Sunday, November 9, 2014

In Pursuit of Excellence

"You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books that you have read, the music you have heard and the people you have loved.
-Ansel Adams

Photography can be art, but strangely it is also sometimes nothing more than personal record keeping, what we might term a snapshot. Often we just want to record a moment or occasion in our lives without any attempt at creating anything more and that's okay of course, being a perfectly legitimate use of photographic technology. 

The vast majority of photographs taken on any given day are exactly that and no more, a photographic record destined for Facebook or Instagram, possibly to be "shared" or "liked" by members of the recorder's inner circle, their "friends".

But the potential, ahhh, the potential of the medium is so very vast these days, it's a bit mind blowing, that is to say, EXTREMELY INTIMIDATING!

Every time I start to think I'm making some progress towards transitioning some of my work from digital record keeping to creating art, I come across someone else's photographs that very quickly illustrate just how far I have to go. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the perspective) photographic technology is advancing incredibly rapidly and as one technique or technology is mastered or at least partially understood, something new becomes possible. It's quite the challenge to keep up!    

I think the best thing I ever did to help my photography skills move forward was to join a photography club. If I am honest with myself I have to admit that I am guilty of being a bit of a lazy photographer (in the past). These days I am trying very hard to learn better habits and skills and to push, pull or drag my photography to a higher level.

When I first joined the St. Albert Photography Club
I was a little bit intimidated (and still am) by the skills of some of the members. Most of the members are not professional photographers, but rather they are for the most part, talented, passionate amateurs who love to learn and share their work with others.

Part of the process of a photography club is the submissions night that takes place every month during the club season. On that special night, members bring printed images, (as large as they can afford to print) up to the maximum size of 11" x 14" unframed but in a simple mat, to pit against the work of other club members.

The other way of entering is the digital submissions category and that is how I first entered the fray in an effort to determine if my images made the cut, if they would stand up to the critiquing of the other members of the club. At first I was regularly disappointed by the response to my submissions and in hind sight I see now that I often submitted badly chosen images, it was quite a revelation. 

A Non-winner from the "Country Roads" submissions theme.

It took quite a while to break into the winners circle and that only happened by accident.

When friends used some of my images in their home, they decided to re-print one of them in a larger size (because they liked it so much, wahoo!) and I asked for the old one printed at 11"x14" which was exactly the right size for submissions night.

My first winning image

I submitted it in the open category in October of 2013 and won first place, a very heady feeling let me tell you! That win ignited my renewed interest (my photo-mojo) and spurred me on to print more images, take more photos and much more carefully shoot, select and enter the various categories.

It's a lot of work planning and executing creative entries for themes such as: weathered wood, opposites, alone in a crowd, broken, fog/smoke or country roads. I've noticed though that it's good to be challenged, it's good to have stiff competition that consistently forces you to submit your best work for even a hope of having your images placing well. 

All of last season I was mentally chasing one particular individual who is consistently entering absolutely great images, technically perfect, exciting, creative and well crafted art. There are lot's of great photographers in the club, but this guy consistently submits excellent work and he makes every month even more of a challenge.

I love this one and expected it to do well......what can I say, it didn't even place but I still love it!

I called this post "In Pursuit of Excellence" because I wanted to make a point about how this kind of a challenge can be such a motivator to up your game, to push you and motivate you to spend more time thinking and creating something beautiful or meaningful that is well beyond what we might create on our own, without outside influence and a challenging environment.

You might believe that art is subjective and of course you are right, but until you have had a selection of your work critiqued by your peers (and betters) and you have truly compared your best to the best that is out there, it is very easy to convince yourself that your work is good or even great and leave it at that. 

After all, it's mine and I'm awesome, at least that's what my mom used to tell me and she should know!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rome, the City of Miracles!

Ahhh, Rome, the eternal city, a city filled with history, ancient glories and minor miracles, at least one anyway.

Maybe the word miracle is a bit strong and as far as it goes this one would definitely be on the minor side so I don't want to hype it up too much, but it was quite a "coincidence" if you prefer that word.

For the most part, our visit was pretty ordinary and everything went as planned in Rome. The apartment we rented through was lovely, although it was perhaps a little cramped and the stairs to the loft bedroom were really steep. I had visions of one of us taking a tumble during the night on the way to the bathroom, and that wasn't even the most dangerous thing! 

The low beam at the foot of the bed knocked me on my butt a time or two I'll tell you! But we both survived and all in all, the location was perfect!

We knew that the Piazza Navona district was supposed to be nice and central with a lot happening, but it was even better than we had hoped. We were 5 minutes from the Piazza, 10 minutes from the Bridge of Angels (beautiful) and 15 minutes from the Vatican city. Nearby were the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps and it seemed we could walk to anything and everything. 

The Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona
It's strange how the city seemed to contract around us during our visit as we began to get our bearings, recognizing streets and landmarks and slowly it became easier to find our way around. 

There was a bit of confusion when we first got to the Termini station of course, because we had purchased the Roma/Vatican pass online and we wanted to pick them up at the station from the Roma Christiana open bus as we were told we could in their email. After chasing around and finding the bus, I found that it isn't an option in reality. 

No problem, a quick taxi ride to the apartment and then more confusion of course, the agreed upon time to meet our host was 15:45 but somehow in translation it changed to 17:45, but we were lucky and the cleaners were there and they let us in. 

With all of the mix-ups, I was a bit cranky for a while, but my sweet wife got me a soothing gelato and we sat down to enjoy it while a gentleman in a tuxedo played a cello (beautifully) as we basked in the ambiance of our little street, Via dei Coronari. Welcome to Rome! 

Rose had it in mind to take the hop on bus around that evening but it stopped running at 6:00 pm and we couldn't do it. We walked around discovering the neighborhood and we grabbed some dinner and turned in early, planning for a big day on our first full day in Rome.

