The first morning cable car from Chamonix up Aiguille du Midi is packed full. You can’t move.
The passengers are varied. There are people in street clothes and formal raincoats crushed against extreme skiers and climbers (wearing harnesses festooned with gear, carrying large packs, and with ice axes over their shoulders).
The air is full also. You avoid breathing deeply to avoid some of the odors: perfumes, cigarettes, last night’s parties, fragrant breakfasts, and worse.
The talk is loud and in many languages. Skiers discuss routes and the lengths of ropes needed to reach certain points for their descent. Sightseers stare nervously at the approaching walls of rock and groan in fright when the cable car bounces as it passes over a tower.
The lift slows as it reaches the top station and glides to a stop. The Aiguille du Midi is a granitoid spire on the flank of Mont-Blanc in the French Alps. Its summit is at 3,842 meters (12,605 feet).
Auiguille du Midi (left horizon) from Chamonix, France
It is an intimidating place to ski from, or climb from, or ‘hike’ from, or even just photograph from. Precipitous rock and ice surround the top station on all sides. A solid platform leads from the building to an excavated tunnel in the rock.
Cable Car Passengers Finding Their Way
As people leave the cable car they spread out. Some skiers move through the tunnel to emerge at the head of a famous run called the Vallée Blanche, which is 20 km (12.4 miles) long. A mountain guide is required. Other skiers with mountaineering equipment head toward other routes. The sightseers spread out on the viewing platforms. The scenery is simply spectacular.
Grainitoid Needles (Aiguilles)
As people mill around and take photos they notice that two guys are getting ready to go over the railing onto a rock face. In a sense this is their trailhead for a hike. It is really more climbing than hiking and they clearly know what they are doing. Still they draw a lot of attention.
At the ‘Trailhead’ – click
Perhaps they have done this many times, but it is still impressive. They are methodical and businesslike. Mistakes cost everything. People standing next to them are thinking about a café au lait in the café.
After going through their preparations it is time to go over the railing.
Starting the hike.
It is one step at a time, like every hike, but ….
The crampons hold.
Now it is time to work on the descent.
Trust the rope.
Mountaineering skiers gather with similar gear, but with a different descent in mind.
Starting the descent.
This descent is an access to routes which involve some ‘hiking’ and some climbing.
The Climbing Part
Scrambling down the rock below leads to other route choices. They moved on down the mountain. They have a full day ahead of them.
This form of climbing and hiking is way beyond what I would ever consider. But it was very interesting watching them prepare and then carefully work down this rock wall. The viewing platforms provided a front row perch. However, not everyone was captivated.
Stuck on Self
Despite this interesting climbing demonstration and the world class scenery some people still just wanted to photograph themselves. Instead of savoring the beauty on all sides they were documenting their presence there. There were others doing this also. These people go through life posing instead of being somewhere and learning about it. One of the purposes and benefits of travel is to lose our preoccupation with self and experience other places, cultures, and people. Pulling out a selfie stick should be as embarrassing as walking along holding up a mirror so you can watch yourself all the time.
Mont-Blanc provides plenty to look at for most people. The surrounding mountains of the French Alps are extra helpings of beauty and intrigue. Chamonix and Mont-Blanc are wonderful places to visit. You don’t have to climb or ‘hike’ to enjoy them. And there are plenty of places to walk in the surrounding valleys without having to use ropes.
A long walk on an uninterrupted beach is like entering a stream of dreams.
You don’t know what you will see along the way or where your thoughts will take you.
Walking the stunning Costa Rican tropical beaches along the Caribbean coast south of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca to Manzanillo leads you past rustic vendor huts, monkeys in swaying coconut palms, tiny villages, deserted coves, and long stretches of sand with only the sound of the waves to stimulate your thoughts.
For a photographer the different times of the day are important for the changes in lighting. But your moods and dreams are also influenced by the phases of the day. Photographers are always looking for dreams.
Timeless Costa Rican Dawn
Early morning light creates far-reaching but ill-defined dreams. Distant shores and vague but dangerous adventures emerge in the images in your mind. Sailing ships, pirates, tramp steamers, tropical land grabs, corrupt officials, empires built on bananas-tea-pineapples-coffee, jungle exploration, indigenous people struggling against invading imperialists and grappling with family and religious traditions, travelers seeking authenticity, missionaries…changes sweeping over the beaches and reaching deep into mountainous jungles.
The hiss of the waves moves with you as you walk on mile after mile. Monkeys in the jungle, birds calling, heat building….
The brightening morning sun creates a sandy paradise around you. Dreams of play and beauty float through your thoughts. Children laughing, adults feeling vitality, some in the sun, others finding shade at the edge of the jungle, life’s many stages all reveling in the warm joy. Your dreamlike walk eventually seeks solitude-a secret cove.
