Tag: “Italy”

A Machine Gun and a Magic Wand

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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!

Floating Over Stones

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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 (Larix decidua 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!


Silence and Scenery

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Autumn in the Dolomite Mountains, Monte Rite

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.


Living in Livinnalongo

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Castle Andraz, Gruppo Settsas, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

High above the Livinnalongo Valley an ancient castle guards a high mountain pass.

It is a commanding position for surveillance and for communication. Signal fires could inform people below. It lies along one of the mountain routes to and from Venice.

But only a perimeter wall and a tower remain of the Castle of Andraz. It stood guard of the Passo Falzarego in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy.

It is in a valley north of SR48 between Cortina d’Ampezzo and the valley’s main village, Livinallongo del Col di Lana.

This 31 km (~19 mi) section of narrow, winding, hairpin Dolomitic highway is packed with powerful views. Cortina valley itself is a postcard scene with chalets and ski lifts ascending mountains in all directions.

Climbing out of Cortina the entire horizon is crowded with the stunning rock behemoth called La Tofana di Rozes. Clouds swirl around the summit constantly changing the view as you wind around the base for miles. High mountain pastures fill the narrow valleys. On the other side of the road in the distance is Cinque Torri, a famous group of five rock towers.

Passo Falzarego has the typical summit tourist developments-parking, snacks, souvenirs. And views across the Dolomites.

As you descend into the Livvinalongo Valley on the other side of the pass, after a few intimidating switchback corners near the summit, there is a beautiful, well-tended stone chapel next to the road. And in a short distance you begin to see through the trees to the valley where this castle stands on top of a rock outcrop.

In the distance, above the forest is the dramatic Gruppo Settsas. On the day when I drove this section of road, clouds built up in the middle of the day. The mountains that make up the Gruppo Settsas had darkening clouds behind them, but the fronts were highlighted by the afternoon sun. On an autumn day like this with continuously changing lighting you could take thousands of photos and most of them would be interesting. The terrain is so dramatic that it is always photogenic.

Driving is hazardous because the views are so enticing that it is hard to keep your eyes on the road. This short section of road could take all day if you stopped to appreciate all the world-class views. Or you could continue on to Passo Pordoi and an even bigger rock monster called Monte Sella, or take a turn to the north and climb over Passo Campolongo and enter the stunning valley of Alta Badia.

Personally I think that dealing with the intensity of this scenery is exhausting. I was only in the Dolomite Mountains for a week. At the end of a day of photography I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. My senses were overloaded. It was almost impossible to stop making pictures.

You can visit my online galleries to view more of my portfolio. Click the Photography link above.

Cibiana di Cadore

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Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Cibiana di Cadore is a little off the beaten path. But it is a wonderful place to slow down and spend time in the fall.

Cibiana is in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. It is a short, arduous drive from the famous and glitzy Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina is an elite ski destination and a winter Olympics site (1956).

But Cibiana itself is not glamorous or snobby. It is a well-preserved stone village with a strong independent mountain spirit. It sits along a rushing stream at the base of jaw-dropping walls and spires of dolomitic rock.

The village people are tough, self-sufficient, comfortable, and friendly. Historically, the main  industry was making heavy steel keys. But as that industry faded many adults had to spend most of their time in Germany working in ice cream factories. The village became a place of left-behind grandparents and children.

The rebirth of Cibiana was based on art. Artists from around the world have produced an interesting variety of murals painted on stucco panels on the outside of the ancient stone houses. Each mural depicts the original trade of the family that built the home centuries ago.

On a sunny cool day in autumn when the narrow streets are quiet it is a great place to walk and think about the history and the people who built this village. You might even find a small café/bar in the side of a home. There are two tables out front with a sweeping view of the mountains and a sheltered sunny exposure.

The cathedral has recently been refurbished and the village has a food co-operative with a wide selection. The town also has a partnership with world-famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner. Together they developed a spectacular mountain museum in a rebuilt stone fort on top of nearby Monte Rite. There are 360° views into the valleys and the high peaks of the Dolomite Mountains.

One of the village gathering places is the Hotel Ristorante Remauro. The small café on the bottom floor fills with locals each evening who come to socialize before dinner time. It is also a relaxing and cordial place to stay. The hotel staff are very helpful and friendly.

