Three Days in Venice

Arriving in the afternoon from London, I took a water taxi into the city.  It’s a great way to arrive with passing boats throwing up spray as they speed past and I was in a high state of excitement by the time I reached my hotel, the Ca’ Sagredo, as this was also a much anticipated first visit to Venice.  The hotel is a very well-preserved former 15th century palazzo situated in the Cannaregio district – the largest of the six districts that make up the city. It is on the Grand Canal and opposite the Rialto Market.  it is, quite deservedly, a national monument.

I was most taken by the staircase with its marble cherubs and Scalone die Giganti (Fall of the Giants) frescoes, which I thought was one of the great interior sights of my trip.  During my stay I spent a considerable amount of time photographing the staircase and eventually I was pleased with the shot that accompanies this post.

Staircase ca'sagredo venice
The Scalone dei Giganti staircase of the Ca’ Sagrada Hotel

The hotel is right next to a Gondola station; you can take the traghetto across to the area of the Rialto market for the tourist rate of 2 Euros (locals pay 70 cents), something I ended up doing frequently.

As soon as I had dropped my bags I took a Gondola trip down to the mouth of Grand Canal. I was captivated by the Baroque Santa Maria della Salute. The domed basilica is one of the symbols of the city and was built as a response to the plague which decimated the city in the 17th century. The basilica still hosts the annual Festa della Madonna della Salute each November, which gives thanks for the intercession of the Virgin Mary to end the plague.

Returning to the hotel in the Gondola, I explored the local area, walking across the famous Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) which connects the districts of San Marco and San Polo. Up until 1854 this was the only bridge across the Grand Canal and there are still only 4 bridges along its 3.8 km length. Later I walked up the Strada Nova, one of the main streets in the city. 

In the evening I ventured out once more and had drinks at the Gritti Palace, another 15th century former palace, once owned by Andrea Gritti, doge of Venice from 1523 to 1538.  This hotel is one of the most expensive in the city and has some of the best views as it is opposite the Santa Maria della Salute church.  Watching the Gondolas go past as the sun starts to go down from the hotel terrace is a great experience.

I walked back towards the Ca’ Sagredo and had dinner at the modest Osteria dal Riccio Peoco in the local square, Campo San Apostoli, which was inexpensive and delicious. 

Iron prow Venice Gondolier
The fero da prora of a Gondola

The next day, I took a a second Gondola ride, during which I photographed many sites, Gondolas and Gondoliers. I noticed they were speaking a language that didn’t sound like standard Italian to me and asked the Gondolier about it. He said they were speaking in Venetian dialect, which is actually a language and spoken around the Veneto region. We passed under the white limestone Bridge of Sighs that connects the Doge’s Palace to the prison opposite. It was  Lord Byron who gave the bridge this name – the suggestion being that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice before incarceration or execution. Like many stories that give rise to names it isn’t true, but the bridge is still used to transport low risk offenders to prison.

Returning to the hotel I set off to walk around the lagoon city.  I enjoyed seeing the winged lion in Campo Manin, a large bronze sculpture at the base of a statue of Daniele Manin – a hero of Italian unification.  The winged lion is the Lion of Saint Mark, and is the symbol both of the city of Venice and of the Venetian Republic.

I found the Leaning Tower of Santo Stefano, a 13th century, 66m brick-built gothic bell tower located in the Sestiere San Marc.   Though much less famous, its inclination is remarkably similar to that of the Tower of Pisa, at about 2 meters out of kilter. After the crowds of much of the city that day the square was extremely quiet.  I passed through it a couple of times after that and it was always close to deserted.

Next I visited Piazza San Marco, both the grand showpiece and principle square of the city. There’s a lot to take in including St Mark’s Basilica, The Doge’s Palace, the Clock Tower and the columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore. I walked the square and took in the entrancing view stopping for a coffee at Caffè Florian, one of the world’s oldest coffee houses. Later, I lunched nearby at Ostaria La Campana, a local’s place right in the midst of a tourist area.

As it was getting to that time of the evening I thought a Daqueri at Harry’s Bar would be a good idea. Sadly it wasn’t. I paid a visit, but I think I missed the time when it was a good place to go by many years. It’s a pretty terrible place now, as many online reviews attest. I paid the eye watering price for an OK Daiquiri to the aloof barman and left the place as fast as I could.

Venice Salute Grand Canal
The Santa Maria della Salute church from the terrace of the Gritti Palace

Close by the view of the the Santa Maria della Salute church beckoned at the Gritti Palace. I had a drink there and then dinner on the balcony at the Club del Doge. The view of such a beautiful church with gondolas gliding past and the sun going down plus a decent risotto (a Hemingway variant with scampi) meant I didn’t begrudge the hefty bill.

The next day city I took the river bus down to the Dorsoduro Sestiere to visit the museums there and to see the Santa Maria della Salute church land side. The Gallerie dell’Academia was my first stop. Here I enjoyed the neoclassical sculptures of Antonio Canova , took in Hieronymus Bosch’s disturbing Visions of the Hererafter and walked around a room dedicated to Lord Byron in Venice.

Lord Byron lived in Venice after he was forced to leave England to flee the many debts and scandals caused by his aristocratic excesses. He conducted his Venetian affairs in some style from a Grand Canal palazzo with his many servants and a menagerie that included monkeys, a wolf, a fox, a crow and an eagle. Seeking distraction and mental stimulation he also studied the Armenian language at a monastery on the tiny island of San Lazzaro in the lagoon.

After that I walked to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum housed an 18th-century palazzo, which was once the home of the American heiress. it is full of cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist work. I was most impressed by the works of by Picasso, Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Alberto Burri.

I spent the evening walking along the canals in the Cannaregio Sestiere, the northernmost of the six districts of Venice, walking along the Fondamenta della Misericordia/degli Ormesini/Capuccine. It is a beautiful area to walk around. It was quiet until sunset when it become quite lively though I still managed to find a Cicchetti place I could sit outside at.

Early on my last morning I went back to the Rialto Market, the city’s ancient main market, to see the fish market in full swing before my water taxi arrived. There has been a market there since 1097 and it is still going strong. I love the theatre of fish markets and enjoy visiting them wherever I can find them. Mid morning my water taxi arrived and took me to the station where I took the train to Densezano to spend a few days in Sirmione.

From Muscat to the Mountains Part 2

The next day we left Muscat and headed for Jebel Akhdar – the Green Mountain. This forms the central section of the Al Hajar (Rocky or Stone) Mountain range, which run for about 700 km thorough Oman and the UAE. They are also known simply as ‘The Oman Mountains’. As their name suggests the range is mostly bare rock and desert. The ‘green’ of the Green Mountain starts at higher altitudes where there is enough rain to support shrubs, trees and agriculture. Damask roses, pomegranates, walnuts and apricots are all grown there.

The peaks of Jebel Akhdar surround a high plateau and have historically created a division between the relatively inaccessible interior and rule from the coast at Muscat. The mountain road is very good though access is relatively recent. As there is a military base on the mountain it was only in 2005 that the mountain was opened up to visitors. There is still a checkpoint at the bottom off the ascent but that is just to ensure that visitors are in possession of a four wheel drive vehicle and a valid driving license.

Birkat al Mouz and Old Birkat

Old Birkat Oman
Old Birkat

As we neared the mountains we drove up a steep slope to an elevated vantage point. Form there we had a view of the deserted mud brick village of Old Birkat at the base of the mountain. It was a spectacular sight and one I will never forget. I took the shot with the Nikon Z7 and the 24-70mm f4 S kit lens, which I used for all the landscape shots on this trip. I use the smaller and more discrete Leica Q for street photography.

Descending the slope we drove to the nearby town of Birkat al Mouz, which translates to pool of bananas. We drove though a large date plantation and my guide went to pray at a small mosque, leaving me to admire some deserted mud brick houses and the ancient Aflaj irrigation system. In 2006, the Al Sharieh Falaj system, built between 1674-1741, was designated as one of five UNESCO Heritage Sites. Falaj is the singular of Aflaj and this ancient system of water channels dates back some 5,000 years.

The Saiq Plateau and Wadi al Ayn

Continuing our ascent we drove up a series of very steep hairpin bends to the Saiq Plateau – a distance of a little over 30 km. We stopped and walked to the rim of the cliff at Wadi al Ayn, which provided another spectacular, and more panoramic, view. Diana, Princess of Wales, apparently enjoyed the view here on a royal visit to Oman 1986 and there is a viewing point named after her at the nearby Hotel Anatara. It is an incredible vista that takes in a huge gorge with terraced steps cut into the side complete with several villages precariously hanging off the cliffs. For the second time that day I was completely entranced. As we left my guide poured water over a couple of areas of rock to show me some fossils, including an ancient turtle. Finding a marine fossil at such a high altitude was surprising but the rocks of the Hajar Mountains formed under the sea. The Oman mountains, as it turns out, are a geologist’s paradise.

Returning to our Land Cruiser we completed the last of the 50km journey up the Jebel Akhdar to my hotel – The Alila. Here we greeted with typical Omani hospitality of coffee and dates. The Alila is in a spectacular location overlooking another huge gorge. It is built of dark grey local stone and is one of the best examples of modern design I have seen anywhere. It also has an infinity pool that is, for once, not misnamed and a great kitchen. I tried the famous local dish of Suwa and was not disappointed. They also served some delicious Biryani dishes such as Biryani Al Khadruat, B. Samak and B. Dilaj.

My guide had told me that it was market day in the town of Sinaw the following day where the Bedu would be selling their camels and goats. We promptly arranged a day out on that basis.

The Souk at Sinaw

Camels Sinaw Oman
The Souk at Sinaw

We met at 6.00 AM in the hotel reception and headed down the mountain. Sinaw is in the Al Sharqiya region, not far from the sands of the same name, and about 90 km from the Green Mountain. The town has a large Souk based around an outdoor courtyard and Thursday is market day.

We arrived at about 7.30 having stopped briefly for Qahwa (Omani coffee) and the market was in full swing. There was a continual procession of white Toyota Hiluxes arriving laden with goods and livestock. Tied to posts along one side of the courtyard of the souk were a long line camels, whilst under cover goats were being auctioned, and on the other side there was a substantial fish market. Around the edges vegetables, fresh and dry fruit, dates, dry shark meat, animal feed and much else was for sale. It really felt like a desert town, and only saw one other Westerner whilst I was there.

It was now lunch time and my guide was keen for me to sample camel so we stopped at a place he knew towards the sand. We were served both curried camel and braised camel – I preferred the former which reminder me a little of goat curry.

The Sharqiya Sands

After lunch we headed for the Sharqiya Sands (also known as the Wahiba Sands), stopping at a tyre centre in a nearby town to deflate the tyres to desert running pressures. The sands cover an area 180km North to South and 80km East to West with large longitudinal dunes, that can reach as high as 100m tall. There are no permanent human settlements there, although there are plenty of animal pens at the edge of the desert.

