Tuesday, September 25, 2012

t u s c a n y

When I first started getting into landscape photography through my travelling, I became infatuated with going to places not because of the shopping, the modern buildings, the streets, or the cars. Instead, my longing to explore the quiet countryside grew. Anyone who has done some travelling through Europe will tell you that there are unbelievable landscapes to be found. Having travelled through Ireland, the next must-do destination for me was Tuscany.

Florence is considered to be part of “Tuscany” because it is quite a large area. But through suggestions and through the many amazing pictures that I saw of the area, that was the place that I knew that this was a place I wanted to see. Renting a car is the most practical way of getting to Val d’Orcia. If you start in Florence, driving from there down south will get you there within 1.5 hours. For those afraid of driving the Italian roads, it really is not that bad. Drivers are fast and fairly aggressive but I wouldn’t consider many of them to be reckless. Having said that, in the city you do have to be aware of the scooters and the bicycles that are running about. Just refrain from driving within the City centers. If you are driving to a town in the country side, DO NOT drive into the City. Instead, park in one of the parking lots just outside the City center walls and walk in. Our GPS told us to foolishly go into the city and we found ourselves cornered… by streets that were far too tight to turn into. We ended up having to go against one way traffic to get ourselves out. The moral of the story? Stay outside of the City center if you are driving!


If you are a person who appreciates the visual aspects of a place you visit, Val d’Orcia’s highlight is just that. Rolling hills, picture perfect sunsets, winding roads, isolated buildings, you will find all of that in this region. The only thing is? You do have to drive around in order to find these landscapes. The other thing? You might need to drive off the beaten path in order to get there. This means driving along roads that look like a car should not drive on. Often times we found ourselves on sketchy paths that looked like only four wheel drive cars and farming vehicles should drive along. But some of the landscapes were worth it! The landscape was extremely dry however and this is typical of the region during this time of year. The green doesn’t appear until Spring. So if you want some more color and don’t mind the cold, come during May/June and you might see a different landscape altogether! Anyway, enough with the wordiness, the pictures will do the talking.


On the next day after I arrived, I took a look at the surrounding area and decided that Montepulciano will be the place to visit. They are well known for some of their wines and the landscape along the way was bound to be interesting. It is a relatively small town that you can easily walk around in about 3-4 hours. There are a number of cathedrals here worth seeing. Most of them are unassuming, quiet, and gives you that calm that a church should provide. This is different than in Florence as the hordes of people typically make a cathedral into more of a tourist attraction. I love walking through small towns. The people are warm and welcoming, the food is fantastic (if you find the right place), and it is a great place to wander aimlessly. Learn to appreciate the good things, big and small. Strive to see it in a different way. It is funny how such a simple perspective can result in such great things. Montepulciano is a beautiful small town and is well worth visiting. It is also one of the places where I had one of the more enjoyable meals (Osteria Acquacheta) in my entire Tuscan trip. See below for more.


Similar to Montepulciano, Pienza was another small town within the area. It was a town that was very small in size and took maybe 2-3 hours to walk through. There was another great restaurant (Latte di Luna) that I visited here for lunch as well which you can read about briefly below. One of the best aspects of small town Italy are the older buildings in the City center. They are aged, rustic in color, and the other great thing? The roads very commonly wrap around one another and they also incline and decline. For a photographer, this is something we miss out on in North America… as a lot of our roads are straight and for a lack of a better word, boring.


Siena is due just south of Florence and is the next biggest city in the Tuscan region. In the past, Siena and Florence fought many wars but it is now a second must see if you are to come to this area. In terms of attractions that I think you have to see, there is the Piazza del Campo which is at the center of the City. Here you have a large piazza where people gather, you can’t miss it as you will see loads of tourists snapping photos of the enormous clock tower (the Palazzo Comunale) which dwarfs the people and the pigeons chilling out in the square. An overhead view of the City can be taken in if you get a ticket to the Museo Civico in the square as you will get the chance to climb the clock tower and snap photos from there.

The highlight for me though, had to be the Duomo. This cathedral may be smaller than Florence’s version but it is certainly nothing to scoff at. The inside is primarily marble and as typical with the Italian grand cathedrals, the detail of the architecture and the art is astounding. The colors and the light that leaks into the church left me in awe.

Outside of the Duomo is the Museo dell’Opera. Religious artwork and sculptures are in abundance here and very interesting to see. The masterpiece known as the Maesta is housed here though it was originally in the Duomo. The great thing about going to this Museum? You can also line up to go up on top of the Facciatone where you can get an overhead view of the city with the Duomo directly in your sights. This alone made the trip to this museum worth it.

Since I only had one day and quite honestly, I was getting a little tired, I decided to head back to the Piazza and sit in the square in the last little bit of light for the day.

I would say Siena is a City you should definitely visit if you have a few days extra in Italy. It is worth the 1-2 days that you could spend here.


