Category Archives: Europe

Siena Sunflowers


It’s a myth that big sunflowers like this turn to follow the sun all day.  They just face east.  Apparently when they’re tiny, they might turn (i.e., they’re “heliotropic”), but not when they’re mature.  So if you want to photograph them “head-on” and you want something else in the picture, that “something else” needs to be lined up precisely due west of the flower patch.  Thus, last week as I drove through a part of north-central Italy (near Siena) where they grow sunflowers, my goal was to spot some cool old building — a big church or something that made you think “Tuscany” — that looked good from the east, and that was situated exactly due west of a pretty sunflower field.  Hmmmm.

Even after finding a spot, I had to avoid an ugly fence — and an ugly sunflower farmer 100 yards up the road near the signs that said “proprieta privata.”   Thus I took all these pictures from a single spot in the middle of the road, with the Castillo del Cuatro Torres (“Castle of the Four Towers”) lined up on the hill due west of me.

These were the last shots I took before I packed the camera away for a while and headed toward the airport for my flight back to Houston.





A Small Slice of Pisa

I spent one hour and forty-five minutes in Pisa.  I know this because that’s how much time I could buy on the parking meter with the Euro coins I had in my pocket.

I was unwilling to be the only person in 500 years to go through Pisa, Italy without touring the town’s tilted Tuscan Torre.  The strikingly slanted stone spire is the belltower of Pisa’s 900 year old major Duomo.   The cathedral’s conspicuously canted campanile has been plauged by that famous foundational flaw since its construction in the 11th through 13th centuries.  I had no city map, but assumed (correctly) that I could just follow the flow of tourists to the area’s awkwardly angled axis of attention.  (Okay, I’ll stop.)

These pictures are misleading — especially the first one, above.  When you use a wide angle lens and point the camera upward to take a picture of, e.g., a tower, everything looks like it’s leaning inward.  (Click here for another example).  In fact, the tower actually leans away from the adjacent (perfectly upright) cathedral, as you can sense in the pictures just above, and at bottom.

The line to go up in the tower was exceeded only by the line to buy a ticket to get you into that other line, so I decided to stay at ground level.  It’d be hard to see the tower from the tower anyway.  The goofiest part of the experience was the number of people (a hundred or so at any given moment) posing for pictures that would give the illusion that they were holding the tower up (Google “funny pictures leaning tower pisa”).



There’s a famous story that Galileo — the Renaissance-era physicist/astronomer who was born in Pisa and started his scientific work there — dropped two cannonballs of different weights off the Tower of Pisa (already tilting back then) to test his theory that they would fall at the same speed.  What’s interesting is the reason that story is probably not true:  Galileo “proved” his theory not by experiments, but by just thinking about it.  I love that.

(Here’s the thought process.  Imagine two same-size blocks being dropped – one ten pounds and the other two pounds — connected by a very short string.  If the heavy block was prone to fall faster, the tether to a slower-falling two-pound block would slow the fall of the heavy one, making the pair fall slower than the ten-pounder by itself.  But if that short string has effectively tied the two tightly together, they are a twelve-pound unit, and if heavier things fall faster, the now-twelve-pound unit should fall even faster than a ten-pound block by itself.  It can’t be that both these things are true, so the assumption – about heavy things falling faster – can’t be correct.) 

Galileo was a stud.  Maybe da Vinci was smarter, but Galileo changed the world.  When earlier scientists encountered evidence inconsistent with what the Roman Church taught them about an earth-centered universe, they just puzzled over why their evidence must have been in error.  Galileo changed all that — gathering and sharing the telescopic observations and thereby ushering in a Scientific Revolution.  He was darn-near burned at the stake by the Church for doing so.  One historian has suggested that the astounding scientific and technological progress of the last few hundred years — and thus the ensuing prosperity of the modern Western world — would have been greatly delayed without him.   (Two good books on these topics:  Galileo’s Daughter and The Birth of Plenty).

For a while, at least, Pisa was the center of Galileo’s universe.  So it was fun to imagine that Galileo himself had wandered around Pisa’s Tower Square just about like I did — only five-hundred years earlier, and with a lot “weightier” things on his mind.


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.


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.


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.



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.




Ironman Switzerland 2012: Conquering Europe


Despite a half dozen very chilly 20-minute rain storms, and despite more steep hills on the bike course than the brochures might have led one to believe, Scott Humphries can officially check Ironman Switzerland off his list.  I know he was nervous jumping into the swim.  He had to be, given his prior experience triathloning in a European lake (story here).  You can see from the picture below what an Ironman start looks like.  And just like the race in Frankfurt in 2010, half the field seemed to be 6’4” German guys.  But his swim couldn’t have gone more smoothly.  In fact, he finished the race with a personal record – beating his prior best time by about five minutes.







Judging from the looks of him, though, there were some very low moments during the bike section.  We saw him after one chilly shower, and I swear his eye sockets were powder blue.  I’d stuck an extra rain jacket in my pocket for him, but initially he had refused to him take it.  The second time around (the time with the blue eye sockets), he eagerly asked if I still had it.  After the race was over, I heard someone ask him what was the most memorable moment of the day, and his only-half-serious response was “When Cotner pulled that white jacket out of his pocket!”  Unfortunately, he later left the jacket with his bike and wound up shivering again on the marathon run.

But he’s tough.  And he puts it all out there when he races.  The outcome was never really in doubt.   I love that first picture above – taken just seconds after he crossed the finish line as he first hugged his wife Stacy over the railing.  It’s worth comparing the prerace pictures (including the ones in my last post), with those two finish line pictures with Stacy:  obviously the Ironman can be a humbling experience.  That funny Swiss-cross muscle-flexing shot (below, at bottom) was about 20 minutes later after his swagger had recovered – humility can be a fleeting thing, apparently.




As usual, the picture that includes me was taken by a random stranger willing to dedicate 20 seconds to doing us a favor.  There are a couple of shots of total strangers in the grid above (e.g., flag carrier at the finish, girl on lakshore).  I spent the day driving the “chase” car with Shane, Michele and Stacy.  We intercepted Scott about 20 times during the course of the race, including sightings in several small towns 20+ miles from Zurich.  We got wet, tired, and hungry, but we never got lost.  For reasons I cannot possibly explain, Stacy asked me to take her picture “in the corn.”  So I did.  If you want to see a couple of pictures of Stacy in Corn, click here