A few more pictures from my HDR attempts during the КСП in September.
A few more pictures from my HDR attempts during the КСП in September.
Due to the quirks of the UK tax calendar that I described in the past, having not lived in the country for four and a half years, I would be due to file a tax return for only the third fiscal year in which I have had zero UK income this coming January. Thankfully, Her Majesty Revenue and Customs finally caught on to the fact that I have no financial obligations to the crown. Some weeks ago, I received an official letter stating that I will no longer be issued a directive to file the tax return going forward. Interpreting that as having to file my now habitual zero-income return this year still, I logged onto the HMRC Self-Assessment site and found that the return had apparently already been submitted on my behalf and my tax account balance had been confirmed as £0.00.
I have to admit that it is a reasonable approach: A couple of years of required returns to confirm the pattern of zero income, before letting the former taxpayer off the hook in a fairly non-intrusive manner.
Still, a lengthier time on the hook than the actual time living in England.
More for my own records than for public consumption – but, hey, feel free to peruse below the cut – here is my World Heritage sites roster, with links to my posts that contain relevant pictures. Links to UNESCO list inscriptions are provided as well, along with the year each site was added (in parenthesis).
Our summer trip to Italy finished in Milan, where we spent a single afternoon and night ahead of the flight back to the US.
The Gothic cathedral of Milan is a must-see sight.
Impressive on the outside, the cathedral’s interior is just okay, lacking in comparison with many other grand churches in Italy. However, where it towers above the rest is in allowing access to its roof, utterly splendid in its ensemble of pinnacles, spires, ornamentation and sculpture. Here are several of the spires on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele side of the roof.
And here is a perspective in the opposite direction, with an unusual modern building juxtaposing itself onto the row of pinnacles.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a high-end mall connecting Piazza del Duomo with Piazza della Scala (on which the eponymous famous opera house is located). If you are in Milan, you will certainly walk though its cross-shaped passage.
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is another top attraction in town. In fact, I could almost count it as my World Heritage site #61. It is primarily recognized for Leonardo’s The Last Supper which can only be viewed with a prior reservation via timed entry. Since I did not make such arrangements and did not see the painting, I will have to put it into the “have been near” bucket of World Heritage sites. I did photograph the church extensively – it is a beautiful masterpiece all on its own.
Our first visit to Milan 10 years ago – which was almost as short as this past one – left us underwhelmed with the city. But we did manage to walk around the center a bit more on this visit and warmed up to Milan a little. Street views such as this one quite helped.
These and a few other pictures of Milan can be found in this Flickr photoset.
On our last visit to Siena, my new-found focus on photography paid off in that I finally ended up with superior material to do justice to the city, something that was beyond my reach when I made this entry about a year ago in my “favorite sights” series.
For instance, I made a point of taking several dozen photographs of the incredible Piazza del Campo from all different angles. This is my favorite result.
Siena’s topography puts the city core high atop a hill, but because it is considerably bigger than an average hilltop village, it extends well into surrounding valleys. Approaching the central parts from Basilica di San Domenico affords you views such as the next one.
I took a variety of perspectives of the splendid Siena Cathedral complex up close. It is a certain must-see attraction.
There a couple of available vantage points to observe the city from up high. In high tourist season they require some patience to get to, but the payoff is quite worthwhile. The view below is one of the shots taken while on Panorama del Facciatone, accessed through Museo dell’Opera, towards Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi and the Tuscan countryside beyond.
And of course, the street lamps in contrade colors are among my favorite subjects. One of these days, I will set aside time to visit all 17 districts, but this time I had to limit myself to just a few central ones. Here is a lamp in the Panther district.
And this one belongs to the She-Wolf contrada.
These and other pictures of Siena can be found in this Flickr photoset.
Volterra resides on the second tier of Tuscan sights hierarchy. It boasts an Etruscan archeological site and museum that the other locales do not have, but lacks the knockout punch of an attraction such as the leaning tower of Pisa or the many towers of San Gimignano.