After spending a few days around Cibiana I was struck with the openness of the people. They are also hard-working as most mountain villagers are. In the fall each home has replenished their massive wood piles which are artistically stacked with pride. I was impressed with how the wood was delivered. Most people get their wood from the nearby mountains (or a few larger stacks, like hotels, are from a large scale wood company). The deliveries that I saw were made by very small three wheeled motorcycle-type vehicles with a truck bed or by a trailer hooked to the family car.

(Incidentally, I saw NO personal full-size pickup trucks in the Dolomite Mountains. Zero. In spite of the challenging mountain lifestyle, people got their wood, building materials, and yard supplies without owning a pickup. In fact, during five weeks of travel in Spain, Morocco, Austria, and Italy I saw TWO full-size pickups the entire time. But it seems as if about half the people where we live need to have a pickup. I don’t understand this.)

Cibiana is beautiful in the autumn. The hardwood trees brighten the scenery with oranges and yellows. But there is also a deciduous conifer, the European larch (Larix decidua Mill.). The European larch turns vivid yellow in the fall. And since it grows in extensive, dense stands entire mountainsides glow yellow. Of course, having a giant spire of rock protruding above the forest doesn’t hurt either.

If you love mountain scenery and peaceful, friendly villages then Cibiana di Cadore, Italy should be on your list. It is worth driving the narrow, winding mountain roads over the passes to find it. And it makes a great base for exploring the Dolomite Mountains, Venice (two hours south), and even southern Austria.

But the Sunset is Behind You

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Sunset Shining On The Basilica San Marco, Venice, Italy

Haven’t you seen enough sunrise and sunset photographs?

I think photographers are looking the wrong way when they photograph the sky filled with vividly-colored clouds or a bright orange (smoggy) glowing sky. Besides, how many of these do we need?

To me taking a photo of the rising or setting sun is like looking directly into the beam of  a flashlight instead of seeing what the flashlight is shining on. The light source is not the interesting part of the scene.

With landscape and street photography you don’t control what is highlighted by the sun (or even street lighting), but it is interesting to move with the changing light and show how things change.

The early morning and late afternoon light are a photographer’s natural tools. They provide interesting shadows that highlight features. The color of the light shifts as it passes through the lower atmosphere. These are well-established rules of thumb.

That low-angle sun spotlights features that are washed out at mid-day. The orange light of a sunset reflects off of landscapes and buildings. I try to keep sunsets and sunrises behind me to see what is highlighted by them.

That is certainly not an innovative idea. But whenever I see another sunrise or sunset photo I wonder what the scene behind the photographer looked like.

This photograph of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy glows with the low-angle light of a setting sun. The sun reflects strongly off of the metallic ornamentation. I know that the sun lowering over the Grand Canal behind me might have been photogenic also, but it just seemed like taking a picture of a light bulb. There are times when I am drawn to backlit scenes, but the elements in the foreground are the main reason on those occasions.

This photograph of the Basilica San Marco will be one of the photos in an exhibition in Libation (on the Plaza) in Arcata, California during April, 2011. The exhibition is called: A Sunny Day in Venice.

A Slice of Venice, Please

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Venice, Italy

Over the quiet rhythmic splashing of waves against the buildings you can hear accordion music and someone singing. You have walked away from the crowds and found a narrow dead end alley where you can watch the boats go by in the canal.

The old doors of the homes nearby have opened onto this alley for centuries. They are massive, sturdy doors but worn. Behind these utilitarian entrances lie refuges against the constant crowds. Refuges with history and commanding views over the waterways and piazzas.

You entered this surreal artistic creation called Venice from a water taxi. As you stepped off the boat the crowd surged toward the iconic buildings and views. But there were some who escaped down small side alleys along the narrow channels.

You have no plan. You just want to walk and see where you end up. The small pocket map shows some of the main features but is short on details. You know the direction to the main sites but you stay a block or two away and skirt around them.

You walk past small shops and outdoor cafés. The alleys become more narrow and sometimes you end up in a small courtyard surrounded by ancient three story buildings. The paint has faded to odd shades of pink, orange, magenta, brown, and yellow. In places where stucco has fallen away the bricks and mortar show through.

There are no cars. At times the alleys are crowded with other tourists. You cross many channels each with its own distinctive bridge.

Turning down another little alley you reach a major channel. To your left is a small landing at the back of a hotel. The hotel staff are loading suitcases and packs onto a boat. Guests are checking out and will be taken back to the parking structures north of town. Another boat is tied up there and workers are unloading boxes of produce and other restaurant supplies. The front of the hotel faces a large piazza where only pedestrians enter. Access is by boat.

