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Archive for April, 2010

Mission to Prada

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Today, we decided to rent a car and head down to Siena. We never made it there, but we had a one of our best days yet. Things started out rocky. The plan was to pick up the rental car early in the morning so we could get out of town with plenty of time for our full day. Little things quickly gummed up the works however.

It’s easy to tell time in the morning in Florence since the church bells go off every hour. I just count them and know when it’s time to get out of bed. This morning, I miscounted. So like someone who forgets to reset their watch when the time changes, I was an hour off. Or I should say, an hour late. Instead of being at the car rental office when I should of, I was back at the apartment thinking I had all the time in the world.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad but for the fact that I managed to lose our train tickets to Venice just after we bought them yesterday. Which meant so heading back to the station to stand in line, spend another 100 Euro all over again and kick myself for being such an idoit. By the time we finished standing in line, dealt with the tedious and unfriendly rental car clerk then finally drove off with our rental, we were a couple of hours behind schedule.

The good news was that we were upgraded to a Mini Cooper which made all the driving I did a lot more fun. My plan was to stop by the Prada outlet which is about an hour south of Florence on the way to Siena. It’s on the way, I’ve got the map, how hard can it be? Well, as to be expected when driving anywhere in Italy, we got lost, sidetracked and misdirected several times en route.

The Google Maps on Jen’s iPhone told us that we were standing in front of the building when, according to a couple local women walking by, it was actually ten kilometers down the road. When it comes to getting to a discount clothing store, I’ll trust a woman over the most advanced mapping technology any day.

Here’s a robot lawn mower that was doing it’s thing as we walked by during our search. The Italian villagers are surprisingly techie!

And an Italian window. Not all of them are old and pretty. Many are as dull as back home. Who knew?

The more lost we became, the more my little side journey became my quest! Jen wasn’t too interested in my program, but I was determined. When else in my life might have a such an opportunity again? Back on the road, we overshot our mark, but thanks to a gas station attendant, we turned around with clear directions in hand.

Here’s a snap from behind the gas station:

When we got to where it was supposed to be, there was nothing but a big sign and industrial building that read “Space.” I’d seen it on the way down, but drove right past it. Frustrated but determined, I drove slowly around until I saw some obvious shoppers who confirmed that I’d made it to the parking lot. Hurrah!

My heart was beating a little faster. Jen dug up a web page that said they only allowed so many shoppers in per day. “Did we make it soon enough?” I wondered. As we walked in the gate, this was the entrance that met us:

The Prada name is nowhere to be found on the outside. If you go looking for it, look for “Space” in the little town where it’s located and you won’t miss it. Before you walk in, each person is given a number by tall, dark haired and dark skinned Fabio gentleman. Just like what you’d expect in a move! I don’t know if they use the numbers to limit people or not. Here’s the little machine outside.

When I walked in, I experienced something truly fantastic, wonderful and new. I walked into a Prada store where I could actually afford the clothes inside! Wow! Never have I come close to experiencing such a thing. At the regular Prada store in Florence, I picked up a moderately cool hat. The $450 price tag had me drop it faster than a hot rock.

Not at the outlet. Oh no. There was nothing I couldn’t afford. Sure, the ostrich skin loafers were $450, but I could live without them. And a great selection of the best clothing on Earth. And great staff. I may have been at the discount outlet, but the store was still 100% Prada experience.

Granted, the prices weren’t exactly Walmart. We ended up spending as much as I spent to purchase my first four cars - combined. (So what if my second car cost 100 bucks? It ran!) But we walked out of there with bags of stuff for less than the regular price of the purse Jen bought. Plus, I now have the most kick-ass sport coat you will ever see anyone wear ever. Eat your heart out Joe Photo!

I couldn’t shoot photos inside the store. Normally, this does not deter this intrepid photographer. Just yesterday, I made it my goal to shoot photos inside the gallery where Michelangelo’s David is exhibited. The security is very tight there and the guards are constantly admonishing visitors with a harsh “No Photo!” Here’s one of my sneaky snaps:

All that said, the thought that I might get kicked out or black-balled from the Prada outlet was just too much for me to even consider pulling my camera out of my pocket. Miss out on the greatest sculpture of all time? No problem. Miss out on cheap Prada? Not on your life!

Finally, here’s a shot I took in the hip little restaurant they have next door.

Kristi Brooks, wardrobe stylist extraordinaire, this post is dedicated to you!


