Monday, October 6, 2014

The Killer Marmotte of Alpe d'Huez



In search of a new adventure, and new scenery I jumped on a bicycling challenge proposed by Nina Gilljam from Höllviken CK (one of the two cycling clubs I belong to). Höllviken CK has all sorts of interesting cycling destinations and this one "La Marmotte" struck a chord;
thirty years ago in 1984 I visited the Alps around Alpe d'Huez and watched two stages of the Tour de France and since then have dreamed of crossing the Alps on bicycle in order to experience what the pro's really go through. My hero at the time, Greg Lemond, was the first American to have a shot at winning, even though officially he was working for Bernard Hinault and team "La Vie Claire".


So on the 15th of July, 1984 after spending the night in a tent on a slope my traveling companion Cathy and I spent the day watching the racers fly by, one every two minutes, during the individual time trial. A real festival atmosphere as thousands of fans lined the roads and waited for their favorites.

But "La Marmotte" is a very different animal, literally. La Marmotte is a cyclosportive named after a rather large rodent of the same name that makes its home in the Alps:


I have no idea why they named this cycling event after a rodent. Maybe someone thought a marmot would give associations to something soft and fuzzy, and that was probably a good marketing move, since the animal that best captures the pain of the world's most challenging cyclosportive (174km/108 miles and with 5,180 m/16,990 ft of climbing) would probably be the tasmanian devil, and who would sign up for a ride like that? But never mind the pain, the rewards are unforgettable.


The scenery in the alps and particulary along the route of La Marmotte, alpine meadows, quaint villages, wild orchids, and the comradery of 7000 cyclists climbing a 12% grade at 2600 meters to pass by this sign...


I was completely exhausted by the first 114km when I reached that sign, but from there it was 50 kilometers downhill which begins with sheer cliffs and hairpin turns at speeds of 60+kph before leveling out ahead of the final 13km climb up Alpe d'Huez.

Unfortunately inexperience put a stop to my race; I neglected to douse my head with cool water before starting the final climb and overheated 10 km from the finish. I didn't lose too much sleep over not making it up Alpe d'Huez that day though , since I managed to make it up another day:

Whether for cycling, photography or both this was a fantastic destination.

From our ski cottage we had fantastic views all day long, and beautiful sunsets that played out on the glaciers:


And while struggling up a hill on a training ride there were countless orchids lining the side of the road.

On the final night of our stay in the clear summer night, the stars were amazing...
But since most of this week had been dedicated to cycling, most of my photography started the day after the ride...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 4

Despite unlimited things to do in Venice, we thought we should also explore the areas outside of Venice. On the advice of photographer Arved Gintenreiter we decided to take a day trip to the Island of Burano; an island known for its brightly painted houses. We got an early start and caught the Vaporetto boat at 10AM. There were already quite a few tourists on the boat, but when we arrived at Burano it was relatively quite and uncrowded.

View from the Vaporetto - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f4 1/250 ISO200
This would all change as the day progressed and the island filled with more and more tourists, but at least we had a couple of hours of relative calm to stroll the streets of this very small community

Burano 15 shot Panorama - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f5.6 1/250 ISO200
There are many charming houses as you can see, and a panorama shot really captures the atmosphere.

School Girl at Drinking Fountain - Canon 6D +24-105L at 24mm f16 1/100 ISO200

Of course even the boats and oars are brightly painted on Burano...

Blue Boat of Burano - Canon 6D +24-105L @ 105mm f8 1/250 ISO200
After four hours on Burano including a lunch at one of the towns least expensive establishments we decided that we were now overloaded with colorful houses and caught the Vaporetto back to Venice. Once back on our "home turf" I convinced Lena and Johan to make a side trip to a couple of the photo spots from our day with Arved, and luck was on our side. The cloudy skies improved the lighting significantly and as we were photographing a newly wed couple in a gondola became the center-piece on my panorama.

Venetian Wedding Limousine - Canon 6D + Sigma 14mm/2.8 @ f8 1/100 ISO100




But now everyone needed to take a break so we headed back to our hotel for a couple of hours before heading out again in time to catch the blue hour around 20:00...

Gondola's at Piazza San Marco - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 45mm f8 15sec ISO100
And finally at 21:50 the blue light was fading, one last shot from the Riva degli Schiavoni

View from Riva degli Schiavoni -  Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f8 25 sec ISO400

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 3

After yesterday's marathon photo session I slept in until 6:30; no blue hour photos today, and it was unlikely that Lena or Johan was going to be up before 9:00. So I decided to simply wander the streets and see what I could find. One of the places that Arved had suggested was worth a visit was the medical museum in the Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo, so I headed there. It's a bit odd entering a hospital without any hospital business, and I was  a bit worried that someone would ask me what I was doing there, so I tried to act like I knew where I was going and finally found the library upstairs. The library itself is stunning, with a gold tiled ceiling, but the highlight has to be all the medical equipment that they have gathered from hundreds of years of medical practice. Most of them look painful and would probably have persuaded me to live with whatever was bothering me.

