Counting World Heritage sites: #64 (Cinque Terre)

August 24th, 2014

The incredibly picturesque area of Cinque Terre, along with Portovenere and a trio of islands to the immediate south, are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their historic and cultural value, to say nothing of their beauty. For nearly a millennium, the rugged and mountainous Ligurian coast made these villages remote and isolated, accessible only via water. In the 21st century, the cars and the trains can reach every village but in such a limited fashion as to allow them to retain their unique charming features.

Our base in Cinque Terre was Vernazza, which provides the best balance of accessibility, size, and charm. The following shot is one of the iconic images of the region.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

This view opens from a lookout at the beginning (or the end, depending on your direction) of the trail to Monterosso. The trails are not easy for those less athletically-inclined, but a fantastic way to get a better impression of the entire region. The main trail connects all five seaside villages; the shortest leg, the southernmost connection between Manarola and Riomaggiore, is considered the most romantic – and easiest – and has a somewhat pretentious name of “Lovers’ Alley”. We initially planned to walk the entire route, but a couple of sections, including the aforementioned Lovers’ Alley, were closed due to hurricane damage, so we only walked the section between Vernazza and Corniglia, and later between Monterosso and Vernazza. Each of those two requires at least 90 minutes to navigate. The northernmost leg, from Monterosso to Vernazza, is more beautiful, with several waterfalls and streams to break the mountanous landscape.

If you find the white awning on the ground level of the pale pink building in the center of the above shot, the window immediately to the right of it is that of our rental apartment.

Although some people sunbathe and swim at the marina or off the pier that extends to the right of the shot, Vernazza also has a wild rocky beach that is located behind the buildings on the left of the picture. We took a few dips in the Ligurian Sea over there.

Corniglia is the only one of the five villages that does not have direct access to the sea. It sits high atop a small but steep promontory.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

This is quite a disadvantage, IMHO. None of the villages provide significant sightseeing and entertainment opportunities each in itself. You get the most out of the region if you explore all villages. With no ferry stop and a long walk down – and on the way back, up – to the railway station, Corniglia is just not as accessible as other places. The beach is located beyond the station – again, a significant descent to get there, and more importantly, a significant climb on the return trip.

You see a glimpse of Manarola, the next village southward on the previous shot. Here it is up close.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Manarola is the smallest of the five hamlets. It has tiny access to the sea, with a small rocky lagoon doubling as a beach and a small piazza providing a couple of waterfront dining options.

Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, is similar to Manarola but slightly larger in size.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Its seafront area is actually even tinier than Manarola’s, but the upper town is bigger, goes farther up the mountain via a comparatively wide main street, and there is a separate part of village which occupies the next adjoining cove on the coast.

The northernmost village, Monterosso al Mare, is the largest of them all.

Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre, Italy

Monterosso, alone on Cinque Terre, has a sizable and developed beach. The picture above shows only the part of it in front of the city center. It continues beyond the promontory on the left for nearly a mile.

Unlike all other villages, there is more than one street in Monterosso that is not effectively a stair climb and there is even a small park with a playground near the waterfront. For those inclined towards a beach-centric resort stay, Monterosso potentially could provide all that is needed by itself.

We also visited Portovenere, which is part of the same World Heritage site, but not part of Cinque Terre proper.

Portovenere, Liguria, Italy

Portovenere is located to the south of Riomaggiore. Hidden behind a jutting promontory, but with an extended waterfront, it feels larger than any of the five villages, even though it may actually be smaller in size than Monterosso. It is certainly very colourful and offers several points of interest, in addition to its quay and its main commercial street. Excluding time for meals and for beach-going, each of the Cinque Terre villages can be covered in depth in under an hour. Portovenere requires at least two or three hours, and that is without much lingering.

The UNESCO site also includes three small islands off Portovenere as part of its body, but we did not fit exploring those into our itinerary.

Cinque Terre is certainly amongst the most eye-catching and remarkable places that we have seen on our travels. Navigating the area may not be the most straightforward of the exercises, but it is awfully rewarding. And often breathtaking.

Photography, Travel

Counting World Heritage sites: #63 (Mantua/Sabbioneta)

August 16th, 2014

The towns of Mantua (Mantova in Italian) and Sabbioneta are paired into a single World Heritage site on the basis of representing two different facets of Renaissance city planning: the former an example of an existing city rebuilt and renewed, the latter a completely new town built according to the prevailing concepts of the ideal town of the time.

You can certainly see Renaissance influence in the architecture and un-medieval wideness of some of the streets around Mantua’s center. The most interesting architecture in town is concentrated around its historic core, focused on Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Sordello.

This shot of Piazza delle Erbe captures the latter-period architecture, including the porticoes gallery that is a very common feature of southern Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna architecture.

Piazza delle Erbe, Mantua, Italy

The wide and spacious Piazza Sorbello is home to the Mantua Cathedral, the Ducal Palace, and a host of other impressive buildings.

Duomo and Piazza Sordello, Mantua, Italy

Here is the façade of Palazzo Ducale, on the other side of the square.

Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy

A tour of the place is an excellent diversion if you are in town, consisting of a couple of dozen increasingly impressive spaces, sparsely furnished but boasting magnificent ceilings and wall frescoes and decorations.

Here is one other perspective from a corner of Piazza Sorbello, taking in a fragment of the cathedral, Palazzo Bonacolsi, Torre della Gabbia, and the dome of Basilica Sant’Andrea.

In Mantua, Italy

Sabbioneta has a small grid-like core of streets that forms the reason for its inclusion on the UNESCO list. However, we did not find anything exceptional there. In fact, our short visit to town left us underwhelmed and disappointed. On a Saturday early afternoon, not helped at all by the intermittent rain, the town looked nearly deserted and far from festive or even remarkable. We probably should have spent more time in Mantua instead. I took just a handful of pictures; the following two shots are of the Ducal Palace and the church (the sign on its side literally says just chiesa with no designation of a saint that it is dedicated to) that sit on Piazza Ducale, which might be lovely during the livelier times.

Palazzo Ducale, Sabbioneta, Italy  On Piazza Ducale, Sabbioneta, Italy

This World Heritage site probably does not constitute a destination in itself. But as an intraday stopover on some route, Mantua is certainly a pleasant choice and can easily provide a few hours of exploration entertainment. Sabbioneta is unlikely to appeal to anyone but the most hard-core aficionados of Renaissance architecture.

Photography, Travel

Counting World Heritage sites: #62 (Verona)

August 10th, 2014

Verona is enshrined on the UNESCO list as the whole city, with a large number of buildings and monuments mentioned in the inscription. It was the first stop on our recent sojourn.

The heart of the city is lively Piazza delle Erbe. It hosted a smaller version of the market when we were there which allowed me to take a few reasonable shots of its expanse.

Piazza dell Erbe, Verona, Italy

The adjacent Piazza dei Signori, fragment of which is on the next photo, is smaller and more monumentally surrounded.

Piazza dei Signori, Verona, Italy

The biggest square in town is Piazza Bra, the home to the famous Amphitheatre Arena, the second biggest in the world after the Colloseum in Rome.

Piazza Bra, Verona, Italy

Going to see the opera performance at the Arena is a veritable highlight of a visit to town. Especially if you are a true opera lover. If you are someone like us – we appreciate classical music but can do without singing in a foreign language – you might still enjoy repeating our approach: buy cheapest tickets, get to the arena at least an hour before the performance, bring a snack to sustain yourself, commandeer seats on the highest stone terrace, enjoy the sight of the arena filling with spectators and the customary lighting of the candles at the start of the performance, appreciate the excellent but remote performance visuals through the first act (you will be extremely challenged to enjoy the audio unless you splurge on not-so-cheap lower-level seats instead), and then retire after the first act to any of the nearby restaurants for a dinner. If your tickets are to a 4-5-hour-long performance, you might even have a chance to come back for the last act. We decided that we already had our fill of memories.

Torre dei Lamberti is not mentioned in the World Heritage inscription, but we could not pass a chance to climb to the top for the fantastic views of the city from above. Highly recommended – and elevator-enabled for athletically challenged.

Rooftop view of Verona, Italy

The next view is along the River Adige from the walls of Castelvecchio, the 14th-century castle.

