Saturday marked the end of our second week here. It’s been interesting – we’ve been able to live in our rented “beach home” just about like we live in our “real” home. We’ve gone out to eat a few times but mostly eat in, have managed to keep our car trips to a minimum and spend most of our time doing the same kind of things we’d do at home. We take a bit of pride in the number of days our car doesn’t move from the garage, both here and at home.
Yesterday the local cable company upgraded the cable boxes and modems in our building to a new digital service. The upside for us is that the internet is now about 10X faster than it used to be, and we also have hundreds more TV channels to not watch! The picture is great! Unfortunately the content is the same, just a lot more of it.
At some point I realized that in the next day or two will have been “away from home” for the longest times in our lives with the exception of college and the 2 months or so that I lived in corporate housing when we relocated to North Carolina from Ohio.
The interesting thing is that we’ve settled into life here with nary a glitch. We talked the other day about how quickly this place seems like home. We brought a reasonable amount of “stuff” with us – mostly clothes, camera gear and electronics – and anticipated a few trips to Target or Wal-Mart to pick up things our condo didn’t have. But so far all we’ve had to buy is food, water and wine! It’s amazing how well we can live for an extended time with just the stuff that will fit in the car.
The weather hasn’t been ideal, but we’ve had a number of really nice days. For this time of the year, a couple of nice days each week is about what we expected. It’s warmer than home and a lot warmer than a lot of other places we could be! It’s easy to accept a rainy day or two when we’ve got so many to work with.
Thanksgiving will be a little weird this week, but we don’t do a lot of major family stuff and we never travel over that weekend, so it isn’t too big of a deal. We have a couple of steaks and a nice bottle of wine and will celebrate in our own way. We might even turn on the TV and watch the parades…likely with the sound off, of course!
Taking full advantage of our recently won freedom, we’re heading to Hilton Head Island tomorrow. We originally planned to go for a couple of weeks but got a deal on a place for the month. My intentions are to take and post a photo per day. We’ll see how that works out! 😉
Kathy & I recently returned from a trip to Ohio to visit friends and family. One of the days that we were there, we visited Ohio’s “Amish Country” with our friends Bill & Cathy. There was an Amish area of western Pennsylvania when I was growing up, but I remember it as a place where my grandmother took her quilt tops to have quilted and to occasionally pick up a pie, some cookies or some cheese. It always involved stopping at someone’s farm or a small market and was always interesting because they seemed rather shy and didn’t socialize much. We did the business we came to do and then went on our way.
That was a long time ago, and I admit that the world has changed. But one of the things that struck me about this most recent visit to Amish Country was how commercialized it has become. While there are still genuine Amish farms, furniture builders and markets, they are almost overshadowed by these huge, I’ll call them “mega-markets” that support the throngs of tourists that visit each year. It is a far cry from the Amish country that I remember from when I was a kid.
As examples, what was once a small sales area of a local cheese plant is now a huge retail outlet, larger than the actual factory itself, selling something like 100 different flavors of cheese. A place that was once a general store is now a multi-level trinket outlet with countless items to take home and store in our closets along with plenty of gifts for the kids and grandkids. Kathy refers to all that stuff as the “mommy-can-I-gets.” A restaurant called “Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen” while possibly still owned by someone named Yoder, is essentially a huge dining hall with a kitchen and multiple buffet lines serving food that I wonder if the actual Amish would eat. Maybe I’m wrong but that was the impression I came away with. But the tourists love it!
While we were in Amish Country I picked up a local tourist magazine that essentially contained advertising for all the places the tourists are supposed to visit while they are there. I was struck by the number of ads for businesses that seemed to revolve around activities that weren’t actually Amish – fancy hotels, clothing stores, restaurants, music and play theaters, souvenir shops. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were actually owned by the Amish and how much of the profits actually stay in the communities. It would be interesting to know if you could actually figure it out.
This isn’t all about the Amish or Amish Country, however, and my observations aren’t limited to one area of rural Ohio. In many ways this commercialization is a reflection of the overall focus on commerce in our society, and applies to cities big and small, islands in the Caribbean and cruise ports around the world. No longer is it enough to just enjoy the scenery on a walk down the main street in a cute little town in the middle of nowhere, but now our visit won’t be complete unless we have an opportunity to buy stuff. If you manage to even find the town itself it is almost a miracle! We’ve got antiques and gifts and fudge and restaurants galore, but too often the retail/tourism side of things has managed to erase whatever it was that caused the town to be interesting in the first place.
