I was just corresponding with a friend about the recent flooding in Venice, Italy. There had been some flooding in the spring but of course it was gone before we got there. They had put up temporary elevated walkways in the spring but even those are under water now. Glad we didn’t need to deal with that then!
I wrote previously about our Venice, Florence & Rome tour and have been meaning for far too long to write about the second week of our Italy adventure. I keep promising myself to write more “in the moment” instead of months behind, but so far that hasn’t happened. Retirement is hard work!
Italy began calling my name when I first saw Bob Krist’s photographs in Frances Mayes’ book In Tuscany. Although I’ve not seen Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve read all of Mayes’ subsequent books about her life in Tuscany and in particular really identified with her description of the life, the people and the scenery of Tuscany, and I especially loved the idea of La Dolce Vita, Italian for “the sweet life” or “the good life.” Krist’s photos and Mayes’ narrative had captured my imagination and convinced me that Italy was a place that I needed to visit.
A trip to Italy had been “over the horizon” both literally and figuratively for years. When I thought of traveling to Italy, there were two ways I wanted to do it. First, I had been following Jeff Curto’s Camera Position podcasts for years, and when Jeff started doing his Photograph Italy workshops, I was convinced that I wanted to visit Tuscany “Jeff’s Way,” which would ideally be on one of Jeff’s workshops but could also be something we did on our own. Second, I’ve wanted to take a transatlantic cruise either to or from Italy, flying the opposite way, and spending time on land either before or after the cruise. A visit to Tuscany would undoubtedly have been a requirement of that option.
When Kathy & I decided to start planning a trip to Italy, our first idea was to fly there, do some kind of tour, then cruise back to the US. We wanted to do a tour there because of the logistics of navigating all the cities and towns with their congestion, crowds and parking restrictions. Not to mention the language, since neither of us speaks Italian! We wanted to leave the driving to someone else. We started looking at going in the fall, since the cruise ships that spend the summer in the Mediterranean start heading back “across the pond” in October and November and it should be easy to find one at a good price.
We began by looking at tours that would take us to the usual highlights of Italy – Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, etc. while spending an appropriate amount of time in Tuscany. Appropriate to me was at least 3-4 days, but very few of them spent more than one night with most of them being a “drive-thru” on the way from one place to another. For me to get what I really wanted would require organizing some kind of customized tour with a driver/guide to handle the navigation and logistics. After much looking and analyzing, one day Kathy looked at me and said, “you just need to do Jeff Curto’s tour. That’s what you’ve always wanted and you ultimately won’t be happy with anything less.” Yes, I love this lady 🙂 and she is also the first to tell me that I need to buy the better tool or the better camera (when it matters) instead of taking the cheaper route. That settled, we decided to look into doing that, and conveniently it was just a couple of weeks before Jeff opened his workshops for registration.
Why Jeff Curto?
As I mentioned above, I had been following Jeff Curto’s Camera Position podcasts for years, and had come to love his teaching style and the fact that his focus is on “The Creative Side of Photography.” His Camera Position podcasts – and additionally, while he was actively teaching, his History of Photography podcasts – showed me a person with the personality, temperament and teaching style that I thought I would respond well to.
I had corresponded with Jeff several times previously and he was familiar with me and my interest. And rather than writing me off as another wishful-thinking wannabe, when I contacted him with questions about his upcoming registration and told him I was definitely planning to sign up, he “bent the rules” just a little to allow me to receive advance notice so I could get signed up. Another star in the “plus” column!
Because the workshops are limited to just 7 people, I needed to sign Kathy up as a participant even though she likely would not be picking up a camera. Fortunately, she doesn’t usually mind carrying one of mine, especially now that they are smaller and lighter! And with the promise of daily excellent food and yummy wine, she wasn’t a hard sell. Jeff was kind enough to adjust the fee for the fact that she would not need instruction and would not be participating in the critiques.
The Workshop Experience
From the time we signed up to go, Jeff provided regular and comprehensive communications, with tips and ideas for our planning, things to remember to bring and even “homework” to allow us to prepare for getting the most out of the experience. All of the participants are on Facebook, so he set up a private group so we could get to know each other a bit ahead of time by sharing articles, questions and photos. By the time we were ready to go, all our questions were answered and we just had to show up!
