Category Archives: Portugal

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 Italy, Landscape, Photography

Autumn Arbor at the Bussaco Palace

As October begins and the year inches toward autumn, I thought it was appropriate to share this image, photographed early on a foggy morning on the grounds of the Bussaco Palace Hotel early in November last year in central Portugal. Never have I stayed in a hotel that was so much resting on its laurels in a 5-star atmosphere of genteel—and not so genteel—decay.

Staying at the hotel allowed me to photograph the palace and surrounding park at twilight and in the first light of dawn. Really, if you have a taste for this kind of thing, the whole experience of staying within the grounds of the Bussaco Palace was great fun in a kind of funky former glory, upstairs downstairs vibe.

Autumn Arbor © Harold Davis

Autumn Arbor © Harold Davis

The hotel restaurant was the only place to eat within many dark miles, and I endured (or enjoyed) the infinitely expensive, infinitely slow meal with close to inedible food. I was served by an astounding array of costumed wait-person staff, each with a separate function apparently not coordinated with any of their colleagues. In other words, the ratio of gilt epaulets to farm fresh edibles was way skewed toward the gaudy.

The hotel was almost devoid of other guests, and my room was at the end of a long, drafty hall. Half the time I expected Count Dracula or werewolves to come out of the foggy night to complement the ruined elegance. I slept with the door to my room locked and barricaded as well as I could, and eked out a lukewarm bath in a huge clawfoot tub.

In other words, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I would return in a heartbeat. The stone angel shown below in the morning fog is part of the front facade of the Bussaco Palace.

Stone Angel © Harold Davis

Stone Angel © Harold Davis

Related story: Travels with Samantha.

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

An amusement park for adults

Downtown Porto, Portugal’s second city, has aspects of an amusement park for adults, without being cloying. There’s a great river with boats of every kind, an old town with ancient structures—some a little scruffy, but nothing too disreputable—funiculars, cog railway elevators, and a number of bridges, including a great 19th century cast-iron structure coming from the incomparable Gustav Eiffel’s studio. Not to mention great food, and plenty of port wine to taste.

Ponte Luis I  © Harold Davis

Ponte Luis I © Harold Davis

On the Eiffel bridge—Ponte Luis I—cars are relegated to the bottom. The upper level is a vertigo-inducing walkway for pedestrians, and a platform for the light rail system.

Porto via IPhone © Harold Davis

Porto via IPhone © Harold Davis

It’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying walking around the waterfront area of this city at night. As the wind and weather changes, so do the reflections in the Duoro River—but each time and in every way the view is charming.

Ponte Luis I  © Harold Davis

Ponte Luis I © Harold Davis

Interested in seeing the world with me, and making unusual photos in night time as well as during the daytime? Check out my upcoming autumn photography trip to the Sea-Girt Villages of Italy.

Related story: Travels with Samantha.

Also posted in Digital Night, iPhone, Monochrome, Photography

Megaliths Modern and Ancient

There are probably more neolithic sites in Portugal than anywhere else in Europe. While I was trying to locate a large neolithic site near Evora, Samantha guided me beneath a freeway. Highways like this in Portugal are great for long distance travelers—they automatically dock the toll out of a device in your car—but carry little traffic and are essentially public works projects that are highways to nowhere.

Freeway to nowhere © Harold Davis

Freeway to nowhere © Harold Davis

Staring up at the freeway silhouetted to infinity against the sky, I mused on how ephemeral it all is. The megalith shown below is from a neolithic installation that is perhaps 25,000 years old. No one knows what it really was for; maybe, like Stonehenge it was part of some kind of large astronomical measurement site. For neolithic man, moving these huge stones into position on a hillside surrounded by cork trees must have been a tremendous undertaking.

In years to come, freeways to nowhere may also decay, get covered with lichen, disconnect and become fragmentary. Then people from the future (if there are any) may wonder about who built these huge structure at such great effort, and to what end (does the gap stretching towards infinity between the lanes point at a specific star?)

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley put this best in Ozymandius (written in the early 1800s):

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Megalith © Harold Davis

Megalith © Harold Davis

Also posted in Monochrome

Castelo Marvao

Late on a frigid November afternoon I checked into the Pousada Santa Maria—a converted convent—in the eagle-nest town of Marvao, Portugal. I was the only guest at the hotel. I dropped my bags in my room, dressed in every layer I had with me, grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed out into the oncoming evening to photograph.

Castelo Marvao © Harold Davis

Castelo Marvao © Harold Davis

High above the Iberian plain, and facing the Spanish border, Marvao has been a refuge from time out of mind. During the Roman era, star-crossed lovers are said to have fled the wrath of armies and settled on these heights. Their descendants added successive fortifications, leading to the castle you see in the photo, protecting a small white-washed village that clings nearby.

