Italy

I’ve decided to post some pics of Italy from our trip several years ago.  It was a fantastic trip, and I hope to go back again and see the parts we didn’t get to see, like Venice and Capri.

In Rome we stayed a few doors down from Saint Peters Basilica, at the Hotel Columbus.

The location was fantastic for the Vatican and the Basilica.  As it was summer, it was blistering hot, and I packed sleeveless dresses.  This was a mistake, as I could not enter into any churches without sleeves (on my dress, not the church).  I ended up buying a scarf and wrapping it around my shoulders so I could get past the guards.

The Pieta is one of the most moving pieces of art I’ve seen.  One can almost feel Mary’s agony as she holds her dead son.  There is a story told that after Michelangelo carved this magnificent piece, he overheard two workmen discussing it.  Part of their discussion was their disbelief that Michelangelo had indeed sculpted it as they believed him to be too young, so Michelangelo came back in the middle of the night and carved “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this” on the sash that Mary wears.

Of course there are many other pieces of beautiful artwork here.

And if you get bored, there is always confession, heard in a multitude of languages…

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The Virginia Countryside

There is peace in the beauty of the countryside.  The storms of spring produce amazing cloud formations that roll and stretch across the sky.  It is quite a spectacular display.  I’m always in awe when I see this, no matter how many times I’ve seen it before.  The countryside of Virginia seems different to me then the countryside in other states.  Whenever I look out at this expanse I somehow imagine life before cars, computers, telephones and paved roads–a colonial lifestyle when life was much simpler.

Moving Photography

The last difficulty with photography is movement.  The water is moving, you are moving, the fish are moving.  How on earth can you get a photograph that is worth anything if EVERYTHING is moving?  Persistence.

I’m sure the longer you do it the easier it gets.  The simplest things such as breathing can cause you to move up and down a foot or two.  Inhale, rise.  Exhale, drop.  And you really shouldn’t hold your breath underwater, lest you get a lung injury, which can happen with as little as two feet of ascent while holding your breath, depending on your depth.  Having had a pulmonary embolism once in my life, I wasn’t keen on another lung injury.  But the overwhelming urge to hang still found me trying to hold my breath just to get that illusive photo.  It’s more difficult closer to the surface where neutral buoyancy is a little more difficult and the surge is greater.  Not to mention that the fish don’t really like to pose, although admittedly there are some who don’t shy away as easily as others.

The male Stoplight Parrot Fish is one that just does not stop swimming.  He is really hard to get a photo of, and I followed him for 15 minutes or so, and snapped about as many photos.

The angel fish is equally illusive.  He never stops swimming, and rarely swam in my direction.

These little guys tended to be curious, and head-on shots were a little easier with them.

Then there are the Sand Divers who lay on the bottom and blend in, hoping not to be seen.  Photo courtesy of DH, as mine did not come out well.

These little guys are about an inch long, and cover the bright orange coral.  I found them difficult to photograph because of their size and movement of the surge while using macro required tweaking of shutter speed and f stop.

This last guy is less than an inch in length, so I think the fact that I got him was probably nothing more than dumb luck.

Fascinations of the Deep

Yesterday I talked about White Balancing photography in the shallows, with full sunlight while Scuba Diving.  Once you get below 30 feet or so, the white balance doesn’t work quite as well, and you really need to switch to flash.  This proved to be more difficult than it seemed if only because my aging eyes couldn’t judge distance very well underwater.  And if you are too far away, the flash is ineffective, whereas if you are too close, the image is lit up, but blurry.  The following is coral that I was 3-4 feet from.  But being as large as it was, the flash only lit up the bottom and side portion to a pale green.

I swam in to get closer, and this was what happened on my second attempt:

And my third, that shows it’s true color, and the fact that I probably was not 3-4 feet from it like I thought, judging from the size…

This guy was just hanging out at about 70 feet, just watching us swim by…

As was this guy…

DH found this guy (he does have bifocals in his mask), who was about 1-1/2 inches long, and not happy that we were flashing lights at him.  Out for a nice walk at the end of the coral, he scurried back the other way towards the reef when we started taking pictures.  I am to understand he is some type of shrimp, I think.