Kathy & I had chosen our earlier Tauck tour partly because it ended in Rome on the day the photo workshop was to begin. It was an easy 10-minute taxi ride from our hotel to a piazza near the Pantheon, where we arrived early and had time to wander a bit before the rest of the group and our van arrived. As it turned out, the rest of the group had stayed in a hotel adjacent to the piazza and had met for dinner the previous night. Since that was the last night of our Tauck tour and was the night of our after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel, we missed out on that dinner. Otherwise it was a piece of cake to catch up with Jeff and the other members.
I won’t go into excruciating detail about the agenda, because it is available on Jeff’s website. I will say, however, that the entire experience completely met and exceeded my expectations. We spent the week in the Tuscan hill town of Pienza, and while everyplace else we went was fantastic, I could easily have spent the entire week in and around Pienza. Our hotel there was family-owned with nice rooms, a decent restaurant, a great location and very comfortable. The town itself was lovely, with many shops, restaurants, interesting churches and architecture, and beautiful views of the Val d’Orcia. The daily workshop schedule was relaxed but productive, and the fellowship and camaraderie of the group was exactly as I had hoped.
Our group “classroom” sessions sometimes involved standing under a tree in the shade and listening or watching, sometimes involved the group gathered in his hotel room with a television for viewing images. Whatever the venue, Jeff was very informative and provided the inspiration and encouragement needed to benefit from the experience. Jeff would be a great instructor anywhere, but his passion for photography and for Tuscany comes through in his enthusiasm for the workshops.
Jeff based the amount of tutoring and teaching in the field to each individual person. The background of each participant varied in age, profession and experience. Kathy was the only non-photographer, but as I’ve previously said, she sees and thinks like a photographer, the only thing that keeps her from being one is that she won’t use a camera! One other person, who is the spouse of another participant and who was picking up a camera for virtually the first time, had very little experience. The others were all experienced photographers with impressive travel experience and previous workshops on their resumes and with similar objectives for the week.
The “final exam” for our workshop was for the participants to select a group of images and put together a themed slide show. We had a choice of software to use (I used Lightroom) and we each created a 20~ image presentation that we set to music and shared with the group. Jeff also published them on his website. I was the “overachiever” of the group 🙂 and did two – the links to them are at the end of this post.
I feel like a came away from the week in Tuscany with 7 new friends: Jeff and his wife Mary Pat were excellent hosts, and the other 5 participants were great companions on our adventure. Although we were only together for a week, Kathy & I had lunch with Jeff & Mary Pat several times and feel like we’ve been friends forever. While it would cement the relationship to go on a few more workshops 😉 , I feel like we could meet up again anywhere in the world and have a great time. I’ve become Facebook and Instagram friends with the other participants as well. We may never get together again but we have forged a common bond that will last for a long time.
I could be happy going back to Italy in general and Tuscany in particular every year for a long time. The only thing really holding me back (besides the obvious: funding) is that there are many other places I’d also like to see. I do hope to get back to Italy, to Tuscany and on a Photograph Italy workshop in the near future. In the mean time I’ll see what I can do about getting to some of those other places!
I posted previously about having made a slideshow of color photos from our Tuscany workshop. A personal project of mine has been to get better at seeing and photographing in Black & White. I recently created a separate slideshow to showcase my progress toward that goal. Link to video is below.
Thanks to Jeff Curto for his encouraging feedback and for hosting the videos until I get my own Vimeo page set up!
Video is here:
“Seventy-five years ago, tourism was about experience seeking. Now it’s about using photography and social media to build a personal brand. In a sense, for a lot of people, the photos you take on a trip become more important than the experience.” – New York Times
The article mentioned above is worth a read for a number of reasons, but primarily the references to “over tourism” prevalent in many parts of the world. I mentioned in a previous post that I had never seen so many selfie sticks – and tourists photographing themselves instead of the scenery – and this article expands on that in much more detail.
One of my favorite activities when traveling to interesting locations is to photograph people taking photographs. It’s almost become too easy – like “shooting fish in a barrel” as they say. But I try to keep it interesting and include some of the surroundings as context. It is a bit aggravating, but since I can’t easily get the people out of the pictures I figure I might as well go with the flow.
These are just a few of the photos I took of “POPTP” from our recent visit to Italy.
When visiting a place known for being a photographic destination, it isn’t unusual for certain locations to be “famous” as sites of iconic photographs. We all have our favorite examples. One of them for me was the photos I made of the blurry gondolas in Venice. While I captured the obvious shot, I also tried to find my own view, to make it my own, in a sense.
