Reflections on the Dream of Gerontius

Clouds

I was fortunate enough to learn and sing The Dream of Gerontius with the Somerset Chamber Choir last summer in Wells Cathedral. It’s a piece I’ve know and loved since hearing it at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral over 20 years ago. Last night I attended a performance by the Royal Choral Society and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Winchester Cathedral. Here are some thoughts about the piece that might inform your appreciation.

The Prelude to Gerontius is pure Parsifal, from its mysterious, yearning opening theme on lower woodwind and strings through to its awe-inspiring climax underpinned by the cathedral organ – evocative in this acoustic of rolling thunder – and back to a concentrated hush for the anguished entry of the tenor soloist as Gerontius. Willingly or not, Wagner was a powerful influence on a range of composers at the turn of the Twentieth Century, not least Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and even Debussy.

The Kyrie, with which the semi-chorus enters a capella, is a clear nod to the ancients of polyphony – Palestrina, Byrd and Tallis. Verdi pays similar homage in the Kyrie of his Requiem; Rossini does likewise in his Petite messe solennelle. With its invocation to All holy Angels, Apostles, Holy Disciples, Innocents, Martyrs, Hermits and Saints to pray for him, this chorus is really a litany in the High Catholic tradition, continued in the section Be merciful after the soliloquy by Gerontius, Rouse thee, my fainting soul.

His next entry ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’ could easily pass muster as an aria on the operatic stage. A personal creed, it stands in direct opposition to Iago’s expression of nihilism and malice by  in Verdi’s Otello. As in Wagner, leitmotifs knit the work together and in the latter half of this solo, we hear the orchestra foreshadowing the the Demons’ Chorus from Part Two.

Rescue him, the next choral entry, returns us to the chantry chapel for more responses lightly accompanied by organ. Cardinal Newman wrote 13 verses in his poem but, in order not to lose all dramatic momentum, Elgar set only three of them.

Upon the death of Gerontius, the Priest his soul upon its journey in a sonorous bass declamation ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’. The way Elgar builds the orchestral crescendo until the entry of the choir and beyond is masterful – a real emotional release. Yet the movement ends quietly, after a slightly curious, oscillating choral figure, And my thy dwelling place be the Holy Mount of Sion, in a warm, sunset glow of orchestral colour beneath the choir and bass soloist.

The brief prelude for strings that opens Part Two evokes the music of the Tudor era; it certainly occupies the same sound world as the Tallis Fantasia by  Vaughan Williams. After the agitation and anguish of Part One, we are audibly in a different dimension: of inexpressible lightness and freedom, as Gerontius describes it.

The Angel who shortly appears turns out to have been his no less than Gerontius’s own guardian angel, watching over him throughout his life.  Their dialogue is accompanied by luminous orchestral writing dominated by woodwind; the scene hints at what a love duet in an Elgar opera might have sounded like.

Rapture is shattered by the entry of the Demon’s chorus. This shows Elgar at his most progressive in terms of musical style, with harsh dissonances, vigorous counterpoint and sneering brass making the most of this tirade of atheistic abuse: ‘Virtue and vice, / A knoves pretence / ‘Tis all the same, Ha! Ha!’ I wonder whether Britten drew on it in some way when writing the storm music in Peter Grimes.

After their wild music dies uneasily away and another brief dialogue between Gerontius and the Angel, the music of the Choir of Angelicals steals in. Sopranos and contraltos have to be on their mettle in this section, which splits into multiple parts. Elgar again builds tension with rising string figures, a long organ pedal note and other musical devices towards the great choral peroration Praise to the holiest in the height. Like the Demon’s Chorus, it sets off in a vigorous fugue, albeit one with a completely different mood. I wonder whether the one-in-a-bar conclusion to this thrilling section, however, inspired Walton to any degree when he wrote the concluding chorus ‘Then sing aloud’ to Belshazzar’s Feast?

