Unlock the Real Greece on a Drone Adventure to Meteora, Greece with PhantomFlightSchool and George Blonsky
I spent last week in the company of a very special person, in a very special place.
George Blonsky is part-English, part-Greek, and has spent roughly half his life in each. He is fluent in both. He has been a photographer for 30 years, and in that time has photographed: celebrities on red carpets; rare pelicans, bears, wolves and other amazing wildlife in his native Greece; incredible landscapes around the world; and for the last 14 years, the work that gives him the most pleasure, the Paralympics, Winter and Summer. An image of his of a Norwegian Paralympic Biathlete was chosen by Samsung as their billboard image for the Korean Winter Games earlier this year. He has shot for Getty, for Nike, photographed Pele and Ralph Fiennes for the Sunday Times, and shot for dozens, if not hundreds, of other household names. As well as all that, George is now a drone pilot, trained by PhantomFlightSchool. Take a look at some of his amazing photographs at https://www.geopictorial.com/index
George and I met at The Photography Show in March 2018, and I was immediately arrested by his amazing photographs of Meteora – an extraordinary place in the very centre of Greece where there exist six monasteries, perched hundreds of metres high on top of extraordinary rock outcrops, which for centuries could only be reached by means of baskets and ropes, which, it is said, were only replaced when the Lord signaled they needed to be, by breaking them. He suggested the monasteries would look even more incredible filmed from a drone. We agreed to put that idea to the test, with a view to inviting PhantomFlightSchool clients to join us in 2019 if he were proved right.
Hence I came to be picked up by George from Thessaloniki Airport late last Saturday evening. From there it was straight to a local taverna known to George, where we dined on delicious Pork Pyrgos, delicious fresh Tzatziki, and heavenly flatbread. Everyone else in the place speaking Greek. George insisted on paying, explaining that this is his Country, so it was his right to pay. As George wished me goodnight in the hotel lobby, he said “welcome” in a way I had never heard it said before. He really meant it.
Sunday we drove to Meteora. Meteora is a long way from anywhere. Four hours from Athens. Three from Thessaloniki, where I had flown into. But the journey flew by, because the scenery en-route was never less than spectacular. First came the delta of the River Axios. Some 60kms long, and more than 10kms wide, this is truly nature’s bread-basket. A paradise of reed beds, and orchards that go on for kms, with apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, and walnuts and chestnuts for good measure. It is said that here, you can put a dead stick in the ground, and in a year you will have a healthy tree. This is where Alexander the Great was born, and died. And this delta is the reason Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city.
Leaving the delta, we began to climb into the mountains. Imperturbable behind his Oakleys, George turns to me and says “this is where Bears live”, moments before we pass a road sign explaining exactly that. As we climb, the air becomes crystal clear, and the sky, a deep deep blue. Arriving on a high plateau, we make rapid progress towards our destination on excellent roads. Soon after, we are checking into a smart hotel where the staff greet us like long lost cousins, in the village of Kastragi . The view from the bedrooms and their balconies, as well as the delightful garden where we took breakfast each morning, is breath-taking. Huge rock outcrops. Towering above us. Hundreds of metres tall. Vertical, or in some cases, overhanging the valley. I glimpse what looks like a building on the top of one of them. Really?
Despite having seen George’s photographs. Despite having done my homework about Meteora online in advance, I was completely unprepared for the sight before my eyes when we left the hotel an hour before dusk, and drove a short way to the main viewing point for the Meteora Monasteries. What the monks went through to build their “monasteries in the sky” (which is the translation for Meteora) beggars belief. Today, people come here for the beauty of the place, the majesty of the rock monoliths, and the sense of spirituality that pervades the place. When they were built, I expect it was only spirituality the monks had in mind. Incredible.
What a place to fly a drone. From the moment I took off from a quiet spot away from the few tourists that were stopping at the main viewing points, the images I was seeing on my screen took my breath away. So much vertical space. Such an incredible backdrop provided by the craggy peaks and the fluffy white cloud studded sky. Light of such limpid beauty. And the monasteries themselves. Providing focal points for my filming like nothing I have ever seen.
The monks don’t like to be interrupted in their reveries on God, so we were careful to fly a good distance away, and never to overfly the monasteries. We didn’t need to. The scenery was captivating in every direction. Wow. I was literally shaking with excitement as my drone touched down safely after the first flight.
The next day we were back before dawn. This time, the only people around. Perfect conditions for flying. We completed a perfect Hyperlapse – the old fashioned way using timed photos every two seconds, and tap-fly set at 2m / second. 150 images, which will turn into 5 seconds of film, takes five minutes during which the drone covers a distance of 600m. So keen eyes are required to keep it in line of sight. We also got some great reveals, some stunning shots of the valley, and much else besides. Over the next 24 hours we flew and flew and flew at Meteora. Some of the most beautiful flights, and certainly some of the most technically challenging, of my drone life.
By Monday night, I knew with absolute certainty that this is a place we must bring PhantomFlightSchool clients to in 2019. It is a magical, spiritual, special place. Over the last five hundred years, I guess it has seen most things. It felt to me that it welcomed our drones as just one more curiosity from the strange modern world the monks turn their backs on when they climb the hundreds of steps (still, steps beat baskets and ropes I’d say) and retreat to their monasteries to meditate for the rest of their lives.
A trip to this part of Greece is so different from visiting the Greece of Athens and the Parthenon, or the lovely Greek islands. We adore Corfu too – which is why we are going back in April 2019 for a week on a 48ft yacht with drones, thanks to our great friends at No Stress Yachting. But this is the real Greece. And with George Blonsky as our guide, we can unlock it. Every day feels like an adventure. Unexpected scenes of astonishing beauty at every turn. Amazing generosity and kindness from everyone we meet. Stray Anatolian sheepdogs asleep in the middle of the road – the roads around here don’t see much traffic. Delicious, authentic, locally sourced food in the restaurants. With great options for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. On Tuesday we visited the stunning, unique, deserted, post-Byzantine Church “Church of the Holy Cross” high in the mountains North of Meteora. More amazing drone flights. More amazing drone footage.
On Wednesday, our last day, we check out of our hotel, and take our bags to the car. Then head back to reception for hand-shakes and hugs with the hotel staff. It really is that kind of place. I am sad to be leaving, but ecstatic to have experienced this special place. We take a detour on the way back to the airport, to visit Metsovo, a wonderful mountain-top village with narrow cobbled streets, well kept micro-gardens, and a bustling town square. Our destination is not the village itself, but the spectacular lake beyond it. The Autumn colours in the forests around the lake are jaw-droppingly spectacular. The scenery achingly beautiful.
On this trip, for reasons of portability, I took just my Mavic Air drone. It is fair to say I had my fair share of adventures in the sky. I love the Pano function. I love the portability. And I was chuffed to figure out how to do a Hyperlapse without a Mavic 2. But trying to fly long-distances, I regularly lost contact with the Air completely. Which is a little nerve-wracking. Flight time is short. Generally fifteen minutes or less. It was not always happy with the amount of wind we encountered. Although in size it is unobtrusive, boy is it a noisy drone. The non-existent ground clearance meant I had to choose take off and landing spots with care. And the lack of options to adjust camera settings, because of the fixed aperture, and the difficulty with adjusting EV on the fly, was frustrating from time to time. All the same, she behaved heroically throughout, and has returned home with me in mint condition.