Photo of the Day: Colosseum from Palatine Hill

Looking down on the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill above the Roman Forum. From here you can get a sense of how much it once towered over the rest of the city (to a large extent it still does).

Date: 10/19/2011
Camera: Panasonic DMC-FZ40
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.

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Venice in HDR

Venice: The Grand Canal (original)
Venice: The Grand Canal (original)

Lately I’ve been messing around with HDR photography. Normally that involves merging multiple versions of the same photo taken at different exposures, but I’ve also read that you can create a pretty good approximation of an HDR photo from a single RAW image, so I figured I’d experiment with one of my older photos.

I thought the above photo of the Grand Canal in Venice was a good candidate given the contrast between the light and dark areas, so I used Adobe Camera Raw to create three different image files: the original photo, an underexposed version, and an overexposed version. When I merged them in Photoshop, the overexposed photo washed the image out too much, so I only ended up combining the normal and underexposed versions. I then applied a bit more processing to the final image.

I’m still very much a novice at this HDR stuff (and with photo processing in general) and I kind of rushed through it, so the results are not ideal, but I think the final version below is a decent first attempt at a pseudo-HDR photo. You can click on the photos to view larger versions.

Venice: The Grand Canal (HDR)
Venice: The Grand Canal (HDR)

Like many HDR photos, this has a bit of a surreal feel to it, but with a little more time to tweak settings, I probably could have made it look more realistic.

On a side note, this photo was taken with my Panasonic FZ-40, a megazoom point-and-shoot. I am considering upgrading to a DSLR and have been eyeing the Nikon D3100 or D5200. If any photographers out there have any advice about these (or other cameras), I’d love to hear from you. Although I’m never going to be a professional, I feel that I may be outgrowing the limitations of my megazoom, particularly its performance in low light.

Update:
Just minutes after posting this to my blog, I saw a deal on eBay for a refurb Nikon D5100 with a kit lens at a price that was just too good to pass up. I normally steer clear of refurbs but the company, Adorama, seems to have a good reputation among the photography community, so I pulled the trigger.

So it’s official, I’m a DSLR guy! Now, to shop for some accessories and a good all-purpose zoom lens…

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 6: Leaning Towers and Haunted Villas

Flash Forward: Back to the Villa

This installment covers Days 14–15 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

At the end of our two-night, ill-fated Cinque Terre stay, we checked out of our hotel early to catch the bus that would take us into La Spezia for the train ride back to Florence. The bus was very late and for a while we thought we had missed it or were in the wrong location. Finally it came and we hopped aboard for a long ride into the city. After arriving we walked down to the harbor in the hope that we might be able to take a boat ride so I could get a closer look at the four Cinque Terre villages that I hadn’t been able to visit, but everything was either grounded or tied up in rescue operations. So we headed to a café for breakfast to kill time until our train left.

On the way back to Florence our train had a stopover in Pisa, so I decided to go see the Leaning Tower. Uncle Kipp had already seen it, so he stayed behind at the train station. It wasn’t a long layover so I had to hustle down to the Piazza dei Miracoli (where the tower is located), which was roughly a 30-minute walk across the River Arno.

River Arno in Pisa

I made it to the square and had just enough time to walk around the grounds, but unfortunately not enough time to tour any of the buildings or climb the tower, so I had to settle for taking some photos.

The Tower

The hardest part about shooting the tower is resisting the urge to tilt the camera and straighten the tower out.

Church and Tower
I love the colors of this walkway.

Rather than share the clichéd photo of myself holding up the tower, I thought I’d share a photo of other people doing their holding-up-the-tower poses:

After taking my photos I rushed back to the train station and we caught the train back to Florence. Before heading back to the villa we did some grocery shopping so I could make dinner the following afternoon. I bought supplies to make pasta with pancetta and braciole. We also picked up more of that awesome Italian prosciutto to snack on that evening–if prosciutto tasted like this in the States I’d buy it all the time.

So we hopped on the bus to take us back up into the hills and to our villa. Unfortunately, we had caught the wrong one—it only went about halfway up and then came back down again to pick up more passengers and then make the drive all the way up the hill, so we wound up riding it twice before finally making it back to the villa.

When we entered the house we discovered that everyone else in our group had already left, so we would be spending the next two nights in the sprawling villa all by ourselves. Walking the long halls and stairways of the 100-year-old building at night with nobody else around was decidedly spooky.