In the morning we made our way over to St. Peters square to pick up our passes and catch the hop on bus. After even more confusion and misdirection, we were told with a high degree of certainty, "it is behind that building, that you catch the bus." 

No it wasn't! But we did catch it eventually and hopped off at the Coliseum stop to join the crazy crowds there.

Boy that Roma pass was a lifesaver, and it was at the Coliseum that we learned the heady feeling of power that comes as you bypass the ticket line!

That's one of the great things in life, to regally stride past the great unwashed multitudes and just walk in like some kind of VIP, (like David Beckham and Posh Spice for a day), and saving hours of waiting in line. The cool thing is that this privilege is basically free if you use the pass as it is intended. We used it at the Coliseum, the Forum and the Capitoline Museums and entered all three for no extra charge.

The Coliseum was great for me and I really enjoyed it, you may remember that I bought an 8mm fish eye lens for the trip and it was here especially that it came into it's own. It is virtually impossible to get more than a fraction of a building like the Coliseum into a normal shot unless you're doing it from a helicopter, (out of my price range) so it was fun to photograph it with this lens.

The Coliseum through an 8mm fish eye lens
Rose and I actually walked over a piece of stone that was advertised as being an original piece of pavement dating back to the days of the construction and dedication of the original building in 80 AD. It was amazing to walk on the same piece of stone that Roman Emperors and Senators perhaps walked on.

After the Coliseum we headed over to the Roman Forum archaeological site for the afternoon, (after a gelato and hot dog stop) and it was at the forum that we had a big surprise.

There are 2.8 million people living in Rome and 7-10 million tourists visit each year, most of them stopping at the forum. This is our first trip to Rome and we visited the forum once for a couple of hours and the forum is huge. 

The Forum Romanum
What do you suppose the odds are of bumping into someone, a single person of the billions of inhabitants of the earth, themselves on their first visit to Rome and the forum? I'm not exactly sure, but It's pretty long odds! 

We have friends who have visited Rome over the last year, we missed them by 12 months, other friends by 10 months and others by 3 weeks. (And that seemed like a near miss.) 

I'm guessing the odds must be tens of millions to 1, but this goes to prove anything can happen.

Our little miracle in Rome was the chance meeting on a bench up on Palatine hill, with my niece Jessica. I knew from a random facebook post that she was in Rome and as I explored the forum, I just happened to notice a girl on a bench that looked just like her.  As I walked up, you should have seen the look on her face, priceless!

It was really special to just bump into her after not seeing her for something like 8 months, (she's been studying at a university in Spain). We chatted for a bit and made plans to connect later at our apartment and go for dinner. 

At 7:00 pm it occurred to me that we gave Jessica the address but had we given her the buzzer number? The answer was a resounding no, so I quickly ran out into the hall to check outside in the street and as I turned the corner downstairs, I heard Rose talking to someone back upstairs so I ran back up and there she was. I guess she just buzzed everyone like they do in the movies and someone let her in.

She had been walking all afternoon so we poured her a glass of milk and showed her around the aspartment (that took about 2 minutes) and then we took a little "Dukes of Hazard" break. Don't ask me why, but the one show in English that seems to always be available on Italian TV is the Dukes of Hazard! 

It took us about ten minutes to get bored with that nonsense so we went out for dinner and then we walked her to her subway stop, visiting the Trevi Fountain on the way. Of course the ladies took a minute to throw a coin in the fountain, (right hand over left shoulder is the correct way) to ensure that they'd be back to Rome some day. I was so busy taking pictures that I forgot, but don't worry I stopped by the next day to make sure I did it. I definitely want to return to Rome, especially if Rose is coming back!

The Trevi Fountain
No matter what time of day or evening you go, the area around the Trevi Fountain is a zoo! Everyone wants a picture of themselves in front of it. Personally, I loved it, but to Rose all those crowds are a bit of a nightmare, even though I kept telling her,  "they're here for the same reasons we are, it's fun!"

It was also fun, (and not at all surprising) to see Rose switch into her motherly mode, offering Jessica a place to stay, or just a shower or whatever else she might need.

Jessica was interested in a free walking tour the next evening so we made plans to meet up and join the group at the Spanish steps at 5:30 the next day.

Our second day in Rome we did a lot of walking, visiting the Pantheon first, what an amazing building that is. The fish eye lens just loved that place and the little bit of rain falling through the occulus made a nice shiny puddle on the floor, just right to reflect the light. 

The Pantheon Through an 8mm fish eye lens
After the Pantheon, we hopped the bus to the Victor Immanuelle monument, (wow) and from the same square, you can also see, Hadrian's column and look down into the forum from a great viewpoint. Right there are a bunch of other great sights, but we grabbed a sandwich before visiting the Capitoline Museum. 

There were some great things there that I've been admiring in books and reading about all my life, it was amazing! This is where original statues are kept and displayed, without the crazy crowds of the Vatican Museums.

Later we strolled through Trastevere and the Jewish quarter before making our way back for a well deserved rest before heading out to meet Jessica.

Rome's roof tops from the roof of the Capitoline Museum
By this time Rose was bushed so I left her to rest and made my way over to meet Jessica and the group. I was treading new ground with the help of my tourist map when the Spanish steps came into view, far down the street, (amazing) huge crowds of people were visible on the white steps rising up from the piazza. 

The Spanish Steps (Paid for by the French Government)

The tour turned out to be lot's of fun and it was great to spend time with Jessica, traipsing around the streets of Rome and seeing some incredible sights together, building memories. This whole episode of finding Jessica in Rome was great and made the whole visit that much more special!

The Beautiful Ceiling of a church the walking tour visited
Of course it made me miss my own daughters even more, but fortunately there were just a few days to go before we were to head back home. 

