Seven Travel Photo Tips That Have Really Helped Me

I have promised this post about my photography methodology since we got home from our Mediterranean cruise. Before I start, I want to thank everyone who has complimented my photography, either here or on Instagram or Facebook. It is so gratifying that people like the thing I love creating. And I truly do love creating photographs.

I had originally thought I would just tell you about my cameras and what I do, but this way will be more fun and maybe help you improve your travel photography by hearing about these things I do when I shoot travel. BTW: These will work for ANY camera; your phone, your point-and-shoot, your DSLR or your mirrorless camera. And I did include the camera and lens stuff down at the bottom.

#7—Get out of the way

Thought I would start with the pet peeve that I learned how to solve long ago—getting out of the way of other people. So often, I see someone walking along in a crowd of people, and they see something they want to take a photo of. They immediately stop, pull out whatever camera (probably their phone) they are using, and they bring it up to their eye and take a photo. Or two. Or three. Or worse is those that stop to take a selfie. Or two. Or sixty—with a different facial expression in every one of them.

But the really important thing they don’t do is GET OUT OF THE WAY! If I see a photo I really want to get, I immediately walk to the nearest wall or pole or real-life obstruction and stop there. I NEVER stop in the middle of the sidewalk, road or wherever else I am walking. (And I don’t change direction immediately. I move diagonally) Why? Because I am not the most important person in the world. I have no business blocking others who may not want to take a photo right then. So get over to the side, get out of their way and take your photo.

#6—Take a few seconds to figure out the best shot available

Now that you have stepped to the side take a few seconds to look at what you first saw that attracted your eye. Take that first shot. Then ask yourself, is there some other way to shoot this that might look better? Try a couple of other shots. Maybe switch sides of the sidewalk or street. Get up higher, get down lower. Most of the time, when you see one of my photos, there are four or five other ones on the same subject that you will never see. I shot them, but I liked the one I posted a whole lot more.

#5—Look behind you

Now you have taken the shot that caught your eye, turn around and look behind you. I know I have mentioned this before on numerous occasions, but a guy named Shawn King, who used to have a Mac podcast I listened to, used to talk about photography, and this was one of his prime directives. Look behind you. I almost always do, and it has paid off with some great shots. I took two photos within two seconds of each other in England. I had taken the obligatory Stonehenge shot, remembered to turn around and got this great cow. I honestly like them both equally.

#4—Shoot a lot of images

When I first started taking photos seriously (not just snapshots), I was in my first year as a yearbook adviser at Coachella Vally High School. The absolute biggest difference between my photography then and my photography now is digital. When I started taking pictures, we were using film (yes, I am that old 😜). If you don’t remember shooting with film, it used to come with a certain number of exposures per roll. That meant the maximum number of photos I could take was either 12, 24 or 36. That was it. Then you had to put in a new roll of film. Film was expensive, as was getting it developed and printed. For 36 color photos, I would probably spend $8.00 for the film itself and then another 30¢ per photo to have them printed and more for enlargements if I wanted them. The total for 36 prints was in the ballpark of $20 with tax, etc. So every photo I took had to be the one I wanted. The second, third and fourth shots were expensive. If I had taken the Med cruise we took in September, I would have probably shot one or maybe two 36 exposure roles of Kodachrome or Ektachrome a day. Our cruise was 21 days so that would have cost me more than $750.

Today on an average trip, I spend exactly $0.00 to take thousands of photos. On our September trip, I took a grand total of 3,203 images. I have shared many of those on this blog, on Instagram, on Facebook and other places, but it still hasn’t cost me a single cent beyond the cost of my original investment in camera and memory cards. (BTW: In case you are wondering why my photo count is so high, it’s because I take triples. That’s three shots pretty much every time I push the shutter.)

So the message here is…take a lot of images. Out of the 3,203 photos I took in September, I was happy with about 600 of them. The rest are long gone. Out of those 600, I only show anyone about 350 of them. But they are the ones I love and want to share. And in many cases, they were the third, fourth or fifth photo I took of the same subject, just from a slightly different angle. So shoot a lot of pictures.

#3—Then organize those photos—with photo triage

If you aren’t familiar with photo triage, it works just like medical triage. I think watching the TV series MASH was the first time I understood how triage worked. A doctor would be in charge of triaging wounded patients as they came into the hospital. Those who were hurt the worst got care; first, those with less life-threatening injuries could wait.

I do the same thing when I return from a day of shooting photos. I download them to my computer and decide which ones are worth saving and which aren’t. I also have a category for those that might be good shots if I work with them in Photoshop for a little bit. I do this in a program called Adobe Bridge (below). Others use Adobe Lightroom. But you could do it just as easily in Apple’s Photos app or the base photo organizer tool for Windows. I look at each photo and hit either my 1 key for losers, my 5 key for winners or my 3 key for fixer-uppers. You can do the same thing in Photos by favoriting the ones you like (they need a numbering system). Then I summarily trash all the 1s. Get them off of your computer. I promise if I had left all of my 3,203 photos on my computer, they would not only have been a pain to manage but also have taken up a substantial amount of hard drive space. Once I have my 5s and have repaired my 3s, then I show Kathleen my 5s (fixed 3s become 5s) and see what she thinks.