You walk on, still avoiding the crowds as much as possible. Over another bridge and down a deserted alley you find a boatyard. A large black gondola has been pulled onto land for repairs. The family lives above the shop. Bright orange flowers hang down from the balcony.

In the distance you hear bells. They may be at Saint Mark’s Basilica or the Campanile or one of the other cathedrals. The sound echoes off of the stone walls. But you don’t heed the call.

You are looking for art.

A long walk and a gathering crowd lead you over the Ponte de l’Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal to the Accademia Gallery. Massive and incredible paintings from the 14th to the 18th century are a rich feast but tend toward heavy and dark religious themes. The paintings are impressive and unforgettable.  But you want variety. You find your way further to the east looking for the Guggenheim Collection of 20th century art. But when you arrive the wrought iron gate is closed. Closed Tuesday!

You cross back over the bridge and look for a late lunch. You are getting tired. There are cafés down almost every alley. But it needs to be the right one. One with good outside tables and an interesting location with a good view. Not too fancy. Finally you spot the right table that was just vacated. A long leisurely meal of tuna panini with red wine is just right. The day is advancing and the sun is lowering over the Grand Canal. The tide is out and it is finally time to face the main tourist sites around Piazza San Marco.

It is the right time. The light is golden and the buildings and statues reflect the colors. The white marble glows. The piazza is still wet from the high tide. The low sun is like a spotlight on the gold ornamentation and statuary that decorate Saint Mark’s Basilica. The Campanile and the clock tower hold the last light above the piazza. The air is cooling and the crowds are thinning. This is a time to savor.

The gondoliers stand ready for the twilight tours. As the light fades you have an espresso and a small dessert-the only way to find a bathroom. But when you walk outside into the dusk, the scene is still impressive. You wait at the dock for the water taxi. It becomes dark as you motor up the Grand Canal. You have glimpses into restaurants, homes, hotels, and cathedrals as you pass by. Their lights reveal the occupants and reflect across the water.

It has been a long day. A day filled with images, sounds, and smells. Your photographs show the scenes, but the voices, the songs, the accordions, the gulls, the laboring engines of the water taxis, the garlic, the vino rosso, and the feelings of walking through Venice without a plan-those are only memories. But they are only one day and one set of memories. Venice is worth another trip. Each trip will be a different slice of Venice.

Tweet the Raven, ‘Nevermore’

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Venice, Italy

One forty or less,

Here, is not success.

If pleasant escape is your goal,

A few characters more guide your stroll.

(111 characters)

This morning I read advice that blogs should be less than 500 words because attention spans are shrinking toward very short text messages and tweets.

I don’t agree with this simplistic conclusion. People seem to have time for reality TV shows and the stream of superficial nonsense that passes for news.

For example, the average American watches over 35 hours of TV per week. I know averages are problematic. Still, that is several hours per day per person! That is a choice, not an attention span issue.

Sometimes we want a brief update with immediacy, but other times we want to spend a few minutes and think a little.

This blog is for people who like to let their imagination travel while reading. Each posting is an illustrated short story. The photograph and words are the guides to another place and time.  Some are longer than others. I do not apologize.

I do try to create a place for you to go to for two or three minutes. The more vivid I make the description, the easier it is for you to go there. Most of these postings are less than 500 words. Sometimes it takes a few more words to fill in the sounds, smells, and feelings. Parsimony is the goal.

This photograph was taken at an outdoor café in Venice, Italy. I know it is not a raven. But it still triggered this posting.

Follow this link if you want to read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven.

The poem is 1,125 words and 6,299 characters and was written in 1845. It lacks immediacy and exceeds the tweet limit, but probably still worth a couple minutes. Choices.

Dolomitic Dreams

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Passo Falzarego, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Am I dreaming? Are these mountains possible?

Driving the narrow roads of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy forces you to question what you thought you knew about mountain landscapes and alpine beauty.

Along the way you also pass through many villages.

As you drive through a small picturesque village composed of stone houses, a cathedral, and a few essential businesses, your imagination is filled with ideas about what it would be like to live in the family home in a place like this. Generations before you have struggled forward from medieval trades and ancient traditions and superstitions. The grandchildren of your grandfather’s adversaries  may be your pals or your even your spouse. Your great grandmother’s volunteer work in the cathedral may still be on display in the form of draperies, lace, stitching or other handmade artwork. Old family disputes may be simmering or forgotten in the narrow cobblestone streets that are your shared world. Centuries of happiness, sickness, birth, celebration, faith, tradition, storms, and inventive tradesmen have filled your family history. You know the mountain slopes nearby as the source of your winter fuel, your water, and as the pastures where you spent your youthful summers tending the family livestock. But you also know the big city far below as the place of your studies and it pulls you toward a profession and career.