Everyday Italy

Monday, April 12th, 2010

My self-assignment for today was to photograph just the normal, everyday sights that your average Italian would see. I wasn’t looking for beauty. Just the stuff of normalcy. I walked around a couple of towns just to see what was there and might catch my eye.

I decided to avoid any fancy treatment in Photoshop. Just clean and simple. Very Stephen Shore.

Stopped in at a local bar/restaurant in a small town. The American show Family Guy was playing on the TV. Compared to Italy, suburban US seems like another planet. I wondered if the Italians could even relate.

The day was sun but rain was forecast for the weekend so we had decided to rent a scooter to take advantage of the good weather. This time, we got a bigger scooter with a windshield. Fun times!

After we got further into the countryside, Jen got bored with me doing my cinema verite kind of stuff so we went back into tourist mode. We stopped off at a winery in an old castle. They had to call the woman from the back to pour us wine. Nothing like the big wineries where everything is so touristy. She didn’t even charge us.

Here’s the view from the terrace. I processed it all old school but now it doesn’t really go with the other photos. I processed it using my new Lightroom presets. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around.

Then it was off to another castle. This one sat high on a hill. We were all alone driving the scooter up a windy dirt road. So quiet when we got there. It was fun poking around in the rooms and ancient chapel. I think it would be spooky there at night though.

The 15th century Italians were surprisingly modern when it came to their lighting fixtures.

The roads led through some gorgeous farm country. Rolling hills with lots of green grass. We were out of the Chianti region so no vineyards. As we were heading down a twisting road, I spied a hilltop with a couple of trees and broad shadows from the puffy clouds overhead. I turned the scooter around at the bottom of the hill and raced back up so as to not miss the light. So glad I did.

And quite possibly one of my favorite shots to day from the trip. I just love the light, the softness, the painterly feel.

Then it was off to another little town with 700 year old buildings. This one even has a funicular to it from the newer part of the city.

By then, the shadows were getting longer and the warmth of the day began to slip away. Instead of stopping every few minutes and rolling slowly along, we raced straight away to Florence. Jen was sick and my eyes were tired, but speeding through the rolling hills and sweeping valleys on the bike was exhilarating nonetheless.

We got back not long before sunset. I got lost yet again getting back into the city and almost took out two other scooters trying to navigate traffic. Although I didn’t relish returning the scooter to the rental company, I was happy to have survived another outing in Florence traffic.


Tour of Tuscany

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Okay folks, settle in with some popcorn for this post. It’s gonna be a long one!

Day before yesterday was a long day. Just getting out of bed was not easy. My legs are sore and aching from walking all over the city. Walking isn’t the hard part, it’s all the stopping and standing to look at art and take photos. After awhile, my back started to hurt, then my knee, now my ankles. Everything is sore!

To take a break from all the walking, we opted to sit our butts in a car for a little sight-seeing in the Tuscan countryside. Not only was the weather sunny, but the air warmed up too. No more sweaters and jackets!

First stop was San Gimignano, a medieval hilltop town with a penchant for building towers. It’s in the heart of the Chianti region which means that it’s surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. Although we’d already driven through the countryside, the colors and patterns still had us stopping with oohs and aahs.

The town is cute, but it’s full on touristville. Buses line up, pay parking lots, lines of curio shops as you walk in. You’ll be disappointed if you want the authentic small town Italian experience. Still, it’s well worth the visit. Maybe stay the night so you can have the place to yourself when the daytripping hoards leave.

After that it was off to Siena. The countryside was so gorgeous that we took the long winding way just to see what we could see. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve never seen colors and patterns like this together. Where I stopped the car, there was a farmer sharpening his saw to go into the olive trees and do some trimming. It’s truly a timeless place.

One thing I love about this place is how the roads and towns all follow high ridgelines. As we drive along, it almost feels like we’re in a plane. There’s also lots of roads to follow. In the US, there’s one road and the property surrounding it is all private so you miss out on a lot of the vistas. Here there’s so many side roads that you can get pretty much where ever you want to.

Along the road, we could see an old castle-walled city high on a hill. As we pulled into Monteriggioni, we could see a farmer plowing his fields. You could hear the old machine chugging along like you’d expect in an old movie.

For the past 700 years, people have been hanging their laundry to dry from the side of this building.