After that, I might do a little more work on my final choices. Then I perform two steps that, in all likelihood, you won’t have to do with your photos. Mine are taken in a format called RAW. This format produces what photographers call a digital negative. It gives me a chance to choose a bunch of settings for my photos that your camera or phone chooses for you. Apple has created kind of a RAW format for iPhones, but there is a pretty decent learning curve if you want to use it. Since I use RAW files, I first have to convert them to JPEGs before I can put them online. I have a Photoshop extension that does this in bulk, but it does take a few minutes. Then if I want to put them on Facebook or Instagram, I have to make them smaller, so I have another Photoshop action that I run to shrink them for online use. I always keep my original files in RAW, so I still have them if I want to print them or use them in a large format.

#2—Learn how to hold your camera and hold it still

About 90% of the people I see using an iPhone hold it like this to take a photo. This is the wrong way. I can fix a lot of things in Photoshop, but no one can fix camera jiggle. So much of that has to do with how you hold your camera or your phone. My current iPhone, it has an excellent camera, and I thought I might start using it more. So I signed up for a course (online) on shooting with my iPhone. Sadly, I didn’t learn a lot because most of the course was just basic photo techniques that I already knew. But one thing that I learned in the very first lesson was how to hold the phone in the best way to avoid jiggle and get a clear photo every time.

How should you hold a phone? Like this.

Three fingers of your non-dominant hand going up or across the back. The phone is supported by your little finger and thumb of that hand. Then put your dominant hand underneath your other hand and take the photo using your thumb. This gives you an amazing amount of control, and it is a lot less likely to not only jiggle, but you are a lot less likely to drop it if jostled in a crowd. Give it a try. I do need to say that it took me a while to do this every time, but I do it every time now. Make it a habit. BTW: If you need a better explanation, just Google “the right way to hold an iPhone when taking a picture.”

#1—If you can shoot Manual and/or get a real camera

This tip only partially applies to those of you using your phone as your predominant camera. But if you have a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) or a mirrorless camera, stop shooting in Program or Auto and shoot in Manual. And if you are using your phone, consider buying a real camera. (That will take you to the next level). When you take a photo in Program, Auto or with your phone, your camera thinks you want a photo of your subject in midday, full light. Let me illustrate. On the left is a photo I took in Program. On the right is one I took in Manual.

See a huge difference? The one I shot in Manual is what I saw with my eye. The one I shot in Program is what the camera thought I wanted to take. I never want to take that photo. The mood of the one on the right is what I want every time. It completely captures what I wanted it to.

My equipment

I have had people ask in the comments what kind of camera I use. I am happy to say, but I hope that you realize this has little to do with my photography. Saying that it does is like asking Jimi Hendrix what kind of guitar he played. He could have played any guitar and been as awesome as he was. That said, I am currently shooting an almost brand new (I got it in September) Nikon Z7II. It is a mirrorless camera that I picked up in July. Mirrorless is the current state of the art in cameras. I could get really technical as to why it is superior to my old Nikon D810 DSLR, but the biggest advantage for me is that I can now hand-hold my camera at 1/20th of a second. To me, that is amazing. When I started shooting, the best I could do was around 1/60th of a second; otherwise, I got way too much jiggle. But without a mirror snapping up, I can hand-hold a lot slower shutter speeds. This new camera is also much better for action because it can take a lot of photos faster.

The predominant lens I shoot when traveling (or pretty much all the time) is a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR lens. David Pogue, the NY Times tech guy, called this the “Magic Lens” because you only need this one lens to shoot all the time. I do have to give up a little light that I could get back by shooting a faster lens but they just don’t make them. This lens is also pretty darned-heavy. With my camera attached, it weighs about 5lbs. I do own other lenses, but I rarely use them.

The other piece of equipment I never travel without is my Black Rapid camera strap. I can’t stand things (especially things that weigh 5lbs) hanging off my neck. This one is cross-body, and they last forever. My current strap is the only one I have ever owned, and I have been using it for more than 15 years. Not only does it distribute the weight well, but it has a zipper compartment for extra cards and a pocket for an extra battery—which is a must!

As you have already read, I also take my Mac on just about every trip we take. This helps me feel better about not losing any photos. I am a fanatic about backing up my photos. My Nikon has two slots for memory cards. I shoot to both of them. This means that when I take a photo, it is saved to both cards at the same time. When I get back to the room or the ship stateroom, I download the pics from the primary card. Then I get out my 2TB backup drive and back up my Mac. Every time I shoot I always have at least two (and usually three) copies of every photo until I have done my triage and backed up those. Then I can get rid of the rest. And I forgot to mention that the folder where I keep my photos that I download is in my Dropbox folder so it is also being uploaded whenever I have WiFi. That puts all my photos online as well.

I fully realize this is more than everyone wanted to know but if it helps you improve your travel photos, it will have been worth it. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.

Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.   —Aaron Siskind

 

Why I hate October

I know this is supposed to be a travel blog and that I promised everyone a post on my photographic process, but please excuse this interruptive rant while I tell you why I hate October.

First, I hate Halloween!

There I said. It is by far my least favorite holiday of the year, and please allow me to explain why. Mainly it is because it takes over the world I live in. Everything I read, watch or see is all about Halloween, and most of it involves something I don’t like.

For instance, besides photography and writing this blog, my favorite hobby is cooking. I love to cook. I love to find new recipes. But every October the recipe sites I get notifications from all seem to be about pumpkin this or pumpkin that. To be honest, I hate pumpkin. I find it to be on the blah side when it comes to flavors. The older I get, the more that’s true. For instance, I no longer like banana bread. I did earlier in my life but not anymore. Now it is simply something to put butter on. The main thing I will taste will be the butter. The same is true of pumpkin bread, yet I get constant recipes for pumpkin bread and pies and muffins this whole month long.

