I got to Venice at six am on Christmas Eve.
The sun was rising on St Mark’ s Square.
Bells were ringing all over the city, interrupting the serenity of the approaching dawn.
As I was walking, I captured this image totally off the cuff while I was heading to my hotel. The gondolas were lined up in the harbor, their shadows cast on the waters of the lagoon.
Dark and mysterious, they typified the secrets of Venice.
I checked into my hotel, a favorite spot with ex patriot Americans, I heard laughing and headed to the bar. It had been a long trek to Venice.
The Pope was on TV. I ordered a Campari and soda and toasted the holiday, along with a room full of revelers.
I decided to leave Florence on Tuesday. I jumped in my suv and headed for Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. I had been there this past June for the celebration of Corpus Domini…the blessing of the sea. My plan this trip was to capture a different type of image of Riomaggiore than I had ever done before.
I arrived at two in the afternoon and the town was bustling. Riomaggiore is the most southern of the five cities of Cinque Terre and dates from before the 8th century. Very picturesque, it has a shoreline on the Mediterranean’s Gulf of Genoa with a narrow beach and wharf framed by towering houses that seem to stagger up the hillside in a jumble.
I figured I would check into my lodging and then roam the city the next day. I stayed in a small hotel with a beautiful garden at the top of the hill. 340 steep steps above the train station. I ate a late lunch in the hotel garden under the shade of the vineyard where I smelled the scent of flowers. The house specialty? Fried anchovies. This area is known for wine and I drank my fair share that afternoon. It is known as Sciacchetra and it comes two ways…sweet and sweeter. It is a beautiful yellow color with amber reflections and the scent of apricot and acacia honey. Delicious. And, intoxicating.
I sat in the garden and wondered what it must have been like in the days of the pirates. Pirates trolled the entire coastline and that is probably why the castle at the hill was built. Built in the 15th Century, the castle rises on a rocky crag and overlooks the sea.The Castle is reached by climbing the steep road from the railway station and heading pretty much straight up.
As I sat in the garden, I realized that time has not touched the Cinque Terre. The villages are connected by paths, trains and boats. Cars are scarce. The path known as Sentiero Azzurro or the light blue trail, connects the villages. When you first see Riomaggiore, you see the colorful old houses, stacked haphazardly on top of each other climbing the hills.
I decided that the castle was definitely on my agenda for tomorrow. As evening fell, I watched the night fishermen head out from the small harbor for the anchovies. They were starting their day and I was finishing mine.
In the morning , I woke up to the chiming of bell towers. The bells are the background music of Riomaggiore. ..they ring throughout the day. I had my coffee in the garden, dew on the fragrant plants. Even though it was early, the city was bustling. I have noticed that the small villages of Italy have a placid exterior but underneath, they are constantly moving, changing, so active and vibrant.
I headed over to the old castello of Riomaggiore. The castle has a square base. The longest part of the castle base overlooks the sea. Two towers flank it. The entrance to the castle is located between two towers. There is an external staircase that leads into the tower itself. Dark and shadowy, it has the feel of something ancient and haunting.
The castle is fascinating…but I did not think I could get the image I was looking for…
I explored the town and around five , I headed down to the small harbor.
The light was stunning. The warm light of day was melting into the golden light of sunset.
I was at the foot of the harbor. But, I wanted to shoot Riomaggiore from the sea…looking straight at the city. Out in the harbor, there were giant boulders of marble. They were huge pieces from the Carrera quarry. The quarry that was made famous as the source for the marble of Michelangelo’s David. White and slippery, they formed a jetty. And, they would ultimately be my footpath to capture the image I needed.
I spotted some stairs on the side of the crag that lead down to the water. I figured that if I went down the stairs, I could jump from rock to rock with my camera balanced on my back. That sounded realistic at the time. The stairs were the easy part. The marble was slippery and wet. I inched my way out into the harbor. I knew this was dangerous. But, what can I tell you? I wanted to shoot from the middle of the harbor. The night fishermen were eyeing me suspiciously but I just kept on going. Moving slowly out on the jetty. I got to the middle of the harbor. I set up my tripod and camera on the slick marble, moving slowly so as not to slip. One mis -step and me and my camera would be in the drink. I got into position. My tripod was balancing against me and the slippery marble. The light was amazing. Golden and warm, it was making the terraced houses of the town literally glow. It was a fantastic panorama of the town, a few people, a dog…perfect.