Jessica and I at the Trevi Fountain
After we left the group at the Trevi fountain, we swung by to pick up Rose and the three of us went for a lovely dinner before walking Jessica part way to the subway where we parted ways. She was off to Spain the next morning to meet a friend but Rose and I still had one more day in Rome.

The next day was a big day for us, the Vatican museums and the Sistine chapel were on the agenda, and we thought we were all set! We stopped by the office the day before to confirm the time, we had our passes, we got there early, we had our umbrella, what could go wrong?

Well....the time they told us was incorrect, nothing was open for a snack or a washroom or even coffee (at 9:30 am) I guess all the vaticansians like to sleep in or something, I don't know.

St. Peters Square and Basilica
The weather was great...until we began the 4 block long traipse to the entrance, then the skies opened up and it poured buckets! There was a mad scramble to get my poncho on as we tried not to loose our guide, now under an anonymous umbrella and lost in the crowd of similar ones. We just followed along with the sodden herd, resigned to the fact we were now part of the tour groups that we have learned to love to hate! Oh well, what can you do?

Even though we sold our souls to beat the line up (sort of), there is no beating the crowds and the confusing, chaotic crush of thousands of wet, bedraggled, frustrated tourists, wondering "what in heck am I doing here?"

Once inside it's much the same, just a bit dryer and of course everyone just shuffles along in the stuffy corridors like they're part of the zombie apocalypse, trundling past the cheesy museum stalls selling every kind of souvenir you can think of. 

Rose and I, by mutual agreement made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel (as much of a beeline as you can in those crowds) and once there, we found a great spot against the wall to sit and contemplate this amazing place.

Truthfully, we had seen so many amazing church ceilings in Venice and Verona and Sorrento and Amalfi and Rome that if I didn't know the history and significance of the Sistine Chapel, I wouldn't have stopped and really spent as much time actually looking and appreciating it as it deserved.

The fact that they don't allow photography at all, actually helped me appreciate it better than if I had been distracted trying to photograph it, so that was a good thing.

After leaving the Sistine Chapel we mailed some post cards and made a break for it, leaving the Vatican Museums to the mercy of the crowds. Although it was almost worth all of the hastle, just for a look at the famous double helix staircase.

 By this time, Rose had enough of the crowds so we grabbed some lunch and I dropped her off back at the room while I ran to keep my appointment at St. Peter's Basilica. 

This time it went well, I joined a small group and we followed the same guide past the long lines waiting to enter the largest church, anywhere. 

She dropped us off at a desk offering our free audio guides and I was soon inside, craning my neck to see all of the amazing ceilings, carvings, statues, doors, alters, mosaics, crypts etc, etc. Click on the link below to find out more about St. Peter's Basilica or other sites in Rome.


St. Peter's Basilica

Once again my fish eye lens came in handy trying to somehow capture the beauty and grandeur of a truly amazing building.

Making my way through the crowds, most of them also clutching a speaker to the side of their head, I listened to about half of the descriptions of various sights before just switching it off for the duration.

The first thing that you see when you come in, (if you're following the audio guide) is the Pieta, a marble sculpture of Mary holding Jesus, sculpted by Michelangelo when he was just 25 years old. Unfortunately it's covered by bullet proof glass after a deranged visitor attacked it with a hammer in 1972, too bad but it's still beautiful.

Another thing that is hard to ignore is the enormous, twenty-six meter high bronze baldachin over the papal altar. This Baroque masterpiece was apparently made from bronze that was snitched from the ceiling of the Pantheon.

The enormous bronze baldachin over the Papal alter
I spent two hours at the basilica before returning to the room for a rest and heading out for the last night of our trip. Rose was determined to find a particular piece of art that she had spotted in Piazza Navona, so that was our first stop.

 As luck would have it, we found the stall and 
there it was, simple, colourful, and very pretty, and ripe for the picking! Rose quickly became best buddies with the artist, flattering him with genuine appreciation into thinking he is the next Picasso or something, while I tried to appear uninterested (maintaining my best bargaining pose).

He eventually asked for $65 and we settled on $50 as he gently rolled it into a tube for travel. Our new buddy graciously posed for a picture and off we went on our next errand, dinner and gelato!

We had a nice dinner in a great little alley, bustling with activity, before grabbing some of the best gelato we'd had so far, chocolate dipped if you can believe it, at a place called La Gelateria Frigidarium.

Then it was a nice walk back through Piazza Navona, a bit of packing and the next day a long flight home to Edmonton with a stop in Toronto for a Teen Burger...ahhh, ambrosia and root beer in a frosted mug!!! Some things are worth coming home for!

It was also great to come home to our two girls (Kait & April) and also our diabetic cat Missy and all of our friends and family.

One thing that I didn't even realize that I was missing and that was so amazing it was almost worth being away from for a month was our marvelous bed! I will never take it for granted again!

And so....we're home! And that my friends is that, but don't despair, there is one more post to come from this trip, about our cooking class in Sorrento with our buddy William. I plan to have lot's of pictures and even a few recipes, so stay tuned for that.

Thanks for reading!

All contents are copyrighted by the Author Doug Petry

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Amalfi Coast, an Unforgettable Drive!

Once again it was hard to move on to our next destination, both of us loved Sorrento and we wished we had more time there, but who knew? We wanted to see Positano, the closest major town to Sorrento and we knew once we were in Amalfi, we wouldn't have a chance to backtrack since we only had two nights and so we took a day trip from Sorrento to Positano on the notorious SITA bus.

The Amalfi coast is an absolutely stunning stretch of Italian coastline stretching loosely from Sorrento to Salerno, a busy port city South of Sorrento. This area is steeped in history going back to Ancient Greece and beyond. It once was a colony of Greece known as Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, and at a location south of Salerno called Paestum, there is a magnificent collection of ancient Greek temples. Unfortunately we just couldn't make a visit to Paestum work out, but maybe next time.

