Lost Cruising the fjords part three- Can I talk to a Norwegian yet?

After two days in Norway, and having learnt to at least enjoy the Norwegian scenery, I had decided that day three would be the day that I actually talked with someone who lived here.

And I did! Serge our lovely Spanish tour guide on the coach from Olden had been living in Norway for three months now and was able to fill us in on loads about the local way of life.

The scenery would have to do- fortunately it was quite special. We’d woken up in Olden to some quite cloudy weather which while magnificent, could go either way:

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We soon headed off in the coach to the valley of Stryn where the clouds lifted to this view of the lake:

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In the distance, at the back there, you can just make out the shine of one of the local glaciers which taunted us during the day. One of the features of a cruise is that on each day on land you have to choose your tours from a number of options and I had selected a long drive through scenery rather than a shorter glacier visit. Having visited an Icelandic Glacier earlier this year, I did know what I was missing and how amazing it might be.

Our next stop was way up in the mountains at Dalsnibba where we were actually able to look down through the clouds onto the Geraingerfjord:

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On our way down to the mouth of the fjord, we passed traditional Norwegian houses where they grow grass on the roof. They used to keep goats up on top of the houses to mow it- why on earth did they stop?

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In Gerainger, there was a magnificent waterfall:

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And then we were onto the fjord itself using a car ferry rather than a tourist ship to go along its length:

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A car ferry of course meant ordinary Norwegian passengers to chat to, but no it was just more tourists in their hired cars! More great views, though:

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We stopped next briefly at the lake of Horindalsvannet.

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With no time to further explore the lake itself, and no obvious Norwegians around to talk to, in what appeared to be a ghost town, I did enjoy seeing an appealingly run down hotel:

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And then we were back on the cruise ship sailing along our final fjord, the Nordfjord. The light was more than promising at first:

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The people in the farm house in the middle of the next snap came out to wave just after I took it- at last some in depth contact with actual Norwegians! I had achieved what I wanted and could get back to taking pictures in the gorgeous light:

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But as sunset approached, it was getting much plainer than the day before:

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Finally, in the twilight at the end of the day, we approached our last Norwegian wonder of Hornelen.

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The cliffs at Hornelen are the highest in Europe and we got in close, as the captain showed us a long fissure in the rock which will one day lead to the cliff collapsing into the fjord. With so much weight of rock this will almost inevitably lead to a terrible Tsunami along the length of the ford.

Getting in close to a cliff at night with a ship’s small flashlight strangely leads to only terrible photos which I will not show here!

As the last of the light disappeared, it was time to head out to open sea and slowly home:

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Lost Cruising the fjords part two- One Amazing Evening

In my last post you found me struggling to understand the point of a cruise, but that same evening I got a bit of a sense of why watching stunning scenery disappear out of reach could still be amazing.

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Clouds were descending as we left Flam in Sognefjord and headed up another branch of the fjord called the Naerofjord. This is meant to be one of the most stunning of all and is a Unesco world heritage site.

The cruise manager used the tannoy to tell us of the wonders ahead and briefly there was even a bit of a struggle for space on the deck as all the onboard entertainment paused so that we could take a look.

And then it started to rain and everyone went back inside.

They missed this:

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And this:

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The light kept changing as we continued on- sometimes just gloom over almost everything:

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At other times, pure magic as individual features of the landscape were spotlit:

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Later as we headed back along the length of Sognefjord and the sun started to go down, the show continued:

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At last the mixture of the changing light and the changing views made perfect sense- along with one other similarly insane photographer I was literally running the length of the deck from front to back to catch the changing views:

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Occasionally, I would rush back to see whether my dad needed another drink and then find that I had nearly missed a random rainbow:

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The wind was up at this point and at the front of the ship it was so strong that we had to take turns wedging ourself against the wall to stop ourselves being flung around, but it was worth it:

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Lost Cruising the Fjords – part One

I have never been at all keen about the idea if a cruise.

My idea of travel is to approach a new destination on my own terms and to get to know the locals and their character as I meet them.