Nonetheless, it is an atmospheric and beautiful Tuscan hill-top town, well worth a day visit.
The main piazza of the town center is dominated by Palazzo Priori, the town hall built in the 13th century.
This instant favorite was shot around the corner from the palace, on a street/path leading to Parco Archeologico.
From the top of the same path, a view towards the palace.
Next up is the medieval Medici fortress.
The imposing structure was completed in the 15th century. After our first visit to Volterra, I was somewhat baffled why this magnificent piece of architecture did not feature on the list of attractions in town. Turns out that it actually houses a working prison and therefore is not exactly open to tourists for visits. I have to assume that the security is top-notch at that place, seeing as the fortress stands right on the edge of the Archeologic Park within a stone’s throw from sightseeing crowds.
The views from high windows (and the tower) of Palazzo Priori rival any Tuscan scenery perspectives.
These and other pictures of Volterra can be found in my Flickr photoset.
Continuing with the theme of revisiting some of the best entries in “my favorite sights” series that I ran on the blog in the past, here are a few additional shots of San Gimignano – one of the all-time favorite stops on our travels that we certainly cannot bypass on our recent stay in Tuscany.
Approaching the historic town center on Via San Giovanni, the tallest tower in town, Torre Grossa, is seen above rooftops.
Any composition of a few towers reaching to the sky together comes out splendidly.
Houses beneath the towers offer compositional delights on their own merits.
And, of course, the rooftops and the Tuscan hills are simply mesmerizing when viewed from the elevated viewpoints in the city.
San Gimignano is always a treat!
These and other pictures of San Gimignano can be found in my Flickr photoset.
Florence entry in the erstwhile series was one of the best ones. I always managed to come away from visits to Florence with good photographic material. As a result, on our recent day in the birthplace of Renaissance, quite a few of my shots were of sights I already photographed before.
But, hey, that’s why they are called “favorite” sights, right?
One of the most iconic and impressive vistas in Florence – the cathedral complex – consisting of the Baptistery, the sumptuous Duomo itself (whose famous dome is prominent in the background), and the elegant Giotto bell-tower.
An attempt to catch the various statuary on Piazza della Signoria in one shot.
Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Duke Cosimo I is in the foreground, followed by the Neptune fountain, then a copy of Michelangelo’s David, and then Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. Background on the right is provided by exquisite Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air gallery holding works of Giambologna and Cellini, among others.
One of my favorite places in Florence that did not make it into the earlier essay – Piazza di Santa Croce, dominated by the eponymous grand church.
The slender tower of Badia Fiorentina is one of my most-photographed subjects in the city. Either starring or providing background, it features in over a dozen different shots. Here is one looking northward from Via del Proconsolo, with the hint of Brunelleschi’s marvel of a cathedral dome (another oft-photographed sight) peeking out as well.
And something less dramatic – the bust of Benvenuto Cellini, backed by a typical Florentine roofline.
I remain in awe of this city!
These and other pictures can be found in my Florence Flickr set.
Renting a motorboat for a few hours of jetting around the lake is the absolute must for any stay on Como. You simply do not get to see many of the most striking sights when you stay on shore. And even for villas that are open for public visits, you get an entirely new majestic perspective on them from water.
This is Villa Carlotta, whose gardens we visited earlier.
And this is Villa Balbionella which also sort of featured in this series.
The next picture is of Villa Oleandra, aka “George Clooney villa”. We shouted from the boat for George to come out and greet us but were unfortunately ignored.
And this is Villa La Cassinella, aka “Richard Branson villa”. Richard treated us no better than George.
Three hours is a pretty short time to enjoy all of the various sites around the lake. We covered maybe a quarter of what we could see. Nonetheless, we took time to just relax, and have a prosecco, with cold cuts and berries, in the middle of our ride. Swam in the lake too.
