четвъртък, 22 декември 2016 г.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Christmas is coming! New Year follows!

Wishing you a prosperous, happy new year, full of adventures, amazing moments with your loved ones and... because we are all interested in photography - a lot of great images!

сряда, 14 декември 2016 г.

Editing suite - Review of Through the Woods Lightroom Presets by Sleeklens

Let's talk editing! 

There is a point in each photographer's life that editing becomes a must.

That is usually a tricky topic because you either absolutely LOVE it and you use the editing tools to help you show your viewpoint to the world OR you totally detest it and you claim that any post-processed image is distorted and therefore not real photography... It's a long debate and it's a love-hate relationship for most photographers.

I've been on both sides of the barricade - when I started, I thought that ANY tweaking of the image actually distorts it. Later on, I saw that virtually EVERYONE post-processed their images and, in turn, they looked way better than mine (for obvious reasons). So I decided that if everyone could do it, so could I - and the first REAL editing software I tried put was Adobe Lightroom - because I read on the net that it's a must for every serious photographer. 

Long story short - now I'm at the other end of the barricade - no image goes live without getting though the editing suite. 

So, the people from Sleeklens asked me to write an honest review of their newest Lightroom presets and here it is. 

Before we start with it, let's make it clear what is a preset and what do we use it for?

Presets can be found in the Develop panel, on the left - see on the image. 
Here is where you find presets.
Presets are a way of making your life easier because they help you edit a lot of images very quickly. What presets are? Generally a quick fix - a bundle of settings that can cover anything - from basic things such as exposure or vibrance to more sophisticated tweaks such as sharpness and noise levels. 

A preset can help you turn the picture on the left into the one on the right with just a few clicks. Cool, right?
Since I'm doing mostly landscapes these days, I'll be reviewing the landscape presets bundle - called Through The Woods

The price

When we talk about photography, we normally talk about a lot of money - after all, photography is one of the most expensive hobbies there is - you need cash to buy cameras, lenses, tripods and other nice gadgets and what not. And, at some point you decide to buy some editing software. Given the fact that you wouldn't want it to cost an arm and a leg (and honestly, I've seen a lot of companies charge even more than that) - you'll probably go for something that is a bit more affordable. Why? Because if you are a budding photographer you don't make a few grand a month to afford something more pricey. 

So, back to the point - Through the Woods presets cost only 39 $ and you get quite a lot for your money - 50 presets that can be combined in any way you like (I absolutely LOVED the layering of presets - you'll see what I mean later on) plus 30 different adjustment brushes that can, again, be combined in any way you like. The bundle works on all versions of Lightroom and on both RAW and JPEG files (which is great because you don't have to convert files before you use them - just start creating things). 

So to me, the price seems totally affordable (even if you are not an American resident and you don't get your cash in dollars) and the best thing of all: Sleeklens are OK with you paying by PayPal (apart from the 5 types of cards they accept) - especially for me because I hate when I like something online and then I see that I have to enter a credit or debit card (I live in Bulgaria where online trade is not that well developed and I'm suspicious of any site that wants card number). With PayPal, you just copy your mail address and in a second, the presets are yours :)
One point for being customer-friendly. 


I can't exactly say I'm a computer programmer - well, OK, I install everything that is on my computer (apart from the operating system and the Microsoft office bundle) - but Through the Woods presets are really easy to install. In the zip file you get apart from the presets, you'll get 4 PDF files - one explaining how to install presets (they even have a YouTube tutorial on that) and another, really detailed and easy to follow, for the Brushes. Generally, if you follow the instructions step by step, it takes less than 5 minutes to get the installation done. Besides, each preset or brush is named accordingly, so that you know what you're using when. If you still have trouble and don't know what to do - Sleeklens have created a Facebook support group where you can ask anything anytime. 


Here we come to the main part of the review - how and why to use the presets? The first thing that I liked is that most presets are labeled very well - when you scroll down to find what you need - either base editing or exposure or finishing touches. The all-in names are a bit more creative so you'll need some time to figure out what they stand for, but overall, the presets are very well labeled and easy to find. I totally loved the adjustment brushes - really easy to find and very versatile. More about that, later in the review.
One point for user-friendly names and support. 