I also love television and movies, but during October, everything is about scaring, frightening and worse. So many horror films and television specials are released each October that it drives me nuts. Of course, the reason I hate these shows and movies is that I hate scary films. Horror is a genre that I just despise. My life and the world are scary enough without having to watch some guy with a chainsaw cut up people. And even if I ignore all the movies and shows about Halloween, they corrupt the shows I enjoy every week with Halloween special episodes. Yes, I realize that the cast of The Conners does outstanding Halloween costumes, but when even cop shows are about someone getting killed on Halloween by a guy dressed in a hockey mask, we have gone too far.

The whole costume thing drives me nuts too. I know my daughter, her husband and my grandkids love dressing up. And I love to see how imaginative their costumes are (plus they usually aren’t scary, just cool), but god forbid I ever get asked to do that. A costume party is my idea of hell.

I hate decorating for Halloween. I really believed that when we moved to Trilogy in May that we would see very few Halloween decorations around because, hey, there’s no one here under 55, and Halloween is a kid’s holiday, right? Nope. Every other house on our street has Halloween decorations up. Even our next-door neighbor, who won’t even talk to us, has them up? I don’t get it. When I was younger (in my 30s-50s), my best friend around here was a guy named Bob Couture. Bob decorated more for Halloween than he did for Christmas…and believe me, he really decorated for Christmas. But it always drove me nuts, and he would make fun of me because I didn’t love the holiday the way he did. When it comes to Halloween decorations, we have one very cool, jack ‘o lantern that we don’t know where to put in the new house.

Don’t get me started on the colors. Black is OK. I mean, it’s just black. For a while in my life, my psoriasis was so bad I couldn’t wear black at all. I looked like I had been in a snowstorm. So I don’t have much black. Then let’s talk orange. Does anyone look good in orange? Well, if you know anyone who thinks they look good in orange, I look worse.

Second, I hate what the weather has become

The weather this October isn’t helping. With climate change has come a change in seasons here in Washington. When I first moved to Western Washington, there were two seasons—dry (July, August and September) and wet (the rest of the year). Now we have three, and we are smack-dab in the middle of the third one—smoke. We have forests, so we have forest fires. And that means we have a smoke. Right now, our air quality level is 128. That’s considered very bad. And it’s been this way since we got home from Europe. The night we got home, we were thrilled to sleep with our windows open. But by the morning, the house stunk with the smell of smoke. So we have been using the AC ever since. One day last week, while we were having shelves and a closet unit installed, the installation guys were coming in and out, and it was a rough day, smoke-wise. The temperatures aren’t very autumn-like either. We haven’t had measurable rain since early July and today it was almost 80. This is crazy—I used to love October weather.

The weather also gets in the way of my cooking. By now I should be making stews and soups but I am still grilling. I don’t want to be grilling in October. I want to bake and braise.

Third, it’s election year

If I hear one more lie from a candidate, I am going to throw something at our brand-new TV. Well, I won’t do that, but I can guarantee you that Kathleen is getting tired of me yelling at the television. And my inbox is full of people wanting money or my opinion. That just makes this October worse. The election can’t come soon enough. Let’s go November!

Some things make this one a little better

One of the shining lights this year has been my Seattle Mariners, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. They won a huge game tonight in Toronto (sorry Canadian friends), and they will continue to play this week. But this won’t happen every October (although it did happen 27 years ago tonight and my kids and I were there!)

Thanks for listening to my October lament. I truly hate this month. Besides the Mariners being in the playoffs, the only really good things that are going to happen this month are that our good friends Mike and Cathy are coming from Florida on the 18th for a week (YEAH!) and Kathleen’s birthday is the 27th—the big 70—so that will be a big celebration! And I can’t wait for November! Maybe it will rain by then.

There is nothing funny about Halloween. This sarcastic festival reflects, rather, an infernal demand for revenge by children on the adult world.  —Jean Baudrillard

 

 

Expectations Not Met but That’s OK

It was interesting to me that when we got our post-cruise survey from Viking, they had everything listed by expectations. For instance, a question might say, “Food in the main dining room: A) Exceeded expectations  B) Met expectations C) Did not meet expectations.” When I thought back on it, that was my problem with Viking. After listening to friends talk about how much they love Viking, reading a FaceBook group of Viking fans, and knowing that Viking clients are incredibly loyal, I was expecting an almost perfect experience. That was my problem and not Vikings. (Viking—do your surveys online. You are doing yourself a disservice because I truly believe you get more info that way. When I only have a tiny, multiple-choice survey with little space for comments, that’s all I give you.)

I also realized in retrospect that so much of what I knew I would love about Viking (I did a blog post about why we were moving to Viking, and you can read it here.) is things it does not have: kids, smoking (Ok, there is a tiny area outside, on deck 7 but Viking says “No Smoking” in their marketing), casino, ship’s photographers, art auctions and more. As little things went wrong along the way, I was thinking about those things, not the things that weren’t there that I loved them for. All those things were great; I just didn’t think about them because they weren’t there. But they really improved our cruise experience.

Since we got home, I have also been telling people who ask about the trip that “Now we know how long a vacation is too long.” A month is too long. Three weeks on a ship is too long. Especially when you are sick and quarantined or are self-quarantining. But if we were going to do three weeks, Viking is the cruise line I would do it on. So, without further ado, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what w loved and what we didn’t.

What we loved

  • Our stateroom. We had what Viking calls a Penthouse Verandah. It was the largest non-suite stateroom we have ever had. 338 beautiful square feet. With so much storage. How much storage? So much so that we had an empty drawer and a junk drawer—on a ship. Here are some pics of one of the best staterooms we have ever been in.
  • The mini-bar. On every single one of our previous cruises (except Celebrity Flora), one of the first things we would ask our room steward to do was to remove everything in the mini-bar. On Viking, we left it all in there. Why? Because it was all free. And it got completely refreshed every day. And if there were something you would rather have in there that wasn’t, all you had to do was ask. For instance, it was full of Sprite and Diet Coke—neither of which we drink. But we do love the Schweppes Bitter Lemon they served in the bar. So we asked if we could swap out the two we didn’t like for Bitter Lemon. Well, they didn’t regularly stock it, but they ordered it up from the bar at no cost to us.
  • All the upstairs food on the 7th deck. That means that we found some of the best food we have ever had on a cruise in The World Cafe buffet, Mamsens and the Pool Grille. I can count on my fingers the number of times in 30+ cruises we have eaten dinner in the buffet. We usually just do the buffet for breakfast or lunch but hardly ever for dinner. On Sky, we did. Almost every night because the food was amazing. I have never eaten so much outstanding seafood.
  • The service in the buffet is amazing. One of my complaints about the buffet on other ships is the absence of trays. Not because I like trays but because I only have two hands. One for a salad and one for the main course. Now, how do I hold the drink(s) that I want as well? So, I go and set my food on the table, and I run back to get the drinks, and by the time I am back, my food is cold. This never happened on Sky. Ninety percent of the time, within seconds of sitting down at the table with my salad and my entrée, someone was asking me what I would like to drink. The buffet also worked like a well-oiled machine. The managers were always coming by to ask how things were. Once I told one of the managers that the veal I had just grabbed was dry and tough. He immediately turned around, went to one of the chefs and told him to remove it and get new. That was impressive. I really felt like they cared what I had to say.
  • The room service was outstanding. Again, before this cruise, I could count on one hand the number of times we had done room service on our other cruises, but because of our quarantine situation with Kathleen’s food poisoning, we ate a lot on this cruise. We loved room service, especially breakfast. The order was always right, delivered hot, and except for one small hiccup with a pepper shaker, it was all outstanding. I do wish their non-breakfast menu had more variety, but everything we had was great.
  • The wonderful quiet places on the ship. I did an entire post on this subject a few days ago and I posted pics. Just click that link to read it. Suffice it to say; there were so many great places to sit and work on my photos and write posts. Or for Kathleen to go and read but still see the sights out the front of the ship or just someplace to have a quiet conversation.
  • Television choices. They were awesome. I know, who watches television  on a cruise? People who are quarantined. People who are feeling sick. People who are exhausted from being in a port and touring every single day. And we got to choose from quite the variety of shows, an excellent interactive map of our itinerary, old TV shows we love and more.
  • Embarkation and disembarkation. Not the transport from the pre-extension or back to the post-extension. But getting on the ship was a piece of cake. Viking under-promised and massively over-delivered. When we were checking in, we were told that our stateroom would be ready no later than 3:00 pm. So we headed up to the buffet for lunch (lots of tables available), and just as we were finishing up, our cruise director announced on the PA that all staterooms were ready—about two hours early. Under-promise, over-deliver. Both getting on and off the ship was about as easy as we have ever had in all our cruising.
  • Size of the ship. We loved it. It never felt crowded (except one night in the dining room). You could walk from one end of the ship to the other in no time. With only 9 decks and us on deck 5, we could get anywhere on the stairs, although we didn’t have to because the elevators were easily accessible. Kathleen hardly ever had to wait for elevators. But even though the ship is smaller than what we are used to, we never felt that much motion which we thought we would.
  • Fewer people. With only 928 total passengers, we never felt crowded.
  •  Laundry and pressing. In 30+ cruises, we have only sailed on one ship that had a self-service laundry. It was super to have clean clothes whenever we wanted them. And it was so great being able to not worry about it when we did laundry. I would go and toss stuff in a washing machine, set a timer with Siri and then go back when she went off. Same with the dryer. And since we were in a PV-class stateroom, we also got free pressing. So I would wash and dry my shirts and send them off to be pressed and they would come back the next day looking perfect.
  • The included WiFi. This was excellent. Very few glitches. No, I could not watch a Netflix movie, but I was able to upload all my pics, post to this blog, FaceTime twice with our grandkids and even watch Seattle Mariner highlights on YouTube. All for free. And it was only out on very rare occasions and never for that long.
  • The chocolate desserts. My brother just reminded me that I raved and raved about every single dessert that was chocolate. I am NOT a chocolate person. I prefer my desserts to have fruit in them or as the main taste profile (think lemon-polenta cake), but when we went to Manfredi’s, I had the best chocolate dessert I have ever had. From that point on, I made a point to try everything chocolate and almost every single thing was just as good. If you love chocolate, it might be worth going on a Viking Sky cruise just to eat it.