All of these ideas, and more, float through your mind as you reach the outskirts of the  village and begin the climb toward the next pass high above. The narrow cobblestone street gives way to even narrower asphalt. Massive stone walls provide the platform for  switchbacks as you ascend the steep mountainside bordering the valley where the villages are built. At times you drive near the rocky channel that delivers the snow melt runoff to the valley. The forest is dense. You can only see a short distance to the next corner. Suddenly a large truck appears and you move as far as you dare to the outside and hope that your mirrors don’t hit and that you don’t tumble down the slope. They don’t seem to be phased by the squeeze and don’t slow down. The driver in the car behind you is impatient and passes at the first opportunity and then disappears around the next corner. Now you can slow down and hug against the bank around the corner hoping not to meet another truck.

The sky above is filling with afternoon clouds. The autumn sun is low.

After dozens of corners you have climbed out of the valley, but your arms are getting tired. The forest begins to thin and there are large meadows. Then the view opens even more as you near the summit. Large expanses of grass mark where the snowfields linger in the spring.

The singular rock walls and spires of the Dolomite Mountains tower above the landscape. They always seem like they are out of scale. They are too tall when they  protrude that much above the huge forested mountain that you just drove up. They look almost artificial as if they were stretched in a digital image. But there they are.

If you are lucky the clouds will part and let the sun spotlight the white dolomitic walls. They are the real stars. The shaded forest and the dark swirling clouds frame the rock. You get glimpses of barely believable scenes as you drive near the summit.

You have to keep your eyes on the switchbacks. You have to look at the mountains.

You look back at the road just in time to swerve to the right as a motorcyclist leaning in around the corner screams by. Then six of his buddies zip by winding through the gears keeping their compression high and the adrenalin flowing. Bright colors on the tanks and on their suits leave a vivid memory, but they are gone and the sound slowly fades.

It is a relief to pull over. There is another scene that must be photographed. How can you depict such a spectacle? A short walk into the forest provides the vantage point you want, but the light is not good. The clouds are swirling around the rock. At times it is obscured completely. Eventually the clouds thin. And far to the west the clouds open and the sun shines through. The rock is almost too bright to look at. You photograph rapidly. Your time is short. Then the clouds close. Sometimes you get what you wanted, but often you don’t. You drive on. Oh, wait. Pullover. I have to get that. Repeat.

When you finally reach the pass you may find a small hotel, a café, a gift shop, and perhaps a cable car reaching up to the top of the rock. There are tour buses and lots of motorcycles parked while people take in the view. The names of the passes are intriguing: Passo Falzarego, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena, Passo San Pellegrino, Passo Cibiana, Passo Duran etc.

Each pass is integral to the history of the villages below. It can serve as the grazing grounds, the ski area, the tourist destination, the invasion point, or all of the above.

As you wind down the steep slopes on the other side the sequence is reversed. When you near the next valley small farms and inns begin to mark the outskirts of villages. The ancient traditions of these villages may not have been influenced by villages on the other side of the pass during the early centuries of history in each village. Languages may have been different also. Trade or war may have introduced their populations.

You pass through the village thinking about its history and start up the next pass.

What will you see on the other side of the mountain? It is an old question and even the theme of a children’s book .

In the Dolomite Mountains you are certain to be treated to an unexpected panorama of startling rock formations. On the other side of every mountain a new world of mountain history awaits. The views from the fabled passes make the climbs very worthwhile.

If you enjoy mountain scenery the Dolomite Mountains will make your dreams come true! You can view more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Accordion to Whom?

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Accordion Player, Venice, Italy

After a difficult lesson the accordion player left the music hall. He loaded his trusty accordion into the back seat of his car and drove toward home. Along the way he decided to stop at the store. As he finished shopping he was stricken with panic when he remembered that he had forgotten to lock his car. He rushed out only to have his worst fears confirmed. Now there were TWO accordions in the back seat!

Accordions, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect.

Accordions are rare in modern popular music in many countries. But they anchor the sound of many acoustic folk music traditions. I love to listen to Parisian café music and eastern European traditional music filled with accordions or concertinas. The music is simple, clean, and honest. It fills my mind with images.