Next it was off to Siena. We’d already been driving for awhile, had just eaten and I was tired. I was ready to blow it off, but Jen insisted. I was ho-hum until we walked around a corner and saw this through the narrow alley way:

The tower in the main piazza is huge. All the cafes are arranged in a semi-circle so you can just sit and gawk in amazement. It’s almost skyscraper height but was built in the 14th century.

Then there’s the church…

And then there’s the twisting alleyways and ancient exposed woodwork. Siena is definitely worth spending some time visiting.

We had to leave Siena far too soon, but I wanted to hit the road to catch the evening light out in the countryside. Per Ian’s suggestion, I wanted to hit a couple towns south of Siena. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough daylight left. Still, we were treated to some magnificent vistas. I have no complaints.

I wish I could just crawl into this photo and live in it. Everything in it is so perfect.

And finally, as the last light drifted off the mountains…

Finally, it was back to Florence. By now, I’ve gotten the hang of the roads - except the last part getting over the bridge back to our apartment near the center. I think it only took about three wrong turns and four consultations with Google maps. A new record for us!


A Walk in the Garden - Boboli Gardens

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Today was a rest day. Trying to catch up on blogging, studying, images and, well, rest. Two days ago, we spent a long afternoon wandering the greens and walkways of Boboli Gardens on the other side of the Arno river from the center of Florence.

As I’ve come to expect from everything I’ve seen here, there’s wonderful and marvelous art and views with every place I visit. What’s truly amazing is that this used to be someone’s backyard.

I realize that these aren’t photographic masterpieces. They’re just snapshots from a long day on our feet. Hope you enjoy, :-)


Shadow and Light in Florence

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Yesterday’s post is a tough one to beat so I’m going to bring things down a notch. All day it rained. Cold. Dreary. Flat light.

We spent much of the day at the cathedral Santa Croce checking out not only gorgeous art, but the tombs of Michaelangelo, Galileo and, surprisingly, Machiavelli. (He being of morally ambivalent character - the Franciscans are surprisingly lenient as to whom they allow to be interred in their churches. They let Galileo in too. His excommunication was only recently repealed by the pope. The Franciscans were 400 years ahead of the curve on that one. Being excommunicated means that you’re not even allowed on church property - since you’ve been condemned to the fires of hell and all - let alone buried with a massive memorial in a monumental cathedral.)

In case you haven’t guessed, Santa Croce is a Franciscan church which means it’s run by the Order of Saint Francis. One of the highlights was seeing an actual robe worn by the saint. (There’s lots of bones of saints in Florence, not much of their wardrobe is on display however. It usually being burned at the time of their execution by the heathen tribe du jour - usually Romans.)

By the time we finished, I was hungry and freezing. Being Monday, many places were closed and the ones that were open were closed for the afternoon. After some walking, a few rejections and closed doors, we finally found a warm restaurant to settle down in. We drank a couple carafes of wine, had several courses and whiled away the afternoon

When we emerged, gone were the gray skies and dark clouds. Not a cloud was left! Just crisp warm light and blues skies. Finally!

So I grabbed my camera and headed out to catch the last hour of light as it raked across the buildings and alleys. Inspired by the hard light, I decided that my photographic theme for the day was to be shapes and shadows. Instead of trying to capture detail or tell a story about the specific objects in my photos, I’d look at them as abstract features in my compositions of light and dark. (Yes, I’m such the erudite photo dork.)

I recently read a quote from someone who said that the one great advantage that photography has over painting is black and white. So true!

My apologies to all those who are expecting more straight-forward holiday snaps. I try but something goes wrong, my focus get’s blown and I take picture of the wrong thing or the right thing with something in front of it!

That’s it for today gang. Stay tuned for something completely different tomorrow.


An Italian Easter Celebration

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Today was a treat. Easter. In Florence. A spectacle.

We’d heard that there was a parade for Easter so we took off to the main square bright and early. As I walked out our front door, which is right in the thick of everything, I could hear the subtle sounds of a low rumble. I wasn’t sure at first if it was just traffic, but as we walked down the road, it became louder and louder. My pace quickened and my heart picked up.

Sound echos from tall stone buildings that make up Florence. The sound of 30 or more drummers crashes off the walls and thunders down the alleys. It’s a feeling to behold. A parade is just getting underway!

When we arrived on scene, there was just a handful of people. Quickly the crowd grew and we were treated to a 30 minute scene of flag tossing by, as my wife puts it, men in tights.