When we were in Italy, one of the highlights for us was exploring the towns of Tuscany on our photo workshop with Jeff Curto. Most of the places we visited seemed to be close to the original, and the commercialization fell way short of what we see here in the states. But a lot of the towns there, just like here, have undergone what I heard referred to as the “Rick Steves Effect.” Places that were once quaint and charming suddenly become famous and are overrun with tourists. Almost immediately these places lose what made them famous and become just another stop on the bus tour. It’s a lot like cruise ship ports – every one looks the same after a while because they all contain the same shops. But I digress….
I often comment about how places have become “Disneyfied” in that what tourists see bears little or no resemblance to what the place is best known for. Multimillion-dollar developments replace straw markets and rum shacks in the Caribbean. Gift and jewelry store chains promoted by cruise lines and tour companies sell merchandise in glitzy shops. Merchandise that comes from parts of the world far removed from the place in which it is being sold. There’s obviously a market for that stuff, as these companies seem to be successful and growing. But it makes it hard to experience a place for what made it worth visiting in the first place.
I know this may sound really negative, but that wasn’t my intention. It’s just that all of these things have gotten me to think about how I want to experience the parts of the country and the world that we visit. Do we want to check off a bunch of “must-see” tourist spots and buy the appropriate souvenirs, or do we want to seek out the undiscovered places that have as much or perhaps even more of the charm that made the famous places famous? Do we buy our souvenirs, take our selfies and move on, or do we slow down, look around and try to find the places that are just off the beaten path? It is an interesting challenge, for sure!
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!
It’s not exactly an obsession, but one of the things I look for when we travel (other than lighthouses and covered bridges) is train stations. They are generally very easy to spot, as their architecture tends to be quite unique. They are usually, but not always, located next to railroad tracks. Sometimes they are still active passenger depots, but more often than not have been converted to offices, civic centers or meeting halls. I’ve seen some that are police stations, city halls and even restaurants. Most heartbreaking for me is when I see one in disrepair. It takes a lot of money to keep these places up, but they are an important part of history and I love to see them being used and maintained.
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!
Kathy & I have been capitalizing on our newly won freedom from cubicle confinement & PTO allocation and are ready to set off on our next adventure. Nothing as dramatic as Italy this time – a quick visit to family and friends in Ohio with a stop or two along the way. Some time in Shenandoah National Park, down the Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway before returning home to do laundry. 😉 No telling what might happen after that!
Making a slight diversion from working on and posting about Italy photos….
I first heard the term “stochastic photography” in a post by Ctein on The Online Photographer way back in 2010. It’s sort of a refined version of pointing your camera at something, taking a boatload of pictures and hoping some of them come out in a way that is pleasing or that somehow meet the intention of what you were trying to capture. As in “I’ll know it when I see it.” I don’t always remember to use that technique, although I often recognize situations where it might be appropriate. Sometimes I even have my camera with me. While I don’t generally care to make my photographs “about the technique, ” sometimes the technique helps to define the photographs. Post-visualization perhaps, rather than pre-visualization?
Kathy & I spent 4th of July week out in eastern NC, in New Bern and Belhaven. One morning we stopped at the Bell Island Pier, which is a fishing pier within the Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, near Swan Quarter, NC. It was a beautiful day, with towering cumulus clouds and a deep blue sky. I noticed the reflections of the sky in the water and decided to see what I could get.
Over the course of about 4 minutes I fired off a little more than 100 shots. It’s a little hard to tell which ones are “successful” but I’ve put together a little collection of a few that I liked. The ones that “feel right” to me have a nice balance of light and dark, color and no color, with an interesting pattern. I may decide later on that there are others I like or some that I don’t like, but that’s part of the fun!
This is the text from a write-up I did for our travel agent and tour company describing our experiences with the tour we did our first week in Italy.
When Kathy & I decided to visit Italy, we elected to use a tour company primarily due to the logistics involved with driving there and because of the need to tour the major sights with some kind of group in order to avoid spending valuable vacation time waiting in lines. We chose to tour with Tauck on the recommendation of our travel agent because of Tauck’s reputation and expertise in Italy. Our travel agent indicated that Tauck provided a good mix of quality accommodations in good locations, a high level of food and service, with knowledgeable and expert local guides and a good mix of organized activities and flexible time. We found all those things to be very much the case.
From the time we stepped out of baggage claim at the airport in Venice, to the time we joined the line for check-in at the Rome airport, we felt like we were traveling with people and a company that cared for us and looked out for us every step of the way to make sure we had an excellent vacation.
