Over the past few years I have seen many images of the jagged peaks, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes of the Dolomites and a visit to that area in the north of Italy has been high on my wish list... at the end of August I finally got my act together and organised a short trip to the area.
I took an evening flight to Venice and stayed overnight in a guest house at Ponte Nelle Alpi... in a violently horrendous thunderstorm. The guesthouse was on the top of a hill and very exposed to the elements. The rain hammering off the window, the howling wind and the thunderclaps directly overhead meant that I did not get much sleep. The coffee at breakfast was most helpful in my recovery and I continued my drive north.
As I got to higher ground I found that the storm had completely disregarded all thoughts of it still being summer and had dumped 10-15cm of snow on all ground above about 1600m altitude.
I drove to Misurina lake but did not find that to be too photogenic, so I continued along the road to Lago D'Antorno which was more to my liking. I find that in order to get good reflections it is best to use lakes that are rather small (ponds and puddles are also acceptable) in order to keep your subjects more immediate and prominent in the frame.
Both of these lakes are on the road which leads to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and my idea was to drive up the steep toll road and maybe do the circle hike around those iconic peaks. The car parks at the top of the road, holding at least a thousand cars, were already full (about 11am, on a slightly unpleasant day) and as a result they were operating a "one in one out" policy on the toll road with a sizeable queue. Instead of joining the queue I returned to Lago D'Antorno and decided to follow the toll road on foot. I had read an account from another photographer of doing the same thing in deep snow in winter and he described it as an easy hike taking about 40 minutes so I was quite confident. I am not sure what kind of physical specimen wrote that other blog but I can say that apart from the smooth road surface there was nothing whatsoever which was easy about that hike - an unremittingly steep slog which took me at least an hour and three quarters and left me extremely tired, despite the beautiful views.
After spending so much effort on the climb I decided not to do the 4-5 hour circle hike around Tre Cime, the clouds were looking rather dark and moody and I did not want to get stuck in a storm, so I decided to retreat back down the road and check in to my accomodation.
I chose a hotel close to Cortina D'Ampezzo as my base for the trip on an "it looks like it is roughly in the middle of the places I want to visit" basis and I was happy to find that it was in quite a beautiful spot.
As a location it also turned out to be quite good as it was quite close to what turned out to be one of my absolute favourite spots, the top of the Giau Pass. As the day ended to skies cleared and sunlight bathed the snowy ground.
Although I usually do at least some research on specific locations before embarking on my trips I find that there is no substitute for actually viewing a location in person. With mountain locations especially it is hard to reliably translate "kilometres on the map" into "time taken to travel" and plans made without knowledge of the terrain can easily turn out to be unrealistic. I decided to treat this trip as a scouting mission, meaning that I would try to visit as many sites as possible in my 3.5 days in order to understand where to focus in a future "proper" photography trip.
The next morning I was out of my room at 0430, ready to try and do some astro photography at the Giau Pass and then wait for the sunrise, but I faced an unusual difficulty - I could not get out of the hotel! The door was locked and bolted, the reception was empty, there was no bell, there was nobody around and there were no other exits. I made some noise (enough too attract the attention of anyone who would be there, but not enough to wake the hotel residents) and waited around for 15 mins to see if anyone came along... but no. Trapped. I went back to bed.
Three hours later the day began properly and I drove up to the top of the Falzarego Pass.
From here it was possible to travel by cable car to Lagazuoi, a 2835m peak. Although this was the second highest altitude I have reached (without the aid of a plane that is, the Zugspitze summit being my highest point) it was still possible to look up from Lagazuoi to even taller peaks in the surroundings.
From Lagazuoi it is also possible to look down on a much more famous neighbour, the small cluster of peaks which make up Cinque Torri, a kind of natural monument in the middle of nowhere and a popular destination for climbers.
Near the summit of Lagazuoi you can get a closer look at some fortifications dating from the Great War over a century ago. The front line in the battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire went right through this area and all over the Dolomites it is possible to see evidence of the desperate struggle which took place between the opposing forces in the harshest of environments.
There is a lodge at the top of the cable car route where you can eat something, get some coffee or even stay overnight. These Rifugios are a feature of almost all easily accessible peaks and mountain areas in the Dolomites and make it a lot easier and more comfortable to spend time in what would otherwise be the wilderness. On this occasion there was some construction work ongoing at Rifugio Lagazuoi and while I was there a helicopter was constantly shuttling materials up and down the mountain without ever landing. It was impressive to watch.
It was time to continue my journey, starting by entrusting my life to a few rather insubstantial looking wires as the cable car made its descent.
I made my way to the Gardena Pass, another spectacular tour through mountain peaks by way of hundreds of hairpins.
My objective was the Seiser Alm, a vast mountain meadow surrounded by peaks. There are many different ways to reach the Seiser Alm, but during the day it is forbidden to drive there, you have to approach by cable car. I had partial directions to get to the spot I was aiming for - I took the cable car to Compatsch and then a bus to Saltria... but then I was not quite sure where to go next. I wondered around for an hour or two but I don't think I found the best views.
