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Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it’s easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

The trick is to look for a sticker on the power adapter or plug that tells you the input voltage. The magic words to look for are something like this: “100-240V AC 50/60Hz”. 100-240 tells you the voltage range: Europe standardized on 220 volts for its standard household power supply. So the voltage range on your device needs to cover 220 volts or more for your electronics to work in Italy, France and most of Europe. If your gadget can cope with a higher range, that’s OK too (e.g. “90-240”).  In all of these cases, you just need a simple (and cheap) plug adapter and the device itself will automatically adapt to the higher voltage.

Here’s a video that shows you the various plug adapters and how they work:

Almost all of today’s small electronics like cameras, mobile phones, laptops and chargers automatically adapt and you just need a plug adapter.

Devices that use more power, like hairdryers or portable kettles, almost always only work on US 110 volts. Check the label: if it says something like “120VAC” or a smaller range such as “100-130V” then you cannot use it in Europe without a voltage transformer. This is extremely important: if you plug a standard 120V hair dryer into 220V using a plug adapter, it will immediately burn out the dryer and may cause a fire.

The good news is that there are travel hairdryers etc. available that are designed to adapt to the voltage. But in general it is much harder to design a high power device that is adaptable to 110V and 220V, because to do so you need a very heavy and large voltage transformer.

External voltage transformers are available: they are rated by the amount of power they can supply, in Watts. So it might say on your electric kettle “1000W” — that means you need a transformer rated for 1000W or greater. Again, it can be dangerous to exceed the maximum rating of a transformer: it will eventually melt and may catch fire. The more transformer a converter can supply, the larger and heavier it will be, so beware of smaller adapters if you need a lot of power.

The simple approach? Take devices that don’t need voltage conversion. The good news is that these days, most of them don’t. Take a travel hair dryer rather than lugging around a high current transformer: it’s much lighter. Simply don’t take portable kettles and other high power devices.

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won’t work.

This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)

A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special?

Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:

Chianti wine regions
Chianti wine regions

The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions of which the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles.

There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

The official Chianti definition

The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti’s reputation has gone from “low-grade red” to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco.

In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. It didn’t fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn’t officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the “Super Tuscan” wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA “2 Buck Chuck”).

Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco 🙂

In October 2013, T-Mobile introduced a revolutionary new international cell phone capability — free data and text message roaming in 115 countries, and 20c/min for roaming voice calls. Could this be the best option for travelers looking to save money when in Europe and elsewhere?

1 Lodge Photo, France, angle, blue, cathedral, church, cite, dame, french, hugo, hunchback, isle, morning, notre, paris, stone, verticals, victor
Roaming in the shadows of Notre Dame for free?

International Roaming charges are insanely profitable for Verizon and AT&T. How do we know this? Easy: you can go to France or the UK and buy a pre-paid SIM card to get voice calls that cost between 8-15 cents per minute. You’re paying the highest price for those calls because you’re making no commitment whatsoever. Yet the same voice call, when purchased as international roaming from Verizon or AT&T, would cost you approx 99 cents. AT&T and Verizon have millions of customers who roam Europe making hundreds of millions of calls, so they surely pay a lot less than 8-15 cents. Let’s say that call costs them 3 cents/minute, which means AT&T and Verizon make over 95% profit. The costs to interconnect mobile networks are fixed and effectively zero compared to the revenue collected. Everyone in the mobile phone industry knows this, but only T-Mobile has decided to do something about it.

T-Mobile is offering free 128Kbit/sec data when roaming outside the US, along with free texting in 115 countries, including all the European Union states. Phone calls are 20c/min maximum. You’ll need a GSM World Phone (see here to learn what that means) and a T-Mobile SIM and account. The bad news: 128Kbit/sec isn’t exactly fast. It’s good enough for email and chat, but is very sluggish for website browsing — particularly complex websites like Google mail, Facebook etc. You’ll be much better off using the native apps for those rather than the websites.

You’ll only ever roam on 3G networks, because 4G LTE roll-out and roaming in Europe is in its very early stages, but that’s true today for AT&T and Verizon too. The good news: T-Mobile is offering something that no other US carrier provides today, and with their steadily improving US 4G LTE coverage, that makes T-Mobile far more attractive to customers.

Is it worth switching to T-Mobile to get these roaming advantages? That depends largely on where you live: if there is good T-Mobile coverage in your area, this could be a really great deal for travelers and not just because of free data roaming. T-Mobile also has a very generous unlocking policy for its phones, including the Apple iPhone (see here). This makes it much cheaper and easier for you to use pre-paid SIM cards when overseas. One thing to bear in mind is that T-Mobile uses different GSM radio frequencies to AT&T in the US, so if you plan to bring an existing phone to a new T-Mobile SIM card, read the small print on your phone. Here’s Apple’s page explaining how to find out if your iPhone 5 supports T-Mobile’s 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz frequencies.

Finally, you can also “buy up” to full speed data for relatively little: $15 for 100MB/day, $25 for 200MB/week. All in all, T-Mobile just made international roaming a much more competitive market, and that’s good for everyone. Learn more about using your AT&T, Verizon or Sprint cell phone in Europe here.

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices]

Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money?

If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on “I want to…” to get this menu

Click on “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):

International Services
International Services

Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.

International Roaming – Voice

The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…

International Roaming – Messaging

This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.

International Roaming – Data

There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:

  • 800MB for $120 is $0.15/MB
  • 300MB for $60 is $0.20/MB
  • 120MB for $30 is $0.25/MB

There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data. 

If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck.

If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.

Confirming your changes

The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up.

Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”.

“Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day.

One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.)

When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.

On the ground in Europe

To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges.

Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges.

Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail.

To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.

When you get back

Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left.

Enjoy your trip!

We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world’s longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery.

This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can’t tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse.

Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It’s quite an event in itself — there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade.

Once the horse is safely inside the contrade’s stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it’s considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!

 

Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.

Chianti, Europe, European, Italiano, Italy, Siena, Toscana, Toskana, amount, arranged, arrangement, beautiful, beauty, bosco, chocolate, colors, colours, cream, creamy, di, flavors, flavours, forest, fresh, fruit, fruits, frutti, gelateria, gelato, holiday, horizontal, horizontals, ice, inside, italian, large, lemon, mounds, of, pile, pistache, pistachio, raspberry, retail, row, shop, sienese, sweet, taste, tasty, tooth, tourism, travel, tuscan, tuscany, vacation, visit, visitors
Beautifully arranged mounds of fresh Italian ice cream await at a Gelateria in Siena, Italy.

Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of “+” instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe — which is handy for numbers you put into the phone’s memory or contact list. In my example, you’d dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe.

On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the “post dial delay”). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits — several seconds — because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn’t know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn’t required with mobile phones because you hit the “send” or “call” button at the end of the number.

One more thing about the ‘# at the end trick’: it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see!

Want to learn more about calling from Europe? See Using cell phones in Europe part 1, and using mobile data services (part 2)

Traveling with photo gear is much harder than it used to be. Airport security is becoming more and more restrictive. US airport security now has a ban on carrying rechargeable batteries without a container: they must be in a case and not loose in your bag. Multiply this with airport security staff of little understanding and the full authority of Homeland Security, and life can be difficult. So what can you do to minimize traveling friction and get yourself and your gear to your destination safely?

1 Lodge Photo, France, architecture, blue, butress, cathedral, church, dame, east, eastern, flying, french, gothic, notre, paris, sunny, towers, verticals
Paris Notre Dame: Flying buttresses, not flying problems.

Carry on carrying on

Aim to carry on your photographic gear as it is best protected and handled by yourself rather than in checked baggage. Unfortunately, there are more and more restrictions on the number and weight of carry-on items, especially on international flights. If you are going to carry a heavy camera and lenses in hand baggage, it is essential to find the restrictions on hand baggage weight beforehand. Go to the airline’s website and read the small print. British Airways has no restrictions on hand baggage weight, while Virgin Atlantic has a 6kg (roughly 12lbs) limit. I have found that Air France is particularly strict and inflexible when it comes to carry on baggage weight, so I try to avoid traveling with them if possible for this reason.

You also need to check carry on items limits, which can be different when returning vs. flying out, and the UK is particularly problematic as different airlines have different policies. Some airlines even have different rules depending on your departure airport. For example, when flying Virgin Atlantic to London Gatwick from the US, you can take two carry on items. Flying from London Gatwick you’re allowed one. But if flying from London Heathrow, you can take two! Check the airline website or call the airline in advance, tell them where you are flying to and from, and find out.

I pack non-fragile photographic paraphernalia in Zip-lock bags in the middle of a suitcase so that it’s protected from moisture and shock. I carry by carbon fiber (lightweight) mono-pod this way too, along with brushes, filters, batteries, chargers, cables and the other non-valuable odds and ends. That leaves my carry-on for the most fragile and expensive gear: cameras and lenses.

Insurance and lost bags

Professional photographers typically carry insurance for their gear and liability. For non-professionals, check your household insurance policy. It typically covers possessions taken outside the home, with exclusions or limits for expensive items such as cameras — check to see what’s covered before buying extra insurance.

Finally, I also keep a minimal set of chargers and cables in my carry-on bag in case checked bags are lost — anything that I can’t re-buy easily at the destination. Airlines are now losing more bags per thousand carried than ever before, and when it happens, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your bags during your trip. After losing my bag on a direct flight recently, United Airlines returned it four weeks later, tattered and torn.

The golden rule of travel photography remains “keep your camera with you at all times”, and that includes your flights too.

You might be forgiven for wondering what is going on in this photograph. It is a vertical view down onto the heads of a bunch of grown men in medieval yellow silk outfits waving large flags in Siena, Italy. You can only tell they’re men and flags by the shadows, which is part of the appeal in this photograph. But what on earth is going on?

Members of Siena's Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Members of Siena’s Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Flag throwing is a very serious business in Siena: it is part of a larger social structure called Contrade that has lasted for hundreds of years. The city is divided into regions, each one the territory of a Contrade — originally these had a military purpose: to help defend against the hated Florentines. In modern Siena there are 17 contrade, but in medieval Siena there were more: six are remembered as the “suppressed contrade”; they disappeared when the plague decimated the city’s population. Every citizen of Siena is a contrade member, determined by place of birth or “inherited” from parents.

As one Sienese (“Senesi”) tried to explain it to me, a contrade is like a large extended family. I was also told that non-Senesi cannot really comprehend what it means to be a member; after several glasses of Chianti I felt I was definitely getting closer to understanding. Contrade have a church or chapel and headquarters (where Palio trophies are jealously guarded), a patron saint, a symbol or insignia and, of course, colors and a flag.

Active members are passionate about their contrade, and flag throwing is a way of expressing this. It’s part of the ceremony around the famous horse race, Il Palio, and a way for contrade to show off. In the picture, you see members of the Aquilla (Eagle) Contrade practicing in mid June, getting ready for the Palio. The photo was taken from the top of Siena’s town hall tower with a long lens to get the angle and shadows. Luck played a major part in this as I’d just reached the top when I leard the drum beat of the Aquilla as they marched from their part of the city into Il Campo, the main square.

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.

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

Cadogan’s guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

Some have asked for recommendations of websites or agencies they should try for car rentals in Europe.

Tourists in a miniature car slip into a space between cars to enjoy a view of the Golden Gate Bridge

Not all rental car companies are equal — San Francisco CA

Here are the sites I use:

1) https://www.autoeurope.com/

Auto Europe is an agent for Europcar (a pan-European car rental firm) and Avis. You may never have heard of Europcar, because they have no presence outside of Europe, but rest assured they are a highly reputable car rental firm. Auto Europe specializes in online and phone car bookings and typically have good prices as they do a lot of bookings. I’ve rented from them several times in the past, and they can be very good value. You typically pay a deposit for the rental and receive a voucher in return. It is vital that you print out the voucher and take it with you — it’s a cash pre-payment and the car firm needs to credit it to your rental. If you don’t have a print out (yes, I learned this the hard way…) then you’ll be spending a lot more time at the rental counter while they try to find it. You pay the balance of the amount at the end of the rental.

2) https://www.avis.com/

Avis may be the second largest car rental firm overall, but they are stronger in some countries than the leader (Hertz) — especially France. You will almost always find an Avis location in or right next to French railway (SNCF) stations, for example. This is a major boon as you won’t have to haul your luggage far from the platform to the car. Avis has a frequent renter program for customers in the US, which means you won’t have to wait at the counter to collect our car. Well worth it.

3) https://www.hertz.com/

Hertz is the world’s largest car rental firm and can be especially good value for pre-paid car rentals in Europe. You pay the entire amount up front, but in return for a bigger discount. They also have “green fleet” of low emission (AKA low fuel consumption) vehicles which are obviously cheaper to fuel up than regular rentals. It really pays to sign up for Hertz’s Gold Club frequent renter program, as it means you can collect your car without stopping at the counter.

Stonehenge inner circle

It has to be one of the most famous places on Earth, never mind the United Kingdom: the prehistoric stone circle that is Stonehenge. But if you have ever been there, you’ll have found yourself behind a low fence on a paved path, well away from the stones themselves and far enough away to make good photographs difficult.

It’s hard to blame English Heritage, who own the site and are responsible for maintaining Stonehenge. Over the years, visitors have chipped off pieces of stone and carved their initials. Today, you can still see graffiti carved in the 1800s, when the stones were simply sitting in a corner of a lumpy field on the edge of Salisbury plain rather than a protected monument.

How is it that I am so special that I got to go right into the centre of the circle to get the angles and photos you see on the site? I’m not that special — anyone can arrange to visit the center of the circle at the very beginning or very end of the day for a small fee. You need to plan in advance, and English Heritage makes the rules and determines the time and days of access. There’s a page on the official Stonehenge website, where you can download an application form to make a reservation.

The Stonehenge photos you see here were taken very early on Easter Sunday, after a dawn trip down from London to Wiltshire. It was windy, cold and the early light had a blue cast, but as the sun rose and the day warmed up, so did the colours of the stones. We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the access; all kinds of people from tourists wanting a closer look to those with divining rods and odd-looking measuring devices that looked like were made from coat hangers — those folks were writing books on the strange energy (or so they said) exerted by the stones and the surrounding area. We bade them good luck and said we hoped our cameras hadn’t interfered with their careful measurements.

The Bay Bridge over San Francisco Bay, and fireworks bursting in the distance. Who could have planned it better? Well, not me, that’s for sure!

Fireworks burst near San Francisco Bay Bridge to celebrate Barry Bonds' 661st home run at SBC Park. California, USA

I drove to Yerba Buena island to take pictures of the city at night. I had just set up my camera to take photos of the bridge and San Francisco when fireworks started going off over SBC Park (as it was called at the time — now AT&T Park). I turned my camera to the left, exposed for 5 seconds and carried on taking pictures until the fireworks were over. Perhaps the best photo of the lot is the one shown. The “cause celebre” for the fireworks was the 661st home run of Barry Bonds — the most ever home runs in Major League baseball.

The trick with this kind of photography is usually to expose for long enough to get the picture you want. I learned to do long exposures on film, which responds differently to digital sensors in today’s DSLRs. With film, if you want any kind of color you have to expose for long enough to allow the color to register in the chemicals in the film. Overexposure of the white or black areas of th image doesn’t matter because there’s not much light to begin with. If the exposure is too short you get a picture, but it’s essentially monochrome (usually orange with color negative film, as this is the underlying film color base). So I learned to take a light reading for the overall light level (luminance) and then bump up the exposure time to get good color (chromiance).

With digital this isn’t necessary as it “sees” the color in the exposure anyway, but in this case it serves to blur the moving traffic on the Bay Bridge so that the detail of the cars doesn’t distract from the overall composition of the image. There are several hundred cars on the bridge during this exposure, but you don’t see them because their tail lights all blur together along with the orange reflection from the lights on the cars themselves. They just disappear.

If you want to take this kind of photo with a typical compact camera, you need to remember to turn off the flash for two reasons: Firstly, it will be pointless – the flash gun is never going to illuminate the Bay Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Secondly, it also sets the exposure incorrectly and you get a dark image (not enough light is let into the camera at typical flash exposures).

Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you’ll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced “Ca-hoares”), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France — the “Black Wine of Cahors” was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.


Ponte Valentre, the medieval bridge over the river Lot in Cahors

A glass of Cahors is dark red or “inky”, but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else.

The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France — clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn’t exist any more after France’s great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock.

Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.

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

In a previous posting, we’d discovered that American Express Card rental car insurance covered a lot less than in it has in the past. And we weren’t sure if we’d be covered for a claim on a “free upgrade” to a Jaguar car in London.

The good news is that Amex paid the claim, as they have in the previous 2 instances where our rental was damaged or vandalized. It takes a while — mostly waiting on the rental car company to provide their documentation of the charges — but has worked every time so far.

The take-away is the same: take the time to read the small print before you go to make sure you’re covered.

I’m a fan of not paying for rental car CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance, because it’s usually unnecessary and expensive when many credit cards already offer coverage. I’ve written before about positive experiences with American Express’ rental car insurance, but a recent trip highlighted the importance of re-reading the small print.

Francesca, one half of LodgePhoto, had rented a car at London Heathrow, and was pleased to get a free upgrade to a Jaguar, which is this rental car company’s standard intermediate model. Now, there are Jaguars and Jaguars, and this was one of the former — i.e. at the low end of the range, nothing exotic, but a pleasant step up from the more typical Ford or Peugot. At the end of the rental, there was a small chip in the windshield, which American Express explained would not be covered “because Jaguars are exotic cars”… which, if true (there’s some doubt, see below), means that she’d been driving around without insurance for a few days.

Some digging on the Amex website revealed the small print of Amex’s rental car insurance (it is hard to find — it took two failed searches before following a series of links). There are some fairly substantial limitations in the current rules:

  1. Exotic cars: anything by Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini (and other supercar makers). Also listed is the Jaguar XJS, which is not what Francesca rented. Also the Mercedes E320, which I would not consider remotely exotic. Check the document for the full list.
  2. Expensive cars: an MSRP greater than $50,000. This can be a really tough one to figure out when renting overseas — is that the price of the car when purchased in the US, or the price of the car in purchased in Europe converted to dollars? How would you know either price when presented with a particular car at the rental counter? Is that price at the current dollar exchange rate, or when it was purchased?
  3. Full sized SUVs and Vans: Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, Chevy Van etc. If you have a lot of stuff and/or a large family, this might also be a surprise. In Europe I always recommend getting more, smaller cars vs. one huge one, if that is possible, as smaller cars are easier to drive and park on narrow European roads (especially in medieval cities).

This is not the full list of limitations, by the way, just some edited highlights.

So, it’s not clear if the windshield chip is covered or not, since Francesca wasn’t driving an expensive or exotic car per the small print. We’ll find out.

The take-away from all this: re-read the small print. Even if you read it before. It might have changed!