All that was behind me was the open sea.
Just as I was reflecting on the beauty of all that was before me, I got slammed with a rogue wave that hit me from behind. Drenched, I was hunched over my camera, trying to save it from a soaking like the one I had just gotten. I am standing in a harbor, on a wet rock, clinging to my gear. Small boats are sailing by me.
I got my footing back. I repositioned my camera. I looked out across the water and there it was….Riomaggiore glowing like a jewel across the harbor.
Click. That was it. My Riomaggiore.
I crept back across the slippery marble towards the steps. Frogs were chattering on the rocky shore and the night fisherman passed, headed out for anchovies.
I walked back to my hotel to change clothes. I was soaked.
And then I trekked over to the Bar & Vini , a local hangout perched on the side of the mountain, for a last few glasses of wine .
Tomorrow, I would head for Venice.
From Santorini, I headed to Italy.
To Tuscany. The land of the golden light.
I would be staying in Val D’Orcia, literally off the old Roman road, Via Francigena.
Tuscany is the place of Dante,Galileo,Puccini and Michelangelo. A rich artistic legacy that grew from an agricultural base and built a great cultural stronghold before, during and after the Italian Renaissance. It rivaled Florence politically and artistically.
Literally a valley of poetry, it presented a landscape which fascinated the great painters of the Renaissance and the Romantic writers of England and Germany and France. And, she charms us still today with her subtle hues and golden light.
I arrive late in the afternoon. The sun is low in the sky but it still paints the landscape…colors of dry clay and golden earth, hills green like moss and ancient farmhouses dot the landscape.
I am staying in the old stone farmhouse of a working vineyard. The workers are heading in, pulling their carts into an old stone barn, and waving to the guests under the portico. Time stands still in Tuscany. I finish my Chianti and call it a day. I plan on an early start in the morning.
Morning comes and I head downstairs to grab a quick coffee. But in Tuscany, there is no such thing as a quick anything. It is a slow place, a place where life is enjoyed and the simplest of routines are savored. So, in the dining room I have an espresso and fig focaccia, a specialty of the kitchen. I am warned by the staff to be back on time because dinner is pasta shuta, a favorite of mine.
I am off down the road in my rented SUV, my gear stowed in the back. When I say the road, I mean The Road. Via Francigena is a road the Romans built. Centuries old, it winds along the countryside, weaving in and out of the valleys and past the hills that are notched with ravines. My innkeeper has given me directions to some interesting places in the valley and I plan to spend my day meandering. So I wander, shooting images here and there and chasing the light around Tuscany.
And then, I came upon it. “It” being a spectacular place. As I rounded a bend in the road, I saw the old stone farm house perched on top of a hill, sitting like a jewel in an ancient crown, guarded by manicured orchards and spikes of cypress. The farm was the only thing still lit by the afternoon’s fading light. And, it was lit with a wand dipped in gold. As I got closer, I saw the earthy colors of the vineyard melding with the silver grey of olive groves and the graceful cypress. The beautiful palette of nature is before me…the burnt sienna of art classes gone by is a reality on this afternoon. That hazy golden light hangs over the vineyard, touching all the other colors below and seeming to linger past day’s end.
I set up my gear and I know that I am at the feet of the Masters. I am in the middle of the flourishing Renaissance. I look through my lens and sheer poetry comes back at me. I capture my image …the golden jewel farmhouse set in the crown landscape of umbers and greens and silvers. And, I wonder, how can this rich painting of nature be just part of an everyday landscape? But that is the beauty of it and that is the secret of it.
The mystery of Tuscany. A suspended place in time that has never surrendered to progress.
I head back to my lodging, knowing that I have possessed timeless Tuscany for a brief moment with the click of a shutter , the thought of pasta shuta and a glass of Chianti waiting for me.
Ah, Bella Campagna.
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