Next follows what I think is the biggest textual coup-de théâtre in the whole piece, as Gerontius tells the Angel that he hears the voices of those left on Earth and learns, to the strains of the Dismissal theme, that they those of his friends praying just after his death. Thus all of the  celestial drama we have heard over the past half-hour has actually occupied but a second of temporal time.

After the Angel of the Agony weighs in with a sonorous plea for the soul of Gerontius, he goes before his Judge to the strains of a couple of heartbeats from the orchestra: a real cinematic device and, from the relief expressed by the Angel, ‘Praise to his name! / O happy suffering soul! for it is safe, Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.’

The final tenor solo, in which Gerontius readies himself for Purgatory, is again highly Wagnerian, drawing on themes from the Sanctis fortis section in Part One. It is followed by a chorus of Souls in Purgatory singing verses from Psalm 90, Lord, Thou has been our refuge, before the Angel enters with her farewell. There is one small detail I especially love in this final aria: a gorgeous woodwind counter-melody at the words ‘Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance’. The chorus resumes its chant beneath the Angel for the final pages and the work concludes with a deeply satisfying rising and falling string figure evocative of a great, flowing river. For Wagner in the Ring Cycle it was the Rhine; for Elgar in The Dream of Gerontius perhaps it is the Severn?

Photography from the Emirates Air Line

Having shared photos from both the Shard and the  Sky Garden at the Walkie-Talkie, Iet me encourage you to take advantage of the fabulous views afforded by the Emirates Air Line. Opened in June 2012, it’s a cable car that spans the Thames between the Royal Docks and North Greenwich.

From it you get unforgettable views of the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) and Canary Wharf to the west, the Thames Barrage at Woolwich, London City Airport and the whole of east London. I made the round-trip a couple of weeks ago in the early evening. The skies were overcast and dusk was yet to fall, so the light wasn’t great and my most striking image was a high-contrast conversion to black-and-white:

The Millenium Dome opposite London's Docklands financial district  This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
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The Millenium Dome opposite London's Docklands financial district This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
 

My other images are in colour and intended to show you what’s possible. I took the photo above shortly after my ride started from Royal Victoria Dock and that’s where you get the best view of the Arena separated from Canary Wharf by the sweep of the Thames; this is the colour version:

Badly in need of a clean, the Millenium Dome sits on a sharp bend of the Thames, opposite the Docklands financial district  This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
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Badly in need of a clean, the Millenium Dome sits on a sharp bend of the Thames, opposite the Docklands financial district This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
 

Further across the river, the former tends to eclipse the latter:

The Millenium Dome and Docklands on opposite banks of the Thames, taken from the Emirates Air Line.
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The Millenium Dome and Docklands on opposite banks of the Thames, taken from the Emirates Air Line.
 

Here’s a close-up:

Skyscrapers throng the Isle of Dogs. In the foreground is the Millenium Dome and behind are further skyscrapers in the City of London.  This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
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Skyscrapers throng the Isle of Dogs. In the foreground is the Millenium Dome and behind are further skyscrapers in the City of London. This image was captured from the Emirates Air Line.
 

The cable cars themselves lend interest to views in either direction. This is looking back towards the south-west (Greenwich Royal Naval College is just distinguishable beyond the gasometer):

The cable car between Beckton and North Greenwich, adjacent to the Millenium Dome, in East London. Opened in 2012, it offers a fabulous view west across Greenwich and beyond from nearly 300 feet up. This is looking west.
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The cable car between Beckton and North Greenwich, adjacent to the Millenium Dome, in East London. Opened in 2012, it offers a fabulous view west across Greenwich and beyond from nearly 300 feet up. This is looking west.
 

And this is the noth-easterly view over the Royal Docks, towards Newham:

The cable car between Beckton and North Greenwich, adjacent to the Millenium Dome, in East London. Opened in 2012, it offers a fabulous view west across Greenwich and beyond from nearly 300 feet up. This is looking north-east; the ExCel exhibition centre is on the right.
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The cable car between Beckton and North Greenwich, adjacent to the Millenium Dome, in East London. Opened in 2012, it offers a fabulous view west across Greenwich and beyond from nearly 300 feet up. This is looking north-east; the ExCel exhibition centre is on the right.
 

