Monday, September 5, 2016

Day 4 ~ The tour of Tuscany

Day 4 (5 Sep): The Tour of Tuscany
The boys and girls shooting Podere Belvedere

Table of Content:

Podere Belvedere

6am.  The boys and two girls (the gung-ho Lai Peng and the ever present Mrs Dorothy Yik) gathered at the lobby of Il Garibaldi to take that short drive from the hotel to where the sunrise shoot vantage point was.

"This is THE one place that is so famous for its sunrise shoot because of the house, the mist.  But its a private property.  So we have to be really stealthy and be as quiet as possible as we don't want to create any trouble.  I have to even instruct the bus driver to turn off his engine after he parked," explained Adrian.
"Be careful walking down the slope later.  I will bring you all to the vantage point to set up your tripods."

The short walk in the cool morning was carried out in semi-darkness.  The sky was beginning to turn a little blue.  Down the gentle slope the troupe descended and a right turn, we were at the fence.  We could begin to make out the little knoll in the distance, and the hills in the horizons.  Nestled quietly on top of the knoll was that one famous house.

Several guard dogs in the house on our left started to bark to our presence.  For a second we froze, wondering if the dogs would bring attention to someone who would proceed to throw us out.  Thankfully, none of that happened.  After a while, the wild barking quieten.  We continued trudging rightwards along the small dirt path.
Yik, Eddy, Alex, David, Kai Sing all at it.

Quietly, Adrian directed our attention to that house where there was only one single lit window, and made sure all were able to do a framing and composition shot first.  The rest was routine.
We had quite a fun time.  Thinking back, I hadn't done any tripodded sunrise shoot for the longest time.  It was nice to be out at dawn doing just that with the crazy bunch of fellows.

The Leng-zai can do any magic with any camera.
I think Kai Sing is right.  I probably hadn't touched my GNDs since about the same time.

Well the Sonys are really the Sonys.  But you can't beat a Sony, can you?

Sadly, my fire for GNDs and such seemed to have died down a little.  I counted myself lucky to still have the passion for setting up the tripod and mounting the camera on it.  Added to that, my mind was still willing to fix up the mechanical cable release onto my rangefinder.  See-beh heng ah, I thought to myself.  At least with the rangefinger, things had simplified tremendously.  I still remembered struggling with the Z-Pro filter holder and the notorious magenta-tinted resin filters.  Fortunately for me, several of my these filters had cracked.  And I was just too lazy to get myself another set.
Podere Belvedere at dawn. [Photo: Ng Kai Sing]

The only camera with the old style mechanical cable release... mine.

"Now remember, the classic framing is to put the house on the left," further advised Adrian.  "You can put the house in the middle or to your right. "
"It's totally up to you one lah," added Eddy, who expertly played with the in-camera manipulation.
"It's a SONY," gleefully Alex Kaan said.  Yah lah yah lah... I know all these fellows were already on Sony.  In fact for this trip, I think only Serene, I and David were the non-Sony users.

Like a sunny-side-up with the egg yolk rudely-burst and spilling out, the sky lit up.  There was no magnificent sun-rise, and there was no mist.  One moment it was darkness, and the next, brightness.  Even the top part of the sky wasn't yellow.  Everyone looked at Adrian.

"Hey, don't look at me like that," he defended himself jokingly. "Sign up for the next Italy trip and let's come back again and try this spot."

That was hilarious.  Yes, sunrise, sunset and egg-yolks were never guaranteed on any photography trip.  But Adrian had always managed to make things happen.
"Ok ok, guys... just wait a little longer.  Just wait," calmed our tour leader.

And he was right.  Because in a few moment, as the sun rose further, suddenly the contrast showed up the mist, a ghostly thin film across the midground just behind the house, in between the background of hills and the solitary structure.  All of us frantically went into action.  I had already packed up my tripod and now found myself scrambling to re-mount my camera, and re-frame.  That magical moment lasted only a few minutes, and it quickly dissipated as the sun continued to rise.

To the more creative individuals, the presence of naturally occuring structures presented with obstacles to a clear view.  And in the shroud of darkness, they were stealthily relocated.

