Travel photographs are an exploration of photography as well as an exploration of place. In this case the location was a courtyard in Málaga, Spain.
Málaga is an interesting gateway to Spain. The international airport is connected to the main rail station by a short city rail line. Our hotel was a short walk from the station and was in the old town. Nearby there are several blocks dedicated to pedestrian shopping and restaurants. Old Málaga is very pleasant for strolling and dining outside on the plazas.
During our stay in Spain we rode the train around Andalucía and saw as much as we could in Cádiz, Zahora, Córdoba, Granada, and many small villages along the coast. Near the end of our stay we returned to our old town hotel in Málaga. Late in the evening after we had walked back from dinner I started photographing out our hotel window.
Outside the hotel there was a courtyard with one lane for vehicle traffic marked by blocks. The light was dim but there were many lights so shadows were cast in multiple directions. I photographed the courtyard, at first just seeing the geometric shapes. Each element had several shadows. I started keying in on the shadows and the narrow range of brightness. The images were subtle, but interesting.
Geometric Shapes and Shadows, Courtyard, Málaga, Spain
As often happens when you spend time working on a scene new elements came into the image.
The first new element was a person running across the courtyard. I was using only available light so the shutter speed was slow. Movement created challenges. This person has at least two distinct and intriguing shadows. The shadows are a different shape than the running person because of the angle of the light sources. The blocks again have multiple shadows.
Runner and Shadows, Málaga, Spain
The second new situation was two bicyclists. They were doing tricks using the planter boxes and other features in the courtyard. Some of their shadows are distinct and some are faint. In this photo the cyclist on the left is doing a ‘wheelie’ and his shadow records it precisely.
Bicyclists With at Least Three Shadows Each, Málaga, Spain
I treated this as a learning exercise with low light photography and shadows. I converted the photographs to simple black and white. To me, in this case, the range in brightness and shadows are the interesting aspects of these photos. This is one of the rare times that I have artificially converted photographs to black and white. In general, I favor color photographs because they better represent the real world. Other people prefer to use one channel of overall brightness and show the photographs as black and white. I understand the art of black and white, but I think a lot is lost with that artificial presentation. Some photographers will disagree strongly with that opinion and characterization. I also think that color photographs hold as much artistic power as photographs depicting only overall brightness. But it is traditional to think otherwise. Artistic expression is possible with both approaches.
Please comment if you have an opinion! If you are viewing the list of all the blog postings, you can leave a reply by selecting this post from the blog list or click on ‘…Comments’ above by the title of this posting.
Within the maze of alleys and walls of Fez, Morocco there are many traditional artisans creating handmade products. The old medina (walled city) in Fez was founded in the 9th century and many of these skilled artists rely on methods used continuously since that time.
I hired a local Fez resident for a day to tour the old city and several artists cooperatives to learn about the culture and history of Fez. It was an interesting walking tour, primarily. But for the first stop we took a taxi to a ceramics cooperative.
The workers here produced a variety of pots for daily use and for tourist souvenirs. They also produced colorful tile for mosaics.
The work is labor intensive. The tile begins with mixing clay and water in large basins behind the main buildings. The mixing is done by one person tromping in the mixture to blend it to the right consistency. Then the mixture is formed into thin bricks that will be cut into the various shapes.
Clay Mixing Basin and Drying Tile Bricks
These tile bricks are dried outside by the sun and then stockpiled for winter tile production, since they are harder to dry during winter weather.
Stockpiled Tile Bricks
Cutting is done by hand with very sharp hammer tools. The finished tiles are precisely formed into surprising shapes such as stars and curved crescents. Each worker is assigned one shape and during each day produces a pile of tiles at their station.
Hand Cutting Tiles, Notice Tile Shapes at Lower Left
The tile is still used in decorative work on many kinds of new construction from simple stairs to panels at mosques.
Tiled Stairs in a Fez Restaurant
Tile Mosaic, King Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca
The pots are hand-spun and painted. They range from large water jugs and vases to small colorful pencil holders for tourists.
At the end of the tour I was taken to the store and only then realized that each cultural tour would also include an opportunity to purchase items to support the artists, and the tour guide who gets a commission, and the hotel who gets a commission for arranging the guide ….
Small Section of the Pottery Store
I bought some souvenir pots, but I started to worry because the day was just beginning and we were also going to learn about the “cultural traditions” at a rug cooperative and a leather works cooperative, with opportunities to support the artists there also. I hadn’t brought enough dirhams to buy something at each place and didn’t have room for them in my luggage anyway.
Fortunately my guide told me that since the medina was a UNESCO World Heritage site the artisans were supported with funding to help them continue to carry out the traditional arts. So I felt a little less pressure to buy a rug at the next stop, but only a little less pressure.
The walking tour through the old city was great and my guide was worth every dirham.
Flying home I am transfixed by the curve of the Earth speckled with building popcorn clouds above and rippled blue below. Memories of island days are still strong. Savoring memories of the warm air and the intoxicating relaxation brings comfort.
Travel practice does pay off. It becomes possible to spend time in a crowded place like Oahu and avoid travel problems so you can concentrate on getting to the end of the road to those deserted beaches. There are no distractions from learning and planning activities.
There is no time to get caught up in the stresses of Honolulu. Even though Oahu is a popular place, it is still easy to find long stretches of sand that are quiet.
A Lucky Couple, North Shore, Ka'ena Point, Oahu, Hawaii
This trip was about celebrating our anniversary. Annie and I celebrated our 30th anniversary walking on the beach, so to speak. We are still a lucky pair!
We made no specific plans before arriving except to seek enjoyment, togetherness, and relaxation. And we wanted to spend as much time on the beach as possible.
Our days were filled with long walks on beautiful beaches, leisurely drives along the shore, watching surfers, skydivers, and gliders, eating in beach-side restaurants, buying fruit from farm stands, and just lying in the shade in beach parks listening to the birds sing.
“What beach do you want to go to today? Do you want to hike in the morning and then go to the north shore? The waves are big today and the surfers will be out enjoying them. That should be photogenic. Maybe we can find a quiet beach with overhanging trees to frame the photos.” But photography is not a priority on this trip.
North Shore Surfer
It was a great anniversary trip and I just wanted to share that with you. That is today’s travel story.
Street photography is a well-established theme. But it doesn’t have to be done at street level.
An overhead perspective of street scenes presents an entirely different image. People and objects are foreshortened when viewed from a vertical perspective.
If you can get high enough you can photograph features that are high above the street to give an interesting view of things normally only seen from below.
Applying A Building Wrap Advertisement, Budapest, Hungary
The basilica in Budapest, Hungary has a tower that is circled by an exterior catwalk near the top. A heavy stone balustrade eventually provides a sense of security to a very high place. At first, even the thick stone railing wasn’t enough to make me feel like hanging over to photograph the street below. But I ended up taking hundreds of photographs during a couple hours of walking around the catwalk.
I have wondered how giant advertisements are wrapped around buildings. On this day in Budapest I watched two climbers put the finishing cinches on an enormous advertisement. I have tried to translate the Magyar (Hungarian) words but have not been successful.
In this case, a sturdy aluminum pole framework was constructed first. The sign was then attached by looping a line through grommets and then around the poles. The climber rappelling down the corner of the framework cinched each loop as he descended like a seamstress stitching fabric together. They worked on this edge for more than an hour.
I am not sure if people on the street watched them from below while waiting for a traffic light. Perhaps they were high enough that they weren’t noticed. But they sure were photogenic from above.
It’s even better to be emperor. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was bestowed on King Charles I of Spain in 1519 and he took the new title ‘Emperor Carlos V’. He was not yet 20 years old!
His empire was vast. It encompassed much of Europe including Spain and most of Italy, among many other countries, but it also included ‘The New World’ that his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella had passed on to him.
But this was clearly not enough. During his reign he fought repeatedly with King Francois of France and his son King Henri II. The kings of France fiercely fought to gain parts of northern Italy, while Carlos was trying to gain large portions of eastern France.
Many of the kingdoms at that time were the result of strategically arranged marriages of very young royal children. During one of the episodes of peace between wars King Francois of France married the Emperor’s sister. Peace was necessary periodically to refill the royal treasuries. And even though Francois’ mother and his wife (the Emperor’s own sister) tried to intervene war resumed between France and the Emperor. Neither side won a final victory. There was a long series of treaties, marriages, captivities, and ransoms that formed even more tangled empires.
Palacio de Carlos V, The Alhambra, Granada, Spain
During this time Carlos decided he needed another palace and that it would be pleasant to take advantage of the splendid grounds of the Moorish Palaces at The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He initiated his palace construction there in 1527. The outside of the palace has strong rectangular features formed by textured blocks. But the upper level has contrasting round openings and the interior courtyard is circular. (See Granada Moon in this blog.) Carlos never used this palace because construction was delayed. He enjoyed his other palaces but his court was mainly located in Madrid. Two years after Carlos started construction at Granada, King Francois began construction of his palace at Fontainebleau.
Palacio de Carlos V, The Alhambra, Granada, Spain
What Francois could not accomplish on the battlefield he attempted to arrange with the marriage of his son Henri to Catherine de Medici of Italy. Henri and Catherine were teenagers when they were married in an extravagant ceremony in Marseilles. Catherine fell in love with Henri, but unfortunately, Henri had already given his chivalric devotion and his heart to the wise and beautiful Diane de Poirtiers. He dutifully created heirs with Catherine, but all knew that his life was dedicated to Diane. Their ménage à trois is a very famous story and is described from an insider’s viewpoint by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent in the book The Serpent and the Moon.
King Henri II of France continued his father’s campaigns and defended France against the Emperor and his allies, including the King of England. This was not enough to fully occupy King Henri so he spent his idle time moving his entourage of thousands of people from palace to palace as the seasons and game dictated. Henri loved to hunt when he was not at war.
So while Carlos was building palaces in Spain, Francois and Henri were building their own palaces in France. Henri gave Diane de Poirtiers one of his most beautiful chateau. But in the end Catherine de Medici took it back abruptly upon Henri’s death.
The arranged empires that so many died for have passed away. But some of the palaces remain to show us the splendor that kings and emperors lived in. Outside the palace walls people lived in primitive poverty. Their lives were dictated by the needs and entanglements of the royal families. The peasants could create the beautiful stonework of the palaces, but they returned to stone age dwellings at the end of the work day.
Pickers, pluckers, pryers, and scoopers scramble over the rocks as the tide recedes. Each person has their own favorite tools and positions. Some people concentrate on the rocks, while others wade at the edge of the water. The waders have homemade tools that amount to a stiff butterfly net on a pole. They scrape and scoop in the shallow water filtering out the sand looking for treasures.
