Home » architecture

This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.

But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.

My sister-in-law lives in The Jura, an area of Eastern France near the Swiss border. It’s not a particularly well-known part of the country and you’ll have to work hard to find it in many guide books (honorable exception: The Rough Guide To France). It’s a pretty part of the country, and plonked in the middle of a forest is a remarkable set of pre-revolutionary buildings: the Royal Salt Works (Saline Royale, for those of you who speak the lingo).

Royal Salt Works, France

Royal Salt Works, France.

It’s a remarkable sight for many reasons. The architect was Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), an architect in the neo-classical style (as you can see from the photographs). To me, his style can best be described as idealised form of classic architectural styles. Indeed, his grand plan for the salt works was an ideal city. It was one of his more ambitious projects and about half of the first phase was built before economic reality intervened (the site was constructed between 1774-79). Chaux was chosen because it was close to both the salt mines themselves, and also the forest — the energy source used to boil brine pumped up from the mines to extract the salt itself. Piping brine from miles away via wooden pipes was very inefficient, and huge quantities of wood were required to fuel the evaporation of what was left. In 1790 the salt works closed for good.

From a photographic composition perspective, the buildings offer regularity of form in their elements (like the alternating discs and squares of the columns, above) as well as massive scale. The photos were taken on a sunny afternoon in November, which really helps with the lighting: the sun doesn’t get too high in the sky at that time of year, so the light is softer, more golden colored, and leads to fewer harsh shadows.

I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers — “The Manhattan Of Tuscany”, as some tours call it.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers

It’s certainly on the tourist map these days, so here’s my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.

No-one should be rushed on a Tuscan vacation, so plan on arriving in time for lunch. Use the plentiful parking outside of the town and walk up the hill through the fortified gateway, heading for the Piazza della Cisterna — unmistakable for the well in the center. There you’ll find Hotel Cisterna; skip the tables outside and head inside and up the stairs to their restaurant “Le Terrazze”, with its fine views across the Tuscan hills. Settle in at a table with a view, and order their Asparagus Ravioli and a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano — grown on the slopes you can see from the windows. The ravioli is their speciality — fresh hand-made pasta with a beautiful green asparagus filling and sauce… to die for.

Remember this is Italy, so a couple of courses and some coffee or digestif is likely to take you a few hours — but that’s OK, because the light outside will be harsh and bright and not conducive to good photography. Float down the steps on your food high, past the well and into the Piazza del Duomo. Head into the cool interior of the 12th century church to get away from the heat of the day and marvel at the 14th and 15th century fresco cycles, the chapel and baptistry and museum of sacred art next door.

If shopping is your thing, then now is also a good time to wander down the streets checking out the local artwork, clothing, wine and food.

Wild boar and other local specialities
Wild boar and other local specialities

Heading back to the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the Museo Civico, where you can take in the artwork and also work off what’s left of lunch by climbing the steps to the top of Torre Grossa — the big tower. In theory, after a local ordnance issued in 1255, no other towers were supposed to be taller than the Torre della Rognosa, which you can see directly across the square from the church (duomo). In practice, as you can see with your own eyes, this was largely ignored — the very essence of Italian bureaucracy. By now, the sun should be much further down in the sky, making for better light and some great shots looking over the town to the Tuscan hills all around.

After the climb back down the tower, you might be in need of a pick-me-up, so head back to Piazza della Cisterna for ice cream at the award-winning Gelateria di Piazza. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the tour bus crowds melt away, leaving you to take great photographs in the incomparable Tuscan “golden hour”, as the locals come out for passagiata and to enjoy the evening.

Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine
Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine