Santorini is probably the most famous and most popular Greek island, because of its beautiful scenery, primarily, dramatically perched on the edge of a volcano overlooking a beautiful bay. It’s also famous for its mules.
So what are these mules doing in a resort island like this? Santorini seems like a pretty modern and expensive place. So why are there mules walking around, right through the middle of town?
Well, it’s no great surprise, or secret. You savvy viewers probably already know, the mules are here to bring tourists from the water up to the village.
Mules have a long history of working for the people of Santorini, well before there was ever any tourists here.
They’ve always been an important part of the human occupation of the island because that’s how goods and people got around, probably for thousands of years.
Most visitors to Santorini arrive by ship and they face the challenge of getting up the hill to the village up above. You’ve got three choices: take the cable car, ride a mule, or walk.
If you choose to walk up the 600 steps, that’s going to take over an hour and it might be a little smelly, and it’s exhausting. So let’s take the mule.
There are some ethical issues to consider about riding the mules. Many animal rights and welfare organizations discourage the riding of these mules, and if you agree with that, then by all means, take the cable car. But on the other hand, mules have been bred to do this kind of work for a long time, starting perhaps about 5000 years ago in Turkey, and spreading from there throughout the world. That’s why they were bred. And the mule drivers take good care of their animals, it’s their livelihood after all, and even through the long winter when these animals are not doing much work, they are well taken care of, so they get a winter vacation.
The biggest issue for the animals is the amount of weight they have to carry. If they were just walking up the hill with nobody on their back, the climb would be easy for these strong animals, so the government has put a weight limit – nobody more than 220 pounds is allowed to ride on the mule. If a heavy person tries to ride, they can be fined as much is $32,000.
Mules are fascinating animals with some peculiarities that belong to the mule alone.
So let’s consider the nature of this hard-working animal as he climbs the hill in Santorini.
A mule is a offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, making it a hybrid and sterile so two mules cannot mate and give birth to another mule.
The mule is valued because it has the positive characteristics of each species while minimizing their negative aspects. It’s an example of hybrid vigor.
Charles Darwin said the mule is superior to horse or donkey because it quote “possesses more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance and length of life than either of its parents.”
The mule inherits from its donkey the traits of intelligence, surefootedness, toughness, endurance, gentle disposition, independence and natural cautiousness.
From the horse, it inherits speed, basic shape and agility. The mule has the size and ground covering ability of a horse, yet is stronger than a horse of similar size and tends to require less food.
Mules are reputed to be more patient, hearty and long-lived than horses, and more intelligent than either of their parents species.
The mule is a powerful work animal, able to endure hardship and perform excellent service under adverse conditions.
You’ve heard the phrase “stubborn as a mule.” Yes, they do not like to be hurried, worried, or cuffed about.
At night when the mules are done with their long working day in Santorini, they come walking right through the middle of town on their way back to the stables. It’s a big surprise for many tourists, who are walking along shopping, and all of a sudden here comes a mule train.
Mules and donkeys have worked here for many centuries, hauling goods and people from the shoreline way up to the settlements up on top of the hill. The roads were always too rough for any kind of a cart or wagon, and later on for trucks, and so the mules and donkeys have always beared the burden of hauling the stuff up and down the hill. They are responsible for the creation of these towns because without them, no towns could’ve ever been built up here.
Mules have long played a historical role of working for people, as far back as 3000 BC in Egypt. Christopher Columbus introduced mules to the New World. George Washington is known as the father of the American mule, with nearly 60 of them at his home in Mount Vernon.
There are mules in other parts of Greece, such as the island of Hydra and the town of Lindos on Rhodes, but here in Santorini, they provide a very special kind of ass transit.