THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Tuscany wrap up and slideshow

Last night I attended a splendidly jolly 65th birthday party but today I am finally winding down after all this month's excitements. . An email came in from the Felsina winery in Tuscany authorising (in fact rather charmingly encouraging) the publication of some of the shots I took there. My favourite is this one. It's a close up of a row of barrels, emphasising the distinctive glass airlocks on the top designed, would you believe it, by Leonardo Da Vinci.


The others are more general views...


of the different types of barrels. 


Finally, here's a 720p version of the final slideshow prepared by mi amigo Ari Espay of our work on the Joe McNally Tuscany workshop. 

 All images are © the photographers mentioned at the end of the slideshow and all their rights are reserved. I hope you enjoy it.

Home again

After a simple but decent breakfast at my Holiday Inn Express in Dijon, I set off in relatively cool air. I decided to try to do the whole journey with the roof down. At 24º Celsius that made sense but by 11.17 am when I stopped for fuel it was 29º and I was feeling sleepy in such heat. I normally try to combine Speranza's refreshment with my own to minimise pit stops but that made no sense at that hour. So I bought a picnic lunch (including Red Bull to deal with the sleepiness), put the roof up and turned on the air-conditioning to keep me alert and my food fresh.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 21.40.48
I was well North by the time I stopped for lunch at one of those charming French "aires" that make one ashamed of the squalor of our Motorway service stations. I took my lunch bag up a hill to a bench under a tree and spent a pleasant hour in the shade reading from my phone. One of the blog posts I read was about motoring in France and persuaded me to try harder to keep within shouting distance of the speed limits for the final run to Calais. Irritated as they are by our cavalier attitude to their speed cameras, the French police apparently like to lay traps for Brits in a hurry to catch ferries and Eurotunnel trains on that stretch.

The temperature had cooled as I headed north so I put the roof down and set out for a more law-respecting leg of my journey. This was an excercise in itself. It's all too easy to let Speranza get to jail-time speeds. She lacks the cruise control I used a lot in my days with Vittoria. Hitting "resume" after an overtake was a good way to rein in one's thoroughbred, I found. So instead I resorted to finding local drivers keeping to a speed that suited me (10-15 kph over the limit - a €135 spot fine at worst) and using them as my pace men. With the aid of three such French gentlemen, I completed my 560km run to Calais entirely without incident. I shall never know if any of them noticed or, if they did, found it odd that they were being shadowed. Along the way I also provided a lot of pleasure to French boy racers who got to overtake a Ferrari on the autoroute.

I arrived at the Eurotunnel a good two hours ahead of my planned departure but had an expensive "Flexiplus" ticket that allowed me to use any train I pleased. I had an afternoon tea in the Flexiplus lounge before catching the next train. The worst part of any such Continental road trip is returning to the chaos of roads in Britain's south-east. It's shocking how much government has neglected the infrastructure in the most productive wealth-creating parts of the country; preferring to tax them to subsidise other parts that have not been  net contributors since before World War II! A couple of accidents brought traffic to a near standstill in both directions on the M25 at different times on my short journey back to London. There was also a serious assault in a service area that led to a petrol station being closed while the police investigated. Fortunately I had refuelled immediately after leaving the Eurotunnel train so that was not an issue for me.

I arrived home tired but happy and put Speranza to bed and back on her "battery conditioner" until the next trip. I shall now put myself to bed too as I have a busy day of pleasure tomorrow. Normal blogging service will resume shortly, though I hope first to post a link to the slideshow our tutors made of our best photos in Florence and Tuscany.

Heading home

I arrived at Cusago, just outside Milan last night in an oppressive 36ºC. I woke this morning to find there had been an enormous thunderstorm. The atmosphere was lighter, the air was cooler and it was not the sweaty chore I had expected to load the car. I breakfasted in style and set off towards the Alps. I did a few circuits of the neighbourhood first though as I navigated and re-navigated a newish set of roads leading to the autostrada. I had a wonderful run, managing to introduce drama only by refusing to fill up on non-premium fuel at a station in the Alps that didn't offer it. Instead I put 10 litres of regular in and pressed on planning to dilute it with the good stuff as soon as possible. I ended up having to leave the autostrada and go hunting for a garage that was open on a Sunday in a tiny Alpine village. I found one, worked out its automatic payment system (cash only) and more or less filled up before setting off again for the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Speranza at a below the salt gas station in the Alps with no premium fuel for her

There were no queues and the tunnel was quiet. I was soon through and back in France. The temperatures were rising well into the thirties again, so I kept my roof up and basked comfortably in the air conditioning. I took a break to eat a modest picnic lunch. After a long day (I gave up some progress yesterday to have time to visit Enzo Ferrari's birthplace) I arrived back at my modest hotel in Dijon.