Poudrantais, near Pénestin, Brittany, France
The treasures that these Breton villagers are seeking are mollusks. Mollusks play an important role in Breton cuisine and coastal income. The plastic shell buckets on every table in restaurants attest to the popularity of ‘moules et frites’, the pervasive mussels and fries.
When the tide goes out in Brittany it goes way out. The seafloor is gently sloping. The expanse of exposed rock draws villagers who are happy leave their other chores and pick up free seafood.
Mollusks are grown and harvested commercially in many villages. Networks of vertical posts are seeded with mussels. When the posts are exposed at low tide mature shellfish are harvested using a boom on a barge. The barges work offshore while the locals clamor for their own harvest. Some of these posts are visible offshore, in the distance in the upper photo.
Boat Removal, Poudrantais, near Pénestin, Brittany, France
It is very common for boats to settle onto the sand or rocks in bays and harbors with each low tide. When people are done with their boats for the season they are removed by tractors at low tide. The boats are lifted off of the mud onto trailers and taken up the boat ramps to waiting trucks or to nearby storage.
There is plenty of activity at low tide. I sat and watched as people followed the tide out and worked the rocks. The scraping and prying sounds were sometimes drowned out by the noisy work barges as they methodically moved along the posts. In the foreground old tractors moved slowly back and forth extracting boats. Eventually all of this activity moved gradually back toward shore as the tide moved back in. It is an ancient cycle.
Villagers walked up the ramps past me carrying their finds. Their buckets and wire baskets were heaped with mussels. One regular put his mounded basket on the back of his bicycle and pedaled toward town. His rubber boots helped on the rocks and in the tidepools, but they weren’t the best shoes for cycling. He looked like he was there every day, so it must work for him.
Jagged spires and walls of stone over 800 meters (~2600 feet) tall push warm air upwards. These thermal lifting currents provide world-class sites for paragliders. But the winds vary in direction and speed. Some days are better than others.
Not A Gentle Beach Practice Flight
The paragliders soar over the terrain under a double layer of fabric with air chambers which gather the wind. The pilots are suspended by cords in a harness below. The cords also provide the steering controls.
The stone waits a half mile below.
The dramatic terrain of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy is not for beginners. Perhaps they practice on lower terrain features before graduating to the big walls.
On an autumn day after a rain storm, bright sunshine warms the walls and by the afternoon clouds and winds grow over the high peaks. Tour buses, touring motorcycle groups, site-seers, and photographers drive up the narrow switchbacks to reach the summits. The views are spectacular. The mountains are other-worldly. The European larch (Larixdecidua Mill.) is turning yellow and painting vivid yellow shading over the lower mountain slopes.
Overhead paragliders circle, riding the warm rising air. In the distance faint specks float across the face of the Monte Sella group of peaks. The paraglider wings are brightly-colored and stand out against the gray stone walls.
Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy
The imposing rock of the Sassolungo group of peaks draws paragliders like moths to a light bulb. I watched several of them work the currents of the lower terrain and make long sweeping passes near the mountain front and then move toward me.
I followed one closely as he approached. I started photographing to see if I could portray the magnitude of what they were doing. I tracked him with the telephoto lens as he circled above me and passed by. I was trying to keep him in focus while also having the beautiful Monte Sella in the background in focus as well, but not blurred by the motion of the camera. So I composed an image guessing where I thought he would pass into the scene and waited. Exposure and focus were set from earlier shots as he flew nearby. Then he circled slowly and surely into the corner of the composition. I am pretty sure he knew he was being photographed because I was standing alone on the top of a wind-swept grassy ridge.
Miles of Dolomite Mt Terrain, Monte Sella, and Paraglider Pilot
I have been asked if I super-imposed the paraglider onto the mountain photograph. The answer is no. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time. And sometimes months of planning, pre-dawn drives, hours of waiting, and hundreds of photographs put you in the right place at the right time.
Several miles of stunning mountain scenery and a very courageous paraglider pilot don’t hurt either!
While a large group of school children fill the cathedral with chaotic but joyful singing I look straight up at the ceiling. I still feel exhilaration being inside an immense classical Gothic cathedral. There are thousands of tons of stone overhead.
Looking Straight Up at Cathedral Ceiling, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France
The stones appear to be unsupported. The lime and sand in the mortar couldn’t keep 100+ pound stones hanging 10 stories above.
How do they remain floating overhead? What keeps them in place? How did they construct those soaring curved ceilings? And what about the weight of the stones above the stained glass windows? How did they keep them in place while the mortar dried?
I can understand gravity and mortar holding stones in place in a plain vertical wall. But these stones gradually and symmetrically curve away from vertical and are just sitting there straight over my head!
It seems that through centuries of trial and (cataclysmic) error medieval stone masons, engineers, and architects implemented three key construction features. They were: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress. This is a simplification, of course, (gleaned from a PBS Nova program transcript).
The first problem was that with the typical Roman arch the weight of the stones pushed outward. The solution was the pointed arch which directed some of the weight of the stones in an arch downward.
But there was still sideways pressure. The cathedrals were more than 10 stories tall and were mainly supported by columns in the main hall (nave). The columns and outer walls were still being pushed apart from sideways pressure. The solution was the flying buttress which, if placed correctly on the outside of the cathedral, counteracted the sideways pressure.
But that still left these floating stones over my head unexplained!
