A view that hasn’t changed in 800 years

Tuscany is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy and in the whole of Europe. And for good reason: it is home of some of the most famous art cities and medieval towns in the world. Among them Florence, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, San Gimignano and the list could go on and on. As if that weren’t enough, the region is also a favourite destination for food and wine lovers as it offers a fantastic regional cuisine (just think “bistecca alla fiorentina“) and world famous Chianti, Brunello, Sassicaia, Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia and many more wines.

In spite of all this, there is a number of breathtakingly beautiful places still all but unknown to tourists. One of them happens to be one of my all-time favourites. It is called Abbadia a Isola.¬†The name loosely translates as “island-like abbey” and it originates from the abbey (built in 1001 AD) sitting on higher grounds which seemed to “emerge” from the surrounding swamps. The burg is even older, though, and even if the abbey rose in importance ’till the point of eradicating the castle from the village name, the previous castle was visited by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 990 AD, on his return trip from Rome, where he had received the pallium from the Pope.

Abbadia a Isola Church
The interior of the 1000 year old abbey

In the first picture of the post you can see the small burg of Abbadia a Isola. I actually did “photoshop out” one tiny element belonging to modern days, as without it I feel this picture could have been taken 50 or 100 or even 150 years ago. You can see the original picture here and if you feel like it, maybe even play a game of “spot the difference” ūüôā

Monteriggioni Map
Abbadia a Isola lies in the hearth of Tuscany, between Siena and Florence, just a few kilometers away from San Gimignano and right in front of the medieval walled city of Monteriggioni.

Abbadia a Isola is a wonderful little village in its own right, with an abbey that is over 1000 years old, but to me the most extraordinary aspect of this place is that it offers an unparalleled view on the nearby walled city of Monteriggioni.
Visiting Abbadia a Isola today offers an extraordinary chance to see a medieval village and, from here, you can have a fantastic view of nearby Monteriggioni, a fortified and walled town of the same period.

Monteriggioni
A view that hasn’t changed in over 800 years

What is truly breathtaking is that between Abbadia a Isola and Monteriggioni there is no single man-made structure younger than 800 years! That means that when you are looking at Monteriggioni from Abbadia a Isola, the view you get is the same, exactly the same, you would have gotten throughout most of the Middle Ages and the modern era.

An added bonus is that in this part of Italy the earth has a very special, very specific color. It is so unique that it actually gave a name to two hues: Sienna and Burnt Sienna in the 1760s.  The pigment sienna was known and used, in its natural form, by the ancient Romans. During the Renaissance, it was noted by the most widely read author about painting techniques, Giorgio Vasari, under the name terra rossa. It became, along with umber and yellow ochre, one of the standard browns used by artists from the 16th to 19th centuries, including Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Rembrandt (1606-1669), who used all the earth colours, including ochre, sienna and umber, in his palette. To illustrate the color, wikipedia chose an image taken literally a few hundred meters from where the above picture was shot.

Monteriggioni 2
The fortified town of Monteriggioni

Monteriggioni is a medieval walled town, located on a natural hillock, built by the¬†Republic of Siena¬†in 1214‚Äď19 as a front line in their wars against¬†Florence,¬†by assuming command of the¬†Via Cassia¬†running through the Val d’Elsa and Val Staggia to the west. ¬†During the conflicts between Siena and Florence in the Middle Ages, the city was strategically placed as a defensive fortification. It also withstood many attacks from both the Florentines and the forces of the¬†Bishop of Volterra. In 1554 the Sienese were able to place control of the town’s garrison to Giovannino Zeti, who had been exiled from Florence. In 1554, in an act of reconciliation with the¬†Medicis, Zeti simply handed the keys of the town over to the Medicean forces‚ÄĒ considered a “great betrayal” by the town’s people.

Monteriggioni entrance
One of the only two entrances into Monteriggioni, through the thick defensive walls.

The Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri used the turrets of Monteriggioni to evoke the sight of the ring of giants encircling the Infernal abyss.

però che, come su la cerchia tonda
Montereggion di torri si corona,
cos√¨ la proda che ‘l pozzo circonda
torreggiavan di mezza la persona
li orribili giganti, cui minaccia
Giove del cielo ancora quando tuona.