Job done.  That was quite a relaxed sunrise shoot.  None of those sense of apprehension of previous sunrise shoots, no kan-cheong-ness.  Instead, it was really a fun shoot.  This was life, man.  This was how a sunrise shoot was supposed to be.  And for who were up to it, even had time to play with some special effects on their Sony A7 Mk III.  OK lah... I didn't have the super high ISO nor the peeking focus in the latest Sony, not to mention the other miniaturisation effects and jazzing up effects.  To me, it was just pure good fun being out there with the boys and girl, shooting the landscape, and shooting each other.

The Belvederian forest exacted some form of temporary revenge... but nothing insurmountable.

Finally leaving Il Garibaldi.

The medieval town of San Gimignano
San Gimignano. iPhone panorama by Serene.

8am.  Back in Il Garibaldi, the womenfolks with their sleepy eyes and the elated photographers grabbed a quick bite of chocolate fudge croissants and dunno-what-berry pies, and some coffee before we set off for San Gimignano (pronounced San Jeemy-Niano), another medieval town in the province of Siena, Tuscany.

Il Garibaldi honestly wasn't the best of accommodations, but without air-conditioning and with hot and stuffy rooms which even tropical dwellers like us melted simply by just staying indoors, Serene kept her small little hand fan turned on towards her the whole night, and most of us kept our windows open throughout, inviting sand flies and/or mosquitoes.
I personally was not partial to the food there, but the cappuccino was nice.

San Gimignano was known as the town of fine towers, and rightly so, because it was even more spectacular that the medieval village of Monte Pulciano we saw the day before.  According to Adrian, it was a midway point for pilgrims to the Vatican City.  And it bore several sqaures (Piazza) in its compound.  Its walkways were a network of small pavements specially designed to disorientate whoever brave enough to step foot upon them.

I was even more overwhelmed than when I was at Monte Pulciano.  The very style of pre-Renaissance Gothic architecture permeated San Gimignano, with the strong pointed arches and many more that escaped my untrained eyes.  But what my eyes could not pick up, my senses were absorbing.  From the cobblestone-paved paths to the pointed chapels and typical squares with central fountain, the town of an ancient Etruscan origin brought all who were there right back into its humble beginning almost two thousand years ago.
The medieval village of San Gimignano.
The ladies at San Gimignano. [Photo: Eddy]

"Listen up, everyone," Adrian was sternly reminding us. "I know we will all roam around quite a bit inside.  Do your explorations, but be back at the South Gate at the designated time."  He knew we all had a tendency to go on rubber time, so he had to keep reminding us.
Piazza Bella Cisterna

But for photographers like this bunch, even the whole day wouldn't be enough.  There was so much to explore in every alley, every piazza (square), every plaza, every clock tower.  Serene and I only managed so little.  But in some ways I was glad this time round both of us decided to take it really easy.  As much as this medieval town was enchanting, it was also full of visitors, although to me, I was glad that these visitors were Ang Moh visitors who were generally much more gracious and orderly than some of those who share (unfortunately, as I would explain later) the same genetic makeup as us from somewhere up north of Asia.  These visitors were there to soak in the atmosphere of the town, in very much the same way as we ourselves wanted.  And sharing the lovely ancient town with these gentlemanly visitors who never rush, never push their ways around, never spit, never speak at the top of their voices, was in itself a wonderful experience for me.

We walked to Piazza della Cisterna, the square not far from the entrance to the town and immediate the gelati in the hands of many visitors grabbed our attention.  A kind lady pointed to the shop with the candid remark that this was the best gelato in the world, and soon Serene and I ended up with one cone each.  That set the tone nicely, as we both walked slowly upwards.  I used the word 'upwards' because it was nothing but upwards.  Again, San Gimignano town demonstrated the fact that 'there is no flat roads in Italy'.  The roads either went up, or down.  Hardly flat.

We were impressed to see a couple of small groups of cyclists on road bikes making their way up around the old town, happily and powerfully spinning their cranks, decked in bright cycling jerseys and tights, young powerful men, and older but no less powerful men and women.
"When you grow up in the mountains, you will end up cycling like a mountain goat.  No wonder Italy has so many good cyclists," I told Serene.

I could not imagine myself wandering down the ancient walkways of such a flavourful little Etruscan town on a Sunday morning, with equally enchanted Ang Moh visitors of all shapes and sizes all about us.  My visual sensors were bombarded by a multitude of sharp noses on high cheeks on the foundation of marble-white complexions, framed by blonde hairs and accentuated by a pair of light blue or turquoise eyes.