The solution as you can see in this photo is the ribbed vault. The ribbed vault was a combination of two intersecting pointed arches. The ceiling stones are placed in a convex arch above the ribs placing the weight onto them. And the ribs distributed the weight of the ceiling stone onto the columns rather than onto the walls.
This is a very brief and simplistic explanation. But they are interesting solutions. These advances took centuries to discover and implement. Individual Gothic cathedrals could take several generations to build and the knowledge passed slowly from older stone masons to apprentices.
There are many things I still don’t understand. Did they have to build scaffolding and supports under the ceiling during construction? If so, how long did they have to wait for the mortar to dry? How big of an area of ceiling could they complete before they had to wait for drying? When winter arrived did the rain wash away some of the mortar that hadn’t finished drying?
I look up and around at the ceiling. It is intricate. The stones curve in complex patterns.
The children are still singing. It is a performance of young scouts and they are energetic. Many generations ago their ancestors figured out these engineering problems. They built lasting marvels.
I don’t start the day in a smokey tent in the desert but I do wander when I photograph.
I am not led by trade or grazing and I am not following a long-established traditional route. Spontaneous creativity draws me down streets toward images. I don’t have a plan, just general principles.
I am savoring the sites, sounds, smells, and interesting people of a new city. Scenes, perspectives, lighting, compositions, and chance combinations hold my attention. My camera and a light top-loader pack with an extra lens and other supplies, along with a light rain coat, are my cargo. I listen to music stored on my phone via earbuds. It is a time of escape and of immersion. Cultural immersion.
Neighborhood Store, Budapest, Hungary
Walking all day leads me to many unexpected places. Small neighborhoods are surrounded by an immense urban framework. But each one has its own character, its own people.
In a historical city like Budapest you are walking though the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the gray oppression of the Soviet era along with battle scars. Remnants of each pop out, but the Soviet era relics are not as photogenic.
Battle Scars, Budapest
Budapest is a city of ancient castles, palaces, boulevards, synagogues, basilicas, parks, museums, and all the elements of a modern business center. While I visited Hungary it had the Presidency of the European Union.
EU Flag Flying at the Parliament Building, Budapest
It is easy to forget time and place. My mind is racing, “what if the bright yellow street car passes through this park and a tour boat floats down the Danube, and ….” So many ideas and so many surprises.
In the distance I hear sirens and I am stopped by a serious officer. Nobody can walk across the courtyard ahead. People gather. Security tightens. The honor guard comes to attention as a black car enters the courtyard with flags flapping. A visiting dignitary emerges and is treated with honor by his hosts. I never knew who it was.
Late in the afternoon, I have to rest. I try to find a shaded outdoor table at a café. It is time to have some lunch, lots of water, and a glass of wine. It is a good chance to watch people on the sidewalk and in the buses. Conversations sound interesting, but I don’t know what they are saying. Maybe I have time for one more glass of wine….
On the way back to my hotel I pick a different route. Who knows what I will see? Ten hours of unplanned wandering have filled me with many memories. I have hundreds of photographs to sort through. Most are not useable for anything. But a few are rewarding and interesting.
Along the Way, Budapest
It has been a great day. And I am glad that I am not returning to a tent. My hotel near the train station is a welcome oasis!
Walking down the main streets of the 9th century medina of Fez, Morocco can be an intense experience. The main streets in this case are narrow alleys filled with a crushing flood of mules, hand carts, vendors, tourists, worshipers, students, beggars, and street hustlers.
Hanging Out at the Mall, Early Morning
Vendor stalls crowd together on both sides of the streets and sell a wide variety of hand made items such as shoes, rugs, pottery, oils, and leather, along with food items that range from the ordinary to the very extraordinary.
Rue Talaa Seghira is one of the main streets that leads down through the medina toward the river. A medina is an ancient walled Arabic city. Fez has two medinas. The medina in these photos was established toward the end of the 9th century and contains the oldest continuously operating, degree granting university on Earth founded in 859.
Barely wide enough for a ....
When you pass through the gate into the old medina you enter a network of alleys and tunnels where cars do not fit. Finding your lodging and navigating the crowds and the “unofficial guides” is challenging, and at first it is very intimidating. It is one of those “dive in and walk with purpose” situations. But with the help of an official guide arranged through the hotel you can become familiar with the general layout and cultural traditions. It is still easy to get lost in the confusing maze if you are not very careful.
The vendor stalls are supplied by either mules or by hand carts. In fact, if you have either one of these items you are in business. Each morning before dawn the streets are swept by hand and the debris is carried away in mule saddlebags.
Being in the hand cart or mule transport business is not easy. But having this equipment is a major advantage.
Fez was one of my favorite places in Morocco. It is easy to feel that you have entered a different and ancient world. People, for the most part, treated me with respect and kindness. It was a dramatic and vivid experience!
The spires and walls of dolomite stretch to the horizon.
Below you narrow winding roads climb over imposing passes to reach ancient stone villages hidden in valleys that used to be separate worlds. Each valley had a unique language and culture.
As you look out over the peaks you can’t see down into the valleys. But you know the villages are there. There is very little sign of their long history in these mountains.
The scenery is stunning. The size and extent of the mountains captivate your imagination. Hours pass as you watch the light change and follow cloud shadows across the ridges.
It is not completely silent. The air is moving through the trees, but it is a gentle breeze. In the distance a few birds call in the forest below. There are no distinct sounds that intrude on your contemplations.
The air is warm. You are alone looking at the southern peaks of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. You have the entire day to take in the view. You try to permanently store the images and the feelings of freedom.
