Category Archives: Italy

Accordion Player

Winding down the steep, narrow streets of the medieval Sicilian town of Cefalu towards the seaward ramparts, I could hear faintly some rather delicious accordion music. Getting closer, he sat high up on the seawall, playing with some virtuosity. I made my way up.

Accordion Player, Cefalu © Harold Davis

Surf lapped at the base of the old walls, clouds sailed overhead, and a strong wind blew as I listened to the minor-key harmonies of the accordion. I was reminded of the words of the sad and beautiful Joni Mitchell song For Free:

I slept last night in a good hotel 
I went shopping today for jewels 
The wind rushed around in the dirty town 
And the children let out from the schools 
I was standing on a noisy corner 
Waiting for the walking green 
Across the street he stood 
And he played real good
On his clarinet for free 

Not quite the same circumstances, but the same idea. I put a one Euro coin on the pavement next to him, and he smiled acknowledgment, and kept on playing. I wanted to give him the money before asking to take his photo, so he could say “no” to the photo if he wanted without worrying about monetary consequences. 

When I asked if I could take his photo, he said “sure,” and stopped playing for a moment. I showed him the image on the LCD. He said Grazie mille, and went back to his accordion and his sad, sweet tunes.

Also posted in Monochrome, Photography

Domes in the Palermo Cathedral

I don’t get to use the word syncretic nearly as much as I’d like. Last appearing in this blog to describe the quasi-official mix of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, I am happy to trot out syncretic again in Palermo, Sicily.

Domes, Palermo Cathedral © Harold Davis

My definition of “syncretic” is that the word describes the situation when multiple belief systems that are manifestly, and on their face, contradictory live together in perfect harmony. Hence, Shintoism and Buddhism. In Sicily, particularly Palermo, syncretic well describes the historical and architectural heritage that is a blend of Islam, Byzantium, and the Norman strain of Catholicism.

I had a great time today on a self-guided photo walking tour of the syncretic neighborhoods of central Palermo; tired and footsore at the end I stopped at a student hangout joint for an inexpensive grilled steak with potatoes.

Also posted in Monochrome, Photography

Palazzo Berardo Ferro, Trapani

Yesterday to get away from the madness at the hotel, I got up early, had a quick breakfast, made my way out the barricades, and drove to Trapani, an old port city on the western tip of Sicily.

Palazzo Berardo Ferro, Trapani © Harold Davis

In Trapani I parked, and walked through the oldest part of the city to the tower guarding the harbor, photographing along the way. I had lunch, a delicious stuffed calamari and insalata mixta. On my return walk to the car, I stopped to photograph the entrance to this historic Palazzo. Like most formal architecture around here, it is organized around an arcaded central courtyard. The Palazzo is now taken up with several pensiones (small B&B hotels), and probably some residential apartments as well.

Also posted in Monochrome, Photography

A Memorable Arrival in Palermo

Leaving Malta long before sunrise—the taxi picked us up at the hotel at 3:45AM—under an overcast and misty sky I found myself looking forward to exploring Palermo, Sicily, a bit tense about the rental car drive from the Palermo airport to the hotel, and looking forward to my stay at a luxury hotel on the water near Palermo. It would nice to have a bit of quiet time for recuperation after some days leading a successful photography group in the Malta Archipelago.

The hotel—Grand Hotel Villa Igiea—self-describes in its sales materials as “memorable,” as in “Experience a Memorable Moment.” Generally, the reviews I had read agreed that it was a pretty special place. Indeed, my arrival was to be memorable, but probably not in the way that the pamphlets contemplated.

Room Curtains, Palermo © Harold Davis

Coming down through the dawn on Air Malta I was struck by how beautiful and intricate the coast of Sicily looked in the morning mist. Clearly, the road hugged the coastline, and I really didn’t anticipate too much trouble finding the hotel.

Utilizing the gentle guidance of the Google Maps directorate, I took the freeway towards Palermo, and actually got off the freeway and onto local roads at the right place. From there on, it was increasingly crowded and urban driving. I started to notice a substantial presence of gendarmerie at every intersection. What could this be about?

I was probably within a few blocks of the hotel when I was stopped by an impassable police blockade. All traffic was summarily being ordered to turn around by heavily armed police. First check! I obeyed the police orders, and decided to see if I could use the prowess of Google Maps to “cut across country.”

I really had no idea that the problem was the hotel itself, and figured that if I could only work my way around whatever the issue was, I’d be fine once I got to the hotel.

Before I knew it was driving through an impenetrable warren of tiny streets in a rough neighborhood in Palermo. This wasn’t getting me anywhere, second check! I backed up, turned around, and managed to trace my way back to the original blockade.

I stopped, and had a pretty good look at the map. It seemed like if I went back almost to where I had left the highway I could go round a mountain that hugged the sea, and reach the hotel by a completely different route, approaching from the seaward rather than the city side. So it took a while, but I tried it. I figured at least I was getting to know the area.