You clamber down through the jungle to a deserted cove. Sitting alone you dream of being ship-wrecked. Could you build a shelter, find fresh water and food? You are drawn to the end of the beach. What dreams are around the rocky point?
If you time the waves right you can stay on the rocky ledge and enter a new beach. But this beach has an end. After feeling like you could walk forever down this series of coves and points, steep slopes covered with dense jungle vegetation close your path.
You have left the small villages and beachcombers behind. Your dreams are of the primordial world. This feeling of isolation is strong. Although the modern world is close at hand, you can feel like an explorer. Given your dreams, what would you do with this beautiful tropical world? What if your footprints were the first ones? Your dreams have no bounds now.
Exquisite hours pass as your dreams roam to the horizon. Finally, the day has advanced toward evening. Your explorer dreams are giving way to hunger. It is time to find a soda (café) in Manzanillo and get a late lunch. As you walk back it is hot and you are getting tired. You have seen so much. Have your beach dreams created a new, rejuvenated you?
Deep in the aromatic pine forests of southern Estonia are the Haanja Uplands.
This is beautiful country with a forest bird soundtrack. The people are mostly friendly and hearty. One pure Estonian smile can erase the memory of quite a few suspicious glances from these private rural people.
The Baltic States are made up of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia is to the east and the Baltic Sea is on the west.
Less than 20% of these three countries is more than 250 m (820 ft.) above sea level. These are flat countries.
The Haanja Uplands claim the highest point in the Baltic countries. It is Suur Munamägi at 318 m (1043 ft.). And it is an important feature that is duly publicized.
They have built a viewing tower that is quite spectacular. Towers are quite common in these flat countries. They let you view over the forest to distant horizons and are important for security and increasingly for tourism.
Suur Munamägi Tower
There is a nice cafe and a gift shop on the ground floor. But the main attraction is the viewing platform at the top of the blue spiral staircase.
It provides commanding views toward the Baltic Sea, Latvia, and Russia. The gently rolling forests stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Suur Munamägi View
An interesting compass display on the viewing platform indicates the direction and distance to cities near and far. The imagination wanders over the forest canopy toward Tiblisi, Riga, Istanbul, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Budapest, Kiev, and other landmarks.
Directions and Distances to Landmarks
If you look in another direction…well, actually, it looks pretty much the same in all directions.
Suur Munamägi View
The country around Suur Munamägi is at about 58 degrees north latitude so even though the elevation is not great the area provides winter recreation opportunities. There are established cross-country ski parks and sliding hills.
The winter sports that are important here go unreported in much of the world’s press, which focus on a few commercial national sports in each country. Sports fans are surprisingly narrow-minded.
So, for bonus points, can you identify what the facility below is used for?
Let me help by saying there is a nice stadium (behind me) for viewing the events that are held here.
You could wander around the Haanja Uplands for days. There are nice wide gravel roads and few people. The superb university town of Tartu lies to the north and it is an easy drive to reach Haanja Nature Park from there. There are a few villages with beautiful old churches and many farms scattered around in openings in the forest. There are also many lakes.
This part of southern Estonia was my favorite part of Estonia, but Tartu and the capital of Tallinn are great old cities. This is an area that is well worth visiting. You will feel the impact of the beauty and the relaxation long after you leave.
Rolling slowly along on wide gravel roads; rolling over low hills through the forest; rolling past ancient working hill farms; rolling into the lush quiet of southern Estonia.
Lakes shimmer through the pine forest that stretches to the horizon in all directions.
An old, easy relaxation settles in. Nobody else is on the road. Windows down, birds calling in the forest, the tires crunching the gravel. Rolling into Haanja Nature Park.
Haanja Nature Park
This is the verdant high country of the Baltic states. Russia is a short walk to the east and Latvia is close by, to the south.
Country Road, Southern Estonia
There aren’t many villages. The farms are scattered and clumps of houses only occur at road intersections. And even then there are only three or four.
Haanja Nature Park was established long after generations had passed through these old farms. So there are farms, villages, and roads within the park. This is typical of regional and national parks in the Baltic countries. The park was created to re-establish the natural communities of Haanja Uplands, which includes dispersed farming and handicrafts. Human culture is recognized as part of these landscapes. It was a good choice to have the park around the people who live there and let them stay on their farms. And it adds to the richness of the experience.
Farmhouse Flying an Estonian Banner
But many people have left behind rural farm lives and congregated in the bigger cities, such as Tallinn, the capital. It is far to the north on the Gulf of Finland.
As you visit this country you learn of its pagan past and of its succession of religious influences. Some old country churches survived the Soviet occupation. They are varied and occupy central positions in the tiny villages.
Every once in awhile you sit by the side of the road and listen. In the distance sometimes you can hear people working. But mostly you hear only birds and wind in the forest.