Eventually the light begins to fade. The long walk down the mountain gives you time to review the day. The memories are vivid. Autumn is a great time to visit the Dolomites. I wish I could be there now, but this photo will have to suffice.
I often hear people say something like, “I only take the time to explore my own neighborhood when I have company.”
Fortunately we have good friends who like to hike and take advantage of the beauty where we live. Travel is expensive so it just makes sense to sometimes explore your own area. Most places have interesting sites that visitors enjoy seeing. If you make an adventure out of it, with a group, looking around your own neighborhood can be very rewarding.
Not far from our home we have several state parks and a national park. People come from all over the world to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Our actual yard is filled with redwoods and they tower over our house. So, in general we don’t drive to the parks to see them.
But we have begun hiking the coastal and park trails with friends. We treat it like an adventure we were having in another country. We pack a lunch and make a day of it. It is certainly not an original idea, but we are asking ourselves why we haven’t done it more in the past.
There is certainly a reason why these parks were established. The redwoods in our yard, even though bigger than most trees, are second or third growth. In other words, they have grown back after one or two timber harvests. They are probably 50-80 years old and 80-100 feet (15-25 meters) tall.
The big trees in the parks near here are more than 325 feet (~100 meters) tall and simply massive. They grow in areas that have never been harvested, giving rise to the term “old growth”.
On our hikes we have met visitors who are standing and marveling at the trees. They are flabbergasted! To be honest I had forgotten what it felt like to see these giants for the first time. It was good to be reminded of that excitement.
These ancient trees are nice to have in the neighborhood!!
Creative ideas grow during a photography session. As time passes you begin to see things differently through the lens. Images take hold of your imagination and it is difficult to walk away.
Ideas keep emerging. Perhaps hundreds of photos of a simple room verges on obsession. But each one is different and represents a different concept. A slight change in composition and perspective creates a unique image.
There is excitement when clouds open overhead and sunlight pours in the skylight. There is also attachment to the images. An emotional attachment. And there is loss when an image is missed. “Why wasn’t I ready? Why did I still have the ISO cranked up so high, now the light is gone? It only lasted a few seconds, and now nothing. The scene was alive, now it is dead.”
Hours pass while you are absorbed pursuing unexplainable creative passions. You walk the streets guided by image ideas. You never know where they will lead. You see new places and note features that you need to return to when the light angle is different.
Travel photography leads you into a series of overlapping explorations as you learn about a new place. At the beginning of the stay at each destination you spend long days in reconnaissance. You try to see the new location in all light conditions. The days start before dawn and last until dark, and after. Then during the rest of your stay, you follow your notes and return to sites at certain times of day. You make adjustments as you learn more and meet people. Hopefully the weather cooperates.
People do not really understand how captivating the process is, how powerfully the images draw your imagination. Sometimes the explanation sounds pretentious and self-absorbed. It is just something that you must do. It is hard to say without sounding overly dramatic.
There must be overall balance and there are other things that must be done. But for those short times when you are trying to make art, you are continuously seeing compositions and thinking about how to photograph them. You want to show people what you are imagining and how you have seen this place. Your website and exhibitions give you chances to show your ideas.
You hope that the photographs are interesting. You hope that people will stop and look. But you realize that nobody will ever know how much time and emotion that you have dedicated to each photograph. They just see a picture. “Hey, you just went there and stood and took a picture. Big deal!”
The next time you get your camera out and start walking it will be the same, however. You see images. This is what you want others to see. Did you see these chairs in this way?
The buzzing of the cicada and the sharp call of the cuckoo nearly drown out the sound of your footsteps on the rocky path. But occasionally you can hear the loose stones scraping underfoot. Your feet and ankles are taking a beating. The air is fragrant with the smells of vigorously growing hardwoods, grasses, and wildflowers.
It is a beautiful, warm day in May and the route ahead will provide long days of walking. Each day will lead you through new country and to a new village. At the end of the day you will be exhausted, but after you do your daily washing and hang your clothes to dry, you get to explore and try local foods and wines. You will find comfort and kind hospitality in small village hotels. These are the rewards of wandering the open trails of France.
Visiting France at a walking pace provides an opportunity to savor the countryside and see things you would never know about if you were traveling by train, car, or even by bicycle. You get to meet interesting people along the way and all of your senses are stimulated and challenged.
Along the trail, at the edge of a remote field, you may find a solitary solid stone hut. It may have been there for centuries. You have time, why not go over and explore? What is it for? Who made it?
Borie near Laramière, France
Most of the trails in the Lot and Aveyron River canyons are dirt but the route is sometimes on country roads. Part of the route passes over limestone plateaus called “causses”. Farmers, shepherds, and woodsmen have dealt with these stony soils for millennia. In order to cultivate the soil or build roads, the rocks have to be removed.
But what do you do with all those stones? Do you just pile them up in a heap at the edge of your field? Or do you use them to make stone walls and multi-purpose huts?
These stone huts provide shelter for shepherds and others. They are called “borie”. Some of them are simple, squat rough stacks of stones. Others are meticulously built stone masterpieces. These are dry-stone constructions, so there is no mortar to decay. The buildings remain upright by the precision of the stone placement. Some of the borie have simple ornamentation along the roof and corners. Many of them are round.
Inside Borie, Roof Construction
The roof is constructed by a gradual cantilever stacking, where each added row of stones slightly overhangs the row below. Most of the weight of each new stone is still on the stones below and increases the strength of the building. The construction must be very time-consuming.