Editing in Lightroom using the Through the Woods presets by Sleeklens

Here we come to the most interesting part of the review - we already know how much the presets are worth and that they are easy to install but what are they actually worth for if you go and use them on real images. When I opened the Sleeklens website, I was like 'WOOOW' when I saw the before-after demo of the presets - check it out here (really impressive) - and I thought 'OK, these are great'. But it's one thing to just look at someone else doing it and doing it yourself. 

So I started fumbling with the presets - my way of getting to know which is good for what is to get a crappy image as a guinea pig and apply virtually ALL presets on it (you don't want to see the result, trust me). After an hour or so, I noticed another PDF file that came in with the bundle - the RECIPE FILE, where Sleeklens show you each and every image of the demo and the way they achieved the effect plus the exact way in which each preset and brush is used. One point for the recipes! 

So, to test the recipes, I decided to find some of my most crappy and unsuable images I can come up with (don't frown, we all have tons of those, admit it! They are the skeletons in every photographer's closet :)). Why crappy images, you would ask. Because if the image is great, the presets will only make it look greater but the real power of the editing bundle shows when you try to make something out of an image that should have been deleted long ago and then create a masterpiece out of it (don't laugh - if don't have such cases you A - haven't been a photographer for a long enough period of time and B - haven't edited enough images). 

Through the Woods recipes put to the test 

I delved into my really vast archive and selected a few images - the criteria were 'as crappy as possible and as close to the demo picture as I can find'. Let's start with something easy first and then go off to the more difficult things. 

The first images that came to my mind are some from Belogradchik Rocks - breathtaking place with very nasty lighting conditions in 90% of the time. These, were taken in 2013 in broad daylight and generally, very infavourable conditions. At the point I only THOUGHT I know what I was doing but it turned out I didn't. You can imagine how disappointed I was - and I vowed to come to the place again. Still, the images stayed - to remind me NOT to go and shoot there in broad daylight.

So I started with the first recipe, following the instructions exactly as they are - no adjustments made. Here is the result: 
Not bad at all - given the fact that I didn't adjust anything and counted on the  pre-set settings.

Presets used - 5 in a row
Brushes used -  5 
Still, since the first recipe did it really well - I decided to find yet another even crappier image: a view of Musala peak (2925 m, the highest in Bulgaria and on the Balkans), taken at midday in JPEG with a compact camera, back in 2011 (when I didn't even think that I'd be a photographer one day). I love the image and through the years I've tried a lot of different editing techniques to get it right with very little success. Let's see what Through the Woods Lightroom presets can do for it. Mind you, this image REALLY qualifies as crappy in every possible respect - it's done with an open aperture (around f/3.5 whereas landscapes are normally done at f/8 and above), the focus went to the flowers in the foreground, the sky burned out because of the sun AND the JPEG file I shot in...

Here we go - the same recipe used and the recipe is used again with absolutely NO tweaking from my side - the brushes and presets are used as they are, no addition or deletion of properties.
So - this is a WOW result to me - the image really looks way better than it did before I started. This recipe definitely gets one point :)

The next recipe looked really well, so I selected another not-so-crappy image - an image full of fog and mist and rain and one of my personal failures, well, maybe not exactly mine because I can't really control the weather - anyway - the Transfagarasan highway, 2015 - a total crap of mist and rain. And when you think of how amazing this place is (when the weather is good), it really makes me cry... As I said - the real power of editing suite shows up when you use it on something crappy.

Here I needed to make a few adjustments because of the image - after applying some of the presets, it turned out that the image is too dark so I edited with +0.95 exposure (did I mention that the image is crappy) so that I can continue with the edits. Then I skipped some of the darkening brushes (when you lighten the image, it's obvious that you don't need more darkness) but that's all due to the image itself, not the brushes.

The end result looks quite good to me - given the fact that I didn't do much on it. Still, I wasn't pleased with the result so I decided to test the recipe on another image - in my work, I'm looking for WoW! images - if the image doesn't make you jaw drop - then it's not good enough.

As I said - the image isn't much to work with in the first place.
Presets used - 6 in a row
Brushes used - 2 (because the other 3 in the recipe were all darkening ones and as you can see - no more darkness needed here)
Correction - +0.95 exposure
So I settled for a more recent trip to Rila (the highest mountain in Bulgaria) - the weather was really dramatic and the images (if edited right) really have some potential. These are the first images shot in RAW I'll be editing. The reason is simple - JPEGs are normally crappier and more difficult to edit than RAWs - you can mess way more things in a RAW file and still get something decent than in a JPEG. So I'll be using mostly JPEGs. These images, however, are something different - they are unreleased - I mean haven't published anything anywhere yet AND I haven't edited a single one of them. So - let's try out the Through The Woods Presets on these. 

