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Friday, May 30, 2008

Leaving Amalfi this morning for the EuroStar train from Napoli to Firenze, I felt a tinge of regret for not having an opportunity to motor out to the island of Capri. Heavy seas caused by North African winds kept all tour (and dive) boats at bay so we spent our time yesterday in the colorful town of Positano. It was a worthy consolation.

Despite the cool sea winds, it is hot here in May so our group got out early to explore the city streets so we could relax at Hotel Onda Verde during siesta when shops close and Italians seek refuge from the scorching heat. The town itself blooms up along the terraced hillsides from the central Spiagge beach where vacationers sun beneath colorful striped umbrellas. Here the day boats connect the mass of tourists bussing along the snake-like coastal SS163 to the offshore refuge of Capri. The boutiques that line the spiraling streets of Positano – often a stampeding maelstrom of scooters, tour buses and SmartCars – cater to tourists with an array of clothes, galleries and restaurants. The town itself has a reputation for its unique beach sandals and I ended up coming home with a pair of wine-colored leather sandals that were, nonetheless, made in Spain.

We escaped the sweltering heat that rises to crescendo at midday by ducking into the air-conditioned comfort of Ristorante Bruno to enjoy a pasta lunch with proscuitto and mozzarella. The orange Interno Positano bus shuttled us north to “the Toaster” and we survived the many hair pin turns en route back to the hotel.

One of the highlights of the trip without a doubt was the afternoon swim in Praiano Bay. My stepbrother and I jumped off the cliff below the hotel and swam among the moored fishing boats and into the rocky cove known as Praiano beach. The sound of rocks lolling up and down the strand in the crashing tide will stay with me for many nights to come. Here on Praiano Bay, we met Rafaelo, a local divemaster and boat captain. “Here we dive the walls because it is so deep here,” he said. “Only one shipwreck but it is in Positano.” Earlier that morning we had seen dolphins feeding among the breaking waves among the boats dotting the seascape.

Once tiny fishing villages, Positano and Amalfi further south are known for the lemon groves that speckle the cliffside as well as hand-painted ceramics. Along with an olive oil marinade, the fresh Amalfi lemons are a wonderful compliment to seafood dinners of fresh prawns, anchovies, calamari and snapper. They are the key ingredient in the ice-cold Lemoncino aperitifs that, along with gelato, complete many Italian meals.
I had a great time along the Amalfi Coast but the real gemstone of the experience was my afternoon in Ravello, perched seven kilometers north of Amalfi. It was here that I met the duo Reno and Blanko, the Italian equivalent of wine sherpas who have scoured all regions of Italy to bring back the best wine for their shop, Wine & Drugs in Ravello.

“You want to try some wine?” asked Blanko when he eyed me pausing to make a picture of the “Wine & Drugs” wooden sign. “I think I would,” I answered without hesitation and soon all five of us were sipping Chianti Classico, Rosso, Brunello as well as dessert wines and grappa. I bought a bottle of 2003 Sorugo from Brunello that I hope to pack for the trip back as it was one of the best Italian wines that I have ever enjoyed. “This is the drugs,” said Blanko of the Brunello. He was right.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When I arrived at Villa Grazioli in Frascati, just south of Roma, I was overjoyed that the long travel day was over. The beginning of a trip can often forecast its outcome. It depends to a great extent on one’s attitude when dealing with the unexpected arrows of misfortune. Within minutes of landing at Fiumcino Airport in Rome, a day prior to my own arrival, my mother was the victim of a pair of cunning thieves in the baggage claim. A carry-on was snatched containing all her credit cards, two cell phones and two pairs of prescription glasses. Thankfully, the passports were stashed elsewhere. I felt awful for her upon learning this news when checking in at Villa Grazioli on Friday but she had a good attitude about it and was determined not to let a minor misfortune bankrupt the promise of two weeks in Italia.

Set in the hills above Frascati, just south of Rome, Villa Grazioli is a grand palace with an expansive view of the valley below the Roman interior. I could not envision a better place to pop a bottle of Chianti, indulge an antipasti and just sit among the iron tables watching the sun rise and set. The day was half-finished by the time I got settled into my room and dressed for dinner. After a two-stop train ride into Termini, we hopped a bus to Trastevere and had a full Italian dinner at Sabbatini’s in Piazza San Maria. Sabbatini himself served up the pasta and poured bottles of Chianti and Rosso. It was a hearty meal capped off by gelato from Blue Ice gelateria across the Piazza. The dinner group – all nine of the attendees for the wedding of my stepbrother and his fiancé – stumbled accidentally into San Maria church and listened to the angelic singing from a service in progress. We headed home to rest up for the wedding day.

After bouncing from site to site around Rome with my stepsister Rise, we had a late lunch at the highly recommended L’Archetto di Spaghetteria on Via Del’Archetto just north of Piazza Navona. We sat outside in the hot sun along a strand of tables and enjoyed plates of spaghetti as we watched our waiter dodge Alfas, Peugots, BMWs and the wide array of scooters that careened up the street.

Although I was technically on holiday, I was in Rome to photograph my stepbrother Brad Fanger’s wedding to Lisa Katze at Villa Grazioli. The photographs and blog posting of their wedding photographs appears here: DVB Blog. A light overcast afternoon sun combined with the overwhelming photo opportunities on the grounds of the villa led to a portfolio of strong wedding images. It was a very moving ceremony, the nine of us in a long, frescoed hallway on the second floor, followed by cocktails in the garden and a seated dinner in a private room of the villa. By one o’clock in the morning, we were all sipping from the third bottle of Fontadenna sparkling wine as we shared stories around a hearth in the main lobby.

The final day in Rome centered on our midday reservation for the Museo e Galleria Borghese in the Villa Borghese. My patience for art museums in Europe can be short but this museum, tucked in the heart of the park north of the Spanish Steps, is an overwhelming visual feast. The entire villa, under the ownership of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, was transformed into a hallway of masterpieces — the marble works of Bernini, as well as the paintings of Coreggio and Caravaggio — with vaulted ceilings covered with paintings and scenes from Greco-Roman religious lore. It was an unexpected and overwhelming two-hour amble through these halls.

The travel day to the Amalfi coast, with a stopover at the near-deserted ruins of Herculaneum, was fraught with near-death collisions on the Autostrada. With half the wedding party gone, the bride and groom, my mother and stepfather and I crowded into a four-door Opel nicknamed "the Toaster." Tensions flared, the TomTom was guilty of misdirection, Depends undergarments were almost needed on more than one occasion but we finally reached Onda Verde Hotel in Praiano intact. Italian driving is fast and dangerous and then faster.

Amalfi is breathtaking. Perched on a chaise lounge on Onda Verde’s upper deck, the sloping, terraces along the coast are breathtaking, regardless of the time of day. You keep a camera with you at all hours of the day, photographing and re-photographing the shoreline to capture the essence of the place and the light that is a perfect compliment to the emotions of the moment.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Leaving for Rome, Italy today and hoping to actually use this blog for its intended purpose - providing a narrative of adventures from the field, complete with photographs. 

The gate agent is calling my zone. Off to Italia...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The following is a list of new airline fees that kick off just in time for that trip you planned for summer. Who knew a second bag was now a luxury? Airline mergers will soon limit the travel playing field and with diminished competition comes less competitive pricing on fares.

Air Canada: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 15.
AirTran: $10 each way for a second checked bag starting May 15.
Alaska Airlines and Horizon: $15 to book flights through reservation agents or airport sales desk starting May 21.
American Airlines: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 12; $3 for snacks, $5 for "fresh light meals" on domestic flights (sandwiches or wraps, no vegetarian options); eliminated online booking bonus of 500 miles for round-trip first- or business-class tickets, and 250 miles for round-trip coach fares.
Continental: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 5.
Delta: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 5; airline provides complimentary snacks, but some snacks and meals cost an extra $1 to $8, depending on the item.
JetBlue: $10 for extra legroom, and $20 each way for a second checked bag starting June 1.
Northwest: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 5.
Spirit: $10 fee for checked luggage reserved online, and a $20 fee for luggage checked at the airport.
Southwest: $25 each way for a third checked bag, and $50 for the fourth through ninth bags.
United: $25 each way for a second checked bag; $5 for snack boxes, with sandwiches and salads available at varying prices; increased ticket change fee; Saturday night stays are now required for tickets in 65 percent of the markets it serves.
US Airways: $25 each way for a second checked bag; eliminated the 500-mile minimum mileage award granted for short-haul flights; will charge between $5 and $30 each way for aisle and window seats starting May 7, matching other carriers.
Virgin America: $25 each way for a second checked bag starting May 15.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

In late June of last year I traveled to Chicago for professional development as my attendance at the University Photographers' of America Association annual symposium was sponsored by the university where I serve as chief photographer. Although the majority of my week was spent in the small hamlet of Burr Ridge where Moraine Valley Community College played host to the more than 75 photographers in attendance, I, nonetheless, had two days to explore the city alone.

Chicago is an easy city to love and after a burger at the Billy Goat Tavern, the intimate Ryan Adams show at the 299-seat Victory Biograph Theater and a generous display of soccer hooliganism at the Copa D'Oro hosted by Soldier Field, I didn't want to leave. One of my pre-trip, travel-geek discoveries definitely came in handy during my day after the conference ended.

National Geographic Traveler publishes podcasts via iTunes called "Walks of a Lifetime."  These 20-minute narrative itineraries by journalist Rudy Maxa provide an informative accompaniment to a leisurely stroll through one of 25 major cities. You download, sync to your iPod, pop in your earbuds and take your camera for a walk along a route guaranteed not to disappoint. When you've only got one day to see a city, take the "Walks of a Lifetime" with you. It's a terrific companion. I'm definitely looking forward to next month's walk through Rome.
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