I would be the first to say that the view would have been much better an hour later when the city lights were coming on (I finished my evening near Canary Wharf, capturing said skyscrapers from closer quarters). Taking useable photos , however, would have been a lot more difficult owning to reflections created by lights inside the cabin; the same would also be true, although not from internal lights, about taking shots on a sunny day. I shot between F5 and F8 to minimise reflection issues but, even then, still had to crop quite a bit to remove such distractions.

Getting to the Air Line is surprisingly easy; it’s just a couple of hundred yards on foot from Royal Victoria DLR station in East London, making it about half-an-hour from the City of London on this service. Alternatively you can take the Jubilee tube line to North Greenwich and start at the Millennium Dome end of the route.

It’s also not as expensive as you’d expect. You get 10 minutes in the air in each direction, for which you pay £9.00 return (or just £6.80 if you have an Oyster card or travelcard). Nor is it as busy as you might expect; I got a cabin to myself in both directions, enabling me to get the best angles without tripping over anybody else.

So if you’re thinking about your next photographic mission in London, take to the Air Line!

The essay crisis election

And so, defying all expectations, the Tories have secured a slim overall majority. David Cameron has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the manner in which he was reputed to excel at university assignments begun at the last minute. It was only the exit polls, announced as the polls closed at 10pm last night, that hinted at the scale of the upset to predictions by all the polling companies of a dead heat.

What appears to have worked for the Tories is the ‘air war': their stark warnings via the mass media about the chaos that would ensue if Labour scraped into power, supported – and held to ransom – by the Scottish Nationalists. This followed on from their mantra, repeated ad nauseam, OUR LONG-TERM ECONOMIC PLAN, which emphasised their competence with the national finances, at least in comparison with Labour. Although not a very edifying campaign – I looked in vain for any enunciation of core beliefs such as the rule of law, limited government or the importance of thrift and charity – it was ultimately effective.

Now comes the hard part: governing with a slim majority and a tribe of independently-minded backbench MPs who understand that concessions for their constituency will be available when almost every vote hangs on a knife-edge.

Lightroom CC: quicker, better, even more clever than before

Adobe Lightroom CC

Lightroom CC was released today and I’m looking forward to getting started with it. Your graphics card now handles intensive image processing it , so you should see significant speed improvements in the Develop module.

Headlining the great new features there is the ability to create panoramas and HDR images within Lightroom. Before spending perhaps a couple of minutes waiting for Photoshop to produce either type of file – and then not really liking the results and having to start again, Lightroom CC uses the JPG previews of your target raw files to create a preview. You can then kick off the rendering process and move onto your next task in Lightroom while it makes its complex calculations in the background.

Better still, your new pano or HDR is in the raw DNG format. This offers two major benefits. Firstly, you have access to all of the 16-bit data, meaning great noise control if you lighten shadows to expose hidden detail. Secondly, the files sizes should be a lot smaller than the huge uncompressed TIF files generated by Photoshop.

Use of gradients and radial filters is now better controlled with the addition of a brush tool. This enables you to prevent a gradient you might add to darken your sky from affecting a foreground element that you want to stand out against it. Serge Ramelli has released a video that ably showcases these improvements:

Back in the Library, I’m delighted to see that Adobe has introduced facial recognition, enabling you to tag people you know in your photos quickly and easily. This was a feature I suggested in one of the online surveys circulated by the Lightroom product marketing team; it’s great to see that they’ve actually included it.

Since I take a lot of group photos and like to be able to keep track of who’s in which one, I had installed Picasa on my desktop to use its face tagging feature in conjunction with Jeffrey Friedl’s Picasa face-recognition import plugin. Now I can leave both behind – thank you, Adobe.

At the Import stage in the Library, you can import photos directly into a Collection (at this stage, you still specify the physical location to which you copy the actual files). This makes good sense if you want to get straight on with creating a photo book, for example.

