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Early Morning Pedicab Havana Cuba

June 26th, 2017

Early Morning Pedicab Havana Cuba

I was heading back from my early morning search for an espresso in Havana Cuba. Breakfast was on my mind. But then I spied this building under renovation. There was something very intriguing about it. At street level, it looked totally dilapidated and under-construction look. But just look up and you see evidence of some hardy individuals living in this building and hanging out the laundry almost like flags waving from behind the construction scaffolding.

I tried to compose a photo to reflect my interest in the building but the barrier at street level made for an uninteresting photo. Since there was a lot of foot and vehicular traffic passing by I thought I’d wait for someone or something to walk or roll by. First try…click click click….but someone walked right in front of the camera as I pressed the shutter. Second try, perfect placement of a pedicab, but then a truck rumbles by at the exact wrong moment. The minutes ticked by, the day got later, the traffic increased, and my quest was looking more impossible. Finally, I was able to click off this shot before some person or vehicle photobombed my shot!

Classic Car Restoration in Havana Cuba

June 24th, 2017

Classic Car Restoration in Havana Cuba

One of my favorite mechanics, Ray Magliozzi from Car Talk, visited Havana Cuba to meet the mechanics, owners and drivers who keep the fleet of classic American cars that populate the streets of Havana alive. An article in ‘Cigar Afficionado’,captured the essence of the classic car scene in Cuba. I have copied liberally from the article since it says better than I ever could the history and culture of the classic cars in Cuba. “The 1930s-, '40s- and '50s-era Studebakers, Hudsons, Chrysler Crown Imperials, Buick Century Rivieras, Chevy Bel Airs and Styleline Deluxes, Ford Edsels and Fairlanes, among so many other long-extinct Detroit models, are alive and well in Cuba. These so-called "yank tanks" have long been a ubiquitous part of Cuba's national landscape and cultural identity—and are now emerging as a critical component of the nation's steady evolution away from strict socialism toward a mixed market economy.”

Further, it says that “During visits to restoration garages and auto shops Magliozzi compared notes with fellow Cuban mechanics on make-shift clutches, jerry-rigged exhaust manifolds, front-end alignments, master cylinders and bell cranks—all repaired without access to original parts or modern machinery. "I've been constantly impressed by the cleverness and the sheer determination of the people who keep these cars going," he marvels. "It's amazing."” This is what we experienced during our visit to NostalgiCar, seemingly a must-do stop on a lot of people-to-people tours for Americans in Cuba. On the day of our visit, we watched for an hour or so as they worked in the heat
trying to straighten the frame of a classic car, welding various parts to get it exactly right. Each adaptation was followed by some discussion as to what the next step might be. It’s a process of constant adaptation. It didn’t hurt my photographic focus that this man was pretty easy on the eyes and made goggle downright sexy!

“An estimated 60,000 American-made cars are on the island—almost all of them dating back to the early and mid-20th century heyday of the big three Detroit automakers. "The narrow old streets are jammed with big American automobiles," The Nation magazine reported in January 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge became the first, and, until Obama, the last U.S. president to visit the island. By the 1940s and '50s when Cuba had become a playground for the American rich and famous, as well as the U.S. mafia, the country also became a national showroom for shiny, new, Detroit-manufactured automobiles. Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet and Cadillac dealerships lined Havana's leafy Prado boulevard. Indeed, Cuba gained the dubious distinction of importing more Caddys—Fleetwood convertibles, DeVilles, Eldorado Broughams—than any other nation in the world.”

But after the American embargo, this all ended. “Initially, as Magliozzi points out, the Cubans had spare parts on the island to repair cars. After those were used up, he says, Cuban mechanics cannibalized other American cars that were there "and when they ran out of what could be scavenged, they ran into ingenuity." For years, Cubans have molded and manufactured car parts by hand, using sheet metals, re-melted iron and plastic, even wood.” To me it recalls an era when we didn’t have so many new things so readily available. We all made do and fixed things the best we could to keep things functioning. Nevertheless, many of the old cars on the road are unsafe and dangerous from a health standpoint! I stood on a street corner for a couple of house to take photos of the old cars passing by and ended up with a budding case of bronchitis from the exhaust fumes. But the best of the vintage cars, lovingly restored, are less uncomfortable and dangerous and every tourist seems to want at least one ride in one.