The other small town that I visited was Montalcino. It was east of the Val d’Orcia region but it is known for it’s red wine, the Brunello (you might find these in liquor stores in North America but you are likely to pay anywhere between $70+ for even the lowest end bottle). The Brunello is made only within the Montalcino municipality so the goal of this trip: to try the various types of Brunello’s available. Many wineries and tastings are available. Be aware however! The wineries here generally require you to call in advance and make a reservation. The only winery that I tried was called Banfi. They are an American owned estate but they are HUGE. The 1995 Brunello was incredible but unfortunately it was also 96 EURO’s per bottle. Having never bought a bottle over $50 CAD, it was too much of a pill to swallow so I didn’t bite the bullet on that one.


Recommended by my talented friend, Kirstin, I looked into staying directly in the Val d’Orcia area in an estate called La Foce. You really just need to look at the photos on the website to be sold on this place. They rent private apartments and residences that can house anywhere from 2-10+ people. It is not in the City so you will need a car to reach it. The advantage of overlooking the famous Tuscan landscape of the zig-zag road (picture is above in the landscape section), the intensely bright star lit sky at night and the privacy is enough to convince me that I would stay here again next time I venture into this area.


If you are a fan of Italian food, of pasta, grilled meats, simple ingredients, home cooking, and great flavor, you will love the food in Tuscany. I visited several standout restaurants during my stay here that I would visit again without question.

Dopolavoro La Foce - Located basically next to La Foce, this restaurant was probably my favorite during my time in the entire Tuscan region. The food is simple yet the flavors were complex. The food is incredibly tasty and despite being in the heart of Val d'Orcia's country side, the decor was quite modern but in a country style. In all, I went back here about 5 times in a week. In addition to the heart warmingly good pastas (primi's), delicious steak and roast chicken (secondi's), the customer service makes this place special. I will be doing a separate review of this restaurant in a different post. Easily one of my favorite restaurants in the world to date.

Osteria Acquacheta - This restaurant came as a recommendation from La Foce and is located in the municipality of Montepulciano. When I got there, there was already a huge lineup outside even before it opened. This is usually a good sign of a highly anticipated restaurant. The funny thing? There was a sign at the door that said, "No reservations? No luck" Giving it a chance, I got in after about 30 minutes as a couple did not show up on time for their reso. This place is known for their Florentine steak so do give it a try if you go (it might have been the best steak I had in Tuscany). Just make sure you make a reservation before you go. Montepulciano might be small but this restaurant is well known. The owner even signed a book for me haha.

Latte di Luna - Located in the town of Pienza, this is a place that I went for lunch. The thing to have here is the slow roast pig. It was delicious and the prices were modest. Another popular destination, I would think that making a reservation for dinner would be a good idea.

All in all, there are some amazing eats located in Tuscany. Take advantage of it if you are in the region because as soon as you go to a place like Rome, Cinque Terre, or the Amalfi Coast, you will see a huge spike in prices. For example, glasses of great wine in Tuscany were about 3-5 Euro. In the Amalfi Coast where I headed after this trip? 12 Euro. Not even joking.


The trip to Tuscany is one that I have been wanting to make since I first got into photography and wine. The region is gorgeous and it certainly delivered in a lot of aspects. The terrain is very dry however so if you do want to see more green, come during Spring instead. I know I will be back. Again, for other reasons ;) And perhaps when the terrain is a bit more colorful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

f l o r e n c e

The second leg of my trip had me fly into Florence, Italy to meet up with a good friend of mine. I have always thought that I would love Italy for numerous reasons such as passion for good food, good wine, great culture, and amazing landscapes. Having said that, I have only been to Rome, Pisa, and Cinque Terre. That was enough to give me enough motivation to head on over there again though and Florence was at the very top of my list.

I have had several friends say that their favorite Italian city to visit was Florence. With such glowing reviews, it was hard not to be excited about going here. They were not wrong, the City was gorgeous to photograph and amazing to walk through. Such dedication to the arts and religion, it was unlike any other city in the world that I have visited to date. Just an FYI though, for those people flying in from London, it should be cheaper to fly to Pisa and then take a train to Florence. It might take a little while longer but it will save you close to 30-50% of the cost of a direct flight!

M U S T S E E ‘ S

There are a number of museo’s and galleries in Florence that are well worth seeing. I am the type that enjoys visiting the museums but in moderation. Being a wannabe photographer, I enjoy walking the streets and taking it in first hand. However, galleries and museums such as the Uffizi Gallery (houses the original “Birth of Venus” as well as an abundance of religious paintings and sculptures), the Museo dell’ Opera (includes the original “Gates of Paradise” as well as a smaller collection of sculptures and blue prints for the Duomo and associated cathedral), and the Galleria dell’ Accademia (hosts the original “David”) are all worth seeing. For the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’ Accademia however, you should strongly consider booking tickets online as the queues could take upwards of an hour otherwise.

In terms of other attractions to look at, the Duomo and its associated Piazza are definitely one of the highlights to look at. The Duomo is considered one of Italy’s most prominent architectural and religiously meaningful structures and one can easily see why when they see it in person. The scale is incredible! Be sure to climb up to the top to get a great view of the city. While you are there you should visit the Baptistery and the Giotto’s Bell Tower (you can also climb to the top of this tower to get an overtop view of the City) since it is in the same piazza.