I began to imagine myself in the time of the Roman Empire, when this was a fort guarded by the Roman Legion, and with the local Etruscan and Barbarians sharing the streets with me, in their shabby medieval cloaks and soiled faces in search of food and hope.  And right at Piazza Della Cisterna, where the well stood today, perhaps a platform where the wealthy Roman merchants paraded their Germanic and Gallic  girls, kidnapped by unscrupulous means,  many whom I could imagine were no less beautiful than those that meet my eyes on this morning, to be sold as slaves to the rich and wealthy of the Tuscany region and beyond. closed my eyes and was tea formed instantly to those old times, and myself as a invisible witness to all these happenings.  This was as medieval as I had ever been.

The well in the centre of the square.
I could not even begin to describe my imaginations to Serene.  "Dar, imagine this whole town in those ancient days when Roman soldiers and local men and women, and Barbarian slaves walked together with us side by side?"  That was the best I could muster.
Italy was full of cyclists like these who were used to undulating terrain.
As we emerged onto another Piazza, we spotted two lean and good looking men in bright red cycling outfit slowly cycling out onto the square.  Marvellous, these Ang Moh cyclists.  Italian HAD no flat ground.  So they literally cycled up the mountain (hill) here and definitely beyond.  When you grew up in the mountains, you became mountain goat on cleats.

"OK since everyone is enjoying this place so much, let's extend our time here, and meet at the South Gate at 12:15pm," Whatsapped Adrian.  I love this man.  He had his feel constantly on the ground, and could apply flexibility when the time was appropriate.

"Dar, some of the guys went up to the clock tower leh," suggested Serene.
I looked at my watch.  Nah... We only had15 more minutes. "No lah.  Let's just enjoy ourselves here siting beside the well and watching all the people walk by can?"  I was glad I was in no rush.
So far, this trip had been a really relaxed one.  True to my original plan, if I could use the rangefinder to shoot, I would.  If and when I could not, I would just snap with my iPhone.  If that was still no possible, I'd just be like an Italian and sat down and appreciate the scene.
Lai Peng said to me later: "Yes, you can use your eyes and your brains.  But where are you going to store the pictures?"
I replied her- my brain.  But in retrospect, well, yeah... I could perhaps vaguely recall that scene from my memory, but it would be difficult to share with others, in this world of rampant social-media-ing.

Walking slowly down that negative gradient Main Street, we met David.
"I went all the way to the North Gate, which is actually not at from here," this real wanderer of a man never let any chance to explore out of his fingers.  He would walk where no man dared step foot on, and venture where no man dared enter.

My Dar was the best.  She really knew how o enjoy her trip.

"Kai Sing, so did you buy your leather belt and wallets?" I asked later.
"No lah.  Didn't really see anything."  This Kai Sing was really a man of discerning taste.  He knew exactly what he wanted before he came. "I will look around later.  Florence is famous for its handmade leather stuffs.  They are made by small small local companies.  Not those famous brands. But their qualities are just as good.  Florence leather shoes, leather wallets..."
It was later that I found out that one of Kai Sing's main planned acquisition was a whole full set of Tuscany leather belt, wallet, handbag, shoes, perhaps even key-chain, all of the exact matching leather colour and design.  I kow-tow to this man.  I sincerely didn't think I would ever reach his level in finesse of dressing.

Firenze (Florence)
Basilica Santa Maria Del Flore and the

1:40pm.  Our coach brought us right to Florence (Firenze).

"Wow Hotel Giorgio Armani!" Exclaimed Alex Kaan.  This man had quite a wild imagination with Italian words.
He was half correct.  Hotel San Giorgio was our hotel.  Located just next to the train station, it made it so much more convenient for our train ride to Cinque Terre the next day.  Well thought-out planning Adrian had.

Kai Sing, Joanne, Alex and Lai Peng had had their afternoon plans all made.  They would take a bus on a 40-minute trip to the factory outlet where they would execute their objectives of acquisition.  Serene could only see them off with a heavy heart, for it was our first time to Florence, and I insisted, more so as a pretense and for the sanity of my aged Italian leather purse , that we followed the original tour plan.
"Guai, I sayang you," I reassured the crying girl. "One day we will be here again, and that time I will bring you go gai gai like what the boys and girls are doing now.  They have earned it.  We haven't yet.  Let's just work a little harder and wait a little more. Sayang you, ok..."