While on our photo tour in Tuscany, several of the students asked about specific locations and whether we would be going there. Jeff (Curto) indicated that those spots were not on the itinerary but that we would likely pass by a few of them. Jeff was very familiar with the locations, but cautioned us that for a number of reasons – namely conditions such as weather, season or time of year – we would not be able to capture the photos those folks had in their minds and had seen on Flickr, Facebook or National Geographic. But, photographers being photographers, they wanted to go anyway so we did. There’s nothing wrong with photographing famous photographic subjects of course, but Jeff encouraged us to find our own unique view of the locations – under the conditions we found there – and to make the best of them.
Case in point is our visit to the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta, which is in the Tuscan countryside near Vitaleta, Italy and is the location of the photo I posted previously and the location of the photos in this post. It’s a spot that even I was familiar with, having found photos on a number of websites and possibly in a guidebook or two along the way. It is a beautiful scene under just about any conditions, but at the time of our visit we faced a number of challenges. First, being that it is a place famous for being famous, it attracts a lot of attention. In the middle of the afternoon in June, there was no way to avoid people. Second, it was 4:00 in the afternoon, not exactly an ideal time for photography, although the light in Tuscany was almost always ideal for some kind of photography!
I worked to try and come up with a couple of views that I felt would reflect my own take on the scene. By taking the wide-angle approach I minimized the appearance of people and took advantage of the great sky and the surrounding landscape. I also looked around for other scenes that were not as iconic but photo-worthy themselves. I think I came up with a few good shots, including one of some actual people! On the distance shots I could have cloned out most of the bodies, but to me that was part of the scene and I decided to leave them in. Plus, the scenes looking elsewhere didn’t have any people in them! If at some point I decide to make a “fine art” print I may take a few more liberties.
While I continue to work on Tuscany photos, I thought I would share this one. More to follow!
The highlight of our visit to Rome was two separate sessions in Vatican City. The first, a daytime visit to the grounds of the Piazza San Pietro and St. Peter’s Basilica, was followed by an exclusive evening visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.
From Wikipedia: Designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Catholic Church nor the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, St. Peter’s is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines. It has been described as “holding a unique position in the Christian world” and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom.”
Needless to say, St. Peter’s Basilica is an incredible place and one of the best-known churches in the world. On top of that it contains a priceless collection of art & sculpture. To be able to spend time in that space, admiring the architecture and the art, was truly awe-inspiring. I took a lot of photos there, but they only capture the visual essence of the place, but not the spiritual feeling one gets just by being there. I’m not a religious person, but I was inspired by the beauty and sheer magnificence of the place.
Outside of St. Peter’s, the grounds of the Piazza San Pietro, the statues and various buildings were quite a sight. I’m guessing that Vatican City is likely one of the most secure locations in the world, likely even more so than the White House, but although the security was visible it was not intrusive. The Swiss Guards appear to be ceremonial, but I got the impression that they would quickly become much more than guys in colorful uniforms if push came to shove. There were a few Carabinieri and other police and military security personnel visible but mostly in inconspicuous locations. I took a few photos but didn’t want to push my luck with guys carrying machine guns!
Tauck, the company that operated our tour, has a special arrangement with the Vatican to provide after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel. For most tourists, a visit to ‘Cappella Sistina’ involves a trudge down a long, hot hallway with 10,000 of their closest friends, only be quickly herded through the chapel, with talking and photography forbidden. Our group met up with two other Tauck groups and were escorted by our guides (and Vatican security) through the halls and numerous galleries of the Vatican Museum and ultimately into the Sistine Chapel proper, where we stayed for over 30 minutes, simply to observe and stand in awe of that place. Our guides were able to narrate, and describe in detail, many of the pieces we observed in the museum, then provide a comprehensive explanation of both the ceiling and the walls of the Sistine Chapel. We were still not permitted to take photographs, but there was nothing I could take that would come close to capturing the essence of the place. After completing our visit, we were treated to a buffet dinner with wine on the grounds of the Vatican. It was a simply indescribable experience!
Well, some of them anyway. After our visit to Florence we made our way via another high-speed train to Rome, where we had a bit of a whirlwind tour. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, and you can’t see Rome in a day, or even two. Rome is a huge place, spread out over a large geographic area, with historic buildings and ruins interspersed with more modern development. We had essentially two days in Rome, which included two visits to the Vatican which I will post about separately, so to say that we skimmed the surface was an understatement!