The Web and Slideshow modules have also been enhanced. The former now enables you to export galleries in HTML5 – ideal for sharing previews of your work to clients. The latter gains panning and zooming effects, plus more background music options. These could be of use as a way of building showcases of your work for upload to YouTube or use on a monitor at a trade show.

Lightroom CC is available both as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud plan – the bundle with Photoshop is currently £8.57/month – and as stand-alone Lightroom 6 for £103.88, which doesn’t include Lightroom Mobile. Adobe has done its best to hide this option on their website.

Are you a Lightroom user? Feel free to share your thoughts about the new release. Here for example are six features that PetaPixel says ought to be in the new version but aren’t…

Photography at the Sky Garden

Great views to be had from the top of London’s Walkie Talkie tower

Two years ago, not long after it opened, I shot the fantastic views over London from the Shard at sunset and beyond. Back in the metropolis a fortnight ago, I was tipped off about a great alternative: the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street, a 34-storey skyscraper in the City completed last year and popularly known as the Walkie Talkie.

The Sky Garden opened only in January and, although only half the height of the Shard, still offers excellent views over the City. Better still, unlike the Shard, entry is free. You  go through airport-style screening and take an express lift up to what feels like another world. Night was falling and, to the throb of loud techno music, well-heeled young city types knocked back the bubbly. As a somewhat dishevelled-looking photographer, I probably looked out of place and rather wondered how they had let me in!

Unfortunately, I was told off by an official for putting up my tripod (section 9 of the Sky Garden’s Visitor Rules prohibit their use) and so had to  put it away again and crank up the ISO to get reasonable exposures. Internal reflections also limited the possibilities for getting shots of the city out of the window. Even so, I got a few memorable shots of the interior with the city lights beyond.

Looking skywardsLooking skywards
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Looking skywards
Another worldAnother world
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Another world
The Sky Pod BarThe Sky Pod Bar
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The Sky Pod Bar
 
London lit upLondon lit up
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London lit up
The Shard from the Walkie TalkieThe Shard from the Walkie Talkie
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The Shard from the Walkie Talkie
 

If you’re in London with your camera, book a timed slot at skygarden.london. It’s open to the public between 10am and 6pm (later at weekends), although I was able to go up at 6.30pm. Monument is the nearest tube station.

The Dartmoor railway question revisited

Just over a year ago, on 5 February 2014, the railway line from London Paddington to Plymouth and Cornwall was washed away at Dawlish as a series of severe winter storms took their toll on the sea wall built in the Nineteenth Century. In response, I called for the reopening of the Plymouth to Okehampton railway line, arguing that the very picturesque Great Western line along the coast was a highly vulnerable single point of failure in the region’s transport network and that it would also bring economic benefits to communities to the west and north of Dartmoor.

Branch line today, main line once more tomorrow?
Branch line today, main line once more in future?

So what has happened since then? Network Rail threw formidable resources into repairing the line  and reopened it on 4 April, just two months later. It was a remarkable achievement.

On 15 July, Network Rail published a West of Exeter route resilience study (PDF) that priced a range of options, ranging from £400 million plus to strengthen the existing coastal route to some £3 billion to build a completely new line from Alphington to Bishopsteignton that would involve significant tunnelling beneath Haldon Hill.

The Okehampton line estimate came in at £875 million, a figure that includes a 66% contingency. In 2011, it was calculated that a mile of motorway cost on average £30 million, meaning that a 29-mile road could be built for this figure.

The report concluded that ‘even if certain revenue and unpriced benefits were doubled and the capital outlays halved in combination, the financial business case and transport economic case for all of the additional route options appear to remain significantly negative, with each one still offering poor value for money.’ Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin still has yet to respond formally.

In August, the Plymouth Herald reported opposition from some local politicians to the idea of rebuilding the line across Dartmoor because it would actually be slightly slower than the existing Dawlish line. A further report on the Dartmoor line is due to be published this Spring.