Here is the final result - no tweaking from my side and I think the recipe did it pretty well. Really loved the shine into the sunset preset - it creates a golden glow that I love adding to my images. About my favourite and least favourite tweaks - later in the post.
Presets used - 6
Brushes used - 5
I can say that this looks really good for something edited in Lightroom only

In the recipe list, there was another one that was good for mountains - or so the demo said - so I decided to find another image from the same day and place - Rila mountain - and edit it.

The image itself is nothing sort of amazing - it has several problems - shot from a moving car through the window (which darkened it a bit) 

I left out one of the brushes because it didn't exactly need more contrast and clarity - as you can see - the image has more than enough of that. Given the fact that I'm doing exactly what the recipe says, the result is amazingly good (I'm used to doing things my own way, not relying on recipes so this was a bit of a challenge. I'll get creative with the presets later on). This definitely turned out as a WOW image from something relatively crappy - first of all, it's shot around midday without a hint of sunlight and now we have this beautiful sunset haze and sun rays that popped out in the editing. That definitely won me for the recipe. I must admit that it looks way more artsy than I usually do my images. 
Presets used - a lot (let me count up) - 9
Brushes used - 11
I must say this is impressive.

One point for this recipe!

Since this recipe passed the test with just one image, I hurried to the others. I noticed several recipes show how to get out the sun and the details in shots against the sun. Luckily I have exactly what I need - wait for it, It's really hardcore crap.

Image taken at sunset in 2011 with a compact, against the sun. One of my personal favourites in terms of compo and place but awful to edit. I've tried several times on my own. The place is called Yailata and it's a natural reserve - generally looks great on pictures (if you know what to do). Let's test the presets on it...

Here I did a few corrections - set the contrast to 0, straightened the horizon and punched up clarity. I have a soft spot for this image -I mean, I love it - and I've edited it at least 10 times. I think that Through The Woods did a great job - finally the shadows don't looked bleached out and I love the warm glow. Maybe I overdid things but, it's just a test :)

Presets used - 5
Brushes used - 4
looks kinda cool, doesn't it?
Still, I decided to try out something else. Image is taken the same day as the one above, at noon in Balchik - this is the palace of the Romanian queen Maria. Very photogenic place. JPEG with a compact - quite difficult for any creative edits. Will see what happens.
Presets used - 5
Brushes used - 3
Adjustments made - contrast and saturation to 0, exposure +0.83
Here I set the contrast and saturation to 0 - somehow too vibrant images don't agree with me - and got +0.83 exposure (image started getting too dark) - and I missed one of the warming up brushes - because the image is warm already. 

The next two of the recipes look really impressive so I'll try to find something equally impressive. I'm not a fan of sunrises (because I hate getting up) but I have some up my sleeve. Something shot in Peloponnese - the place is called Pilos and this is the harbor - taken at sunset in 2015.

Here again corrected the contrast - to -17 and skipped the cloudy sky brush (because there are no clouds in the sky). The image definitely shows improvement - especially the reflections in the water. Must add that this one is in RAW, originally. 
Presets used - 6
Brushes used - 6
Since there are a few more recipes about sun and sunsets - I give one point to this one and move on to the next.

This image is again sunset at Pilos, taken the next evening. The image is nothing remarkable and that's the main reason I'm using it to test the recipe. It's good to have something at your fingertips that can turn a mediocre image (such as this one) into something WOW-like :) Let's see if this will happen with this image. 
Presets used - 3
Brushes used - 6
The image looks way better with very little effort. One point for being quick to edit. I love the water and the reflections in it (again!). I repeat - these results appear with very little interference from my side. This so far is the quickest recipe to use.

The next guinea pig will be from Teteven waterfalls - taken in JPEG in 2013. Main problem of the image series is that they lack the vivid colours of autumn. Let's see what Through The Woods preset bundle can do...