Being shipped in to port after port with only a limited awareness of which one is which, has never had any appeal and yet a few weeks ago I found myself accompanying my 89 year old Dad on a cruise from Rosyth in Scotland to the Norwegian Fjords.

It seems pretty churlish when some people never get any holidays at all to complain about such a luxurious one, but on the first day I felt pretty grumpy.

There was admittedly a bit of excitement at the start as we approached the Forth Bridges (including the third one which is still being built:)

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But then, pretty soon, we were out at sea with nothing to be seen anywhere.

What interest I could get came from either watching the activity of the crew:

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Or an occasional encounter with something man made:

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But mostly I was bored and with my dad in tow, reverted a bit into grumpy teenage mode, waiting for something interesting to happen.

And then, on the evening of the second day, we made our approach towards the coast of Norway:

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Obviously, the light helped, but I could begin to see why so many love this kind of travel. Even though we were told the seas were quite rough, we felt little of this because of the size of the ship- there was something really majestic about our slow approach to the country.

I still could not shake the idea that we were not really out of the UK, though. On the second morning we woke up approaching Flam at the end of Sognefjord. This, I had read, was one of the most beautiful of the Fjords, but like all the rest of the passengers I had been asleep as we had travelled through the night up its 204km.

We disembarked for the first time and got into a tour coach to head to the Stegastein viewpoint. This is a platform which has been built into the mountains above the water so that cruise parties like ours can get a super quick view of the majesty of the fjords without having to do anything as prosaic as actually walking, before taking the coach back to the boat to the next spot.

What could be more artificial than this?

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But what a view:

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We got back in the bus and headed down to the town of Aurland to stretch our legs. Here was a bit of the kind of travel I was more used to. A nice small town with actually very few tourists clogging the streets and the chance to see actual Norwegians:

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There was a simple old church to explore:

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And an old house with fish drying outside:

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It had likely been left like that for tourists, but I could still persuade myself that I was properly travelling.

We headed back towards Flam itself and I again had some time to walk around this town. Flam itself is less appealing, being essentially a set of tourist shops selling expensive souvenirs, but it is easy to walk above and around the town for some awesome views:

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As I headed back towards our ship (in the distance in this shot) I had actually begun to feel I could enjoy this voyage even if I had not yet actually talked to an actual Norwegian.

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Iceland Part Two – Water

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My last post actually turned into a bit of a Geography lesson about the formation of the Icebergs and fjords and so on. Most out of character- it won’t happen again, but Iceland does odd things to you.

Today, I am on more familiar terrain with some thoughts about the process of taking photographs- this time of the many waterfalls in Iceland which present a bit of a problem to the visitor- they are just that bit too magnificent!

I am used to going to a British waterfall and seeing either a bit of a pathetic trickle or at the fiercest ones some kind of raging torrent which is difficult to define. These latter ones are often astonishing, but don’t actually necessarily look very nice. A huge expanse of tumbling water can be impressive rather than actually pleasing to look at. The more common pathetic ones force you to be more creative and I often get shots that I am  quite pleased with because I have got myself into exactly the one place where something seems to be happening in the water that day.

The problem, if it is one, with the Icelandic waterfalls is that they are so predictably magnificent, that many photographers have looked at them before and worked out exactly the shot that brings out their awesomeness years ago. So if you google Seljalandsfoss, for example, you will find shots from behind it of the Sun setting through the water. If you do the same with Skogafoss, people tend to like to place a solitary tourist at the bottom right of the picture to contrast against the full majesty and size of the spectacle and so on.

You can see the problem in my first picture above of the so called Witch’s hat mountain falls of Kirkjufellsfoss. A large proportion of photographers take exactly the position I did so that they get the waterfall in the foreground and the mountain behind. I stood there myself, cursing the fact that the top of the hat was in the clouds so I couldn’t get the “correct”shot, but actually now looking at it, it is this difference that makes it work for me.

All of the standard shots of the waterfalls  were  amazing pictures once, but I wanted somehow to do something different.

That is not to say that I haven’t got some of these things in my pictures- at Skogafoss, for example, I do have the lone people bottom right because they wouldn’t leave! The clichés are also hard to avoid for a really practical reason- the paths by some of these falls are quite dangerous and so there is a limit to the number of places that you are allowed to stand- composing in predictable ways can be difficult to avoid.

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But that shot is where I landed on what I wanted- I couldn’t get my difference at the falls themselves, so instead I looked for it later on my computer in photoshop.

In each of these pictures, starting with Skogafoss, I have developed a technique where I have reduced the colour in the majority of the image to virtually nothing, emphasised the contrasts between the blacks and the whites to a surreal level (in Skogafoss, there are even parts of the picture which are negatives of their original) and taken the levels of everything down to darkness from which I have gradually painted the light and sometimes the colour back in.

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Of course, even when trying to be original, I am influenced here- before going I had seen the amazing images of some of the same places by the photographer Andy Lee. He had taken infrared shots of the country, but the mood he creates is not dissimilar. I too took an infrared camera but got few pictures with it that work for me- here are two which did survive:

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They are OK, but not a patch on Lee’s, and it was actually with my standard camera and lens that I got the images that while sometimes familiar in composition,  are at least  different from the clichés. I like them more than my infared shots because they have allowed me gradually over the series to begin to paint back in little glimpses of the real colours in amidst all the gloom.

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Iceland Part One – Ice

Arriving in Iceland, just under two weeks ago after years assuming that this was pretty well top of any photographer’s bucket list, I can admit to feeling a bit underwhelmed. The area around Keflavik, the airport, is the flattest, drabbest part of the island and in our long drive around the south coast, as the landscape started to reveal itself through the grey clouds, the most obvious reference was the Isle of Skye where we had been a couple of months before- it seemed to be a bit like Skye, but with less stand-out one offs like the Old Man of Storr.

And then something made us park in a fairly unassuming lay-by where there seemed to be a few people heading up an embankment to look at something- we followed like the sheep that are everywhere on the Island and found this:

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We had stumbled on the exact reason we were in that part of the country, for this is the view looking from overhead at the Glacier Lagoon of Jökulsárlón.

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What you see in the pictures is an astonishing natural story. The huge expanse of white at the back is Breiðamerkurjökull a Glacier which itself is part of a much larger one, Vatnajökull. This last is the largest Ice cap in Europe covering 8% of the whole country and so large that it actually has several active volcanoes underneath it.

Probably because of global warming, the Glacier is retreating and has created this quite temporary attraction. Vatnajökull used to reach down to the sea and each summer, Icebergs would melt from the Glacier and float off into the ocean. Then in around 1948, as the Glacier retreated away from the beach, this lagoon started to be created and has grown rapidly, particularly in the last fifteen years when it has doubled in size.

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Geologists are divided about what will happen next. Many say that in twenty years or so, with further warming and further Glacial retreat, the lake will no longer be next to the edge of the Glacier and so will dry up. Others argue that it will continue to grow, or that what we are seeing here is the creation of a fjord.

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Whatever, the case, I can’t think of a place I have been where the natural processes of the planet are so obviously on display. the movement of the ice, for a start is fascinating to watch. You can see it yourself, if you like, on their live webcam. The Icebergs you see are enormous on the surface, but in fact up to four fifths of their size is below the surface and they move as they melt- at one moment while we were watching there was a huge crash as one rolled over.

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It means that each time you visit, it will look different and yet in out terms the greater changes are slow. It takes five years for a typical Iceberg to slide down the Glacier where it has been for a thousand years and then shrink and re-freeze over successive seasons to reach a size where it can pass out to the sea.

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In this picture:

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you can actually see the history of some of this journey as the black track marks on the Glacier behind lead down to the Iceberg which produced them. They are black because of those volcanoes I mentioned earlier- many of the Icebergs have lines of ash etched into them from centuries old explosions beneath the Glacier.

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Some of the icebergs are also a totally surreal blue which is the sign that they are made of particularly compacted ice with all of the air squashed out of it so that it refracts the light with that colour.

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An obvious effect of all of this for a photographer is a set of astonishing views which make you want to revisit again and again- I managed four stops in just three days, but most of all, you want to see it at different times of year- we were here in the summer, but in winter it freezes over and you get the Northern lights- I have to go back for that. At that time of year, you also have the chance of seeing many more seals- there is just the one, popping his head up if you can find him, in the shot above.

I had to satisfy myself with the almost midnight sun (sunset was actually around ten to twelve, but it never gets even close to dark) This light went on for hours and allowed me to create images like these and the one above- looking at these, it is difficult to believe that they are some of the least photoshopped pictures in my portfolio- this is what it actually looked like:

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Then if you walk a few hundred yards by Iceland’s smallest river you can get to the black sand beach where these 1000 year old giants end their journey as sharp shards of ice melting on the beach.

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There are other, less visited, Glacier lagoons in the area and we also went to this one at Fjallsárlón. This is smaller and amazing in a different way with so little room for the Glaciers to move, it feels like it is all going to spill over the edge.

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This one in disturbed colour infrared:

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Watching all of this Glacial activity makes you want to get closer to the great thing itself. All around the area, as you drive around you see Glacial tongues- bits of the Glacier which are seeping out between the mountains. It is highly dangerous to explore these on your own, but you can go with a trained guide and we took the opportunity to walk up the tongue of Fláajökull with Sindri Ragnarsson from the excellent Glacier Trips company.

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This is a real adventure- we had to take a boat across a small meltwater lake to the edge of the Glacier and then suit up with helmet, harness, crampons and ice axes, before climbing up onto the glacier. In the summer, the conditions change every day and in fact the tour had been impossible for the previous two. On the day we went, we could see where giant holes and crevasses had opened up below in the previous twenty four hours. When you listened you could hear the melt below, amplified by the ice to sound like a torrent beneath your feet.

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This summer melt is part of the normal process each year, but as we got up higher we could also see the full extent of the Glacier’s retreat in the last few years- the hills in the distance in the melt-water lake are called moraines- they are made up of rocks which were deposited by the Glacier several years ago when it reached its furthest extent before heading back on its slow retreat inland. Sindri told us that every year the scene here is dramatically different and the challenges he faces climbing up are ever changing.

For us as visitors, the challenge was what made this so much fun of course- we even got the chance to do a small bit of ice climbing up one of the small hills on which the Glacier has thrown up this year. We needed to pull ourselves vertically up the ice using our axes-  a moment of real triumph when we reached the top.

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Tuscany and Umbria

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My last post was about twenty-four hours spent in one small city, Porto. An opposite would be the three (so far) lengthy visits we have made over the years to our favourite areas of Tuscany and Umbria in Italy which have yielded barely any more pictures that I am proud of.

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It’s not that there is not a lot to photograph, instead it is the challenge of the familiar that makes it hard to be original.

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Obviously we need to go back.

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Running and Gunning in Porto

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My wife and I have a dream that when we retire we might spend months on end slowly exploring some of our favourite parts of Europe. So sometimes we end up flying in and out of a city on a cheap flight within 24 hours!

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It shouldn’t work for us, but sometimes the lunacy of such a quick trip makes for a really satisfying visit. One of the best times we did this was a few years back when we went to Porto.

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This is a really beautiful, walkable city where we could obviously have lingered, but on a quick visit we still managed to cover an enormous amount of ground. Porto has that great Portuguese character of an old city which has not been tidied up as much as most of Europe- there is still an edgy grunge to the place which somehow works.

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Photographers call this kind of approach “running and gunning” and it is actually sometimes quite a good way to see a place, particularly in a city like this where so many different styles of architecture and lifestyle seem to have been jumbled together with so little logic, but so much charm. You almost feel that if you were there for a proper amount of time, it would start to unravel under the weight of its oddness.

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