When visiting this area again, and especially in order to get to the best places at the best times for photography (sunrise, sunset, night) I think that a totally different approach would be needed. Normally I like to have a single base and then travel to different locations, but in the Dolomites there would be huge advantages to staying in a different Rifugio every night in order to be as close as possible to your subjects.
This was a very long day... some 4-5 hours of driving as well as multiple cable car journeys and about 20km of walking... so I was happy to get back to my hotel and get some rest before the morning.
The next day I also planned a long journey, heading this time a bit further north before circling round to an area near to where I had been the day before and returning via the Gardena and Falzarego passes. My first stop, before 6am, was at Lago di Landro.
From there I continued to Lago di Dobbiaco having first satisfied the demand from my rental car which instructed me to add at least one litre of oil "immediately".
The final part of my morning lake trilogy was the famous Lago di Braies, a very beautiful place but also a horrendous tourist trap. My advice to anyone wanting to enjoy this place is to arrive very early in the morning or very late at night, it was slightly uncomfortable already when I arrived at 0830 and by the time I had completed the easy hike around the lake it was absolutely swarming with what seemed like many millions of people.
Having gladly removed myself from the multitudes at Lago di Braies I made my way to the next famous destination, the church at Santa Maddalena. This was a location I had been looking forward to perhaps more than any other, but it was a place where the experience did not quite measure up to the expectation. It seemed to me that the place had not quite made peace with its status as a tourist attraction. It has managed to embrace some aspects of that, such as charging a few euros for a parking place, but the overall feeling is one of being a bit unwelcome. The church is in the middle of a field, but according to the signs it is prohibited to walk around in that field which rather limits your chances for photography. There is a tiny platform that you are allowed to stand on in the corner of the field, which means that everyone who obeys the local rules will end up with almost exactly the same picture as each other. Drone photography is also prohibited there, which is another limitation. I think that if they would accept that the place is and will be a tourist attraction and make a little bit more effort to be accommodating, while also charging a bit more money for parking if necessary to make it a sensible business, then everyone might end up being more happy.
The whirlwind tour continued and it was time for the next destination. It had been nearly 20 hours since I took a cable car journey so I decided to fix that by ascending to the spectacular peak of Seceda (2519m).
This mountain provides some other-worldly views as it looks like the ground has just been ripped apart at the seams, on the one side pleasant green meadows slope steeply upwards and on the other side there is a vertical drop of hundreds of metres.
After another rather exhausting day it was very easy to fall asleep... and a bit of a struggle to avoid doing just that while driving back to the hotel.
My final morning in the Dolomites was reserved for completing my mission to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, having had a false start in that adventure on the first day. The toll road does not open until 0600 which makes it a bit of a challenge to be in position for the sunrise in the summer, but I was the first one through the gate on this day and determined to make the best of it. I parked in the massive car parks near Rifugio Auronzo and started the circle hike around Tre Cime by around 0615.
The hike, which took me about 5 hours, could be thought of as a tour of different Rifugios. The trail starts at Rifugio Auronzo and then (in the direction I travelled) leads you to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli (Drei Zinnen Hutte) and Malga Langalm before completing the circle at Rifugio Auronzo. Each leg of the journey takes about an hour.
The temperature was something of a challenge during this hike, it was 3 or 4 degrees when I started before the sunrise and 31 degrees when I finished about midday... luckily I had pretty much expected this and had dressed on a "I will warm up eventually" basis, accepting to be a bit cold to start with in order to have the benefit of not having to carry extra clothing in the second half of the hike.
The trail is easy to follow and well maintained, but there are some noticeable changes in elevation at various points, requiring quite a lot of ascending and descending even though it is roughly level overall.
By the time I was approaching the Drei Zinnen Hutte, about half way round the hike, a coffee was definitely needed. I stopped for 20 minutes to recharge my batteries. This mountain lodge is in an amazing location on the mountain plateau.
This was the most spectacular place on the circle hike in my opinion, but the views in general in all directions were quite amazing and I highly recommend the route to anyone who has the opportunity and capability to experience it.
With that, it was time to make my way back to Venice Marco Polo airport. This was my first visit to the Dolomites, but I truly hope it will not be my last. Whenever I get a chance to return I think that these hectic few days have provided me with some good lessons for how to make a successful second trip. The key for that would be to stay in a number of well selected Rifugios rather than one central hotel and accept the slight inconvenience of regular check in - check out as a price worth paying for being in the right place at the right time.
Until next time!
So.... where were we... ah yes, I signed off last time on my way from the Grmecica waterfall back to my car in Nomenj.
I always enjoy it when i feel like the first shooting destination of the day has been a success. On a trip like this I usually end up with a handful of pictures that I am satisfied with and if I am lucky then maybe one that I really like... so when I feel like the day has started well then it means that anything good from the rest of the day feels like a bonus. Of course the opposite is also true... an uninspiring beginning increases the pressure on the rest of the day. Just a little something for any psychologists out there.