‚ÄĒ‚ÄČDante Alighieri,¬†Inferno¬†canto XXXI, lines 40-45

As with circling round
Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;
E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,
Was turreted with giants, half their length
Uprearing, horrible, whom Jove from heaven
Yet threatens, when his muttering thunder rolls.

‚ÄĒ‚ÄČas translated by¬†Henry Francis Cary¬†during the years 1805‚Äď1844

It also plays a significant role in the game¬†Assassin’s Creed II, a game loosely based around some historical events in Renaissance Italy. It is home to¬†Ezio Auditore¬†and his uncle Mario, where they live is the fictional Villa Auditore.

Nastya in Abbadia
Nastya taking pictures and having a great time in Abbadia a Isola
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Taking a picture versus making a picture

Making-a-picture
With this I don’t mean that it is what gear you are using that counts!

A few days ago at their annual developer conference, Apple announced that iOS users (that means people with an iPhone and/or an iPad) now take over one trillion photos per year. One TRILLION pictures PER YEAR. To put that in perspective, it means about 150 pictures for every single human being on earth, every year. It means that if you were to look at every picture taken for a second, it would take you close to thirthy-two thousand years to see them all. And that is just from people with iPhones and iPads.

With such an overwhelming abundance of pictures, taken by just everyone, what’s the meaning of still sharing my pictures, having a photography web-site? With 2,75 BILLION pictures taken every day, chances are there will be A LOT which are better than mine.

But then again, this is not so important for me. What I enjoy the most about photography is the very process of making an image. And that is substantially different from taking a picture. With an iPhone you now have the ultimate WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) experience. You already see the picture on the phone’s screen and you just have to decided if and when you want to take it. Nothing wrong with that, on the contrary. Taking picture is a fantastic way to keep memories. But the difference is that you are taking the picture you already see with your eyes. What I enjoy doing, with my camera, lenses, filters, tripod and so on, is to create (make) the image I envision, or the one I see with my mind, rather than my eyes.

As I said, personally I enjoy the process most of all. If the results are good (if I have been able to make a picture) that, for me, is just the icing on the cake.

To use an analogy, I can say that for me there is the same difference as in taking a trip versus making a trip. You take a trip when someone else organises everything: you sign up for a holiday tour or destination and you just “find yourself there”. It’s a wonderfully relaxing experience for most people. But those with a passion for travelling like to make their trips: they like to research the places they are going to, decide what to see and what to do. They already have a pretty good idea of what they want to “take home” from their trip: a cultural experience or an immersion in nature. Often time they come home more tired than when they left, but deeply satisfied in having seen, done, tasted, tried, experienced what they had set up to do.

But what does it mean, to me, to make a picture? There are two conditions: 1) the photos has to come out pretty much how I imagined it would. 2) It has to tell something and, hopefully, something meaningful. Every picture tells something, but so many are shouts, more than messages, like “I was here”, “I am having fun” or even just “look at me!”. I wish my pictures can communicate an emotion, tell a bit of a story, about a place or a person. I wish my pictures make you feel like you want to see the place I took a picture of, or maybe know a little bit more about it. I wish my pictures make you imagine what the people I photographed are thinking, what kind of people they are, what kind of life they lead. And so on.

What gear you are using counts very little. Already 8 years ago star photographer Chase Jarvis published The Best Camera Project, the philosophy of which is shortly summarised in: “the best camera is the one that‚Äôs with you”. But to me gear is important because it gives me pleasure in using it and, I have to admit, when I “haul” 5-10 kilos of gear with me the whole day, it does motivate me to take it out and put it to use, so that I did not carry all that weight “in vain”… ūüėČ

But enough about me! Now I would like to know from your comments, do you take or make pictures and why?

 

 

North-West Russia Tour: Saint Petersburg

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Saint Isaac Cathedral in Saint Petersburg at dawn

For a photographer there are few things more frustrating than not having a computer with a calibrated monitor to post produce pictures after a day of shooting. I am sure there are. But right now I can think of none! That is why it will be a while before the pictures I post on the blog will be available on our main website, as well, for they have to be ready for printing when we post them on theworld.photos.