They don’t appear to be used very often. But they have provided shelter for generations of wandering shepherds, hikers, perhaps lovers seeking privacy, woodsmen, and whomever else found a borie nearby as a storm or darkness approached.
They are interesting and varied and fun to explore. And they make a nice break along the trail. But then it is time to head toward that next village. What kind of hotel and restaurant will we find tonight? What other sites will we see along the trail? Let’s go find out!!! Happy Trails!!
Traveling east from Austria toward Budapest the scenery out the train window changes from towering glaciated peaks to flat agricultural lands. Hour after hour the Hungarian countryside stretches out like a table top as far as you can see.
Hungary is in the Carpathian Basin and most of it is flat and at low elevation, but the northern part of Hungary is mountainous.
If you rent a car in Budapest it is a short drive north to the Mátra Mountains. The highest point is Mount Kékes at 1,014 m (3,327 feet). The wooded hills are a welcome break from the urban pressures of Budapest.
The mountain roads are inviting and wind through shady forests and pass through beautiful medieval and modern villages. Near the summits there is ample parking to enjoy the broad vistas over farmland and forestland. The only sound is the wind rustling the leaves. It is a good place to clear the clamor and noises of the city out of your mind and think about the tiny villages far below.
Eger is a popular village with visitors to northern Hungary. Its ancient Baroque buildings are well preserved and the 13th century Eger castle is an interesting place to visit. Eger is 1,000 years old and welcomes guests to stroll its cobblestone streets. It is a pleasant place to spend time and unwind.
Far away and long ago Berber traditions were built on these rocky mountainsides in Morocco.
The feeling of isolation is still strong, although connections are growing.
Transportation and Freight
The sounds that remind me of life in the High Atlas Mountains are mule hooves scraping on exposed rock, long harvesting sticks striking branches in walnut trees, the overlapping calls-to-prayer from adjacent villages echoing through the canyons, a distant, ancient truck straining up a long grade (on one of the few roads), Berber greetings that I did not understand, and laughter.
Life here requires hard work and toughness. And good mules. The trails that connect villages to markets are well-established, but steep and narrow. Mules carry most of the supplies to the villages and they carry the local products back to the markets.
Agriculture on these steep mountains seems impractical, but their terraces are productive. Irrigation water is delivered in ditches from streams in the high peaks. Apples and walnuts provide income while other crops provide food and tea for the villagers.
Homes are constructed out of the materials at hand. Electricity has reached some villages and satellite dishes bring news, entertainment, and European football.
The villages are separated by long quiet walks. The vegetation is very sparse so the scenery is stark. The mind has plenty of time to wander.
Centuries and generations have strengthened village traditions, but there is also interest in new connections, by some residents. Visitors are ignored or treated with respect. A local guide is very helpful for explaining the culture and for communications.
The High Atlas Mountains are a quiet and powerful place. They are a place well worth exploring. Accommodations range from luxurious to rustic, but the experiences are all very rich.
[Note: This posting is dedicated to all the supportive and generous people that I met at the Sunriver Art Faire in Oregon this past weekend. Thank you for your kindness! This post is a little longer than usual, but I hope that you enjoy a few moments of escape.]
Day 3, Leaving St.Cirq Lapopie, France
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is a brief story about six friends on a walking tour along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in south-central France. We never actually used this grand-sounding, national French motto, but in thinking back it does describe important aspects of our walk. We were not formal enough to have a motto, we just wanted to have fun and enjoy the French countryside in the spring.
Our emphasis was probably on liberty. There was a tremendous sense of freedom. The hillsides were verdant green and wildflowers were at their peak. It had been a dry spring so this was as lush as it would get this year.
The trail stretched out ahead and our only obligation was to reach the village where we would stay each night. We had planned our route using guide books published by the local departments and by digitizing our route over Google Earth.
Le Tour des Gorges de l'Aveyron
Our packs and our spirits were light. But the warm May sun and the long hills taught us to pace ourselves and take time to savor this quiet country. Small farms filled the narrow valleys but the hills were densely wooded.
On the rich bottomland soils along the rivers we dodged irrigation sprinklers that were encouraging emerging crops. And we passed greenhouses filled with flowers and strawberries. The scent of the heavy warm air pouring out of the strawberry greenhouses was intoxicating. Our senses were being filled and stimulated. There were new smells, sounds, tastes, and beautiful scenes.
We passed through ancient stone villages fortified against invasion, huddled strategically around their cathedral on hilltops and ridges. The imagination was given full license to fill in the daily lives of those villagers. It was not an easy life nor safe. There was not so much fraternity, equality, and liberty for them.
The woods were welcome shelter from the mid-day sun but they also meant tougher terrain. The heat didn’t quiet the cicada. The trees were small and closely spaced as if they had been harvested many times and then re-sprouted. The humorous call of the cuckoo echoed over the hills. We had heard artificial cuckoos so often that it was hard to believe that these were real.
In many places the trail was lined with low stone walls built for miles through the woods. We were passing through private property, but these paths preceded the current owners. Some of the trails derived from Roman roads. The trails are part of the spectacular national trail system called sentiers de grand randonnée which is abbreviated as GR. Each trail is numbered. There are guidebooks and the trails are marked and signed.