View from Castelvecchio along River Adige, Verona, Italy

There are several major churches in Verona, of which we explored a few. Both the Duomo and the church of Sant’Anastasia are, in my opinion, especially striking when you step inside.

Inside Verona Duomo, Italy


Inside Sant-Anastasia, Verona, Italy

We walked all over Verona and, of course, ended up at some point by the House of Juliet (ok, it’s hard to miss, sitting just a block away from Piazza delle Erbe). The balcony was only added in the 1930s, which clearly negates any possibility of the place having actual historic value with respect to the famous Shakespearean work, but that does not diminish its popularity as one of the most crowded attractions in Verona. Given that it is explicitly mentioned in the UNESCO long description of Verona, I found a way to snap a picture when no one was pretending to be Juliet.

Juliet Balcony, Verona, Italy

Verona’s historic core is surprisingly larger than one might expect and offers a large number of attractions, but it is possible to cover most of the key ones in a full day, which is what we accomplished.

Photography, Travel

Back from Italy

August 4th, 2014

Over 2,200 kilometres by car. Nearly 150,000 steps (if the pedometer is to be trusted). A couple of thousand shots that should yield at least a couple of hundred additions to my public photostream. Six regions of the country that had dedicated stops on our itinerary. A dozen cities that we have not been to before (and one much loved one that we made a short return visit to, literally in the spur of the moment). One new country that we never set foot in in the past. Dips in two different seas on the opposite coasts of the peninsula. Ten UNESCO World Heritage sites to add to our roster. Three great afternoons spent in the company of our eldest child.

Admittedly, our choice of destination for a summer sojourn was shaped in large part by the fact that Becky was spending a semester at the University of Urbino. Italy is clearly the country we have visited the most on our travels, so in order to spice it up this time around we purposefully built our itinerary around locales that had escaped our attentions in the past. My recently acquired “obsession” with the UNESCO list proved to be quite useful given the number of locations on that list that are in Italy. We lingered in some places and took transit detours or targeted getaways to others. As I will be working through the photographs, I will be posting the highlights of each stop in this space.

Every day left us with something to remember, be it grand squares, great museums, or local customs taught to us by our own Italian resident. And on our last day, a crazy idea to spend the evening in Venice shaped up as the time whittled away. Although La Serenissima was not in our original plans, we were less than an hour away from it, and changing plans in midstream comes naturally to us. Riding vaporetto linea 1, crossing little bridges, strolling through narrow streets and cozy squares, listening to music on Piazza San Marco – it was a perfect coda to a fantastic trip.


Re-counting World Heritage sites: #31 (Sevilla)

June 29th, 2014

Sevilla is probably at the top of my “been once, want to see again” list. Despite its magnificence, for me, it is not as impressive as Granada or Cordoba, which contributed to the fact that we only managed to visit it one single time.

The World Heritage site, comprised of an Almohad palace, a Gothic cathedral, and the Spanish Renaissance archives building in the center of the city, is a can’t-miss attraction (ok, you may want to admire the Archivo de Indias from outside without stepping in, depending on your interest in documented history of the New World discovery and settlement).

The Alcázar is well-preserved and hugely impressive. The cathedral is cavernous and slightly oppressive. The bell tower, Giralda, formerly a minaret, is a delicate mix of architectural styles of East and West. The way up in the tower is via ramps that allowed horseback riders to ascend all the way to the top. No one is going to offer you a horse today, but walking up for views over city is highly recommended and is considerably easier than at other towers where you have to navigate staircases.

(On a side note, at the height of the “Da Vinci Code” popularity years ago, I read all of Dan Brown’s books, one of which, “Digital Fortress”, has a major Seville component. Any argument of literary value of his books aside, Brown diminished all of his books for me by making Giralda’s steps a key instrument in the hero’s victory over the villain. What steps?)

As on several other trips, we did not come back from Sevilla with a lot of good photographic evidence. So here are a couple of photos of us in Alcázar’s interiors.

In Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain  In Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain


Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #36 (Postdam/Sanssouci)

June 20th, 2014

Sanssouci Palace and Gardens, the major part of this World Heritage site, was an intraday destination on the way from Berlin to Dresden during our two-weeks-plus long voyage around Germany nearly ten years ago. We’ve always been partial to grand royal palace and grounds combos, and Sanssouci is resplendent, a clear contender as one of the top such sights in all of Europe. One would be hard-pressed to cover all of the parkland around the guided visit to the palace interior even in a full day, but at least a half-day visit is highly recommended for anyone spending a few days in Berlin or as a targeted destination for a round-Germany trip.

Unfortunately, as we already established elsewhere on this blog, that period of our travels did not coincide with much useful photography. We took a few dozen pictures of ourselves in front of various edifices around Sanssouci grounds but were mostly content with observing rather than documenting.

The only picture not featuring our own visages is the following one of Chinese House, an ornate pavilion some distance from the main summer palace.

Chinese House, Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany

And here is one of the photos featuring Natasha, in front of the Picture Gallery, whose erstwhile rich collection of paintings was somewhat diminished at the conclusion of World War II but is still very much worth the time.

On Sanssouci grounds, Potsdam, Germany


Photography, Travel

Lower Manhattan from a boat

June 15th, 2014

My present job occasionally demands travel between Wall Street area in Manhattan and Exchange Place location in Jersey City. The most convenient way to make the trip is via NY Waterway service, which takes about 10 minutes to cross New York Harbor. On one of such trips I brought along my camera and snapped a couple of hundred perspectives of Lower Manhattan. The highlights can be found in my Flickr photostream.

View of Lower Manhattan from New York Harbor


New York City & Environs, Photography

Pictures from Chicago

June 2nd, 2014

Life did its best to interfere, I interjected a significant computer hardware upgrade into proceedings, and all those other excuses. A month and a half later, the selection of the best pictures from our April Chicago trip is now available in my Flickr photostream.

Michigan Avenue Bridge and surrounding buildings, Chicago


Photography, Travel

I can eat

May 30th, 2014

As I mentioned in this post-business-trip entry, there are few better ways to impress your relatively new colleagues than to order a huge mixed-grill plate at a fancy restaurant and polish it off on your own. One of the aforementioned colleagues took before-and-after pictures of that epic meal but kept forgetting to send the pics to me. That has finally been rectified. So here I am.



Being silly

Flying Kimmy (feat. cousin Maya)

April 27th, 2014
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Chicago, Navy Pier, April 2014.

Children, Photography

Back from Chicago

April 24th, 2014
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Seeing family who we do not get to see often enough, having kids spend quality play time with their cousins, and fitting in some sightseeing – that’s my recipe for a good time in Chicago.

We took a portion of Easter week to visit my brother and his family. They reside in Windy City’s northern suburban area, from where we took daily trips to the Loop for various entertainment purposes. More social-networky among us even provided live commentary of our exploits.

We also chilled in the backyard, made a couple of local excursions, imbibed uncommon quantities of wine, and generally had a blast.

Pictures to follow. For starters, here is panoramic view of the city from the Shedd Aquarium.

Chicago as seen from Shedd Aquarium


Family & Friends, Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #43 (Belfries)

March 27th, 2014
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I have on multiple occasions professed my inclination for climbing elevated viewpoints in any given location. That tendency puts this particular World Heritage site especially close to my heart. In addition to admiring architectural qualities and civic history significance for which these towers are inscribed on the UNESCO List, I very much enjoy the views that they offer from up high.

Of the 56 locations in this serial property, I have only been in the vicinity of four and actually climbed just two. If I ever retire to a travel-centric lifestyle, a circle around Belgium and northern France smaller cities, where the majority of these towers reside, could be a fun targeted trip.

Brugge’s Belfort already featured in my favorite sites series, and the picture from that entry remains the best one I have taken of the magnificent tower.

Belfort, Brugge, Belgium

Becky and I climbed to the top of it one day and somewhat accidentally walked into a rare experience – listening to the bells play while standing practically underneath them. I suspect the fact that they allow tourists onto the viewing terrace during such performances suggests that it is not really dangerous to one’s health and sanity. I also suspect that since curator on duty was warning people to wait until the bell-play was over, most people find the experience reasonably objectionable. Me, I can’t say that it was unbearable to any degree. Loud, yes. Made me appreciate earplugs as an emergency necessity, yes. Took me a couple of minutes afterwards to get rid of ringing in my head, yes. But it was not exactly deafening, and reasonably fun.