But let’s get to the topic of this post!

A couple of lovely friends came to visit us from Italy and we decided to spend a couple of days in Moscow and then venture and discover some of Russia’s North-West in the dead of winter. A strange winter this is: we were expecting temperatures as low as -30 but we never got under -10! In St. Petersburg we even got rain during our second day of stay!

The first stop of this tour was St. Petersburg. From Moscow the best way to reach the “capital of the North” is definitely by train. You can either get on Russia’s new hi-speed train “Sapsan” (–°–į–Ņ—Ā–į–Ĺ – “Peregrin falcon”), which takes from 3.5 to 4 hours depending on the number of stops and costs around 2,000 to 2,500 Rubles (roughly 25 to 30 Euros/USD), or you can take a night train (approximately 7 or 8 hours travel time) and save yourself one night of hotel stay. There is a plethora of night trains between Russia’s two major cities and you can choose to depart from 10:00 PM to 01:00 AM to get a good night sleep and wake up in “Peter”.

Russian long-distance train all have bunk beds that work as seats during the day and depending on which class you travel in, you can sleep in an “open carriage”, in a four seat compartment or in a two seat compartment. Russian long-distance trains DEFINITELY deserve their own blog post and I promise that it will come soon!

Another advantage of night trains is that, at least during the winter, you get to experience St. Petersburg in the pre-dawn hour(s), when the monuments and many buildings and bridges are still light, against the deep blue sky. In the summer months the nights are so short that you have to check when dawn is (from the 11th of June to July the 2nd there is basically no sunset, nor dawn, as the sun never fully sets under the horizon).

Lonely ice fisherman in Tver

Ice_Fisherman

Last week Nastya and I went to Tver (–Ę–≤–Ķ—Ä—Ć,¬†Kalinin – –ö–į–Ľ–łŐĀ–Ĺ–ł–Ĺ – in Soviet times) to visit a wonderful couple of friends who live nearby.

We haven’t been very lucky with the weather, but the temperatures were still 15 – 20 below zero (Celsius) – it was above zero today in Moscow… crazy! – and so the mighty Volga river was still frozen solid. I got to cross the Volga walking ON the Volga, which was pretty exciting (but it is forbidden, so please don’t tell anyone!).

This past week has been pretty crazy busy, so I haven’t really had the time to look at the few pictures I took and do the appropriate post processing. What you see above is an out-of-camera Jpeg of a lonely ice fisherman at dusk, just cropped. If you squint, you can see a backpack and the hand auger (ok, I admit I had to look that word up in the dictionary!) on his right. I am not 100% sure why, but I like this picture just the way it is: dark, arguably underexposed, with the fisherman just a lonely black silhouette on the snow-covered river.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

File 27-01-16, 16 59 15
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, Germany

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an international memorial day on 27 January commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.

On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated by Soviet troops.

This day commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jews, 2 million Gipsies, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session.

I always believed that the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, perfectly symbolizes how this “man’s inhumanity to man” (to use the words of¬†Auschwitz survivor and writer Primo Levi) weights collectively on humankind as a thousands boulders.

 

Ice breaking cruise on the Moscow river

 

Powerplant
TETs-12 Electric Power Plant on the Moscow River

With temperatures below freezing for weeks on end (if not months), the Moscow river gets covered by ice even in the heart of the Russian capital. This does not stop, however, some especially equipped cruise boats to take tourists on ice breaking river cruises in the central part of the city. From all the main bridges you can see a central canal of broken ice and you know that this is where the boats go back and forth.

When selecting a cruise, it is interesting to read that: “Duration of cruises vary: during mass navigation periods depending on river traffic volume; and in winter depending on the river ice cover.” In spite of that, a river cruise still remains the fastest way to see many landmark places in the city without being stuck in the infamous Moscow traffic.

We selected Radisson Royal river cruises (also because we are not sure there are other companies offering cruises in the dead of winter!) and we were really happy with both the service on board and the itinerary (see below).

map 2__eng

During winter at Moscow’s latitude sunset comes early in the afternoon (between 4 and 5 PM in January), so an afternoon cruise typically turns into an evening cruise, giving you the opportunity to see most of the landmarks in good light (weather permitting) and then enjoying a spectacular sunset on the way back.

