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.
Photographing Ancient Ruins – Knossos
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.
Quick Shot – Old Venetian Harbor, Chania, Crete
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.
New “Old” Greek Gallery
It’s been quite awhile since I’ve updated anything on my website. Since an update was long overdue, last weekend I added a new gallery with images from Greece to the travel galleries on my site. These aren’t new images; they are from a trip Tanya and I made to Athens and the Peloponnese peninsula taken nine years ago this month. The images are old enough that they were taken with my pre-digital camera, an Olympus OM4T, using slide film. I scanned the images with with a film scanner and digitally developed them in Lightroom and Photoshop.
The ease of adding new image galleries to my site is one reason I developed the site with Lightroom plugins from The Turning Gate. Unfortunately, I haven’t been taking advantage of the ease these plugins give me. Stay tuned, I hope to have a few more new galleries up and running over the next several months.
Speaking of making web galleries with Lightroom, I upgraded to Lightroom 4 a short time ago, and generally like it a lot. However, generating a new web gallery in LR4 was a lot slower than with my old version of Lightroom – and this is not the fault of The Turning Gate plugin, the problem lies with Adobe. Luckily, however, according to the blog at Turning Gate, this is a problem with LR4 that hopefully will be fixed soon.
The image I chose to illustrate this post is titled “Fallen Caesar”. I was attracted by how a monument to a once mighty deity was now nothing more than a piece of fallen, discarded rock. I shot it in ancient Corinth. The light was pretty bland when I shot the image, and there wasn’t much color in the slide. Thus I chose to convert it to black and white, which I did in Lightroom; I think it turned out quite well.
Be sure to check out the new gallery to see more. I hope you enjoy my new “old” images from Greece.
The Gibraltar of Greece – Monemvasia
As with my last blog, this blog re-publishes an article I wrote for the Travel Photographers Network, this time back in 2004. It is travel essay covering the town and island of Monemvasia, off the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. The photos included with this article were all captured in 2003 on slide film, prior to me owning a digital SLR. Several of these images have sold for use in Greek publications. Monemvasia is off the beaten path for most Americans visiting Greece. I highly recommend it; it’s a great place to visit, especially for a photographer.
With the recent Summer Olympics in Athens, there has been a renewed interest in Greece. For many travelers, especially Americans, a trip to Greece is synonymous with a trip to one of the Greek Isles. Popular Greek islands such as Santorini, Rhodes, Crete, and others are wonderful places to visit, but they can add substantially to a trip’s time and budget. For photographers on a budget, either time or dollar-wise, there is a little known, historic and photogenic alternative – the island of Monemvasia.
Compared to most of Greece, Monemvasia is young. The island itself is less than 2,000 years old, having split off the Peloponnese peninsula during an earthquake in 375 A.D. In the 1,629 years that followed, the island went from uninhabited to a powerful city of over 50,000 to the present-day village that has neither a bank nor post office. Over that time span, Monemvasia has survived attacks by Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, Turks, and Franks. It has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, Rome, Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and independent Greece.
Known as the “Gibraltar of Greece,” the key to Monemvasia’s history is that it is a natural fortress, easy to defend from both sea and land. It is easily accessible to the mainland and at a key location on Mediterranean trade routes. The name Monemvasia means “single gate.” The name applies to both the town, accessed by a single portal, and the island, accessible by land from a single point.
Byzantine Greeks fleeing marauding barbarians first settled the island in the 6th century. They built a double-walled city, with a lower town on the southern slope of the island monolith and an upper town built on its flat-topped summit. The island grew in importance. At a time when Athens was reduced to a mere village, Monemvasia grew to be the most important maritime city in southern Greece – a port of call for all commercial ships plying the waters between Constantinople and Italy. Monemvasia’s strategic importance made it the scene of epic sieges. When the Byzantine Empire fell at the end of the Middle Ages, the Greeks turned to Venice for protection. However, Venice and the Ottoman Empire traded rule of the island over the next several hundred years. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the city sank into insignificance, as many of its Greek families left or were killed in a rebellion against the Turkish government. Monemvasia was freed from the Turks during the Greek War of Independence in 1821 when its Turkish inhabitants were, in turn, massacred following a three-month siege.
Following the Greek independence and even with an influx of Greeks to their former home, Monemvassia shrank even more. In 1911, the upper portion of the town was totally abandoned, and in 1971, the population shrank to its low mark of 32 inhabitants. Today, it looks very much a medieval town with a mix of Byzantine, Venetian, and Turkish influences; a maze of pathways between crumbling ruins, restored house, castle walls, and Byzantine churches zigzagging up rocky slopes. At times it can seem crowded owing to its small size and an influx of weekenders from Athens, yet with its frescoed churches, cobbled streets and paths, and abundant flowers, the town remains peaceful.