The heavy beat of the snare drums accentuates the sense of tradition that pervades the piazza. Everything around us is hundreds of years old. Even the costumes the men wore aren’t really costumes; they’re the same outfits that their forebears have worn for literally hundreds of years. There’s a sense of something bigger conveyed by the traditions being carried out today.

The crowd grew by leaps and bounds. Before long, moving through the ever more congested streets became a challenge. And then, a murmur ran through the scene. Around the corner came into a view a tall cart being towed by four massive oxen. (How often does anyone get to use that word?)

This cart was built in 1672 and has been in continuous use for this occasion ever since. This cart is 100 years older than my country, the United States. Talk about a sense of perspective. It should be in a museum, but here it is getting pulled along over the same flagstones year after year.

At this point, the crowds were too thick for me to get close to the action. As the cart was pulled into place, Easter mass was in session in the cathedral. Even above the noise of the packed masses, you could hear the words of the priest inside.

Outside, the church bells clanged. The dignitaries gathered round the cart. Workers quickly rigged the cart for the main event. Finally, after 30 minutes of patiently waiting, the drums and horns signaled that the moment had come.

From inside the giant cathedral flew a dove shaped rocket - set off by the priest inside the church. With a bang and an explosion, it hit the cart which spontaneously ignited with a roar. Rockets screeched and flew high into the air. Smoke billowed upward and outward. Fireworks exploded and cracked.

Again, the stone walls of the cathedral and surrounding buildings concentrated the sound, making the snaps and booms ever more intense. With every round of fireworks, the crowd roared with excitement. You didn’t need to be a kid nor a religious observer to enjoy the show.

Finally, it was over. Something like this could never happen in the US. Everything needs to be too controlled. The idea of a rocket flying from inside a church and smacking a 300 year old cart wouldn’t fly with the fire marshal, city hall nor even the nearby homeowner’s association.

The beauty of traveling is that one gets to enjoy experiences that aren’t possible in our home territory. I think our notion of what is possible grows and we become the better for it.


A Tour of Tuscany

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Today I had the bright idea that we should go for a ride in the Tuscan countryside. So, off I went in search of a rental car. After a quick walk a couple of blocks down the street to rental car alley, I walked into Avis looking forward to walking out with a shiny new mini-Fiat or something molto Italian.

Unfortunately, it being a holiday weekend, Avis was out of not just the Euro-specials, but all of their cars. So was the Eurocar shop. And the place next door to it. From door to door I went with the same answer from all of them. They’re all in a row so the rejection was quick and easy from one to the next.

My last stop was into some no-name hole in the wall. They gave me the same answer as everyone else: “No cars.” When the signore saw my dejected face, he offered, “But we do have one scooter left.”

Given that the weather has varied between cold, luke-warm and raining for the past few days, the idea of roaming the countryside in a scooter wasn’t what I was thinking. Before I could give it much thought, another customer walked in behind me also looking for that one last operable rental vehicle in Florence. I decided, what the heck, “I’ll take it. Grazia. Si Vous Plais. Per Favore. Gimmie the Scooter.”

Before I go on, I should explain that the Italians have taken scooters to high art. Everyone rides a scooter. Actually, I’ve seen many people driving cars, but I’ve yet to see an open parking spot so the issue isn’t so much driving cars as it is stopping them. Instead, both the rich and poor, male and female, young hip and old staid all putt-putt about town. I shouldn’t say that. The scooters here are almost as big as the small cars (which are puny to be sure). Some even have full canopies to protect their daredevil drivers.

Now I expected to get one of the luxurious scooters that were parked out in front of the little rental car shop. Something with a good sized engine and ample space for me and the wifey to hang on in back. Here’s what I was expecting from Guisseppi’s Maxirent Palazio:

Instead, we walk to the end of scooter row and I see this puny two-wheeler that calls a moped “daddy.” I ask what about those other ones? The signore tells me in broken English, “Oh this scooter is perfect for a ride in the city!

But I’m going to the country.

“Oh, this scooter she is perfect for a ride in the country.”

Meanwhile I’m looking to see where the candid camera is hidden.

So off we go. It’s been twenty years since I’ve ridden one of these things. I’m a little nervous to be relearning my scooter skills on an underpowered hamster wheel in the middle of the perpetual rally car race that is Florence. Miraculously, we make it out of the city and out into the hills. Even though the point was to get lost, we even managed to get lost in the right direction.