And of course, this beautiful Butterfly-fish…

Sea Life

Unfortunately, the sinus thing didn’t really get much better, and even now two weeks later I’m still treating it.  That didn’t stop me from doing as much as I could, however.  I did shore dives when my balance was off and couldn’t take the rough pitching of the boat, and did the boat dives when it was a little smoother.

The class on buoyancy was fantastic, and brought to light the issues regarding different BC’s or buoyancy compensators.  I was using a BC with a rear bladder.  When these inflate, they have a tendency to hoard air in pockets unevenly, and if you don’t know how to handle it, it will cause you to roll.  DH uses this model and loves it.  Me, not so much.  I spent more time being rolled over on to my side or back, and fighting it.  It was not very enjoyable, so by the third day I decided to rent one that did not have that type of inflation.  It made the difference between have a really good time underwater looking at creatures and spending all my energy trying to stay in the right position.

So that problem solved, it was time to start photographing some sea life.

I loved the coral, I think because I tend to like landscapes.  But getting the white balance to work underwater proved pretty tricky.  You really have to keep an eye on your depth, because you lose wavelengths of light as your depth changes (or gain back if you are coming up).  As a result, you really have to WB every couple three feet.  If you are not paying attention, then your photo’s color will be off.  Also, once you get below 30 feet, WB really isn’t effective at all, and you need to go to flash.  The thing about flash is, unless you’ve invested a ton of money on strong flash equipment, your effective distance with a flash has to be pretty darn close.  Which is easy with coral, but fish have different ideas.  My first day with a camera was rather a disappointment.  I found I really needed bifocals in my mask, because I thought they were good pictures underwater, but many turned out to be blurry.  We spent a lot of time in the shallows just shooting with white balance.

I did find out what happens when you are trying to use WB and also turn on the flash…

Yikes!  If there is a way to fix this with photo editing, I have no idea what it is.  And believe me, I tried.  I read an article that said it is always better to get the picture correct when taking it than to rely on correction after the fact.  And I tend to be a purist anyway, I don’t like spending time correcting photos or tweaking them on photo software.  I’d rather just have a beautiful photo.

Here, I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.

Edradour and Stirling Castle

The Outlander tour from Inverness was the highlight of Inverness.  I truly wish there had been more time.  As much as I liked Edinburgh, I loved Inverness.  There was a quieter feel to it, a little slower and more relaxed.  I could have spent two weeks there, taking my time seeing the sights.  I was truly sorry to leave, but our time was up.  We said our goodbyes and began the long drive back to Edinburgh.

The drive was beautiful.

At the last minutes we decided to try to stop at a whiskey distillery, and we chose Edradour in the hills above Pitlochry.  It was great fun, and low-key.  Pitlochry is 75 minutes north of Edinburgh, and is a major stopping point off of the A9 for travelers.  This is a place I would like to see again.  Since we had to be back in Edinburgh by the end of the day, and we wanted to see Sterling Castle we did not walk the town but only visited the distillery.  This is a mistake.  Just driving through I could tell I would regret this, but choices have to be made and when extending your stay is not a choice among them you have to be content knowing you’ll just have to return.

We started with a wee dram, tasting it neat first, then with the addition of a bit of water to experience how it changed the whisky.  Not a huge whisky drinker myself, I was impressed with the way it tasted, and it felt like velvet in my mouth.  Then we took a tour of the process.  Edradour is the smallest distillery in Scotland, and is run by only three men.  They are not automated, and most of the equipment is as old as the distillery itself.  Here is a link where you can read about the distillery.

After we finished at the distillery we headed to Stirling castle after getting gas.  One of the things we found throughout the trip was how scarce petrol stations are, so when you find one, it’s best to fill.

Within an hour and a half, we were at Stirling Castle.  The road to the parking if very narrow and winding, up an incline.  I don’t know if I was just getting better at driving, or not, but it didn’t seem that bad.  There are a lot of buses, so you just have to keep an eye out for them.

This is known as the Bowling Green, and it is on the lower level of the castle.  The tour guide claimed it was used as a yard for children to play in, and the guardsmen would sometimes use it to bowl.

Inside, there is a model of the castle to give some perspective.

This is Wallace Monument which is visible across the way from one of the courtyards in Stirling Castle."Stirling Bridge"

Stirling Bridge, between Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle.  Below, interesting architecture within Stirling Castle.