Then you roll on, slowly, watching and thinking. Families struggled on these farms and sometimes succeeded. Then the Nazis rolled over them. After a short dark period this beautiful forested land was gobbled up by the Soviet Union. Soviet occupation lasted more than 50 years.
Once again these are Estonian farms and Estonian forests. They are growing strong. The quiet and solitude are very relaxing. But these forests don’t reveal all the agony and treachery they have endured. They have grown back and hidden the scars.
On your way back toward Tartu you roll past many beautiful lakes. There is no reason to hurry. Lakeside homes sit just above the marshes, many with a small boat pulled up onto the grassy hill next to the house. These would be truly restful holiday places.
As you enter the paved highway heading north you are filled with memories of old farmsteads, rolling pine forests, and sparkling lakes. Southern Estonia is a wonderful and beautiful land.
It was dark and quiet on Ligoninės gatvė as I stumbled over the coarse cobblestones toward the heart of the medieval old town of Vilnius, Lithuania. The sky gradually lightened as I walked downhill toward the Neris River.
I walked past the enormous columns of the town hall, past the presidential palace, the cathedral, the national history museum, and the university. These were all places that I would become more familiar with in the days ahead.
When I reached the Neris River the sky was getting colorful. There were two people sitting on the bank watching the sunrise before work. I stood for a while, watching also, and waiting for enough light to see the cathedral nearby.
Sunrise over the Neris River in Vilnius, Lithuania
The Vilnius Cathedral is close enough to the river that there used to be a navigable side channel that took ocean-going sailing ships to the cathedral. This channel has been filled in and is now part of its expansive courtyard
Vilnius Cathedral and Courtyard
Along this channel was a series of watch towers. This leaning tower is the only remaining one. The early morning light casts a shadow of the cross held by a statue on the cathedral roof. The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier pagan temple. During the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries it was closed, damaged, and used as a warehouse.
Vilnius Cathedral watch tower.
My morning was filled with sightseeing and museum cruising. The national history museum at the base of Castle Hill has many interesting artifacts and old maps. Maps that depicted all the various historical occupations and alliances. The Baltic countries are at the intersection of Europe and Asia and have been a repeated battleground of cultures.
If you plan ahead you can visit Vilnius during the Skamba Skamba Kankliai international folk music festival in May. This festival is a wonderful feast of varied folk music and dancing. It lasts three days and is held on the massive front entryway to the Vilnius Town Hall.
Skamba Skamba Kankliai International Folk Music Festival
The performances are spectacular and the mood is relaxed. It is fun to listen to and see so many different kinds of traditional music.
There is also a tradition in many European countries of multi-day bachelor and bachelorette parties. In the Baltic countries they are elevated to unavoidable street happenings. The main goal is to embarrass the bride or groom. Usually a group of friends travels to another city and spends several days roaming the streets, parks, plazas, and cafes trying to draw as much attention as they can. They are often obnoxious, especially in the early morning hours of their all-night frolics.
In the example below, a group of young women roamed the streets dressed as pirates, complete with plastic swords and pistols. The bride (middle) was required to approach all young men who walked by their bench in this small park, and ask for their phone number. And they had to write their number on her white apron with a felt pen.
As you can imagine she collected a lot of phone numbers. And some of them were written slowly and with large numbers, uh, just for clarity.
Vilnius is filled with interesting neighborhoods and intriguing sites. One neighborhood has declared itself an independent country called: Užupio Respublika. They have three mottos: “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Win”, “Don’t Surrender” and a constitution with 39 articles. The articles are sometimes unusual, with an emphasis on liberty and personal choice, e.g.,
A dog has the right to be a dog.
People have the right to have no rights.
People have the right to be happy.
People have the right to be unhappy.
Vilnius also has a lovers’ padlock bridge where couples show their commitments with engraved padlocks. These bridge adornments are becoming widespread.
There are many other images that I will share of Vilnius in future posts. But at the end of this long day I was happy to find a very small wine and cheese shop only a block from my hotel. It was a jovial neighborhood gathering place. I asked if they had any Lithuanian wines to try. But the owner said that wine grapes do not grow in the Baltic countries. That far north it is just too cold and the growing season is too short. So I asked if they happened to have any montepulciano from Italy. Well, it turned out that they were Italian wine experts and had three different montepulciano wines. And they had some great local sheep cheese. The room was filled with music and laughter. I couldn’t understand the Lithuanian conversations. But I could understand the rest of the situation. It was a great place to end a great day in Vilnius.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are beautiful, green, forested, nearly flat, and primarily rural. Each of the Baltic countries has a strong, distinct culture and identity. I recently spent a far too-brief month traveling and photographing in the Baltic countries.
The stunning medieval centers of the capitals are surrounded by modern business districts supported by the most advanced technologies. In general, the people are kind but private. The populations have congregated in the capitals leaving vast areas of gently rolling farmland, forests, and parks sparsely populated with hard-working and not rich people.