We’re soon rewarded with winding roads and beautiful views. Man I want one of these things! (Except with 750 cc’s, a fat tail pipe, and a sissy bar so that my old lady can lean back in her black tassled leather pants.) I now understand what people mean when they talk about a Tuscan color palette. Mottled olives, grays, dark greens, and mustards dotted the hillside.

What’s great is that all the mile markers are in… kilometers. So something that’s 10 miles on the sign away is actually only 6. Before we know it, we’re getting lost in little towns with only one road and just enough signs to confuse Americans who rarely leave the interstate.

The air was cold, but the feeling of not knowing where we were going and the possibility of discovering something new made it easy to forget that my Hugo Boss jacket was much better looking than it was practical. Up we climbed into the mountains until we came to this little restaurant high above a valley.

And here’s a photo of the menu in case you might want to phone in an order. I had the ravioli with the insalate. Yes, it was as good as you might imagine. Fresh. And perfectly accompanied by a glass of Chiante - from a local vinter seeing as we were in the Chiante region.

Then it was back on the road. After awhile, the cold air and the fact that I shared a small seat with Jen tempered the excitement that I’d felt earlier. It was time to point the scooter north.

But the views were sublime.

I don’t have any photos of the last part of my story. I was too busy holding on, fighting the cobblestones and traffic. Getting back into the city was an epic. It’s truly a city where you can’t get there from here. Major streets would just end with no way out. The problem is that much of the central part of Florence is off-limits to cars.

Actually, it’s off-limits to some cars but not others. Given that I don’t read Italian nor do I subscribe to their Formula One driving habits, I alternately felt like the smallest head of cattle caught in a stampede or a salmon swimming against the stream (with my demise awaiting me).

By the way, Italians have great respect for the right of way of pedestrians and other vehicles. They believe you have the right to get the hell out of their way. This was a right that I duly exercised and somehow managed to survive.

Tomorrow is Easter. They light the fireworks in the church which in turn light fireworks outside amid throngs of people. Should be yet another thing the likes of which I will never see in the USA.


Florence at Night

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Now Florence is beautiful anytime of the day or night, but there’s something especially alluring about it at night from a photographer’s perspective. Maybe it’s because of the fact that crowds have gone. Maybe it’s because the soft shadowed light is replaced by lots of hard street lights that create shadow, highlights and a little mystery.

This little scene is what I see when I walk outside my front door to the street. For someone who grew up in a mid-century (mid-20th century that is) suburb, this is exotic stuff.

I think I want a sculpture of me when I grow up. Nothing like being 12 feet tall for thousands of years.

By day, this square is filled with vendors selling handbags, scarves and tourist wares. Every night, the sellers have to break down their portable stores and drag them down the street to where ever home is. Merchants like these have probably been following this same routine for a thousand years or more.

The street in front of our apartment. It’s a far cry from my little neighborhood in San Diego.

The Palazo Vecchio with the full moon behind it.

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. An awe-inspiring sight no matter how many times you see it. This is all varying shades of marble.

The basilica with the Duomo behind it.

The amazing part to all this is that I shot this all in an hour or so. There’s something worth photographing around every corner. And then there’s the scenes that are beyond words.


Italian Holiday

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

A year ago, I had the bright idea that my wife and I should take a vacation in Italy. Not just for a week or two, but for a month. I liked the idea of being able to relax and enjoy life without having to constantly be rushing to tour all the fantastic places there are too see. So, after a year of planning, here I am in Florence.

Me on the plane waiting to take off at Gatwick in London:

On our first night, we got in late. There was only one restaurant still open. To get to it, we had to cross the Ponte Vecchio. This, taken from the famous bridge, was the second photo that I shot in Italy. I was pinching myself with disbelief that, after a year of planning, we were here!

Here’s the view from our apartment window. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio in the background. As I write this post, I can see the late afternoon light hitting this 800 year old tower. I feel very fortunate to be here. The light is magical as it bounces through the old buildings and casts jagged shadows across the streets.

Here’s the entrance to my apartment. It’s right across from the Ferragamo flagship store. And Prada, Gucci, Pucci, Fendi, Armani, Tiffany, and every designer you can think of. I can hit them all with a rock if I could only get to the roof of our building. I tried on a Brioni sweatsuit. At $2,000, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I only liked the jacket anyhow.

The farmer’s market here is fantastic - as to be expected. They have lots of my favorite - prosciutto. The pasta is amazing. The sauces have flavors I’ve never experienced before. All the food is so fresh here. Nobody cooks from a can - unlike all the chains back home.

More to follow. I’m just getting started!