I was a little nervous about taking this bus, people say how rugged and beautiful (narrow and winding) this road is and they aren't kidding. I guess I would have less of a problem with these roads if there was a proper barrier between the bus and certain death on the drop of doom, but in reality for most of the way it looks like an angry cub scout could kick this railing right over the edge and into the ocean.

Excuse me sir, should the road we just traveled on be beside us?

I have developed a deep appreciation for the heavy, interlocking concrete barriers that we use in Canada, especially since the drivers of these buses are often so nonchalant about the danger. We've taken these buses 6 times over the few days to various towns and so far I've seen the driver: seriously distracted by a passenger several times, just chatting and waving his hands all over the place, talking on the phone, and completely unable to see the mirrors because the bus was dangerously overloaded.

On one memorable occasion a woman (whose initials are Rose Petry) dropped her water bottle on the floor, said water bottle made a beeline for the front of the bus and for a moment seemed destined to lodge under the brake pedal, thereby causing the bus to careen through the the antique guardrail and over the cliff and onto the rocks far below.

But.....fortunately a swiftly moving fellow passenger snatched it up and with a somewhat stern admonishment to "hold onto this thing" I handed it back to my much relieved wife. Seriously, these roads are ridiculously curvy and fortunately for us there was very little oncoming traffic so it wasn't as bad as it could be, I don't think I would like trying them in the summer time, not one little bit!

Positano was lovely though and we enjoyed a spectacular afternoon exploring the narrow alleys and beautiful beach. This town is famous for shopping and every ten steps there is a woman's clothing store or an art gallery or antique store. Some of the art was just spectacular and we enjoyed browsing through the galleries and they were very laid back and didn't seem to mind browsers.


Of course it rained a bit (like every other day) but we spent an enjoyable few minutes sheltering under a rock overhang chatting to a nice lady from somewhere just south of Toronto. It was in Positano that I had a very special experience while photographing a beautiful spot on a raised walkway that happened to pass an ancient lookout tower now converted into a house.

Rose was well ahead of me admiring the view (and looking for a place to have lunch) while I was distracted trying to shoot this amazing scene. There was a tower, a rock wall, some trees and bushes, a little balcony on the tower, also some flowers lying around and behind it all, the cliffs and houses of Positano.

It was one of those great conjunctions of elements and light and subject and photographer and camera that absolutely demand and require a little extra care and attention to get it just right. I spent about ten minutes trying different angles and camera settings and moving flower petals around into what I felt was the right arrangement to make it as good as I am capable of doing. As I was working an older local fellow came up and said to me, "you, you are artist!"

Well, that is of course what most of us who love photography long to hear and are constantly striving to achieve, so I was greatly gratified to hear the appreciation in his voice from witnessing the care that I had taken in photographing the beautiful scene. Right behind him was his daughter who asked where I was from, "Canada" I replied. "Papa, Canadiansa, Canadiansa Papa!" she called out to her father. It was obvious they had been watching me for a while and wondered where such an "artist" could possibly be from. I guess Rose isn't the only "ambassador" for Canada! (Dear head, stop swelling!)


We talked to another local who designed and made beautiful men's shirts right there in Positano, unfortunately the price was just a little too much for me, but he seemed to appreciate our comments about the quality and design of his shirts. We had a nice inexpensive lunch on the beach before visiting the church and making our way back to the bus stop.

The problem trying to catch the bus in Positano is that it is in the middle between Sorrento and Amalfi and when it stops it might be full or close to it already.

On this occasion it was very nearly full and even though we were fairly close to the front of the line it looked like we might not make it on. That's when we noticed a curious thing about taking buses in Italy. Even though you are supposed to validate your ticket at the box by the driver, when the rear doors open on the bus, people just start getting on from the rear, (making the line practically meaningless). OHHH, now we get it, good to know these things!

We did manage to cram on and I was not really super happy to be standing up in the wheel well looking straight through the front window (with a better view than the driver) as we made the return trip over the most ridiculous, scary, winding, narrow, switchback roads in the world! But I didn't have much choice but to suck it up and be a big boy, at least Rose didn't have a water bottle in her hand on this trip.

A couple of days later we made the same trip with our luggage as we moved on to Amalfi for two nights. We had a reservation at Residence Pansa B&B and when we got there I immediately saw a sign and leaving Rose with the luggage (in the rain again) I plodded up the stairs through narrow little alleys to our new lodgings.

There I met Margo, a very nice Dutch lady who checked us in and dispatched "the boys" a free porter service that the hotel subscribed to and I returned to the piazza to bring Rose up to the room. The porters are a great idea and I applaud the hotels of Amalfi for setting it up, (clap, clap) since it is so hilly and hauling your luggage up a bunch of steps is really a pain!

Our room was very nice and had a great sunny patio with a view of the marina and we were very comfortable there over our two day stay.

 The bronze doors of Amalfi Cathedral

Since the next day was a Sunday, we thought we had better scout out the famous Duomo of Amalfi, where the bones of St. Andrew the apostle apparently rest in a little room under an alter in a subterranean crypt. This church is amazing, from the imposing staircase leading up to it, to the cloister of paradise to the attached museum, to the crypt and the church itself with it's 1000 year old bronze doors, made in Constantinople.

A wedding at the Amalfi Cathedral

We both loved it and spent a couple of hours there before checking out a nice restaurant just steps from our steps that led to the other steps that took us up the steps to the steps to our room, where we rested.

