Hluboka Castle, Czech Republic

Life seems to be moving at the speed of light lately.  I just can’t seem to find enough time for anything these days.

Here are some photos from a recent trip to the Czech republic.  Just outside of Ceske Budejovice is Hluboka Castle.  Very nice to look at from the outside and even nicer on the inside!  Despite a horrific theme of a bird eating the brains of a dead turk, the castle interior is an amazing array of wood panels, stained glass and inlaid *everything*.  Quite amazing!

 Enjoy the Photo Gallery:

An Aborted Takeoff, a really Backwards View and Lost Luggage

I woke up this morning, expecting a relatively easy, but long travel day.  Heading to a destination I’ve visited before, from home should be a pretty easy thing for a well-travelled guy like me.  In the end, I must say it wasn’t that hard.  But I did have a couple of really interesting events that I’d like to share with you.

The airport shuttle picked me up at the scheduled time.  Meaning of course, that the guy was there early.  In my book “If you’re not early, you’re LATE.”  I walked out my front door and there he was, with van that I had requested.  A normal car might not have fit all the gear I’m bringing with me on this trip.  Could be long one.  No return date set.  I suspect several months or maybe even half a year.  Think of everything YOU’D take for a trip that long!

While I struggle through the door, the guy just awkwardly stands there and watches.  I’d expect a little help, if even just to hold the door open.  I then load the first bag by myself into the back of the van.  The driver finally clues in that he should help and grabs the second bag.  Ok, maybe he’s not so bad.  Walking back to the door really slowly to see what he does, I hear a car door open.  He’s gotten in, leaving me to get the third bag.  Not working hard at getting a tip, are you fella?  I load the bag and open the door for myself.  Had he really been trying, he’d have done that too.  Oh well, in Eastern Europe service standards are pretty low.  Not much more can be expected.  But it sure is nice when it happens!

The ride to the airport is pretty uneventful.  I wouldn’t say he was a slow driver, but he wasn’t the ‘normal’ speed maniac that I seem to get from some of the shuttle companies.  His English is pretty bad, but he understands enough.  I can tell he’s really nervous.  Deciding not to push him into a conversation, I sit back to enjoy the ride.  Most of the time is forcing myself not to sleep.  Halfway into the drive I glance at my watch.  It’s barely 8 o’clock.  I’ve been on the move for 2 hours already.  I hate mornings.

Using the Business class check-in lane, because the airport doesn’t have the First class check-in that my Lufthansa Senator’s status allows me, I’m told that I need to put one of my bags into ‘oversized baggage’ at the end of the terminal (not very far aware, luckily!).  The bag contains a bicycle that doesn’t fold for travelling.  It’s pretty huge, but light enough to sling over my shoulder.  After paying a small fee and getting my boarding passes, I head off the VIP lounge.

Right on time we’re boarding the small regional jet that will take us to the airline’s main hub in Frankfurt.  We line up on the runway and I hear the engines go from a gentle idle to a huge ROAR as we begin to speed down the runway.  The nose lifts up and then comes crashing back down with a jolt.  The engine power is cut and I’m being pressed against my seatbelt under heavy braking.

I look out my window and see a few birds at eye level pass by, close to the nose of the aircraft.  Ok, I get it.  We either hit a bird or the pilots aborted to avoid them.

As frightened passengers are looking at each other for answers to what has happened, I tell those near me not to worry as I know what’s going on.  Or do I?

The aircraft is turning now, as we hit the taxiway on our way back to the passenger terminal.  The intercom comes alive and one of the flight attendants is screaming at us in German, then in English “Please remain in your seats with seatbelts fastened.  In a few moments the flight crew will explain what is happening.  Until then, please remain calm.”  30 seconds later we’re coming to stop at the terminal and lots of service vehicles are approaching the aircraft, including a fire truck with lights flashing.  They’re close enough that I can see the confused look in their eyes.  I can see them saying to themselves:  “Why are you back here?”