To read the fascinating article in Cigar Afficionado, check here: http://www.cigaraficionado.com/webfeatures/show/id/cubas-classic-car-detente-18861

View of Levanto Cinque Terre Italy

June 23rd, 2017

View of Levanto Cinque Terre Italy

I talked with some other hikers who said that the hike from Levanto to Monterosso in the Cinque Terre region of Italy was very pretty so I decided to give it a go, except I elected to go in the other direction. There were two ways to get on the trail to Levanto. The first was to take a path that climbed steeply from Monterosso up to the ridge and then on to Levanto. The second was to first take a bus to a place called Colle di Gritta and hike from there. I had a hiking guide that said the second option was a longer hike, but that the views were better. Since I wanted to take photos, I elected for ‘the views were better’ route. I had no idea where Colle di Gritta was except as a listing on a bus route. I hopped on the bus, made sure it was going where I wanted and hoped the driver would tell me when we got there! At the top of the ridge at a T intersection in the road, the driver said that we were there! Aside from a small group of buildings that seemed to include a small inn and cafe, there was nothing else so I was happy to have the driver give me the heads up.

I fortified myself with an espresso at the cafe and set off on my hike. The first two hours of the hike were blissful! From Colle di Gritta, the trail winds its way high on the slopes through typical Mediterranean vegetation. First you get some sea views to the south but after about an hour there are some view points to the north including the town of Levanto seen in this photo. The blue of the Ligurian Sea is, as always, stunning! It isn’t hard to see why the entire zone of the Cinque Terre is called the Italian Riviera and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a national park. Evidently not too many took this route in late April/early May so I was quite alone in beautiful quiet and solitude, and the views were excellent! Considering the number of hikers who descend on the Cinque Terre region, finding a route where I saw no one for several hours was quite a treat! After this last tantalizing view of Levanto, I continued on to Punta del Mesco where this lovely peaceful trail merged with the main (crowded!) route between Monterosso and Levanto.

Cafe View of Lake Como Italy

June 20th, 2017

Cafe View of Lake Como Italy

Before I set off on a hike, I had a short walk through Varenna along the shore of Lake Como in Italy and noticed many cafes along a lakeside walkway. So after the hike up to the castle above Varenna and to the train station to check the schedule for my train trip back to Milan, all I could think of was finding one of those cafes, and sitting down for a rest and a nice cold beer! There were many to choose from and why I chose this one over another is anyone’s guess. You don’t necessarily want to pick a totally empty place because you wonder ‘what is wrong with this place that there is no one here?!’ and you don’t want to pick a totally packed place when you have a backpack, camera, and hiking poles to deal with. So like the three bears, this one seemed ‘just right’. I chose a table farther back from the waterfront, which ended up being just perfect since it allowed me to include one of cafe tables in the photo! As you can tell, it was late day and it happened to be my last day in Italy. It was the ideal time to just sit and think over the wonderful adventures in the past week and to dream of a return trip for more adventures!

Frescoes of the Piccolomini Library

June 10th, 2017

Frescoes of the Piccolomini Library

With only two days in Siena Italy, I felt I had to make the most of every minute even though I was jet-lagged from the overnight flight. Since the highlight of many towns is the cathedral, I headed there first. Siena’s cathedral dates from the 13th century. It has one of the most extravagant facades in all Europe, and straddles the boundary of the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture. Inside there are elaborate inlaid marble floors, a forest of striped marble columns, a coffered dome, stained glass windows and colorful art. As if that weren’t enough, there is a room off the side of the nave called the Piccolomini Library. It’s been described as a treasure within a treasure, and rightly so! Despite the fog and fatigue of jet lag, I felt energized by the bright room and its vivid colors. These Renaissance-era frescoes were painted between 1502 and 1507 and never restored! Their colors are said to be as brilliant now as they were when they were painted over half a millennium ago. Imagine the excitement these frescoes caused during the early Renaissance! The frescoes relate the story of the life of Siena's favorite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), who eventually became Pope Pius II. The various panels depict ten remarkable events from the secular and religious career of pope Pius II: as ambassador to European courts, paying homage to the new Emperor and then to the ailing Pope, becoming a bishop, a cardinal and ultimately pope. Pius II was the uncle of cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (the future pope Pius III), who commissioned this library in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle.