All in all, the prospects for the project do not look promising at present.The weather this winter has been relatively benign, with no repeat of last year’s extreme weather. HS2 continues to rack up millions in costs – on course to be up to £1bn later this year, according to the FT – and soak up money in the transport budget that could be spent elsewhere. Smaller-scale rail projects would offer better value for money, I argued a year ago. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming General Election will result in a change in political priorities.

Real landscape photography? It’s in the eye of the beholder

A blog by photographer Ugo Cei, Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up, reposted on iso.500px.com, has generated quite a heated debate about the current state of landscape photography.  Here’s my response.

At the outset, I plead guilty to trying to get as high a Pulse score for my photos as I can. Last summer, I even published my tips for ranking Popular on 500px.com:

It’s the gamification of photography, if you like. Evgeny and his team have tapped brilliantly into the validation for which we aspiring photographers all yearn, secretly or otherwise: ‘my photos are good – aren’t they?’

Subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and numerous YouTube channels, lusting after the latest gear and going to workshops run by our idols, we’re seeking to take our art (or obsession, as our better halves would have it) ‘to the next level’, as the modern cliché has it.

Our sub-conscious goal is to differentiate ourselves from the casual iPhone user who snaps merrily away and applies a one-touch filter or two before posting them on Instagram (another photo-sharing with a competitive element, should you choose to play its popularity game). That’s why we follow the Rule of Thirds, shoot landscape photos at either end of the day and invest in 10-stop ND filters (read more in my 9 steps towards better landscape photography).

Lisa Bettany observes in her reply to Ugo’s post:

Everyone starts their journey into Lightroom and Photoshop by over-saturating their sunsets and cranking the clarity. But, sharing your work in it’s development stages is how we get better. These “popular” photos may not all be “art”, but every single one of those photographers is creating something. And to me, that deserves respect.

Perhaps we see creating dramatic landscapes as a shortcut to photographic greatness? Like grungy HDR, it could well be a fad that will pass. Yet elements of the genre are firmly rooted in art history; the works of Turner or Caspar David Friedrich spring readily to my mind. Rocky Ravine, for example, isn’t exactly an exercise in muted colours, not least as it will probably have faded in the two centuries since it was painted.

As Ugo observes, we must each find our own style but, to succeed, you need to start by following and understanding the rules in order later to break them for effect. You also tend to emulate the style you admire and hear other people praising. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

It’s almost like a reincarnation of the ‘school of’ the great artist, such as Rembrandt or Michaelangelo, of the past. For mono shooters the hero could well be be Ansel Adams. For today’s colour shooters, it’s perhaps Elia Locardi, Serge Ramelli or Matt Kloskowski. They’ve made it to the top of the mountain and, whether it’s by following in their footsteps or beating a different artistic path, many of us would like to get there, too. Ambition is, after all, the driving force of progress.

Westcountry sunset
Westcountry sunset

Day trip to Pisa

If you’re staying in or near Pisa, it goes without saying that you should visit the city itself. The Leaning Tower – the cathedral’s campanile, or bell-tower, to be exact – is of course the stand-out attraction.

If you’re looking to get good photos, visit first thing in the morning both to benefit from the soft light of sunrise and to avoid the crowds, which are huge in the summer. Most visitors seem to be overtaken by the urge to pose for a photo, pretending to hold the tower up, which makes for amusing people-watching.

 

Sunset doesn’t work quite so well for the tower because the adjacent cathedral casts a large shadow shadow in the evening; conversely, it is very good for shots of the west front of the cathedral and nearby baptistry.

Getting into the town from our hotel, the San Ranieri, was easy: the no. 13 departs from a stop nearby every 20 minutes, took about 20 minutes and cost just a couple of Euros each way. We alighted at the railway station and then walked north through the city centre; the streets you take, Corso Italia and then the Via Goisuè Carducci, have been pedestrianised nearly all of the way to the Leaning Tower.