Antwerp is one of the rare cities where the climb to the high tower did not make the cut in our itinerary. It also happens to be the only town on this property list with more than one location, although both of them somewhat deviate from the main theme of the UNESCO inscription.

The tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady is both delicate and imposing.

Tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium

The way it does not fit with other belfries is that this is, essentially, a church belltower, while the historic significance of this collection of buildings is in representing the ever-growing power of city civic councils against that of local noblemen and clergy. As much as I admire sacred architecture, I do not see how a cathedral belltower represents anything but religious glory.

The second inscribed location in Antwerp is the tower of its Town Hall.

Stadhuis, Antwerp, Belgium

This picture also already appeared on this blog, but I like it too much to use a different view.

Because this is not actually a tower – not a belfry in the sense that I want to interpret the term – I also tend to think that it should not belong in this collection. But it looks magnificent nonetheless.

A quick research of the other properties on the list shows that Antwerp’s are not the only examples of the loose interpretation of what constitutes a belfry.

Finally, in Gent, I inexplicably failed to take a good picture of its own Belfort, although I did post a view from its top in my favorite sites entry. What that leaves me is a picture of my own self with the tower in the background on the left.

In Gent, Belgium

Gorgeous!! The view, I mean. But the guy in the picture looks pretty good, too.

Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #11 (Chartres)

March 22nd, 2014
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Reims Cathedral is not the only great church that prompted us to plan a stopover in town specifically so that we could visit it. Off the top of my head I can think of at least three others.

Chartres Cathedral was the very first of such churches, chronologically speaking. On our first voyage around France, an intraday stop in Chartres linked the first two legs of the itinerary. Although we did walk around town a little, neither the weather nor the schedule allowed for exploration of much beyond the cathedral.

Inscribed on the UNESCO list as the pinnacle of 12th-13th-century French Gothic art, the cathedral is exactly that, a grand edifice worth effusive accolades. Its stained-glass windows are among the most splendid in the world, especially considering their age and excellent state of preservation.

Unfortunately, in those film-photography times, the limited amout of pictures we took with a point-and-shoot camera tended to emphasize “we’ve been here” concept, with either Natasha or me featuring in front of various points of interest. The best I can offer from my archives is this view from town streets below the cathedral. At least you can enjoy the visage of me, 12 years younger.

Chartres Cathedral

Aside from the façon of eyeglasses, I actually did not change that much, I don’t think. I even wear this same blazer on occasion.

Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #47 (Reims)

March 14th, 2014
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If you ever drive through Reims on A344, you might be able to glimpse the sight of its storied cathedral from the car windows. My deep admiration for sacred architecture prompted us to plan an overnight stay in Reims on one such drive, in order to explore the cathedral site (and the rest of the city a bit as well).

Notre-Dame de Reims, along with nearby archbishop’s palace (called Tau Palace), is inscribed on UNESCO list both for its architectural merit and for historical significance. The great church is among the most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom, well worth a dedicated visit for architecture lovers such as ourselves.

Here is the façade of the cathedral.

Reims Cathedral

If from here it looks just any other Notre-Dame, it is primarily because all of those other Notre-Dames were frequently modelled on it.

A side perspective.

Reims Cathedral

The present structure dates from the 13th century and have been extensively restored after the damage sustained during World War I. The original seat of Archdiocese of Reims existed on this site since the 5th century, when the most famous of Archbishops, Saint Rémi, first anointed a king of Franks, which gave rise to the ceremony that lasted through almost the entire history of the French monarchy.

I rarely take pictures inside churches, but the interior of the cathedral was light and airy, and the stained glass sparkling (and, most importantly, photography was not forbidden), so I ended up with a few passable shots. Here is one along the nave towards rose windows.

Reims Cathedral

And here are some of the other stained-glass windows.

Reims Cathedral

The pulpits, for me, are among the most interesting components of a church. This one was no exception.

Reims Cathedral

For whatever reason, Tau Palace did not leave a lasting impression with us and I cannot locate any pictures of it either. Another time, maybe.

Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #8 (Tower of London)

March 5th, 2014
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The Tower of London, dating from William’s Conquest in 1066, is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for a number of reasons, among them as an outstanding example of medieval military architecture as well as for its role in the European history.

It is certainly one of the must-see sights in London. There are several self-guided tours inside the grounds that are enabled by excellent audio-guides. You can see dungeons, royal apartments, an armoury, among many things; and don’t forget the Crown Jewels. Joining a group tour led by a Beefeater is also an option – they are entertaining, as long as you don’t mind jousting for place closer to the guide with a few dozen people during busy times.

If I recall correctly, I’ve been inside the Tower on three occasions. During my very first trip to London, on an off day during a business trip, I covered everything the landmark had to offer. The return visit occurred on the reconnaissance trip to London in 2006. Natasha and I finished house-hunting and seemingly had a free day for sightseeing, but a short time into our visit to the Tower we got a call from the broker that our rental offer had been quickly accepted, and instead of continuing our tour we decided to go sign the papers in person (as opposed to postponing until we were back in the States and doing everything over faxes).

Natasha came back for a full visit next year with visiting relatives. Me, I found myself outside the Tower walls on several occasions, but stepped inside only once more, for a corporate Christmas party organized on the Tower grounds (in the last year such extravagances took place). Otherwise, during our years in London, the Tower for me has become one of those comparatively expensive local attractions that I never managed to re-visit while never failing to recommend to each and every first-timer.

Massive Tower walls and fortifications are an imposing sight from the upper deck of the city tour bus.

Tower of London

The street-lamp that features in the above shot exemplifies my lax point-and-shoot approach to photography those days. Either that, or I could claim some artistic design here, probably.

Next is a pretty good shot of the White Tower, the main keep.

White Tower, Tower of London

Royal Armouries are located inside the White Tower, but even if you are not interested in weapons, it is a fascinating architectural edifice.

You will always see a Royal Guard next to the entrance to the Jewel House, where the Crown Jewels are exhibited.

Scots Guard at the Tower of London

The regiment to which the guard belongs can be distinguished by the buttons on his uniform. This is a Scots Guard – marked by buttons in threes.

There is a bunch of quite sinister-looking ravens at the Tower. Mythology holds it that they protect the Crown.

Raven at the Tower of London

With my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for photography, I will probably make it a priority to see the Tower again on my next trip to London.

Photography, Travel

Exposure Fusion processing of RAW files

February 28th, 2014
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Patience is not a virtue I can claim ample possession of.

In my own photography – if I had to label the genre in which I mostly operate I would call it urban tourist landscape – I tend to grade myself on the “postcard shot” scale. While I am able to aesthetically appreciate impressions of true artists (there is little doubt that I am not one), I most value in my own shots crispness and vividness – in other words, being able to say that “this photograph is like a postcard”.

Shooting in RAW with enthusiast-level gear (which is to say, not approaching professional level but certainly better than amateur), I have many opportunities to get the best out of my shots during post-processing. Lightroom on its own makes a reasonable job of taking a decent RAW file and bringing out colors, re-balancing shadows and highlights, enhancing sharpness, etc. Then, there are multi-RAW processing techniques that allow me to layer in local adjustments to different parts of a given picture in Photoshop.

But I am not patient enough to get the best possible result. I might clearly lack the measure of artistic inspiration that guides some photographers to identify uncommon adjustments or effects that turn a good photograph into an exceptional masterpiece. But that aside, as much as I swear by post-processing I simply am not wired to take time to painstakingly work on adjustments once I deem my interim results “good enough”. After all, there is a whole line of next photographs being neglected while I am spending all that extra time on a particular one.

HDR to the rescue! While true High Dynamic Range processing requires bracketed exposures, a method called Exposure Fusion takes a single RAW file, calculates what other exposures of the same scene would be like, and then works such virtual exposures as it would work a set of bracketed shots. Photomatix Pro software does an excellent job in producing a “fused” image where shadow and highlight areas are no longer dull and the colors really pop. I may still want to do some further polishing in Lightroom or Photoshop (reducing noise, softening over-saturated areas, sharpening up, retouching blemishes, etc.), but the bottom line is I get to “better than good enough” with fewer manipulations than I would have made otherwise.