Department Trail Marking
We were following GR36 which sometimes shared the route of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. For centuries these trails have provided important experiences of a lifetime for pilgrims. At times the summer pilgrims formed a roving festival of devotion on the way to the tomb of St. James as they walked for hundreds of miles across France and Spain.
Our goals were more mundane, but still left us with experiences of a lifetime.
On our first day, as the reality of a long hill in the full sun set in on us, we had nearly all exhausted our water supplies. We straggled into the shade of a large tree at the crest of the hill. We were drenched with sweat, fatigued, hot, and thirsty. Beyond the tree there was a very well-tended garden and an old stone house. It was the only house we had seen for miles. The sound of our voices brought out the occupants. We didn’t know what to expect as perhaps we would be viewed as nuisances or worse. We soon became friends with two very kind and generous people. They gave us all of the water we could drink and carry, despite the fact their water had to be brought from the closest village. They also gave us a big bag of greens from the garden for our lunch. Our interlude with them was filled with laughter and humanity. We regret not writing down their names and contact information, because they offered to let us come back and stay there and study French with them.
Several miles later at the top of another hot climb we found a shady patch of grass surrounded by old broken stone walls. We all collapsed and sprawled on the grass and against trees. We each had carried lunch items that we now spread out for our first grand lunch. That morning we had purchased a fresh baguette, local cheeses and meat slices. We made massive sandwiches and topped them off with fresh greens. Our new friends had taken care of us. We added yogurt, fruit, cookies and a wonderful bottle of local red wine. The day was full and good.
With a Little Help From Our New Friends
All of our experiences with the rural French people that we met were like this. They worked hard and enjoyed life. They were willing to teach us how to savor life simply and we were ready to learn.
Walking village-to-village on the French trail system is a great experience. The ages of our group ranged from the upper 50’s to 70-somethings. We found the trails challenging but the rewards were indisputable. We remembered how to laugh and marveled at the kindness of country people. I will tell more stories from this adventure in other postings. In the meantime, happy trails!
It is a long ride from Tanger, Morocco to Marrakech. It’s not an express experience. That song is wrong.
Morocco is about the same size as California in the U.S.A. Instead of being on the Pacific its long shoreline is on the Atlantic Ocean. The capital, Rabat, is on the coast and the fabled Casablanca is south of Rabat. Both of these coastal cities are large and filled with business and industry. To the east of Morocco is Algeria which is extensively arid much like California’s eastern neighbor Nevada.
Unlike California, Morocco has a train system that reaches many parts of the country. Morocco used to be a French protectorate, so the Moroccan train system is influenced by the strong French railway. All communications are in Moroccan Arabic and French, this includes signs and spoken announcements.
Departure Board, Fes, Morocco
The Moroccan train system seems to work. The French and Swiss systems are more punctual and fancier, but you can get around Morocco reliably by train, unlike California. And the Moroccan rail system is affiliated with bus lines which extend public transportation further throughout the country. You can not buy train tickets until you are in Morocco, but it is an easy thing to do at the stations and the attendants speak many languages.
I didn’t take the train from Tanger to Marrakech. I first went to Fes. It is still a long ways from Tanger. The Tanger and Fes train stations are beautiful and new. The ride is interesting in the same way that most train routes pass through the edges of towns and the back sides of commercial districts, so you don’t see the best parts of towns. The countryside is mostly gently rolling to hilly. The soils seem like to they could be very productive but in late September there weren’t many crops growing.
Fes was an amazing experience. I had a room in a beautifully restored old house in the ancient walled city. These old Arabic walled cities are called medinas and this one dated from the 9th century. Wandering the narrow alleys with the crushing crowds was intimidating at first, especially carrying camera equipment. I hired a local guide through the hotel. He was born in the medina and has lived his entire life navigating the alleys and market stalls. He taught me a lot about the culture and traditions and took me to many out-of-the-way places. As with every guide apparently, he also took me to places where I could support the local craftsmen, ensuring that he would also get a commission. He was kind enough to tell me that the artist cooperatives are funded by UNESCO as a recognized World Heritage Site. So when the hard sales pitch was presented I didn’t have to feel bad for causing starvation and the end of the rug industry in Morocco. Fes is an ancient religious and academic center and is intense.
I did finally ride the train to Marrakech, and from Fes it is still an eight hour ride. And it is a long eight hours. You pass through Rabat and keep going and going. One recommendation, don’t drink the luke-warm coffee on the cart in the train. I regretted that, but I won’t go into details. Let’s just say the water wasn’t boiled.
I only went to Marrakech in order to meet up with a guide service to walk in the High Atlas Mountains to the south. Marrakech has exploded with new unimaginative hotels and apartments and is still growing. I didn’t spend much time there.
Since this posting is about the rail system I won’t go into the walking experiences at this time. My last ride was on the train from Marrakech to Casablanca where I flew to Milano, Italy to photograph in the Dolomite Mountains.
The Moroccan trains can seem crowded, even in first class. Six people are in a compartment. But the seats are comfortable and the mixture of languages and the exotic north African scenes out the window make a captivating experience. I enjoy traveling by train and the Moroccan railway is a pleasant way to experience the country.
Tangerian dreams. No, this is not about the German electronic band Tangerine Dreams. This is about Tanger, Morocco.
The Moroccan French spelling is Tanger, but it is also often spelled Tangier or Tangiers. For many people Tanger is the gateway to north Africa.