Climbing the Leaning Tower costs €18/person; perhaps the strange sensation of climbing a building that is listing heavily is worth it but, arguably, the view of it is far better than the view from it. The real secret is the cathedral which, thanks presumably to the revenues raised from tourists who queue to climb the tower, is free to enter. Entry is timed but, since there were only two of us, we were allowed in immediately when I explaind that we were flying home later in the day and couldn’t visit later.

Unlike in Siena Cathedral, with its ornate mosaic tiled floor, ugly and very utilitarian blue plastic seats filled the central aisle of the nave. Look up and around, though, and there is an ornate gilded ceiling, a higly ornate octagonal pulpit by Nicolà Pisano and his son Giovanni, huge paintings and a flamboyant mosaic of Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist in the apse behind the high altar.

Just a transept
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Just a transept
Christ Pancrator
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Christ Pancrator
Christ in close-up
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Christ in close-up
 
Ascent into Heaven
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Ascent into Heaven
Ceiling detail
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Ceiling detail
Masterful marquetry
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Masterful marquetry
 
Triforium
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Triforium
Labour of love
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Labour of love
 

The views along the river are very picturesque and would would make a great dusk cityscape, yet it’s probably no coincidence that the main pedestrian street from the station leads directly to the tower: my impression is that there’s not so much else in the city to inspire the culture-seeking visitor.

Pisa's waterfront
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Pisa's waterfront
Pisan waterfront
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Pisan waterfront
 
Heraldry
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Heraldry
South Bank
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South Bank
 

Florence is of course the mecca for Tuscan tourism; my wife and I are saving it for a future trip.

Day trip to the heart of Tuscany

No less beautiful than all the architecture in cities like Siena and Lucca is the countryside of rural Tuscany, as we found on our ramble through it from Pisa. In fact, we liked it so much that we went out on two trips.

Assuming that you have only one day spare, though, I’d suggest an itinerary like this.

From Pisa, take the FiPiLi and turn off at the first junction after your spur from Pisa has merged with that from Livorno: follow signs for Ponsacco. Strike south-east towards Volterra through Capannoli and La Sterza.

Beyond there, follow signs to Saline di Volterra rather than those for Volterra itself. We took the direct road and, with little warning, it became very steep, winding and difficult to drive. It’s from the road to Saline that you’ll enjoy views of the rolling fields that epitomise the classic Tuscan landscape.

From Saline, turn left and climb towards Volterra; there are some steep hairpin bends on the final approach from the west, too. Volterra dates from Etruscan times and has been continuously occupied for nearly three millenia, so there’s lot to see, especially if you’re interested in archæology.

From Volterra, continue east along the main road towards Poggibonsi; it’s not as steep or winding as the one you’ve just followed. There are some gorgeous views to be enjoyed along this road, not least a mile or so down the hill from Volterra, just before a hairpin bend.

The road between Volterra and Poggibonsi
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The road between Volterra and Poggibonsi
 

After 15 km, turn left off the main road at Castel San Gimignano and head north towards San Gimignano. Pause and enjoy some of the lovely rural views along this route, if you can.

Chiantishire
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Chiantishire
 

Another of the highlights of Tuscany and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is dominated by a dozen mediæval tower houses. Its historic centre is pedestrianised and thronged with tourists, probably for much of the year. We were fortunate to get to its main square when a historical re-enactment – watched by a newly-married bride and groom – was in progress.

There are various car parks dotted around the outside of the city walls but finding a space must be quite a challenge during the summer months. It’s only a fairly short, albeit steep, walk into the town centre from most of them. We parked in the one off Via Ghiacciaia on the north side of town; the charge was €2/hour.

I particularly wanted to get some good sunset photos of the city from the west and found a good vantage point a kilometre or so along the SP69. I found that the sun sets more quickly than in England.

From here, follow the road north-westward  towards Forcoli, Pontedera and eventually back to Pisa. It runs through woodland for much of the time, with very few villages along the way, so it’s not a great place either to break down or run out of fuel.