Our visit began with a bus tour of the city, starting with lunch at a nice restaurant with a wine cellar that was actually in a catacomb, concluding at the Colosseum where we took a tour. It’s hard to get a sense of the size of the Colosseum from photos, but suffice it to say that it would rival most stadia in our country.
On the second day we had free time between morning and evening sessions at the Vatican (upcoming post). We spent that time on a self-guided walk past some of the major highlights, including lunch at a sidewalk café in Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps (yes, we climbed them!) and the Pantheon. It was a hot walk and there were tons of people everywhere, but it was definitely worth the effort. We didn’t push too deeply into the crowds, partly for safety and avoiding pickpockets, but also because it was fun just to see all of the people from a distance. As I did in most of the places we visited, rather than trying to keep people out of my photos – an impossible task! – I made my photos to include the people to try and give a sense of the crowds that were everywhere.
Our tour ended on the following day, where we met up with the photography group with which we would spend a week in Tuscany. I haven’t even started on those photos yet, so that will come even later. I’m trying to post somewhat in order, mostly for my own benefit but also for the benefit of those who are following along on this adventure. Lots more words and pictures to come, thanks for hanging in with me!
I would suppose that for most visitors, the focus in Florence is on art and architecture. That was certainly the focus on our tour there. And why not? In a city that houses the most famous statue in the world, several of the most famous paintings in the world, and one of the most important architectural achievements in the world, a visit would not be complete without paying one’s respects to these things.
Our tour group arrived in Florence in late morning, after taking the Alta Velocità (AV, or high speed,) train) from Venice. That in itself was a wonder, with a comfortable, on-time and efficient train taking us at speeds up to 250km/hour through the Italian countryside to our destination. We should be able to do half as well in this country, but I digress….
At our hotel in Florence, we were met by an art historian who essentially explained the Renaissance in about 45 minutes! It was a great introduction to the things we would see while we were in Florence. And see we did! Visits to the Uffizi Gallery and the Academy of Florence Art Gallery (Galleria dell’ Accademia di Firenze) were definitely highlights, as were just walking around and absorbing the sights. The Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) is magnificent, and although we chose not to climb the 463 steps to the top (would have taken too much time…yeah, that’s it 😉 ) we were able to admire its beauty from the ground.
Walking around Florence was a bit confounding, as all of the streets around the cathedral tend to veer off into unexpected directions. You wouldn’t think so from looking at a map, but Kathy & I got lost one night when we decided to take the long way back from dinner. Of course we had very confidently left the hotel without a phone or a map! We did eventually stumble our way back “home” but that was one of the days I recorded over 14,000 steps! We made sure to have some kind of navigation aid with us from then on. Oops.
I had recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Da Vinci, and the idea of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, Brunelleschi and others walking around Florence at about the same time had me fascinated. I even imagined the group of them holed up in a bar somewhere, drinking mead and talking about sports. The reality though is that these geniuses were all in fierce competition, especially for Medici money. Although I think they harbored a certain amount of respect for each other, I don’t know that they would have had each other on their Christmas card lists. Hard to say for sure!
One of our days included a bus tour into the Tuscan countryside to visit and have lunch at one of the Antinori wineries. It was set in an old monastery and was very interesting, not to mention delicious food and great Italian wines! I’ll talk about that visit in a separate post.
In addition to the planned highlights, we had several opportunities to explore the city on our own. One of the places I had wanted to visit was the Galileo museum. While it doesn’t contain a lot of actual Galileo artifacts, it does contain a display with one of his teeth and a finger. Really! Otherwise it is a very nice collection of artifacts from the 15th & 16th centuries, with very well-done exhibits of scientific instruments & personal items from the history of science. Kathy had an opportunity to sample the famous leather shops and brought home some souvenirs, and of course I was able to have the famous Florentine T-bone steak I posted about previously!
We saw only a small slice of Florence, and it is the kind of place where you could spend weeks or months and not see it all. But we saw most of the highlights, and certainly saw enough to convince us that we could probably come back in the future and spend extended time there. Hopefully with a map!
I saw this woman sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Rome, and noticed that the pattern on her slacks matched exactly the pattern on the chair. I couldn’t help but make a photo, hoping that she didn’t turn around and bust me. 😉