The pilot makes an announcement telling us that yes indeed, the aborted takeoff was to avoid a flock of birds that crossed the runway at low altitude just ahead of us.  He didn’t explain why it was so dangerous, but if you remember the water landing on the Hudson River a few years ago, that was due to engine failure after striking birds.  (You can read the Wiki article about it HERE.)  The pilot calmly explains that the aircraft must be fully inspected to be SURE that nothing came into contact with the plane.  Then about 30 minutes later he further explained that even though no damage was found, they needed to wait until the plane’s braking system had properly cooled before we could take off again.  All told, we were delayed over an hour.

No further drama here, a normal flight the second time around.  As we approached Frankfurt, they announced that they’d been in contact with the ground staff and informed us of a few gates changes, but also that no flights needed to be rebooked so long as we went directly to our departure gate.  As I exited the aircraft at the most remote parking area I’ve ever seen at Frankfurt, I remember thinking that I’d probably miss my connecting flight.  As I boarded the bus to the main terminal, I glanced at the time.  My second flight had already been boarding for about 10 minutes.  Damn!  I still had to go through Passport Control and possibly another security check before heading to my gate.  With less than half an hour, the odds of me making it were getting lower and lower.

I positioned myself right near the rear door of the bus, opting to stand so I’d be that much closer to where I needed to go when the bus stopped.  We arrive at the terminal and everybody piles out.  But the glass doors to the terminal don’t open.  We’re all trapped for a few minutes between the bus and the building.  The doors open and we all rush in.  I’m at the front of the pack by the time we get to the large monitors where everybody stops and gawks at the information they should already know:  Where to go!  As I walk up the escalator to save even more time, several people sprint by.  I don’t don’t see anyone else from my flight.  They’re far behind.

Approaching the gate, there’s no destination or flight number on the board.  I stand there for several seconds wondering if I had heard wrong or if it had changed again.  I approach the nearest employee behind the desk and ask where the gate to Osaka is.  She says “HERE!  Quickly….boarding pass!!”  I now see that the gate is actually open, but they’re resetting for the next flight.  I board the plane, find my seat, sit down and hear the announcement  “Boarding completed.”  If there was anybody else from my first flight coming, they’ve missed it!

This flight’s aboard an older 747, the -400 model.  I’ve specially picked my seat because of the configuration by the emergency exit door.  There’s 2 seats right by the door.  In the next row, there are 3 seats.  I’ve picked the window seat in this second row, because of the extra legroom in front of you.  Although I’m quite far back, I’m facing the crewmember in the rearward facing ‘jumpseat’ because of the missing seat in the front row.  It’s quite a good seat because you’re not on an aisle, so you don’t have constant traffic brushing up against you and you still have the option of getting up any time you feel like it.  In my opinion, it’s nearly perfect.  (Numbers 33A and 33K, FYI.)

Just before takeoff the head purser of the flight comes over and introduces herself.  Something they always seem to do for their Gold Status members.  It doesn’t cost anything and it really does make you feel like you’re appreciated.  Nice touch Lufthansa (although not as nice as the handwritten birthday card I got from one of your VP’s this year.  That ROCKED!  Seriously, do I make them THAT much money?)  The same purser just happens to be working in my area of the plane.  She sits down in crew seat nearest me for takeoff.

The rest turned out to be a fairly dull flight, but I revel in it after all the excitement of the morning.  A few hours sleep, but for the most part I just watched movies.

As we prepare for landing, the same crewmember again sits facing me and straps herself in.  She gives me a knowing glance, which seems to say “I’m bored, but I know you’ve done this a million times too.”  I lean forward and say “I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Try what?”

“Sitting backwards during a landing, in the jumpseat.”

“Come here!”

“Really?”  I ask.  “I didn’t think it would be allowed!”

“There’s and extra seat and you’ll be out of the way if I need to open the door.”

I could not contain my excitement.  I’m sure my smile was ear to ear as I hop out of my seat and plunk myself down into the folding seat.  She then gave me a quick but thorough briefing on where my life vest was, how to adjust the straps and where the oxygen mask would be should I need it.  I’m a bit overwhelmed, but I follow allow as best I can, asking her to repeat a few bits that I’m unsure about.

