1492 was a big year in Spain. Americans, me included, mainly associate the year 1492 with when Columbus sailed to the Americas. However, here, 1492 is the year the Catholics finally conquered all of Spain from the Moors. The Moors last stand was here in Granada. The Alhambra was the last Moorish palace and seat of power in Spain. Over the prior several hundred years, the Moorish holdings in Spain had gradually been pushed south and east, until finally Granada was the last stronghold. Then in 1492, King Fredinand and Queen Isabella ruled over the conquest of Granada. As was the tradition, they moved their capital to Granada to establish the new seat of power on top of the old (similarly, many churches and cathedrals were built on top of mosques). When the country was finally all Catholic, Fredinand and Isabella also required all non-Catholics to convert (the year being 1492). So you can see, 1942 was a big year for Spain (I apologize to any of my Spanish readers for butchering your history).
One of the big themes in Sevilla was Columbus, who sailed to the Americas from that port. His tomb is in a grand crypt in the Sevilla Cathedral (he is supposedly also buried at two other sites, but Sevillans claim the one in their cathedral is the real one). Here the big theme is the Alhambra, the last stand of the Moors, and the reign of Fredinand and Isabella. Fredinand and Isabella are entombed here, in the Royal Chapel, which we visited yesterday.The Alhambra stands high above the old Moorish section of the town, and the Moorish influence is still heavy today (there are many shops selling goods from north Africa and restaurants with Moroccan food).
The Alhambra is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the most popular attraction in Spain. However, November is the off-season, and when we went yesterday afternoon, it was not too crowded. It is truly an amazing place, and I can highly recommend it. It’s main attraction is the Palacios Nazaries – the Moorish palace; but there are other wonderful sites as well, including the Alcazaba (the fort), Charles V’s palace, the Generalife Gardens with the Moorish summer palace, and the Partal Gardens.
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.
This blog re-publishes an article I wrote in 2007. It is travel essay covering photogenic historical sites in Georgia including the City of Savannah, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Andersonville National Historic Site, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site, and others.
It was first published by the Travel Photographers Network, also known as TPN. I’ve discovered broken links on my website to several articles previously published there. The links broke when the Travel Photographers Network overhauled their website. The articles may or may not be republished by TPN, but until then, over the next several days, I’ll republish those articles here on my blog so I can re-establish links.
Standing in a rain-soaked, grassy field, I could barely see the line of artillery at the misty edge of the forest trees. Around me are other artillery pieces sporting big, brown-spoked wheels, their cannons green with age; some slightly rusty. Nearby are stacks of cannonballs, placed where officers fell and died. The higher the stack, the higher the dead soldier’s rank. Though peaceful today, in my mind it’s easy to imagine lines of gray and blue men, struggling, fighting, and dying.
Throughout much of the United States, it’s difficult to get a true sense of the historic. Unlike Europe and much of the rest of the world, America is just too young for a visitor to feel much history, such as one instinctively feels standing at the Acropolis in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome. But here, in the midst of Georgia at the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, history impregnates the scenery. The same is true in much of Georgia, which is filled with important American historical sites from aboriginal times, the colonial days, the American Civil War, and even modern times. Georgia boasts twelve sites in the National Park system, nine of which are related to American history. Most are within a day’s drive of Atlanta. Visiting these nationally recognized sites presents the travel photographer with a wealth of visually stimulating and historical opportunities.
The Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park encompasses a broad area of forests and fields in northern Georgia near the town of Fort Olgethorpe. It is one of the few spots in the United States where the Confederates won a Civil-War victory (the Confederate south of course, later lost the war to the Union north). Here, in 1863, General Braxton Bragg lead 43,000 Southern soldiers in defeating 66,000 Union soldiers headed by General William S. Rosencrans. The defeat directly lead to Ulyssess S. Grant assuming overall command of the Union forces. Grant later became President of the United States. The visitor center is housed in a southern mansion and offers descriptions of the battle, as well as a large collection of rifles used not only in the Civil War, but also throughout American history. The park is filled at seemingly odd locations with monuments to regiments from both sides, stacks of cannon balls where officers died, and lines of cannons and mortars, all which can make interesting photo opportunities.
I found the Andersonville National Historic Site in south-central Georgiato be truly moving. Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, was the largest of the Confederate military prisons operating during the Civil War. Today, the prison site itself is a broad, sunny, grassy field with a few sections of wooden stockade wall. It’s hard to imagine the 34,000 men packed into a 26.5-acre prison area, surviving with little fresh water and poor sanitation. The reality of the prison’s history is more tangible at the National Cemetery also situated on the Historic Site grounds. Row after row of white marble gravestones mark the resting place of the 13,000 prisoners who died at the camp. Other sections of the cemetery are reversed for American veterans from other wars. Also built at Andersonville is the National Prisoner of War Museum, which tells not only the story of the Civil War prison, but also memorializes American prisoners of war from the Revolution to the first Gulf War. All together, the museum, cemetery, and former prison grounds provide many poignant photographic subjects. A telephoto lens is particularly useful in the National Cemetery for compressing thousands of gravestones into a single image.
Perhaps there is no place in Georgia where history is more alive than in Savannah. The city was founded in 1733 and was America’s first planned city. Its founder, James Oglethorpe, laid out the city in a grid pattern with wide boulevards and 24 squares; 21 of which are still present today. As a major seaport, the city flourished with the cotton trade, especially after the cotton gin was invented on a nearby plantation. Cotton prices for the world were set at the Savannah Cotton Exchange, whose building today houses small shops and restaurants. During the Civil War, Union General William Sherman ravaged and burned Georgia on his way to the sea, but he spared Savannah as a gift to President Lincoln.
That gift has left Savannah with many elegant, historic homes and churches dating from the 1700s and 1800s, which today provide excellent photographic opportunities. Historic churches in Savannah include: the Lutheran Church of Ascension, built in 1741; the First African Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in North America, founded in 1777; and Temple Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jewish Congregation in the United States (1733) whose gothic synagogue was dedicated in 1878. All these, and many more, are found in Savannah’s historic district, an area 20 blocks long and twelve blocks wide. The streets and squares of the historic district are lined with grand, old oak trees, dripping with spanish moss. Each square is distinct, with statues, monuments and gardens. Beautifully restored townhouses and homes are on most every corner. Many serve as bed-and-breakfast inns, allowing a travel photographer to sleep and eat in one of their potential subjects. Also of photographic, and historical, interest are the city’s two major cemeteries: Colonial Park Cemetery, with graves dating from Georgia’s colonial days, and Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by the book and movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Just east of Savannah, at the mouth of the Savannah River, is Fort Pulaski National Monument. This military site has held various forts since 1761. The current fort took 18 years to build, starting in 1829, and stands as a proud monument to the day when masonry forts were the height of military defense. Just 13 years after it was finished, in its first battle of the American Civil War, that day ended when 30 hours of bombardment from the North’s new rifled cannons pierced the fort’s 8-foot thick walls and the fort’s commander surrendered. Today, the fort’s brick walls still contain cannonballs from that fateful battle. Besides examining Civil War era military hardware, the enterprising travel photographer can find abundant wildlife on the grounds, including alligators in the fort’s moat.
More modern, but no less important, history can be found back in Atlanta. This city was the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s most famous civil rights leader. A National Historic District named in his honor celebrates MLK Jr. and his legacy. There is an impressive visitor center containing powerful exhibits on American apartheid and the evolution of civil rights in the States. His birth home, a two-story Victorian, is preserved. Sitting in the well-worn wooden pews in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he preached, brought me memories of old news clips of MLK Jr. preaching from the pulpit. Most touching, at least to me, is MLK Jr’s crypt, set on an island within a series of reflective ponds.
Other Georgian sites of photographic and historic interest include Ocmulgee National Monument, which preserves earthworks created by pre-historic inhabitants of the region; the Jimmy Carter National Historic District in Plains, where the ex-president still lives; and the old Atlantic Coast Highway (Highway 17) along the south Georgia coast.
I visited in summer, when the weather was hot and steamy, with afternoon thundershowers. This weather kept crowds down at the historic sites outside of Atlanta and Savannah. The Chickamauga battlefield was quiet and empty, Andersonville was all the more haunting because it was deserted, and the earthen mounds at Ocmulgee were silent with age. More people are about in spring, which is much milder and drier, and offers lots of flowers. Traveling to Atlanta is simple; the airport there is one of the largest in the United States. For visiting sites outside of Atlanta and Savannah, a car is almost essential since there is relatively little public transportation outside the cities.