The Gourmet and Historic Tour of Florence

It turned out that this walk around trip in Florence of one heck of a highlight.  I didn't know I would enjoy Florence so much.  In fact, a few of us in the group reckoned that Florence was much more relaxed, more laid back, and less claustrophobic than Rome.  And the historical sites of Florence were just as engaging.
David discovering a whole world of Bianchi in Florence.
David asked me: "If you have a chance to take an extended trip to, say Macau and Hong Kong, or in Florence, which one would you choose?"
I answered -  Florence.  More so because it was a brand new experience for me.  And also because all the Gothic buildings were mind-blowing, enhanced by the presence of the offsprings of slaves and Roman legions.
Serene and yours truly at Basilica Santa Maria del Flores.

At 2pm, we stood outside Banco Tuscano at the Piazza outside Plaza del Signora, the City Hall. 
The square was filled with visitors on this hot summer day in Florence, each spouting his and her own tongue, all equally foreign to me.  It all sounded Italian to me.  It was only later that I learned that at this Unesco site, the majority was tourists from out of Italy.  And that was when David expounded on his theorem of "How to tell an Italian lady from a French lady".  But that would come later.
I happened to overhear Adrian heaping praises over his Italian operator.

So on this afternoon, as the fantastic four were ushered politely and seated comfortably in a posh Bottega boutique somewhere 40 minutes away from us, we were attended to by our guide for the afternoon, Marcello, a Florence man of a respectable age.
Saint Mary's Flower church

First stop: Il Cernacchino
"Italy was only formed in the year 1861," I liked this man instantly.  His loquacious manner was so stereotypical of all Italian men. 
Il Cernacchino

And Marcello continued.  Before the nineteenth century, Italy was made up of many Kingdoms- Florence, Roma, Sicilly, Genoa and so on and so forth.  And when Spring came, one of their favourite pastimes was to make war with each other.  And after that they made peace with food.
Marcella was quite a patriotic Tuscano.  In his very own words, the language of Florence was the purest and most beautifully-sounding Italian language in the whole of Italy.  The other parts of Italy spoke dialects of the national language, and some regions' tongues were even mutually incomprehensible.  
"It's like in China, where you have many different dialects," added this Italian old man.  Damn.  What gave him the idea that we were from China?
"Just like you have a long history in Singapore and China, we have a long history here in Firenze," off he went again, absolutely confusing Singapore with China.

We all had had a filling lunch of rissoto porridge, potato wedges and Tuscano version of salted roasted-chicken.  It further strengthened our conviction after that meal that Tuscani were probably born with a severe deficiency in sodium chloride receptors in their taste buds.  Our poor David almost had to ask for hot water to water down his chicken.  He would have, if only the Italian waiter could understand what he wanted.

"Ok, let me bring you to our first stop.  It's Tuscani sandwich and red wine," Marcello brought me back from my day dreaming.

All of us chewed hard on the rock-hard bread, and many ended up only consuming what was inside the hard yeast product.  Egad, and this was merely the first stop?  A few more stops of eating to go?
But one could never say no to Italian hospitality, could one?   As we smiled courteously and continued crunching our enamels on the food, Marcello continued waxing lyrics on the romantic history of Florence and how the Etruscans were the first inhabitants of the Tuscany region, and how the beauty inspired the food and of course the wines.  By then, my gouty joints were throbbing in full protest to the past days of ethanol indiscrimination. 

Second stop: Maledetti toscani

Literal translaton: DAMN, Tuscano!

What a stop this was. Passing by the Plaza de Signora once more Marcello emphasized the plethora of artistic talents that sprouted from a one kilometer radius of this place: Michelangelo, Raffaello, Leonardo Da Vinci, Gelileo, and some other names that escaped me.
When I cheekily attested that to the waters of Florence, he had a better answer to me - it's because of the wine. There was no arguments to that.
So we stepped into this quaint little stall called Maledetti Toscani, literal translation being "Damn Tuscani!", a local exclamation of the Tuscani-ness of the food, from what I gathered.


Candidly Marcello continued to give us Italian lessons on words commonly used. We learned quite a bit from him. He humorously informed us that he regretted not attending Chinese lessons when he was a young boy because during that time all the Italians found it fashionable to learn French. And after a while they all started learning English so as to understand Elvis Presley. But when they finally understood Elvis, they all couldn't wait to go back to leaning French.