I remember a jovial accordion player in the middle of Pont Neuf in Paris. I can still hear the easy flowing melodies and cheerful greeting. I am sure that he had played that tune thousands of times for thousands of tourists, but it still sounded pure and fun.

To me, accordions are happy and unpretentious instruments. They seem to say, “You may think that I am not cool, but I am going to play this beautiful melody anyway. Relax, smile, and enjoy it. Set aside your cynicism for a few moments and enjoy life!”

Wandering the streets with an accordion, fiddle, guitar, flute etc. is a hard gig. The sound that you enjoy is the jingle of Euros in your case or hat.

When I took this photograph I was just finishing a long lunch at an outside café in Venice. I was tired from a long frantic morning of photographing while the light lasted. The tuna panini and vino rosso had really hit the spot. I was chatting with fellow travelers at the next table. In the distance I could hear accordion music. The accordionist worked his way down the narrow cobblestone street toward us. He played nearby and then politely held his hat out for donations.

When he reached us I told him that we really couldn’t hear him very well. He smiled and played a lilting song just for me.  What’s a photographer to do? I took pictures and enjoyed every note! It was a kind gesture that was appreciated and rewarded with a solid jingle in the hat.

Live music creates vivid memories. I can still hear a beautiful large choir inside the cathedral in Geneva and the fiddle player playing for tips outside the train station in Geneva. I can hear organ grinders, flute players echoing off of old buildings, a guitar ensemble by the beach in Puerto Vallarta, an impromptu flamenco guitarist and singer in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and shrill horns and drums pushing through narrow alleys in Fez, Morocco. The most memorable music is the live acoustic music played outside for your entertainment. It makes the day a celebration. It is worth a few coins in the hat!

Rolling Through Cultural Dessert

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Home Away From Home, Imlil, Morocco

Gawking at the jagged vertical splendor of the Dolomite Mountains, or plodding slowly up a long, dry valley in the High Atlas Mountains, or imagining 12 centuries of intrigue within a mosque-turned-cathedral can only reveal the faintest outlines of the giant heaps of cultural riches of Italy, Morocco, and Spain. But they are tasty morsels. These settings shape the culture of the people who live there.

During 2010 I visited those three countries. I wandered around and tried to photograph some distinctive scenes and learn about their cultures. This posting is a look back at some of the memories of getting around in those countries.

Our own culture is nearly transparent to us. It is just how things are in our daily world. We take it for granted. But when we travel we notice culture and tradition by their contrasts to our norms.

Architecture, art, literature, languages, religions, education, government, transportation, food, greetings, gender relations, holidays, and many other expressions of culture and tradition make travel interesting.

You learn that other cultures and other traditions work. Brief glimpses don’t reveal differences in personal liberty and fulfillment. But you see happy people who seem contented. Some of them appear more contented than those who have much more material wealth, while some families do stagger under generations of poverty. The contrasts of wealth are extreme in some places. There is a great deal to think about as you walk village streets, or drive through, or ride a train through  towns in these countries.

This morning I was unpacking and cleaning my old and trusty rolling carry-on luggage. We just returned from a family Christmas reunion. I am amazed at how well that luggage has held up over the years.

As I looked at the wheels my mind started drifting to all the places they had rolled through this year. I thought about those towns in Spain, Morocco, and Italy which are still vivid memories.

The port of Málaga and the torn-up streets along the river between our motel and the train station were a workout for those wheels. Ancient Cádiz led us down the coast to Zahora. We let the luggage rest in a small beach house while we explored and photographed Los Canos de Meca, Barbate, Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes, Vejer de la Frontera and our local beach during the day. The autumn heat taught us the logic and beauty of the siesta. It also made the tapas option on the menu our only choice. Eating light was appropriate. You have to know how to order coffee the way you like it. This was a prime assignment for me for the first couple of days in each country. In Spain it was cortado doble! I photographed architecture, cathedrals, and street scenes in the beautiful hilltop village of Arcos de la Frontera. I learned about the frontier between religions in Andalucía. We spent an interesting night in a bull fighting arena in Jerez de la Frontera at a flamenco festival. After the train ride from Cádiz it was a long walk from the train station in Córdoba to our motel, but the luggage rolled on over paving stones, curbs, and concrete. In Granada we stood under an overhang near the train station waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t. So we deployed our plastic garbage bag rain covers for the luggage and walked briskly to our motel. When we returned to Málaga we had to negotiate the construction zone around the train station again, but no luggage failures. (Local spellings are used here throughout.)