Below is a large selection of shots that I made during my walk around Kiev in late January. Pictures on the left are my original final “good enough” results. Pictures on the right are the same RAW files first processed via Exposure Fusion and then additionally adjusted/cropped in Lightroom and Photoshop (some of the perspective crop ratios have not been perfectly matched but those are nonetheless same shots). In a few cases the differences are pretty subtle, while in others they are quite dramatic.

In all cases, I view the right-hand samples as bringing me closer to my postcard-quality goal. I suspect you’ll agree. (All pictures are clickable, as always. Using next/previous controls in the pop-up window will give you a better view of the differences.)

Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Kiev-Pechersk Lavra


In Kiev In Kiev


In Kiev In Kiev


In Kiev In Kiev


In Kiev In Kiev


In Kiev In Kiev


Sofia Square, Kiev Sofia Square, Kiev


Sofia Square, Kiev Sofia Square, Kiev


Sofia Square, Kiev Sofia Square, Kiev


St Michael Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev St Michael Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev


St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev


St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev


St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev St Sofia Cathedral, Kiev


St Michael Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev St Michael Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev



Impressions of Dubai

February 19th, 2014
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Five-and-a-half hours layover in Dubai gets you about two and a half hours of sightseeing at a canter on a low-traffic day (think Saturday). I probably could have squeezed another hour out of it, but one of my guiding principles in life (passed to me by my late grandfather) happens to be “better be an hour early than a minute late” and I ended up leaving too much of a buffer for my return to the airport. As a result, I spent more time inside taxis than outside, and the quality of resulting photography shows.

The upside was that I got a comparatively wide, if certainly expensive, tour of practically the entire city.

Here are a few passable shots of Dubai architecture.

Dubai architecture seen through the taxi windshield


Dubai architecture seen through the taxi windshield


Dubai architecture seen through the taxi windshield


Dubai architecture seen through the taxi windshield

Of the places that I planned to stop by for a close up, elegant Burj Al Arab served a dose of disappointment, as it turned out you are not allowed through its security check-point unless you are a guest. I had to be content with snapping a few shots from outside the gates.

Burj Al Arab, Dubai

The humongous Dubai Mall ended up as the longest stop on the tour, as it opens up colorful scenery around a lake.

Dubai Mall

Most importantly, the promenade around the lake provides an opportunity for excellent perspectives on the magnificent Burj Khalifa needle.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

A couple of dozen of least bad pictures from my quick tour of Dubai are found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Impressions of Bangalore

February 15th, 2014

Since photography is only a hobby for yours truly, on my recent week-long stay in Bangalore I mostly conducted business other than photography. Nonetheless, I had a bit of time for morning walks in the edge-of-the-city technology cluster area, snapped some reasonable shots through the windshield of our chauffeured car, and on the last day took full advantage of the several hours of sightseeing organized by our hosts.

Here are a few highlights.

This palace next to the hotel I was staying at is actually a large medical center. You wouldn’t say by looking.

Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Whitefield, Bangalore

The full name is Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, for those interested.

Distinctive auto-rickshaws – known colloquially as tuk-tuks – rather captured my attention. I was not adventurous enough to actually ride on one, but I took many shots of them. They made an especially colorful palette when idly gathered at their little parking stands.

Tuk-tuk depot, Bangalore

The first stop on our final-day sightseeing trip was Shiv Mandir temple, where we were greeted by this statue of the god Ganesha.

At Shiv Mandir temple, Bangalore

The temple offers several “activities” that allow a curious Westerner to observe and participate in Hindu little rituals. We lucked into a time when there weren’t that many visitors, although I heard that it can become quite crowded on holy days.

Long rides in the car accounted for nearly half of the sightseeing program. Taking pictures through the windows is hardly ideal (and rolling down the windows was hardly an option, on account of air pollution you could literally taste), but I managed a few passable shots. Here is one with the Karnataka (the state that Bangalore is part of) High Court in the background.

Karnataka High Court, Bangalore

Shots of the vehicles on the roads prevailed in such conditions. Here is one that I sort of like.

On the streets of Bangalore

Since I was riding shotgun – nobody from our group contested my right to the forward seat given my superior photographic equipment – this shot appears to me as if we are moving against traffic. I believe we are simply crossing the main road while these tuk-tuks are waiting at the red light.