This image is on top of my "crappy images" list - harsh shadows, almost burnt-out sky, Nothing interesting to speak of. I'm using it just for the sake of trial and error - otherwise I should have deleted it long ago. 
Presets used - 7
Brushes used - 4
As you can see, the result is quite impressive - given the source 
image - I missed out one brush (because there are no clouds in the shot) but I'm OK with the end result - given the fact that I'm using crappy image and Lightroom only. 

I edited the edit - reducing the exposure to +0.36 and the contrast to -14. Actually this edit makes me reconsider my opinion on this image - it may be good for something, after all. 

I loved the result so much that I decided to find some more crappy images from the same place. Here is something else - not that freakishly crappy but still not good enough without edits.
Presets used - 5
Brushes used - 4
The composition is relatively OK but the main problem of the image lies in the upper right corner and the burnt-out patch where the sun used to shine. I'm usually using another closer image of the same place. 

Here I needed a tweak or two - got saturation and contrast to 0 because that way the image looks more natural. Otherwise I got a lovely autumn image. One point for each of the two recipes :)

For the next recipe I chose something more recent - a shot from Rila again. The shot is a good one but it's too dark - no other way because I wanted to capture the moody sky. 
Presets used - 3
Brushes used - 3
Here I don't give a point - the recipe is OK but didn't work well at all on this image - this is the shortest recipe but I didn't like how it worked originally. It needed a lot of tweaks to make it look right. Still, I'll give it another chance.

This is taken at Rozhen observatory a month ago. The person in the image is a colleague doing a 360 degree panorama. 
Presets used - 3
Brushes used - 2
Here again it needed tweaks - highlights, blacks and saturation to 0 and no cloudy brush. To me this recipe is not well thought over, in fact, even at the demo looks overdone to me. 

The last recipe was quite impressive as a demo - getting a virtually grayish pic into a jaw-dropper, so I selected a gray pic from Teteven waterfalls - not that bad in itself but really dark, dull and gray. 

What Through the Woods presets did to the image literally made my jaw drop (and compensated in full for the previous recipe) :)
Presets used - 5
Brushes used - 4
As you can see, the result is truly stunning - I love the vivid colours and the general effect. Even though I reduced the overall contrast to 0 and the saturation to +26, I really love this recipe. I'd give it two points :)

Getting creative with Through The Woods presets

So far I showed you how do the recipes work. BUT I'm more keen on using the presets as I like so after I tested all the presets I decided to use some other images and rediscover the real power of the editing bundle. And I decided it's high time to discard the crappy images and go for something more interesting:

The first guinea pig is an image of Corvin castle - for those who have no idea where that is - it's in Romania, Transylvania to be exact, and was the seat of Huniadi family. Very impressive and Medieval-looking place. Shot in 2015 in RAW.

After tweaking with the presets - I especially liked the "expand DR" and the cloudy sky brush and then correcting the contrast (again! - I'm just not fan of punchy contrast because I achieve the same effect in a different way) - here is the result - not at all bad, if you ask me, and given that I was not following any recipes: 
Presets used - 5 ( extend DR and HDR one + clarity, sharpen and contrast)
Brushes used - 1 (cloudy sky)
Adjustments made - blue tint - 17; red tint -11; contrast - 0
Speaking of the cloudy sky brush - while I worked with the presets, this became my favourite one. Let me show you why:
The only thing I did here was to use the "cloudy sky" brush - see the differenc?
This is a picture of Sighisoara - a Medieval town in Transylvania (Romania), that is said to be Vlad Dracula's birthplace. When I was there, it was really moody and cloudy. I love cloudy sky because it adds in some drama to the shot. That's why this brush is very useful to me - I usually create the same effect in Nik color effex but this makes my life way easier. Let's see what would happen to the image if I keep on editing it...

As you can see, the result is quite pleasing, at least I like it - and that is just by layering presets one on top of the other WITHOUT any tweaking of the sliders. I think I will save this one as a recipe of my own :)
Presets used - 7
Brushes used - 1
I really love the option of layering the presets. The only small problem with the all-in-one presets (which include a whole pre-set bundle of tweaks) is that I'm hard to figure out what all the names mean. 

I'll keep on using some images from Sighisoara again from 2015 and shot in RAW - the town is really colourful so it's a good idea. 

