Santorini’s Unique Mule Transport

Hotels and homes are built into the hillside accessed from above
Be prepared to carry your baggage down steps to your hotel

The island of Santorini, Greece, also known as Thera (or sometimes Thira in translation), was formed by volcanic activity, much like Hawaii. The last large volcanic eruption happened in 1646 B.C. The island consists mostly of large soft volcanic rock throughout. Locals build their homes, called cave homes, into the side of the volcanic rock. Once a home was built, the next home would be built on top of the previous one. You see swimming pools in the back yards of one home that seem to be in the front yard of another. There are several cities on Santorini island, but all of them have the same distinguishing characteristic: whitewashed homes and churches with blue painted domes (meant to imitate heaven) dotting the mountaintop formed by a volcanic caldera.

People going to Santorini can fly from Athens or arrive by ferry, which takes about five hours on the fast boat. The overwhelming number of tourists arrive by cruise ships, which can flood the island with more than 15,000 passengers on a single day. Since the island has no port facilities large enough to handle a cruise ship, all the passengers get to port by “tender” boats operated by the Santorini boating union, a tedious process using a small boat to offload cruise ship passengers in small groups. Considering that Santorini normally has a population of just over 15,000, so many tourists at once can crowd the streets and overwhelm the island. Santorini has recently taken steps to regulate the number of cruise ships that it will accept in a day, but the island survives on tourism.

Santorini can get quite hot. Building into the soft mountainside helps cool homes, even in the summer. The whitewash on homes is further defense to the heat as it reflects the sun. Still from a distance, the volcanic mountainside appears to be covered in snow.

The capital city of Thera goes by the same name as the island and is located in its center. An Orthodox Church, the principal Greek church, dominates the main plaza. From the church, a main road along the top of the volcanic caldera is too narrow for cars. Deliveries are by hand cart. Tourists must carry their baggage down flights of stairs descending the mountainside to the entry of their hotels. Oia, another city on the northern tip of the island, is prettier and much smaller, but the same general description applies — again, the main street emanates from an Orthodox church in the main square.

On the top of the mountain, roads for cars have been built to connect the cities. You can get from some ports by car to the top of the mountain. Once there, roads connect one city to another.

One of the interesting aspects of the city of Thera is that there is no road from its port to the mountaintop where the city is located. You have three choices to ascend and descend. A cable car has been built, but it only takes 36 people each way, each run. With thousands of cruise ship passengers needing its service, that may take hours waiting in line. Another option is to take a switchback road with 600 steps. You can do this on foot or by mule. If you do it by foot, you give right of way to the mules and keep an eye out for their droppings. Getting between top and bottom of the mountain in Thira is a unique experience, no matter which method you use.

You must share the descending road with mules
Share switchback road with mules to get from main road at top of mountain to seaside

Shops on Thera island sell tourist souvenirs, leather goods and local foods such as local sweet wine and gelato. There are many great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. It’s a hip scene like an upscale beach town, only there is no beach. For a swim in the refreshing waters of the Aegean Sea, you’ll want water shoes to protect yourself from the sharp volcanic rock that surrounds the island.

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