely chapel over Ammoudi [TNS]

Vaults & cross vaults

[J] [J] [J]

A typical neighbourhood


Cross section


Streets, houses & yards


Excavated dwellings inner layout


Kyr-Manolis cafe -inside/outside


A captain's mansion with carefully hidden cross vaults


Building geometry primitives

Rectangular volumes

Cylindrical volumes

Semi-cylindrical volumes

Cones & pyramids

Prismatic surfaces

Curved surfaces

[J] Restaurant 1800 in Oia [J]

Plan of Oia 

A simple map of Oia [J]



Oia-like fractal image, created w. AutoLISP [TNS]


The material of this web page originated as a booklet first written in 1989 for the 1st year students of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, as an introduction to their annual study trips to Oia; an English version was prepared for the students of the Architectural Association Environment & Energy Studies Programme in 1993, with later amendments. More material will be added to this page in the future, so please do come again.

The source of illustrations is marked in [brackets] under each image. Those marked with [J] come from a Japanese architectural magazine, the name of which is unknown by the author; help locating the name & issue of that particular publication would be mostly appreciated -please send e-mail if you have a clue.

Special thanks to Ed Moore for his linguistic support.


The commercial use of the text, or parts of it, is not allowed without the written consent by the author:
Thanos N. Stasinopoulos

Architect PhD NTUA AAGradDipl.
National Technical University of Athens
School of Architecture
Patission 42, GR-106 82 Athens
Tel. +30 210 6519403, fax +30 210 6532179


First booklet edition 27.4.89 w. several revisions
First web edition 29.01.00



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