We travelled a few kilometres out into the desert and got stuck in the dunes. My guide was not troubled by this, and after letting a little more air out of the types we escaped and carried on, stopping at a Bedu tent for coffee and dates and a look at various items for sale. Someone had just caught a scorpion and put it in a bottle, which gave me pause for thought. A bit of quick internet research showed that there is an anti-venom available for scorpion stings in Oman, and though the venom typically causes ‘significant local pain and some swelling’, it doesn’t cause the ‘local and systematic toxicity, local tissue destruction and deranged blood clotting’ of local snake bites. I had no idea blood clotting could be deranged and it increased my inclination to avoid Omani snakes.

We hobbled back to the tyre shop using every bit of sand and rough ground we could as the tyres were practically deflated. After a top up my guide enquired if I wanted to head back out to the deep desert, but as we were travelling with a a single vehicle I declined, so I didn’t see the really huge dunes, and need to go back some time.

Wadi Bani Khalid

I had never seen a wadi close up so our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, probably the best-known wadi in country, which is also an oasis. The term wadi is a little confusing as it means both valley and riverbed fed by the rains – more of which later. Wadi Bani Khalid is famed for its large green pools which are fed by a constant flow of water though an eroded canyon strewn with boulders.

Perhaps because it is such a short walk from the car park to the pools, the wadi has been developed for tourism and has bridge and seating areas, where you can sit and watch the teeming fish. It is very popular with picnickers, but it was very quiet when we were there. There is a cave network near the pools but we decided not to go in. The sky above had become heavy with rain clouds and dangerous flash floods can develop quickly.

After that it was time to head home. It’s around 250 km drive from Wadi Bani Khalid to the Alila on Jabal Akhdar so we got back about 7 PM.

Nizwa – the Old Mountain Capital

Nizwa Market Goats Oman Mountain
The famous Friday market at Nizwa

The next day I was up even earlier, and met my guide at 5 AM in the hotel reception. Nizwa is a short drive away, but the action at the famed livestock market there is best seen early.

Nizwa is an ancient place located in the heart of the country at the base of the Oman mountains. It was the nation’s capital in the 6th and 7th century, and was an early to convert to Islam. Traditionally conservative, it was another destination that thwarted explorer Wilfred Thesiger during his time in Oman. His account of his time in the Arabian Peninuslar Arabian Sands is well worth reading and provides a glimpse into a vanished nomadic lifestyle.

As soon as we arrived, we headed straight for the market. It was heaving with activity and the auctioneers where busy leading sometimes reluctant goats round in a large circle for buyers to inspect. I stood on the outside and then made my way into the centre where I could shoot down on the action, capturing the image shown here.

Nizwa is known for its imposing fort built in 1668. It is one of Oman’s most-visited national monuments and was our next visit. It also has a good souk where you can find handcrafted silver Khanjars along with many other forms of silver craftsmanship. It is also known for pottery, goat wool textiles and high quality dates. Around the back of the market were some tables where Khanjars and old Lee Enfield rifles were for sale. That might sound edgy, but it really wasn’t at all – Nizwa is a major tourist destination and I felt perfectly safe all the time I was there.

We had a most delicious lunch of grilled lamb and a flatbread wrap of salad from a packed little kebab shop and then headed back up the mountain to the Alila, where I spent my final day in the Oman mountains admiring the astonishing view from in and around the hotel pool. It had been a fantastic trip and I would love to go back, the people, the culture and landscape make it one of the most interesting countries I have ever visited.

The Unexpected Wadi

My visit to the Oman mountains were a great adventure – even my return to the UK was a little more exciting than I had expected as it started to rain hard just as I was about to leave for the airport. The hotel told me to expect to spend another night as the mountain road is closed at the checkpoint when it rains, but it was only raining at the top of the mountain and my driver lived close so he arrived as scheduled.

It was an interesting journey down the mountain as the rain had dislodged a lot of shingle and small boulders and we can encountered quite a bit of flooding. Shortly into our descent, the driver told me we might have to wait for a little while ‘at the wadi’. We soon came across a raging torrent in our path. I eyed the fast moving water pensively. “That doesn’t look very much like the last wadi I saw” I said. My driver waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and told me that he lived on the mountain, that this was nothing out of the ordinary and we would cross without difficulty. I believed him on the first two points… Happily he was right on all points and we were soon through the flood water. The rain stopped as we got to a lower altitude and before long I was bidding farewell, but I hope not goodbye, to Oman at Muscat airport.

From Muscat to the Mountains Part 1

Though I’ve seen a little of the Middle East from trips to Dubai and Doha, I didn’t feel like I’d really experienced much in the way of authentic local culture from visiting those sleek, high rise metropolises. Each time I was in Dubai I took the opportunity to venture into the sands of the Empty Quarter, which was exciting but almost entirely devoid of local people. It was these safaris which whetted my appetite for a more authentic experience and genesis for this trip from Muscat to the mountains. Unlike Dubai, Oman is not yet a widely recognised holiday destination, so reactions to news of my trip were often quizzical.

It’s certainly true that Oman, particularly the mountainous interior, has only opened up to the West relatively recently. The Omani coast was captured by the Portuguese in 1507 but by 1650 they had been driven out and tribal conflict made the country difficult to explore beyond the coast into the 1940s. Explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s superb Arabian Sands, a haunting tale of the last years of the Bedu way of life describes how challenging it was. Despite spending five years in the sands of the Empty Quarter he was prevented from exploring Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, which would I would be visiting.

I planned a two centre trip to the Sultanate on the basis of some traveller’s recommendations, a chat with my excellent travel agent and a little research. I arranged to have guides, on this trip in both locations, as there is no substitute for local knowledge. Both my guides were excellent and made a huge difference to the trip. From my research I learned that Oman is safe, with a friendly and welcoming people, an incredibly scenic landscape, many heritage sites and a rich culture. Over the course of the week I found all this to be true. As a Brit, I was also interested to learn of the long-standing friendship and strategic relationship between the UK and Oman.

A Greeting with a Khanjar

I flew into Muscat via Doha on Qatar Airlines and stayed at The Chedi, a tastefully appointed beach front hotel in the Al Ghubrah district of the city and set in an oasis-style location. I was greeted by a smiling doorman wearing a Khanjar, a traditional curved dagger, in an ornate sheath. The Khanjar has a long history and is still worn ceremonially in Muscat and day-to-day in mountain cities like Nizwa. The image of a Khanjar forms part of the Omani flag, and is present on banknotes and all official documents. I had seen nothing like it before and it made me think that that the week was going to be a bit different – which proved to be the case.

Muscat sits between the mountains and the sea and extends down the coast for some 30km. It is a low rise, architecturally conservative city and very different from Dubai or Doha by design. As impressive as the skylines of those two high rise cities are, neither can match Muscat for heritage

Since 1970 Oman has been transformed by the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, who has pursued a comprehensive modernisation program since he replaced his father, supported by the British military, including the SAS. Unsurprisingly, his influence can be seen most strongly in the capital.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Grand Mosque Oman
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

The first place I visited in Muscat was Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This was built in Modern Arabic style to celebrate 30 years of the Sultan’s rule and one of only a few mosques open to non-Muslim visitors.

As my trip was in September when the temperature in Muscat is still quite high it was extremely quiet. When almost deserted the sheer scale of the design – which can accommodate 20,000 worshippers and took 300,000 tons of Indian sandstone to construct – appears all the more impressive.

I was struck both by the scale and and the elegance of the modern Arabic architecture. The latticed dome of the main prayer hall rises to 50 metres, and the main minaret is 90 metres tall. It is flanked by four half height minarets. If you have limited time in Muscat I’d make the Grand Mosque a must see.

My next stop was the Royal Opera House, which is another building developed at the Sultan’s request and was built in limestone by the same architects as the Grand Mosque to a similar modern arabesque design. The exterior makes the ROH worth a stop, and you can also take a short tour inside, where productions are being readied. 

The Port of Muttrah

From the opera House I headed west to the old port of Muttrah, which is close to Old Muscat.

The 4000 sq. m fish market is a modern Scandinavian design that takes pride of place on the waterfront of the Muttrah Corniche. Completed in 2017, the form of the canopy was inspired by the flow of Arabic calligraphy. The building replaces the open air bazaar of old. The attraction of fish markets for me is the animated negotiations of the fishermen and the fish mongers – it’s pure theatre and I’ve seen some great examples of that in Tokyo and Catania, Sicily on past trips. 

As always, if you can get to the market early, you’ll see it at its lively best. I arrived late on my first visit after seeing the Grand Mosque and the market was very quiet, so I returned at 8AM the following morning and was rewarded with a much more animated spectacle.

Souk Muscat Oman
Muttrah Souk

Close by is the Muttrah Souk, known locally as Al Dhalam (Darkness), after the original dim lighting conditions. It is one of the oldest markets in the Arab world and also one of the few markets you can purchase gold, frankincense and myrrh under one roof. That roof was originally palm leaves, supported by mud walls, but it is a modern structure today and you can whip through the main drag very quickly. You’ll see a lot more and get a better sense of the place If you venture off into the tangle of narrow alleys that branch off from the main artery, where the stalls are more varied. Wool pashminas, frankincense, leatherware and gold jewellery, which is sold by weight, are amongst the many goods on offer.

The accompanying photograph of the Souk breaks plenty of photographic rules, and I probably would not have used it before I came across the work of William Klein. I am glad of what I learned from the early master of street photography because the image captures a much better sense of the souk than any of my other pictures.

Further along the Corniche is the Muttrah fort, built by the Portuguese in 1580, which provides great views of the curve of the Corniche around the old port. On the day of my visit traditional dhows rubbed shoulders with the one of the Sultan’s yachts.

From the fort Corniche leads to Al Riyam Park which is overlooked by giant frankincense burner, which resembles a white 1950s UFO.

Old Muscat

Old Muscat from the road Oman
Old Muscat from the road

I was keen to photograph Old Muscat from the road – you can see the shot on the left. The old town is located in a rocky valley and looks specular from when viewed from the road. The old town contains the Al Alam Palace and the Bait Zubair Museum, both of which I visited.

The Bait Zubair Museum is a private ethnographic museum and part of a cultural foundation. It is much smaller than the National Museum but it is well worth the time.

A visit provides some good insights into Omani traditions, including clothing, jewellery, household items and historical weapons, including the Khanjar. Carrying rifles and earlier long guns is a tradition in Oman and the association between Oman and Britain was evident from the rifles on display including modified Lee Enfield and ‘Muscat Martini’ rifles. These were heavily decorated with silver which still plays an important role in all things decorative today.

The Al Alam Palace, which means “The Flag” in Arabic, is one of the Sultan’s six royal residences. It is used only for official functions and you can’t enter the palace or grounds. The palace is is flanked by 16th century Portuguese forts perched on rocky hills so the approach to it is extremely impressive.