An entire continent lies beyond the ancient streets. But within those old, worn alleys and boulevards you enter a powerful swirling mixture of exotic smells (from street vendor stalls and other less welcome aromas), the intriguing sounds of Arabic music, donkey carts, motorcycle pedicabs, and strong unease from real and imagined dangers. Unease that is constantly reinforced by hustlers and aggressive “guides for hire” lining the streets.
Tanger is a gritty industrial port. It is a place where the rule is ‘do what you can get away with’. It is a transit point and meeting place of cultures. It has long been the main entry for travelers from Spain. Travelers from Europe face an intense change in culture when they get off the ferry from Algeciras, Spain.
The new ferry terminal in Tanger is far to the east of the city. After a long bus ride you are dumped out in a square directly in front of the old ferry terminal. The bus is immediately surrounded by street entrepreneurs. The luggage bays are opened and it seems to take forever to get out of the bus to fight your way through the crowd to protect your luggage, which you hope is still under the bus. This is not xenophobia or paranoia. I had to physically take my luggage away from people. You have to make it clear that you do not need help getting your luggage and that you don’t need help finding a better/cheaper hotel. It is best to know where your hotel is and to head there with dispatch.
One very persistent hustler wouldn’t take “No, merci” for an answer. I tried to walk away only to be confronted by a colleague of his who reassured me, “He is just trying to help you. He works for the tourist office. Where are you from?” Of course they offered no identification.
Somehow I was not reassured by one street hustler vouching for another one. And that was the first of many times that I heard that phrase, “where are you from?” It was a device to start conversations and to begin the hustle, tailored to your country.
The reason I tell this story about Tanger is that most of the rest of my time in Morocco was interesting and memorable in very positive ways. Tanger is not the place to form an opinion about Morocco or north Africa. Tanger is a place where opportunity is made by aggression.
I later hired guides through hotels and travel services as I traveled south. I learned a great deal and met many kind and generous people walking through Fes and tiny villages in the High Atlas Mountains.
Tanger is still a place that stirs the imagination when you think about it from afar. It is a place of international intrigue and fable. It is easy to dream about what it is like and be entirely wrong.
During recent years it appears that construction and redevelopment have improved some parts of Tanger. If you walk from the port to the train station, you walk down a broad modern boulevard along the shore. Restaurants line the beach and new buildings are on the other side of the street. The train station is a sparkling new efficient building. But you also see half-completed or half-demolished buildings which are signs of the building boom hitting economic recession.
The hotels in the port area are mostly old and run-down. The walk up the hill from the port is like walking a gauntlet. The rough cobblestones make it hard to wind your way through the hustlers lining the street on both sides. I was not surprised to find my “Tourist Office” helper halfway up the hill leaning against a wall with friends. He took the opportunity to taunt me again.
With old hotel windows open wide for ventilation the view over the port is striking. But the smells and noises are strong reminders of where you are.
This photograph was taken out the hotel window. The newer buildings along the shore show the recent revitalization. But this view does not convey the pressures of walking the streets. I only felt less secure later when I was photographing on the streets of Casablanca at night. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea anyway.
I am probably not being fair to Tanger basing my opinion on a very brief visit. But my favorite part of Tanger was the train station and the excitement of leaving for Fes. Fes and the High Atlas Mountains were tremendous experiences and I was happy to leave Tanger behind.
When I dream of Tanger now I have vivid memories to base it on. To me it is a place to get on the train. But then again, maybe Tangerians wouldn’t dream of living in my town either!
It is hard to romanticize the hard work, the global market forces, the brute destruction of weather events, and many of the challenges and uncertainties of farming. And we know that a few “farmers” are primarily in business to “farm” subsidies and programs. Still, the lives of the few among us who feed and clothe the rest are not understood by most. We rely on their labors and their willingness to accept the risks.
But are there also some lyrical aspects to farming? What if their product is described as ‘bottled poetry’? What portion of their endeavor is artistic?
Farmland dedicated to growing wine grapes is expanding, at least in some wealthy countries. When a society can afford this luxury, people savor it as an important creation. Farmers and their workers exhibit artistry in their pruning and training of the vines, in their choice of cover crops, and in other aspects of vineyard management. And each winemaker has creative control over the final product.
Wine is common in many cultures. In the U.S.A., California has a reputation for premium wine production. And in particular Napa Valley is known worldwide, although it is also surrounded by valleys and hillsides with great soils, good weather, and talented farmers and vitners.
Napa Valley is a beautiful place. In the spring it is filled with bright yellow mustard blossoms. And in the early summer the vines take over and blanket the valley floor and the hills with lush green foliage. Under those big leaves, hidden at first, juice is being stored in the fruit. In the heat of summer the fruit and juice mature and develop character.
The wineries provide a pleasant place for tourism and picnicking. Perhaps their poetry is not quite as dear as the price on the bottle. But there is no denying the artistic beauty of the valley or the artistic quality of their creative outputs.
This photograph was taken in the northern end of Napa Valley on a warm afternoon in early summer. I was born two or three miles from this location and grew up in the town of Napa. These forested hillsides were the first scenes that I saw as an infant. The valley has changed dramatically. In my youth there were extensive prune orchards. Farming income and lifestyle were much humbler. Those former orchards are now vineyards. I think it would be harder to describe the artistic aspects of picking up plums off of the ground and piling them in wooden field boxes to be taken to the drier.
On a hot afternoon these vines are hard at work making juice. The air is filled with the scent of nearby conifers and the sounds of forest birds. It is summer in the quiet northern end of Napa Valley.