I can hear the flaps moving and she explains that the position we’re in is directly over the main landing gear.  On cue, we feel a few large ‘thumps’ as the doors open and the gear come down.

The seat has shoulder straps that the normal ones don’t have.  I’ve over-tightened them and literally cannot move.  I look out the door’s small window.  I can’t see anything other than wing.  There’s no reference to the ground.  Just as I’m thinking that I cannot predict when exactly we’re going to touch down, I feel the aircraft noise coming up.  The ‘flare’ that they do to ensure the rear wheels touch first.  I know we’re VERY close now.

My compliments to the pilot.  I can’t say it was a perfect ’10’, but was a solid ‘9’ for sure!  (to his credit, out of several hundred flights I can only recall one that I’d say was perfect.)  Very smooth.  Nice work!

After saying thanking the crewmember a few million times, I grabbed my gear and headed off the aircraft.  On the jetway, there were a few ANA staff (All Nippon Airways) with a list of names.  Usually if there are connecting flight issues, they’ll wait there with information.  There was a large sign with a list of passenger names that they wanted to talk to.  And there, was my name.  Uh-Oh.  I don’t have a connecting flight, so it must be something else.

Great.  Just great.  I’m informed that none of my luggage has made it onto the plane.  It’s all still sitting in Frankfurt.  There is only 1 flight per day, so I’ve got to wait a full 24hours to get my stuff.  Serves me right for not taking a change of clothes with me (I’ve been burned in the past, so I made a rule to always do this.  I broke the rule.  Damn.)  I’m instructed to file a form at the lost baggage area after immigration.  A young girl make sure that I have a comfortable seat and the squats next to me to take down my information.  I think it’s a little weird, but whatever.  I then see that the other employees here are doing the same.  Sitting the guests down and squatting lower than them to take the information.  Odd, but this IS Japan.  Odd is normal here.

After a few minutes of note-taking with me pointing out what style of bag it is, with colour and style charts, the girl tells me that I should go and look on the luggage belt because 2 of my bags DID make the flight.  I nearly sprint to the carousel.  Right away I spot both of the bags, with their orange “Priority” tags.  I pull them off the belt and then finish up with the paperwork.

An hour later I’m at ANA Crowne Plaza hotel.  My bad luck continues and I’m told at 08:00 that my room will not be ready until 15:00, which is the official check-in time.

All in all, a VERY interesting day.  It could have been worse!!



Old Town Warsaw, Photo Gallery (Part 2)

<–  Read part 1 of this post HERE

The restoration of Old Town Warsaw is nothing short of remarkable.  Completely destroyed during the war, nothing but the shells of buildings remained, mostly without roofs.

It’s now a UNESCO heritage site, it’s quite an amazing place!  If you’re in the area, you should visit.

For more information on the Katyn memorial, read this Wikipedia article:  Katyn Massacre

Main Square in the Old Town, Warsaw

If you haven’t heard of it, the centre of Warsaw’s Old Town contains a square that has been completely restored since the Germans essentially levelled it during WW2.  This restoration has carried to such detail that it was recognized by UNESCO as a heritage site.  I’ve heard it compared to the town of Cesky Krumlov, although that is mostly Baroque in style.

Having the chance to work on the show “Kooza” in Warsaw, I thought it would be a terrific chance to see the square.  But perhaps I was getting my hopes up too high.  Or maybe I’ve just travelled too much and “seen it all”?  Whatever the cause, my visit to the main square of Warsaw’s Old Town seemed underwhelming.

I should also mention that the weather didn’t exactly co-operate either.  The rain held off while I was walking around, but the skies certainly didn’t want to be photographed.  Dark and gloomy most of the time.  When the sun did peak out, it was usually gone before I could raise my camera to my eye.

A surprising number of tourists were rambling about.  Considering it’s nearly October and in poor weather, there really were a LOT.  I’d hate to visit in the peak of summer.  It must be difficult to walk!

There seemed to be plenty of places to exchange money or buys sweets or Amber jewelry (my wife claims that ALL Amber originates in Poland.  I have yet to confirm this) but not much else.  There were some completely empty restaurants which either were closed for the winter, or should have been.  Nobody paid any attention to them.