I finished my stay in Muscat with dinner at The Beach Restaurant, an excellent seafood restaurant where you can watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Oman amongst traditional Arabian fire pits.

The next day I was up early to head for Jebel Akkdar, which is the subject of my next post.

Around the World with a Leica Q

Nearly three years after I first posted about my new Leica Q on this site, it was stolen from a South Kensington Pub. This was after a visit to the Natural History Museum to see the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. I am fairly sure it was a professional thief, rather than an opportunist, who stole it as the camera was right next to me in its bag and our table was never unattended – yet we saw nothing. As the pub had no CCTV the police soon closed the case. The camera was insured, so I replaced it immediately, deciding not to wait for the new Q2 model rumoured to be coming out later in 2019. Instead, I bought a second Q in black from the excellent Red Dot Cameras. I considered the red-dotless Q-P ‘stealth’ model as a replacement, but the premium was quite considerable, so instead I carefully taped over the logo with black electrician’s tape.

Always on the Move…

Leica Q Empty Quarter
The Empty Quarter, UAE

2016-2018 were big travel years for me as my work took me to the US, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and, for a short while, the Far East. I also went on a couple of road trips – one from Canada to Mexico, and another across Japan. I was rarely at home during those years and I took my Leica Q everywhere I went. I took around 25,000 shots along the way and came to love my camera; it took everything the world could throw at it, whilst remaining perfectly usable, was a joy to handle and allowed me to create some of my best images. In this post I’ll share what I learned along the way.

Lessons Learned

Firstly, the Leica Q is extremely tough and resilient . When I changed straps from the elegant, but thin, leather strap that came with the Q to my preferred, and wider, M strap I didn’t attach it correctly. It later came unfastened – just as I was about to shoot the Sydney Opera House. It hit the ground hard but fortunately had only a small ding on the top plate to show for it. Many other cameras would have been rendered unusable by the impact, if not damaged beyond repair.

Sydney Opera House Leica Q
This shot was taken just after my Leica Q hit the ground with some force.

The reason the Q survived the impact so well is because the top plate is machined from a solid block of aluminium that sits atop a tank -like body of magnesium alloy. For travellers there is just no substitute for a resilient camera – knocks are inevitable over time.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a knack to putting the strap on correctly to avoid testing the Q’s build quality the way I did. The easiest way is to take the metal fastener off the strap, put it on the camera first and then attach the strap. It’s actually pretty hard to get it wrong if you do it that way.

For a camera that lacks weather proofing it does very well in harsh conditions. Eventually the sensor needed cleaning, but that was after two years of shooting in some hostile climates including a couple of visits to one of the most inhospitable – the Rub al Khali desert, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter.

The Summilux f1.7 stabilised lens is unparalleled for sharpness. It’s the best lens I have ever owned, works incredibly well with the full frame sensor and of course delivers the recognisable but difficult to define Leica look. It is an aspherical (ASPH) lens, a design that tends to be more compact, sharper in the corners wide open and offers a bit more contrast.

I also found Leica’s choice of 28mm for a fixed lens to be a good one. 28mm is wide enough for landscape and urban work and you can easily crop in a little for street photography.

Shooting with the Leica Q is enjoyable and intuitive. The Q combines minimalist manual controls with modern electronic assistance to create a first class user experience.

After service is incredible. When I had the sensor cleaned (which was free of charge) Leica service replaced the chequered outer covering of the camera as part of the service!

It is worth considering both the hand grip and the Match Technical Thumbs Up for improved ergonomics. I prefer the Thumbs Up both in terms of handling and because the hand grip needs to be removed to change the battery or a memory card. It comes off quickly, but it will still slow you down a little. I use the Thumbs Up EP-SQ2 which is machined from solid brass and locks onto the hot-shoe with a hex key. It is pricey, but worth it as it is beautifully made. Once the Thumbs Up is on the camera it really does feel like it was always there and part of the original product.

When I got my replacement Q I was reminded of just how excellent the packaging is. The ‘chest of drawers’ that contains the camera, its accessories (all in their own little Leica bags) and documentation is really well designed. Just search YouTube for Leica Q unboxing to see how many people have been enthralled by the experience.

Despite its relatively small size it is a camera that attracts attention – good and bad. I keep the famous red dot logo covered, but Leica cognoscenti still comment favourably on my choice of camera from time to time. This is particularly the case in Deal, Kent where my parents live, and where I often visit. It seems there is a high concentration of Leica users there…

Death in Tijuana

This is the last post in a short series that covers a week-long roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana with two old friends, and to be clear – no one dies – that was just an unreliable forecast of how the trip would end.

To recap: our planning was pretty limited and covered just the start point, the end point, and the hotels we would stay in.  All other details would be determined en route.  The hotels, which were my responsibility, were rather unequally distributed, but that was where the way points fell on this trip: Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are all quite close together. On day three of our seven day trip we had covered only 300 or so miles southward (though our mileage was actually much higher), and still had around 1,100 miles to cover – most of them on slow coast roads.

From Portland onwards ‘You do realise we have to be in Mexico on Friday?’ became a more frequent refrain, particularly whenever I was setting up my tripod as our anxiety about our slow start increased.

Don’t go to Tijuana

Tijuana sugar skull girl
I didn’t meet death in Tijuana, or in Palma, where this shot was actually taken.

Another common theme on the trip was the consistent advice we were given on the subject of Tijuana; everyone was very clear that we really shouldn’t go there as it is was too far dangerous. The most memorable example of this in advice came from an ex US Marine in Harry’s Bar, Pismo Beach:  ‘Don’t don’t do it man’, was his advice.  ‘Don’t go to Tijuana.  I was there recently and I saw a man get kicked almost to death by school children’.

This alarming anecdote from an ex-military type was only sightly worse than we had heard all week.  From Vancouver to Pismo Beach we were told that a trip to Tijuana meant we would almost certainly be robbed and were likely to encounter much worse – in this case meeting a violent end at the hands of school children.  This was to be the case until we reached San Diego and got some more balanced, first hand advice.

We reached the Andaz Hotel in San Diego late in the afternoon, having set out from Pismo Beach fairly early that morning. The traffic around the sprawl of LA (a city none of us are fond of) was horrible, but there really is no way round it. The Andaz has a great rooftop bar and taking refreshments there we got the first sensible advice about visiting Tijuana we’d heard all week. We were told the best way to visit was to take a taxi to the border, walk across and then take a taxi to our destination – in our case Mission 19 restaurant. Re-assured we booked a taxi, but I elected not to take my camera, which is why the image that accompanies this post is not from Mexico, though it is from another Spanish speaking country.

Mission accomplished

We executed the plan without a hitch, though I did find our time on foot in Tijuana a little intimidating, and had a memorable dinner at Mission 19. The tuna with trout roe and green chilli, sea urchin soup and braised beef short rib were all outstanding. From the restaurant we took a taxi back to San Diego and had a night cap in the Double Deuce in the Gaslamp Quarter – watching people attempting to ride the mechanical bull. There was a pleasing symmetry to ending up in Gaslamp as we’d started in Gastown, Vancouver, just six days previously.

Ron Burgundy is not far away…

The following morning was our last day and we elected to see a little more of San Diego. After a leisurely roof top breakfast at the Andaz we returned our hired Chevy Suburban and headed for the Hotel del Coronado, one of the last surviving wooden Victorian beach properties in the US. Over a pleasant, if insubstantial, seafood lunch there we got talking to our server who told us there was a ‘Ron Burgundy tribute bar’ in the city. It turned out to be no such thing, but Urban Solace is worth a visit anyway and a picture of the great man does indeed hang behind the bar.

‘Is your name, literally, like…Nigel?’

After a beer in Urban Solace, my companions Ted and Nick were keen to explore the area whilst I was still hungry and decided to stay and get something more to eat. No sooner had I finished than I received a video on my phone from Ted, featuring a local woman asking me if my name was “literally, like, Nigel?”

Naturally, the video ended with some encouragement to join them all in a nearby bar. I did, and was greeted by Nick and Ted at a table of slightly inebriated people all keen to get their photo taken with me. I never did find out what my friends had told these people about me, but whatever it was, it was undoubtedly far from the truth. As we toasted for the last time before we left for the airport, they started to chant my name for no discernible reason – which was a memorable if sightly puzzling way to end what I can only describe as a truly epic trip.

From San Francisco to Pismo Beach

On day 6 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana we awoke in San Francisco.  From there we would continue down the coast to our stop for the night at Pismo Beach –  a  small city between San Francisco and LA.  We started the day by not going to Lombard Street.   I had seen it, and Ted was now a local, leaving only Nick wanting to drive on the crookedest street in the world.   When quizzed Nick on how he keen he was to go, given the traffic was likely to be heavy, he seemed a little diffident, so we skipped it.  As Nick started to complain about this omission, not visiting Lombard Street become one of the highlights of the trip for Ted and I.

After a brief visit to see Ted’s home and family in leafy Palo Alto, Ted took us to the best coffee shop in the area, the ZombieRunner Cafe & Running Store on South California Ave, just off El Camino Real.  Close by was the dive bar he typically visits on a Friday night – Antonio’s Nut House.  For afficionados of dive bars, this is the real deal, and the last of its kind in the affluent city.  In one corner is an animated ape in a cage, which Ted claimed never to have noticed before, despite his many visits.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

From Palo Alto we headed to Santa Cruz to pick up Highway 1, and in an hour from there we were in Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsular. It is a beautiful town, and much loved by artists.  There are around 100 galleries in Carmel, many of which can be found along one road – Ocean Avenue.

Our first stop was the Mission Ranch.  This nineteenth century ranch was restored by the former Mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood, and is now a hotel and restaurant.  We had planned to have lunch there, but finding the restaurant closed we headed to the old Spanish Mission of San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo.  

The Mission

Carmel Mission Pismo BeachCarmel Mission was founded in 1770 and is one of the oldest of California’s 21 missions.   These are all located on or near El Camino Real, a road named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which provided the finance for expeditions to California.  It is also the only Spanish mission in California that has its original bell and bell tower.

It has been carefully restored and today it is both an active parish church and a museum.  I was pleased to find a small statue and two paintings so beautifully lit in chiaroscuro fashion it would surely have found favour with Caravaggio, the orignal master of darkness and light.  I took the shot shown here with my Leica Q, and was glad of its fast f1.7 lens, which operated in the gloom at only ISO 1,600 with the aperture wide open.

Being hungry by that time, we searched for somewhere to eat and were fortunate to come across to Tree House Cafe.  Here you can dine on a combination of  dishes from the Mediterranean, Greece and Thailand on a beautiful rooftop veranda. 