Tomorrow I strike out for home.

Wine and song

The final critique session yesterday was a revelation. I have been on many photo workshops but have never seen such progress in a week. Valeria, an Italian lady (and an authentic character who has raised smiles all week) had brought her new DSLR camera – her very first. She began with the kind of work one might expect from a novice but under the guidance of Sensei and the rest of the faculty she submitted assured, intelligent photographs for the final review. Others did just as well and there were many photographs of which I was more than a little envious. The best of the week, in my humble opinion, was by Irene, a Scottish photographer who has been on all three of the courses with Joe McNally that I have attended. Her picture of Suzie the pasta chef's hands was stunning.

I was reasonably happy with my work but the law of diminishing returns applies in artistic as much as economic endeavours. My inability to cope with temperatures between 35ºC and 40ºC also meant that I did not – to be honest – put in a full shift. I will post a link to the final slideshow when our teachers have shared it with us and you can judge the quality of our group's work for yourselves. All the photos in the show are by students. There are none by the distinguished teachers.

Tammie, one of our group, has also been blogging if you'd like to read more. If you are at all interested in photography you should visit the websites of Joe "Sensei" McNally, Liza "the Chief" Politi and Ari - mi amigo - Espay, our faculty for the week. You can also find Joe and Ari on Instagram. You might also check out the Instagram feed of Italian photographer Fiorella Baldisserri who was with us.

Our work done we adjourned to a hostelry on the other side of the river. Bread was broken, wine was quaffed, laughter rang out and, yes, some songs were sung. Your humble blogger's rendition of "That's amore" went down quite well and the Chief surprised all with a moving rendition of a blues song. The group's diplomat Ashley went to apologise to neighbouring diners for our raucousness and ended up making such friends with them that several of us joined them at their table.

After sleeping it off, the last valiant few breakfasted together at our highly-recommended hotel. If you're going to Florence (and you should) it is by far the coolest place to stay. It's an ultra modern, achingly hip hotel staffed by friendly and courteous young Italians. It's comfortable, it's elegant and it's located on the most fashionable shopping street. It's also in the shell of a splendid old palazzo that is itself a part of Florence's history. Equally magnificent in a far more rustic way was our hotel in the Tuscan countryside, the Castello di Gargonza. The staff there really couldn't do enough for us and the food was as great as the historic surroundings. No commercial consideration was given for either of these endorsements.

After breakfast Speranza was retrieved from valet parking, duly washed and valeted. We set off cheerfully to Modena, to visit the Museo Enzo Ferrari, which is located at the great man's birthplace over his father Alfredo's workshop. There's an impressive new building opposite the old family home and a spectacular collection of cars, engines and trophies. It was a little sad to think that Speranza's sister California – or indeed the €1 million Ferrari LaFerrari – on display will never command the open road or the track as they should. So many of these magnificent machines sit unused in private and public collections, when they should be driven often and hard. I like to think that Speranza, if sentient, would be happy to be one of the few Ferraris to fulfil her destiny. I passed 65,000 miles of driving her on this trip and will pass 66,000 before we get home.



Then it was on to Milan for an overnight stay in a rather up itself suburban hotel before heading for France tomorrow.



La dolce vita in Florence

Last night I decided to make the effort to go out after all. I was glad that I did. Our whole group was invited to the home of Paolo and Tiziana, a local couple who are friends of some of our teachers.  They made us welcome to their beautiful home; a fifth floor apartment with amazing views (as pictured here) of the city's skyline on one side and across the river towards Piazzale Michelangelo on the other. They wined and dined us until our jollity overflowed into song. This persuaded Paolo to sing some opera, in Italian, which rather shamed our amateur efforts. After our exertions in the heat of Tuscany and Florence it was delightful to relax in someone's home and to enjoy such personal and personable hospitality.


This morning we were outside the hotel at 0800 for the group photograph before setting off to the Duomo. A hardy sub-group had tickets to climb the campanile. The rest of us did our humble best at ground level until, as arranged by our local friends, we were granted privileged admission before the general public. Two Italian soldiers and a Humvee were stationed right outside. It's sad that in the current climate of terror we must fear someone would damage such a magnificent part of Europe's heritage.

This afternoon we have our final class and critique session. I will see Siena through the eyes of my classmates who were there in the blazing sun yesterday. I am told it reached 40ºC at one stage so I don't regret my decision to skip that outing. The workshop ends with the "farewell dinner" this evening and Speranza and I will hit the road tomorrow morning after breakfast to drive back towards England.

Pasta and Wine

Considering how selectively I shot in the previous day's blazing heat, I was happy with my "selects" for the critique yesterday. After class we adjourned to a restaurant where "Suzie" the chef had agreed to a pasta making demo / photoshoot. The area set up for the purpose was ablaze with natural sunlight from a large French window, so sensei hung a bedsheet over that to form a huge "lightbox." He then set up a studio flash outside to mimic the sunshine he'd tamed in controllable form. Another flash inside the room was slaved to provide "fill". The objective was that the lighting set up would not be apparent to the viewer, who would think we had just been blessed with perfect natural light. You can judge if we succeeded from my shot of Suzie (a patient, charming lady who rolled and chopped contentedly for over an hour).

Suzie (1 of 1)

The unusual heat (over 30℃) was already getting to me. Even more so in the box of frogs formed by my fellow photographers writhing and dancing around our subject. I didn't serve my full stint in command of the lighting set up. I got my shots quickly and adjourned to a cooler spot. After lunching on the pasta we'd watched made (I was too hot to eat and skipped that) we were due to head off for a wine tasting and photo shoot at a vineyard, Felsina. Wine and olive oil have been made there since the days of the Etruscans.

We spent an interesting and pleasantly cool hour or so among the barrels of maturing Chianti, Spumante, dessert wine and their "Super Tuscan" brand Fontalloro. I can't show you any of the pictures alas, as the company made prior approval of published pictures a condition of allowing us such free access. I have been promised an email address of someone who can approve my shots, but immediacy is in the nature of a travel blog so by the time that happens it will be too late. You can see their pictures at their website. The most interesting part of the day was watching sensei make a portrait of the vineyard's owner and management team. I love to watch any expert at work. 

The wine tasting was fun and I particularly liked the Super Tuscan. I was enjoying it so much that I offered to buy wine for everyone on condition that we cancelled our excursion to photograph the raw ingredients while being grilled by the Tuscan sunshine. Such enthusiasts are my colleagues that this (I thought) compelling offer was emphatically rejected. I was by now operating well outside my design parameters for temperature management. I stayed on the air conditioned bus while they frolicked among grapes that will be of no interest to any sensible person for years yet!

Then it was back to our Tuscan home at Castello de Gargonza for our last night there. We had a splendid buffet dinner in a garden. The night sky was of such a rich dark blue that several of my visually-acute photographer pals could scarcely digest for their artistic glee. While they got their jollies their way, I gave the good Tuscan wine the full respect it deserved.  I sat at the same table as the Italian contingent of photographer/interpreters. Much international goodwill was generated over toasts. We exchanged idioms that foreign language speakers would never normally learn. I now know how to respond if insulted by an Italian. If an Italian photographer in London tells you it's "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey", you will be detecting my influence!

Hands were raised before bedtime to indicate who was up for a dawn photoshoot at 0515 today. Mine was not among them. I rose at a sensible hour and packed for our return to Florence. This was meant to be via Siena. I had been looking forward for months to that. I have been to Tuscany before but never to that city. Sadly that visit is still on my bucket list as I decided I would not be able to cope with hauling my camera kit around a city centre in these temperatures. Leaving Leslie,  a charming artist from New York who is my usual companion on these runs, to ride with the main group on the bus, I headed directly to Florence. My plan was to relax and decide whether I could cope with tonight's planned event. We are all invited to a garden party at the home of a Florentine "aristocrat" (an odd pretension in a Republic). The jury is still out on that one as I write this.

Tomorrow is our final day. We shoot the Duomo in the morning and then meet for a final class over a working lunch. There's then a break while the faculty create a slideshow of our best work to be viewed before our farewell dinner. As I have done in past years, I shall host the slideshow here and link to it for anyone who may be interested. There is a good range of photographic styles in this year's group, so I think you may enjoy it.

On the bus in Tuscany

After morning class yesterday (critiques of photos from each of the fourteen photographers on the workshop) we were bussed to Montepulciano. The idea was not so much to shoot the moderately pretty town, but to find some lunch. The midday sun does not make for attractive cityscapes.

I chatted with a couple of young Canadian ladies I met at lunch. They were doing a cycling tour in the Tuscan heat. I persuaded them that they should take the opportunity of meeting a group of photographers to pose for some portraits. They warmed rapidly to the idea and after I made some pictures of them, my colleagues shot them posing with their bicycles. 

Montepulciano etc-126
Montepulciano etc-126
Montepulciano etc-126
Montepulciano etc-126
Montepulciano etc-126

Then we bussed on to the pretty little town of Pienza to shoot in the better light of late afternoon. It was still too harsh for me and I had a couple of beers in the shade while my more enthusiastic class mates flattered locals into posing. One enthusiastic subject in his eighties really got into it and it was amusing to watch the resulting photo shoot over my beer from a distance. 

Then we bussed to a series of three locations to shoot Tuscan landscapes, enlivened by the presence in the foreground of Natalie, our resident model. She's a dancer by profession and risked limb if not life doing balletic leaps in cornfields as our shutters fired like muted machine guns. 

This went in so long that dinner back at the hotel was at 9.30pm. Rather than retire sensibly to bed I ended up falling asleep in my chair with my computer in my lap, having failed to complete my edit. I woke early in the morning and finished the job of identifying ten "selects" from the hundreds of shots taken. 

Flagging in Tuscany

We hit the road on Monday morning. We hit it slowly because the bus driver's lean and hungry look did not signal, like Cassius, that he thought too much, or perhaps at all. He was taken by surprise by road works that had been going on for days, by Monday morning traffic that must be routine and by the location of the hotel in a building that had stood there for centuries. In consequence the group waited outside in the heat with their bags for an hour and then had to carry them down the street to the nearest spot where he would deign to park.

None of this should have been my concern but Speranza and I waited for yon Cassius's input on where to meet in San Gimignano. His knowledge of that delightful town proved however not to extend beyond the coach park as to which his only information was that we would not be permitted anywhere near it.

The roadworks and an earlier accident on the autostrada made for a slow, tormented exit from the city. A colleague came along for the ride and we began with the roof down in anticipation of a boulevard cruise. After half an hour of near stationary baking while marinating in diesel fumes we put it back up for air conditioned relief.

Eventually we reached the winding Tuscan roads for which Speranza is designed and had a little automotive fun before a mad dog / Englishman climb up a steep dirt path from the car park. I love San Gimignano but a combination of sweaty exhaustion and happy memories of a family trip long ago tinged it with melancholy this time. I got one shot I liked of a stone head on a parapet before retreating to a dark cool interior for beer and ice cream.

The run from San Gimignano to our home in Castello de Gargonza was much more like it. The way was clear and winding, the scenery was scenic and as a Brit I had no cause to fear the controllo elettronica della velocita. Our hotel is a medieval village on a hill and is beautiful. I was too exhausted to join the introductory tour and may regret that later. At the time a cold shower and a clean shirt was a more enticing prospect. 

After a lighting demonstration in a garden washed with golden Tuscan light, we ended the day at an elegant table on a lawn and refreshed our artistic souls with local food and wine.

First full day of our Tuscany Workshop

Our workshop proper began on Sunday morning with a pre breakfast portrait shoot on the street outside our hotel with Natalie, our traveling model for the week. This was followed after breakfast with critiques of past work. Sensei took a look at four or five images from each of us to get an idea of where we are photographically. Given our numbers, this took all morning. 

We then took a long lunch break to enjoy the sunshine as tourists, rather than wrestle with its harshness as photographers. At 4.30pm we set off together to shoot street photography at the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria under the guidance of our tutors. At 7pm we reassembled to head up to the Piazzale Michelangelo to shoot at sunset.

Piazza Piazzale-427
Piazza Piazzale-427
Piazza Piazzale-427
Piazza Piazzale-427
Piazza Piazzale-427
Some "location attitude" was required to seize the best position and hold it as we waited for the best light. We had as much right to be there as anyone else but of course so did they. To pass the time Joe did a couple portrait shoot against the background of the city, demonstrating the use of flash to blend the subjects with the background. This drew an even greater crowd, including some of his fans who recognised him from online video tutorials and a lot of Chinese tourists who just wanted to shoot the models with their smartphones. As they pressed against us with an Oriental determination and a surprising lack of respect for personal space, I experienced a disquieting physical intimacy for which thirty years of marriage to an Englishwoman had not prepared me. 

Eventually the setting sun did its stuff and we did ours, waiting (unlike the hard pressing iPhone crowd) for the lights on the Duomo and other landmarks to come on at about 9.20pm. Then I adjourned to the terrace restaurant of a nearby hotel for a splendid late supper and some Brunello di Montalcino with two friends from NYC who were on the previous workshops I've done with Joe. 

Today, Monday, we leave Florence to head out into the Tuscan countryside.