Article and images by: Mike Bell, Elizabeth Restall, David Hay and Dimitri Vasileiou
When imagining what photographic opportunities a new location would reveal, it is inevitable that past experiences would play their part. When we flew to Milos this year, all of us had already visited and photographed extensively on the Greek islands of Santorini, Mykonos and Corfu. These are all popular tourist destinations and fertile places for images of whitewashed houses and tiny domed chapels set among brown rocky slopes. Golden sunsets and azure seas are virtually guaranteed. Would Milos be the same?
When we were invited to join a reconnaissance trip to Milos by the founder of the “Inspiring Photography” workshops, and LPM editor Dimitri Vasileiou, the first stop was the Internet. A quick check for images of Milos found plenty of holiday snaps but we soon found a site with more promising photographs. Although they were, to some people’s taste, over-saturated and some had been subject to HDR treatments, the locations and content of the photographs looked very promising. There were photos of a shipwreck, white sculpted rocks, an old jetty facing the sunset, several churches and, most strikingly of all, a psychedelically coloured rock on a beach with a wave breaking over it. All of these locations looked to be worth a visit.
Our first overnight stop was Varkiza, Dimitri’s birthplace and former hometown. We were invited to stay there overnight and catch the next day’s afternoon flight to Milos. This is when we tasted the genuine Greek hospitality, as well as an extended barbecue meal complete with plenty of Greek spirit (the alcoholic kind).
Next morning we had a lovely walk along the shore and a chance to see Varkiza’s market and local culture. Time really flies when you are having fun though and soon we were at Athens airport once again. From the hustle and bustle of Athens we were transported to a different world in just 40 minutes in a twin-propelled, 37-seater plane.
Borne on a light breeze, delicate aromas of wild herbs, thyme, oregano and curry assailed our senses on the short drive from Milos airport to the hotel. The sun shone from a deep blue sky and the Aegean lapped gently along the shore.
The island has quite a small population of local people, less than 5,000. This meant that, away from the few towns, we had the scenery to ourselves; this is always a bonus for landscape photographers. Tourists are still something of a rarity on Milos. The driver taking us to our hotel was genuinely curious about where we had come from. He explained that Milos shares the economic pain of the rest of Greece and that tourism is important to the inhabitants, but not to all the landowners on the island. Perhaps the big mining companies would prefer to keep the island to themselves.
Mining has always been important on the island, ever since Milos was the main source of sulphur to the Ancient World. Milos is not a pretty island in the same way, for example, that Santorini might be described. Yes, it has whitewashed houses and an abundance of blue paint, but the architecture has no particular style to give it a specific identity. What the island does have, though, is a spectacular coastline and an almost entirely volcanic geology like no other.
The abundance of minerals is the key to the visual uniqueness of Milos. Like its neighbour Santorini to the east, it is a volcanic island, but has a much greater variety of minerals and, ultimately, a larger variety of colours to offer. If you know where to look, there are landscapes unlike anywhere else in Europe. At one point we were reminded of the desert rock formations of the South West of the USA, with rich reds, golds and yellows every bit as vivid as those found in the national parks of Utah and Arizona. On other occasions we saw lava fields eroded into natural arches just like those found in Iceland.
Mining activities are still being carried out in the interior and the mines revealed the most striking aspect of Milos, the geology. The colours present in the rock strata are truly remarkable. There are many places in the world where landscape photographers can photograph colourful rock structures but these are usually in desert areas, sometimes in remote places that are difficult to access. There are also many places in the world where coastal, long exposure photography can be practised. But we had never experienced the combination of photo opportunities found on Milos where dramatically coloured rock structures are found right on the shoreline. With long exposure images being the latest fashion in landscape photography, Milos can be described as the ultimate photographic destination.
The photographic opportunities on the island are endless, as we discovered on our first evening’s exploratory visit to Sarakiniko. Lying before us was a large area of white volcanic rock which, because of a total absence of vegetation, resembles a lunar landscape. In fact, the rock formations, arches and pillars are layered deposits of pumice and ash sculpted by erosion. The rocks pick up and reflect all the colours at sunrise and sunset. On one occasion, an iPhone app indicated that, just after sunset, a full moon would rise behind us. We were able to try landscape photography by the cool light of the moon, absolute utopia. Several visits were made to this area alone, but even those were not long enough to do the place justice.
One morning after a dawn shoot, while searching for somewhere to have breakfast, we were directed to a local establishment, which sparked one of those exciting moments of serendipity. Without the kindness of the lady cooking omelettes for us and the direct result of telling her that we were photographers, we may not have discovered a hidden area of white and red rock, which thrilled our eyes once more, challenged our creative skills, and demanded more visits. The soft early morning light seemed to give the best results as it kissed the stone gradually and added warmth to the colours. We named the place “The Wave”.
Once off the tarmac we travelled on narrow, rough terrain, never quite knowing what was around each corner; a 4 x 4 vehicle was essential. We discovered many delightful spots, some of which had photographic potential, others not, and some which were accessible to view only from the top of a cliff or from a busy road.
Where tourism has flourished (relatively speaking) is in the main port of Adamantas and the hilltop capital Plaka. These have many fine restaurants and hotels. Adamas or Adamantas (as it is known) was a good place to have a long, lazy Greek meal at lunchtime. Sitting in the shade beside the calm Aegean, while waiters scurry across the road between traffic to deliver a variety of Mezze dishes, is a good time to reflect upon the morning’s photographic shoot and decide where to go later in the day, perhaps to the white hill-top capital town of Plaka for dinner. Speaking of lunch and dinner, we tried a different local dish almost every day. We were not disappointed, as the local cuisine is superb and most of the dishes could be described as gourmet food. This alone is a good excuse to visit the island again next year.
The sunset from the church above Plaka’s old town is spectacular. There are also narrow alleys with lovely painted doorways to explore. Whitewashed chapels can be found all over the Greek islands and Milos has its share, with many of them alone in the stark volcanic landscape, clear of all the modern clutter that can ruin photographic lines of sight on other islands. There is even some mining heritage to explore. Sulphur is no longer mined on Milos but the abandoned sulphur mines to be found down a tiny rocky track on the east coast are an evocative reminder of harsher times.
The shape of Milos is similar to a horseshoe, with the sea enclosed on three sides. The west side of the island is more rural and has fewer main roads, making travelling more adventurous, but it was here on the coast at Ebourios that we found a tiny community of houses and goats with a disused but immaculately maintained lighthouse, which provided innumerable graphic photographs.
Towards the end of the week we still had not seen the ruined jetty. It turned out to be opposite the salt pans, partly obscured from the road by a small embankment. When we checked it out in the early evening, a Greek Navy ship was anchored in the bay. While having a meal we met the sailors from the ship, who confirmed it would sail at dusk. We were able to get some great photographs that evening, both with and without the ship.
So, why is Milos not better known to landscape photographers? It is because of the difficulty in accessing the best locations. Apart from a few main routes and some improvements made by the mining companies, the roads on Milos are narrow, winding, gravel tracks reminiscent of the tracks in the deserted interior of Iceland. The photographic gems are quite literally off the beaten track.
During the week we were there, we covered the whole of the island looking for photographic locations. Only the very best locations were selected for the forthcoming photographic workshop by “Inspiring Photography”. That is the advantage of going on a professionally organised workshop: all the legwork has been done for you and you will be taken only to the best locations at the most photogenic times of day. So, do we recommend a photographic trip to the island of Milos in Greece? Definitely, yes.
For further details and to book your place for an upcoming photographic adventure on Milos island with “Inspiring Photography” click the link below.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 33 of Landscape Photography Magazine.