Detour on Route 1

After lunch we got back onto route 1, eager to see Big Sur and to enjoy the views of the coast down to Pismo Beach. We stopped at the spectacular Bixby Canyon Bridge for me to take a few shots, though sadly the light was not great.

Just south of the bridge we found the road was closed  due to a landslide.  It was only then that we remembered that our friend James had mentioned landslides back in Portland,   Sure enough, when we examined our much annotated map, James had routed us inland to avoid exactly what we were going to do next – drive all the way back up the Monterey Peninsular before taking Route 101 to avoid the landslide.

Unwilling to give up, Ted scoured the map for another route, and eventually came up with a small dotted line that crossed the mountains that separated coastal Route 1 from inland Route 101.   Nick was skeptical of our Chevy Suburban’s off-road abilities, and we debated it for a while.  I settled the matter by declaring the dotted line a goat track, and quite impassible.  With the matter settled and no other options, we turned around and headed north.  ‘Did I mention we need to be in Mexico by Friday?’ asked Ted once again.

On to Pismo Beach

With the detour it was dark when we arrived at Pismo Beach, once famed for an abundance of clams.   Back in 1957 in an episode of Bugs Bunny, the eponymous rabbit  and traveling companion Daffy Duck emerge from a tunnel,  into what Bugs believed to be Pismo Beach with ‘all the clams we can eat.’  The clams are much diminished in numbers now, but there is still an annual festival in their honour, and the city claims to be the clam chowder capital of the world.  A large clam statue at the southern end of Price Street ensures no visitor can miss the association.

The Pismo Beach disaster

Soon after I returned to the UK from the trip I was watching the US crime drama Ray Donovan, when I was startled to hear Bunchy, Ray’s brother exclaim ‘Jesus,  I moved my fucking family back from Pismo Beach for you, Ray!’   It’s also been mentioned in Futurama, Robot Chicken and the movie Clueless, which references the fictional Pismo Beach Disaster.

At night the back streets reminded me somewhat of Brighton in the UK – my second favourite seaside town after Deal, in Kent.   We checked in at the very pleasant Inn by the Pier, and stopped for a quick pre dinner sharpener at the bar.  Asking about the local hotspots our charming barmaid, Bobby, told us that wherever we went sooner or later we would end up at Harry’s.  Everyone did.  It sounded like destiny.

Dinner before destiny

Not wishing to meet our destiny on an empty stomach we went for dinner at the nearby Oyster Loft at which we made a second enquiry about where we go for drinks afterwards.  We were curious to be directed to the city of  San Luis Obispo, some 20 minutes drive away.  The courteous and professional staff there at the Oyster Loft also advised us that on no account should we visit Harry’s, which was 5 minutes walk away in Pismo Beach.  I took a look at our options online; San Luis Obispo’s best known landmark appeared to be bubble gum alley – a narrow walkway with walls coated in used gum.  In local news a female resident had just been sentenced to 8 years in jail for slashing her boyfriend’s throat with a box cutter.  By way of contrast Harry’s Beach Bar and Night Club looked innocuous enough.  We decided to go to Harry’s.   

Death in Tijuana

Harry’s was not the worst bar I’ve ever been to by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t recommend it.  It was large and noisy and filled with older crowd whose careworn features and less than pristine dress gave the appearance that they had endured what we call in the UK ‘a hard paper round’.  The charm that any good dive bar has was completely absent.

It was my round and I approached the bar. The woman next to me had drunk herself to the point of insensibility.  She muttered to herself and swayed alarmingly on her stool so I moved to avoid a collision.  A tall man to her right steadied her and started to take control of the situation, enquiring how she was going to get home and whether he could help her into a taxi.  He seemed genuinely concerned and helpful.  Surrounded by people who seemed likely to be considerably less noble than this, I silently gave thanks for his good citizenship.

I brought the round of beers to where Nick and Ted were standing.  They had fallen in with a group that appeared less villainous that the rest of Harry’s guests and were discussing our forthcoming trip to Tijuana.  ‘Don’t don’t do it man’, offered the largest person in the party, who was an ex US Marine.  ‘Don’t go to Tijuana.  I was there recently and I saw a man get kicked almost to death by school children’.

This alarming anecdote from an ex military type was only sightly worse than what we had heard all week.  From Vancouver to Pismo Beach we were told that a trip to Tijuana meant we would almost certainly be robbed and were likely to encounter much worse – in this case a violent end at the hands of school children.  This was to be the case until we reached San Diego and got some more balanced, first hand advice.  Ted was phlegmatic about it.  ‘As long as we remember the Spanish for help, we’ll be fine’ was his assessment.

Though the Redwoods to San Francisco

This was day 5 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana and our longest drive.  We had to cover some 400 miles, mostly on twisting two lane highways, from our lodge near Gold Beach on the Oregon coast  to San Francisco, a journey which would take more than 7 hours – if we didn’t stop.  This was also to be our day amongst the Giant Redwoods.  Initially, our progress was slow as we were constantly distracted by the views from the coast road.  Most of the time we were able to pull over in a layby, but to view Arch Rock, a massive rock formation along one of the most rugged sections of the Oregon coast, we needed to park up and walk a short trail.

Avenue of the Giants, San Francisco CaliforniaFirst Sight of The Redwoods

Stopping at the mysteriously named Trees of Mystery, located at Klamath, California, we were greeted by a very kitsch 49 foot tall Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack of American folklore, and his proportionally large Blue Ox, Babe.   Whilst these are really very large statues (most visitors would not reach Babe’s knee), they did not prepare us for the sheer scale of the Giant Redwoods we saw as we walked the trails.  Whilst they are the world’s largest single trees, they are also both the largest and oldest living things on Earth.  These incredible trees can also be viewed from the top of the forest via a gondola ride, though personally I found their majesty was best appreciated at ground level.

Taking the opportunity for brunch, we visited the Forest Cafe just across the road.  Unsurprisingly, it was forest themed and even more kitsch than the statues.   One of the specialities there is local dish called a Monte Cristo, which we sampled .  This is an XXL French toast sandwich, filled with ham and Swiss cheese, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with side of hash browns.   I think of it as the Mr Creosote of Croque-monsieurs.

The Avenue of the Giants

The next waypoint on our trip had the advantage of being one we could see without stopping – in theory at least.  This was the Avenue of the Giants, actually State Highway 254, which we entered from the northern end a few miles south of the town of Fortuna, and is pictured here.  The road was once was part of Route 101 until it was bypassed in the 1960s.  It was an incredible driving experience; the highway is lined with magnificent Coast Redwoods and runs parallel to a small and picturesque river.

Coast Redwoods (aka California redwoods) are also astonishingly large.   Curiously, the height these redwoods can attain is related to the availability of fog.  This is because transporting water to such great heights by conventional means is extremely difficult and the upper leaves supplement their water supply by extracting it from fog.

Shrine Tree Chevy Suburban California RedwoodsAlong the route there is a drive-through Redwood, and it seemed unreasonable not to sample it, especially as, unlike other examples, the opening in the trunk is natural.  As we paid for our $8 ticket (the tree is privately owned), we were told that our Chevy Suburban was the very largest vehicle the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree could accommodate.  Nick drove, I assisted from the passenger side and Ted took photos of the unlikely sight of a huge SUV passing through a tree.  At points there was barely an inch to spare either side, but the paint was still all on the car as we exited.

Shoreline Highway

From the Avenue of the Giants it is just 30 miles or so to California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the inspiration for our trip.  North to South, it runs 750 miles inland from Leggett, in northern Mendocino, along the coast to Capistrano Beach, which is about 50 miles South of Long Beach.   The stretch we were on passes through Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties and is known officially Shoreline Highway until it reaches the Golden Gate Bridge at Sausalito.

The Shoreline Highway is a beautiful but slow, windy stretch of two-lane blacktop that hugs the coast.  it is not what most people think of as the PCH, which is the section that runs between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, passing through Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey.  I read online that the drive between Leggett and Sausalito could be done in a day, ‘but it would be a tiring one’.  This amused me somewhat as we were already 5 hours into our drive at Leggett.

San Francisco Golden Gate BridgeGolden Gate Bridge

After about 3 hours we arrived at Sausalito, cheering in unison as we caught sight of San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, resplendent in International Orange.  Ted knew of some places with good views up in the Marin headlands just north of bridge, so we headed under the 101 and up a narrow winding road, which you can see in the photo.

Whilst there are many places to shoot the bridge from this is actually one of the best vantage points in the late afternoon or early evening. Parking, however, at one of the few designated areas, is really difficult.   Once parked up we enjoyed a great view of this truly amazing piece of engineering.  It was constructed in the 1930s and had to overcome wind, fog, deep water, tides and vested interests opposed to its construction to span the Golden Gate strait.  At that time, at 746 high the towers were taller than any building in the city of San Francisco.

J Town, San Francisco

I love Japan, so I was excited to be staying at the Hotel Kabuki in the J Town (aka Japantown and Nihonmachi) part of San Francisco that evening.  This affection for all things Japanese had only become stronger since my 10 day roadtrip across the country the previous year.   There are far fewer Japan Towns than China Towns in the USA, with just 3 versus around 50.    San Francisco’s is both the largest, and oldest.

J Town covers 6-blocks and has many Japanese restaurants and shops mostly along Post Street, between Fillmore and Laguna Street.  Next to our hotel in Post Street is the Peace Plaza, which contains a 5-story pagoda, a gift from the city in Osaka in the 1960s.   We were really pleased with the recently renovated boutique Kabuki, which mixes Japanese and western influences to great effect.    We strolled the few blocks of the area and ate dinner at Izakaya Kou.  Izakaya are Japanese gastro pubs that developed from sake shops which allowed customers to consume the drink on the premises, and typically serve tapas style dishes.  The food was delicious and beautifully presented.

Back at the bar of the Kabuki we reflected that our trip was rapidly coming to an end; we had only our penultimate stop at Pismo Beach before our final night’s stay in San Diego.  The day’s drive had been an epic one of more than 400 twisting miles from our lodge in the Oregon wilderness. At a mere 254 miles the road to Pismo Beach was going to be a breeze in comparison. 

The Magnificent Oregon Coast

US-26 To the Coast

Camp 18 Logging Museum Oregon CoastIt was day four of our epic roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana, and time to hit the Oregon coast.  Over the past three days, of the 1,823 miles we would eventually travel between Mexico and Canada we had covered just over 300.  We were also now heading slightly northward so that I could shoot Cannon Beach.  Nick and Ted were impatient to head South, but 60 miles from Portland on US-26 we saw an incredible assortment of rusting and antiquated machinery, and decided to stop.  Barring our short visit to Gas Works Park, Seattle, the trip had not been a photographic success so far.  Heavy cloud in Vancouver, heavy rain in Seattle and heavy drinking in Portland had all got in the way.