One of the hallways.
The only things missing were some ghostly twins and Danny Torrance riding his big wheel.

It didn’t help that a waitress at the local restaurant told us that the villa was supposedly haunted, or that we had just recently been discussing The Shining. In fact, one night while I was sleeping I thought I heard footsteps around my bed. I’m sure I was just dreaming, but it still creeped me out. 🙂

Here are a few of the interior shots I took to try and capture a bit of that creepiness:

The next day, I decided to stay behind at the villa while Uncle Kipp went into Florence. I needed a day to relax after everything we had crammed into the last two weeks. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, as if we were in the middle of the summer rather than the end of October. I walked around the outside of the villa and took some more pictures of the grounds and the beautiful countryside.

The caretaker’s house next to our villa.
View from my room over the top of the gazebo.
A zoomed in shot of Florence viewed from the hills near our villa.
Outside the Villa
Tuscan countryside viewed from the villa’s gazebo.
Another view of the Tuscan countryside from the gazebo.

That evening I started to make dinner, only to discover that there was no more garlic in the house. We didn’t think to buy any because there had been a lot left the last time we checked. Oh well, I forged ahead, though the lack of garlic made for some pretty bland braciole.

Uncle Kipp returned from his day out, during which he also took care of paying the final bill. To our shock, we got slapped with a heating bill of 800 Euros! The nights were cold and it was a huge building with lots of people requiring different levels of heat to stay comfortable, but we were still stunned. It didn’t help that there was a broken window in one of the rooms that we had to force closed with a rock that the landlords never fixed during our two-week stay. They also failed us in other ways (including shutting off the heat and hot water on our last night) but I don’t want this post to turn into a laundry list of complaints. Suffice it to say that they received a lengthy letter after we returned home.

That night I walked around outside taking some more photos. Here is one of Florence.

Florence at Night

I watched some TV before heading to bed. The Cinque Terre disaster dominated the news channels. The only English-language channel was showing Jersey Shore. Ugh, I hope that’s not how the rest of the world thinks the average American behaves. 😐

The next morning we awoke early so we could close up the villa and head to the bus for our long journey to Switzerland and the beginning of the second half of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime…

See more photos from Tuscany

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My Villa in Tuscany

This video is a tour of the grounds surrounding the villa I lived in for two weeks outside of Florence, Italy in 2011. You may have already seen this if you read Part 1 of my Eurotrip journal, though the video is now much smoother thanks to youtube’s smoothing software (with the minor side effect of wacky looking text at the beginning).

The villa was over 100 years old and full of character. The view of the Tuscan countryside from the gazebo was sublime: the hills, the olive groves, the other villas; very peaceful. And on the other end of the grounds I could see Florence in the valley below—an amazing view at night. It’s not difficult to understand why someone would decide to drop everything and move to Tuscany; it’s such an easy place to fall in love with.

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 5: Dodging a Bullet in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 11–13 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After a long, long break, I am finally returning to the journal of my 2011 trip to Europe. When we last left off, I had just spent two days in Venice, my first ever solo trip in a foreign country.  Upon returning to Florence from Venice, I caught the bus back up to the villa, arriving in the early evening, but I was stuck outside the gate for about 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get the non-English-speaking caretaker to let me in. There were only a limited number of gate keys, I did not have one of them, and nobody else from our group was home. I thought I was going to be stuck outside for the next few hours until somebody else came back (that’ll teach me to not learn enough of the local language when I travel).

I sat outside the gate with all of my luggage trying to call my uncle (in between curses) to see if he could contact somebody to get the caretaker to let me in. Before the call went through, the caretaker finally realized I wasn’t a criminal and the gate opened at last. I went inside and enjoyed a couple hours of peace and quiet before the rest of the group started filing in. Once again, however, I would not have much time to rest as I needed to pack for a long train ride to Cinque Terre the next morning.

By the time the train was making the final approach to La Spezia, where we would catch a cab to our hotel, it was already dark.  At one point we were confused and got off the train at the wrong stop in a remote area. Something didn’t look right, however, and we jumped back on just before the train left. I can’t recall definitively, but I think that may have been the last train of the night, so if we had missed it, we would have been screwed.

We were checking in a day late because we got our dates wrong, but the hotel was kind enough to move our reservation back a day without penalty. As it turned out, missing our check-in date was the best thing that could have happened because Cinque Terre was ravaged by terrible flooding on the day we were supposed to be there (you may have read about this in the news). It had been raining heavily during the train ride in, but it did not seem extraordinary and we thought nothing of it until we learned of the devastation the next day.