Part 2 of this article will contain a larger photo gallery, but for today I’ll just post a panorama containing 3 sides of the square.  Considering it’s made of 32 photos, I’m surprised that I didn’t find anybody in more than one area of the square.  Maybe you can find one?


Extreme wide angle panorama of the old town square in Warsaw, Poland

Ugliest Hotel Room View EVER?

Regular visitors to this site have probably noticed by now that I spend a LOT of time in Poland.  When not travelling for Cirque du Soleil, this is my ‘home base’.  Wait a minute, did he just say “Cirque du Soleil”?  Yes, I did.  I’ve been keeping this information private for a very long time, but I see no reason to hide it any longer.

I’ve been employed by the circus for 9 years now.  In that time I’ve been to a long list of cities and countries that I never expected (or in some cases wanted…) to go to.  For example, my travels to Brazil last year were to support the show “Corteo” as it embarked on a South American tour.

This week, I’m working on the show “Kooza” which is now playing in Warsaw, Poland.  This is the first time Cirque has put a ‘bigtop’ show in the country, although several ‘arena’ shows have played in the northern city of Gdansk.

When not travelling, I spend most of my time in the south of Poland, so this visit to Warsaw is a bit of treat for me.  I have visited the city before, but have never stayed for any length of time.  It certainly also makes work easier for me, since I can speak a bit of the language and in my line of work, that almost never happens.

More on this later…

Right now I’d like to present my latest photo, taken from balcony.  It’s probably the ugliest view I’ve had in all my time touring.  But also one of the most interesting ones.  I snapped this one just as the sun was setting.

I hope you like it.

Alley view at sunset, warsaw poland

Coffee Genome decoded

So they’ve decoded the coffee genome.  Or at least for Robusta coffee, not the more common (and better tasting) Arabica.  (Read about it HERE.)

What does this mean for the average consumer?  Not much.  But it does give me some comfort to know that people care enough about it to do this research.  Then again, when you read the article it says that the researcher drinks his morning coffee at Tim Horton’s  with “three creams and three sugars”.  I’d have to argue that the result is NOT coffee at all.  Let’s hope his associates have a better appreciation for it.


Coffee tattoo on arm of customer

Some people LOVE their coffee


Astrophotography, 1st (and 2nd and 3rd) attempt

Not much happening the past couple of weeks.  The weather has been horrible.  Just horrible.  Rain nearly every day and we haven’t seen the sun or blue sky in ages.  Quite depressing, honestly.

A friend of mine posted a really excellent picture of the moon on Facebook recently and this has inspired me to try and take some star pictures.  At least 20 years ago I tried to take some lunar shots on my film cameras.  I found out the hard (and expensive) way that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks.  The background sky is nearly black and the moon especially when full, is extremely bright.  It’s not easy getting a good exposure.  I spent a lot of money on film processing and waited many days to get my over and under exposed shots returned to me.  Never, EVER got a frame I liked.  I gave up.

Fast forward to now and some remarkable things have happened in camera technology.  Digital imaging reduces the cost per frame to nearly zero (the energy to charge the batteries is not free) and camera sensors have progressed enormously.  Most consumer cameras have multiple point auto exposure systems that at least give you a fighting chance at a good shot the first time.  And if you fail, you just delete and try again.  Advanced cameras will even let you choose which part of the frame to expose for.  How easy it is…  Or so I thought.

I then found a blog of a guy that takes some really amazing landscape shots, using the night light to put stars in the background of his work.  Inspired, I trolled the internet for similar work.  There’s no end to it.  You could go on forever looking at these pictures.  And many of them have blogs or instructions on how you can do it too.

I’m currently in an area without much population.  No big cities for about 20km and lots of protected area and parks.  BIG parks.  I thought maybe I could find a spot that has a decent view of the sky and try to see what I could see.  My lovely wife reminded me that there is even an observatory on a nearby hill.  Their website even boasts about how clear the sky is, with over 150 days per year of good viewing.

Well, that was it.  I was hooked again.

The first night I went out, the weather was cold but not completely overcast.  I found a spot along a small road and setup my camera on a heavy tripod.  As I was about to start shooting, a line of cars came down the road and ruined the shot.  Then more cars came.  Then more cars.  I’d pick a road leading to a local theatre and the show had just finished.  I quickly lowered my camera from it’s skyward aim to show the surrounding trees.  I opened up the shutter for a 30 second exposure and let the car headlights light the scene for me.  Hey, take what you can get, right?

Trees lit up by car headlights


After the rush of cars had passed and the darkness of the night descended again, I realized that I’d made a mistake in choosing this spot.  The moon that I’d wanted to shoot was on the other side of those trees.  Time to move.

I knew the area pretty well and remembered a clearing not far away.  5 minutes later I was setup and ready to snap some frames.  Bad luck though, as clouds had rolled in.  Scattered, but blocking most of the stars.  The moon too was elusive.  The lens I had brought was good for low light, but not a strong enough zoom to fill the frame.  The moon, even if I could get a good exposure, would be just a tiny dot against the sky.  I’ll have to try another time for this shot.

My tripod was all set up though, and I’d prepared myself for a few hours of exposure to the cold.  Multiple layers with gloves.  I was good to go, all except I had nothing to point the camera at.  I did play with a few features of the camera and discovered that with a tripod, I could take night shots that looked like daylight if the shutter was held open long enough.  Freaky.

Before my second and third attempts, I discovered a way to plan my shots better.  There’s a photographer’s tool called the “Photographer’s Ephemeris”  (not an app, but a real website:  app.photoephemeris.com)  It’s a real blessing for those that want to align their photos of the sun/moon/stars with terrestrial objects.  I could go on and on about this great website, but you’ll have to see for yourself.  Oh, did I mention it’s FREE?

The next two days were both rainy and cloudy.  But both evenings were clear.  Not a cloud.  I found a new location, further outside the city, so I wouldn’t have to worry about cars.  As I was biking to the spot (I have no need for a car) I noticed that I could only see stars from inside the city, but I could start to see the Milky Way.  WOW.  Even through the artificial fog of the streetlights.

The first night I simply pointed my camera and took a few snaps, trying to get a good exposure.  Trying to match what my eye could see.  Not much luck here.   I probably should have taken notes or at least snapped pics in some kind of sequence or progression that I could have followed later.  Nope.  Just randomness.  Some worked, most did not.

I read more and more about astrophotography and compared what I had shot with works by ‘real’ photographers.  My pics really looked like amateur hour.  They didn’t have any detail.  Just a few dots on a black background or over exposed noise, where you couldn’t tell stars from garbage.

The second night I had a plan.  I had read about how the ‘pro’ astrophotographers take many MANY shots of the scene and then ‘stack’ them together.  With computer software to eliminate the background noise, you’re supposed to get more clarity.  That’s where I had gone wrong.  Or so I thought.

Back at the same spot, I set my lens to as wide of an angle as possible.  Taking as many as 30 shots for each image, I was sure that I’d get something useful.  I quickly came home and setup my computer to ‘stack’ the shots.  No luck whatsoever.  The really were not that different from what I’d seen after the first night.  Better, yes.  But not ‘Oh my God’.  The software did make me really open my eyes though.  As it processes, it counts the stars that it finds.  Not the background noise, but the stars that it sees (and verifies with the other images).  Very cool.  In one frame, there were over 84,000 stars!  Think about that.  My brain couldn’t handle it.  I had to open the image and magnify it to check.  Every time I zoomed in closer, there were indeed more stars.  Zoom, stars, zoom in more, more and more (fainter) stars.  A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.  Too bad the images didn’t look like much…

I was about to delete all the photos when I had an idea.  Why not take the images from the first night, with wildly different exposures and put them into my HDR software that I use most of the pics you see on this website.  Maybe, maybe….something would work.

Here’s the result:

Milky Way HDR

Ok, now I’ve got something to work with!!

I suspect that I’ll be trying to take many more of these shots, but first I’ve got to buy/beg/borrow a wider lens.  And of course, the weather has to co-operate.  The past week, nothing but clouds and rain.  Let’s hope the sky clears tonight!