I think I just invented another recipe :) 

So far I worked in color only but I'm curious if the Through the Woods presets can do in Black and White. For this, I'll be using some more recent shots - from Thassos - very harsh sunlight but I shot in RAW so that won't be a problem...
Presets used - 9
Brushes used - 1
The image I'm starting with is OK but in colour doesn't really look WOW to me. So let's tweak a bit and get rid of the colours to get the real texture pop... That's Alyki, by the way - the oldest marble quarry in this part of Europe.
Here we go - another recipe invented! I would like to have more Black and White presets in the bundle but this time I did great. Not that I'm a great fan of B&W photography, but some images look better without all the distracting colours. 
Presets used - 8
Brushes used - 2

Now I'm curious what would happen if I get creative on a purely nature shot - after all, the bundle is about landscapes and so far I've used it mostly on travel images. Another image from Alyki would be the guinea pig now:
It's shot against the sun in the shadow and it's not exactly a great pic. The end result definitely looks better and I think I created another recipe :)
Presets used - 7
Brushes used - 3
I started to like the water brush - I have a lot of seascapes that would like that punch-up :)

A final try-out with my most recent landscapes - the place is called "Chudnite Mostove" (Wonderful/Amazing Bridges) and it proved to be quite difficult to capture...
Presets used - 8
Brushes used - 4

So, as you can see, the result is truly amazing. This particular edit proved that the presets and brushes are very intuitive - I'm not the kind of person who would read all the options and then choose one.

The verdict

Pros As I said somewhere above - this should be a REVIEW - so I'll need to state an opinion of the presets. 

1. They are affordable, very user-friendly to install and more or less easy to use. I'm saying "more or less" because it's a bit difficult to find out what the name stands for in the all-in-one presets (most of them very useful as a base for edits, by the way) - I guess the developer got too creative with those. The recipes - as the test  above proved - are a great tool for batch editing - for example, I have 1400 images from one day at Sighisoara alone and these presets can help me edit them ALL in just a few minutes.

2. The quality of the presets is good - I mean, I tried them out on the crappiest images I could dig out in the archives - a nightmare to edit. I especially liked some of the effect brushes - as I mentioned above, the cloudy sky brush achieves detail and drama in the clouds that I usually get from Photoshop (detail extractor filter and then history brush tool) so that saves me a hell lot of time. These presets really have a potential of turning mediocre images into something worth printing (I'm not saying 'sharing' because we tend to share crap from time to time) - so I'm impressed.

3. Actually what I liked most about the presets is that there are unlimited combinations of all of them - you can layer and layer until you achieve what you need. The ability to get creative and set up some recipes on your own is great.

4. The people from Sleeklens overall did a great job in designing the presets - out of all the recipes, there are only 2 that needed gross tweaking (skipping a step or grossly correcting the general settings of the image) and there is only one that I'm definitely not OK with. Some of the recipes - namely the longer ones - blew my mind with what they can do with a crappy image. 

The are very few things I didn't like:

1. The excess of contrast and darkening of shadows in some recipes - you have to watch out for the result in some recipes so that the thing comes out as you want it to. To some extent that is subjective - I'm a fan of realistic contrast and I tend to tone it down in my images. The other criterion is a calibrated screen (I'll tell you a secret - mine is not but somehow I get in print EXACTLY what I see on it, every time - still figuring out how that happens) which can shift colour and brightness levels all over the place. So that is something you should try out yourself.

2. Some recipes work only on a particular type of image with a particular setting and cannot work on others - which is again subjective but I had to add it. So you should rely on your intuition - and a bit of trial and error - to see which recipe works well for you and which doesn't.

To end the review, I want to add that presets and brushes and recipes are only the starter tool - the limit is your own imagination and creativity - it's up to you how and if you use this tool to achieve the idea that's in your head.  

сряда, 28 септември 2016 г.

Crete - Chasing the Minoans - part two - Iraklio and Knossos

In the previous post I already told you what happened before we get on the ferry so now the story continues the following morning. 

This travelogue is a translation from the original Bulgarian text I wrote for the site patepis.com. I'm writing it in case you wonder why it differs from my previous works - this is a story that happened BEFORE I became a photographer. I was 17 then. 