Hospital Museum - 2 shot pano Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm @ 1/60th, iso1600
As fascinating as the museum was, it didn't fit my photographic vision for the day, so after 45 minutes of looking at scary metal instruments I headed for another recommended destination; a nearby used bookstore with some original decor. The back entrance to the bookstore is via a canal, so the store is subject to flooding, and to avoid damage to the books the owner has stacked the lower books in bathtubs and a gondola, which is what you see in the image below.

Panorama with Canon 6D+Sigma 14mm/f2.8
The owner was very friendly and suggested I also take a look at his garden, where he has built stairs of books

Panorama with Canon 6D+Sigma 14mm/f2.8
By now it was close to 10:00 and Johan and Lena were ready to go out, so I returned to the apartment and then we headed towards the Rialto Market area. This meant crossing the Rialto Bridge which provides beautiful views even mid-day...

View from Rialto Bridge
There are both fish and vegetable markets and they are well worth a visit. Being under cover you can photograph midday with not worries about shadows or high contrast, and there are always interesting fish and produce to look at.

Vegetable Market
After exploring the market we went to a small restaurant Do Spade to get a bite to eat. Risotto was the specialty and was recommended to us by Arved. My only complaint is the portions in Venice are both small and expensive. In Italy you have several courses with every meal; risotto is more of an appetizer than a main course. But rather than spend another small fortune on another small portion we decided to hold out for an early dinner.

Our next destination with the old Jewish Ghetto of Venice, where Arved promised we could find an excellent gondolier Luca without the tourist traffic jams. It took us several trips in, around and through the ghetto before we finally find Luca, but we did succeed and he was extremely charming as he spoke reverently about his 50 year old gondola that was built by his father with upholstery recently restored by his mother.

Luca


 Luca took us through areas that most tourists never get to see, and we enjoyed the solitude and quiet in the narrow canals of the oldest parts of Venice.

On the way to our flat we passed one of Venice's oldest pharmacies. Half the pharmacy was modern, and half was a museum exhibition of the old pharmacy. Obviously clean floors and safety was a concern back in the middle ages as well.

Ancient Pharmacy - Canon 6D+Samyang 14mm @ f8 1/80/iso1600 7 shot panorama

After a reasonably priced dinner in one of Venice's neighborhood pubs we climbed the Rialto bridge again to watch the gondola traffic as night began to fall.

Rialto Bridge at Sunset - Canon 6D+24-105L @ 24mm/f8 1/2sec
Finally when it get's dark enough you can do long exposures, assisted with ND and/or POL fiters which smoth out the water and create star effects of the street lights. Another stunning day in Venice, final count 412 pictures...

Blue Hour on Rialto Bridge - Canon 6D+24-105L@ 24mm/f11 30 secs

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 2

4AM arrived quickly. No doubt because I had left the bedroom window open on our fifth floor room and was up half the night trying to get rid of our uninvited guests. Later I discovered that our room had air conditioning, which avoided further blood-letting. Anyway, happy 50th birthday Lena, this will be a day to remember... Lena is not a morning person, so I think she suffered more by the 4AM wake-up call than I did from the mosquitoes and lack of sleep.

We met Arved Gintenreiter by the columns on the Piazza San Marco at 4:45. We spent about 10 seconds on introductions because the night sky was disappearing quickly. Arved assisted Johan while I quickly set up for a panorama shot of the piazza capturing the contrast between the cobalt night sky and the illuminated piazza which was now completely deserted.

Pre-Dawn Piazza San Marco 9-shot panorama Canon 6D+24-105L @ 24mm/f4 1sec iso800
The night sky was quickly disappearing and we hurried to take  different shots on the piazza. When we finished I made another effort at the full moon disappearing behind the Basilica Santa Maria, but it was a lost cause. I overexposed the moon which was now too low to make the composition interesting, and missed the focus on the basilica since I had used manual focus earlier. But what are you going to do? I will pretend I was focusing on the gondolas and the Basilica is the background...

Moonset Behind Basilica Santa Maria - Canon 6D+24-105L 65mm/f5 1.3sec iso100
We took a few more shots on the piazza and ended our first session at 5:50 as the sun began to light up the basilica.