Kyoto Panorama Photo (Japan, 2014)

<– Part 1 of Kyoto

<– Part 2 of Kyoto

My last day in Kyoto I decided to try and visit one last temple before catching the train back to Osaka.  Just a short distance from my hotel, it would be an easy way to kill a few hours.  I walked to the temple in staggering heat.  When I arrived I was only focused on finding water and a shady spot to sit.  I guess my trip to the temple was wasted.  I didn’t even have the desire to take photos.  Nearing 40c, it was just too hot.

I decided to head underground where it’s cool, even if not air conditioned.  The perfect place would be the train.  I needed to get to the main station to get back to Osaka anyways, so I started heading there.

Catching the metro was easy enough.  I’d passed the station earlier, so I knew exactly where it was.  Buying a ticket was a no-brainer as the pre-paid card I already had was good for this line.  I waited at the platform for a few minutes and hopped on the first train that arrived.  It was then that my jaw hit the floor.  I had stumbled upon a “Limited Express” train.  This train makes very few stops, hence the name.  To make things more comfortable, this car had plush deeply padded seats arranged in a way that you’d expect in business class on an airline.  Only 3 seats per row, and not very many rows.  Lots of space and comfort!

I found a seat and as the train started to move, the joy I had felt quickly turned to panic:  What if this train wasn’t going to stop where I wanted?  Would I be taken past my destination?  Would I end up in the next TOWN?

There were diagrams of the train’s route above every door.  I was able to see in a few seconds that yes, I would be alright.  The train would stop where I wanted to change trains.  What a relief!

In just a couple of minutes, I left my far-too-comfortable seat and got off at my stop.  I knew I had to change train lines, but since I had never been to this station before, I didn’t know where to go.  I started looking for signs.  In short order I was where I needed to be, or at least where I thought that was.

A train soon appeared and quickly passed through the station without stopping.  An exress, I figured.  Then another appeared, but this one didn’t go to Kyoto Station, where I was heading.  The next one and the next too were not heading there.  I guessed that something was wrong.  Did I get off at the wrong stop?

I found an employee at the station entrance and asked as best I could how to get to Kyoto Station.  He told me “JR Line”.  JR is a private company that has a vast rail network in Japan.  He also said “Station that way” and pointed  over his shoulder.  I thanked him and headed off.

Exiting the station, I found myself facing an entrance to the “next station”.  My pre-paid card doesn’t work on the JR line, so I was forced to buy another ticket to take this train.  The trains really are cheap, so I didn’t mind too much.  Entering the JR station, I looked around.  Not only was I 10 feet from where I had started, I was on the *same platform*.  They’ve built a wall down the middle of the platform and given the new “station” it’s own name.  Wow.

Once at the main station, I bought a ticket and asked when the next train to Osaka was.  “In 8 minutes or 1 hour and 8 minutes”.  I asked for the later train.  I was hungry and wanted to find some Ramen or maybe a few dumplings.

Kyoto station is not extremely large in size, but it is a VERY tall glass structure.  I wanted to take a photo of roof from a high vantage point, so I began to look around.  Riding an escalator up one level, I saw a sign pointing to “Skywalk”.  It led me to another escalator and another and another until I was at the very top of the roof.  The entire length of the station has a glassed in catwalk.  It’s not that great for viewing the station itself, but you can find a really nice view of Kyoto from up there.  Before heading down to the 8th floor, where 5 Ramen shops were waiting, I decided to try a panorama shot.

Here it is (and it’s BIG, so it may take some time to load):


Kyoto Panorama Photo  from Main train station

Photos from Kyoto, Japan (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my pictures from Kyoto.  As stated previously, they’re a bit random!  I really just wandered around the town and stopped whenever I saw something interesting.

There are over 1,400 temples and shrines in this small town so it’s really not hard to find something to shoot.  And even the tiny houses are often made from a very photogenic wood.  I just wish I’d had more time to explore.  I guess that’s a great excuse to go back one day!

Enjoy the pics, and please write in the comments which one is YOUR favourite:

<–  Read 24 Hours in Kyoto Part 1


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