Category Archives: Landscapes

Italy: Cinque Terre

On Italy’s western Mediterranean coast — way up north on the front and top of the “boot” – is an area called the Cinque Terre (“five lands”).  It’s a series of five colorful little villages that have been hanging on the cliffs and hillsides just above the water for a thousand years.

A 2011 flood damaged a few of the towns and the trails and vineyards between them, so I explored only Riomaggiore and Manarola.  There aren’t really roads in the towns (they were built pre-automobile, of course; I parked a mile away and walked in).  The old passageways within the towns are narrow:  one writeup said they were purposely maze-like to thwart pirates who would try to land and pillage the towns.  Hopefully, the piracy rate has dropped in recent years.

Easily the nicest accessible view was a hillside overlooking Manarola and its tiny harbor.  The late afternoon light was okay, but I could tell it would get prettier and prettier as the sun set.  So I just hung out in Manarola:  had some lasagna, climbed up and down, watched the swimmers and window-shopped — taking another picture or 20 every hour or so til it got dark.  You can see from the series of pictures how the light (and thus the pictures) changed.

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I did take a few shots of other things in the towns.  The wide shot in the group below is Riomaggiore, which is just a mile or two away.

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A final note for photographers:  All these shots were with the Nikon D800 and the 24-120 f4 Nikkor lens.  The second- and third-to-last (after-sunset) pictures above were taken with ISO 1600, hand-held at 1/4 or 1/5 second.  The great color and noise-free images at 1600 are a tribute to the D800 sensor, but I was more shocked and impressed by the performance of the “VR” technology in the lens that allowed me to handhold 1/4 second and still get perfectly-sharp pictures (which was handy, because my tripod was approximately 5,000 miles away).  The final picture is at ISO 3200.   I did have a railing to stabilize my elbows.  As I often say, for those of us who attempted photography 30 years ago, modern cameras are indistinguishable from magic. 

Grindelwald: Alps Rock!

It must be true that the Swiss eat a lot of chocolate.  You can go in a tiny food market with only a handful of aisles, and one of those aisles will be wholly dedicated to offering up 100 kinds of chocolate.   Conversely, a supermarket in Zurich had just one option (i.e., one brand, small size, chunky) for peanut butter.  It was near the shelves-full of Nutella — which is like peanut butter, except that it’s chocolate.

They’re also pretty serious about tunnels, white cheeses, multi-function pocket knives, and cowbells.

 

Following last Sunday’s big event in Zurich, I had a rented SUV, a plane ticket out of Rome (about 500 miles to the south) a week later, and no other specific plans.  There are pros and cons to going sans-reservations and sans-gameplan, but you’ll never have to rush if you don’t want to rush, and you’ll never be stuck somewhere that you don’t want to be.  Happily, the car had a built-in GPS, which proves invaluable when randomly navigating one’s self off of beaten paths.

A smart and well-travelled friend had suggested I visit a small Swiss town called Grindelwald, which, unlike Zurich, is truly in the Alps.  Big, steep, rocky, beautiful mountain Alps.  My first day there I rented a mountain bike and headed way uphill.  It was glorious.  At the top of one climb, about 3,500 feet above town, there was a restaurant (normally accessible by gondola).  I could see hikers and bikers below me, gondola riders and zip-liners, para-sailers and the occasional helicopter tour overhead, and passenger trains in the valley below – all while being served a chocolate (of course) croissant and diet coke in sunny 70-degree weather.  I decided then and there that I’d spend the next five days in Grindelwald.  Unfortunately, a quick check of a rainy weather forecast a few hours later squelched that plan, so I spent only another half-day in Grindelwald after all.

There’s a train near Grindelwald that leaves from about 7,500 feet, almost immediately enters a tunnel, and emerges after several miles and another 4,000 feet of ascent to Jungfraujoch.  At the top are snow, ice caverns, and more views of rocky jagged peaks.   On the way back down, the train conductor announced that the train would stop in tiny Alpenglen only upon request (and then you’d have to walk the rest of the way down), which was sufficient to pique my interest.  What do you do in Alpenglen? You eat a cheese-and-cheese sandwich (see the picture with the yellow tablecloths) and look down the hill toward Grindelwald.  Then start walking.