Street Lamps on Piazza San Marco - Canon 6D+24-105L 100mm/f4 1/25sec iso100

Basilica Santa Maria at Dawn - Canon 6D+24-105L @ 75mm/f5 1/160sec iso100
We took a quick coffee break at one of the few cafés open at this time of morning before starting our next session, where Arved taught us some very interesting lessons about using the play between light and dark. Knowing the locations and how to time the shots with the sun's position, Arved led us to a half a dozen interesting spots all the while sharing the history of Venice and the places we were seeing.

The shot below was unplanned; just a cat in a window at 7:30 in the morning. This was the only good shot before a scowling old man opened the window to see what what was going on outside. He obviously hadn't had his coffee yet.


We finished our morning session and agreed to meet Arved again at 5:45PM. In the meantime we went back to our hotel room and collapsed for a couple of hours before lunch. At 12.00 we tracked down one of the few restaurants that advertised having gluten free pizza for Johan. A poor choice in hindsight, a half sized pizza at twice the price... oh well, YOLO...

So now we were back in the tourist Venice as the once empty streets and alleys quickly filled. I'm always a sucker for a view, and since the cathedral on the piazza did not allow photography I suggested we take the elevator ride to the top of the Campanile which provided a fantastic view of Venice. It's not so exciting photographically, no contours, and mostly roof tops, but at least there were a few clouds to make the sky a little more interesting.

View from the Campanile
An authentic venetian traffic jam. A tick in the box for the one day visitor to Venice. But do yourself a favor and find a gondola outside the main tourist zone. No queues, no traffic and a no tourists.


We met up with Arved again at 5:45 and spend another few hours walking to a dozen great photo sites, while Arved pointed to even more we should visit when the light was right or the sky was better, or we had more time. It's hard too choose from the many shots we took, and this shot is maybe a standard postcard shot, but I just love a good sunset...

San Giorgio Maggiore at sunset - Canon 6D+24-105L 70mm/f22 6sec iso50

1055 shots was the final count for the day, but I did a lot of bracketing, so maybe the true count is closer to 400. It was a memorable day, for all us and loaded with ideas on venues, restaurants we said farewell to Arved on the Piazza San Marco. We ended our evening enjoying a great dinner while listening to a live band just outside the window. 

Birthday Dinner on the Piazza San Marco

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 1

When Lena turned fifty in the middle of May we wanted to celebrate somewhere we had never been, but it had to be close since we could only take a few days off from work. I'm not sure why I thought of Venice, but Lena jumped at the idea. I on the other hand was worried about winding up in a tourist trap with thousands of visitors getting that "tick in the box",  while street vendors sell souvenirs of Venice made that are in China. Around 30,000,000 people visit Venice each year. Many of them are there for a single day as their cruise ship sails from port to port. The photographs I have seen made it clear that Venice is beautiful, so I wasn't going to let a few million tourists get in our way...

Using TripAdvisor I found that two of the top ten activities in Venice were photo-walks. This seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone; see and photograph Venice with the help of a local expert, and get some inside tips on where to go to avoid the tourists... Of the two photographers on TripAdvisor, only Arved Gintenreiter mentioned early morning/late night photography during that magic blue hour that I love so much. So it was an easy decision to book a tour with Arved. That fact that he was not Italian concerned me a bit initially, but as a true world citizen who has lived in Venice for a number of years, Arved offered both the Venitian and outsider perspective. We agreed to meet on May 14th at 4:45AM on Piazza San Marco for a three hour morning session and again at 17:45 for another three hour evening session. By meeting at the beginning of our trip we had plenty of time to take advantage of Arved's suggestions on restaurants, outings and destinations.

The flight to Venice was 1:45 and the boat from the airport to Piazza San Marco took another hour. Even from the boat I could see that Venice was beautiful but filled with tourists. Every view was like a postcard, even in the harsh midday light. The contrast between the light buildings, the blue sky and green waters is striking; Venice is brilliant.

Museo di Palazzo Ducale - Canon 6D + 24-105L 32mm/f5,6 1/500, iso 200
From the boat landing on the Piazza San Marco to our apartment was about a five minute walk, although we did manage to get lost a couple of times in the narrow alleys with no GPS reception. After checking in we spent the afternoon wandering along the canals, bridges and alleys, and it became clear that just a few streets from the main square there were few tourists and every canal was like a postcard.

Boat Bow near Campo de Sant'Angelo - Canon 6D+24-105L @ 55mm/f5,6 iso400

Despite the harsh light midday, shooting in Venice can be down all day, since the tall buildings prevent the sun from reaching the ground in most of the small alleys and canals. Clouds are preferable because they provide a more diffused light, but no matter what the conditions are, there are shots to be had everywhere.

Girl sketching - Taken with Canon 100-400L 95mm/f8
After enjoying a nice dinner Lena I returned to the Ponte dell'Academia in hopes that maybe I could getting a shot with the rising full moon. Well it's on the shot, but in using a wide angle lens the full moon has little impact.