Additional pictures have been added to my Lake Como Flickr set.
Taking a break from post-processing photos taken during a recent Italy trip, I am following up the discourse started in this post with a pretty good HDR example.
I had my significantly improved photographic equipment with me during last weekend’s customary stay at the semi-annual singer-songwriter festival (I wrote about that in the past). Since the weather cooperated quite well and the concert schedule left a lot of free time for me this time around, I practiced my landscape photography here and there. Towards the end of day on Saturday, the lonesome large tree in the center of the campground provided an excellent foil to the setting sun and the drifting smoke from the campfires, and I simply had to take this picture (as did others around me).
It came out really well, I humbly submit.
There are plenty of grand villas and gardens to be visited around Lake Como.
Villa Carlotta is among the must-visit destinations. The mansion itself is fairly impressive and holds a reasonable collection of art, but it is the botanic garden that is the main attraction. Built into the steep mountain – expect plenty of up-and-down walking – it combines formal garden areas with quasi-wild growth of many flora species.
Villa Melzi, on the edge of Bellagio, boasts flatter and more expansive gardens, regal and romantic in one splendid package.
These and other pictures of Villa Carlotta and Villa Melzi have been added to my Lake Como Flickr set. Yet more to come.
When you visit Lake Como, you would be well advised not to stay in just one place. You have to move around, to visit different lakeside villages, to take in as many breathtaking views as possible. The lake is one endless sequence of picturesque spots. Here is a small sampling.
We spent some time on the Lenno waterfront bracketed around a visit to one of the top sights on the lake, Villa del Balbionella. This is a view of Lido di Lenno.
Balbionella’s most frequently cited claim to fame is having been one of the locations for Casino Royale. It sits at the edge of a bluff that juts out to the lake which results in surrounding lake views from every window of the villa and from every terrace in the garden. Here is one of such views.
A close-up of the village that makes the background of the previous shot.
On a few occasions, we crossed the lake on a car ferry. Perspectives from the middle of the lake are even more mesmerising than anything taken from the shore.
Approaching Bellagio from the water is a much grander experience than driving into the town via a lakeside road.
These and other pictures of Lenno, Villa Balbionella, Bellagio and assorted lake views have been added to my Lake Como Flickr set. Even more to come.
During our stay on Lake Como, we rented a townhouse in Sala Comacina. The tiny village squeezes itself in the space between the shore and the main road, facing off to the only island that graces the lake. Not a destination in itself, Sala Comacina is significantly quieter than nearby “attraction” towns, while still being very picturesque and atmospheric.
Here is the view to the main town square that faces the lake.
We sat at that café – it is called La Tirlindana – and enjoyed great lake views in addition to good food.
And here is “our” street in the village. The townhouse we rented is to the left of the spot the picture was taken from, out of frame.
One of the lake views from Sala Comacina. This is towards Ossuccio.
And here is a view from a high point above the village.
The family was having a grand time, if anyone doubted.
More pictures of Sala Comacina, along with a few from nearby Argegno, have been posted to a Flickr set.
Ok, I admit, I am a bit obsessive. Now that I started to pay attention to how many World Heritage sites I’ve visited, I am looking for opportunities to increase my tally.
Actually, in Tuscany, I have already been – more than once in practically all cases – to most of the sites on the register. Town of Pienza was one of the few unexplored locations, and Becky and I one day took a fairly long drive from our base near Florence to visit it.
The historic center of the Pienza is inscribed on UNESCO List because it occupies a seminal position in the development of the concept of the planned “ideal town”, but you have to be a student of architectural history to fully appreciate that. For a dilettante such as myself, Pienza is a gorgeous postcard-sized hill town, with no vehicular traffic on its narrow streets and dozens of picture-spot opportunities around every corner. Not too overrun by tourists either, probably on the account of being less famous than the likes of Siena or San Gimignano as well as sitting somewhat away from the beaten path.
