Religion is a big thing in Greece. Every town has at least one Greek Orthodox Church, and usually several. There are random churches out in the countryside not near any towns. Besides churches, there are also many monasteries, as well as a few convents. While on Crete, we visited two monasteries, and when in the Delphi area, we visited another monastery (which by itself had three churches) and a convent.
It seems each church and monastery has its own particular rules. Very often, photography is not permitted inside the churches. This is such a common rule that I was surprised when photography was allowed. And even when it is allowed, it is consider rude to photograph the main altar. At many of the cultural sites in Greece, tripod use is prohibited without special permission/fees. I assumed this was true of the many churches we visited, and did all my photography in the churches and monasteries hand-held and without a flash. The churches are typically very dark, requiring the use of high ISOs. On the other hand, outside the buildings, it was sunny most of the time we were there, and I don’t know how many times my camera complained (okay, it just had a flashing warning in the viewfinder) about not having a fast enough shutter speed available when I forgot to change the ISO off of 6400.
Here are a few of my thoughts and shots from our visits to three monasteries and a convent.
Moní Arkadhíou, or the Arkadi Monastery, is located in central Crete southeast of Rethymnon. The monastery was apparently founded in the 5th century, but the present church was built 1587. This monastery is most famous for an incident in the Creten revolt of Ottoman rule in 1866. Over 900 Greeks, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the monastery. With the monastery under attack by the Ottomans and the Creten fighters defeated, the abbot gathered the remaining people in the powder room in the monastery, and when the Ottomans arrived at the door, he set the barrels of powder on fire, choosing sacrifice rather than surrender. Today, you can visit the remains of the power room ans well view some of the skulls of the sacrificed victims in an ossuary in a former windmill outside the monastery walls.
The monastery is inside a walled compound, with the Venetian church centered in the large courtyard. Several gardens are located behind the church. The interior of the church is beautiful, but photography is prohibited. There is a small museum with nice icons. Several interior rooms are open with old artifacts.
Moní Prevelí sits on the southern coast of Crete overlooking the Libyan Sea. It was also played a historic role in Creten history, when during World War II, the monks hid trapped Allied soldiers from the Nazis, helping them escape by submarine. Most of the monastery is off limits to visitors, at least when we visited. There is a small museum with some very impressive icons and a small church (again, no photography allowed inside). Other than that, access was limited to a portion of the courtyard. The view over the sea is fantastic. Frankly, with the limited access at the monastery, I wasn’t sure the drive out there was worth it. However, nearby the monastery is a short but steep trail to the beautiful Prevelí Beach, also known as Palm Beach. Combining a visit to the monastery with the beach made a good day trip.
Okay, this view isn’t actually at the monastery, but is from the trail down to the nearby Palm Beach.
Of all the places Tanya and I visited in Greece on this trip, the Monastery of Hosios Loukas was perhaps my favorite. The monastery was founded by the hermit of Helicon – the Venerable Saint Luke the Stiriote (not to be confused the Evangelist of the Gospel of Saint Luke) – in the 10th century. The site contains two co-joined churches within the monastery walls (and a newer church outside the walls). The relics (physical remains) of Saint Luke are in a small chamber between the two churches. The relics are said to produce healing miracles.
The monastery is a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. Simply, the interior of the larger church, the Katholikon, is amazing. The mosaics, frescoes and other decorations are impossible to describe, and my photographs do not truly capture the ancient beauty of the place. Tanya and I just stood in wonder beneath the magnificent mosaic on the domed ceiling (the featured image above). There are more frescoes in the burial crypt beneath the Katholikon.
The monastery grounds are widely open to visitors and include a small museum and several exhibits. Surprisingly, photography is allowed in the churches.
A short distance west of Delphi is the convent of Moni Profiti Ilia. It is relatively “new” compared to the other monasteries we visited, being built in the 19th century. It is famously where Essaeas, the bishop of Salona, raised the flag to officially start the Greek revolution March 24, 1821.
We drove up the convent, which sits high on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Corinth, and found the door to the walled compound closed. There was a small sign, but being in Greek, we could not read it. No one was around, so I took a few photos, and we prepared to leave. About that time, two men drove up and parked near the door. They went to the door and apparently rang a buzzer/intercom and opened the door and went in.
Tanya and I went back and buzzed the intercom. A young nun answered in English and told us to come inside. However, we couldn’t open the door (we couldn’t figure out the latch). We buzzed again and she came and let us in. Once inside, she made Tanya put on a dress over her pants (we knew that one shouldn’t wear shorts, but didn’t know about the dress dress code for women).
There wasn’t that much to see here. You can walk around the courtyard, which has lovely gardens. And they do have a beautiful church – no photos inside and you should not cross your legs when sitting (both feet on the floor please) – in which the young nun kept watch over us. An elderly nun (no English) into their dining hall for homemade candy and a cold glass of water. One of the two men who entered before us interpreted as the nun was very curious about Americans visiting. It turns out there are only about a dozen nuns there, while the place looked like it could house one hundred.