What we didn’t love

  • The entire food poisoning incident. I have written about it pretty thoroughly here. I personally was not happy with the way Kathleen was treated. It comes down to not listening to women when medical treatment is involved as well as jumping to conclusions. Everything worked out in the end, but it just should never have happened to the extent and in the way that it did. Kathleen had to miss at least three places that we had never been to before.
  • Any dining on decks one or two. This includes the main dining room (AKA The Restaurant), Manfredi’s and The Chef’s table. I want to look at them individually and tell you why we did not love them. None of these restaurants passed what I now call the “Steve Standard.” My brother Steve wrote this in his review of our May cruise on Celebrity Millenium, and I have stolen it from him because I think it is the best way to describe and evaluate a cruise ship restaurant. Here’s the “Steve Standard”: If this restaurant were in your neighborhood and you ate there, would you pay to go back? Pretty simple. And the answer for us for all three restaurants is no. They did not pass the “Steve Standard.” Upstairs, the World Cafe, Mamsens and the Pool Grille all passed. I would pay to go to any of them.
    • The Restaurant. On every other cruise we have ever been on, we have eaten 95% of our dinners in the main dining room. On this 21-night cruise, we ate exactly three dinners in the main dining room. Now I will give you that part of the reasons this happened was Kathleen’s quarantine when we ordered room service and long days onshore when we were just too tired and not at all motivated to get dressed to go to the dining room. But the times we did go, we were not pleased. Two of those times we felt the service was just weird. We are used to having the same servers for our dinners, but not only did we not get the same servers on these two nights, but we also had different servers for every course. And it seemed none of them really wanted to wait on us. Both dinners took more than 2.5 hours. That’s too long. We would be seated and then wait 20 minutes to get water or bread. Then another 10  to get our orders taken, then another 10 until the appetizers came, and it went on like this. And things would be missing from orders, or they would be cooked differently than asked. We were never offered a wine list, and when we would ask for one, it would take 15 minutes to get it. In the meantime, another server would just come around with the bottles of the evening’s included wines and start pouring those. We gave up. The third time we went to The Restaurant, we joined our new friends Corky and Larry, who told us they had cultivated a relationship with an outstanding server…and they had. He was amazing, and the wine steward showed up immediately to ask us about other wines. It was the kind of service we loved. And the food was great that night. But the noise level was deafening. We were sitting at a small table for four and could not hear each other talk. I still have no idea what half the conversation was about. I got tired of asking the other three to repeat what they said, so after a while, I just gave up and nodded my head. All in all, we just weren’t happy with The Restaurant.
    • Manfredi’s. One of the things we loved about Viking was that the specialty restaurants were free. On most ships, you pay extra for those. A lot extra in some cases. For instance, on Holland America, we went to Rudi’s, the seafood restaurant on board and paid $50 per person to go. So when we heard that we could get into Manfredi’s for $0.00, we were thrilled until we ate there. We went twice. The first time was the same sporadic service as The Restaurant. That got fixed the second time, but the food was never up to snuff. This is supposed to be Italian. I am an Italian-American, and I LOVE to cook Italian. I have lots of Italian restaurants I love. This is not a good Italian restaurant. Example: On Celebrity cruise line ships, there is an Italian restaurant called the Tuscan Grille. I love their calamari. I have been known to have it as an appetizer and an entrée at the same meal. I looked forward to that on Sky, but it was horrible. Reminded me of eating those old snack food, Bugles. Remember those? And their ribeye steaks (which are supposed to be amazing) were some of the thinnest ribeyes I have ever eaten. And my brother (who is a steak person) ordered one and got an entirely different steak. The only thing I had that I liked was a risotto with escargot. I might get that take-out from a restaurant at home. Suffice it to say that Manfredi’s was better than Olive Garden, but not by much.
    • The Chef’s Table. This is a matter of personal choice. The Chef’s table has a fixed menu that rotates every three days. We had four reservations there, but due to quarantines, we lost our first one. Then the second and fourth time, they were doing a menu that had nothing on it that Kathleen could eat. She is allergic to shellfish (two courses) and duck (the entrée). So that was out. The one time we went was on a night that they were featuring California food. She had one course she could not eat (crab cakes) and they brought her a very nice cheese plate. And the food they did serve was pretty good…for what it was. But as I said, this is a matter of personal choice and at home I would never go to a fixed menu restaurant if I could avoid it. While I thought that dinner was fine, there was not a single thing on that night’s menu that I would have ordered in a regular restaurant. The menu for two nights later looked good but we could never make it work with our reservations.
  • The included excursions. Another thing that drew us to Viking was that they included an excursion in every port. But those excursions just did not work for us. Either they were too long, the guides were incredibly boring and talked as if they were being paid by the word, or they just weren’t our cup of tea. I did love that Viking provided free shuttle busses in every port where we weren’t anchored right in the center of the city (Kotor), but the included excursions were just not up to par. I wish that Viking would give you a credit for excursions if you don’t use them.
  • The optional excursions. Out of 21 days in ports, we booked an optional excursion seven times. Only two of them would I do again (Dubrovnik and Messina). Two of them were pretty good for half of the tour (Naples and Bari) , and one was good for about a quarter of the tour (Olympia ). One was just “fine” (Kotor), and one was downright horrid (Monaco) because it was way too long, had the worst guide of the trip and included way too much crapola (like shopping). Our buddy Corky said that Viking should offer tours that were listed as “shopping or no shopping.” I totally agree. When you compare these to the pre-cruise tour we did in Athens with George of Tours By Locals, the post-cruise tour we did in Barcelona with Olga, also of Tours By Locals and the Cinque Terre tour we did with the amazing Luigi, there is no contest—there were all bad. I will give you that they were less expensive than the tours we booked ourselves, but I would gladly have paid more for better tours.
  • The weird weeks of this cruise. Our friends Corky and Larry, who are long-time Viking cruisers, told us that our 21-day cruise (and their 28-day cruise—they started a week before us in Instanbul) was NOT like any other Viking cruise they had been on because it wasn’t really one cruise. It was (for them) four one-week cruises, and for us, it was three one-week cruises. Did this matter? It kind of did. For instance, we could not see, book or change our shore excursions until the next week’s cruise started. Or the number of people getting off and on really was strange. Our first two weeks were primarily with a great crowd of travelers in our age group, and it worked well for us. Most were doing two-week cruises. But when many of them got off in Rome, the new group that got on was louder, ruder and generally younger. They were only doing a one-week cruise, and that meant they wanted to get all their partying in right away. We preferred the older, travel-oriented folks we had with us from Athens to Venice. Corky tells me that this particular cruise on Viking Sky is one of the few where Viking does this. We hope to avoid that in the future.