The Baltic Countries - CLICK TO ENLARGE
Exploring the Baltic countries led me to Riga, Latvia. I want to tell a brief story about Art Nouveau architecture in Latvia.
Riga is the capital of Latvia and lies along the lower Daugava River near the Baltic Sea. It has a very interesting and robust old town district but it is also a town of broad boulevards and expansive parks.
Latvians are still emerging from the long night of Soviet occupation which followed the even darker Nazi occupation.
Riga is famous for its beautiful medieval old town. People are flocking to the old cobblestone streets, beautiful cathedrals, and plentiful outdoor cafés. The Latvians have managed to obliterate most of the Soviet-era buildings and replace them with replica medieval architecture that compliments the many surviving ancient (pre-Soviet) buildings.
Riga is also famous for its Art Nouveau buildings. This expressive art form dominated throughout Scandinavia and Europe in the early 20th century prior to World War I. Latvian architects were both very creative and prolific. Many of their best examples still exist in Riga.
The most famous street is Alberta iela. The surrounding area also contains superb buildings. I strolled down Alberta iela a couple times. During my second walk the early morning light was just right to emphasize the most ostentatious ornamentations I have ever seen.
I had left my hotel early hoping to photograph along a scenic stream that flows through a downtown park. The day had dawned perfectly clear. The sky was deep blue and the sun was bright. I didn’t have much success in the park, but I was only a few blocks from the heart of the old Art Nouveau neighborhoods. So I continued walking toward Albert iela. It was a quiet morning, as people had already gone to work by the time I got there.
I spent a long time walking along the shaded side of the street photographing the beautifully illuminated buildings on the other side. It was the kind of morning stroll that a street photographer lives for. I had all day and stunning subjects.
The buildings were being used as residences or professional offices. There were many artistic details on the buildings.
Dramatic Detail, Riga
For sure, these ornamentations were way outside the realm of architectural functionality. They were pure art.
Near the far end of Albert iela I found what I thought was the king of ostentatiousness. This building is a big sculpture and maybe overwrought.
So if you have neighbors who have an ostentatious house, just think of this building. This guy went all out.
Art Nouveau and its expressive artistic freedom were snuffed out by World War I. There was no longer time, money, nor workers available to build unnecessary frills and sculptures on the outside of buildings.
In Latvia, fortunately these buildings survived both World Wars without being bombed. During the 50+ years of Soviet occupation that followed, new buildings became much less artistic. In fact, the stark and hideous functionality of Soviet-era buildings is the architectural opposite of these Art Nouveau buildings.
The Latvians knew the solution to that. When they achieved independence in 1991 those Soviet buildings were summarily demolished in the Riga Town Square.
Except for the most ominous greyish green monstrosity. Which is now The Museum of Occupation of Latvia. It is where you learn that despite the most depraved oppression and slaughter neither the Nazis nor the Soviets could break the spirit of people who can create soaring creations like the Art Nouveau architecture of Riga.
As I left the Art Nouveau neighborhoods I came across this graffiti. As I have said before, I wish there wasn’t graffiti on historic buildings. But there is. Perhaps we should consider dedicated walls for this art. It should not diminish the art of the architect or deface private or public property. But there should be somewhere for it to be.
Because examples like these prove to my eye, that this IS art. Graf Nouveau. Most graffiti does not rise to the design and creative strength of these. But art, whether it is a building or spray painting, is in the eye of the beholder, eh?
This blog is a collection of brief illustrated travel vignettes which use photos and sparse text to transport you to another time and place.
» Escape from the pressures that the world surrounds you with. Step into the photos. Let your imagination spring to life! «
The stories are only magnets to pull you into the scenes. The stories are simply creative writing descriptions and perceptions inspired by travel. I am trying to guide you away. Your participation is helpful.
Your imagination is much richer than any over-produced video.
These blog posts are not chronological. They are not intended to be read in order, nor do they describe ongoing travel events. They are not ‘live reports’ from the road. In fact, they are written between trips to help me escape back to these places, also.
They are also not merely documentary. There are some illusions, some allusions, and some fantasy.
They are created for your entertainment.
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You can return here whenever you have two or three minutes. Go far away. Return stimulated.
As you look around you can decide whether there are hidden travel treasures or merely heaps of ….
Piercing horns and booming drums punch your senses. You can feel the drums in your stomach and your ears ache and ring from the shrill call of the horns.
You can’t see them yet, but you know there is no escaping this street band because the alley is only 10 feet wide. You have nowhere to go. And they are getting louder. Here they are now!
Street Musicians, Fès, Morocco
Wandering the ancient alleys of Fès, Morocco is an immersion in north African cultures. There are no exits. You are surrounded by the sounds, the smells, and the intoxicating sights of thousands of years of tradition. It comes at you and sweeps you along.