I decided to head for the mountains to continue my day. I drove to Lake Jasna in Kranjska Gora. Lake Jasna is actually made up of two artificial interconnected lakes and is usually a lovely place to catch your breath before continuing into the mountains. On this occasion however dark clouds were gathering overhead and rain was starting to fall.
It did not seem very promising weather for landscapes so I turned my attention to wildlife where the well diffused light was an advantage and the dark skies were not a disadvantage. The first bird I spotted was a black redstart... a really beautiful bird and a relatively difficult one to find in Finland, but I have been lucky enough to see one in Germany, Austria and now Slovenia as well as Finland this year.
As you proceed from Lake Jasna the road takes you up into the mountains through the Vršič Pass, a wonderful road which connects Kranjska Gora to Trenta via the 1611m high mountain pass. This is quite an experience to drive with 24 hairpin bends on the way up and 26 hairpins on the descent towards Trenta. The present day road was built on the route of an earlier track during the first world war by approximately 10,000 Russian prisoners of war, their work and their losses (in a major avalanche which swept aside the avalanche fences) are commemorated by the wooden Russian Chapel which stands about half way up the mountain on the Kranjska Gora side.
As you approach the highest point of the pass you can find the starting points of a number of hiking or climbing routes and marvel at spectacular views of the nearby mountain peaks. The huge face of the Prisank mountain provides two points of interest which can be clearly seen from one of the roadside parking areas - the Prisank Window and the Pagan Girl.
The Prisank Window is a 80m high, 40m wide hole which goes right through the mountain, one of the largest and best known mountain windows in the Julian Alps. The Pagan Girl is a pretty good attempt at a human face looking back at you from the rock wall, formed by erosion and rock falls, I remember reading at the site that the face was 120m high, but I cannot find confirmation of that from any other source so it may not be correct.
In order to appreciate the sheer scale of these cliffs I think that the following picture which I took in 2017 might help - the three tiny ants you can see on the top of the ridge are mountaineers.
At the highest point of the pass there are a number of restaurants, a good amount of parking space and the possibility to follow many hiking trails. On this occasion I just looked at the view and headed back to base.
The following afternoon England were playing Sweden in the World Cup quarter final and I wanted to watch the match... but I also wanted to take pictures... so I decided upon an early start and an ambitious road trip.
I left the hotel at 0400 and was in position at Lake Jasna shortly after 0500. The water level was remarkably higher than the previous day and the sunrise was a total non-event... I moved on shortly after 0600.
By 0700 I had negotiated the 24 ascending and 26 descending hairpins of the Vršič Pass and was following the path of the very beautiful Soca river through the valleys.
I stopped to stretch my legs at the Great Soca River Gorge before 0800, this is a section of river which has carved out a steep sided canyon for itself, it is a beautiful and dangerous place with an unguarded drop to the raging water and rocks below. The section of river downstream from the gorge is a bit more open and gentle and a popular spot for sun worshippers and people in need of the refreshing experience of leaping into pools of cool water from the less high and less dangerous rocky banks. Although I enjoyed being there I did not find good ideas for photographs.
By 0900 I was having a latte in the hotel near to the Boka waterfall. After a steep uphilll climb it was possible to observe this mighty waterfall, with an initial vertical drop of 106m and a secondary drop of 30m before feeding into Boka creek. The creek is one of the shortest in Slovenia, joining the Soca river after only a few hundred metres. The waterfall has the highest flow of any in Slovenia, reaching upwards of 100 cubic metres per second in the wettest season. On this occasion the flow was significantly less.
The scale of the waterfall is difficult to communicate in a photograph due to the scale of the surroundings... a 106m waterfall does not look so impressive when it is set in a 400m high rock face. You need such a wide angle lens to communicate the whole scene that the waterfall itself is reduced to a miniature size in the frame.
I had understood that there was an even higher viewpoint from where the view could be further improved but after ascending for another 15 minutes or so I began to feel that the downward journey would be a bit too hazardous if I continued upwards, there was quite a lot of loose rock and stones underfoot and it was a bit slippery. With no other people around I thought that the possibilities of having an unnoticed accident were higher than I would like.
Anyway, this was a great place to visit and I recommend it for anyone who is in the area. It was possible to see the high water mark from the rocks at the base of the waterfall, I believe that it would be absolutely spectacular when viewed in peak flow.
Onwards... my next stop was supposed to be Kozjak waterfall... but a difficulty with navigation brought me instead to a lovely hillside in the middle of nowhere... after ascending a large hill by a series of hairpins on a road which was not very wide.
Here, on this beautiful hillside, battalions of insects were going about their most important business - pollinating left, right and centre.
I once again negotiated the hairpins on the way down the hill and found the spot I was aiming for in the first place, eventually managing to park in a "not big enough for all the cars" car park - a task which was complicated by some "its too hot and I already had enough of this and the kids are getting on my nerves" driving from some other visitors. Onwards... to Kozjak waterfall.