It was a long train ride from Málaga to Algeciras where I took the ferry to north Africa. Tanger, Morocco is a challenge for travelers and luggage. It is a rugged industrial port which is well-worn and full of street hustlers. I had a long walk uphill to find my decrepit hotel. Old cobblestones were a hard workout for the wheels. An even longer walk the next morning to the train station was fortunately mostly over newer sidewalks. The train station in Tanger is new and shiny. I was supposed to be met at the train station in Fes by a taxi arranged by the hotel, but we missed each other. I got in a cab and started toward the old walled city center, the medina. We went only one block before the driver stopped in the middle of the street, jumped out, and got into a violent shouting argument with someone standing by the street. The cab door was hanging open in the traffic and I was alone in the cab as a small crowd gathered.  They were yelling in Moroccan Arabic so I never knew what it was about and it was unresolved when the driver returned. We went one more block and he stopped and picked up a friend who wanted to ride in the same direction. When I finally got to the gate of the medina he stopped and told me that my hotel was 200 meters ‘that way’. No cars can navigate the maze of tiny alleys and 200 meters provided plenty of rough cobblestones and many intersections. I was lucky that there were signs to the hotel. The taxi ride and the tumult of the crowded noisy alleys in Fes were intimidating but I was almost always treated with respect and kind hospitality. I learned a lot about Fes history, traditional crafts, religion, and culture. The medina was a total immersion. When I wheeled my load back up the hill to the gate to leave Fes I had an even more interesting cab ride. There are lots of official red Petite Cabs in Fes. I was waiting for one to drive by when a grizzled grandpa in a funky helmet rode up on a motorcycle pedicab. He insisted that he was a safe driver and would get me to the train station in good shape. I loaded my luggage and jumped in the open truck bed and hung on as my luggage and I bounced around through the potholes and traffic anarchy of Fes. But we did arrive safely. The longest train ride (8 hours) was from Fes to Marrakech. Due to a bad map that luggage really got a workout rolling over the stones and broken sidewalks around the train station as I circled the area trying to find the motel. Finally I gave up and took a cab. The next day was interesting for that luggage as it started the day in the back of a new SUV driving into the High Atlas Mountains and ended the day in a saddlebag on a mule in the village of Imlil. The photo above shows the entrance to Dar Imlil, a guest house. If you end up in Imlil someday, it should be high on your list for lodging. It is a great place. The last test for the luggage in Morocco was Casablanca. The urban streets would have been tough, but the cab driver found the motel (after an unsettling amount of wandering) and let me out at the door.

The Casablanca airport was smooth and easy for those wheels, as was Rome and Milano. Going through security and checking the luggage in Casablanca was very similar to US airports, except I couldn’t carry it on board along with my camera pack-0nly one item. But it showed up promptly in Milano ready for Italy. The next morning I had an interesting drive across northern Italy from Milano through Bergamo, Brescia, Verona,Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno on my way into the Dolomite Mountains. I was on the Autostrada (toll expressway) for most of the way so I could only see domes and cathedrals on hills in the distance. I eventually found my way on the narrow, winding roads in the mountains to the tiny beautiful village of Cibiana di Cadore. I rolled the luggage into the hotel and it stayed there safely while I explored the Dolomites. I even drove to Venice one day and to Kitzbuhel, Austria on another day. The self-reliance and love-of-life typical of mountain people were on display in every little village. Just as each village in Morocco had its mosque and minaret, so each village in the Dolomites had its cathedral and steeple. And since tourism and mountain recreation is vitally important, the villages are decorated with colorful shutters, hanging flower baskets, and artistic homes. Having a car in Italy allowed me to explore the Dolomites and I got a good workout. It took several days to get used to the narrowness with cars coming the other way on hairpin corners and big drop-offs. But the scenery is simply exquisite. I took so many photographs that I got physically exhausted from holding the camera.

Finally I had to pack up and head back to Milano. I put the strap around my faithful luggage and headed to the airport. It had navigated cobblestones, broken sidewalks, mule leavings, curbs, airport security, stairs, and over-packing again. No problem. During 2010 it also made trips to visit family in California and Oregon, USA. It went through a lot.

I tried to mail home and stuff in mementos from the many places that I visited. But most of my keepsakes are photographs, memories, and knowledge. Each time I was faced with new culture and traditions I felt disoriented and intimidated. But quickly a few interactions taught me that the people shared similar values and that their traditions were versions of the same things I was used to. Honesty, integrity, respect, humility, and thoughtfulness were expressed in each of the cultures. There were different religions, governments, and other cultural aspects. But as many people learn from traveling, we have more values in common than we realize.

Throughout my travels this year I enjoyed the variety of cultures and traditions. And there was certainly variety. And once again I learned that variety in art, architecture, traditions, etc enriches the experiences of travel. And the more time I put into learning about them before the trip the  better my photography planning goes and the more I get out of it.

In 2011 we plan a village-to-village walking tour near Cahors, France. My faithful rolling luggage will be stowed in a hotel at the starting point and we will venture on with light packs. But we will also explore the area for a few days after our walking tour so the luggage will get a workout.

I hope that in 2011 our experiences teach us more about our shared values and the importance of human connections. I wish the same for you!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Cloud Museum

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Museum in the Clouds, Messner Mountain Museum, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

“They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.” A classic line from the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi.

In it she complains, “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The Museum in the Clouds in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy is the opposite of this. The village cooperated with world-famous climber Reinhold Messner to rebuild a former army fort into a mountain museum, dedicated to honoring the spectacular Dolomite Mountains and the people who live and recreate there.

The army fort was built on the top of Monte Rite between 1912-1914 and gave a commanding view over any movements of troops below. It withstood World War I and II, despite attempts to blow it up. It is embedded into the mountain top and is built of stone.

Now it gives unrivaled 360° views of the major peaks of the Dolomite Mountains. And they are simply amazing. The museum building has been completely refurbished and houses a world-class collection of paintings, drawings, notebooks, gear, and memorabilia from the exploration and climbing of the Dolomites. It is prepared as an art exhibit and classic museum experience. All of the equipment and notebooks are archived and presented in display cases and wall displays. The paintings range from romantic period oil paintings to modern art. There is also a video presentation room.

The roof of the museum is flush with the summit of Monte Rite (2181 meters-7153 feet) and you can walk over the entire structure and see the view in all directions. Protruding through the roof are three polarized glass enclosures. They allow light into the museum but also provide views of the sky, mountains, and clouds from within.

I rode the first shuttle van up to the museum in the morning. It was a chilly, cloudy, and foggy day in October. I was the only tourist in the van with all of the museum and café staff. The road is closed to public traffic.

I spent the entire day around the summit trying to photograph the highest peaks as they emerged from the clouds. Except they didn’t emerge for several hours and even then not entirely. I waited by my tripod and tried to stay warm. I photographed a hikers’ bench and interesting rock outcrops. Every once in a while I could faintly see the imposing walls of the high peaks through thin spots in the clouds, so I would get ready and…then the clouds would close in again. Eventually most of the clouds dissipated, but the sky remained hazy all day.

During the day I also photographed the museum and the glass enclosures. I had a circular polarizing filter on the camera and the glass of the enclosures was also polarized. The cross-polarization made some interesting patterns in this photograph in the late afternoon. I had very little success with other photographs which was frustrating.

At the end of the day I walked down the four mile access road. The low evening sunlight highlighted nearby peaks and brightened the autumn colors. I was the only person walking down the hill and it was a very enjoyable quiet walk. Sometimes you have to keep the images in your own memory even if you can’t capture them to share with others. It was just about dark when I arrived back at the parking lot. It was a great day in the clouds and bright sun looking at the high Dolomites.

There is a network of these Messner Mountain Museums. They are dedicated to exploring, climbing, and living in mountain landscapes around the world. There is an emphasis on the historic relationship of humans to mountains.

You can see more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Firewood or Art?

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Artistic Stone House, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Life in the Alps is demanding. Weather is extreme and economic conditions are a challenge for most.

But still, in some mountain villages homeowners take the time to stack their firewood as artistic creations. They know that tourists will be strolling through their town and that their homes are on display. My firewood is stacked in rows in my shed, but I don’t take the time to make an artistic statement with it.

We first noticed this in Wengen, Switzerland in the Bernese Oberland. The stacks of wood outside village homes were more like sculpture than fuel. It looked like some of them had been there for years, for viewing. Tiny pieces of wood were arranged carefully to form intricate patterns.

This beautiful stone house in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy has a very carefully prepared firewood stack with flowers and artwork included in the display. Cibiana is filled with outdoor art.  Many of the older homes have murals painted on the outside. The villagers are aware that people enjoy looking at their well-tended homes.

It is a great place to photograph doors and windows.

Cibiana di Cadore is an ancient mountain town in northern Italy that has evolved from being a manufacturing center for heavy steel skeleton keys to become a beautiful, artistic place to visit in the Dolomite Mountains. The people are friendly and lodging is economical. It is a good base for driving throughout the Dolomites or even down to Venice. But you have to be comfortable with narrow winding mountain roads. It is a quiet place in October and the spectacular mountain scenery is enhanced with fall colors and cool temperatures.

You can see other Dolomite Mountain photos in the Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

If You’ve Seen One Mountain

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Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Pretty mountain pictures are a dime-a-dozen. Mountains are photogenic. Big deal. The cynic’s voice is clear: “I’ve seen them all.”

I have a particular affinity for mountain landscapes and the people who live in them. I am not a mountain climber, but I am duly impressed by their courage. I just like being in the mountains. I enjoy the strong weather, the raw landforms, the vegetation, and the traditions of self-reliance.  As I age I have become less enamored with cold and with physical labor, but I am still fascinated with mountains.

I put two mountain ranges high on my list of priorities on my recent photo excursion. They are both very different than any place I had ever been. That intrigued me. I worked very hard to depict their uniqueness, but in the face of such spectacles I felt inadequate.

I was gone for weeks and I am sure my family and friends wondered where in the heck I was and what I was looking at. Well, this photo is an example of what I was working on.

I am preparing an exhibit of these photos. It will be called: “If You’ve Seen One Mountain….” Photographs of mountain landscapes and their villages from The High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Dolomite Mountains of Italy.

The exhibit will be in Plaza Grill in Arcata, California beginning November 15, 2010.

“…mountain landscapes and their villages….”

Humans form a strong bond and a vital relationship to these mountain landscapes. The people, their traditions, and their villages are shaped by this relationship.

The exhibit will not just be pretty mountain photographs. I do hope the landscape photos will be  unique and interesting. But there will also be photos of the villages and buildings that people shaped from these mountains. Old, rustic, strong buildings. Beautiful villages. Simple lifestyles controlled by physical and financial struggles in harsh settings. Lifestyles that also create honest straightforward people who can be jovial and know how to celebrate the beauty of life lived in a beautiful place.

These villagers are people who are willing to welcome strangers as long as they enjoy and respect their place. I laughed with and made instant friends with people even though I did not understand Berber or Italian and they did not understand English. Life is good in these beautiful places even though it is also difficult. Why not smile and laugh? Why not plant flowers and artistically stack your firewood? Why not paint your shutters very red? Why not pause and look at the imposing skyline and enjoy the quiet? Why not walk slowly through your village and greet your neighbors?

I hope to show that attitude along with the striking scenery. The mountains, villages, and culture of Morocco and Italy are very different from one another. But the people have a great deal in common.

High Art

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Tower Sculpture, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Tower Sculpture, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

High art. Not high-brow art, just HIGH art. I am working on an exhibit of photographs of art in high places such as steeples, towers, minarets, domes, and building ornamentation.

The exhibit will be in Moonrise Herbs in Arcata, California in November, 2010.

This exhibit is the result of telephoto explorations of artwork in Spain, Morocco, and Italy. It will include photographs of steeples and minarets, which are remarkably similar to one another. But it will also highlight sculpture and other ornamental details high on towers and buildings.

The question is: Why did they put such great artwork so far off of the ground?

The only way that most people will ever appreciate this work is by looking through  binoculars, telescopes, or telephoto lenses. That is unfortunate because the detail and skill shown in this artwork is remarkable.

I will post some of these photos on this blog as I work my way through photographs from my recent excursion.

This first example is in Venice, Italy on a tower high above Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). It is near Saint Mark’s Basilica. This entire piazza is crammed with high art. The buildings are enormous and densely decorated with sculpture. The roofs bristle with statues and weird ornamentations.

The tile background behind the lion sculpture is a rich blue color that still matches the sky, visible on the sides of the tower, on a beautiful sunny day in Venice. When I look closely at this photo I can see that there is netting stretched over the lion. It must be there to keep pigeons off of the sculpture. The lion is holding a book sculpture. I would not have been able to read the script on the book standing in the piazza. Can you read it? Probably not on this small version. In Latin it says, “Peace unto you Mark my evangelist”. When this is printed and framed it is very legible.




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