We had pulled over at Camp 18 Logging Museum, so called because early logging operations always numbered their camps and the museum is located at mile post 18 on Highway 26, 18 miles from the coast.  There is a great collection of old logging machinery outside in the car park, including steam engines, giant mechanical saws. tractors and the battered old logging truck shown left.

Logging is central to Oregon’s history.  Kick -started by California’s gold-rush and boosted hugely by WWII, the demand for lumber grew and Oregon became a central national and international timber producer with thousands of logging operations.  Today natural resources are a much smaller part of Oregon’s economy, which has shifted to manufacturing, services, and high tech industries.

It was too early for lunch but the restaurant made for interesting viewing – the massive doors are opened with axe handles and the dining room room is held up by an enormous log some 85 foot high and weighing many tons.   There are also several very large wooden statues of the local cryptid Big Foot.  In the gift shop Ted enquired if the shop assistant had ever seen one of the giant wilderness-dwelling bipeds, expecting a dismissive reply.  “You wouldn’t be able to see one if it were stood right next to you”, was her surprising response.  Inspired by this, Nick downloaded an app to track sightings of cryptids in the US and kept us informed of the latest in our vicinity throughout the rest of the trip.   It turns out that cryptid hunting and crypto zoological groups are quite popular in the US.  Big Foot has plenty of legendary company as this map shows.

Cannon Beach Haystack RockCannon Beach

Ever more mindful of the distance we still had to cover, we got back in the Chav Wagon and headed for the coast.  We arrived at Cannon Beach, named after a ship’s cannon that washed ashore in 1846, around noon.  The beach each is famous for the 235 ft high monolith Haystack Rock, which is flanked by the Needles – a pair of tall companion rocks.  It is one of the largest sea stacks on the Pacific Coast and is home to a colony of Puffins.  Canon Beach is probably the best known beach on the Oregon coast, certainly to photographers – but there are several others to explore, which are well described in this article on the best beaches in Oregon.

I carefully set up my tripod from a couple of different angles, watched with a mixture of mirth and frustration by my travelling companions, who were both feeling the chill on the windswept beach.  Focused on my photography I barely noticed the cold, or that the odd hour or two that had passed.

The Oregon Coast Highway

We had coffee at Sleepy Monks near the beach and then joined the Oregon Coast Highway, which would be our companion for the rest of the day.  Its a spectacular piece of two lane blacktop, but subject to landslides, which require a diversion across the coastal range of mountains we had just crossed.  Google Maps showed a distance of 285 miles and a journey time of 6 hours 28 minutes to our next destination, which was Gold Beach.   We paused at Neahkahnie Viewpoint, near Manzanita to admire the view of the apparently endless curve of the beach and numerous other scenic spots along the coast before stopping for lunch at Gracie’s Sea Hag in Depoe Bay, which claims the world’s smallest harbour.  

In addition to the coast views we were much taken by the many fine bridges we crossed, such as the Siuslaw River Bridge at Florence.  They were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s and the product of one man’s vision.  This was Conde B. McCullough, the Oregon state bridge engineer from 1919 to 1935 who combined  Gothic Art Deco and Art Moderne sources to great effect.

The Road To the Lodge

After lunch we made a few more stops for photography, most notably at Humbug Mountain, which we considered to be the perfect habitat for American Hobbits.  By the time we got to Gold Beach it was about 8PM, and we were feeling tired and hungry again.  Gold Beach (originally Ellensburg and renamed after gold was found on a nearby beach), is not the most prepossessing of seaside towns – its known for its jet boat rides on the Rogue River and little else.   The only reason we were stopping there was that we had found an interesting place to stay which conveniently broke our journey.  This was  the Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge, located some miles outside town on the Rogue River.   The road to the lodge was impenetrably dark, somewhat narrow and fearsomely winding.  On our right hand side there appeared to be some precipitous drops into we knew not what.  This combination did not suit vast bulk of our Chevy Suburban particularly well.   To increase our peril, every mile or so a deer would leap out into the road in front of us, seemingly tired of life.  We were relieved to arrive at the lodge safely but found it to be extremely quiet; the main building was locked and deserted.  Our keys were in envelopes outside.  We inspected our rooms which were cabin style found them to be very well appointed with a good sized wood fire.  A wood fire was all very well, but our thoughts at this point were on dinner.

Gold Beach

Oregon Coastal HighwayI remembered that there was a small shop some miles back towards Gold Beach, so we set off towards the town.  After a few more close calls with deer we came to the Rogue River Grocery and Tavern in the apparently invisible community of Agness.  As we entered the grocery, lit with an eerie yellow light quite possibly not of this earth, I noticed a large and rather disreputable looking stuffed turkey in one corner.  The head had been removed at some point and glued back on, with a visible white join.   The tavern was out back and in near darkness; a lone drinker sat motionless in the dark.  Reviewing our our choice of ingredients for dinner we found them be be rather limited and settled on a couple of tins of spam, some burger rolls and a copious amount of assorted beer.  With the certainty of eating established, albeit not very well, we quizzed the store keeper about what dining options there might be in Gold Beach.   He shook his head disapprovingly.  “You won’t get anything in town at this time of night.  It’s all shut up now.”   He spoke to us as if we had rolled in at midnight expecting dinner, but actually it was only 8.30 in the evening.

Unsure that this assessment was sound, we headed into town and found the Sea Star to be open.  The Sea Star was a local’s place, but friendly enough, though I was a little wary of the man who paced up and down the bar the entire time we were there.  We some ordered bar snacks, but as they turned out to be rather insubstantial, we finished our drinks and headed back to the lodge.  We lit the fire in my room and Nick cooked spam over the wood fire, which we ate in the burger rolls as we tucked into the beer.  Surprisingly, this turned out to be a better supper than we had expected.

The next morning we awoke to the full glory of being out in the Oregon wilderness.  The Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge really is in a beautiful location.  It’s primary disadvantage for us is that it really is a very long way from Mexico.  This was to be the big mileage day; we had to be cover the 408 miles to San Francisco, which Roadtrippers estimated at 7 hours 15 minutes.  Somehow we also had to find time to stop at least a couple of times to see the giant Redwoods of Northern California.  As soon as we hit the coast road we saw a succession of beautiful beaches.  The beaches of the Oregon coast are long and wild.  The forests come down close to the shoreline, and the shore is decorated with bleached white driftwood.  Offshore, there are large rocks and sea stacks.  In the soft early morning light they were quite breathtaking.   Road tripping on the Oregon coast is often shaded by neighbouring California, but having travelled the length of the US West Coast I can honestly say that it was Oregon that impressed me most.

The Fine City of Portland

Fire Hydrant outside Loyal Legion Portland
Fire Hydrant outside the Loyal Legion

On the third day of our epic roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana, we took the I5 Interstate from Seattle to Portland.  It is the main and most direct North-South route in Washington State and the drive takes less than three hours if the traffic is good.  Given a few days to spare, there are mountains, islands and lakes to explore, but there isn’t a lot to see from the interstate.    Arriving at the boutique HiLo Hotel, we dropped our bags and set out to get to know Portland a little better.  Within five minutes of our hotel we stumbled across Jake’s Famous Crawfish, which has been in business since 1892.  Being unfamiliar with both Jake and his renowned Crawfish we stopped there for lunch and found the both the food and beverages to be excellent.

The Loyal Legion

We spent much of the meal debating whether to go on the bike-bar tour of Portland that Ted had booked.  Billed as ‘Beer, Bike and The Portland Way’, it was a 2 hour, 3 stop pub-crawl on a pedal powered bar.  In good weather this would have been quite compelling, but the cold weather, combined with our inherent fear of exertion put us off.  After some debate, which required a few more rounds of drinks to settle, we cancelled the tour.  We had reached out to a friend in Portland, James, before the trip and whilst chez Jake we firmed up our arrangements.  The plan was that we would meet at the Loyal Legion, an establishment whose sole purpose is to celebrate the Oregon Craft Brewing tradition.   Re-orienting our sole purpose to the same, we took a taxi across the Willamette River.

None of us were in particularly good shape when we arrived at the Loyal Legion, as we had been slightly over served at lunch and all felt tired and somewhat listless.  As we stood outside the bar, taking in the bracing air, Ted noticed a man pacing manically back and forth between two posts on the other side of the road.  He remarked that the pacer had the right sort of idea, a comment that refers to his habit of pacing away a hangover.  This was a technique he had used extensively at Nick’s house one particularly painful New Year’s Day, and became known as ‘Ted’s Turkish prison walk’ after a scene from the film Midnight Express.

1,000 Years of Silence

Starting to feel the cold, as none of us had brought adequate cold weather clothing, we ventured inside the Loyal Legion.   Portland has more breweries per capita than any other city in the world, and the Loyal Legion has a fine selection of their beers: 99 in fact.  Looking at the extensive menu I was most taken by a stout called 1,000 Years of Silence from the Fort George Brewery, which I duly ordered.   Nick chastised me for not reading the small print, as the beer is rated at a startling 10.5% ABV.  It was a magnificent brew, but not one you could drink a lot of and remain concious.  James arrived shortly afterwards and we had a great evening with him.  After a good spell in the Loyal Legion we had dinner at the Trifecta Tavern next door and then headed to James’ cigar bar: McMenamins Greater Trumps, where he gave us each a fine cigar.  We participated in the pub quiz and I helpfully illustrated each of our answers, which later proved to be popular with the quiz markers.

Mexico By Friday

Ted had invested in a large scale map of the West Coast, which we pored over with James during the evening, carefully recording his advice on the map.  Our inattention to one of his carefully inked annotations – about landslides – would cost us a great deal of time later in the trip.

The next morning we loaded the Chav Wagon early and were about to set out when a homeless person set about us.  ‘God has a plan for you!’ she screamed, spitting at us with rage.  Sympathetic to the poor woman’s plight but not particularly keen to hear more about God’s plans for us, we set off.  We were headed for Cannon Beach, a renowned beauty spot on the coast.  Getting there meant taking Highway 26 across a small mountain range – and heading slightly North.  ‘You do realise we have to be in Mexico on Friday?’ Ted remarked pointedly as we headed back the way we had come.  This became a frequently used phrase on the rest of the trip – particularly whenever I was setting up my tripod.

From Vancouver to Tijuana

Vancouver Library RoadtripAt the end of April 2018, I embarked on a week long roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana with two old friends.  Our planning was limited to some banter on WhatsApp and covered just the start point, the end point, and the hotels we would stay in.  All other details could be determined en route.  We excluded Alaska from the scope of the trip – albeit with some regret, as it added another 40 hours of driving.  The hotels, which were my responsibility, were rather unequally distributed, but that was where the way points fell on this trip: Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are all quite close together.