One other sightseeing stop was the Bangalore Palace.

Bangalore Palace

It was actually originally built in mid-19th century by a British Reverend, and bought by local maharajahs only twenty years later. As castles go, it is sufficiently interesting and worth a visit, with an understated but spacious gardens and many appealing decorative features on the interior. Here is a detail of the arches in one of the inner courtyards.

Inside Bangalore Palace

Our sightseeing culminated in an hour of strolling through precisely named Commercial Street, lined with boutiques and discount shops.

A shop on Commercial Street, Bangalore

I obviously did not have enough time to explore Bangalore to my heart’s desire, but I did get a serviceable impression.

These and quite a few more pictures from Bangalore can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Highlights of Kiev

February 11th, 2014
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Here are a few more pictures to complement previous World Heritage entry.

Saint Vladimir (Volodymyr) Cathedral is as striking on the outside as any you would ever see. The guide on my Kiev-Pechersk Lavra tour named it without hesitation in answer to my question of which of the Kiev cathedrals to see if I only had time for one (I was disingenious in asking, since I suspected even then that I had time for more than one). As it is a working place of worship, rather than a museum, it did provide a different vibe than I found in the Lavra and in St-Sophia complex.

St-Volodymyr Cathedral, Kiev

The following shot is of the “Candle of Memory”, an edifice that is part of the national museum devoted to the terrible Holodomor that occurred in the early 30′s of the last century.

Holodomor Candle of Memory, Kiev

I did not go to the museum itself.

From the vast Sophia Square, the graceful St-Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery provides a fine background to the monument to Bohdan Khmel’nitskij, probably the most significant person in Ukrainian history.

View from Sophia Square, Kiev

Central Kiev is full of elegant buildings. I took a few shots of those, among them this one by the Opera House.

Fragment of Kiev near Opera House

It was a very cold day on my visit, and I had to warm myself up wherever I could find a likely place. One such stop was Varenichnaya (dumpling-ery, to coin a translation) “Katyusha”. Evocative interior, nostalgic musical sounds, menu from my childhood – I never expected to get so close to heaven in a chain eatery establishment.

Varenichnaya Katyusha, Kiev

The sign pays homage to the pathos of the communist times – Give Dumplings to the Working People!

And another shot of St-Michael’s from Sophia Square. I did run out of time on my only free day in Kiev, and it now occupies the top place on my places to visit when I return.

St-Michael Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev

I suspect I should return in short time, as my current job demands.

Larger selection of Kiev photos has been added to my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Counting World Heritage sites: #61 (Kiev)

February 8th, 2014
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Kiev is famous for its domed cathedrals, and on my only free day of the recent business trip I put aside considerations of unrest in the city center and spent time exploring some of the city sights, including its multi-location World Heritage site. There is no doubt that on my childhood visits to the city I strolled by the monastery and cathedral walls, but this time around I actually did the site justice.

Inscribed for the spiritual and intellectual influence these buildings had on the “Russian world” in 17th-19th centuries, Saint-Sophia Cathedral and the complex of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra attract me first and foremost for their fascinating architecture and history going back nearly a thousand years.

Here are several perspective of Saint-Sophia Cathedral.

Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev


Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

Dating back to 11th century, the great church assumed its current form by 1767, along with a number of interesting buildings surrounding it.

Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

The Lavra is roughly the same age – it started as a cave monastery in mid-11th century. “Caves” remain in the monastery name – that’s why it is Kiev-Pechersk.

Here is the main church of the complex – Dormition Cathedral (Успенский Собор).

Kiev Pechersk Lavra


Kiev Pechersk Lavra

The monastery occupies several levels on the slopes of river Dnieper. The lower part is where the caves are and remains an active monastery today. The view from the lower part towards the Upper Lavra’s Refectory Church (Трапезная Церковь) and the Grand Belltower is the next shot.

Kiev Pechersk Lavra

There are limited opportunities to take pictures of the interiors in most of these religious buildings. I did have such opportunity in the Church of All Saints, on the edge of the Lavra.

Kiev Pechersk Lavra

A wider selection of pictures is available in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel