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It’s easy to be enchanted in Santorini. Walking among the pastel-hued houses of Oia at the end of a day, I find myself completely charmed by the small village, with its windmills overlooking the Aegean Sea. With golden hour sunlight falling gently over the village, Oia was particularly lovely.
With so much serenity and beauty, it’s easy to forget that Santorini’s history is steeped in destruction. Though largely forgotten by the rest of the world today, Santorini was once the site of perhaps the most cataclysmic volcanic eruption in history. Almost five thousand years ago, the volcano — known as Thera — blasted perhaps 14 cubic miles of magma twenty-five miles into the atmosphere. Even the eruption of Krakatoa did not visit that kind of ruin on humans.
On the nearby island of Crete was the ancient civilization of the Minoans, Europe’s oldest civilization, and for its time, remarkably advanced. The Minoans were the first Europeans to use a written language and the first to have paved roads. They were a sophisticated people, with a seafaring empire that put brought them in contact with much of the Mediterranean.
At the peak of their power, however, the Minoans disappeared. Their disappearance was sudden and mysterious, and vexed historians and archaeologists for centuries. Only recently have archaeologists determined that the two events — the eruption of Thera and the sudden disappearance of the Minoans — are likely related.
The eruption of Thera was so powerful that it caused tsunamis, sending massive, scalding waves and debris onshore at Crete, which is only a few dozen miles away. One can only imagine the horror experienced by the Minoans in the wake of the eruption. The suffering wouldn’t have ended once the eruption stopped; famine, plague, and the end of their seafaring economy would certainly have followed. In subsequent years, the Minoans, still weakened from the aftermath of the Thera eruption, were more vulnerable than they would have otherwise been and when invaded by the mainland Greeks, the once vibrant civilization collapsed.
The devastation caused by Thera and the demise of Minoan civilization may have left a lasting imprint on Greek mythology. When Plato wrote about the lost civilization of Atlantis, an advanced, peaceful society lost beneath the sea, he was perhaps describing the destruction of Crete. There are enough common elements in the actual story of Thera’s eruption and the myth of Atlantis that scientists believe the two may actually be one and the same.
As the sun fades over Oia and its windmills, I try to imagine such an event. But in the early evening sunlight in Santorini, the tragedy is too distant and the present is sublime. I think instead of the blue of the Aegean and watch evening begin to settle in over the island.
One of the problems with Athens is that there are almost too many historic and archaeological sites — the city is full of fascinating landmarks, and many of them are in guarded areas that are closed during the best hours of sunrise and sunsets.
For ordinary tourists, this is no issue, since they simply want to explore the site. For photographers, who may want the backdrop provided by early morning or late afternoon sunlight, it’s a problem.
I had this problem with the Tower of the Winds. The site — which is one of the best-preserved in Athens — is closed at the times I would most like to shoot, and like many other archaeological sites, tripods are not allowed. But the site was too beautiful and too intriguing to be discouraged by these setbacks.
There is little that we know with certainty about the Tower of the Winds. It was built in the 1-st century BC by the Syrian astronomer Andronicus, and was meant to serve as a kind of timepiece. Designed in an octagonal shape, each side of the tower faces a point of the compass and each side is topped with a frieze depicting the Anemoi, or the eight winds of Greek mythology.
Sundials were placed beneath each frieze and inside the tower was a unique device known as a clepsydra, or water clock, which was powered by a stream of water flowing down from the Acropolis. Though it is lost now, the tower was originally topped with a weather vane, which may have also been used to predict the future as well as tell the direction of the wind.
Over the centuries, the tower had other purposes. Early Christians used it as a bell tower for a cathedral and later, when the area was under Ottoman rule, the tower was used by dervishes as a place of contemplation.
Nowadays, the restored tower is a tourist attraction, but it is the structure’s original purpose that intrigues me. In this city that gave so much to the world — from philosophy to democracy — I stand awestruck in front of what is essentially a two thousand-year-old weather station. I was determined to capture the significance of the site, using long exposure to emphasize the moving clouds behind the tower. It seemed appropriate to me to do this, given the tower’s importance to the Greeks as a timepiece and predictor of the future.
After exploring and photographing the Parthenon, I wandered around the Acropolis. It was easy to become lost in thought there, imagining Athens in the time of the philosophers. Eventually I made my way to the Areopagus, a large outcropping of rock to the west of the Acropolis. It was a rock with a dark history, as it was once the site of trials for those accused of homicide.
That wasn’t the only significance of the Areopagus. It is believed to be the site of a famous meeting between Alexander the Great and the philosopher Diogenes. Alexander, whose personal tutor was Aristotle, was as much a student of philosophy as a general. The brash young commander, who had already met and won the praise of many of Greece’s most influential philosophers, was dismayed that Diogenes had not yet come to meet him and chose to go to the philosopher himself. He found Diogenes on the Areopagus, reclining in the sun. Eager to win the philosopher’s respect, Alexander asked Diogenes if he wanted anything; the philosopher’s simple reply was “Stand out of my light.” Rather than feel insulted by the philosopher’s indifference, Alexander was impressed by his haughtiness.
I think of this meeting as I wander the Areopagus and set up my tripod to photograph the Acropolis from the other side. Looking over this grand city from this vantage point, I can imagine Diogenes with the sun on his face, speaking imperviously to Alexander. Athens can do that; it’s a city that inspires a feeling of grandeur. Lounging atop the Areopagus in the sun, I can imagine it must have been easy for the philosopher to speak indifferently to the man who conquered most of the known world by the time he was in his mid-twenties. I take my shots, and with a setting sun in my face, I feel a bit like a philosopher myself.
Visiting Greece was a dream — what traveler hasn’t imagined walking along ancient streets in the shadows of Olympian Gods? When I planned the trip to Greece, Athens was the first stop on my itinerary; I could hardly wait to see one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the birthplace of democracy and philosophy.
The first to visit and shoot in this grand city was the Acropolis and Parthenon. Athens is a city of stark contrasts, where the distant past seems to live alongside a very modern metropolis. I wanted to see Athens the way the ancient Greeks would have seen it; I wanted to approach the Parthenon, that beautiful temple to their patron, Athena, with the same sense of wonder and pride they must have felt.
I found what I think must be the best view of the Acropolis at the top of Philopappos Hill. The hill is in the center of Athens, but from here, the modern city of cars and busloads of tourists somehow manages to disappear. I walked among olive trees in the footsteps of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and at the top of the hill, I was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Acropolis at dawn. Seeing the Acropolis from this vantage point, with modernity temporarily suspended, I think I felt something of what the ancients must have felt here…
Although I love to photograph the Alps — it’s a stunningly beautiful place — it can be frustrating because finding the perfect view is difficult. It can be harder than you might imagine to capture that kind of natural majesty.
As soon as we arrived at Selva Val Gardena, I began exploring the village’s hiking trails to find the best view of the city and the mountains. This was a family vacation, but I couldn’t resist photographing the village.
This is one of my favorite spots in Selva Val Gardena — it’s a place where the ski slopes and the road seem to converge, forming a dramatic angle in the photograph. There is energy in this photograph that I like — the dynamic convergence of the two roads, as well as the three cliffs in the background that overlook the slopes. There’s the suggestion of something menacing about those cliffs, perhaps a warning of the mountain and its dangers.
Once again, I found a spot overlooking the village and set up my tripod. Even though the snow on the slopes was artificial and the cliffs gave a somewhat sinister cast to the scene, I liked it nonetheless — an Alpine village in the early hours of evening.
For the past several years, my family and I have spent the first two weeks of the New Year skiing in various locations in Europe. This year, we chose the Italian Dolomites, famous among skiiers for its Sella Ronda region. We chose a ski resort in the village of Selva Val Gardena, one of the three villages that make up the valley known as Val Gardena.
This year, however, was different. For the first time that I can remember, there was no snow. There was artificial snow on the slopes, to be sure, (and the skiing was great) but the surrounding mountains were strangely snowless. Selva Val Gardena wasn’t any less lovely for lack of snow; it could be a picture postcard of an Alpine village. But there was nothing to indicate that this was ski resort in January — lovely as it was, it might just as easily have been the middle of summer.
But as I had no control over the weather and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity for a great shot, I managed to slip away and get some fine sunrise and sunset shots. Even without snow, I found Selva Val Gardena to be an enchanting place.
After photographing the Two Towers, I was tempted to make the climb up Asinelli, the taller of the two. It’s a long, vertiginous climb, but I knew the views of Bologna would be magnificent, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Getting to the top of Asinelli wasn’t the easiest of tasks — it’s a steep, narrow staircase that wasn’t designed with modern photographers and their equipment in mind. But once I finally reached the top and set up my small tripod (specially purchased for such occasions), I looked out from the tower and was rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bologna’s tiled roofs.
