My Favorite Shots: Incredible Lighthouses of Greece

Olga Charami revisits the most remarkable lighthouses that she has photographed over the years, each with its own aura of romance, wildness or mystery.

Cape Tenaro, Mani

To the gates of Hades

Ancient Greeks believed that the gates of Hades, the passage to the afterlife, could be found at Cape Tenaro, known in Greek as Akrotenaro. This was the place where the god of the Underworld collected the souls of the dead. This was the site of the Sanctuary and the Death Oracle of Poseidon Tenaros, where the living would go to speak with the dead. It is also where Orpheus descended into Hades to reach his beloved Eurydice, and where Heracles entered the realm of the dead to face Cerberus for his twelfth and final labor. By happy coincidence, Heracles is also the name of the friend that walked the 45-minute hike with me to the Tenaro lighthouse, located at the southernmost point of the mainland Balkans. As we neared our destination, I fully expected to be awestruck by the mystical energy of this haunting spot; instead, we met Periklis Stavropoulos, the very talkative lighthouse keeper. A calm sea, a peaceful setting, and a cheerful lighthouse keeper chatting enthusiastically and at length do not exactly leave room for existential questions to arise. Eventually, night fell and we began our return journey... to the upper world. That's when the sens of awe came, brought on by the full moon and the mysterious, tranquil atmosphere that made us lose all sense of space and time.

“Are we really back? Or have we passed through the gates without noticing it?” I asked Heracles, only half-jokingly. He started laughing… Well, of course; he’s Heracles, and can go back if he wants to, I thought. Me, on the other hand… May the gods help me!

Hania, Crete

A breakwater built for two

It was late spring, and the Old Venetian Harbor was filled with couples. They say that Hania is a city for lovers; that's certainly true at dusk, when the city transforms into a place that can ignite the heart’s passion. The sweet impatience in the air, the sunset, the walk along the breakwater between the picturesque port and the lapping Sea of Crete, the magically luminescent Egyptian lighthouse: it all made me think I could recite by heart the 10,000 verses of “Erotokritos”, the masterwork by Cretan poet Vitsentzos Kornaros which constitutes an ode to pure love. Clearly, I could not; in the same way I could not face such a romantic setting all by myself. Just as I was about to grab the next stranger I encountered by the hand to drag them away to the lighthouse with me, I ran into a friend of mine; we ended up heading there together, and I narrowly escaped embarrassing myself.

Maleas, Laconia

The notorious Cape Maleas, Greece's Bermuda Triangle

There's nothing more awe-inspiring than arriving at the most legendary lighthouse on the Greek seas after having walked for an hour and a half along a rough path and seeing it slowly grow from the size of a toy to its full height of fifteen meters on the cliff high over the endless sea. Even though it was spring, the sky was darkened by an approaching storm, the northern wind was picking up and the waves were crashing on the rocks 40 meters below. The evening found us deeply engaged in conversation with the lighthouse keepers, who had laid a fine table and filled our glasses with wine. I will never forget that meal, just as I will never forget the trip back, running in the rain in the middle of the night, constantly losing our way because of obstacles that I'm sure hadn't been there during the day…

Polyaigos, Cyclades

Permission granted

To photograph certain lighthouses, you need to get special authorization from the Greek Navy. It's a time-consuming process that requires you to send them documents by both email and fax(!). I was on the island of Kimolos, desperate to photograph the lighthouse on the neighboring uninhabited island of Polyaigos, and, of course, I couldn't get internet access on my phone. Eventually, after I had begged and pleaded with all the relevant departments on the phone, someone high up in the Navy General Staff deigned to take my call. I was in the middle of a deserted rocky road, riding on a donkey that was walking straight towards a cliff, begging the man on the phone to let me skip the procedures and to give me the authorization by phone right there and then. The signal kept cutting out and I kept begging the donkey to stop. I must have been a ridiculous sight. Nonetheless, this is more or less how I ended up on the magical island of Polyaigos, in the company of the lighthouse keeper Antonis Ventouris. We were alone, with the whole island to ourselves, like hermits.

Gavdos, Crete

On the edge of Europe

The island of Gavdos, off the southern coast of Crete, is the southernmost point of Europe, and here the month of October is still considered summer. Visiting the lighthouse on this island had been a lifelong dream of mine, because even though the original building was largely destroyed during WWII, it remains a legendary structure. From its construction in 1880 to the day it ceased functioning, it was a landmark for sailors, visible at night from a distance of many miles away; at one time it was the second-most powerful lighthouse in the world, after “Les Eclaireurs” in Tierra del Fuego. By the new lighthouse, a faithful replica of the old building, the ruins of which are nearby, I found the best place to enjoy the sunset: plastic chairs were set out in a row and people sat in silence gazing over the infinite scarlet-hued Libyan Sea. It was a wonderful sight for the lucky ones that made it there. Nobody was looking at the lighthouse, though: the sea was all they had eyes for!

Kopraina, Arta

Fourth time's the charm?

I have walked the path that leads to this lighthouse and back three times now, even though the lighthouse itself is not in use anymore. Each time I was hoping for magical colors, for glimpses of hundreds of birds from the Ambracian Gulf in flight, for sunny reflections on the surrounding lagoons, and for many other things. The weather, however, has never granted me such favors. Three times now, instead of colors and birds, I've seen clouds and a barren landscape, my hopes of birdwatching from the small lighthouse terrace dashed each time. On my last trip, the lighthouse keeper hoped to ease my disappointment by showing me fabulous pictures he had on his phone. They did not help, making me very jealous instead.