Fès cultivates ancient arts and crafts. A good guide can take you through the artists’ cooperatives and their shops. You may have heard stories about being guided to their brother’s/uncle’s rug shop in order for them to gain a commission. Well, that happens, but the rug shop is a cooperative partially funded by UNESCO (9th century Fès is a World Heritage Site). After the tour they take you to a private, air-conditioned show room, serve mint tea, and bring out stunning rugs. They are polite, but skillful salesmen.
Stunning Rugs, Comfortable Sofa, Mint Tea
Fès is famous for its leather works. They tan and die leather that is made into handbags, wallets, slippers and everything you can imagine. The leather works is a favorite for photographers because of all the colorful vats. But on the day I was there, they were using dull colors. The process is interesting though. Some of these vats have been used continuously for 1,100 years.
Leather Works, Fès, Morocco
The tanning process includes the use of bird droppings mixed into the vats. So they hand you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose when you go out onto the roof overlooking the work area. The leather is treated by stomping it into the mixture. Ancient process.
Ancient Processes Still Work
The colors that they can achieve are amazing.
Leather Color Samples
And you can find an array of leather items in the tiny stalls along the market alleys. I don’t think those “Nike” slippers were designed in Oregon.
Finished Leather Products
Fès, like other north African cities, shows many stark contrasts. There are contrasts in wealth, education, technology, and traditions. But even in a thousand year old city people want to have modern conveniences, like television. Satellite dishes are everywhere.
Technology Contrasts, 9th Century Fès, Morocco
After exploring Fès for several days you feel buffeted by the culture. It swirls around you and recedes down the alley.
The Street Band Moves On, Pushing Through the Alleys
But the echoes stay with you long after you leave. You can still hear the street musicians. You can still see the tiny stalls selling everything imaginable. You have seen so many kinds of people. But the helpful, humorous, and pious people are the ones who stick in your memory.
It starts with a gentle nudge. The people standing on the platform begin to slowly slide backwards across your window. The rhythmic bumps quicken and the graffiti blossoms on the walls in the outskirts of the station. The tracks converge. The train bends around a sweeping right corner and moves past the the edge of the village. You sink deeply into your over-sized seat as the train smoothly accelerates across open countryside.
Soon the soft hiss of the track and the flashing power poles hypnotize you. You are flying toward a distant horizon and unknown adventures. You have time to talk, to read, to dream-maybe a little wine and some music. The long track defines your movement but not your thoughts. They certainly don’t have to be linear.
Through the Window, Colorful Scenes, Distant Goals
Of course you left on time. You have learned that you better be on the train on time. No particular fanfare. It just leaves. And you have double-checked the destination. At times you still wonder if you are on the right train…. In Morocco the station announcements are in Arabic and French. They are not always loud enough or clear enough over the speakers. You crane to see the first sign in each station and then check your map.
The Beautiful New Station, Fes, Morocco
Long distance train travel is a singularly interesting experience. It is not comfortable nor punctual everywhere. Even a single trip can vary in punctuality as you pass from one country to another. But in some places it is both very comfortable and very punctual. Certainly, at its best, it is like clockwork.
Speaking of Switzerland, one of my favorite routes is from Geneva to Lausanne along the north shore of Lake Geneva. Below the train, vineyards and beautiful homes descend to the lake shore. In the distance the snowy Alps form the horizon.
The long ride from Geneva to Budapest traverses many kinds of terrain. The towering Austrian peaks give way to the flat Carpathian Basin. The signs, the stations, the towns, the people change as your progress. They keep moving.
Your world is inside the train. It is your reference. The rest of the world is on the move.
Sometimes you have an entire train car to yourself. Other times people are standing in the hall and luggage is in a teetering stack above you.
Swiss, Upper Deck, 1st Class, Empty, Win!
You get to see the in-between places. You also see the rough parts of towns. And lots of graffiti. You are passing along an industrial transportation route. It is not always pretty.
Then another world bursts past your window. The pressure and sound hit you like a shock wave. Faces blur through your view. Another train passes in the other direction and just as abruptly disappears.
Train travel can be savored. Well, I savor all travel, but…. You spend a few moments in distant villages and roll through interesting towns. You see the station sign and have a few glimpses down the streets. Then you are in-between again. Moving on.
I enjoy almost everything about train travel. The stations, despite their minor dangers, present a mixture of people that you may not have time to see anywhere else.
Keleti Palyaudvar International Station, Budapest, Hungary
For a travel photographer trains give a tremendous introduction to new countries. If you travel light, it is easy to carry everything that you need on trains. There is usually more room for luggage than on a plane.
Going Light, Going Far, Working to Make Art
You keep moving, rumbling toward your goals. Trains provide a rich setting for anticipation and imagination. Long rides may eventually get a little tiring, but the further you go the more memories you carry. You are more a part of the countryside you are moving through than when you look down from 35,000 feet.