 

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The drive from Zurich to Grindelwald involves skirting and circling a series of big lakes, from the south end of Lake Zurich, over to Lucerne and down to Interlaken.  There are hundreds of wild swan living in Lake Zurich.  A dozen or so were hanging out, getting fed by tourists, at Rapperswil — which is where the castle-looking church on the lake is located.  To get the long shots of that church, I walked the bridge that crosses Lake Zurich – twice.  To get the swan pictures, I (inadvertently) stepped in the lake, and (also inadvertently) sat in swan poop.  Swan poop on the pants is a sure sign of a dedicated photographer.  The outdoor musicians and the city streets are Lucerne.

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After Grindelwald, I headed south.  As you head south from the Lucerne area toward Italy on the A9 Autobahn, you go through a ten-mile tunnel.  When you emerge, suddenly the highway signs are no longer in German – they’re in Italian.  Highway exits are no longer “ausfahrts”; they’re “uscitas.”  The towns and places no longer have names like Lauderhorneschulter and Gross Scheidigg —  they have names like Giornico and Biasca.  But, as I figured out eventually when the convenience store clerk demanded francs (not euros), it’s still Switzerland.  About a fifth of Switzerland (in the south) is officially Italian-speaking (another fifth is French-speaking).  An interesting sidenote on this:  Most Swiss know English as their second language, so when a German-speaking Swiss needs to communicate with an Italian-speaking Swiss, they’ll likely be speaking in English.

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Florida 2012: Coastal Dune Lakes

 

Right behind some of the stunning beaches of Florida’s Walton County are some small lakes called “coastal dune lakes.”  Apparently, this type of lake –- created by natural coastal sand dunes that act as dams to hold back freshwater streams – exists in only a handful of places in the world.  They have partial and intermittent connections to the Gulf, so they’re a mix of salt and fresh water.  Surrounding the Florida lakes (and covering thousands of square miles of the panhandle) are tall, spindly “tropical” pine trees (slash and longleaf pines).  Around the lakeshore and in just the right light, they somehow look like a taller, watery version of the African acacia trees on the Serengeti.

Last week, I found myself wandering around some of these lakes a couple of mornings in the twilight before a 5:45a.m. sunrise (I’m great fun to vacation with!).  Yes, my feet did get wet.  I kept wishing for a boat or fisherman or animal of some sort (or even one of my still-sleeping nieces) to provide a real focal point for these pictures, but alas I had to make do with the striking views of the lakes, trees and morning sky.

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Cuba (Part 10) One Last Look

Here’s the last installment of pictures from my March trip to Cuba.  The series started here.  The trip offered lots of photographic variety — including dancing showgirls, boxers in training, school kids, cigar moguls, classic cars, Havana street life and more — so take a look at all the posts.  The trip was also fascinating and educational for me personally; I hope my eagerness to share what I learned didn’t get too long-winded.  Thanks for looking.

As I mentioned earlier, Havana has plenty of sights to see.   A prior post had my attempts at decent pictures from Revolution Square, the current center of federal government buildings.   The Capitolio (pictured in three shots below) is the former center of government.  It looks just like the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.  Built in the 1920s, it was originally the home of the Cuban legislature.  When Castro took over, he disbanded both their houses of Congress and did away with representative government — thus freeing the Capitolio up for other purposes!

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Our group had some nice opportunities to get on rooftops and other high places just at sunrise or sunset, which is a simple recipe for good pictures.  A few of the pictures you see are from a hotel on Park Central; one is from the tower of the original Bacardi building; a handful are from the lighthouse at “Morro Castle,” which is actually a 400-year-old fortress that guards the entrance to the port of Havana.

On the last night of my trip, we went to a rooftop party.  The event included the opportunity to watch a drums-and-dancing Santeria ritual.  Santeria is a form of religion that mixes Catholicism with African “animist” beliefs.  I cannot pretend to understand or explain it, but these dancing performances are fairly common and open to the public.  The dancers and the folks wearing white are part of that.  The finale of that evening was those pigeons.  (See the picture at the top of this post).  There was a pigeon coop (and a pigeon-keeper) on the roof, and just at sun set he let 30 or so of them out for their evening exercise.  They kept returning to the roof; he kept shooing them away to fly around some more, giving me several chances to try to get the “perfect” picture.  It was a nice, peaceful wind-down of a sometimes-overwhelming couple of weeks in Cuba.

