Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Trip to Europe, Part I

Yikes again. It's been two months since my last entry, and I initially promised myself that I would at least try to post something bi-monthy. Yes I am well aware that bi-monthly is not once every two months. Although I learned long ago photographers are not allowed to have excuses, it is much more challenging to update a photo blog when shooting film. The work flow is a bit more than merely downsizing an image. But I hope to make up for my insufficient frequency or for that matter any post by writing this very long post, yet hopefully interesting opus. Last Friday Sydney and I returned from a 3 week sejourn in Tuscany and Paris. We were in Europe for two reasons. We were in Italy for a very belated honey-moon. I wanted to share Tuscany with Sydney while we were young enough to completely savor the beauties of Italian life. Secondly we were in Paris for my show "So Far So Close." The vernisage, opening, was on October 13th. But, more about Paris and my show in the next post. I can only write about one country at a time. With the help of my friend Brian and his company BookMyAward we used my American Express points we had accumulated, from buying all that film over the years, for two first class round trip tickets. On both are flights Chicago to Frankfurt and Dusseldorf to Chicago we treated like royalty. On each flight for my appetizer I opted for Caviar . I hadn't eaten Caviar since my decadent days when I was a model in Paris back in the day. While waiting for our connecting flight to Milano we both took showers in the Lufthansa first-class lounge. The shower rooms were huge, with bathrobes and slippers. After traveling for 15 hours it was sweet. The real adventure began after picking up our rental cars at Malpensa airport in Milano and driving to our Tuscan villa in Chianni. We travelled east to Genoa than south along the coast to Pisa, but the scenic route to Tuscany meant little opportunity to view the Mediterranean coast as we drive through tunnel after mountain tunnel. It took us about 4 hours before we exited the autostrada at Pisa, and then things got very interesting. By then it was dark, and we were left solely with google directions to our destination. After about an hour of driving around in circles around roundabouts we realized that our directions were not accurate, and we had gotten separated from our friends who had the GPS in the other car. By this time we had been traveling for over 24 hours, and we were beginning to get a tad cranky. Fortunately Sydney's daughter Rachel had her phone upgraded to international service and we were able to contact the Renate, the German woman who was the caretaker of the villa. Even then it took us another two hours to finally find Chianni. Mostly by luck and the generous help of a owner of a trattoria we made it to our villa. After unloading our luggage we had the first of what would be many glasses of delicious local.
We awoke the following morning with a view of a Tuscan valley with miles of vineyards to take in. Chianni is nestled on a Tuscan hill and to get to it you must drive up windy roads. It's difficult for an out of towner to find Chianni even in daylight, how we managed to make it to what would be our Tuscan home for the next 12 days that first night became a wonder to us all throughout our stay in Italy.getting way out of your comfort zoneAfter taking day of getting our bearings and our Italian feet under ourselves, then finding the cafe that had WiFi, the ATM that gave us euros, the market we could buy our groceries, and discovering our charming little town of Chianni we were ready to venture out to take in the beauty of Tuscan. Our first foray was to Florence, Firenze. We drove, which we later learned was a mistake. After a miserable drive to and fro to Florence Renate told us that it would be much easier if we drove a half hour to Pontedera and took the train from there. In Pontedera we could comfortably, and much more cheaply take the train to Florence, Pisa, Lucca, and Sienna. But that's the adventure of traveling-- getting way out of your comfort zone and discovering things as you go. Our first trip to Florence was not all that pleasant partially because we were all still recovering from jet lag. Yet, I believe what turned us off most about Florence was that at every point of interest, Il Ponte Vecchio, il duomo, the Ufficio museum we were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of tourists. There were at least twenty groups that we observed following a guide who held and waved a stick with a flag or some indicator on it in case someone of their group got lost. The lost sheep had only to remember the symbol their tour guide was holding to safely find their way back to the fold. I for one would rather be lost than be a part of a herd. I had been Florence nearly thirty years before, and I do not remember that many tourists. I also don't recall back then seeing so many Chinese tourists. And what I also noticed is that everyone in the world now takes photographs, mind you most of them from the same angle. For anyone reading this blog if you do make it to Florence, I recommend you go in winter. Yea it will be cold, and perhaps even rainy, but I believe it will be worth because in-climate weather will hopefully cut the number of tourist in half.
