My name is James Cole. I’m 20 years old, and the founder of EarthFocus, an Instagram page I started two and a half years ago. My passion is travel photography.
This July, I partnered with The Travel Project to re-define my outlook on adventure. I used to think adventure meant hiking through forests, climbing mountains, and chasing adrenalin. But travelling solo on Contiki’s Adriatic Unearthed trip and experiencing the versatility Europe has to offer, changed all that for me.
The variety Europe offers, and how things change by taking just a few hours drive, was utterly immense. So whilst I can’t talk about every spot I visited (as it would end up being a book), I want to share some of my personal highlights; what to expect, what you’ll love, and the adventurous moments that are born when on the hunt for the perfect photograph.
I kicked off my journey in one of the continents most adored countries, Italy, and oh my it was easy to see why. Rome has a plethora of ancient wonders, unique architecture and of course a silly amount of photo opportunities.
To get this perfect view of the colosseum, I left my hotel at 5:45am. The sun didn’t fully rise through the trees until at least 6:45am, by which time I had got chatting to two American guys. One of them mentioned a viewpoint of St. Peters Basilica through a keyhole that he had visited years ago, and he was going to locate once again. At this point I was busy photographing the sunbursts you can see in this picture, so when I turned around again I noticed the guy had gone. Keen not to miss out on such a unique photography opportunity I quickly packed up and eventually managed to find him. He showed me the way to the magic keyhole and after a few wrong turns, I was rewarded with this:
In the pursuit of these pictures I forced myself to go out at a stupidly early time, an hour of the day usually only seen by locals. I met some awesome people who shared my passion for photography, and I had a blast. Although I was on my own in a big, busy city, it didn’t matter; it was my first taste of the kind of adventure Europe can provide for you.
Florence was our next stop where, in short, if you enjoy the sights and architecture of Rome, you won’t be disappointed. Whilst here I was keen to get to a view point where I could take in the beauty of the whole city, so after a steep walk (you can also get a bus to Piazza Michelangelo), I was greeted by this wonderful view, including the famous Ponte Vecchio and Duomo.
A short drive north brought us to my favourite Italian city, Venice. Utterly unique whether you’re visiting in sweltering peak season or miserable rain, there’s no escaping here the fact that you’re on a floating city built centuries ago. No matter who you are, or where you’ve been - that is incredible.
The best way to see Venice is simply to get lost. Go for a long walk, take a turn that intrigues you, and you’ll have the time of your life. The backstreets here are less crowded so you’ll often just stumble on cute restaurants and canal views. If you spot somewhere with locals in (and fewer tourists) check it out; you’ll probably be in for a delicious meal.
That’s the thing with Europe, getting lost is an adventure within itself, and half the fun.
Venice is so photogenic you could easily spend your time there just looking through a camera lens, but then you’d be missing out on reality. I found some quick and easy photo opportunities on my wanderings I’d like to share:
Firstly, something you’ll come across near the bus stop and gondolas by Piazza San Marco, opposite San Giorgio Maggiore church. This framing is from one of the many bridges you’ll find by the lagoon. Position your camera between one of the gaps in the bridge and you can achieve a shot like this, easy right?
A simple postcard photo you can capture is by going for a walk, finding a pretty bridge and waiting for a single gondola to go past. You may have to wait a minute for this, but the gondola will give you an authentic look. Maybe even use the bridge for framing like I did in the example below.
After leaving Italy, we head to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana… try pronouncing that! And although I wasn’t expecting it, I fell in love with the city. It has such a unique vibe, everything is clean and beautiful, with great architecture, scenery, restaurants, bars and people. The city just has this buzzy atmosphere, without feeling over crowded. It also had a charm and personality which made me feel super relaxed – unusual for a city to create this feeling in you.
My highlight was walking to Ljubljana castle, for a viewpoint over the whole city. It was perfect. I set out at the golden hour, and by the time I reached the castle, the sun was beginning to set. I flew my drone over the city and photographed it from the sky, architecture from past to present, shot with a soft, warm glow from the sun. I then sat on the grass and watched the sun go down, fixated on the beauty of a city that I didn’t know existed until this trip. That was the beauty of Ljubljana, I didn’t know about it, and therefore had no expectations.
It made me realise that in Europe, there is so much to explore than just the obvious.
Croatia was up next and two of the country’s biggest attractions, Plitvice Lakes and Dubrovnik, did not disappoint. You see photos of the lakes and it’s hard to believe they’re really that blue, but they are. I wanted to turn my photography mission into a different type of adventure, so I set out the moment the gates opened at 7am to witness their beauty away from the crowds. I wanted a different perspective from the ones you normally see so I hiked above the lakes, to the cliffs. Going off the beaten track is always fun, and in the process I found a gnarled old staircase that went straight to the top of the big waterfall. It was completely epic being up here, away from everyone and watching as the crowds gradually arrived. Definitely a new type of adventure for me.
Dubrovnik is a small city with ALOT to offer. The Old Town was my personal highlight: ancient, perfectly preserved, respected and loved by its people. I felt privileged to be there. The peoples passion for where they live was a welcome change; a total contrast to where I’m from and what I’m used to. I also shot my favourite photo from the whole trip here, looking down a steep street, colour from all angles and a burst of golden light hitting the buildings.
Want to replicate this? Make sure you walk right to the top of one of the many side streets, and don’t shoot during harsh mid day sun, it won’t work; too much shadow.
Albania, what a place, and definitely not somewhere I ever planned on visiting. It didn’t blow my mind the way Slovenia or Italy did, but it was still incredibly interesting, and cheap! I learnt that seeing people walking cows on the side of the road is entirely normal, as is selling rabbits on the roadside. It’s not everyday you visit a country that was communist just 20 years ago and whilst it does still give you the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time, it’s slowly trying to catch up to the modern world. I’m looking forward to visiting 20 years from now, to see how things have evolved further!
Ending where we began after a stint in Corfu, our final stop of the trip was the famed Amalfi Coastline. The fresh, chill vibes on offer here are intoxicating, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the romance and beauty of it all. Whilst here I saw the most beautiful wedding taking place right by the Duomo in the centre of the town, and later I saw the couple at the harbour, the classic hillside homes creating the perfect backdrop for a photo.
What did this trip teach me about adventure?
It made me realise that adventure can mean whatever we want it to mean, as we all interpret things differently. Over the course of the trip I discovered the stark contrast between the people, wealth, architecture and landscapes of Europe; it was baffling.
I personally haven't experienced another continent that offers so much flexibility in what I want to see or do, within such a short amount of travel time.
Doing the trip and taking on the mission of re-defining what adventure really means, also pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I usually travel with someone I know or a buddy I’ve met through my work online, so joining a group of 40+ people I’ve never met before was a completely different experience for me. But you know what? It just works. Nobody is there to be grumpy or alone, everyone has a similar mindset, and just wants to have a great time.
I think for me, I realised that adventure differs depending on the country, and what you want to get out of it. As a photographer I wanted to capture the most unique shots from every new place I went, and by doing this the opportunities for adventure just presented themselves to me.