The waterfall is easy to find by following the signs, and the crowds, as the path winds its way up the hill and along a wide canyon. The final 40m or so is on a narrow, wet, raised wooden ledge on one of the canyon walls into a cave like area where the waterfall is situated. This area requires attention and care - the wooden boards are generously sized for proceeding in single file but they have to carry two way traffic and passing is already a bit hazardous. The drop to the rocks and water below is only 4-5 metres, but a fall from that height to the rocks would already be a serious matter. I imagine that in the times of heaviest traffic there could be some unsafe situations there.
In order to get a great photo at this waterfall I think it would be best to time your visit to avoid the crowds (including the crowds of cavers arriving on ropes from above the waterfall) and also to consider wading along the bed of the stream instead of following the raised platform, that would have been a practical alternative on the day I visited but may become less practical if the water flow or water level was significantly higher.
I had planned to visit the Tolmin Gorge next, but time was ticking and after being sent in another wrong direction by the navigation system I decided that I continue my circuit towards the hotel and get there in plenty time, maybe having a swim before the game. This proved to be a good decision, as the navigation system in the rental car took me on an extreme cross country route winding up and down hills, finally getting to a place where the road I needed to take was closed for maintenance. The detour was extensive and added nearly an hour to my journey. I arrived 3 minutes before kick-off. Still, a good day.
The following morning I headed for Jamnik once again, hoping to get an interesting sunrise. The period before the dawn was perfectly pleasant, but not that interesting. No nice colours to be seen, no interesting clouds, no mist... just plain. I decided to wait around for the moment when the sun first cleared the mountains in the background.
After leaving Jamnik, an impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains, I decided to scout a new location. I drove towards St. Tomaz - a totally different impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains. Variety is the spice of life.
While proceeding towards St. Tomaz I had a number of navigation related mishaps. In Slovenia it seems that you have perfect motorways and the roads to major towns are very good, but outside that the road quality degenerates very quickly. The navigation data is very noticeably worse than in other European countries, no matter which mapping data you rely on (I saw no difference between Here maps and Google maps). It seems that context data is totally absent. Yes there is technically a road, yes the limit might be 90km/h on that road... but in practice a normal car should not attempt it at all and if you do have an offroad vehicle then it would still not be sensible to try and drive faster than 30km/h. This means that the "what is the best route" decision making is very, very poor.
Eventually, after more than an hour of detours and circles, I arrived at St Tomaz, and it was a fantastic place.
Having found the church itself I tried to make my way to a good viewpoint, this church is better viewed in context, from a distance (in my opinion). Here the navigation outdid itself once again. From my parking space it sent me down the hill again, a couple of kilometres of steep, winding, single lane road... and then had me turn right, right and right again before proceeding back up the hill via the same road to where I had started... in order to continue along a dirt track located 30m from where I had been parked in the first place. The ruts were so deep that the vegetation in the middle of the overgrown track was scraping the bottom of the car... there is no way I was going to commit my rental car to 11km of this before the next turn... so it was back down the same damn hill again to find a different route.
Eventually I got the the place I was looking for, on a nearby hill close to Rantovse.
This was a good scouting mission, finding the best angles to shoot the sunrise the following morning. Now there was the simple matter of just driving back to the hotel. Once again the navigation system sent me on a tour of the worst possible roads. After 40 minutes I saw a church and stopped to allow my frustration level to settle down... maybe a prayer would have been helpful also. I saw St Tomaz from the church... it should have been 40 minutes behind me but I could see it sitting there a few kilometres away. Great. The butterflies fluttering around the church garden cheered me up.
Taking personal responsibility for all navigation decisions, I made my way back towards the hotel using the "largest road is quickest even though it says it is not" principle.
After a short rest another failed attempt was made to find interesting sunset light at Lake Jasna... once again nothing much happened.
A somewhat trying day... but no matter. The following morning I was up at 0315 to make my way back to St Tomaz for the sunrise... and it was almost a success but not quite. There were some nice colours in the sky but the clouds were too big and too dark only starting to thin out when the sun was already well above the mountains.
In the right conditions this could be a truly magical place for a photograph, but all you can do is make the best of whatever conditions you happen to get. Sometimes you are lucky, but 95% of the time you just have to make do with something which is not quite what you hoped. In such situations you can anyway enjoy just being in such beautiful places, safe in the knowledge that all the people who are sleeping instead of standing on a remote hill before 0500 are missing the whole thing completely.
For my final hours on this trip I returned to Bled and had a last walk around that beautiful lake, pausing to visit St. Martins church before heading back to the car.
Overall this was a really enjoyable trip to a magical country. I hope to return to Slovenia sometime in the future.
Thanks for reading!
In my last post, I signed off from the 1600m high summit of Rossfeld... so that is from where I will continue. As I mentioned the border between Germany and Austria runs through the middle of Rossfeld, the border line is indicated by a number of small white square stones that have a D for Deutschland on one side and an Ö for Österreich on the other.