Looking onto the Pienza Cathedral from under the portico on the main square.
Reverse view from the cathedral (part of the portico in the frame).
This is the view along the main street in town, Corso Rosselino. Gives you some idea how narrow the smaller streets are.
The town is surrounded by another World Heritage site, Val d&Orcia. (Convenient, huh? One trip, two sites added to the total.) Its inscription is due to the beauty of its landscapes. You can take in the view right from Pienza walls.
We decided to take a leisurely drive along SP146 towards San Quirico in Val d’Orcia, which offers many good viewpoints to appreciate the scenery. Here are a couple of samples.
An extended selection of pictures from Pienza and Val d’Orcia can be found in my Flickr photostream.
All good things come to an end and our long-overdue family trip to Italy turned out to be no exception.
It was fantastic. The trip gave us a chance to spend time at locales that we’ve never visited before as well as to return to some of our most favorite places. We drove and walked scenic routes, climbed tall towers, had a picnic on a boat on a lake, sat down on piazzas to savor local food and to observe the life unfolding around us, visited gardens and museums, conversed with locals in their tongue with a reasonable degree of success, reunited with the family members whom we see way too little otherwise, and simply had glorious time.
I will attempt a series of photo-essays on different parts of our trip as I progress with post-processing. It will take me a while, a couple of thousand shots.
Gary Arndt travels the world. I never got into any details of how that came around, but he apparently made a lifestyle change about six years ago and since then had become a sort of celebrity in the travel photography field. I actually do not find either his prose on his blog or the photos that are posted there too exceptional – the photos are all nice in the “I-manage-to-get-these-kinds-of-shots-myself” sense and I am not a travelling photographer – but I certainly envy the guy (never mind that the key difference between him and me is that I have a family to support).
He has visited over 250 UNESCO World Heritage sites on his journeys. Which prompted me to count how many I have been to.
Now, it should be noted that World Heritage sites are far from ideal a gauge for the breadth of anyone’s travels. First, there is a matter of how the sites are determined, which is driven mostly by self-nomination. Unless a municipality, or any type of government, or a local preservation society, or some other organization nominates a locale as a potential World Heritage site, it will never get on the list, which explains how quite a few of my favorite European towns are not to be found on it. Conversely – and Gary provides examples in his blog – there are some sites that are far from impressive even if listed.
Then, there is the fact that some of the site get de-listed for violating official conservation guidelines or whatever, which means that although I’ve been to Dresden while it was on the list, I cannot count it today.
Finally, there is a completely incomprehensible absence of rhyme or reason as to what actually constitutes a site – it could be a singular landmark (Cologne Cathedral), or a few selected sights within a city (Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret’s Church – combined into one “site”), or a specific area of a city (Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht), or an entire city (City of Bath), or an entire region (Costiera Amalfitana), or a collection of related landmarks across a region (Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany), or sometimes across countries (Belfries of Belgium and France), etc.
Nonetheless, keeping an eye on which World Heritage sites I’ve been to and which I can expect to visit on my future trips certainly adds another dimension to my overall appreciation of the pursuit of travel.
Not that my statistics is all that great. Of the currently listed 981 sites, I can lay claim to having been to only 58 (a shade below 6%, for those mathematically-inclined). For multi-location properties, setting foot at one of the locations counts as having visited the site. Stretching the definition of “been to”, I recognize 7 other sites that I either have seen up close from the outside without stepping into (for buildings) or physically passed through without stopping or exploring (for regions) – I decided not to include them into the count. Furthermore, there are 4 sites that featured on my past travel plans but were eventually dropped from itineraries for one reason or another – I probably would have made a point to go see them if I had been aware then that they were official World Heritage sites.
Despite my frequent claim that I traveled all over Western Europe in our years of living in England, I find a lot of places that I have never visited that probably warrant a trip. Northern Italy, for instance, has about a dozen World Heritage sites and I’ve only been to one. Certainly, something that I have to rectify.