The ceiling of the crypt, Amalfi Cathedral

We only had one full day in Amalfi so of course we used it up to take a bus to Ravello. I thought the roads of the coast were goofy but the road to Ravello is worse and we watched in amusement (because it wasn't us) as one poor guy was forced to back up quite a ways to get out of the way of the bus, while dozens of bus passengers and other motorists watched and waited.

Ravello was another beautiful town, a little away from the ocean but sitting up higher in the hills and commanding a lovely view. It was a Sunday when we visited and when we entered the town square where the church was located a service was underway and with the ancient bronze doors (famous for their 54 raised panels) wide open, we enjoyed the sound of music and voices raised in song. It was a special moment and we lingered a while, listening to the service until they eventually closed the doors.

From the piazza we noticed a stone walled alley leading down towards the bluff with the amazing views of the valley and ocean beyond and we headed down, looking for a good vantage point. We found some great spots to get good shots of the two towers of some old building, maybe a church or monastery lower on the hillside.

The view from Ravello

There is an ancient villa opening onto the piazza and after paying an entry fee of a few euros, we went exploring. Of course it started to rain but we ducked into a little chapel and watched a sort of time lapse slide show of many years of famous people attending the outdoor concerts held yearly on the villa grounds.

We really liked Ravello and Rose would have liked to stay there, she liked the "vibe" she got from the place and liked the fact it was a little harder to get to, so was spared the worst of the tourist crowds of Amalfi.

If you spend any time in Italy, you will likely come to loath (as we did) the arrival of the herds of tour groups, mindlessly following badly trained (it seemed to us) tour guides who would invariably pick the most inconvenient, congested area to halt their group and blather on about who knows what, seemingly forever.

From about 9:30am to 7:00pm they are everywhere, clogging up the works and barreling down the sidewalks and alleys like they own the world. There seems to be a mindless, herd mentality that takes over when you are on a tour, in a group, trying to stay with your scarf on a stick toting tour guide, VERY annoying for everyone else in the universe!

We kept saying to each other, "please, let that never be us." But of course it is definitely helpful to have a guide and there might be times when it makes sense to travel that way, but I wish people would just remember that rules of polite society still exist, even for members of a tour group!

So we liked Positano but we opted to head back before the big rush to return on the bus and we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon in Amalfi, visiting the paper museum where I got to help make paper. Way back when, before cheap cotton was available, they made paper in Amalfi from old rags, pounding them with water driven hammers until the shredded pulp could be collected and made into paper. It was interesting to see the caves and workplaces where they've made paper for centuries and still do for the tourist trade.

Making paper in Amalfi

Rose was ready for a rest but it had turned nice, (after raining in Positano) so I headed for the high ground in Amalfi to catch the sun going down, from the cemetery way up high on the hillside. It was a long way up but I love those treks through the back lanes and staircases far away from the maddening crowds.

The view from the cemetery, with a little  bit of my sunshade hat visible, oops

I passed an old lady and her daughter on the way up, laboriously making their way up the steep stairs and saw them once again at the cemetery, probably making the weekly Sunday visit to the grave of a loved one, perhaps the old woman's husband.

The locals are sometimes a bit surprised to see me in their midst, but are always friendly when I try my best to greet them with a badly mangled version of "buonasera" which I'm told means something like "good afternoon". The locals tend to shorten it further to something like, "sera" and I've tried that a few times but always feel a bit foolish when I do.

I got some great images from up high and started down to collect Rose and go out for our last dinner on the Amalfi coast. We opted for a new, ultramodern "steakhouse" restaurant but we both had pasta after looking at the price of steak. It seemed a bit pricey at $5 per 100 grams, or about $40 for a steak, yikes, we decided steak can wait until we're back in Alberta!

That was it for the Amalfi coast, except for another harrowing bus ride with a young bus driver with a half shaved head who apparently had a death wish and insisted on speeding, careening around corners on 2 wheels (it seemed) and scaring the baloney out of me!

Except for this one driver, I noticed that you never see young bus drivers on these routes, unless perhaps they really are young and the grey hair and worried look are a result of driving these crazy roads.

But of course, we did make it to Salerno where we hopped a direct train to the eternal city of Rome, and that for sure, is another story.

All Contents Copyrighted by the Author, Doug Petry

Monday, May 27, 2013

This is us! Feeling at home in Sorrento, Italy

Well, Rose called it this time, she just somehow knew even before the ferry docked that Sorrento is for us. We've been here for four nights now and today we're moving along to Amalfi but somehow she knew that we would love it and we do.

Arriving in Sorrento from the sea, you see a city of 20,000 people mostly perched up on top of a series of sheer cliffs and spreading back from there into the interior. Except for the marinas (there are at least three) and a cluster of houses, hotels and restaurants servicing the marina traffic, everything else is up above the sheer rock walls.


Fortunately we were just there for a holiday and had no plans to invade and were quickly in a taxi and on the way to the hotel, the Ulysse Deluxe Hostel. When we booked it Rose was a bit concerned about staying in a "hostel" but we needn't have worried. We got the scoop from a local fellow and I guess that the developer was refused permission to build a hotel but he had already done most of it and they let him open a hostel/hotel with hotel style comforts and hostel prices, nice for us!

Everyone was so nice and helpful at the hotel, we just loved the place, (good breakfasts) and they helped us get oriented and pointed out a great place for lunch, just a short hike away at Marina Grande. We found a little restaurant that is run by a fisherman's co-op and the food was amazing, there was a little confusion as to what exactly redfish are, (still not sure, but they were tasty little devils) mixed with linguine and Rose had mussel soup and we both loved our dish. Of course it rained a bit but we were snuggled under an awning so we didn't care.

Marina Grande
Our next stop was the "Valley of the Mills" that we had first seen on a friends Facebook when they visited Sorrento last year. The desk clerk had circled it on our map for us because I guess it's nothing special to the locals, it's not even on the tourist map but we loved it, what a beautiful place to stumble upon in the middle of a town.