View from Punta Spartivento in Bellagio, Italy

May 29th, 2017

View from Punta Spartivento in Bellagio, Italy

After riding the ferry from Como for about 3 hours I was anxious to arrive in Bellagio, Italy, along the shores of Lake Como north of Milan and well on the way to the Alps. I had no idea what I would do once I was there since this had been a spur of the moment day trip from Milan but luckily there was a tourist information office right at the ferry landing. I got a map and a suggested walking route so I was off! The walk to Punta Spartivento was suggested as a ‘detour’. I’m not sure why since it is one of the highlights of the town!

Punta Spartivento means ‘where the wind divides’ and it is at the tip of the land mass that divides Lake Como in two. A lovely park sits at this point, the perfect place for some relaxation or a picnic with the serene and majestic Italian Alps as a backdrop. The Colico branch of the lake runs to the north in front of you with the town of Varenna on the right. Back behind you to the left and right are the Como and Lecco arms of the lake, respectively. Ferries ply their way along the lake including stops at Bellagio and Varenna.

Not so luckily for me, it started raining just when I got there so it was pretty dreary. I took a few photos between juggling the camera and an umbrella. Reluctantly, I left the park, knowing that the view could be infinitely better if only….if only….. So I continued my walk through the historic core of Bellagio. A couple hours later I was back at the ferry landing enjoying my daily gelato and I noticed that the weather was beginning to clear! I had enough time to hustle back to Punta Spartivento for some fair-weather photos! With the clearer weather, it was a glorious sight…the lake, the distant towns, the Alps just out of reach. The ebb and flow of the lake traffic is part of the charm. I reluctantly left the park a second time, heading off for the ferry and the town of Varenna. Needless to say, I felt much happier about my visit to Bellagio.

Our Lady Of Reggio Sanctuary Vernazza Cinque Terre Italy

May 23rd, 2017

Our Lady Of Reggio Sanctuary Vernazza Cinque Terre Italy

Our Lady of Reggio Sanctuary in Vernazza in the Cinque Terre region of Italy became a REAL sanctuary on the day that I visited. The day before I had aggravated my ‘bad knees’ from all the steep downhill climbs. But after an overnight rest, I was feeling pretty good at the start of a hike from Saviore to Vernazza. Even with great care, however, my knees started hurting eventually. But no worries, I wasn’t in a hurry and I was enjoying the beautiful scenery. That is, until some dark storm clouds appeared on the horizon and worked their way closer to shore.

My choices were…hurry and have my knees be in pain or go slowly and get wet! I chose the second option. Luckily, I wasn’t too far from the Sanctuary when the rain started getting heavy. The door was open and inviting, true to the name ‘sanctuary’, and I was happy to duck inside before the real downpour began.

In the dim interior light, I tried to dry off a bit and put on some extra layers against the chill. I sat and gazed out of the door, trying to figure when the storm would pass. It wasn’t looking very hopeful. The rain was coming down in buckets, the wind was howling, and you couldn’t see past the end of the yard. The dim interior light was hardly enough to read so there was no use trying to read my hiking guidebook or my other guide books.

Comically, for someone who travels almost exclusively for making photographs, it took some time before I thought “I should be photographing inside this church!” It was pretty dark, just a few lights around the altar and the dim light from the doorway. I didn’t have my tripod but I did have a fast prime lens. So I played with the settings to get the lowest ISO I could with a shutter speed I could hold steady. With a 50 mm lens I shot at 1/50 sec at f2.5 and I still needed ISO 2000.