We live half an hour away from Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, NJ. Every year, we would buy a family season pass to the place. The economics are pretty straight-forward: A single visit to the park is so expensive that even if you go just twice during the year, you already save on your investment into the season pass. Plus, a family premium pass comes with free parking, so even if someone like me only goes once during the season, the bottom line still benefits in the end.
In addition to the amusement park proper, the Six Flags complex has a water park and a safari, all covered by the same season pass. Or, rather, had a safari, which is the main point of this post.
Safari has always been our favorite part. We enjoy occasional rides or waterpark splashes, but we much less enjoy navigating crowds and waiting in long lines. With the safari, though, we could be riding the attraction literally within half an hour of leaving the house. There were no constraints of how much time we could stay (on multiple occasions we literally turned off the engine and remained in one spot for 15-20 minutes, while Emily observed bears or giraffes or whichever animal struck her fancy at that particular moment). Best of all, if we did not feel like going to the park that day, we could enjoy just the safari for an hour or so and be back home within two hours of leaving. Fun, convenient, painless.
Starting this year, the safari has been converted into a ride within the Six Flags park itself. The decision was apparently mainly based on the fact that many of the driving-thru patrons, in complete disregard of rules, were feeding whatever junk food they had with them to the animals, causing sicknesses and deaths among the population. So the animals had to be protected. Air pollution from passing cars might also have been playing a role.
The problem is, the new ride – which is very similar to what you can experience at the Animal Planet park in Disney World, Florida, for those who need a frame of reference – is entirely not worth the time you have to invest in it.
The park opens at 10am, but the “Off Road Adventure” ride – or, rather, the entire section of the park where it resides – is off bounds for the general public until 11. You have to walk at some length to get there, but if you show up around 11, you already will be behind several hundred people waiting to enter. Even those who manage to be the first trough the park gates and find themselves at the front of the line still end up waiting for an hour. We joined the line at 10:40 and got on the ride about 11:40. And that one-hour wait remains the best-case scenario. If you walk up to the entrance of the ride in mid-day, the wait-time sign will invariably show 120 minutes or more.
When riding on the truck, your view is obstructed by the driver cabin and the fellow riders, who constantly angle to snap pictures with their smart-phones. A 3-year-old child can hardly see anything even when on an adult’s lap. And the truck stops only in front of the gates that separate different areas but practically never while close to the animals. There is never a chance to get a good look at anything; glimpses is all you get. Emily, who enjoys seeing animals up close tremendously, kept asking us “Where? I don’t see” as we were trying to point her in specific directions in short seconds of unobstructed view.
During the ride, the guides provide some commentary and even make a point of what an improvement a guided tour is over the drive-thru set-up. Right! There were some interesting bits in their commentary, but nothing that a little child can appreciate or an adult cannot look up online if curious. Most of it was along the lines of either cheer-leading or common trivia or flat jokes. And in many cases, the animal in question was no longer in the line of sight.
The only nice touch was the midpoint of the tour, where we could get off the truck to wander around a mini-zoo/outpost area, which allowed us finally to see a small selection of animals in close proximity. Giraffes and giant tortoises were the highlights, but also some farm animals, reptiles, birds. We then got back on the next available vehicle without any delay, but I can imagine another line forming here at peak times.
Overall, entirely not worth it. At least half an hour to get from the parking lot, through the security checkpoint and ticketing turnstiles, then through half the park, to the ride itself. One hour at the best of times – but upwards of two during the peak – of the wait to get on the ride. The reward: 45 minutes of sitting next to two dozen other park-goers, interspersed with fleeting semi-obscured glimpses of roaming or sleeping animals.
I’d rather take Emily to a zoo next time.
And with no desire to ever go on this ride again, there is no good reason for us to buy season passes to Six Flags anymore. The economics might remain the same, but the entertainment quotient has taken a nosedive. Pity.