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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mallorca, for Birders and Bicyclists...

Beside being a favorite destination for bicyclists, Mallorca is also a favorite for birders. The island is both a stopover for European birds migrating to and from Africa, as well as being home to many resident species. In total over 300 species of birds have been seen on Mallorca, and early spring is a perfect time to photograph birds. Once the birds begin nesting in mid-April and May, they become more secretive and will be much harder to spot. In addition the sunlight in late spring means an even earlier sunrise, when birds are most active, and harsher contrast in your images once the sun is up, as well as a greater likelihood of un-sharp images due to heat haze. Cool cloudy days with occasional sprinkles are best, and as luck would have it that was the weather I had on my first day out.
A problem when traveling by car on Mallorca is that it is often impossible to stop and photograph safely due to the narrow roads, and the many cyclists and cars. So my first photo stop was an early morning at the Cap de Formentor on the northwest point of Mallorca before the cyclists and tourists had taken over the roads. This allowed me stop almost anywhere I liked without taking any risks, and from the car I was able to photograph the following species:

This blue rock thrush was taken from the parking lot at the Formentor Lighthouse, it's not a great shot, but they are shy birds and they simply refused to come any closer.

Another species that can be seen easily but not photographed well from the lighthouse are the shearwaters that glide over the water's surface about 300 meters below. I won't make a guess on which species of shearwater these are. In Sweden Twitchers (Birders) become ecstatic when they see a shearwater at 1000 meters, which then leads to endless discussions on the internet birding forums on which species it might have been...

In the valley forests on Formentor red-legged partridge can be see around almost every corner, unfortunately they run for cover when you pull over to take a picture, I think they are more used to shotguns than Canons. This one was far enough away to not be bothered by my stopping.

During a visit to the summit of Sa Calobra this cinereous vulture circled over in the drizzling rain, but the picture doesn't do justice to this magnificent bird, so I am also including a picture I took of the same species while visiting mainland Spain a few years earlier... 

My cycling colleague Olof Hagander who joined me on the trip to Sa Calobra later recalled the scene in the following way:
"Sa Calobra revisited... 45kph winds, rain, under an olive tree a goat cowers while a black vulture circles above... Mordor"

And finally along the southwest coast, in the meadows and farmlands there are countless other LBB's (little brown birds) like this crested lark

And the European greenfinch

Most of these shots were taken with the Canon 7D+ 800/5,6, but a 300/2.8L with 2X extender or the 500/4 +1.4X extender would also work well. If you are only interested in birding your options are far greater, since there are many wildlife sanctuaries with hides which provide good views over wetlands and meadows, although not with the same proximity that a photographer demands.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mallorca, An Accidental Photo Trip...

I've never been a big fan of common tourist destinations which always makes for interesting discussions with the family; I suggest Alaska, Spitzbergen, Jokkmokk, the Falkland Islands, and they respond with New York City, Miami and the Canary Islands... But Mallorca wasn't intended to be a normal vacation; instead my bicycling club CK Lunedi planned an 8-10 day trip for spring training. In the middle of the cold and wet Swedish spring making that trip seemed like the only sensible thing to do, never mind the tourists...

After doing a little research it seemed that there might be more to do on Mallorca than just bicycling, so I took along my camera gear as well as my bicycle. I had to pay 65 euros for the bicycle, but I think the camera gear weighed even more than the bike.

We stayed in Can Pastilla which is just east of Palma de Mallorca in a beachfront hotel called Fontanellas Playa, with breakfast and dinner included. The hotel is very much geared towards cyclists who can be a demanding lot when it comes to food. The buffet was excellent with varied specialties every day, and lots of alternatives for replenishing the calories burned during the long cycle tours during the day.

From the hotel and the immediate surroundings, Mallorca looks like a normal tourist destination, the kind I usually avoid. But 30 minutes into our first bicycle ride into the countryside it felt like I was no longer in the same place, or even same century for that matter. The countryside is filled with rolling hills, meadows of wildflowers, mountains, cliffs, and uncountable small villages that have changed little since the 1700's. So after an exhausting 135km ride on Sunday, I decided to take the following day off and explore the island in a rental car.

Leaving early and missing breakfast I managed to catch the sunrise on the south coast (taken with the Canon 1DmkIV and 300/2.8) before revisiting Randa, one of the hills we had climbed the day before.

It's only about 500 meters elevation but the view is fantastic. (This image is a 9 shot panorama with the Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm/2.8)
I then continued on to Formentor, the Northwest peninsula of Mallorca where I had the road to myself until about 10AM when the bicyclists hit the roads. The road is narrow and winding, but the views are spectacular. This is a 5 shot panorama again with the 6D + Samyang 14mm.

At the very end is a lighthouse with a snack bar. This seems to be the main destination. Come early, otherwise parking is impossible and gridlock is guaranteed. This shot taken with the Canon 6D+24-105/4 @40mm)

Later in the week after a couple more 130km bicycle rides I had even more places I wanted to photograph, among others the 10km serpentine road that leads to the port of Sa Calobra which we had bicycled on Wednesday.

On a rainy Thursday my cycling colleague Olof Hagander and I took a rest day from cycling and enjoyed fresh squeezed orange juice and a salad with tuna at the summit of Sa Calobra and when the rain let up for five minutes I ran out and captured this panorama (11 shots with the 6D + Samyang 14mm). The view is breathtaking, and the bicycle ride down is exhilarating. But be warned this is also the only road out and it took us 59:51 to ride up to the summit again (stronger/younger/lighter bicyclists do it in half the time).

We also spent a couple of hours in the beautiful village of Valldemossa, but I will cover that in a separate post...