I killed some more time shooting the ceiling frescoes, a side altar with a crucifix, another side altar with a painting, a confessional, the marble pulpit….and soon enough the rain passed. All the while, I was by myself wandering around the tiny sanctuary in the dimmest of light. I felt the need to tiptoe so as not to disturb the quiet. I even put my shutter in quiet mode! The quiet and solitude were intense and unforgettable. I wondered what it was like centuries ago when pilgrims would make their way here. Was it as quiet and magical and welcoming as it was for me? Or was it a busier time for these sanctuaries in the hills? If the 11th century walls could talk, there definitely would be some stories!

Nesso on Lake Como Italy

May 22nd, 2017

Nesso on Lake Como Italy

On my day trip north from Milan Italy to Lake Como, I elected to take one of the ‘slow ferries’ from Como to Bellagio and Varenna. The slow ferries stop every few minutes at another small village along the lake. As the ferry approaches each town you get a good look at the town and landscape.

Since my day trip was a spur of the moment decision, I had no knowledge of any of the villages along Lake Como and loved the approaches to each village. The approach to Nesso was a complete surprise. From afar, you see the typical village built along the steep mountain slopes tumbling down into the lake. As we neared the dock in Nesso, we could see the quaint stone bridge right on the lake edge.

What we couldn’t see until just the last minute was the ravine and waterfall! That wasn’t visible until we were right in front of it. Luckily since I was already taking some photos of the bridge I quickly made some shots with the waterfall. And then it was gone.

Oddly, after the ferry pulled away from the dock, there must have been a question as to whether another passenger was coming. The ferry circled around for another approach and the photographers on board got a second try at the waterfall! This time we knew it was coming and we were ready.

Written by Giovanni Battista Rampold in the first half of the 19th century: “There are three places from which you can enjoy this waterfall – which is beautiful, majestic, and terrible at once. For the first, reach Nesso and go to the small bridge that looks over the river from the edge of the cataract: from there, you can see the thunderous water bounce off the waves of the lake; behind, you can see the Alpine riverbed disappearing between crumbling mountains. The majesty of the waterfall is right in its middle, where water abandons the cliff, forming a convex mirror, and overflows straight down.”

“To see how terrible it is you must get closer to the lake, which is so deep here, and jump from one rock to the next until you are at the bottom of the waterfall. Here, surrounded in splashes of water, you cannot avoid looking up and shivering down to the core; all you see is ruinous white water above you, mixed with darkened, corroded ravines.” I’m putting this on my wish list!

The Art of Terrazzamenti

May 15th, 2017

The Art of Terrazzamenti

The Cinque Terre region of Italy is well known for its hiking trails and there are many to choose from! During 2017 I chose some of the higher trails that went between towns and included the sanctuaries. This day’s hike was from Corniglia (the middle of five towns) to Manarola (the next town to the south) via the town of Volastra high in the mountains.

The hike starts well before the trail if you take the train to Corniglia! Corniglia sits up on a cliff and of course the train station is at sea level. You can ‘cheat’ and take the bus from the train station to the town or you can do one of the 10 ‘must-do’ things in Cinque Terre, that is climb to Corniglia via the Lardarina stairway with 382 steps. Of course I chose the Lardarina.

After a little sightseeing in Corniglia, I set off for Manarola via Routes 7a, 6d and 6, an 8 km hike. The route provides great views of the Ligurian Sea (what the Mediterranean is called in this little corner of the world) as well as both the towns of Corniglia toward the beginning of the hike and Manarola toward the end. This hike also takes you through the vineyards up on the hillsides where the ‘art of terrazzamenti’ is quite evident. Terrazzamenti simply means terracing, although it sounds more poetic in Italian. This part of the trail is particularly beautiful, letting you see the sinuous patterns of the terrace walls that seem to be in good repair and the new grape vines sprouting bright green in the springtime. Terracing is a solution adopted in agriculture to make cultivable areas out of steeply sloped hillside. The technique of building the walls in Cinque Terre to provide the terraces has been used for centuries but with the advent of tourism, some farmers have abandoned farming for more lucrative tourism.

This trail is narrow, sometimes with barely enough room for passing someone going in the other direction. At the viewpoints above this terraced area, there was quite a traffic jam since everyone stopped for photos! You definitely had to keep one eye on the scenery and one on the trail if you didn’t want to slip off the edge.