This allowed me, for my own amusement (and probably nobody else's...), to set my tripod up with one leg on the border and one leg in each country in order to take the following photograph. My thought was that the top part of weather station looked a bit like a droid...
It may be that a lack of food and lack of sleep were affecting my thinking at this point :)
Breakfast helped restore some of my capabilities and I decided to head back across the border and make a visit to the village of Gosau and the lakes at Gosausee which was about an hour's drive into Austria, near to the mighty peaks of Dachstein.
In this part of the Northern Limestone Alps the geology is just right to produce spectacular jagged peaks similar to the Dolomites in Italy, making it very attractive to look at and of course to photograph.
From Gosausee you can journey to higher ground by cable car but on this occasion I decided to stay closer to the ground and hike along the path to the the upper Gosau lake. I did not study the signs very carefully but it was possible to see that the route was "suitable for families" and should take about an hour and a half.
As it turned out this route would require quite a bit of effort as it included a number of sustained climbs along the way, it was quite hard going in the early summer sun. Certainly it was suitable for families, as evidenced by the number of frustrated and tearful children I passed by the side of the road on my way. The hour and a half estimate was probably accurate enough for the downhill journey back to Gosausee but for the uphill outward journey I think that it was over-optimistic.
After reaching the upper lake I continued round the lake to the most welcome sight of the day, the Hohe Holzmeisteralm restaurant, where I could refuel with some cold drinks and a plate of bratwurst. The views around the Gosau lakes were spectacular but the light was too harsh to make for successful photography. I made my way back down the hilly path and drove back to the attractive Gosau village.
It seems to me that the Germans and Austrians have a huge appreciation for the beautiful scenery of their home lands, they seem to be at their best when out in nature and quite at peace with their surroundings. You almost always get a friendly greeting from the "locals" whenever you meet them whereas other tourists tend to be a little more suspicious.
After wandering around the village for a while I had a look at the map to see what I might do next and realised that I was rather close to Hallstatt, an idyllic village which is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I have tried on a number of occasions to organise a short trip to Hallstatt but the hotels there seem to be permanently full (or at least the ones that mere mortals can hope to afford are permanently full), so I decided to go there and check it out rather than returning directly to Berchtesgaden.
Hallstatt, as it turns out, is quite the tourist trap. As you approach by car you are carefully funnelled towards a sequence of car parks (costing about €3 per hour for the first few hours) from where you continue your visit on foot. The village itself is very nice, but also very touristy, and packed with people. When it comes to photography there, it is of course possible to find different views with varying levels of interest, but the main view is only easily photographable from one single public place - a 10m long gap beside the road from where you can get a view of the church against it's mountain backdrop. This space was packed with photographers.
I realised that I did not like the place enough to visit it again, so I decided to get some food and wait for dusk so that I could try and get a decent picture from the one viewing place. I believe that the best time to be there would have been sunrise, the village being in shadow well before sunset due to the mountains, but an early evening shot would have to do. As I got back to the car I could see that I had exceeded 40 thousand steps for the day, and it felt like it. The journey back to my accommodation in the dark was a careful one.
A new day dawned and it was time to change locations - the final two days of my trip would be in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, revisiting some locations from my earlier trip where the weather was mostly un-cooperative.
On that occasion my main target was the hillside above Geroldsee, where some alpine cabins decorate the sloping field with the lake and the mountains in the background. I didn't get what I wanted then, so I continued the search for the right conditions on this trip.
The mountains leave the scene largely in shadow at sunset (at least at this time of the year) and also partly at sunrise, so the ideal combination for Geroldsee is probably to have mist which endures for an hour or so after sunrise, allowing some diffused light to illuminate the scene.
When my alarm went at 0430 the following morning the conditions looked quite promising, clear-ish but not quite totally clear. As I drove towards the small village of Gerold the conditions changed dramatically... there was a very thick, very local, rather wet mist hanging over the area - visibility of about 50m.
Things did not quite look so promising at this point, but I still thought it might work so I climbed the hill to get to a good shooting position, my feet truly soaked by the long wet grass of the meadow. The time of sunrise came and went without any major changes in visibility, this may have been a boring passage of time if I had not been joined by a fellow photographer (and optimist) - Patrick Weinhold had arrived and set his tripod up near to mine.
As the sun rose and the mist burned away, we were rewarded for our patience.
It was good to meet Patrick and discuss various photography locations in the area, you can often meet interesting people when setting up your tripod in different locations.
On this occasion the mist made a couple of small comebacks before finally being defeated, offering good variations in the scene, and we tried to make the best of our chances.
This was a good morning after all and I was quite satisfied with events as I walked back towards my car and said goodbye to Patrick and his dog.
I returned to the Werdenfelserei hotel (where I was staying), a completely new hotel which just opened recently, and restored my energy with a truly excellent breakfast. It was a good choice to stay at this family owned hotel, there were still some finishing touches being put to the premises by the builders (it really was that new) but this did not interfere with the experience and it was possible to see immediately from the moment you walked into the reception that they are going to try and do things in the right way there. If they can continue that approach after a month, a year and a decade then it will be a big success.