Valley of the Mills

I took a bunch of pictures with my nex 5n vowing to come back with my big camera at least once and probably several times, (turned out to be 4 times) during our visit. 

Walking down our little shopping alley we came upon a little family run shop specializing in marquetry, (working with inlaid wood) making little boxes, wall art, furniture and various other things, all with traditional local designs.

We've found people here to be so friendly and welcoming and when you take a genuine interest in their work and show appreciation for their skills and talents, they love to talk and show off their products. Laura was just a lovely lady and proudly explained that the shop was a fourth generation family operation and many of the designs were her husbands grandfather's and now her teen aged son was starting to learn how to work with wood.

Laura's shop
At this point in the trip, we don't have a lot of space left in our suitcase so we picked out some small items for ourselves and for gifts, Laura explained how they were made, the wood used and wrote a little story on the bottom of the box that we bought. As we left her stall, the last thing we heard as we walked away was her just saying to herself, "what a lovely couple" awwww, it made us feel good.

Rose likes to say that we are ambassadors for Canada, (unpaid) so let's make a good impression wherever we go. People are always interested in where we are from, but the name, Edmonton doesn't seem to ring a bell with most Italians. Canada yes, Banff maybe, (the idea of meeting bears in the woods makes a big impression) but Edmonton is not well known over here.

Rose is trying to single handedly change that and seems to be succeeding on a small scale. I'm also doing my part, we have been back to the same small clothing store in "our" alley at least 4 times. The lady there speaks about twenty words of English, but we communicate just fine, she now has my size down better than I do and knows just what I like. Every time we leave the store I say, "see you tomorrow." 

Our Alley
We've never had to worry about paying duty before but on this trip we've begun to wonder if we're getting close to the limit. That makes a good excuse to stop shopping, I guess. But the problem is that the prices are so good here in Sorrento, much better than anyplace else we've been.

Our first full day we took the famously rickety and crowded "Circumvesuvia" train to Pompeii and it lived up to it's billing on all counts. On the way there we met a couple from Lethbridge Alberta who were on their way to Naples and the trip went very quickly. Of course at Pompeii it rained a bit, but then the sun would come out for a bit and on and on the cycle would go. I finally used my goofy rain poncho that I've been carrying around for the whole trip, but it would almost be better to get soaked, almost.

The Basilica, Pompeii

We were amazed by the extent of the ruins, of course we've seen pictures before but it goes on and on, this was a city of thousands of people before the eruption. We walked our feet off because as luck would have it, they were out of the free tourist maps and all we had was a few wrinkled pages torn out of our Rick Steves Italy book.Ricks little map was just not good enough all by itself and we would probably pay the $10 for a tour if we had it to do over. But all in all, we saw everything we wanted to, eventually.

The trip back was something else, the train was pretty full already when it reached the station and we just managed to squeeze on and find a little bit of wall to cuddle up to for a long, hot uncomfortable ride back to Sorrento. This was very much like the vaporetto ride in Venice, but about 4 times as long and with very little fresh air. Once you've experienced this particular train ride, you loose all fear of airport security checks, we were packed in there so close it was like getting a full body massage from twenty different masseuses.

The train station is a bit of a walk from our hotel so by the time we got there, Rose was ready for a good, long, foot massage and I of course, was happy to provide one. She quickly recovered her enthusiasm for walking and we headed out for supper at the Aurora Pizzeria. We had walked by the restaurant earlier and noticed their massive, copper hooded forno oven and since Rose absolutely loves anything to do with a forno oven, we had to go back.

It was very good and of course Rose had to let the waiter know, it was the "best in Italy" so that caused him to shout to the kitchen, "hey Gino, the best in Italy!" "Gratzie, gratzie, lady" smiles all around. Score another conquest for the unofficial Canadian ambassador to Italy.

My Pizza, Rose had her own.
On the way back to the hotel through "our" alley, the skies decided to completely open up on us. We never go anywhere without an umbrella in Italy, apparently it is the wettest May in 500 years or something like that. So when the heavens opened up, we were prepared, sort of. We ducked into a shop for chocolates, yummy lemon ones and coffee ones and had to buy a few, then into my clothing store for a few snappy ties (6 for $20), then pop in for a cappuccino, slowly zigzagging our way home until finally running out of stores. 

We decided to just go for it, ( how bad could it be?) and slogged the rest of the way through torrential rain, giggling like kids. When we came to the street in front of the hotel, what used to be a steep street was now a raging torrent, flowing down to the sea. Rose was actually happy that my shoes were completely soaked through and started to laugh at my soggy footwear.

I'm afraid I had been giving her a bit of a hard time about her 3 (count 'em, 3) pairs of similar, open toed sandals and she in turn had wanted me to bring a second pair of shoes. 

Fortunately I was able to use the blow dryer and dry them out so they were ready for the next day (na na na na na, Rose) thus proving, one pair is enough if you have a blow dryer.

The next day was our trip up the Amalfi Coast to Positano (a separate post) and when we returned that evening we asked the lady desk clerk where she would go to eat if she were visiting Sorrento. She gave us a great tip about a place a bit out of town that has a great view and they even pick people up for free, since there is so little parking. After a rest, I packed my camera, hoping for some night shots and a driver picked us up. 

The restaurant was called Ristaurante Il Borgo, and I didn't even stop to look at the menu, I went straight out to the patio and started shooting. Poor Rose was very understanding and waited patiently for the great lighting conditions to change and for me to give up or get hungry enough to return to the table. I'm afraid I was a long time out there in the wind, balancing my camera on the railing while I tried to capture a very spectacular sunset and the lights of Sorrento and Pompeii.