In front of the opulent Ukraina hotel (beautifully light at night), on the other side of the river you can see the Russian Federation House of Government, more often referred to as “the Russian White House” and from the boat you get almost the same vintage point as most media and reporters did, from the bridge just above you, during the 1991 “coup” and subsequent tank shelling of the White House. It is a powerful reminder of how close 1991 is in time, even if looking at Moscow now it seems that it was a lifetime ago!

An ice-breaking cruise is also an experience on itself for all those who can not afford to spend tens of thousands of Euros (or Dollars) to go on “the real thing” in the Polar oceans. If you sit close to the stern of the boat there is very little noise, just the sooting hum of the engines, but if you move to the bow you can really hear and feel the vibrations of the hull breaking the ice.

RiverCruise2

All Radisson cruise ships offer refreshments (more like hot tea, coffe and hot chocolate in the winter!), beer, wine, cocktails and a very good menu if you’d like to have dinner on the boat. The cruise by itself cost approximately between 700 and 1.600 Rubles, depending on the service class you chose (main deck, first or Royal class), but the final price will mostly depend on your food and drink selection.

To get the best pictures you should be prepared to “brave the cold” and get out (there is a platform the stern and one at the bow, from where I took the picture of the power plant. You can see it bigger and in higher quality here.¬†The boat moves slowly and there is very little¬†pitch and yaw, so you don’t need a particularly high shutter speed and you can keep your ISO reasonably low. You also probably want to underexpose by a full stop to a stop and a half in order not to blow the highlights and preserve the rich colors of the sky around sunset time. The minimum shutter speed depends, of course, mainly on the focal length you are shooting at and on your hand-helding technique!

Epiphany

Epiphany

The Epiphany, celebrated in Russia on January 19, marks the baptism of Jesus in the Orthodox Church. As elsewhere in the Orthodox world, the Russian Church conducts the rite of the Great Blessing of the Waters, also known as “the Great Sanctification of the Water” on that day (or the eve before).

Believing that on this day water becomes holy and is imbued with special powers, Russians cut holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, to bathe in the freezing water. This practice is said to be popularized comparatively recently; it was fairly uncommon in the czarist days, but has flourished since the 1990s.

Participants in the ritual may dip themselves three times under the water, honoring the Holy Trinity, to symbolically wash away their sins from the past year, and to experience a sense of spiritual rebirth. It is a widespread belief that, in spite of the freezing temperatures, no one gets sick after bathing in the holy water.

In smaller towns and villages, especially during the daytime, participants are “on their own” and mostly rely on each other’s help should they experience cramps or any sort of problem (see picture above). Inversely in larger towns and cities, close to the most important monasteries and churches, the ceremony has grown to a public event, which requires a strong police presence, with metal detectors and checks at the entrance of the site (which is rather bad for amateur photographers, who can no longer get very close!) and there is also an ambulance on site and a safety crew dressed in “gummy bear survival suits” just next to the hole in the ice, ready to jump into the water and help the bathers, should the need arise. At night the place is illuminated by floodlights, which create a bit of a surreal sight when people get out of the water and start “smoking” thanks to the temperature difference between their body and the outside (see picture below).

Epiphany_2

Historical records indicate that the blessing of the waters events took place at the courts of Moscow Czars since no later than 1525. According to historians, the blessing of the waters procession was the most magnificent of the annual Czar’s court’s ceremonies, comparable only to such special events as royal coronations and weddings. After a divine liturgy in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral, the procession, led by the Czar and the Patriarch of Moscow would proceed to the frozen Moscow River. A small gazebo, called Iordan’, would have been erected on the ice and decorated with holy icons, one of which would depict the Baptism of Christ. The Patriarch would immerse his cross into the river’s water; and sprinkle the Czar, his boyars, and the banners of Czar’s army’s regiments with the holy water. A load of holy water would then be brought back to the Kremlin, to be used in blessing the Czar’s palace. On a smaller scale, similar events would take place in the parishes throughout the nation.