Now, most of the attractions mentioned above the river Arno, but one of Florence’s main attractions is definitely the Piazzale Michaelangiolo. It is not a long hike up, but the view from here is outstanding. I’ll let the panorama below tell the story. Get up here for sunset, the sights are definitely something to be in awe of.


I stayed at the hostel Greci for the duration of my stay. The room itself was clean enough but it was bare bones. The washroom was shared but we were lucky enough to not have to share with any other visitors so it felt like a private bathroom for us. We weren’t provided with internet access outside of the lobby/reception however and it also turned off from 10pm – 8am every day. It is sad to say but that is a pet peeve and it certainly wasn’t convenient. It is located in a great location but I would not want to stay here again.


We had a variety of food while we were in Florence. Having an appreciation of food, I couldn’t wait to try some of the local cuisine and see how it compared to the Italian food that we have at home. I have to tell you, I love my coffee in the morning (or as needed throughout the day) and Florence was a great place for that. Starting the day at a cafĂ© with an espresso and a pastry was just what I wanted. The coffee in Italy is amazing, definitely give it a try if you like your kick in the morning (or as needed ;))

As a meat eater, I love my steak so, having heard good things about the Florentine steak, I had to give that a try. In total, we tried two different places for steak dinner in the 3 nights that we had in Florence. San Parione provided us with a 1.6kg T-Bone steak cooked just about rare along with some rosemary potatoes which looked like they had been boiled before being thrown into the oven. The steak was butter tender but it was a little under seasoned. I usually order my medium rare but this was definitely on the rare side (it was easily 2 inches thick) but you could tell it was high quality meat. What was lacking though was proper seasoning (aside from the char flavor, it was a little bland).

The other location that we went to for steak was Marione in the same area. The steak this time was also served with potatoes which were not nearly as tasty but the steak was better seasoned. It was a bit of a toss up but I think Parione’s served a better steak as the meat was better quality. Keep in mind that when ordering the steak, it is typically meant for 2 people and will cost upwards of 40-60 Euros alone.

Other locations that we really enjoyed for food included Gusta Osteria (I had a simple primi pasta) and Gusta Pizzareria (located within a block from Gusta Osteria). For an amazing panino, visit All’Antico Vinaio (located just outside of the exit of the Uffizi Gallery). I came back here twice but I really enjoyed the prosciutto with fresh mozza on foccace bread. The restaurant is tiny so you will have to eat on the sidewalk or whilst walking but that isn’t a bad thing – you can have alcohol outside :).

Anyone who goes to Italy knows that gelato is a specialty. In Florence, there are a couple of places that I can definitely recommend. One is Vivoli and the other is Santa Trinata. Santa Trinita has some fantastic selection but on top of that, they also give ample amounts of gelato. Who can complain about that?


I normally wouldn’t have a shopping section but it is worth mentioning because Florence is known for their leather products. There are a number of markets within the City but be aware that the markets will sell cheap leather products but there is a chance that they are imported leathers. For authentic Italian leather products such as jackets, wallets, etc, you can have the peace of mind by going to an actual store. I bought a lamb skin leather jacket which was tailored to fit me exactly for only 310 euros. Have fun finding that kind of deal in North America.

There are a number of outlet malls just outside of Florence. You can organize shuttle buses to drop you off and pick you back up. The deals on Italian designers such as Prada, Gucci, Armani, Bottega, Cavalli, and Valentino are amazing and worth browsing through.


Florence was an amazing city and it is easy to see why it might have been identified by many to be THE Italian city to visit. I have only named off some of the places to see but you could easily fill in 4-5 days here. I would suggest at least 3 though (if you don’t include a day for shopping) if you want to make the most of your time here. Definitely going to be coming back, for other reasons :)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

l o n d o n

Sorry for the lack of posting lately but now that I am on another Eurotrip, I figured I could start again. So with that, let’s start off with London.

Some of you already know but I lived in London for about 10 months last year for work so this trip was not for the sake of seeing tourist attractions, it was just to catch up with friends. Still, when I arrived in Heathrow, it felt like I was returning to a place that I was very familiar with. Everything from the tube to the announcements over the PA system made it feel like I never really left.


The 365 project that I did eons ago helped force me to look at the ordinary things from a different perspective. Having lived in London for almost a year, it came as a bit of challenge to shoot well-known tourist attractions and the tube from a unique perspective. But going out there with a camera and giving it a try, I find that I sometimes find things that I didn’t even know was there. It makes you feel like you need to appreciate even the smaller things in life.

It was fun walking around town and seeing some of the more familiar places I used to frequent (ie. Covent Garden, Embankment, etc.). Not much has changed around there really. Still bustling and busy as ever!


I only had 3 nights in London but on one of them I had the opportunity to meet up with Kirstin McKee and Elsa Konig. I’m sure they’re fairly well known amongst a lot of you. Kirstin even brought along her SX70 this time (love shooting older cameras). As always, it was a good time just catching up and talking photography and this thing to do with photo processing… of which we will not name… haha.


Since I have already done reviews on the places that I have eaten in London before, I won’t go through that. Just going to have to wait until we get to Florence for that. That’s where I’m headed next!