Basilica Santa Maria at moonrise - Taken with Canon 6D+24-105L 50mm/f5.6
My plans to get to bed early were sabotaged by a full moon and fantastic light, I'll take a nap at lunch tomorrow I told myself, and I continued to wander the alleys of Venice looking for other photo opps.
Laser Hawker at the Chiesa di San Moisè - Taken with 6D+24-105 @24mm/5.6 iso1600

I finally wound up directly across from the Basilca Santa Maria where I took my final shots for the day

Moonrise behind Basilica Santa Maria - Canon 6D + 24-105L 24mm/f4, 1/5thsec, iso 1600
I made it to bed by 11:00PM which gave me about 5 hours of sleep before having to get up in time to meet Arved...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lifestyle Lessons in Valldemossa

During our 8 day bicycling tour of Mallorca we were constantly awestruck by the beautiful countryside we were passing through, and I would often make a mental note of where we had been and what we had seen so I could make a new visit to take some pictures.

Although Palma de Mallorca and Alcúdia both resemble typical tourist destinations with countless hotels packed tightly along the beach and all the expected souvenir shops and tourist traps, this is not the case in any other Mallorcan city or village. In every village we passed through we were met by charming scenes of everyday life that could have taken place 50 years ago. Little old ladies gossiping in front of their flats, children on their way to school, men enjoying an espresso at the local espresso bar for 1 euro, and small boutiques with locals and the occassional tourist.

The exception is the town squares, usually centered around the village church; they look deceptively laid back and quaint in the early morning. But at lunch time it is standing room only as the entire square is packed with bicycles and bicyclists in their brightly colored club uniforms and the waiters and waitresses scurry between tables taking and delivering orders. By 13:30 the cyclists are on the road again and life on the village square returns to normal.

One of the many charming villages we encountered is Valldemossa, and although it is named in guidebooks as the most beautiful village on Mallorca, it would be unfair to say that it was much different from any one of a dozen villages we passed through; it is however on the road to Sa Calobra which was one of our destinations for the day, and that put us in Valldemossa in time for a mid-morning espresso and a look around the center.

As we approached the village via a winding road we stopped on a private driveway to get an overview of the village. There are few places to stop on the narrow roads of Mallorca, and many times we were not able to stop due to traffic and/or bicyclists. Early morning is the best time, before the cyclists take over the roads.


Once in the village we set off on foot looking for the main square, which led us to the highest point where the cathedral is located.


While my cycling colleague Olof Hagander studied the guidebook and looked for an open café where we could enjoy an espresso  I photographed the square and then took a tour of the cathedral and the attached museum.


The church (above on the left) opens for visitors at 10:00 and a tour group of fifty Germans was ahead of me, so it was impossible to see or photograph anything in the cathedral when the doors were opened. Seeing my dilemma a museum attendant suggested  I start at the far end of the museum and work my way back to the cathedral completely avoiding the German invasion. Great idea...


The museum contains the various chambers of the monastery as they were used hundreds of years ago, including the pharmacy and the Celda Prioral (the Prior's cell) above and below.


With the Germans out of the way I was able to get this view


Back on the street Olof found a small boutique where he stopped to buy some plums. The queue system was unique to say the least. There were only a couple of customers in the shop when we came in and Olof got in line with his small bag of plums. The owner took several minutes with each of the two customers ahead of Olof, mostly small talk I suspect since no additional products were purchased. As Olof got to the front of the queue the owner smiled and said, "Just one moment please" and proceeded to let another customer (where did she come from?) step in front of Olof and pay (which also took a couple of minutes). Once more at the front of the queue Olof was once again ready to pay, but once more the owner said pleasantly "Just one moment", and took yet another local customer ahead of Olof. Maybe it was just their way of maintaining the small town atmosphere, taking care of their friends, relatives and repeat customers first; tourists at best only buy plums for a couple of euros...




Exploring the back streets around the square we found a restaurant that was not yet opened, but their terrace had a nice view of the valley below., where we took a a final shot of Valldemossa before continuing our trip to Sa Calobra.


Photographing in the narrow streets and confined spaces of old villages can be a challenge, the best results require a wide angle lens. I used a combination of the full-frame Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm and the Canon 24-105L, but the Canon 17-40 would have been a good alternative. And if it's still too tight, make a multi-shot panorama image, the image of the town square above was made with 13 shots in portrait orientation with the Samyang 14mm. Just remember to shoot in manual mode to ensure the same exposure on all images, and allow about 50% overlap on each image. Photoshop CS and Photoshop elements have a great tool to automagically merge your multiple images into a single shot. It's best with a tripod, but even hand held gives good results if you are careful about keeping the shots level.