After breakfast, it was time to get high. Almost 3000m high in fact as I headed to the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany at 2962m. The weather remained variable, cloudy with clear patches, which meant that there was a real risk of not being able to see much at the summit, but this was my only chance to be there so I went anyway.
There are two easy ways to get to the summit of the Zugspitze - you can take the cog wheel train through the mountain to the skiing station and then a short cable car ride to the summit, or you can take the Eibsee cable car directly from the valley floor (beside the beautiful Eibsee lake) up to the summit.
At the ground level cable car station I was able to read that the cable car broke three world records - the longest unsupported span of wire, the biggest difference in altitude from bottom to top and the tallest support tower - for a cable car. This is all very impressive... but if you are slightly nervous about cable cars you really dont want to hear that - you want to know that it has world records for being the safest, smoothest and least frightening.
Despite some reservations, the journey into the clouds was a smooth one. The cable car ascends quickly (the entire journey takes less than ten minutes, the gondola travelling at nearly 40km/h), the first section is a short one, connecting the ground station to the lone support tower (a 127m tall pylon - meaning that you are over 120m off the ground when the car passes). From there the rest of the journey is without support along the the 3213m wire which stretches between the support tower and the summit. The ride as a whole takes you from an altitude of 973m to one of 2950m.
Upon reaching the summit the visibility was about 100m... there was nothing much to see apart from the activities of the Alpine Choughs which were very actively circling above the bratwurst eating visitors on the sun terrace, looking for scraps.
I spent a couple of hours at the summit, hoping for some breaks in the weather, but was not lucky. That is my second time to stand at the very top of Germany, and on both occasions there was nothing much to see... maybe one day I will be third time lucky.
After descending from the mountain I decided to make the short trip to the village of Wamberg... following a narrow single-track road as it wound it's way up a steep slope. I am not 100% sure that it was allowed to drive that road, I could not understand the German signs... so I was prepared to explain that I was an ignorant and apologetic tourist if anyone objected to my presence. At the top of the winding hill there was a beautiful scene... some mountain cabins with the village church in the background. The weather was cloudy, blocking the mountains, and it was the wrong time of day... but this could be an excellent location in the right light. Another time...
In the evening it was time to return to Eibsee, at the foot of the Zugspitze, where I hoped for interesting evening light so that I could take pictures of Frillensee, a very small but very beautiful lake. The light let me down on this occasion, so I tried to find some alternative shots that did not require a beautiful sky.
The next day was sadly my last one for this trip, I always feel so at home when spending time in southern Germany. On my way back to Munich airport I made a slight detour to check in on another favourite destination, the spectacular Neuschwanstein castle. This castle is an amazing subject for photography but it is undergoing renovations at the moment and the main gate is covered in scaffolding, spoiling the views that I like the most at this location. Another hazard is the huge swarm of tourists that gathers every day to visit the castle, so I confined myself to having a look from far away... I mean to revisit this location in a few months after the renovations are completed.
Thanks a lot for reading this post!
Until the next time,
It seems it has been nearly 4 weeks since my last confession... apologies for the delay... the temperature rose suddenly here in Finland and all the plants released their pollen at once, during a period which has been completely without rain. The allergen onslaught has reduced me to a sneezy, snotty, snivelling state which did not help my productivity as I tried to edit my photographs from a trip to Vienna at the start of May.
Vienna, the beautiful capital of Austria, is truly a remarkable city. As with many of Europe's historical capitals, the richness and variety of the architecture and the extravagance of some of the buildings is quite breathtaking. Even amongst it's European rivals I think that Vienna stands out as one of the most impressive cities.
A fine example of this is the majestic building that houses the Natural History Museum (NHM). This imposing palatial structure dates from the end of the 19th century and opens out to an attractive area of gardens, statues and fountains. In many cities there would be no equal for this magnificent building, but this is Vienna - there is an externally identical building at the opposite side of the gardens, this time housing the Art History museum.
The interior of the NHM is perhaps even richer than its exterior due to the period decoration and furniture as well as the fascinating exhibits.
There are so many highlights in Vienna that it is necessary to be selective, I could have been there for many months without running out of subjects, so on this occasion I mostly focused on the lavishly ornate interiors of some of Vienna's beautiful buildings.
Although the NHM and the Art History Museum have identical exteriors the interior space is slightly different, the Art History Museum allows a view down onto the cafe area which you cannot currently get in the Natural History equivalent.
Although the attractions of the old city are concentrated into a reasonably small area, it is still necessary to cover considerable distances in order to visit many of them. In this situation the Vienna U-Bahn is a most valuable resource, by far the easiest and quickest way to move around the city.
My next stop was the Albertina museum, where the period decoration of the opulent staterooms was the main attraction. Perhaps my readers live in a different style of surroundings, but at least to me these rooms were like something from a far off dream.
Wandering around these rooms makes you think that an Austrian version of Downton Abbey might have a rather different colour palette to the original.