The Castle Kitchens were quite big, as needed to accommodate the military troops.

I took this picture of the ceiling in the dining hall, when the tour guide said they somehow knew it took 800 trees to create.  The trees came from a forest miles away, and were carted to the castle.

This statue of Robert the Bruce Stands at the entrance to Stirling Castle.  Robert the Bruce led the Scots to Victory against the English’s Edward II in 1314.  It was quite and achievement given that they were so greatly outnumbered, reflecting Bruce’s skill at commanding an army.

This is the cemetery on the backside of Stirling Castle, in Stirling.  Our tour of Stirling Castle was at an end, and it was time to move on back into Edinburgh.  This time we stayed out closer to the airport at a B&B called Strawberry Bank House in Linlithgow.  The rooms are fairly spacious as are the bathrooms, the Breakfast was good, and it had its own parking.  It is 11 miles from the Edinburgh airport, so the location is perfect.  We checked in and took our last walk down Scottish Streets of Linlithgow to a pub for dinner.  Scotland is a wonderful place for vacation, and I look forward to returning.

Cromarty Firth, MacKenzie Stronghold, Lallybroch and Beauly

Earlier in the day we had visited Culloden, Clava Cairns and a Clootie well.  It was a lucky thing we wanted to stay three nights in Inverness, as there was so much to see.  I still would have liked to do a tour to the Isle of Skye, but we just didn’t have time.  The next time I am visiting, I plan on doing Hugh Allison’s tour of the Isle of Skye.  The most scenic routes, I was told over and over were the single track roads, and if I’m driving, I can’t take photographs.  And since I already know how absolutely fantastic Hugh is, this seems the obvious choice.

On the way to Cromarty Firth and the Foulis Ferry, we stopped at a place Hugh knew where the salmon were jumping and we took a stroll through a lovely area.  There was a bridge suspended over the river where we were able to perch our cameras so we could get photos when the salmon attempted to jump upstream.  

Store HouseThe next stop on our tour was The Storehouse at Foulis Ferry, on the shore of Cromarty Firth in Monro Country.  I loved this little place.  Long ago the Lairds would bring their tenant’s rent in the form of grain or livestock here to store until it could be put on a ferry or boat to be taken to a large city where the goods would be sold or traded for other things.  The 18th Century Storehouse here was set up as a self-touring adventure with a movie at the end.  Hugh added his own bits, and answered the many questions we had about how this arrangement worked.

There was a lovely restaurant with a view of the water where we ate lunch, which was very tasty. Baked potatoes with just about anything on them, sandwiches, soup, salads and a plethora of desserts.  After we ate, we walked through the gift shop and then The Storehouse which was filled with scenes of a typical day in the 18 century.

We then headed for the MacKenzie Castle, but had a seal photo op at Loch Garve on the way.  This is the reason a driver is a good thing to have.  He did several passes so everybody in the car could get a shot, as it was on a busy road with no place to stop!

Hugh Allison told us that this is an actual MacKenzie stronghold.  He also said that according to the author of Outlander, it fits her vision of the Castle Leoch of Outlander.  It is occupied by the Earl of Cromartie, chief of the clan MacKenzie, and if you come on a day he is available, he will allow a tour of the inside.  Unfortunately, he was out of town when we visited, so I’ll have to go with my imagination.  I would not want to maintain the driveway!

The next place was found after the book was written in an effort to “show” what Lallybroch might have looked like. It is indeed, an 18th century dwelling, and serves as a Bed and Breakfast. The owners kindly allowed us to have afternoon tea here in the sitting room while examining weapons.

After tea, we headed to Beauly Priory.  Although the Priory is amazing in its own right, I could not stop thinking about the 800-year-old Elm tree that marks the gated entrance. Being the skeptic that I am, I asked how they knew it was 800 years old, and he replied that they had maps dating back 800 years that showed the tree.  If trees could talk, what a tale it would have to tell…

After we toured Beauly Priory, we stopped in at a local shop that sold wools and sgian dubh’s.  The sweaters were beautiful knits of colorful wool, as well as ties and hats, and mens vests.  After making our purchases, it was time to head back to Ardconnel House.  But not before one last photo-op of Heather.