The original story (published in Bulgarian) can be found here:

We wake up from the shaking - literally - because the ship is in reverse and 'parks'. A few moments later a pleasant female voice announces that we have arrived on Crete. It's around 5.30 a.m. amd we - still sleepy - head for the garage deck to get on the vehicle… The corridors of the ferry are crowded - all that's awake heads for the exit, like us - which means - for the elevator that leads to the garage decks. Crew members knock on the doors of cabins that remain closed and shout 'Kalimera' to those who are not awake yet.

It's a total havoc at the garage. The guy with the radio is responsible for the cargo of the ship (and hence for the disembarkation or in particular what will leave in what order). They tell my mother and me to get out of the ship through the pedestrian exit and to wait for my father and the car outside. And with a good reason - it's quite narrow on the garage decks and if everyone starts getting comfortable, the disembarkation would take not three but thirty hours. It's still quite dark outside and there is light rain. We get in the car and we look for roadsigns. We should be in Chania, a town at the western end of Crete, facing the continent (which means the northern coast). We need Iraklio, the capital of the island because the first point in the itinerary is Knossos - the palace of the mythical king Minos. We find the sign and get on.

Twister Greek style

It's around 6.30 a.m. It's dark, my father drives to Iraklio. I look at the sky and enjoy the fact that you can see much more stars from Crete - Orion is directly above my head and I absolutely love it. At some point my mother screams 'Tornado' and we (my father and I jump). I'm just about to start lecturing how - you see - there are no tornadoes in Greece because it's typical of the US and that is due to air current 9 kilometers high and my mother screams again - "Tornado, there, look!" 

I turn in the direction specified with the most skeptical of faces I can conjure and ... my jaw drops. Because in the middle of the bay, conspicuously close to the shore, lit by the rising sun and painted in pink and red swirls a tornado. A real Twister! My mother starts thinking catastrophic (anyone who has ever watched at least one tornado film, knows what I'm talking about) and imagines the mess if that thing gets out on land. I, on the other hand, have totally different plans - I want to take a picture of it. Of course.

The tornado - just before it vanished. When it was bigger it had a big 'tail' and had 'vacuumed' quite a lot of  water where it touches the sea. If you take a closer look, dear Reader, you can still some water in the air around it. The shot is a bit out of focus but I couldn't do better at that time

We stop and take a picture - we're not the only ones by now - and a few moments later the tornado vanishes as swiftly as it came. Upon arrival on Crete, we're greeted by Aeolus himself, the Greek god of wind. Less than half an hour later Eos also arrives at the party because for us waits one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.

The sunrise - in the distance you can see (I have no idea if it is another smaller island). We are somewhere just before Iraklio.

We take a picture of that as well and drive off to Knossos.

Knossos - to open the palace

By the time we get to Iraklio - which is right in the middle of the island - the rain has stopped long ago and the sun shines pleasantly. It's a bit to eight a.m. and we head for Knossos, a small village a few kilometers away from Iraklio. There 100 years ago (actulally exactly in 1900) an English archaeologist proves that myths have a historical leg to stand on.

The name of the man is Arthur Evans and the place is Knossos. I'll tell you the story of the excavations later on.

Right now we are waiting for the place to open. It was raining in the morning so right now it's only us. They open a bit earlier - to let the exalted tourists in - and we roam along the streets of the capital of a lost civilization.

King Minos, king Minos - where are your Minoans?

The story of excavations is very funny.

After Heinrich Schliemann discovered Troy and Mycenae and proves that the Iliad is based on real events, the world, in particular the historians, starts wondering if there are some other myths based on real events. An archaeological race starts in which Schliemann is way ahead. Another middle-aged archaeologist named Arthur Evans also gives it a go. He finds a huge hill littered with artifacts, sells the family factory to finance the excavations and starts work. That place is called Knossos and only three weeks later, the name of Arthur Evans remains on the pages of history. The irony is that Schliemann came a few years earlier but the price the local landowners told him seemed too high and he went to seek for treasures elsewhere.

Evans find a stone throne - the oldest in Europe - and writes back to England that he's found an ancient civilization.
The throne room of  King Minos - the oldest throne in Europe - the original, no restoration on  it because it's made of stone. The seat is quite wide (and thus suitable for the ample butt of a woman) Evans toyed with the idea to call it  'The throne of Ariadne' but the discovery of the bull relief tipped the scales in favour of Minos. the stone bowl in front of the throne was used to burn herbs or incense. You cannot enter this room. It look like I'm inside to take the shot but I'm behind a glass - you take your pics through it. Although the frescoes are copies in their original places (the originals are in archaeological museum in Iraklio), the thousands of people that visit Knossos every day can ruin them.