The following day took us to Volterra. Driving in Tuscany can be exhausting, because it is mostly navigating small windy, hilly, country roads. If I was alone in a Porsche it would have been fantastic, but with 4 others in a minivan it became tiring and a bit tedious. But I didn't complain, I would rather swerve on a Tuscan hill then be stuck on the 405. We were passing through vineyards where some of the best Italian wines are made. In fact the best and cheapest wine that has ever touched my lips was the local table wines. Because preservatives were not added the local table wines were not meant to travel or be stored in a cellar, but boy were they so delicious. In truth after 3 weeks of very good wine, I can no longer drink the cheap stuff at Trader Joes.
The highlight in Volterra was an old Roman Amphitheater, and considering how long it has been since the last dude wearing a toga made a speech there it was still in remarkably good shape. Looking at these ruins some two thousand years old, made me ponder about all the thousands of people, who are now dust, that stood where I stood viewing the amphitheater. And knowing that when in another hundred years, when I am dust, some other American tourist will be standing at the exact same place I stood on October 5th, 2011 marveling at the same view of that amphitheater still intact made me feel in awe of all that is and was and extremely insignificant.
On the 6th of October we drove to Pisa. We still hadn't learned that it would have been much easier to take the train, so we took about 3 tours around the city until we eventually found and could see the leaning tower of Pisa. I've seen it before, yet I was just in much in awe of it as I was the first time. Actually I think it was more in awe of it this time. The setting for the Tower is the Campo dei Miracoli. Keeping company with the leaning tower in the campo are the Duomo and Babtistery. All three are absolutely ornately gorgeous structures, and each alone stand unique. However as an ensemble they make an odd visual connection. The architecture of each is different, and built during different epochs, so they contrast with one another but in an jazzy way they harmonize as a architectural tryptic. And since these structures bring millions of euros to the city of Pisa, unlike many other buildings in Italy, the Campo, the three structures, and surrounding grassy area are splendidly maintained. However, as special as it all was the thousands of tourists, again, detracted from all the beauty and splendor. Something to note: the last time I stood in Campo dei Miracoli was about twenty-five years ago. Since then about 2 billion more people inhabit the planet. It only makes sense that one of the most popular tourist sites in the world will have more tourists.
Our favorite city during our stay in Tuscany was Lucca, which sits about 50 kilometers north of Pisa. The center, old part of town, is nearly as charming as the center of Sienna, but because it lacks any major tourist attractions it is much much less crowded. We had lunch at Piazza dell'Anfiteatro and it was sublime. After lunch we strolled around the narrow romantic streets lit with bouncing reflected light. Our stay there was really delightful, and with out all the tourists we truly enjoyed our Italian moment. I recommend any who visit Tuscany who wish to experience old Italy without the mobs make sure to put Lucca on your to do list.
Since I came to Europe with only my Super Graphic, most of the photographs that accompany this post were taken by Sydney with her Canon G-12. Because I was already loaded down with the Super Graphic, 7 holders and all the other stuff required to use that camera, I didn't have enough room in the camera case that I purchased especially for this trip for another camera. I now regret not having found a way to make space. In retrospect I wish I would have brought another camera. But what? I suppose I could have stuck my M-6 with a 35mm lens in my other carry-on, but truth be told I would have loved to have had the Leica X1, something compact and digital, but of high end quality. It has been, and will always be my bete noire-- not to have, at all times, the perfect camera.
A few mornings while the rest were still sipping their first cappuccino I drove around Chianni to make a few photographs. The great thing about shooting a large format camera is you don't start extending the legs of your tripod unless you're fairly confident you have something worthwhile to spend the time and money on exposing a sheet of film. That's the beauty and/or fault of digital. It doesn't cost a dime to take a bad photograph. Stubbornly I still have the film mindset of trying not to take the picture.