Sorrento and Pompeii
The manager Tony, was very interested in my pictures and asked me if I would mind sending him some of them for their website and so I did. We had a great fish meal and met some nice people, it turned out to be a great evening.

The next day was our last full day and we were really looking forward to it. You see, earlier in the week we had come across a great little gelato shop in our alley and after we got our delicious home made waffle cones stuffed with wonderful icey goodness, the smooth talking proprietor suggested we sit at the cute little table in the alley and noisily enjoy our treat (providing free advertising for the shop)

We sat and watched this fellow work the passing crowd, he would say "gelato today? delicious homemade family recipe" or something like that and if the person said something like "maybe later" as they often did, he would come back with, "don't hurry, we'll still be here, we've been here 153 years, we're not going anywhere, take your time."

As we sat there enjoying the action, I happened to notice a sign advertising a cooking school and from that moment on, there was no looking back.

We signed up for a 7 course cooking class for our last night in Sorrento with our funny chef William, who also doubles as a stand up comedian often found standing in the alley and drumming up business for the gelato shop. But the tale of our experiences with William and Happy (his assistant) and the recipes from that evening, is definitely another story!

Rose has some fun at cooking class
All Contents Copyrighted by the Author, Doug Petry

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rose goes "shopping" on the way to Capri, Italy.

After a quiet relaxing week in the Cinque Terre we hopped a train to Naples, on the way to the resort island of Capri. Stepping off the train in Naples, you immediately know that you're in a big city; oodles of people, lots of hectic traffic and constantly beeping horns. They seem to beep just to say hi, to warn of an impending sideswipe or other collision, out of anger or maybe just for the fun of it.

We were only there for a night but our impression of Naples was not favourable. What we saw was a noisy, dirty, chaotic little patch of the city around the train station and our hotel, the UNA Napoli. Fortunately the hotel was easy to find, it was nice and close to the station and we just walked through the big square, Piazza Garibaldi, until we found it. Meanwhile, trying our best to cross streets safely, dragging our luggage behind, dodging scurrying locals, scooters and cars until at last, the soothing oasis of calm of a hotel lobby!

It seemed at first like a nice hotel with efficient staff, nicely decorated and modern with all of the bells and whistles that one would expect of a chain hotel. Of course there was an amazing special on for only $12, free wifi, upgraded room and you could suck the minibar dry, (all the aqua minerale with gas that you can drink) and that alone was worth $27 I was assured, very good deal!

Naples from our balcony

Ok, sure, we'll go for it, especially after I was informed the wi-fi cost is normally $5 an hour, ouch, that would definitely hurt. A porter took our bags, showed us the location of the safe, mini bar, and terrace, featuring a lovely unobstructed view of garbage strewn streets, loafing ne-er do-wells and peeling paint obscured by hanging laundry and colourful graffiti.

Sounds great, right? Well as soon as I tried to log in to the wi-fi, the spell started to unravel. No open wi-fi, but I figured "no problem" I'll call the desk, "hello, this is room 417 we paid for the upgrade with free wi-fi." "Yes sir, if you want to use it, you must come to the desk and sign a form." Me, "But I was just down there, you signed me up." Desk, "yes but if you want to use the wi-fi, you must come down to the reception." Me, "thanks, (with an unseen eye roll) I'll be right down."

Snatching the room card from the little holder by the door, (they never give you more than one key here unless you remember to ask for one) I returned to the lobby, signed a form saying the charge would be zero and returned to the room with a login password. As soon as I got to the room, Rose told me the power had gone out, "did it go out everywhere?" she asked. "Nope, did you do anything, move the little computerized light controller?" It turned out she had moved the little controller and there is a "do not disturb" button and an "override" and a "sleep" button and a bunch of other incomprehensible buttons, so we fiddled with that for a while, working on the premise that it was the problem.

Finally giving up, I called the desk, "the power has gone out in our room, all the lights just all of a sudden went out." Desk, "yes sir, I will send up a technician." "Ok, thanks."

As I went into the hall, a light went on, so to speak, "I wonder....." I took the room key-card and slipped it back into the holder by the door, click-lights on, "Ohhhh, nice of them to tell us about that feature!" Problem solved, I called the desk, wondering why that wouldn't be the very first thing they thought of when I called to report the problem? Me, "I got it fixed, the key card wasn't in the holder." Desk, "Oh, (duh) of course sir." Me, after I had hung up, "of course? Of course? What did he mean by, OF COURSE!!!?"

It got worse.
We were a bit reluctant to leave the sanctuary of the hotel, so we went upstairs to the "roof garden restaurant" big mistake. The view was actually nice, all you could see was rooftops, a giant dome and the mountains south of the city, none of the grunge of the neighborhood.

The place was empty, but we put that down to the time, it was 7:15 and it didn't even open until 7:30. Let's just say the food was not at all good and when the officious maitre de' asked how it was and Rose answered with her usual tact, "it was the worst meal we've had in 3 weeks in Italy." The poor fellow didn't know how to react, "very good madame, may I get you anything else, dessert perhaps?" "Nope, just the bill and a one way ticket out of here!" (She actually said, "just the bill, thanks.")

The next morning we fled by taxi to the port and a fast ferry to the island of Capri. It started off okay, it was supposed to be a one hour ferry ride, how bad could it be? Well remember Gilligan's Island? It was sort of like that, it seemed to go on and on, the boat rising and falling and rolling and plunging until many of the passengers started to go a little green around the gills, looking desperately around for something, anything that looked like a handy waterproof container.

Fortunately the crew could sense where all those desperate looks were heading and jokingly handed out little white bags "for shopping" (we took 2 and needed them both) Rose just loves "to shop".

She was the first to pop (and by far the loudest) and that seemed to kick off a tidal wave of puking that quickly spread throughout the boat. I did my good husband bit, holding the bag, patting her on the back and murmuring soothing dry land sounds in her ear.

When we finally arrived in Capri, Rose solemnly informed me that unless I was going to spring for a helicopter ride back, we were stuck on the island forever, she was definitely NOT in the mood to contemplate another ride in a boat of any size!

Capri harbour with the cliffhanger road in the background
Capri was beautiful though and with her feet firmly planted on terra firma, Rose soon recovered her positive attitude. The shuttle picked us up along with a mother, daughter from Colorado and we chatted the whole way to the Hotel Weber Ambassador.

The hotel was very nice, on the quiet side of the island overlooking a lovely little harbour, called Marina Piccola, the bay where they say Ulysses was seduced by sirens in Homer's Odyssey. Our room was quite adequate, a little dated  (about 3,000 years) just kidding, it was fine, with everything we needed, especially the terrace with an absolutely amazing view over the soft turquoise blue waters of the harbour and the "siren's rock".

Looking up at Hotel Weber Ambassador from Marina Picollo
After a rest we headed down to the marina and the many restaurants clustered around the beaches and rocks jutting out into the sea. I had my little camera so after lunch we explored the area, discovering gelato stands and bars serving the sun worshippers spread out on the sand.

Rose was tired and wanted to rest at the hotel and just read in the sun, but I wanted to explore the areas that she might not be interested in so we went our separate ways for the rest of the afternoon.

I jumped the hotel shuttle to Capri town and from there the local bus to Anacapri, the second town of Capri higher up and around on the other side of the island.

What a ride that was! I do not do heights, and I don't like the narrow windy roads that these people somehow manage on. It was a bit of a nightmare ride.

I like to think of the way they are forced to drive here as cooperative driving. The only way it works at all is that whenever two vehicles meet on these roads, most of the time one will be forced to pull right over against the wall, especially if there is a slightly wider area on their side of the road. Sometimes one vehicle will have to back up to allow the bigger one to squeeze through. There are blind switchback corners all over the place and most of them have mirrors hanging there so you can see if you might be about to have a head on crash. Often they beep their horn, grit their teeth and probably say a quick prayer before rounding the bend.

It's a game of inches and it amazes me that it works at all. Good for them that they somehow all cooperate and make it work because in Alberta where we have so little to complain about, road wise (except a few suspension crushing potholes) we would likely all kill each other if forced to constantly give way like they do here.

The trip to Anacapri was a bit like an episode of Worlds Deadliest Roads, except I don't think we were ever actually driving with half a wheel off the cliff (there is a railing) but it seemed like it.

A bus returning from Anacapri

Once we got there, I was feeling a bit lightheaded, invincible and a bit like superman so I searched out the craziest, scariest, most dangerous thing I could find to do.

There is a chairlift to the very highest peak of the mountain so I quickly forced down the fear and bought a ticket. No-one else seemed to be going up, "hmmm what to make of that?" I got into position on the platform standing on the green square, the chair came swinging around like a wood slatted juggernaut bent on taking me off at the knees, the attendant motioned me to be ready....and I sat down.

A "selfie" on the chairlift
I was pretty proud of myself as I zoomed up the mountain even though I was clutching the bar in a bit of a death grip, until I began to meet dozens and dozens of bored looking tourists off of some cruise ship or somewhere, coming down in a seemingly unending row. Every 200' I would meet another one, usually with a grimace or a stoic, bored look, "weird, what are their regular lives like if this incredible view bores them?" I thought to myself, "I must have run into a group of fighter pilots or astronauts, wow their lives must be REALLY exciting!!"

When I got to the top it was amazing. I was wishing Rose was there to see it, but I was pretty sure I never would have gotten her into the chairlift, not after the ferry ride that morning! And besides, the chairlift traveled over peoples gardens and yards and the chairlift didn't issue "shopping" bags to it's customers like the boat did so it was probably better she took the afternoon off.

The view from the top, looking towards Sorrento
The views were great and I spent a lot of time snapping pictures of the Amalfi coast and the bay of Naples. Eventually I made my way down and along the way came upon one of the great questions of life, at least for a photographer.

Picture this: there is an amazing view, but you're coming down the mountain in a windy chairlift, alone and.....the memory card runs out! Ahhh, what do you do, what do you do?

Passing the chairlift going up

If you're like me, you play it safe. I just couldn't imagine taking the risk with a memory card full of photos from a vacation of a lifetime and trying to change it on a moving chairlift dangling 100' above a lush carpet of trees and gardens and risk losing it.

Or I could just quickly delete a couple of bad shots (there are always a few) to make room for some fresh shots of the view on the way down and chock it up to a lesson learned? I'll take door number two, thank you very much.

That evening we had a great dinner at the hotel, listening to a live piano player playing old jazz and swing songs, very nice and romantic.

The next day we spent exploring the streets and alleys of the town of Capri, shopping, watching people pose for pictures in front of the Gucci store, and eating gelato. We took the funicular down to the harbour and admired the sailboats.

The Rolex taught sails into Capri

We heard rumors that Capri was gearing up for a big crowd of people who actually have a reason to wear boat shoes. Apparently the next evening there was a big party and regatta planned for about a thousand guests sponsored by Rolex and we watched them sail in over the evening, some anchoring below the hotel in Marina Picolla.

The next day we sadly said goodbye to Capri, not that we could afford to stay any longer, it turned out to be the most expensive couple of nights of the trip ( so far).

The Piazetta, in Capri town

Fortunately the day of our departure dawned clear and warm with blessedly calm seas. Add to that the fact that we learned never, ever, to sit anywhere near the front of a boat in rough seas (unless you're in the mood for "shopping") and we had smooth sailing all the way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

Rose took one look at the cliffs of Sorrento and declared, " I love it, this is us!" But that's another story!

All Contents Copyrighted by the Author, Doug Petry