Misplaced Confidence

We were confident we could easily do the trip in a week – after all, we had covered 2,332 miles in 10 days on a Route 66 trip that took in Monument Valley (something  most experienced travellers will tell you is inadvisable) and this was somewhat shorter.  As we found out later, there is a world of difference between driving on the arrow straight roads of the South West and the winding Pacific Coast Highway.  We had also not factored in getting through the vast, traffic logged urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

We had established a high mileage rhythm on the previous roadtrip – we rolled in a 5,600 lb. beast of a vehicle, shared the driving and were untroubled by long periods of time on the road.  For us, that is what defines a roadtrip and gave us our misplaced confidence that the trip would be a breeze.

We saw so much in a week that a single post would never do our West Coast trip justice.  Instead I will break it up into sections and give selected highlights their own posts, such as Seattle’s excellent Gas Works Park.  As this post describes the start of the journey, our itinerary is below.  The mileages and time estimates come from the app Roadtrippers – which is really quite useful.  For those planning a trip like this, bear in mind that these are most direct routes, not necessarily the most scenic; our actual mileage, as you can see below, was rather higher as a result.

The Itinerary (with Link to Posts)

  • Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Seattle, Washington (141 miles, 2 hours 28 minutes)
  • Portland, Oregon (173 miles, 2 hours 47 minutes)
  • Gold Beach, Oregon (301 miles, 5 hours 31 minutes)
  • San Francisco, California (408 miles, 7 hours 15 minutes)
  • Pismo Beach, California (246 miles, 3 hours 55 minutes)
  • San Diego, California (249 miles, 4 hours 55 minutes)
  • Tijuana, Baja California (20 miles, 27 minutes)

Estimated roadtrip Total: 1,589 miles, 27 hours 20 minutes
Actual roadtrip Total: 1,823 miles, approximately 36 hours

Vancouver

My friend Nick and I flew from London Heathrow and were met by Ted, who now lives in Palo Alto, in a wine bar in Vancouver airport.  He was clutching a glass of red wine and a welcome sign that had us in stitches.   We headed to our hotel – the Fairmont, which turned out not to be the one Ted had recommended.  It turned out that there are two Fairmont Hotels in Vancouver.  Our very poor planning was already starting to show.

Having checked into the wrong Fairmont we took an enjoyable evening stroll in Gas Town, taking in the famous Steam Clock.  We finished the evening with dinner at the excellent Pourhouse and a night cap in the hotel bar.

In the morning we were up early and took a bracing walk from our hotel along the seawall to Stanley Park, stopping to admire Douglas Coupland’s superb Digital Orca and the many seaplanes in the harbour on the way.  From there we took a taxi to the iconic Capilano suspension bridge and enjoyed a walk amongst the old growth Douglas fir trees.   We took a taxi back into the city and took in Vancouver’s striking Central Library (shown here), the design of which is based loosely on the Colosseum. After that we visited Earls in Yale Town for a late lunch and then it was time to hit the road.  We couldn’t hire a car from Vancouver to San Diego (we didn’t plan to drive in Mexico), so we had arranged to pick up the hire car in Seattle.  As the train times didn’t line up with our chosen departure time we booked a car service to get us there.

An Old White Stretch

Ted took care of this and a slightly seedy looking white stretch limo duly appeared, with a Russian driver who looked like an unreformed alcoholic.  He made it plain that whilst having alcohol in the car was against the rules, he wouldn’t be checking up on us.  We loaded the car, including some local beverages, amongst which was a promising sounding beer called 33 Acres of Darkness, and set off.  The sound system in the ageing stretch was temperamental but eventually we got our play lists loaded.  We crossed the border into the USA, narrowly getting ahead of a coach load of excitable school children.  Our driver was severly chastised by US customs for bringing an alien orange with him, and was required to leave it in Canada.  Otherwise our border crossing was unremarkable.  We took the most direct route and so we didn’t see much in the way in scenery, which later reading revealed to be a mistake, but it was a fun and relaxing leg of the journey.

Seattle

Seattle was cold and overcast when we arrived and it soon started to rain heavily.  I am sure Seattle is a great city, but it wasn’t at its best for us on this trip.  Nick and I were tired from the flight, the section of bars we took in missed the mark, and whilst we had an excellent dinner at Canon, the waitress made it quite clear that we were incompetent diners who were quite incapable of ordering either food or drink without close supervision.   Between bar and restaurant the rain turned to hail.  As we passed a bedraggled line of Millennials, queuing to watch comic JP Sears and vainly trying to shelter from hail stones the size of marbles, I was glad we would soon be heading South and into better weather.

At breakfast in the W Hotel  we debated where to go in Seattle before we headed for Portland.  Naturally we all wanted to see the Space Needle.  I had read that the best place to view of it from, as part of the Seattle skyline, was from Kerry Park – so we duly headed there.  Mercifully it was dry but somewhat misty.  When we arrived I also found the sun to be entirely in the wrong place to get a good shot of the skyline.   Nevertheless I set up my tripod and did my best with the light I had.  Nick and Ted, meanwhile, started chatting with a drone photographer who was operating next to me, humorously comparing my DSLR, cable release and tripod setup very unfavourably with the agile 4K equipped aerial device.

Determined to get at least one good shot of Seattle, we headed for Gas Works Park, which was a revelation – the link will take you to my blog about it as a one of the photographic highlights of the trip.  Though it was still bitterly cold, it was bright and sunny by the time we arrived.  We were incredibly impressed by the rusting collection of industrial era technology, partly overgrown and daubed with graffiti, that forms the unlikely centre piece for the park.  There were also great views of the city skyline over Lake Union.  We spent quite a while at GWP and then went to collect our vehicle.

Getting our Wheels

Unless you are renting an exotic of some description, it is impossible to specify the exact make and model of vehicle you would like.  Our hope was for another Chevy Suburban, but aside from knowing that it would be a large SUV, we had no idea what we would get.  We were pleased to find Hertz had a Suburban for us, though it looked a little bit of a chav wagon in white compared to our preferred US Government black; Suburbans, albeit in HD form, are used extensively by the FBI.   The 2017 Chevy Suburban is 18.5 feet long, can carry nine passengers and will tow a handy 8,300 pounds.   Whilst that might sound excessive, when you are in a vehicle for up to 10 hours a day a bit of space makes a lot of difference.   With its ladder frame chassis and soft suspension it is no driver’s vehicle, but it has huge presence and the big 5.3L V8 makes for effortless mileage.   Content that we we had a proven set of wheels under us, we loaded up and headed for Portland, Oregon, with little idea what we would find when we got there.

The Industrial Beauty of Gas Works Park

Gas Works ParkOn the north shore of Lake Union, overlooking the skyline of downtown Seattle, a rusting collection of industrial era technology, partly overgrown and daubed with graffiti, forms the unlikely centre piece for Gas Works Park.  I found myself there on a stop on an epic road trip from Vancouver to Tijuana with a small group of friends.

We were much taken by the Industrial Age monument, with its giant tanks, labrythine pipework and tall smokestacks, which now sits in green parkland.  From a distance it looked to me like Howl’s Moving Castle.  Closer, and out of its original context it has the air of a giant art installation.  It is incredibly photogenic.  I shot the accompanying picture with my Nikon Df using a circular polarising filter.  The sun was just at the right angle to bring out a lot of contrast, and the clouds help give it a steam punk vibe. 

Concrete train trestles greeted us at the park entrance. Part of the original 1906 gas plant, they apparently mark where the train tracks ended and coal was delivered, though as we had no idea what function they served at the time, they appeared completely abstract to us.

Reading up on the park after our visit, I was surprised to learn that during its productive life this was one of 1,400 coal gasification plants in the USA, converting superheated coal and crude oil into synthetic gas.  Like a static Dr Who, it is now the sole survivor of its kind.  It is also one of the earliest post-industrial sites to be transformed for public use through reclamation.   Gas production ceased back in 1956 and the 19-acre site was acquired by the City in 1965, opening to the public 10 years later.

The story of its Gas Works Park usage starts with the arrival in Seattle of visionary landscape architect Richard Haag in 1958.  An unsuccessful but well regarded finalist for another landscape project, he was subsequently awarded Gas Works.   The idea of industrial buildings being preserved in parkland was unheard of in the 1950s.  Unsurprisingly, there was considerable public debate about the site and its usage, but park supporters carried the day.

In addition to the Gas Works, the park features an artificial kite-flying hill created from on-site spoil.  On the summit there is giant sundial constructed from glass, ceramics, and stone, where you can put your shadow to good use in telling the time.

As I mentioned earlier, my visit to Gas Works Park was on a stop on a West Coast road trip. Seattle’s weather was, as it is all too often, extremely wet.  As the trip was at the beginning of April we were also subject to hail.  Our one respite from bad weather there was the morning we visited the park – it was bright and sunny, though bitterly cold.  We concluded that our trip to the park had been the highlight of our brief stop in Seattle.  It is well worth a visit.

The Ruined Manor in the Lost Village of Hampton Gay

Hampton Gay Ruined ManorThe village of Hampton Gay has largely disappeared, leaving only an isolated church and the picturesque ruins of an Elizabethan manor house. The only inhabitants left reside in a large farmhouse and a few cottages that line the last few yards of single track road – a mile long, single track spur that connects to the road from nearby Hampton Poyle to Bletchingdon.   Once you pass though a gate into the fields you can see the outlines of where cottages used to be from the humps in the grass.

It’s an ancient spot and much of the surrounding farmland on the nearby circular walk undulates as a result of the use of the mould-board plough in medieval times.  The best way to see it is to walk from Thrupp, a small village just north of Kidlington, and along the canal to Shipton-on-Cherwell.  There you turn right across a bridge over the river Cherwell and arrive at Hampton Gay after a few minutes walk.  I’ve been visiting and shooting there for about ten years.  The aspect of the ruin changes according to the season and depending on the light, which makes it well worth a return visit.

Village origins

The de Gay family were tenants of the two estates in Hampton Gay in the 12th and 13th centuries – the village name combines their surname with the Old English for a village or farm.  The de Gays donated and sold land from the estate to various religious orders including the ill-fated Knights Templars, the Abbey of Osney, just outside Oxford’s west gate, and the Convent at Godstow.

All the land owned by religious orders at Hampton Gay were forfeited after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The crown sold the land into private ownership and in 1544 it was purchased by  the Barry family who built the manor house.  The record of a grant of tithes in 1074 shows there has a church in the village since that time.  The present church of St Giles’s (which still has no electricity) was built between 1767-1772 on the foundations of the earlier church.

The Manor house

The Manor House was constructed by the Barry family to the classic Elizabethan E-shaped plan with gabled wings and a crenelated central porch.  The vertical line of the E was the main hall, and the horizontal end lines the kitchens and living rooms. The  central line was the entry porch.

As late as 1870, the interior was still largely original including oak panelling, though it had been neglected.  It has changed hands many times over the years.  Curiously, it ended up back in the hands of the Barry family in the early 20th century when Wadham college sold it to Colonel S.L. Barry of Long Crendon, a descendant of the Barrys who built it.