On the ramparts of the castle it was getting even colder, and the wind was picking up. I made my way to the top tower of the castle and watched the last of the sunset, and the lights of the village below come on, secure knowing I had my headlamp with me. The clouds swirled in, and I was alone in a white-out.

Back at the hotel, I warmed up in the lounge, waiting for the dining room to open. Its late hours were typical of dining in Portugal. Had it been light, and but for the fog, I would have been able to see hundreds of miles across Spain during my long and mediocre meal. My server wheezed and sniffled and told me, “We all are sick here, it is always cold, even in summer.”

As it was, I was grateful for my warm bed, and grateful that I had seized the last light to photograph this incredibly romantic landscape!

Related stories: Travels with Samantha; Terraces in Portugal; Rats at Mafra.

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

Terraces in Portugal

In the Upper Douro Valley of Portugal the grapes are grown that become the famous port wine that has made Oporto, Portugal’s second city on the banks of the Douro River where it meets the Atlantic, a commercial center since time immemorial. The vines are grown on steep terraces, created over the centuries by hand. This area is a World Heritage Site, and looking at the immensity of the labor involved in this landscape one can surely understand why.

Terraces © Harold Davis

Terraces © Harold Davis

I shot this image handheld across the valley of a river a tributary to the Douro River on a late autumn day with quickly shifting cloud cover. Of course, this is a composition of patterns on a large scale. Abstractly, one could almost be looking at sine waves rather than stone terraces. Look closely, and you can see the staircases used to navigate from one level to the next.

But the eye needs some relief, so when I chose the portion of this vast landscape to render I let a road curve and meander through the frame from left to right, and balanced the road with a bright spot of light coming through the clouds, and coming down from the upper right.

Here’s the color version of the photo:

Terraces, Upper Douro Valley, Portugal © Harold Davis

Terraces, Upper Douro Valley, Portugal © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape, Monochrome

Travels with Samantha

I’m normally a map, or a map-and-compass, kind of guy. But when I rented my car in Portugal I also rented a navigation system. Getting lost in obscure foreign parts where I didn’t speak the language was definitely getting old.

The man who set up the navigation system for me at Europacar wanted to know whether I wanted British or American English, and also whether I wanted the Jack or Samantha voice. I picked Samantha.

In some respects, Sam is a navigational prodigy, getting me places on a wing and a prayer that I would never have accomplished on my own. For example, the route Sam took me on to the door of my hotel in the historic district of Porto involved several one-way alleys, numerous roundabouts, the lower deck of the famous bridge in Porto, and—strangely—a vacant lot.

Porto at Night © Harold Davis

Porto at Night © Harold Davis

When she’s good, Sam is very, very good—but the price for her help is that she wants control. Occasionally she also gets things wrong, directing me up roads closed to traffic, or alleys that are only intended for foot traffic. In these cases, she gets repetitive, and there is clearly a shrillness to the directions, as if she’s asking, “Why can’t you even follow simple instructions?”

She’s also not very sympathetic to the stops I make for photography. She calculates an arrival time for each destination. Apparently, my photographic stops throw this off. “Recalculating,” she announces, and you can almost see the virtual eyeball rolling. “You are now fifteen minutes later than the original time-to-destination.” It certainly sounds like she gets more annoyed the more photographic stops I make.

Once today I reached a new highway that wasn’t in Sam’s database. Her display showed me and the car rolling across open fields, and her directions to correct my course were increasingly implausible, until at last the real world and her maps coincided again, and there was peace in the relationship once more.

Like any neurotic relationship there are communication problems, and as I mentioned, a battle for control. But I’ve grown accustomed to the strident, dulcet tones of my Samantha, telling me she is recalibrating, and to go right in 100 meters on a street whose name in Portuguese she has totally mangled—or often, turn in 250 meters on “Road” with no other name. It’s relaxing knowing I can blunder anyplace in this country, more or less, and Sam will get me to where I need to go no matter how lost I am.

Also posted in Digital Night, Photography

Rats at Mafra

The imperial palace at Mafra, Portugal was built on a huge scale with loot from the Brazil colony. Everything is super-sized: room after room with billiard table, deer antlers, and last but surely not least the library. This is the largest library of leather-bound books in the world, and it is never done. As fast as they prepare new volumes, the rats of Mafra eat older books.

Library at Mafra © Harold Davis

Library at Mafra © Harold Davis

Incidentally, this is the place where each of five guards told me I couldn’t use my tripod, even though I showed no sign of using it. I guess they had nothing to do in the vastness, and couldn’t very well start gnawing leather-bound volumes.

Also posted in Photography