We checked in to our hotel, located high on a cliff outside of the five connected villages that make up Cinque Terre. We had a long climb down the cliff to get to our room (a good fifteen minutes), hauling heavy luggage in the pouring rain. When we finally got down to where the rooms were situated, we walked around and around but could not find our room. We finally gave up, soaking wet and tired from a daylong train ride as well as the climb down. I left Uncle Kipp with the luggage and I ran all the way back up the cliff to the hotel office to ask them how to find our room.  We finally found it, nestled in this little blink-and-you-miss-it nook area that was easy to bypass in the dark.

The room was a little skeevy, but I was tired enough that I didn’t care. If nothing else, we had a great view overlooking the Mediterranean when stepping outside of our room.

The view from outside our hotel room (the next day).

There were no other restaurants in the area because of the middle-of-nowhere location of our hotel, so we went to the hotel restaurant (which meant climbing all the way to the top of the cliff again). I had spaghetti Bolognese with boar meat; it didn’t really taste much different than other types of meat, especially when drowned in pasta sauce. After dinner there was really nothing to do but turn in since it was already pretty late and we were so far outside of the villages.

The next morning we awoke early with the intention of hiking the trail that winds its way among the cliffs and through the five villages—only to discover that the trail was closed. This was when we learned about the massive flooding that had devastated the area and rendered most of the villages inaccessible.

A highly zoomed-in shot of one of the villages we could not reach, possibly Monterosso.

In fact, the only village we were able to access was the first one, Riomaggiore, and that involved about an hour of walking down the main highway and through a dark automobile tunnel.

The end of the tunnel we walked through.
Approaching Riomaggiore

We walked around for a bit when we got there, making our way down to the little harbor, but we didn’t stay very long because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do with so much being closed down.

Riomaggiore

We were bummed that the whole trip out to the coast seemed to be for nothing, but when we later learned of the sheer level of the devastation, we realized how lucky we were to have accidentally checked in a day late. We almost definitely would have been right in the middle of one of the villages when the flooding and mudslides began, needing to be evacuated like so many others, and it could have been even worse—nine people lost their lives.

When we got back to the hotel my uncle spoke to a Spanish couple who had been stuck inside their car in one of the villages during the flooding for hours, thinking that they were going to die. They were eventually evacuated by chopper and ended up at our hotel, but their car and everything in it was lost.

An evacuation chopper.

It was unbelievable to hear stories like this because the previous night’s storm hadn’t seemed like anything out of the ordinary, but the images we would later see on television were shocking. We were truly fortunate to have missed it, just as we had missed the rioting in Rome by one day earlier in the trip.

A capsized boat apparently washed out to sea by the flooding.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon when we got back to the hotel so I decided to hike down a nearby cliff. There was a trail that led all the way down to the beach. My uncle stayed behind so I went by myself.

Part of the trail (more treacherous than it looks).

For late October the weather was as warm as mid-summer, so I was able to wear shorts. There were beautiful views of the Mediterranean on the way down.

View from the trail looking north.
View from the trail looking south.

I also passed by a couple of houses that looked like they had no business being in the middle of a cliff.

One of the houses along the trail.

Along the way, there were some interesting sights, such as this red ant-infested rock that I could easily have leaned against if I hadn’t been paying attention:

Them!

However, it was much farther to the bottom than it had appeared when I started, so I only made it about two-thirds of the way down when the sun set.

The setting sun.

I found a place to sit and admire the sunset over the sea. I was the only person on the trail so it felt as if I had the entire Italian coastline to myself. I was amazed at how peaceful the Mediterranean appeared, almost motionless.

Mediterranean Sunset

I climbed down for a while longer but I never made it to the bottom. I didn’t want to hike back up the cliff by myself in the dark, and I was already pretty tired anyway, so I turned back. I made it back to the top by around eight in the evening. That night we had dinner at the hotel again. I ordered shrimp and was very surprised to be served a plate with fully-formed shrimp staring back at me, eyeballs and all. They don’t serve them that way in the states. 🙂

We turned in shortly after dinner. We had to wake up early the next morning to catch a bus into La Spezia, where we would hop on a train back to Florence and the final two days of the Italy leg of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment. Until then…

View More Photos from Cinque Terre

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