By 1809 it was reported to be a ‘gothic manor’ in a neglected state and in 1880s the house was divided into two tenements.  In 1887 it was gutted by fire and has never been restored.  It is a Grade II listed building and a scheduled monument. English Heritage have placed the ruins of the manor house on its register of historic buildings at risk.

Two mills and three fires

There has been water mill at Hampton Gay on the River Cherwell since the 13th century.  It was a grain mill until 1681 when it was converted into a paper mill.  In 1875 it was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt. In 1880 it had both a water wheel powered by the river and a steam engine and was capable of producing a ton of paper per day.  It closed in 1887 after a second fire.  That same year, a third fire consumed the manor house.

The train crash

There were rumours that manor was deliberately burned down for the insurance. More imaginatively, others claimed it was the result of a curse related to one of the worst train accidents to take place on the Great Western Railway.  On Christmas Eve 1874, a Great Western express train from Paddington was derailed on the nearby Cherwell line.  Thirty-four people died in the accident and sixty-nine were injured.  Among those coming to the aid of the victims was Sir Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston, from nearby Blenheim Palace.  According to legend, and disputed by some, the residents of the manor house refused shelter to the victims, resulting in the house becoming cursed.

The agrarian revolt

Hampton Gay Ruined ManorHampton Gay is known for its villager’s part in the unsucessful agrarian, or Oxfordshire rising, rising of 1596.   The Barrys had made their money from wool and enclosed land at Hampton Gay for sheep pasture. The villagers, unable to till the land for their own produce, faced starvation and many joined a revolt.  The plan was for the villagers to come together to murder Barry and his daughter, but this was foiled when the village carpenter turned informant.  One of the ringleaders from the village received the barbaric sentence of being hanged, drawn and quartered.  Subsequently, the Government recognised the cause of the rebels’ grievance and the Tillage Act of 1597 enabled the land to be ploughed and cultivated once again.

Fluctuating fortunes

Hampton Gay’s population has flucatuated over the years in line with its fortunes.  In the fourteenth century it had between nine and twelve taxpayers.  In the fifteenth century it was exempted from taxation because there were fewer than ten resident householders.  The Compton Census recorded twenty-eight adults in 1676.   The population increased during the late 18th century – in 1811 there were seventeen families crowded into thirteen houses. The peak was reached in 1821, with eighty-six inhabitants, After the fire and mill closure in 1887 the population fell to thirty.

The decline continued during the 20th century until in 1955 there were only fourteen parishioners.  Hampton Gay ceased to be a separate civil parish in 1932 when it was merged with the adjacent parish of Hampton Poyle.  Today it is one of the most picturesque spots in Oxfordshire.  The Bell in the nearby village of Hampton Poyle is an excellent hostelry to stop at for food en route or afterwards.

 

 

 

 

Cindy Sherman – Star of the Films That Never Were

The Blues Trail – Mississippi & Arkansas

Into Blues Country

It was in the Mississippi Delta that sharecroppers first fused the rhythms and tones of Africa with the scale and instruments of American folk music to produce the blues.   This new musical form was was first described by touring musician WC Handy in Memphis in 1903.  By the 1920s the first blues records were being made.  By the late 1920s  Charley Patton had emerged from an anonymous folk tradition to become a blues superstar.  He was followed in the 1930s by many more stars, most notably the hugely influential Son House and the legendary Robert Johnson (though Robert was little known in his own lifetime).  The Delta blues started to move beyond the South, up the Mississippi river into the Midwest, aided in its spread by the phenomenon known as the “juke joint”.  This was an informal establishment, sometimes a “shotgun shack”, that provided music, dancing, gambling, and drinking for the sharecroppers, whose lives were exceedingly hard.  In the 1940s the blues evolved into electric, urban forms such as  Chicago Blues, popularised by Muddy Waters, which later formed the basis of  rock ‘n roll.

Highway 61

Blues Trail Tunica GatewayThe City of Clarksdale is located in the heart of the Delta, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49.  This is the crossroads famed for Robert Johnson’s legendary Faustian pact.  From Memphis it is about an hour and a half’s drive down the Blues Highway (Highway 61) which follows the Mississippi river for much of its route.  Highway 61 is much more than a road in the US; it is second only to Route 66 as the most famous highway in American music.   Many blues artists have recorded songs about this storied road; “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Joe Williams, and Mississippi Fred McDowell amongst them.  Bob Dylan said of it “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”  Needless to say, I was happy to take the Blues Highway to Clarksdale.

Gateway to the Blues Museum, Tunica

The Gateway to the Blues Visitors Center and Museum was my first stop.  It lies directly on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, close to Tunica’s casino area (Mississippi’s Las Vegas), and less than an hour from Memphis.  The Museum is housed in a beautifully restored one-room, nineteenth century train depot, and serves as a gateway to the blues music scene across the the Mississippi Delta.  It was, for me, more impressive on the outside that in, but that is no criticism – for a photographer that is often the case and it is a really iconic building.  Inside there is a great collection of guitars, information on the hundred or so blues trail markers, and a good selection of blues merchandise and literature.  I got talking to the staff at the museum as I was buying some merchandise (a Robert Johnson T shirt), and admitted to being an amateur musician. In fact being a musician was my first choice of career and I’ve always felt a little regret that I ‘sold out’ to pursue a more conventional job.   I characterised this a little thoughtlessly, given where I was, and what I was buying there.  I used the phrase ‘sold my soul to the devil’ to describe the (alleged) sell out.  I’ve used the description before more than once before and received a smile as a result, but that wasn’t the case this time.  Note to self – never make reference to selling your soul to the devil in the Deep South!  One of the women nearly jumped out of her skin and the other looked most discomforted.  I assured them that this was not literally what I did, and that it was just a figure of speech, and apologised for alarming them.

Speaking of my music, there’s a link to one of my blues tracks below.  I think the song is well crafted enough, but the recording is very much demo quality at best and the lead really needs re-doing as I just went at it full tilt and lost the plot a bit – I am by no means a shredder.  That said, I know I’ll never re-record it.  I have too many other tunes in my head that I need to get down, some of which I wrote many years ago.  I rarely get time to record, which isn’t helped by the inordinate amount of time I take to lay down a track on my old school 16 track recorder.

The Delta Blues Museum

I headed into Clarkdale itself, to the Delta Blues Museum. It is located in an old freight depot built in 1926.  The area it is situated in was deserted and a quite run down, and I was convinced that I was in the wrong place until I saw the Museum’s sign.  It was established in 1979 as the first museum devoted to blues and moved to its current location 20 years later.  Bearded guitar ace Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top played a big role in raising funds for the museum.  He was also instrumental in bringing the largest and most important exhibit to the museum – the cabin where Muddy Waters once lived on the nearby Stovall plantation.  The museum covers the who’s-who of the blues very comprehensively and I wandered around it contentedly for quite some time.

blues trail clarksdale alleyBlues Alley and Robert Johnson

The Delta Blues Museum is at number 1 Blues Alley.  Right across the street is the Delta Blues Cafe, which has an old Cadillac art car parked outside and a haunting, peeling mural of Robert Johnson, the most potent legend of the blues, on the side of the building.

It was at crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, where legend has it that Robert did a deal with the devil, who retuned his guitar in exchange for his soul.  Formally a harmonica player and an indifferent guitarist, he returned with such a mastery of the blues that Son House and other older guitarists were incredulous.  The story circulated that Robert had sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.   Cross Road Blues and Me and the Devil Blues, have both contributed to the myth of a pact with Lucifer.  In the latter song, Satan visits Robert early in the morning. Hello Satan,” sings Robert, “I believe it’s time to go.

Graveyard Versus Crossroads

In fact Robert had met and moved in with guitar player Ike Zimmerman and his family, and Ike became his tutor.  They practised together amongst the tombstones in the quiet of a local graveyard.   It is quite likely that the origin of the Faustian story came from another blues musician, named Tommy Johnson (no relation).   Tommy cultivated a rather dark image to help promote his act.  As part of this, according to his brother, he claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for mastery of the guitar.  Robert made no such claim.  Tommy lived until 1956, whereas Robert only lived until 1938 (he was 27 when died and so later became a member of the 27 club.)   Almost nothing was known about Robert until much later when some serious research was done and the story attached to the more mysterious figure.  When I first heard of Robert in the 1980’s there were no known photographs of him.  Even today there are only two.  Robert recorded just 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37.  Like him, most of these tunes have attained mythic status: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are all Robert’s compositions.  The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers have all recorded his songs.  In 1933 Robert settled in Helena, Arkansas, where he met and played with bluesmen Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James,  and Howlin’ Wolf amongst others.  Helena, Arkansas was only a little out of my way on the way back to Memphis, so that was my next destination.

Blues Trail HelenaAcross The Mighty Mississippi to Helena

The light was just starting to fade as I drove down Highway 49 through Lula and crossed the Mississippi River to enter Helena, Arkansas.  Now in serious decline, the town played a significant role in blues history.  It flourished during the steamboat era as a river port equipped with all music, gambling and night life the locals and deckhands could want.   It was also the birthplace of a major blues radio show that began broadcasting to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941.

Ghosts of the Historic District

I visited the Delta Cultural Centre, which is well worth a visit, and then started to wander in the atmospheric historic district.  I immediately came across an iconic blues marker ‘Mississippi to Helena’.  The area was deserted and in many places tumbling down.  I stood in front of an abandoned storefront at 119 Missouri Street which used to house a juke joint called the Kit Kat Cafe.  This is one of the few places we know Robert Johnson actually played.   It was crumbling, and a faded and cracking picture in the window lent it an unsettling air.   I continued to wander.  In places the buildings are cordoned off as their tumble down state is so unsafe.  At 201 Frank Frost Street (shown here) I took a shot of a building which I later found out was featured in the documentary ‘In Search of Robert Johnson.’   It had broken windows and a large sign saying ‘NO LOITERING’.  I walked, entranced by the near ghost town, until there was no more light.  At that point the slightly spooky nature of Helena was greatly amplified and I returned to my vehicle in a hurry, suddenly keen to return to the bright lights of Memphis, Tennessee.

The Blues Trail – Memphis, Tennessee

At the age of 14 I was listening to a Pirate radio station broadcasting from the North Sea when I heard a track from George Thorogood and the Destroyers.  It was probably a song from from their self-titled album of 1977.  George was playing furious electric slide guitar and I had never heard anything like it.  The power of that sound, along with that of punk, especially the Sex Pistols, inspired me to get an electric guitar and play it hard.  Guitar driven music, especially the blues, has been part of my life ever since.

Nearly forty years later I found myself in Nashville, which is only a 3 hour drive from Memphis, which in turn is close to Mississippi and the Delta, so I took the opportunity do something I had wanted to do for many years: get on the blues trail.

Sun Studio

I started at Sun Studio, Memphis, one of the most revered landmarks in blues, country, rockabilly and rock and roll.   Originally the Memphis Recording Service, Sun was founded by by the equally legendary Sam Phillips  in 1950.  Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others started their recording careers there.  Once our tour guide arrived, the few of us that had gathered in the adjacent cafe which is the rendez-vous point for the tour, went upstairs to the museum where he told us the story of Sun – an extraordinary tale of one man’s vision and persistence.   Then he took us down to the studio to finish the story.  He told the tale well – with knowledge, humour and great timing.  The studio itself is tiny, but it is at is was in the 1950s, right down to the original acoustic tiling.  One wall is lined with guitars (including Scotty Moore’s) and there is a stack of vintage Fender amps against another.  When the tour finished, I got talking to the guide (or preacher as he refers to himself) and he was kind enough to show me the interior of the minuscule control room.  As I had a recording on my phone of  a track dedicated to Scotty Moore I asked him if I could play it in that hallowed space and he agreed.  It was a magic moment.

The Blues Trail MemphisBeale Street

There is a shuttle that runs from Sun Studio to Beale Street, which stops close to the Gibson Factory.  The factory offers a tour of Gibson’s Memphis facility, and being a guitarist who plays a Gibson ES-Les Paul made in the same factory, I was keen to see how it was created.   The tour guide walked us through the factory, pausing at the various stations dedicated to the shaping, assembling and finishing the instruments and providing us insights into the process.  It takes about three weeks to make one of their hollow body guitars .  Sadly, the facility is moving from Beale Street at some point, though Gibson say they are committed to retaining a presence in the Memphis area.  From Gibson I walked to Beale Street proper.  The area was created by an entrepreneur in 1841, and by the 1860s black traveling musicians had begun to perform there.  By the 1900s, Beale Street was largely African-American owned, lined with clubs, restaurants and shops and the home of W. C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues and the creator of the “Blues on Beale Street”.  It continued to be home to the blues, and between the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, and other blues and jazz musicians played there, contributing to what became known as Memphis Blues.  B. B. King got his famous initials from his billing as there as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

Today Beale Street is a very much a tourist destination, but it has a unique look and feel and if you get into a bar with live music it is really special.  Of the shops, easily the most interesting is the old fashioned general store A. Schwab Trading Company, established in 1876.  It is housed in the oldest remaining building on Beale Street and contains the Beale Street Museum and two floors of quirky merchandise, including some hoodoo (folk magic) items.  Seeking give music, I found Vince Johnson and The Plantation All Stars at the atmospheric Blues Hall Juke Joint.  The picture of them was taken with a Leica Q, (f2.8, 1/100, ISO 3200).  I also saw Eric Hughes (solo) at the rather oddly-located wrestling themed King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame.   Both were excellent.

Also on Beale Street is the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum – an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors in 2000.  The museum provides a journey from the rural origins of blues and soul in the 1930s, through the explosive growth driven by Sun and Stax labels up to the 1970s.  It’s worth a look, not least because it provides some insights into the lives of the black and white sharecroppers whose music so influenced blues and soul music.

Memphis BBQ

Still on Beale Street, I had lunch at the Blues City Cafe, a pint of Guinness at Silky O’Sullivan’s (you have to go to see the goats), and dinner at BB Kings Blues Club.   Much of the food on Beale street is Memphis-style barbecue, which is distinct from the other US regional BBQ styles of Kansas City, Texas and Carolina.  Memphis-style barbecue is usually pork ribs slow cooked in a pit prepared either “dry” or “wet”.   I had no idea what this meant before coming to Southern US.  The difference was explained to me at a visit to the One & Only BBQ. “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub and eaten without sauce, whilst “wet” ribs are covered with sauce throughout cooking.  Half wet, half dry is usually an option, and is what I tried. Portions are huge and the sides include devilled eggs, black-eyed peas and slaw mac-n-cheese.  There are many starter options, but I particularly enjoyed the Polish Kielbasa sausage – which was smoked, dusted in dry rub and grilled and served as part of a sausage and cheese platter – a Memphis tradition.   Being a tourist location, you’ll inevitably eat better off Beale Street than on it, but the location and live music more than make up for it.

Blues Trail MLK Room 306Room 306 of The Lorraine Motel

The story of the blues, and of the South, is closely entwined with the story of black Americans and their struggle for equal rights, so it no is surprise that the National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis.  In fact, the location is that of the assassination of Martin Luther King at The Lorraine Motel.   Dr King was staying at the motel in April 1968 when he came to Memphis to support a strike.  He was standing on the balcony of room 306 when he was fatally shot.   The room has been preserved exactly as it was during his stay, a wreath hangs from the balcony and two white cars from that era – a 1959 Dodge and a 1968 Cadillac are parked in front of the motel.   The picture of them and room 306 was again taken with a Leica Q (f8, 1/200, ISO 200).  The air of regret and respect from visitors is tangible as you stand in front of room.  The Motel is now the home of the Museum which guides visitors through five hundred years of history, from early slave resistance to the protests of the civil-rights movement.   It is a very worthwhile visit.  Reading about the motel afterwards, I learned that it has a strong connection to the blues as black musicians would stay at there while they were recording in Memphis, due to its long standing status as a safe haven for black visitors to Memphis.

The Blues Hall of Fame

Only two minutes walk from the National Civil Rights Museum is the Blues Hall of Fame.  Initially this was not a physical building, but a listing, started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation.   Many of my favourite blues artists were inducted in that first year, including Lightnin’ Hopkin, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.  The Memphis museum opened in 2015, and pays tribute to the 400 or so inductees. There are several galleries with interactive touchscreen displays for visitors to listen to music, watch videos, and read stories of the members of the Hall of Fame, and each gallery houses some memorabilia.

Graceland

No visit to Memphis is complete without a trip to Graceland.  From the perspective of any musical journey, Elvis’s fusion of blues and country into rockabilly was a unique achievement.  It also laid the foundations for rock and roll.  The visit completed the circle from my start point on the blues trail at Sun Studio.  That was where owner, Sam Phillips, who in 1954 was looking for a white singer with a black blues feel, put Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black together.  This resulted in their first single, a cover of blues singer Arthur Crudup’s 1949 blues standard “That’s All Right Mama”.  The song was recorded with just the trio playing, without drums.  The single sold around 20,000 copies, which was not enough to chart nationally, but it reached number 4 in the local Memphis charts and Elvis, Scotty and Bill were on their way.  Graceland is about 9 miles from Downtown Memphis, close to the Mississippi border. It is preserved as it was appointed and decorated last, in the mid 1970s.  That was when Elvis transformed the Southern Colonial mansion into a Rock n Roll palace.  Accordingly, it is fabulously over the top.  The Jungle Room has green shag pile carpet not only underfoot…but on the ceiling. The TV Room, with its mirrored ceiling and multiple TV screens, was apparently inspired by a comment from the President at the time who watched multiple televisions at once.  The Pool Room has some 350 yards of fabric covering the walls and ceiling. It is hugely opulent, which is in strong contrast to the next part of the blues trail which took me deep into Mississippi and across the river into Arkansas.

 

Fan Ho – the Great Master

Brassaï’s Dark and Beautiful Realm

Darkness in Las Vegas

Dark Vegas

Through the eyes of a lifetime resident

There are still plenty of people in Las Vegas who remember the days when the mob ran Las Vegas.  On my last trip I met a couple of them – a barman and a taxi driver.  The taxi driver had a business card that described him as ‘driver and lifetime Las Vegas resident’.  He described how he and his mother had both worked for in mob-run casinos and lamented the decline in standards and increases in petty crime in the city since the mob had lost control.  Asking a few questions the apparently utopian picture turned out to full of darkness.  He admitted that now and again those on the edge of the city would find that their dog would bring back a human body part “sometimes a femur, sometimes a skull” from a desert burial.  I commented that this was a pretty significant downside but he was adamant that this was not a real issue on the basis that everyone knew that if you were stupid enough to steal from the mafia you would be killed.  I remained unconvinced.  He told me about the mob museum (Formally know as ‘The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement’ which is well worth a visit.

A .38 revolver, a wad of hundreds and a small bag of white powder

The barman, who I’ll call Michael,  told me a couple of stories about legendary mobster  Anthony Spilotro portrayed in the Martin Scorsese movie Casino as Nicky Santoro.   Michael was sitting next to Spilotro at a bar where he was working but off-duty.  There was a lot of talk in the city about a very senior level falling out between Spilotro and his fellow mobsters, Michael slid down a couple of stools saying ‘I hope you don’t mind Tony, I just don’t want to catch a bullet’.  Spilotro laughed, but two days later he was found dead, buried in a cornfield.  In the movie he was buried still breathing, but this the facts are less remarkable; later mob testimony revealed he as beaten to death in a basement and moved to the burial site.  Michael was also asked to retrieve and return Spilotro’s wife’s handbag (or purse as he put it) from a bar where she had left it.  He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the contents.  Inside the handbag was a .38 snub nose revolver, a huge wad of hundred dollar bills and a small bag of white powder…

Spilotro’s story is an interesting one: he came into contact with organised crime at an early age as his parents ran a Chicago restaurant that was adopted by the mob.  He became a “made” man in the 1960s and was sent to act as the mob representative in Las Vegas in the 1970s.  He founded a burglary operation, known as the Hole in the Wall Gang with his brother; it was their unsubtle entry methods that earned them the gang nickname.  Unfortunately for Spilotro this overt criminal behaviour led to him being blacklisted by the casinos, which compromised his official mob representative role.   This did not sit well with his bosses and associates.  In January 1986, at a high level mob the problem of Spilotro and Las Vegas was debated and the agreed conclusion was ‘hit him’.

A Lecia Q in downtown Las Vegas

On that trip I spent most of my spare time in Downtown Las Vegas, which for me is by far the most interesting part of the city; it is full of character and rather gritty in comparison to the high end experience of the strip.    You can find the pictures from this and my other trips at the Las Vegas gallery on this site.  There is also an earlier blog on Las Vegas.  The accompanying picture for this post was shot with my Leica Q at f1.8, 1/5000 of a second with -0.6 EV, using the electronic shutter.   The leaf shutter on the Leica Q is virtually silent and will go to 1/2000s after which the electronic shutter takes over on the way to a maximum 1/16000s – making the Leica’s fast aperture usable even in bright conditions.   What I like about this shot is the strong full-length shadow, the inclusion of the big Fremont street neon signs in the background and the gentleman’s white jacket, hat and shoes which contrasts nicely with the dark tones that dominate the shot.  The Leica Q’s incredible sharpness on the subject compared to the background helps make that contrast even stronger.

Encounters with Japanese Dragons

Encounters with Dragons screenThe r

“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

A long history

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

In Kyoto

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

A water spirit

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.

10 Days in Japan

trees gardenBetween 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.

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