[Photo: Serene]

"Molto delicioso! (very delicious)" we learned the Italian words as they kept flowing from the lips of this Italian man.
The highlight, in my opinion, of Maledetti Toscani was the dessert wine and the biscotti. David and I whacked don't know how many of those.. Until I couldn't really walk straight out of the shop.
When told that we were all small eaters, Marcello smiled and offered to get the next couple of stops to reduce their food portions.  
"They will be very surprised to hear you all eating so little.  Because when Italians eat, we eat plenty," he gestured.

Third stop: All'antrico Vinaio

"On a normal day, you will have queues hundreds of metres outside this shop," again the classic Italian exaggeration from Marcello. "But today is Monday and there is no queue. You are lucky."
We stood obediently waiting for what gastronomic delights that were to hit us. Pleasantly we were impressed.

Anti-pasti at All'antrico Vinaio

Out came a platter of antipasti of three different flavours: truffles, cheese and artichoke. Now these were good stuff.. And everyone slowly savoured the Italian delicacy.  Sitting beside Jeffrey Julianto Lim, I had to honour of passing him flavour after flavour of different antipasti, while Serene in turned served me the little bite size truffles-topped bread.
"Andiamo! (Let's go)" called out Marcello.

Forth stop: Perche no! Gelateria

Where David Low's theorem of what distinguishes an Italian girl from a French girl.

No matter how full one was, there would always be space for Gelati.  And as the evening drew nearer, Marcello brought us to the grand finale of the gourmet tour, the Gelati stop.
"Ask for the seasonal fruits.  These would be the freshest ice creams.  If not you can go for the classic," suggested Marcello.
So I followed his suggestion - cherry for Serene, which she loved to bits, and fig for myself.  This was terrible, I must say.  I hadn't had so much ice creams in such a short span of time for perhaps years.

Marcello really top form this afternoon... non-stop machine gun Florentino.
"This must be the most relaxed tour right?" said Adrian, sitting smiling by the side of the street enjoying his icy cold dessert. "All eating, and no hardcore photography."
I had to agree with him.  For most of the time, mine and Serene's shots were made on the iPhones.  What had SgTrekker trips degenerated into - food tour? Hahaha.

This man from Florence had every right to be proud of his heritage.

Golden Hour shoot at Ponte Vecchio

This Marcello was Italian to the core... even down to the last moment before he bids bye bye to us.

Ponte Vecchio was the 'Old Bridge', a medieval stone arch bridge cross Amo River.  At 7:30pm, the sunlight was really golden, casting its ray all over the people, bicycles, vehicles and the buildings along the river.  I had never seen anything like this, of course being so suaku such that I'd not been to a European city with such a romantic river and architectures on its banks.
A scene like this I had only seen on pictures and books.  But on this evening, as Serene walked along the sidewalk busy shooting with her iPhone in between chasing Pokemons, I took in the full breathtaking scenery, marvelling at the golden rays upon the colourful blocks of buildings, and pedestrian strolling along the river bank leisurely.
The statue at the end of Ponte Vecchio.

"When I was walking along the road, I pointed out the five-star hotel I stayed in on my last visit to Florence, with a magnificent view of the River, and all the guys looked and me and said I was so poor thing this time round," Joanne laughed as she related a couple of days down the road.
The narrow street along Amo River.

This was as Florence as you could get.  I was soaking in the atmosphere, and was glad to be simply shooting with my iPhone.  iPhone photography had come a long way, and the newest generations of iPhones were able to capture much more details in the shadows.  Add on to that, the ease of use of the mobile, and one had a winning combination in hand.  It therefore came as no surprise that many in the team employed their mobile phones as not only one of the main mode of photography, as well as a recording tool.

The statues at the end of Ponte Vecchio.

For me, particularly useful was the Automatic Timeline function of the Trip Advisor App in my iPhone.  Every picture I took with my iPhone was geo-tagged as accurately as the App could manage in a chronological timeline.  I found that most useful as I was able to record my tour from the first day.  Only on certain occasions when the App could not identify accurately the exact location I was, did I have to nudge it the right way.

The Ponte Vecchio across Amo River

"Let's take a group photo!" suggested Michelle, to which I gave her a funny look.  What? Here? How? The old Ponte was not the widest of bridges, and how were we to tripod a camera with wide enough an angled lens to shoot a group photo?
Somehow Adrian managed to convince a man on the opposite side of the road to take a group shot of us.

At the end of the evening, a short 950m stroll took us back to San Giorgio.  And another great nice sleep awaited us, all intoxicated and filled to the brim.