A half-mile causeway connects the island to its neighboring town of Gefyra. The causeway is closed to cars between June and September. Even off-season, cars are never allowed inside the town gate. From the gate inward, it is foot traffic only. From the mainland, Monemvasia doesn’t appear to be much, a few rampart remnants on top of its rocky heights. Even from the city gate, not much is visible. The gate is built into an impressive, 20-foot tall castle wall, but nothing is visible beyond the wall or through the gate.
Stepping through the portal into the town is like stepping back in time. Visitors entering the town walk from the small parking area outside the gate into darkness, wend through two 90-degree turns in a short tunnel, and step out into an oddly mixed touch of the 21st century and the Middle Ages. Small shops in 800-year old buildings line the narrow, main street selling tee shirts, souvenirs, soda, and Kodak film. Side streets, barely wide enough for two to walk abreast, branch off without apparent reason leading to restored houses, piles of ruins, churches, and the sea wall. Outside the shops and other commercial establishments, the 21st century is largely absent. The town has been restored with electrical wiring, plumbing, and antennas hidden from view.
The main street leads to the town square, which contains an impressive bell tower, topped with a white cross, an ancient well, and an old cannon overlooking the Aegean Sea. The largest surviving Byzantine Church in southern Greece, the Church of Christ Helkomenos (Christ in Chains) built in 1293 by Emperor Andranikos II Komnenos, also borders the square. The church is a domed, three-aisled basilica with a barrel-vaulted roof. Inside are frescos, portable icons, and an Episcopal throne. Across the square is the small, domed former church Agios Petros (St. Peter), which today houses an archaeological collection dedicated to Monemvasia. This museum was originally built in the 16th century as a Muslim mosque, was later converted to a church, a prison, and a coffee shop. The museum opened in 1999 and is admission free.
After the town square, the main street is seemingly lost among a number of smaller streets leading uphill toward the ruins of the upper town, or further eastward to less restored sections of town. One side street leads southward to a small sea gate through the base of the castle wall. Numerous other churches, in varying states of repair, can be found in the lower town. These include the Church of Panagia (Our Lady) Mirtidiotissa, built around 1700 that today stands as a virtual ruin, though it still houses a small altar with religious offerings and a flickering candle. The recently restored, 16thcentury Church of Panagia Hrysaphitissa has beautifully white-washed walls and overlooks the sea. Others churches are dedicated to St. Nicholas, St. Anne, St. Anne the Catholic, St. Andrew, and St. Demetrois. In total, the former city had more than 40 churches.
A steep, winding path leads from the lower town, though an iron gate, to the remains of the upper castle and town. Most of the upper town remains in ruins, overgrown with vegetation. Maps available at the museum show the locations of old cisterns, houses, churches, and fortifications. At the far end of the island, standing alone among the ruins, is the Church of Agia Sophia, perched high above the Aegean Sea on the edge of a cliff. A smaller version of the more famous St. Sophia in Istanbul, Monemvassia’s Agia Sophia is an octagonal domed church dating back to 1150.
Spending the night in Monemvasia is magical. There are several hotels in town, and all are unique. The largest is the Malvasia, which has rooms scattered throughout town in restored, traditional buildings. Another is the Lazareto, which is built in an ancient hospital. The Kellia is a converted monastery. During our visit in Monemvasia, we stayed in the Ardamis Apartments, a small hotel with five rooms. Our room was built in the 1200s and contained a spotlighted opening to an ancient cistern, converted to a glass-covered coffee table, and a sunken bedroom. The walls were built of local rock and contained fossils. The room had a small patio, with a gate that opened to the sea wall. Nighttime is quiet and dark; there is no air or light pollution to interrupt an evening spent sipping wine on the patios of the few restaurants in town. We spent two nights there, and both mornings we were awakened by the clip-clop of packhorses outside our door, hauling baskets of construction materials from the town gate.
Photographic opportunities abound in Monemvasia. Besides the churches, there are ancient stone walls, castle fortifications, and an endless supply of flowers in the spring and summer. The locals are friendly. Cats and dogs have free reign in the town’s restaurants, gladly posing in exchange for a scrap under the table. The town of Gefyra is a half-mile walk and presents its own photogenic sights. The town has a small harbor and waterside cafes. The day’s catch (when we were there, it was octopus) can be seen hanging from clotheslines on balconies above the cafes.
Monemvasia can be reached in six hours from Athens by car. There are also daily buses from Athens. Hydrofoil service to Gefyra is available in the summer.