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Finally, here (below) is one of the last pictures I took in Cuba.  I know it doesn’t look like much.  I took it with a tiny pocket camera in the cab on the way to the airport.  Normally, I had always tried to use one of the privately-owned taxis rather than the government-owned taxis, but in the scramble to get out of my hotel and out to the airport, I didn’t seem to have a choice.  My reflex was to be unhappy and uncomfortable in the government-run cab, but of course it wasn’t Castro at the wheel; it was just an ordinary Cuban guy doing his job.  The driver was a nice guy who found out I was headed for Miami and quickly told me he had family that had moved to America long ago.  He seemed to envy their fate, but Cubans are generally not allowed to travel freely, so he said that he’d never been allowed to go visit.  At about that point, I noticed his personal keychain — the stars and stripes of an American flag on a heart-shaped medallion.  That’s a “sneaked” picture of his keychain (and his knee and steering wheel) in the picture below, taken from my backseat vantage point.  Seeing his keychain — attached to the keys of his Communist-government taxicab — was a fitting finale to my Cuba experience and another reminder that I’m lucky to live where I do.

If you happen to get a chance to go to Cuba in the next few years, go.  You’ll need a sense of adventure and an open mind.  You’ll stumble into things you never expected and things you’d never encounter at home — some good; some bad.  The overlay of a Communist, socialist system in what’s otherwise a peaceful tropical world is fascinating and eye-opening.  Parts of it you’ll love, and the other parts will make you appreciate your own country.  As the Castros age, Cuba is changing fast.  Maybe I’ll get to go again and see some of that change take place.  Hasta la proxima!

Cuba (Part 6) Trinidad Town

We spent a few days on the south coast of Cuba, near a town called Trinidad (not to be confused with the Caribbean island-country by the same name).  The town was founded just about 20 years after Christopher Columbus first visited the area, so it’s just shy of 500 years old, and one of the oldest colonial towns in the hemisphere.  Much of the town has cobblestone streets and, as with much of Cuba, there are classic cars and colorful buildings all over the place.

 

A handful of these pictures have birdcages.  Having little birds like that is apparently a big tradition in this town.  I suspect these are the cheapest pets you can have.  Every street is full of pleasant chirping.

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Below, you can see a couple of shots of small restaurants (each with a performing live band).  These are surprisingly-nice privately-owned restaurants, called “paladares” in Cuba.   It was a long-time (though illegal) tradition during the Soviet era that families would operate tiny restaurants in their homes.  More recently, the government started allowing and licensing them (and thus heavily taxing) them.  The outdoor courtyard restaurant had about four “hosts,” five waiters and waitresses, a five-piece band, four dancers and who-knows-how-many kitchen staff, all to enteratin about ten patrons.  The music group pictured up close later invited us to an after-hours “party,” in a nearby home.  It turned out to be a sort of mini-concert, with musicians from various places around town taking turns with their guitars entertaining one another (and us).  That’s what you see in the last picture with mostly-silhouetted musicians.  Quite an experience.

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Finally, here’s a picture of our hotel (near Trinidad) at sunset.  All hotels are owned by the government, and the Cuban government took away our original Trinidad hotel reservations because the Pope was in the country and there were apparently more-important folks who needed a place to stay.  So we wound up a few miles outside of town at a beach resort.  The place was full of German tourists.  Cuban resorts are “segregated,” in that Cubans are not allowed to go.  Because Americans are permitted in Cuba only for cultural missions (or to visit their own close family) and thus never for “tourist” purposes, staying at beach resorts is normally not allowed.  But since we were kicked out of our intended hotel and had no choice, we actually got the chance to visit the beach for a bit.

I called the place “Communism’s Last Resort.”  It looks okay pictured from a distance, but a close inspection would reveal stains on the towels and sheets, empty flower beds and fountains, broken windows, intermittent hot water, and cafeteria food that reminds you your chefs were Soviet-trained.  But the sunset was pretty.