A legend goes on and on in Evans' head - the one about a great king, his promiscuous wife and a beautiful white bull. And about the Minotaur that came to this world as a result of the union. Evans had a throne, so he had a king. All he needed was a bull and the legend would come back to life.

A few days later Evans uncovers a relief of a bull and the legend springs back to life. Knossos becomes the mythical Labyrinth - the palace of king Minos - and the ancient civilization gets a name - Minoans.

The relief in question. When they discovered it, the workers thought it's a demon they had disturbed. Natural motives are quite characteristic of Minoan art - they often draw animals and plants. This relief adorns the so-called 'Ambassadors' gate' - or the main entrance of Knossos. 


We are lucky to arrive before the groups - the advantage we have is largely due to the torrential rain in the morning - so we are virtually alone in Knossos if we count out the tour guides who have gathered for a coffee under a tent. I jump around and play the tour guide - I tell the story of the Minotaur and bull horns - symbol of the king and his might and other interesting things as we go around the excavations.
The throne room of king Minos - viewed from the outside. When we got there, they were just opening so there's no one around but otherwise you have to queue to get a glimpse of the insides. 
Knossos was a prospering city 4000 years ago – indoor plumbing and flush toilets and sewage, multi storey houses and anti-quake construction. The Minoans controlled half of the Mediterranean and traded with the other half.
The main entrance of Knossos - the Ambassadors' gate - the way it looks now. The relief with the bull is 4 meters up on the building.
All in all, I'm talking about so many interesting things but they fall on deaf ears - the people are thinking of coffee and coca-cola - screw archeology…

So we circle around Knossos - at that time it was quite small - and head for the exit. To my regret, the frescoes with the dolphins - another symbol of the royals of Crete - are in restoration and are closed for visitors and the megaron (the main hall where the court gathers) of the queen is closed. I vow to come back and see it.
Multi storey houses at Knossos. In a time when Europe was in the Stone Age, the Minoans knew what multi storey construction is. This house is restored and has at least three storeys (in the hottest of nights, people slept on the flat roofs) Actually, the flat roofs of Minoan houses are the prototype of modern Greek picture-postcard houses. The roof is flat and can be used as living area and as a water collector when it rains (at some places in Crete water is quite scarce). If you take a closer look, you can see the anti-quake structures in the walls - those thick wooded beams (once out of timber but then the Venetians came and cut out all of them - now they use what's available) which bend with ease and thus help the wall be more flexible during a quake (there are a few with epicenter in Crete each day) and protect the house from falling apart.

We buy coca-cola and the conversation cools down a bit. I keep lecturing in the car while we head for Thalassokosmos - the aquarium at Crete, which is the next stop on our program. ТWe're just leaving when they come - the tourist groups. There are HUNDREDS of them. We are delighted that we've come before they do and we move on to the aquarium in god mood.

Thalassocosmos - to dive in the Mediterranean

The aquarium at Crete is certainly worth a visit. This is one of the few aquariums which show the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean that well and besides this one is the closest to Bulgaria (if we count TurkuaZoo in Istanbul).

There are big road signs on the highway, that say Cret@quarium (@ is there for a reason - it looks like a fish, that's the way they spell the name, otherwise it would look like CretAquarium).

Thalassocosmos has a website - where you can find all the info - like ticket prices, working hours and the like.

Muraena - another sea creature you can see at Thalassocosmos. They have a few. The fish is quite aggressive - this one is around 20 centimeters thick and is around a meter long. It's bite is lethal - especially if you are a diver - it drags you somewhere and you drown. The one on the picture looks quite lazy but it kept observing the tourists' every move.

You just follow the signs and you're there - you just can't miss it. In 2009 Thalassocosmos was pretty small but the variety of species inside makes up for that - you can see, sharks, muraenas, corals, exotic fish, octopus and jellyfish. It's very beautiful and captivating. Now the aquarium is three times bigger than it was then and there are many more species. There is even a touch pool where you can touch (as long as you don't poke, pinch or take them out of the water) some of the sea creatures. To my surprise, starfish turned out to be soft. About the beauty of the aquarium, the way it is now - some other time. In 2009 we take a photo of the shark and move on.