That about covers all of it. So what’s the final verdict? Well, we booked another Viking Ocean cruise while on board. So I guess that says it all. We have booked a 14-night cruise in 2024 from London up to the Norwegian fjords and ending in Bergen, Norway. We have never done this itinerary before, and it will give us a chance to compare a regular itinerary with this three week mess.

I hope you have enjoyed following along on our journey. I also hope if this was the first time you have read the blog, that you would both subscribe for future journeys and go back and read about some of what we have done in the past. I have been doing this since before the pandemic, and there are a bunch of other trips you can read about. I will be back in a couple of days with my promised treatise on how I do my photography.

True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.   —Winston Churchill

Beautiful Barcelona

After our fun ride in from Tarragona and our lunch at La Rita, we got a decent night’s sleep on the first bed I had been comfortable on in 21 days. The next morning all six of us had been scheduled to do a 5-hour tour of the city, and the Gaudi highlights with Olga from Tours By Locals. Sadly, my brother had eaten something that did not agree with him so he and Jamie stayed at the hotel, and the rest of us set off for what was to be an outstanding tour. It was outstanding, primarily because of the excellent Olga.

I know I have mentioned Tours By Locals before, as we used two of their guides previously on this trip, Hans in Amsterdam and George in Athens. Both of them were great. I have used them on many occasions, but Olga may have been the best guide they have ever sent our way. To start with, she was 10 minutes early. I love early. I got a call from the lobby saying that our guide was there. As soon as Pam and Dave were downstairs, Olga’s driver pulled up in a wonderfully spacious Mercedes van. It was so GREAT not to be stuck in a “luxury motor coach.”

Kathleen and I with Olga on the roof of Casa Mila.

When I first contacted Tours By Locals a month previous, it had been hard finding a guide that either wasn’t already booked or could accommodate some of the things we wanted to do because of the festival going on for the entire time we were in the city. On the other hand, Olga was completely willing to work with me on setting up a tour that would incorporate the best of Barcelona. That’s what I love about Tours By Locals; the guides will work with you to see the things you want to see. When you go to Barcelona, some of the things most people want to see are the works of revolutionary Antoni Gaudi, the most famous of which is La Sagrada Familia. We knew upfront that the church would be completely closed to anyone but locals, so seeing the inside was not an option. Olga made suggestions of things we could see that would be a good alternative, and I liked them all. We decided to do Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Park Güell, see the outside of the La Sagrada Familia and then tour the old town. Olga said she would try and throw in some surprises along the way.

La Pedrera—Casa Mila)

When Kathleen and I were here in 2007, we toured the beautiful La Pedera—Casa Mila building. The building is an entire block made up of two condominiums totally designed by Antoni Gaudi (who designed La Sagrada Familia) as well as many other one-of-a-kind buildings throughout Barcelona. We wanted to see it again and make sure that the rest of the group also got to see it. Kathleen had no problem touring this building in 2007 and thought she could still do it because when you did the tour, you took the elevator to the top of the building. And then you walked down and did the tour on the way.

Olga told us that this had changed since we were there last (what hadn’t 😜?) and that now you walked UP the stairs and then exited by way of the elevator. This just wasn’t going to work for us. So Olga jumped into action as soon as we got there, and in no time, Kathleen and I were going up the original apartment elevator (not open to anyone but employees) to the top floor to start our tour down. I wish I had taken a photo because it was one elegant elevator. It even had a Gaudi-designed, hand-carved wooden bench that Kathleen got to sit on while we went up. This is what makes local guides so good. They know the people to talk to (because Olga toured there constantly), and they know what can and can’t be done with the right request. We were blown away.

We had an awesome time touring the building. I am going to let the photos and the captions tell you the rest of the story. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

Park Güell

Our second stop on the tour was the beautiful Park Güell. This is another of Gaudi’s masterpieces that was originally built out in the country north of Barcelona, but over the years, the city has grown to swallow it up, and it is now almost in the city center. There is so much to see there, but I will just let you see it in my photos. Enjoy.

La Sagrada Família

Even though this incredible church was closed to non-locals due to the current festival, Olga wanted us to see it close up from the outside so she could explain the building and the significance of the art on the outside. You can’t believe the art on the outside of La Sagrada Família. Maybe you will have you see my photos. If you get bored with all the closeups, please feel free to jump out, but I did pair this down from more than 200 photos. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

The old city of Barcelona

Our next stop after the incredible La Sagrada Família was to head downtown (in HORRIBLE TRAFFIC) to the oldest parts of Barcelona. We walked by the original cathedral, which dates to the 13th century, while Olga pointed out a lot of truly remarkable sights. We saw a piece of art by Pablo Picasso that he drew with his usual minimalist style.

About this time, we were starving. So Olga recommended we try pintxos. If you have never been to a pintxos restaurant, it is almost worth a trip to Barcelona just to try it. Olga took us to her favorite place, Bilbao Berria Barcelona. Pintxos are topping of every kind placed on slices of awesome bread, and they put different colors and styles of sticks into the stack. The stack includes either cold or hot toppings. Hot ones might include melted cheese, roasted tomatoes, sausages, and serrano ham and the cold ones include cheeses, veggies, and so much more. There are even dessert pintxos. These are all set up on a number of buffet tables, and you choose what you want. Then after you eat them, you put the stick into a small metal container on the table, and when you are done, they count the sticks (different prices for different colors) and give you your check. Five of us ate a BUNCH of these, and the total bill was less than $80 and that included a bottle of wonderful Catalan wine. An amazing value, and every one of them is delicious. Here are some pictures from this part of the tour.

After lunch, we walked from the cathedral campo towards another campo where Olga was hoping she had a surprise for us, and she did. Hopefully, you remember a couple of posts ago when I wrote about the human pyramid building contests in Tarragona. Sadly, I could not see any of the actual pyramid building itself when we were there. I only got to take photos of the parade before the competition, which got rained out.

But when we walked around the corner in Barcelona, there it was, a castella (the Spanish name for the human pyramids) right in front of us. We got to watch this team (who were doing a demo, not a competition) build a three-story high human pyramid. Just look. It’s amazing.

A walk on my own

After watching the amazing human pyramids being built, our tour time was over. Olga had released our driver when it got to five hours, but she stayed with us to walk the other Kathleen, Dave and Pam to Las Ramblas to grab a cab and walked with me as I headed back to the hotel about four miles away. I wanted a few more photos to show you the huge crowds and incredible craziness that is Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in Barcelona. Here’s my last set of pics for Barcelona. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That about did it for our day in Barcelona. It so far exceeded my expectations and gave us a wonderful end to this incredible 29-day adventure that had started in August in Amsterdam. I guess you could say that when it comes to European cities, we went from A to B on this trip. I have one more trip-related post for you. Hopefully, I will have it up by tomorrow. It will be my review of the entire cruise and what we loved and didn’t love on Viking Sky. Then after that, I promised a post on how I shoot my photos. I so appreciate all the comments I have gotten on them. They are my pride and joy. If you want to see more of my pics, please follow me on Instagram (jimbellomo13) or Facebook (Jim Bellomo) where I post a single travel photo every day. Just one. Or you can see a lot of my photography that I sell here on my Picfair site.

Barcelona is my life, and I do not plan to leave.   —Gerard Pique

Disembarkation and our trip to Barcelona

When we cruise, the first thing the real cruisers want to know about is the food. But the second is the embarkation/disembarkation. It’s been my experience after more than 30 cruises that if things are going to go wrong, one of these two times is when that will happen.

With this disembarkation, I am happy to say that nothing went wrong…except to say that they made us get off the ship (this is every cruiser’s lament). Pretty much everything went off without a hitch getting off the ship. We got up, had breakfast, and were asked to be out of our stateroom by 8:00 am. Sat for an hour in the Atrium, got our tag colors called, grabbed our luggage, took it to a van (since we were doing Viking’s post-cruise two-day extension), it was loaded into a van that followed our “luxury motor coach” into Barcelona from Tarragona.

That’s where thing kind of went bad. Viking now had to do something with the 35+ people on the “luxury motor coach” from 9:30 am when we got on until 1:00 pm when the Nobu Hotel in Barcelona would be ready to check us in. So they arranged a “luxury motor coach” tour that would drive us from the ship to Barcelona and then drive around Barcelona, showing us some of the sights. This started with them getting us lost before they even got the “luxury motor coach” out of the port (Seriously!).

Then they sent us a guide who admitted up front that he usually worked with Japanese tourists, so his English was not very good. On top of that, he also (like other guides we had previously toured with) felt like they had to fill every moment of the three-hour sojourn with the sound of his voice. He even started singing at one point. I overheard another passenger say, “I thought the guy with the flute yesterday was bad, but this guy is so much worse!” I had to agree. And since he was not confident in his English, he seemed to be much less confident in his directions and tour facts.

It took us about 70 minutes to get from Tarragona to the outskirts of Barcelona. He talked about 90% of the time. Mostly gibberish to us because his English was so poor. Our first stop in Barcelona was at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. This gorgeous art museum we thought was built high above and far from the city and not near anything. I took the header photo I am using today from in front of it.

We later learned that we were less than a mile from our hotel but that it would take almost three full hours to get there. And we didn’t stop to see the museum, just to use the bathrooms. Viking had bought tickets for us to get into the museum, but then we had 15 minutes to use the bathrooms and get back on the “luxury motor coach”…so we could be driven around and mumbled at while seeing the sights through a “luxury motor coach” window. As a photographer, this is my idea of torture. Seeing things I want to shoot but not being able to shoot them because the reflections in the “luxury motor coach” make it impossible to get a good shot. I did take a few when we got off at the museum. Here’s what they look like. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

Once we arrived at the hotel around 1:15 pm, we were told to go up to the second floor and that we would be checked in at a special desk just for Viking cruisers. When we got to the second-floor room they were using, there was about an hour’s wait to get registered. This is because they had planned well by sending the first “luxury motor coach” off and then not sending the second one for about 30 minutes. That way, we should have been staggered when we reached the hotel and able to check in without any lines. But this was not to be after our “luxury motor coach” driver got lost getting out of the port, and by the time he figured out how to get out, “luxury motor coach” number two was ahead of us, and we were not that far ahead of “luxury motor coach” number three. That meant we all pretty much got there at the same time. Viking had close to 250 people staying at the Nobu Barcelona. It was very much like the Marriott where we had done our pre-cruise extension in Athens. Both of them were four or five-star, high-rise hotels that were well outside (not in easy walking distance) of the main attractions of their respective cities. The rooms were nice, and the included breakfast at both places was delicious, but I would have traded that for something a little closer to where I wanted to shoot pics.