Friends, Castles, Adventures, Une Bonne Vie Dans Le Train, Najac, France
Here comes the train. Find your seat. Store your luggage. Sit back, put up your feet, and savor. Adventure awaits!
The narrow winding roads that climb over the passes of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy lead to unforgettable scenery and some pretty good stories. Below is the story of a machine gun and a magic wand.
I had spent a week driving and photographing in northern Italy. It is hard work navigating the switchbacks up the massive mountain slopes, but the views from the passes are hard to believe. But it’s not just one or two marquee vistas. On pass after pass you are treated to panoramas of country that would be considered national park-caliber treasures in any country.
There are several east-west routes with many connections to remote valleys. The valleys are deep and they shelter colorful alpine villages. I tried to drive many of the routes that passed near the massive walls and spires of the main Dolomitic peaks. I eventually grew weary of the driving and also from dealing with the impact of the mountains. I tried hard to capture the intense beauty and magnitude, but I felt inadequate.
There isn’t a lot of traffic on the roads, but sometimes you have to deal with lines of cars behind tour buses. Other times touring packs of motorcycles scream by or large trucks push you the edge of ‘your’ part of the pavement. You could be pushed uncomfortably close to a stone wall or a sheer drop off. It is not easy driving.
On my last morning in a beautiful hotel in the small village of Cibiana di Cadore I said goodbye to the cordial staff who had treated me like family. I thought I had done all that I could do with my time photographing in the Dolomites. I was ready for the long drive down the hill to the Autostrada to drive across northern Italy to Milano where I would fly home the next day. The weather had been mostly good, but there had been clouds over the high peaks on several days and some rain.
But this morning, the sky was clear and the mountains were stunning. As I packed my car I started arguing with myself: “I have had good opportunities, I have driven many roads, and now it is time to drive back to Milano and turn the car in and get ready to leave. That is the responsible thing to do. …BUT, wait, I could just go up the hill past Refugio Remauro, down through the next valley, and over Passo Duran and THEN turn south to the Autostrada. That would give me two more passes with views of peaks in the bright morning sun. The clouds may build up quickly, but I could have a few more opportunities. What should I do, go down the hill toward the Autostrada, or go up the hill deeper into the mountains?”
Stunning Mountain Village, My Temporary Home
I got in the car and did the responsible thing and drove slowly down the hill through the beautiful village past the ancient stone homes.
I made it about a half mile down the hill and I just couldn’t go on. I had to take advantage of the sunny morning and the views. So I turned around and went back up through the village and climbed towards the first pass.
Touring Motorcyclist Climbing a Pass, Dolomite Mountains, Italy
The sun was still low and the west side of the mountain ridges was in full shadow. But the peaks were bursting with bright light. I tried to work quickly whenever I pulled over to photograph. But I found I was still unable to turn away from the vistas. I took too many photos. Superb alpine villages occupied strategic locations on valley floors and benches.
Alpine Village, Dolomite Mountains
I gradually made progress toward the west. Hey, I did have all day after all. Of course, I still had to reach the Autostrada and then drive all the way across northern Italy.
Another Pass, Another Spectacular Wall of Dolomite!
At times I zipped my camera pack closed and tried to keep driving. Then I would reach a pass and another world class vista would open up to the horizon.
Pass View, Dolomite Mountains
Really, I’ve got to keep going. Stop pulling over. I concentrated and made it down a long hill and climbed up toward another pass. I could now see the last valley I would enter before leaving the mountains. There were villages in the distance that looked like white speckles at the base of long footslopes.
Walls of Dolomite Tower Over Villages, Dolomite Mountains
I started down towards the valley. I only stopped a few times. Eventually I came to a small inn and a few farms which marked the outskirts of the next village. It was autumn and the firewood stacks were enormous and very orderly. I was nearing the valley floor and it looked like I was coming into a good-sized village. Going down a long decline I passed large stone houses and a few businesses. As I entered the village the road made an abrupt left turn and narrowed between buildings.
I slowed and looked over to the left and saw a dark blue SUV parked perpendicular to the street. On the side in large bold white letters was the word: CARABINIERI. A vivid red stripe and red shield added a strong military appearance. There were emergency lights on the roof.
The street was deserted except for two Carabinieri officers. In the street in front of me standing in my lane was a hulking military officer. He was the epitome of the intimidating warrior: tall, huge muscular torso, strong square jutting jaw, crisp uniform, highly polished tall black boots, and hat worn squarely. The morning sun glinted off the shiny black bill of his hat. He was all business and his expression was serious. He held up his right hand to indicate stop, but with his left hand he waved a tiny sign. Of course, it was an official “pull over right here” waving motion, but it was a funny little sign. It was a solid red circle surrounded by a red ring on a white background. The sign was about four inches across and was held at the end of a long skinny stick. It was odd and formed an immediate impression, but I didn’t have time to recognize what the impression was, because I had to quickly slow and turn left into the indicated parking lot next to the Carabinieri vehicle.