The famous shark - 2 meters long. Looked quite vicious.

Mirthios - God, where are we going to sleep?!

Do you remember, my dear Reader, that we boarded the ferry last night? I guess you do. Well, we are on the top deck and we call my grandfather back home. Who is being kept in the dark when it comes to our final destination. It simply would not do to have the following conversation:

Nooo, Dad, we're fine. Yes, Dad, we got on a big ship. No Dad, we'll travel all night. Yes, Dad, to Crete. No, Dad, it's 1000 away in the middle of the sea. We'll arrive with the crack of dawn but don't you worry...

The next call is to a foreign number. Fine, a Greek one. We loved a small family hotel on the south coast of the island, in a village that looks like a postcard. However, since we left in a hurry, we didn't have much time for reservations so we decide to go and see…

We call, the phone rings and a polite Greek man answers. To our explanation that we had liked them and we want to stay at their hotel he asks why we didn't make a reservation. We explain that we didn't have time and he asks us where we are. We say that we are on the ferry. Understanding pause from the other end of the line and an answer from which a Bulgarian, used to the bad service at the Black sea resorts, gets the first dose of culture shock:
'Come, when you get there, we'll find you a place to stay'

And we got here. The road from Iraklio to Mirthios (that's the name of the village) is short and after we get through a gorge - here we are in the village. We park in front of the hotel we liked and we get the second dose of culture shock.

Cretan hospitality

In any travel book you look, you'll find one and the same thing - Cretans are hospitable people. OK, but exactly how hospitable? To a Bulgarian that means that they won't immediately kick you out of the taverna or the hotel. We were just about to find out. My mother and I get out of the car and look around for someone. An elderly Greek man greets us - he was carrying something - and starts waving us to explain that we have to talk to his wife. A few phrases in Greek follow (addressed to the wife) and a Greek lady above 50 years of age appears from one of the doors. She carries a mop in one hand, a bucket in the other.  She has a work to do, we think and we're ready to hit the road. The Greek lady puts the mop and the bucket down and instead of kicking us out because we come without a reservation, beckons us to follow her on the terrace.

The second culture shock

– in Bulgaria if you drop in on someone, they'll not only kick you out but the police will have to save you from the rage of the hosts. Here - we are given tea. And cookies - great cookies with lime, I can still feel the taste, even though it was 7 years ago. The woman beckons us to take one and make ourselves at home and waves us to sit. She speaks very little English but is hospitality incarnate. We don't dare eat or drink - you don't know what's in there - it might as well be poison, we haven't seen anything like that, even relatives are not that nice. Meanwhile, the Greek lady talks on the phone with someone and from my scarce Greek I get that she explains about some tourists to someone. Then she explains to us that her daughter would come in a minute and find us a place to stay.

Less than two minutes after the daughter - a woman of around 30 years of age - comes in a red car from Plakias (a small resort just below Mirthios). She speaks much better English and explains that since we like them and after her brother explained to her about the conversation last night it's great but they are full. She waits a few moments until all colour has drained from my mother's face and adds that there's no problem and they'll accommodate us somewhere else in the village. Next thing she does is to urge us to drink out tea and eat the cookies because otherwise her mother ... would feel insulted. Culture shocked to the full we eat cookies, drink tea and talk to the daughter. We explain that we come from Sofia and that my father has driven all the way to here. The daughter translates that and the mother disappears inside the house. After a while she gets back with a small packet and the daughter explains that these are cookies for my father who waits in the car. Even more shocked we follow her car in search of a place to stay.

It doesn't take long - at the end of the village the little red car parks in front of a two storey house and we follow. You can see palms in the yard. The daughter gets out and exchanges a few words with a middle-aged woman and after less than 10 minutes we have a room. It's just that this little hotel doesn't have a website and that's why the other one (which HAS a website) sends out tourists. A total contrast with the grannies at the Black sea coast who do everything to prove to the tourists that the other grannies are the worst landladies ever…

The place is a dream - a jaw-dropping view, exotics... while mine are in for the bed. They go to sleep because the whole thing was too much for them and I sit on the terrace - common for all rooms but enormous for compensation - to enjoy the amazing panorama.

In the next post you'll find out what our characters ate and what did they do in the far away Cretan land...