Although I am an avid walker and love to hike, the trails in Cinque Terre were a challenge to my previously and long ago injured knees. Uphill is a breeze, downhill is torture. On this day, I’d already had a morning hike so this was my second hike of the day and my knees weren’t happy! I alternately told myself ‘I must be crazy hiking with painful knees’ and ‘I came to 5terre to hike and I am NOT going to miss the opportunity!’. However when I spied the town of Manarola in the distance (in the upper right of the photo), I made up my mind that my first stop….even before gelato…would be at the trekking shop to get some trekking poles. I’d been at the shop previously and knew they had extensive supplies and selection. Until this day, I’d always thought hiking poles were more of a nuisance but at this point my knees needed help! I was trying to stay ‘in the moment’ and enjoy the experience but I was pretty much counting every step on the downhill!

The end of the story was I DID make it down, I DID get hiking poles, I DID have a gelato, I DID buy some Voltaren (topical NSAID which is OTC in Europe but Rx in the US) and….you might have guessed….headed off for my third hike to make it back to my ‘home’ town of Riomaggiore. I cannot say my knees were happy but the rest of me was.

View Of Cinque Terre From Path Number 1

May 14th, 2017

View Of Cinque Terre From Path Number 1

I talked with some people who said that the hike from Levanto to Monterosso in the Cinque Terre region of Italy was very pretty so I decided to give it a go. I had a hiking guide that described the hike, noting all the viewpoints and turnoffs but starting in the other direction. Since I was hiking by myself, I decided to go in the direction where I had the most information!

My choices were to climb steeply from Monterosso up to the ridge and then on to Levanto, or to first take a bus to someplace Colle di Gritta and hike from there. My hiking guide that said the second option was longer, but the views were better. It also said that there was less actual climbing on the second route since Colle di Gritta was already at the top of the mountain.

I had injured my knees (actually re-injured my 40+ year knee injury) several days prior and climbing doesn’t hurt so much as the descent. So the reduced climbing on the latter route was not an issue, I knew the pain was in going down, not up! But since I wanted to take photos, I elected for ‘the views were better’ route. The first part was the bus to Colle di Gritta. I was getting to be a pro on the small buses around Cinque Terre and I easily found my bus. The tricky part was figuring out when to get off. But the driver was helpful, and in the middle of nowhere, he announced that I was at my stop!

There was actually one building there, a little cafe/B&B type place. I fortified myself with an espresso and off I went. For 2+ hours I was quite alone on the trail, enjoying the views and the peace and solitude without any of the trail running groups, singing boy scout groups, and very determined hiking groups that seem to be common in the area! This view is taken from the part of the path along the eastern slope of Monte Ve Focone where you get a good view towards the south down the coast of the Cinque Terre. From here you see just a bit of Monterosso in the curve of the shoreline, some vineyards along the mountain slopes and in the hazy distance the town of Vernazza. The blue of the Ligurian Sea was, as always, stunning!

Hiking in the morning is always cooler and less crowded but in this instance you are facing into the sun. Not ideal for photos, but still wonderful for being ‘in the moment’. It isn’t hard to see why the entire zone of the Cinque Terre is called the Italian Riviera and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a national park.

If you are interested in the hiking path description of this section, here it is: “This sixth and last leg is 10 kilometres long with a height difference of 220 metres high, reaching maximum height at 460 metres at Monte Rossini. The average completion time is 3 hours. The walk again goes through pinewoods till one reaches Monte Rossini and then descends to Sella dei Bagari, a crossroads for various paths. At this point the path follows the ridge of Monte Focone towards Punta Mesco, along which one meets the path that leads to Monterosso and one takes a detour towards Levanto. Along the path one comes up against Casa Lovara and Casa Meridiana. One proceeds on an almost level path till one reaches the tarmac road to Mesco. Here one descends for a brief stretch until one reaches the path made up of large steps. One passes next to the house used by Guglielmo Marconi for his radio transmission experiments. After a little while one reaches the castle, where one can take stairs going to the sea promenade.”

At that point, I was obsessed with finding gelato!

 

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