I pulled to a stop next to the other officer who positioned himself next to the driver’s door. Before I could look over at him the commanding officer had walked over from the street and was at my window. I rolled down the window and he said something to me in Italian. The impact of his command was lost on me, but I could recognize the authoritarian tone. Quickly he understood that Italian wasn’t working and switched to the few English commands that he knew. He asked what I was doing, where I was coming from, where I was going, and whose car I was driving. I answered respectfully and handed over the rental car contract, ID, passport, and international driver’s license as I was commanded to. He walked over to their vehicle and sat in the car to radio in and check the information.
Then I was able to look over at the other officer who had moved back up to my door. I had opened the door to get some air but he now blocked my exit. He was a round-shouldered, slouchy, and lazy-looking country kid. He smiled, but harnessed across his chest was an old, worn machine gun. He kept both hands on it ready for any kind of mafia confrontation. I certainly had no intention of moving from the car.
While the commander was talking on the radio the kid with the machine tried to put me at ease by making small talk. His English was pretty good. He asked where I was from and when I said California he became excited. He wanted to use his English, but mainly he wanted to talk about the babes on the beach in California and how much he wanted a Mustang to drive around. He became almost jovial. He was mild-mannered and soft-spoken. A simple, goofy country kid. But that machine gun was only a couple of feet from my face!
I very respectfully asked him why they pulled me over and what they were doing. He said that they do this sort of random stop for “control” and security. I told him that the U.S.A. didn’t have national police and I was surprised to be pulled over. (The Carabinieri or Arma dei Carabinieri (Force of Carabinieri) are a national gendarmerie who police both military and civilian populations.)
Eventually the commander came back and asked a few more questions about the rental car and what I was doing there. I think he looked in my camera pack, but my memory is a little sketchy because I was in a cold terror sweat the whole time.
Finally, in a very courteous and business-like manner he handed back my papers and encouraged me to drive safely and enjoy the beautiful Dolomitic countryside.
When I drove away the overload of adrenaline gradually eased and I began to relax. And as I left the village and started down the valley toward the Autostrada I replayed the episode in my mind. The goofy kid with the machine gun had been terrifying in a surreal way.
But I also began to think about the commanding officer and his little sign on a stick. It was only then that I concluded that the little sign looked more like a little-girl’s magic wand. It was weird to see that glowering soldier waving that little wand. His waving motion was strictly military and very official. But I just couldn’t help wondering if he had forgotten his real sign at the barracks that morning and had had to dig into his daughter’s toy chest and found a princess magic wand to use. Maybe the two officers had just switched assigned tools for the day. Or maybe it was a gag, like in Super Troopers, where the two officers dared one another to do outrageous stunts to see how their ‘victims’ would react.
Of course, I have to say that I was treated with respect and courtesy. They were businesslike and professional. I may return to the Dolomites and I don’t need any enemies. But I will never forget that machine gun and that magic wand!
Street photography provides many opportunities to see things that you might normally walk by without noticing.
The longer you walk the more you begin to look around for interesting perspectives. The luxury of time lets you view features and people from several different vantage points. And as your eyes roam, details emerge from the busy scenes in front of you.
Viewing features from below or from above, or isolating intriguing small elements for close-ups, changes the perspective and the character of the image. The composition, lighting, and viewing angle reveal the artistic intent and indicate the effort and thought that go into a photograph.
(Unfortunately, people seem to be conditioned to think that artistic photography requires a black and white image, or a poorly lit or blurry abstract image. When some people see a sharply-focused, color image they dismiss it as a mere ‘snapshot’ without considering the composition or isolation of the subject, or the distinctive perspective, or the time and work that it takes to show an interesting feature without other distracting elements. They don’t take the time to look at it and think about what the photographer was trying to do. Street photography is commonly realism. End of pet peeve #1.)
Pet peeve aside, the main subject of this posting is looking and seeing things that may be normally missed and seeing features from a different perspective.
Looking up at features makes them seem more imposing and exaggerated.
Ornamentation, Budapest, Hungary
Cathedral Rain Spout, Geneva, Switzerland
Did you see both dogs?
An overhead perspective diminishes subjects. Looking down is my favorite perspective for street scenes.
Overhead Perspective, Geneva, Switzerland
Time is an important ally of street photographers. It takes time for opportunities to develop. It takes time to see things from a unique perspective. It is enjoyable and creative time.
I hope that the next time you see an artistic color photograph you have the time to enjoy it and consider what the photographer was trying to create. Why did they take the photo from that perspective, at that time of day etc?
The music was strong, fast, and fundamental, the clapping frenetic, and the dancing masterful. The bull ring was filled with flamenco-lovers and the sherry was flowing. It was 2 am and the excitement and energy were building.
Each year the Fiesta de la Vendimia (Harvest Festival) in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain draws renowned flamenco performers and crowds of their fans to the bull ring for the Buleria. Jerez is the center of the cultural traditions for the Buleria flamenco style.
The festival is held in early autumn and the weather in southern Spain is still hot. The streets are filled with fiesta revelers, musicians, and other performers. But the Buleria is an overnight celebration of flamenco.
We were staying near Cádiz, in a little beach house in Zahora and had spent our days exploring hill villages such as Vejer de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera. These are beautiful, ancient, small villages that are perfect for walking and soaking up the warmth of the weather and the people. But things got a lot more exciting when we reached our little hotel in Jerez de la Frontera. The fiesta was in full swing and the Buleria was to be held the night that we arrived.
Lines formed in the late afternoon on the plaza outside the bull ring. And as night fell the crowd surged through the old gateway and we tried to get good chairs near the front. The bull ring is circular with stadium bench seating, but for this night the dirt of the arena was covered with plastic chairs.
Bull Ring Filling for a Night of Buleria Flamenco, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Deep under the arena vendors sold food and the sherry that area is famous for. Impromptu flamenco performances, accompanied by groups of rhythmic clapping supporters, broke out in several places along the dirt-floored passages under the stadium.
On this night the dancing was limited. Several famous flamenco singers performed along with their guitar and clapping accompanists. As each act concluded the crowd became more animated while waiting for the next performance. They started many syncopated clapping rifs that passed back and forth across the stadium, like a fan wave moving through a crowd.
Late in the night the headline dancer for the Buleria came out and thoroughly amazed everyone. He was supported by two guitarists and a group of five rhythmic clappers as percussionists. Still photographs do not do justice to the intensity and speed of the musicians or the dancer.
His name is Andrés Peña and he is a virtuoso dancer. His furious pace was mind-boggling, especially at 2 in the morning.
We left at 3:30 am and they hadn’t brought out all the musicians yet for the start of the finale jam session. The crowd was ecstatic and going strong. They were able to enjoy flamenco all night, but we just couldn’t make it any further. But we soaked up all that we could and it was spectacular!
The arid remoteness of the High Atlas Mountains did not prepare me for the urban tumult of Casablanca.
I had spent several days walking in the lower part of the High Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco. The Berber guide who helped me explore had introduced me to kind people in small mountain villages. The long walks between villages passed over quiet rocky mountainsides. It was easy for my mind to wander and think about the mountain traditions and culture.
High Atlas Mts. Guided by Imrhan Omar
That came to an abrupt halt when I got off the train in Casablanca. First of all I thought I would become a casualty of the intense rivalry among the taxi drivers vying for my business. As it turned out the driver I ended up with didn’t know where my hotel was but drove around the old downtown neighborhoods until he found someone he could ask. I arrived safely, but it is always unnerving to get into a car with a stranger in a new city, especially after a nearly physical battle to win my business.
Casablanca is a huge city and some parts are in better shape than others. It is filled with intriguing sites, sounds, and smells. I only had two days before I flew to Milan, so I didn’t get to explore very much.
I was near the original old town (medina) but was surrounded by typical urban businesses and hotels. There were pockets of modern commercial enterprise and remnants of ancient walled city.
Because I enjoy walking with my camera to find interesting images I decided to walk across town toward the beach to see the famous King Hassan II Mosque. The only map I had was a small page torn out of a Morocco guidebook. Needless to say, it was lacking a lot of detail and streets. I got lost but asked for help and got directed back toward the beach.
I passed through some very old neighborhoods but saw lots of interesting parts of northern Casablanca.
Produce Market, Casablanca
The King Hassan II Mosque is spectacularly large. It is set on an expansive courtyard and is protected from the crashing Atlantic waves by a seawall on three sides. It is near the old medina and serves the same central community role as a large Gothic cathedral in a western European city.
Entering the King Hassan II Mosque
Worshipers streamed out of the old city across the courtyard and into the grounds of the mosque as the call to prayer sounded.
Interior Courtyard, King Hassan II Mosque
Everything about this mosque is massive.
Massive Doors, King Hassan II Mosque
The minaret is about ~210 m (689 ft.) tall. It is beautifully sculpted and has tile mosaics accenting even the highest sections. It had been a foggy morning at the beach, but eventually the clouds lifted.
Minaret, 210m Tall, King Hassan II Mosque
Minaret Ornamentation, King Hassan II Mosque
I spent several hours photographing, watching, and listening. Fortunately, my walk back to the hotel was much more efficient. Casablanca was not what I expected. It was more interesting and varied while still being walkable. It formed a strong impression and was a memorable north African city with rich history.
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!