Our Tauck Tour Director was Andrea Orri, an Italy native and obviously a seasoned travel professional. Andrea consistently amazed us with his ability to communicate details, answer countless questions and essentially herd 40 distinct personalities around without even a hint of difficulty. All we had to do was show up at the appointed time and everything just “happened” as promised. His descriptions and explanations were communicated accurately, clearly and with a fantastic sense of humor. We learned a number of “Andrea-isms” that we will remember and use for years!
We don’t have a lot of special needs or unusual requests, but I have an occasional problem with claustrophobia, especially in tight spaces. When we mentioned this to Andrea he very quietly and professionally made sure I had a comfortable location on the bus and in the van. It was great and I never had a problem.
Andrea was always available to answer questions or give input. He freely provided ideas and directions for places to visit and restaurants to go for lunch or dinner. He often would make our reservations and provide directions to the places for us. We know that a lot happened behind the scenes, but what we observed was nothing less than amazing. If Andrea is representative of the quality of people who work for Tauck – and we have no reason to expect otherwise – there is no question that we would make Tauck our first choice for future travel of that type.
We found the hotel accommodations to be outstanding. The hotels themselves are centrally located with good amenities, we could not have asked for better. Our hotel in Venice was literally steps from St. Mark’s Square. In Florence, we were an easy walk from the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo and other sights. We could have used taxis but decided to enjoy the walking. Our hotel in Rome was centrally located, with a number of sights, restaurants and shopping within easy walking distance. Because of the sheer size of Rome, we used buses a lot more there than anywhere else.
We knew going in that this was a “hit the highlights” tour, and that there would be a lot of things we would skim over or simply miss. It’s just not possible to see “all” of the things in any one city in an entire lifetime, but we saw all of the “important” things with ample free time for the things that we wanted to see on our own. In Venice, I wanted to get out early and photograph the canals before the tourists arrived. In Florence we wanted to visit the Galileo Museum, and in Rome we wanted to walk to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. We did all of those things and more during the plenty of flexible time we had.
The after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel was itself worth the price of taking the Tauck tour. To be able to spend 30+ minutes in that space with a group of only 100 people, fully narrated by our guides, was truly a special experience. To my knowledge Tauck is the only company with that kind of access, and knowing how the usual tours are herded through quickly and without any narration, I would not have wanted to do it any other way. To have that amazing visit capped off with a dinner on the grounds of The Vatican, the evening could not have been more special.
Overall, we felt that the pace of the tour was just right. It would have been nice to have more time in the places we visited, but by missing all the lines we actually had more time in each of the places we did visit than most people would have had. The only thing we really weren’t prepared for was the amount of walking we would do, and we thought we had prepared! There were just a lot of things to do and places to see. It was no problem to exceed 10,000 steps per day on a regular basis!
Every tour group has a guide, and most of them are good. But we were especially impressed with the local guides that Tauck used in each city. They weren’t just locals who speak English, but were degreed art professionals who knew and could explain in intricate detail the history and importance of the places and pieces we visited. Being able to learn about those things was an added detail that we hadn’t expected but were happy to have been able to experience.
I mentioned earlier that things “just happened.” We never had to wonder about where to go, what to bring or what we were doing. On transfer days our luggage “disappeared” then “reappeared” at our destination. Transportation was always on time, restaurants were always ready for us and things were just right. I can’t imagine a more flawless experience.
Most of our fellow travelers were similar in age and demographics to us – 50’s to 70’s, with a few older and some teen and 20-year old kids and grandkids. It was a group of seasoned travelers with an appreciation for the food, culture and experience. We were surprised at the number of first timers – both to Italy as well as with Tauck. As an introductory tour to both that was understandable.
The perception of value is a very individual thing. Our Tauck tour appeared to be quite expensive, and it was, and many people would question whether it was worth the price. But when we consider all the things that were included, plus all of the advantages we gained in terms of time, access and experience, I personally would not have wanted to give up all of the positives to save a few dollars. I will say that the Tauck tour was an excellent product and that the quality lives up to the promise. Sometimes we pay more than we’d like for the experience we want. The “worth-it” decision is a personal one but one that we feel was appropriate for this vacation.
While this tour is not billed as “all-inclusive” it does include a lot. But it is important to be aware of and understand the cost of things that are not included. All of that free time and meals “on your own” come with a cost, and while each traveler has a certain amount of control over their spending, these are not inexpensive cities and everyone should plan, and budget, accordingly. And that doesn’t take into account the SHOPPING!
It is possible to do A LOT of walking, with a lot of steps, bridges and cobblestone streets. Be sure you know what you are getting into before you book.
In summary, we had a fantastic week and look forward to an opportunity to tour with Tauck again!