On our recent trip, Tanya and I spent several days in Chania (also spelled Hania) and loved it. The Venetian quarter is a maze of small streets and alleys with remnants of Venetian and Turkish architecture. The old quarter is centered around the beautiful and historic Venetian Harbor with its iconic lighthouse (see this recent Quick Shot post and my Instagram feed). We spent hours walking around the old streets seeping in the history of the place, as well spending time sipping drinks (and drinking in the scenery) at a harbor-front café. The Venetian quarter was busy with tourists, and I imagine it get mobbed in summer, but it was well worth visiting. However, when I went to the harbor early one morning for sunrise, there was almost no one around.
We didn’t stay in the old quarter. Instead, we stayed at an Airbnb with a nice sea view in the Tabakaria District, about a half hour walk from the Venetian Harbor. This waterfront district was home to about 80 19th-century leather tanneries (only a few survive today). Most of the old tannery factory buildings are still there, providing me a great photo opportunity literally right outside my door. To make it even better, the best restaurant we ate at in Crete (Thalassino Ageri) was just a 2-minute walk from our room. We ate at a table on the beach, a couple of meters from the waves, enjoying great seafood and a magnificent view – one direction toward the old tanneries, the other to the Sea of Crete and the far shoreline of northwestern Crete.
For travel photograph, for great food, for drinking in history, I highly recommend visiting Chania.
The Palace of Knossos is the capital of ancient Minoan Crete. It is reportedly Crete’s most popular tourist attraction. Ancient ruins, particularly popular ones, present a photographic challenge, at least to me. We see photographs of the ruins in guidebooks and on postcards and want to get similar shots. Yet, often the sites are only have limited hours that do not correspond with the best light and are usually overrun by tourists. How to get a few decent shots without obtaining special access (like the photographers whose images you see on the postcard)?
Knossos is the perfect example. When Tanya and I were there, the last admittance of the day was at 3 p.m. We got there about 2:30 p.m., and I was hoping the crowds would be a bit less. However, as it turned out, we picked International Monuments Day (April 18th) to visit – the good news, free admission; the bad news, more people. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, but there we weren’t alone either. Further, 2:30 p.m. is not a prime time for photography, the light is harsh and contrast can be a big problem.
And you can forget about using a tripod. Even if it would not cause a problem with the crowds, tripods (and large professional cameras – whatever the definition of that is) are not allowed. This is a common policy at many historical sites and museums (occasionally I’m surprised and they are allowed, such at the Met in New York and in the Notre Dame Basilca in Montreal).
So what is your average photographer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve discovered that help me photograph at ancient ruins (and other popular sites).
1. Use a telephoto zoom lens – if you don’t want people in your shots, you will need to zoom in to crop them out. A wide-angle lens is good for providing a big scene, but it is almost impossible to use one and not have people in your image.
2. Shoot details – sure shoot an image with the whole building, but if you want to not have people in the shot, shoot details.
3. Don’t crop too tightly in camera – often you will not have the best vantage point to take a shot. If you think you might be making perspective adjustments Lightroom or Photoshop, don’t crop too tightly in-camera. Leave some room to crop after the perspective adjustment is made.
4. Avoid sky when shooting into the sun – we often don’t have much choice about time of day when visiting a historical site, and that scene you’ve been dreaming about shooting is toward the sun. Cut out the sky to avoid the contrast. For example, one of the most common shots you will see of Knossos is similar to the featured shot above, except that it usually shows some sky as well. Here, shooting toward that sun, I cut out the sky to avoid bad contrast and a totally white sky.
5. Shoot in the shade – again, not having much choice about time of day, shooting in mid-day can cause lots of contrast problems. Look for compositions that are in shade and avoid the contrast of partial sunlight.
6. Up your ISO – often you will be shooting not out in the sun, but in a dimly lit rooms or grottoes. Without a tripod, remember to increase your ISO.
Tanya and I just returned from a second honeymoon in Greece. As a second honeymoon, I tried to keep photography as a lower priority, so I didn’t shoot as much as I would have normally (though Tanya says that any trip is a photography trip). But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take a few good shots. We spent a week on Crete, several days in the Delphi region, and four days in Athens. One morning while in Chania, also known as Hania, in northwestern Crete, I got up early for sunrise and went to the old Venetian Harbor. The light was magical, and the place was empty of the thousands of tourists that haunt the harbor area during the day and evening. This is a shot of the harbor entrance, showing the Venetian lighthouse, built in the 16th century.
I took the shot using a 10-stop neutral density filter to smooth the water. This is a 25-second exposure at f/8. I’ll be posting more from the trip over the next several weeks.