So instead of standing in line to register, we left our bags with the bellman at the front desk and took a taxi to a wonderful restaurant that Kathleen and I had eaten in when we were here in 2007—La Rita. The restaurant had been there for about 10 years before that and is still going strong. The menu was exactly as we remembered it. I made reservations almost a month in advance because when we go to Spain, we make our main meal, our lunch. People in Barcelona eat dinner around 9:30 pm, and we just can’t eat that late. So we have our main meal at lunch (around 2:00) and then grab some tapas in the evening.

After lunch, we came back and were able to check in easily, with no lines at all, and our rooms were ready. We unpacked, I did some posting on this blog and some photo processing, and we hit the hay for a very busy day on Sunday, our only full day in amazing Barcelona.

I had thought I could wind up the entire cruise with two more posts, one about Barcelona and disembarkation and one to sum up the cruise. But once I started talking about disembarkation, this one got too long to include our awesome day in Barcelona, so you will have to read two more. See you tomorrow. (BTW: we are home in Redmond after a hellacious day of flights and being up for 26 hours straight.)

You’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona for food, as far as being a hub. Given a choice between Barcelona and San Sebastian to die in, I’d probably want to die in San Sebastian.  —Anthony Bourdain

 

Tarragona not Barcelona—it all worked out!

When we first booked this cruise with Viking, the itinerary finished in beautiful Barcelona. About three months later, we received a note from Viking that we would NOT be docking and spending an overnight in Barcelona. We would instead be docking and spending the night in Tarragona, a (we researched) small, industrial city south of Barcelona. (You can see how far apart they are above.) That kind of ticked me off because I was really looking forward to being able to wake up on the ship and then go for my pre-dawn photo walk and still be able to sleep on the ship that night.

We later learned that Viking had to switch because even though Barcelona is a HUGE port for cruise ships, there were going to be so many there over the two days (Friday and Saturday) that she would not have been able to stay for three full days. She needed four days tied up at a pier because we would have two days there (arrived Friday morning, disembarked Saturday morning) and then the cruise that followed ours would need the same (embark on Saturday afternoon, sail late on Sunday). Viking just could not take up a berth in Barcelona for that long. So that’s why we wound up in Tarragona.

In hindsight, I am so very glad that we did because it turned into one of my favorite photographic experiences on the trip. And I almost missed it once we were there. I almost missed it because we had tickets for the Viking-included excursion called “A Snapshot of Tarragona,” and when we got up, we just weren’t sure that we wanted to go. After being on the road since August 29, we were pretty much done. Kathleen wanted to just stay on board and pack, but she encouraged me to go ahead and take the excursion. I still (up until 15 minutes before it left) had not committed myself to go. But go, I did.

The first thing to note about leaving the ship was that it was docked a VERY long way from the gate to the port. In other words, this was NOT a port I could have walked out of. And then, once you got out of the port, it was a long way to the city. To say it was a very long way is an understatement. When we got on the “luxury motor coach,” we were then driven for about 30 minutes, and we were still in the port. It is a HUGE industrial port, and we were moored all the way out as far as you can get before still being at sea. And the road out of the port had what seemed like continuous speed bumps that the “luxury motor coach” could not go over quickly. Once we were out of the port, it was another 20 minutes before we were off the coach at the edge of downtown.

At this point, I am beginning to think that I made a mistake in coming. Viking was running shuttles all day long, about every 15 minutes, so I knew I could go back whenever I wanted. Our guide for the day was another guide that seemed to be paid by the word. She walked us around some Roman ruins (as much as I love Italy, if I never see a Roman ruin for a few years, that will be OK with me), which were pretty cool, but they didn’t really hold that much interest for me. I have so many photos from my Tarragona day that I will put the Roman ruins and what we could see from them here. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

What did grab my interest were explosions and gunshots going off about three blocks away. We had been told that there was a Catalunya-wide festival going on that weekend (Catalunya is the “state” that both Tarragona and Barcelona are in) so we were pretty sure that this was what we were hearing. We could also see fireworks and a parade at the end of those three blocks. Here’s what I saw when I looked down the streets and then walked around to do some more investigating.

No, I did not get to see the human pyramids in Tarragona. To show you the photo above, I took a picture of a picture. But we did get to see one being built on Sunday in Barcelona. We weren’t able to see one built in Tarragona, because around noon, it started to rain, accompanied by quite the thunderstorm, so they were canceled for Friday. After looking at a few more ruins, the guide said we would now have some free time, but not to go downtown, it would be too loud and dangerous near the parades. So you know what I did…I went right downtown where the parades were. I am so glad I did. An amazing experience, as you will see.

On the way downtown, I found people getting ready for a parade. It turns out they do the parades twice in the morning. Once from the square and once back. So I ran into a bunch of people getting ready to march on my way down. Here’s a quick gallery of those people.

When I finally reached the city square, I could tell they were getting ready for something. At this point, I thought I had missed it all. Then I heard (from a side street) firework explosions. I headed from the square to where the parade would be coming from, and this is what I saw. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…