Lessons under the Tuscan sun
2022 has been a strange year. Not strange like the last two, where the pandemic took a toll on our lives, but strange for me.
It is the first year when travelling has been possible again, and yet, up until the 26th of October, due to work, I had only two free days this year.
Yes, I did shoot a decent number of sports but there was no going out in nature, no photography workshops, no seeing or hearing the sea or climbing mountains.
I was stuck in a rut. Wake up, open my laptop, work, eat, work, close my laptop, do some house chores then watch one hour of TV and sleep. Repeat. Day after day.
So, you can imagine my joy when I was able to take a week off. A week just for me and my girlfriend, a week in which we planned to see a famous destination. Tuscany.
And we wanted to see as much as possible, so we rented a small Lancia and drove around this beautiful area for a week, a week filled with sights, driving, great food, great wines, and some pictures.
I am saying some pictures because of three things:
First thing is that we had an incredible weather for travelling, not for photography.
7 full days in which we had not a single cloud in the sky. Not even a small, little spot. Bright blue sky and 24+ degrees Celsius.
Perfect for travel, not so much for taking photographs.
Second thing is… the number of tourists.
I was in shock to see how many tourists were still out, still visiting even though it was the start of November and how packed cities like Florence were. I have been to New York, and I honestly think that for the two full days I visited Florence it was busier than Times Square. And that is saying something.
Now, the third and final reason comes as a remembering of an article I wrote for my site exactly three years ago where I noticed I had to choose between travelling, being a guy who travels, who wants to see the world and being a photographer. Because this trip, this excursion, brought back those memories and made me choose once again.
Before going further, I should say that for this trip, I took my Lowepro 150 backpack and filled it with my Fuji X-T20, an X-E2 for backup, my 18-55mm, 10-24mm and 55-200mm lenses, filters, remote, batteries, cards and my glasses.
I always need my glasses when I shoot in Manual mode, and honestly, they are the first thing I put in the pack before adding the camera or the lenses.
I also had my Manfrotto tripod, and when I placed the backpack on the scale, it showed me 5.6 kilograms, and that was my first shock.
Fuji kits are meant to be light and easy to travel with, but due to the size of my backpack, the tripod, and the backup camera, I have gone into DSLR territory, and I wasn’t very happy with it.
Now add in 6 days of walking 20k+ steps each day on small hills, ramps and stairs in the cities, and you can bet my back took a big hit during this trip. And to be completely honest, I did carry that tripod with me everywhere, even on day times, because if presented with the opportunity to shoot a long exposure photo, I did not want to miss it.
My trip was amazing and not only because I managed to get some pictures but rather for other things.
It was a longtime dream of mine to visit Tuscany. I traveled to lots of places, but I kept some places apart for when meeting someone special. I didn’t want to go to Tuscany alone, or with just about anyone, but rather with someone I love and care for. And while on that trip, together with my half, camera mostly in my bag, I had time to enjoy the moment, the time spent with my girlfriend.
And when I returned home, I had time to think it over, got through the trip in my mind and decided to write an article about it. An article about the lessons I learned while there, the lessons I learned when looking over my photos, or the lessons I knew but sometimes forgot.
So let us start this and see what I learned or remembered after a trip to Tuscany.
I didn’t want to stop here, but my girlfriend found a pretty place nearby, and then I found a picture of a marble terrace and next thing you know we booked a room for the first night here.
I really think that both these pictures would be amazing for photography, given the right conditions, but we were on a trip, we were tired, hungry and wanted to reach the hotel soon, so we didn’t stick around for a long time in each location.
However, I do not regret my decision of quitting soon, because, as you can see from the sky (and I left the whole sky in and no cropping), this was how the sky looked that day and on all days on the trip.
I had a friend who seemed very disappointed when I returned about the weather conditions and the fact that I didn’t bring home some epic pictures, but to be honest, it was amazing. I had an amazing week, with my girlfriend, in an area I dreamt of visiting for years, and somehow photography didn’t matter so much to me then.
It was my first holiday (and hers also), and instead of having bad weather (but great for photos), running or hiding from the rain, dressing warm or staying inside because of rain just to come back home with two or three memorable photos, I returned home after a sunny, hot week with maybe a couple of nice pictures but with photos and personal pictures to last for a lifetime.
The joy in my girlfriend’s eyes when seeing new places, the relaxed lunches or the views at night when enjoying a glass of wine or prosecco, these things I will remember and cherish far longer than taking a really good picture and posting it on the internet.
And I think this is the key lesson here. Even when you are in a place that you might not find so appealing, I am sure that if you look, you will find things to brighten your day. I am sure you will be able to find good memories, and I am sure that you will be able to bring home even a decent picture.
I know sometimes is hard, and some places are not just as majestic as others, but with some patience and creativity, things could change.
Next stop was this pretty little village, and this is where I first saw the amazing fog rolling through the Tuscany hills. I have seen fog before, but fog to last so late in the day and fog that is so dense and thick when the sun is shining so hard, it is an amazing thing to see.
Many people would skip this place and head straight to San Gimignano but trust me. You do want to spend a few hours here.
This is the place where I ate one of the most amazing croissants I have ever had in my life (pistachio filling) while sipping on a small coffee and resting before driving just a small distance to a place I am sure most people know of.
Key lesson here is that you should never stop exploring. Never settle to see just the big sights, the big cities. never stop at taking just the “money shots”, but rather allow yourself to try new things. Try new styles with your camera, experiment with things you haven’t photographed yet, and build a story from pictures taken at a location… The possibilities are endless. And yes, do try that pistachio cream-filled croissant.
Ever since you see the remaining towers standing tall on top of that small hill, you know you’re in for a treat. San Gimignano is a place that really lives up to the hype, to the pictures taken here, place to a wonderful gelateria that boasts of winning the world cup for ice cream makers, of beautiful towers, of good Aperol and to a beautiful terrace from where you can enjoy a glass of wine and look into the sunset.
I truly believe that in time, later, when we’ll go to Tuscany again to visit some places that remained untouched in this trip, this is one of the three places I will pay a second visit.
Now, this is the point where some people will wonder, “well, you have no stunning pictures so far, no huge vistas, no dramatic skies”, but let me tell you one thing. The key lesson here is that photography is more than taking a picture and posting it online.
Photography is food for the soul, it is a keeper of memories, it is a way to look back and remember happy days, beautiful persons, and important moments. And these things don’t always come in the form of an award-winning shot. They might come in the form of a silly/funny snap you took with someone in front of a huge monument, or they may come in the form of a ticket to an art gallery or a show. They might be the bill you kept as a memory after you asked for your partner’s hand at a restaurant or a small token you gifted your loved one on a special occasion.
You see, there is no dramatic picture to be taken here, but that moment, that snap, that piece of paper holds more emotion than most award-winning photographs do.
I think, in a way, Siena best represents life. The whole place is filled with stairs, the alleys always going up or coming down, so little straight land under your feet. Just like life. With its ups and downs.
And just like life, if you manage to man up, to keep walking, to keep exploring, you will be rewarded.
And in Siena, you will be rewarded with superb views, beautiful architecture, winding alleys, monuments, all there for you to enjoy them.
I also think Siena is the place that gives us two key points. And the second one is learning to change our perspective. In photography, just like in life, most people look just ahead. They bring the camera to their eyes and snap the picture. But in Siena, you have to look up, you have to look down, you have to lower the camera, or you have to really point it down.
Because just as in life, a change of perspective might help you.
My favorite. You see, I love Firenze, I enjoy Tuscany, but Pienza is special. Such a small place. Delicate, beautiful. A place where I can think of one lesson.
There are places, cities, towns where you are always on the run. You are always behind schedule, you’re always in a hurry. You run after the bus to get to work, you eat your meals standing up. You run to get your kids from school. You run and keep running. Pienza is not like that. Pienza is taking hundreds of photos of the flowered walls. Pienza is stopping down and enjoying a coffee while your eyes rest on the hills in front of you. Pienza is about walking slowly, looking curiously at each corner, and wanting to freeze time a bit so you can rest.
So Pienza’s lesson is that we do need to stop from time to time. We do need to rest, to look around, to admire the world around us. Because it is beautiful.
In Romanian, we have a saying “la pomul laudat sa nu te duci cu sacul” which roughly translates to “don’t bring a bag to the tree everyone is praising”.
And that’s more of “don’t get your hopes up because even if something sounds too good to be true, chances are it is a fake, a fraud, and you will be disappointed”
And I think that Firenze’s lesson is really that sometimes you see all these clips on the internet, pictures, people telling how beautiful a place is, and your heart and mind are a bit divided.
You hope to like it, but you also hope not to be too disappointed in case people are just hyping up a place, a city, a restaurant, a dish, etc.
But sometimes, and here is the lesson, even if one million people say a place is nice when you get there… It is way better.
Florence not only did it lived up to the name, the hype, but it over-delivered for us. From impressive monuments, amazing views, small alleys, large streets, great street food, amazing wine… Everything was better than expected.
So, the lesson here is this. Sometimes, popular tourist places can still amaze you. Yes, it was crowded. Yes, there was a line for everything from eating to visiting. But wow, did we have a blast.
We never expected to fall in love so much with this place and that taught me that sometimes, in life, not enough words can be said about the beauty of a place. And that is the same for photography also. Just because there are millions of pictures from the Dolomites it doesn’t matter. The landscape and the feeling can still leave you speechless. It can still make your eyes wide, smiling as peak after peak unfolds before your eyes.
Sometimes, visiting, and photographing famous places does pay off.
My journey through Tuscany was bigger, but for the sake of the article, I kept it shorter. My travels took me to Monteriggioni, Montepulciano, Cortona (the best Aperol of the entire trip), a few places in Val d’Orcia, and I even drove to Spello one day, eager to take a small bite of Umbria.
And the final lesson of the article is this:
I could have bought a new camera in autumn. And I could have bought a better lens. And I would have stayed home because I couldn’t possibly afford new gear and a trip so rich in places. But I picked the other option. Instead of worrying about cameras, megapixels, shadow recovery, I chose to have memories, to have experiences. To bring home some decent photos but some amazing memories instead of spending cash on a “fantastic” camera and sitting home.
And lastly, there is one more thing. After submitting my last article, I talked a bit with Hugo, and I read one of his articles on his blog (ended up reading more, but that’s another story). And I realized, again, what are life’s most important things.
And you saw all my pictures above. Some of them nice, some good, some decent, some you may call bad. But those are not my favorite pictures from the trip. Not by far.
These are. And you don’t need an expensive camera or knowledge about photography. What you need is something else. A person you want to spend your life with, a person who makes you feel loved, who likes to goof around with you and who is happy to spend his/her time with you.
And those are the best moments and memories in life! And maybe this is the most important lesson I remembered under the Tuscan sun.
“My name is Stefan Panaitescu, I am 38 years old and I am from Bucharest, Romania.
I work in sustainability and corporate social responsibility and I love my job.
I am an avid traveler and in my spare time I run a travel blog and I try to get out as much as I can and shoot with my Fuji cameras.”