This time I got to within a couple of blocks of the hotel, and could actually see it, before I was stopped. I explained the situation to the police officer who stopped me and demanded my passport and proof of hotel reservation. A spirited discussion in Italian commenced within a group of uniformed police, and also some other tough looking men who were probably security agents of one sort or another.

What turned out was that the Italian government had convened a Libyan peace conference at the hotel. For obvious reasons, security was tight, and no cars were allowed within a substantial safety “red zone” buffer around the hotel. 

Eventually, and it was a pretty long eventually, I was able to call the hotel, and they promised to send someone out to help me find a place to park the car and bring my luggage in. This took a while as I waited between two police barricades. 

I won’t go into the security process of getting into the hotel, although it was extensive. The Libyan conference is going on today and tomorrow. I can’t wait for it to be done. Meanwhile, the hotel is plenty memorable (my room is nice, too, as you can see in the image of my room curtains, above) with diplomats and mirrored-sunglass thugs and folks with badges milling around. Lots of self-important people in suits and heels, each one with a briefcase, many of them smoking, almost all of them constantly yammering on their cell phones!

I have the feeling that if I put my camera on the tripod on my balcony—which overlooks not only the Bay of Palermo but also a podium where it looks like potentates are going to pontificate—that most likely I would get in a heap of trouble. 

Essentially, I am a prisoner in my very nice room. Going outside, I am stopped frequently for my papers. It isn’t really tenable. The restaurants and public rooms are closed to hotel guests except for the Libyan conference grandees. Running the gauntlet to get out and back in again is something to contemplate only after I good night’s sleep, since I’ve been up since 3AM.

When I complained to the manager, essentially he said, “We hate it too!” I pointed out that he could have let me know so I could have changed my hotel arrangements. It was all over the news he said. Well maybe, but Palermo is not the top of the news in California in this still surprisingly parochial world we live in (probably they don’t follow the California fires much in Palermo, for that matter). Anyhow, he agreed to comp me to a room service lunch/dinner (as there was no other way to get to eat), and having a full belly helps a bit.

Here’s to being memorable, and in the moment, but only in the right way!

Also posted in Photography

Dawn along the Tiber River

My friend and I woke in the darkness before the first light of dawn in our hotel near the Spanish Steps in Rome. We grabbed our cameras and tripods, donned our headlamps, and walked west to the Tiber River, which was swollen with autumn rains. The river itself ran sluggish and muddy in its broad channel between two steep embankments. A stair led down to the river bank, and a pedestrian path followed the river. As we walked towards the Vatican and central Rome, I noticed homeless camps beneath the bridges with the kind of makeshift shelters that you find in all the major cities of the world in places where poor people can escape notice for a night. 

Ponte Sant'Angelo © Harold Davis

Ponte Sant’Angelo © Harold Davis

We stopped by the Ponte Sant’Angelo, originally built by the Emperor Hadrian in 134 A.D., to photograph the first light of dawn. This is a location in the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, and near to the core citadel of the Roman Catholic faith, but if you look carefully you can see the incursions of the modern world—the reflections of the lights of an Apple Store in the muddy waters of the Tiber River.

Also posted in Digital Night

Study in Contrasts

It’s little more than a hour drive from the sleek architectural statements of Milan’s skyscrapers to the picturesque shores of Lake Como. 

Cloud, CityLife, Milano © Harold Davis

Cloud, CityLife, Milano © Harold Davis

 

Villa Cipressi, Varenna © Harold Davis

Villa Cipressi, Varenna © Harold Davis

Tuscan Road

Wandering the fields and byways of southern Tuscany, I came across this tree-lined road, and settled in for a photography session, enjoying the action of the high-flying clouds. I processed the image to look intentionally anachronistic, essentially like a kind of illustration rather than a photo.

Tuscan Road © Harold Davis

Tuscan Road © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape, Monochrome

City on the Hill

I find when I am traveling that misadventures often bring unexpected photographic dividends. A case in point: getting stuck in a muddy field in my rental car in Tuscany got me into position as the sun was setting to make this image of a classic ancient hill town, Pienza. Somehow, a bright city on the hill persists as the metaphor for the shining society we could have, if we were a little nicer and tried for it a bit harder.

Pienza, Tuscany © Harold Davis

Pienza, Tuscany © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

First a kingdom, then a republic, and finally an empire—for a thousand years the pax Romana held. Today the glory that was Rome amounts to a curiosity, ruins of an ancient civilization presented for the amusement of the tour bus set, the coliseum and Roman forum embedded in the surrounding modern city. Sic transit gloria mundi [“Thus passes the glory of the world”]. Any parallels to modern times are, of course, entirely coincidental.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Color) © Harold Davis

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Color) © Harold Davis

To make this photo, on a rainy day in Rome my companion and I took the elevator to the top of the Victor Emanuel II Memorial. The building commemorates the father of modern Italy, and houses a museum of the Risorgimento, but is essentially bombastic in architectural design, having been variously described as a giant “typewriter” and (most appropriately) a huge wedding cake.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Black & White) © Harold Davis

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Black & White) © Harold Davis

With my camera on my tripod, I captured several sequences of the rain-soaked city and the clearing storm. Then the attendant rushed up to me, and very vehemently told me I couldn’t use my tripod. Fortunately, this image sequence (six exposures 1/4 of a second to 1/640 of a second at f/8 and ISO 64) was already “in the can.”

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (simulated Albumen print) © Harold Davis

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (simulated Albumen print) © Harold Davis

Abbazia di Sant’Antimo

Nestled in a valley in the Tuscan Hills, the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo—Abbey of Saint Anthony—dates originally from the eighth century. If you arrive at the right time, you can hear the monks chanting—but mostly this is a peaceful and silent place. Back in the day, the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo was a secular powerhouse as well as a religious community, and owned farms and churches from here to Siena. But all things must pass, the material world is vanity, and today other than when there is chanting, the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo is notable for the quietness of its pristine location.

Abbazia di Sant'Antimo © Harold Davis

Abbazia di Sant’Antimo © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape

Romantic Landscapes

There’s nothing I like better than to capture romantic landscapes. Of course, any landscape can be romantic in the right light, and almost any landscape can be grim in harsh light. Still, when I am in the heart of the mountains, my thoughts turn towards romantic imagery—and the same when there is a sweetly pictaresque tower or two, or maybe an ancient castle rampart.

Towers of San Gimignano © Harold Davis

Towers of San Gimignano © Harold Davis

Fundamentally, this is an anti-post-modern aesthetic on my part. Maybe this is catchier as “post-post-modern” imagery (abbreviated as “post-squared modern”). In other words, I like the lushness of imagery that shows us a world that is partially fantasy. A world that takes a certain kind of eye to see, and the very real skills of a post-squared modern digital artist to capture without overdoing it. I am aware of the possibilities of irony, but prefer the policies of optimism.

Dolomite View © Harold Davis

Dolomite View © Harold Davis

About the images: (Top) With sunset coming on in a light rain, I hurried to find a high vantage point in the fabulous towered confection of San Gimignano, Italy. From the little tower on the Rocca I had a great view across to the towers, and to the rain passing in the sunset. (Above) View east from the mountains above Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. (Below) This sunset view of Castelo Marvao in Portugal reminds me of the feeling in the San Gimignano image at the beginning of this story.

Castelo Marvao © Harold Davis

Castelo Marvao © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape, Photography, Portugal

Hotel Room with a View

I like to photograph from my hotel room, and I make a point of requesting rooms with a view. Sometimes this works. There’s nothing particularly characteristic of Milan, Italy in these views from my hotel balcony in central Milan at the NH Milano President (basically a middle of the road business hotel), but it was fun photographing car light trails with the stationary trolley at night (bottom image), and when the rain made it too wet to go outside with the camera and tripod, the impressionistic iPhone image of Milan in the rain (upper image) was easy to make without getting too cold and wet!

Rainy Night © Harold Davis

Rainy Night © Harold Davis

Some other hotel rooms with a view: Positano Morning; Window in Bourges; Room with a View.

Via Verziere, Milan © Harold Davis

Via Verziere, Milan © Harold Davis

Also posted in Digital Night, iPhone

Morning Blue

The special characteristics of light at sunset—first the “golden hour,” followed by the “blue hour”—are well known to all serious landscape photographers. Indeed, the quality of the light and the emotional resonance of the views of this good earth as sunset commences, and for a while post-sunset, is clear to all romantic observers of every persuasion.

Morning Blue © Harold Davis

Morning Blue © Harold Davis

What is less well-known is that sunrise duplicates the same wonderful sequence, but in reverse. So shortly after dawn there is a blue period, followed by a time of golden lighting, and then daytime commences. For astronomical reasons, morning blues and golden hues tend to be shorter in duration than those in the evening—but they are no less potent and emotionally heart warming.

Click here for a related image, Dawn on Lake Como, and here for workshop opportunities to explore different and exotic sunrises and sunsets with your camera and me!

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

Bramante Stairs

The Bramante Stairs is a double helix staircase, meaning it consists of two independent helical stairs in the same vertical space, allowing one person to ascend and another to descend, without ever meeting if they choose different helices. This spectacular staircase is found when leaving the Vatican Museum—the day I visited one of the helical stairs was closed to traffic, and the other was pretty busy.

Bramante Stairs (Looking Up) © Harold Davis

Bramante Stairs (Looking Up) © Harold Davis

Bramante Stair (Looking Down) © Harold Davis

Bramante Stairs (Looking Down) © Harold Davis

Related story: Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Also posted in Monochrome, Photography

Tuscan Field

This field has been plowed. It is autumn, and the land is bare, waiting in lengthy passivity for the new crops of spring to begin to show. The patterns in the furrows as rendered by the reflected light from sky and clouds make an austere composition, possibly with more depth than is apparent on the initial glance.

Tuscan Field © Harold Davis

Tuscan Field © Harold Davis

Also posted in Monochrome, Photography