Just to my right I could see the Piazza Maggiore, the orderly little square square surrounded by much of the city’s history. Take steps in any direction in the Piazza Maggiore and the medieval city comes to life — the Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Banchi, and the Palazzo d’Accursio all occupy exalted spots on this historic square.
But what most interested me was the spot in the distance — the Bolognese Hill, which is home to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. Technically, the hill sits on the outskirts of the city, on top of Karaulhaya Mountain. Inside the sanctuary rests the Madonna of San Luca, an icon of the Virgin Mary that is believed to have been painted by the apostle Luke. The icon was brought to Bologna from Constantinople in 1194 and placed on the hill, known as La Guardia.
As a framed the photograph, I found myself awestruck by the history of this place — before me, the tiled city and its towers, once a hub of medieval commerce, and beyond, the towering Bolognese Hill and its apostle-painted treasure.
Beyond the city’s towers, I entered Bologna’s winding medieval streets. Following one of these winding streets, I came to the Piazza Santo Stefano, an unusual little piazza that isn’t a piazza at all, merely a gradual widening of the street.
It’s an unusual and picturesque part of Bologna. The piazza is not, properly speaking, a square: the Via Santo Stefano gradually widens into an odd bit of geometry that is the piazza. The area has been known for centuries as ‘le Sette Chiese,’ or the Seven Churches, in honor of the imposing structures surrounding the piazza.
Nowadays, there aren’t seven churches; there are four: the Church of the Crucifix, the Holy Sepulchre, San Vitale and Agricola. The churches were built and remodeled at different times, and over the years, they came to be connected, almost as if they are growing out of one another. The result is a labyrinth that begins with the entrance to the Church of the Crucifix, the largest of the four. The faithful — or the merely curious — could spend hours wandering from one ecclesiastical wonder to the next.
I wanted to photograph the piazza, but because of its place as one of the most historic (and popular) places in the city, it was almost always full of visitors. I waited until evening, when I hoped to have it mostly to myself. As I set up my tripod on the piazza’s ancient cobblestones, my mind wandered to the generations of faithful who have walked those stones. I captured the historic piazza in the low light of evening, thinking of faith and its mysteries.
A short walk from the Two Towers is the Palazzo della Mercanzia, a striking building noteworthy for its two Gothic arches. Built in the fourteenth century when Bologna was a wealthy commercial center, the Palazzo was constructed to be a base for those governing trade in the city. The building still houses the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a building with an interesting history. The sides of the building are watched over by statues of four saints — the city’s protectors, as well as statues of St. Peter and St. Anthony of Padua. But under the watchful eyes of saints, the city’s business disputes were settled, and businessmen found to be unscrupulous were tied to a center pillar and publicly shamed.
In keeping with Bologna’s image as a city of epicurean delights, the Palazzo is now home to perhaps the most valuable of the city’s treasures: Bologna’s prized “official” recipes for Bolognese ragu, tortellini, and mortadella.
I made the short walk over from the Two Towers as early morning sunlight was breaking over the piazza. I had the area to myself and focused on the Palazzo, guarded by saints and repository of sacred recipes.
I made my way toward the Dolomites but decided to stop for a couple of days in the medieval city of Bologna. It’s a difficult city to get a feel for — it’s at once the rarefied city of scribes and scholars and a thoroughly modern, technologically advanced metropolis. What drew me in, however, was the city’s medieval center, the winding, terra cotta heart of the city.
Much of Bologna was destroyed during World War II, but the historic part of the city survived. This part of the city, built when Bologna was at the peak of its power and wealth, was once dotted with towers. In fact, one of Bologna’s many affectionate nicknames is “la turrita,” or the “city of many towers.” There were once hundreds of towers in the city; some were built for defensive purposes and many others built by powerful families, continually attempting to one-up each other.
Most of the towers long ago crumbled into history. But among the ones that still stand, perhaps the most well-known are Asinelli and Garisenda, the city’s “Two Towers.” They’re not as famous as their counterpart in Pisa, but perhaps more interesting: Asinelli is taller and Garisenda has more of a lean. Echoing their long history — they’re also older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa — is an inscription on one of Garisenda’s slopes from Dante’s Divine Comedy that mentions that exact tower.
The Two Towers are so tall and so intimately positioned with one another that it was difficult to capture them together in a shot. I used a panoramic technique to get them both in the frame as the sun rose over Bologna. They seem to me to be two old, time-tested friends: the sturdy and solid Asinelli and the whimsical, free-spirited Garisenda, eternally looking askance at the old city.