As well as the extragavant state rooms the Albertina museum also hosts major art collections (their website proclaims - "from Monet to Picasso, from Chagall to Richter: The ALBERTINA Museum holds works by all of modern and contemporary art history’s great artists") and other exhibitions of artworks and photographs.
Having surrounded myself with these wonderful period interiors for a few hours I decided on a change of tempo and travelled on the U-Bahn to the Donau City area of the city where the the buildings are hundreds of years newer. A particular attraction from my point of view is the DC Tower 1 designed by Dominique Perrault. This building is quite remarkable in that it manages to simultaneously feel geometric and organic. It might be that some of the window offices on the most slanting parts of the building would feel somewhat exposed, and some others might be somewhat in the shadows... but for the outside observer these issues are irrelevant.
A second DC Tower is beginning its construction phase and promises to be an interesting addition to the area. In fact there are a number of interesting buildings Donau City and it was most refreshing to walk around there.
As I have visited different cities over the past few months I have learned to seek out interesting staircases in each destination as their spiral design often makes an excellent subject for photography.
While researching the staircases of Vienna I came across someone who has taken the interest in staircase photography to a whole new level. Christian Öser is a press photographer and author based in Vienna who has taken pictures of hundreds of staircases from all over Europe.
I reached out to Christian to discuss our shared interest and he was kind enough to help me find some great staircases in Vienna.
It is always interesting to see the different "faces" of each staircase (depending on whether you are shooting up, down or at an angle) and also to see the huge variations in appearance that each staircase brings.
Thanks a lot to Christian for his assistance in adding to my staircase collection... now I am only about 200 staircases behind :)
My journey continued with a visit to the State Opera House where I joined a guided tour (as far as I could tell this is the only legal way to get into the theatre with a camera).
I can admit that I paid more attention to my camera than I did to what the tour guide was saying, but I anyway got a good sense of the logistical challenges of enabling multiple performances and rehearsals of different operas on the same stage every single day.
The tour took us through a succession of beautiful rooms, once you get past the magnificent main hall you can see that the rest of the building maintains that high standard.
One big problem with Vienna... I am running out of adjectives to describe these interiors... but I still have more places to mention.
Otto Wagner is perhaps the most famous Viennese architect, responsible for many of the capital's beautiful buildings, and credited with influencing future generations of architects in Vienna and beyond. I decided to travel to one of his buildings, the Post Office savings bank.
Thankful for having had a short break from the buffet of rich colours I was able to head back into the centre to tackle my next destinations, once again making good use the U-Bahn.
One place which is easy to overlook, but definitely worth a visit, is the Austrian National Library where it is possible to visit the splendid staterooms on a "look but don't touch" basis.
Another somewhat hidden gem is the Palace of Justice. This building is still in active daily use and you need to go through "airport style" security in order to enter but nonetheless it is open to the public and you can even visit the rooftop cafe. The interesting part for me was the main hall and staircase, a large space with a central statue which reminds me slightly of the main hall in Natural History Museum in London with its statue of Darwin.
With that, it is time for me to sign off... Vienna is an amazing city and it has wonders around every corner, I hope that it is not my last visit there.
Thanks for reading this far, this post was longer that I expected!
P.S. - I will leave you with one more U-Bahn picture...
Earlier this month, during my trip to the west of Iceland, one great highlight was a whale watching boat trip, organised by Laki Tours, in the waters of the North Atlantic off the Snaefellsness peninsula.
After some extreme weather caused a postponement, the trip was rescheduled to the final day of my time in Iceland and was also moved from Grundarfjörður to Olafsvik in order to be closer to the most recent sightings of whales.
There seemed to be about 50 other people gathering for this trip at the appointed time and place, one by one our names were checked and we were given a weatherproof all-in-one suit to wear for the voyage. I wondered whether I would need this seeing as I was already wearing more layers than ever before.... but at the prospect of being in the open air on the open ocean for a few hours in winter conditions I decided just to put the suit on top of what I already had. Good decision.
After we boarded the boat, it was time to choose where to stand. As I was hoping to take pictures of any whales that we might see I wanted to try and have a good vantage point that would be as free as possible of people so that I could be a bit flexible in my own position. Based on this guesswork, and an assumption that the whales could appear in any direction at any time, I decided to start off at the back of the boat on the lower level... which was deserted compared to the forward sections of the boat.
Luckily this day was the calmest and clearest of my seven day spent in Iceland... but there was still a pretty strong wind. This was just right to allow the many sea birds in the area to either position themselves against the wind and hover motionless without effort... or fly with the wind at their back and achieve remarkable speed.
As we made our way from Olafsvik, heading west in a line roughly parallel to the shoreline of the Snaefellsness peninsula but a couple of miles offshore, the sea quickly imposed its own rhythm on the boat. For those, like myself, who have not spent a great deal of time on boats, the rolling and heaving might take a little while to get used to... but after a few minutes it became a lot easier to deal with. This was however the North Atlantic and it was most important to have something to hold on to if you were to remain upright and onboard (both of which seemed like a good idea).
The guides for our trip kept us well informed at all times, using the PA system of the boat to firstly explain what we were doing and where we were going, then to indicate the location of any sightings (using points of the clock relative to the boat - e.g. "killer whales at 3 o'clock") and also to provide great information about the animals we were seeing and points of interest on the shoreline that we were passing. The guides showed real knowledge and expertise, they were scientists and conservationists rather than tour guides and that made a big positive difference to the experience.
It was not long before the first killer whales were sighted, at 12 o clock... not much use for me at the back of the boat... and at 6 o'clock - now we are in business.
The first sight of these amazing animals was a great moment... but it immediately became clear that this was not going to be easy from photography point of view. I am very used to fast moving and unpredictable targets, birds provide a great example of that kind of challenge... but when you are photographing birds you usually have the option of remaining still while trying to follow them.
In this case the boat was generally moving in a certain direction, but rolling and heaving to a greater or lesser extent while doing so. The sea was also moving significantly, the waves easily high enough to conceal a fin or a tail for a second or two. The whales themselves also move, and spend the majority of the time underwater... which of course renders them invisible. Finally the photographer is also moving, trying to compensate for the motions of the ship and maintain a view of the expected whale location.
Luckily, the whale sightings were regular and frequent. Possibly 20 or 30 occasions in total during the 3 hour trip although not all of those were visible from all parts of the boat. This allowed for some practice and a chance to try and refine the ideas of how to photograph them. An additional challenge was the randomness of where they would appear. They could be 100m away... or suddenly appear 10-15m away. For this a zoom lens was a real benefit so that you could adapt to the situation. I used a 100-400mm lens but if I was doing it again I think that a 70-200mm f4 might be a good choice. With longer focal lengths the motion of the ocean and the movement of the whales made it extremely hard to keep the target in the frame... especially when it was necessary to hold on to the boat with one hand. A 70-200 f4 would still give some reach and some flexibility while being a little bit smaller and lighter, all of which would be helpful in keeping the target in the frame.
Next, we had a great positive surprise, a sperm whale had been sighted - the first one of the season.
Our guide was most excited by this and told us what to expect, a big breath and then the flukes raised high into the air as it dived for the depths. I positioned myself and watched... following the whale with my right eye through the viewfinder and the other eye directly. I heard the guide commentating on the event, I saw it with my left eye... and watched with horror through the viewfinder as the motion of the boat positioned someone else between my camera and the whale at just the wrong moment. My left eye saw the iconic sight of the mighty tail above the water... my right eye saw the camera taking an out of focus picture of the jacket of the person in front of me. At this point some descriptive words expressing a hint of disappointment may have escaped my lips but I shall not record those here.
There was no time for remorse... the action was happening thick and fast... a killer whale was following us.
Now I could certainly say I had pictures of killer whales... but what I wanted was good pictures of killer whales. I tried to evaluate what that would be now that I understood the possibilities a bit better. There were two things coming to my mind, firstly I wanted to see the head of the whale... not just the fin, not just the tail... the head. This was a bit tricky because you have to be shooting at the time the whale breaks the surface, not reacting after the event... and up until that instant they are almost completely invisible. The second thing that came to my mind was to find an opportunity to capture whales with a bit of a wider view, showing the mainland and the snow covered mountains in the background. That was a less demanding shot... but required the right angle to avoid the harsh sunlight and also required a cooperative whale.
The experience of seeing these animals continued to be awesome while the perfect pictures continued to be elusive... fin, tail, out of focus, out of frame, fin... I started to question whether these particular whales actually had heads.
At last... a whale with a head!
Then I found a new difficulty :) I spotted a killer whale a fraction of a second before it emerged, it was close enough, I did my part with the camera, I got a shot.... and realised that the splashes of water that accompanied its emergence would prevent the whale's head from being visible... but now at least I had a picture with a blowhole visible.
This was the closest I got to a good picture. I think that it would be easier a second time, and with a combination of skill and luck it would be possible to get some fantastic pictures from these trips, but it is far from easy.
The scenery on the shore was quite beautiful as we made our way back to Olafsvik. It was not the first occasion on this trip that I saw a church in the middle of nowhere at the foot of spectacular mountains... and it would not be the last.
Throughout our journey, the sea birds were flying happily overhead. I find identifying gulls to be very confusing as there are many different kinds and they change their look more than once on their way from juvenile to adult, inconveniently resembling other species at other stages. So... I am ready to be corrected in my identification attempts for the following individuals.
Overall this trip was a breathtaking experience. It was simply fantastic to be out in the Atlantic with these beautiful animals in their natural environment. The Laki Tours guides, with their obvious expertise and genuine affection for the whales made a great contribution to the experience and I think they made it as accessible as possible for all participants. I cannot recommend this highly enough, if you have the chance to go on one of these tours then be sure to grab it with both hands... or on second thoughts you should leave one hand free to hold on to the boat... but you know what I mean.
Until next time,
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