The Chocolatier of Venice

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It’s been about two weeks in Venice, and so far the biggest surprise has been this: the food in Venice is mediocre at best. Much of this, I believe, can be attributed to the rampant tourism industry, and tourist menus abound on almost every street, unless you wander far away from the crowds. Even then, you’re going to be paying a lot for a so-so meal, unless you’re careful. This is not to be pessimistic though — there are some great places to eat if you take the time to seek them out! They’re just hidden from the daily crowds or cost a small fortune.

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But even though Venice is not known for its food in the way that Rome and Florence are, the desserts are still spectacular. I think I average about two gelatos a day, sometimes more (and I’m really not picky about ice cream, so it’s relatively easy for me to find a gelato place I’m happy with). So, naturally, when I repeatedly read about “the best chocolate shop” in Venice, I had to go. Immediately. Vizio Virtù is easy to find and absolutely fantastic — if you’re ever in Venice (or Italy, for that matter), do not miss this place!

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Simply put, this place is divine. It’s nestled in the neighborhood of San Polo, right by the San Tomà vaporetto (waterbus) stop. The façade is quaint and unassuming, and the shop is small but pristine. When I was in France a few years ago the chocolate was amazing, but I don’t think even that could compare to this.

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Of course, it’s ridiculously expensive. I tried the chocolate-dipped candied oranges (about 1 euro each) and the caramel chocolate bar (7 euros apiece). It’s definitely worth a stop though, even just to try a few of the by-the-kilo candies, and I can’t recommend this place enough — everything is exquisite. This place is a gem in Venice (a place where the food scene pales in comparison to the rest of Italy).

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In addition to chocolates and jellies from the case, they also offer gelato, mousse, freshly baked brownies (which I have yet to try), and pre-wrapped chocolates, which are great for taking home — if you can make it that far.

Directions: Take the vaporetto to the San Tomà stop. Walk until you reach a T-shaped intersection and turn left; the shop is on the right. Open from 10am-7:30pm, closed Sundays.

Hello, Summer (and Italy)

Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia

So this is exciting. This summer I will be studying abroad in Venice, Italy, land of the 20 million tourists. I don’t speak  a word of Italian (YET), but I’m looking forward to learning it. As fast as possible. Also on my to-do list: avoiding tourist rip offs, avoiding tourists (impossible, I know), and pretending I’m not a tourist. (You see, I loathe tourism.)

Anyways, given:

a) my propensity to sometimes neglect this blog (sorry)

b) the fact that Venice is gorgeous and full of history which is often overshadowed by its tourism industry, and

c) that Venice is probably on the eventual travel checklists of most normal individuals (if not — what’s wrong with you?),

I will be blogging about my experience at least once a week, posting photos and hopefully providing some tips on how to see the real Venice, not just the side reserved exclusively for unwitting, non-Italian-speaking Western tourists. (Disclaimer: this is contingent on whether or not I can convince anyone that I’m not a tourist…which is partially untrue, but I am there to study! So it’s, like, different, right?)

See you back here in a week or so. Ciao!

12 Steps to Better iPhoneography

instagram coverI was initially a little resistant to Instagram. (Yes, I’m a photo snob for no reason. Don’t you hate me?) Although it’s a simple app with limited editing options, it’s definitely a fun way to stalk people follow friends or self-proclaimed “iPhoneographers,” who actually take their work quite seriously — it’s amazing what someone can do with an iPhone today. Most of all, it’s convenient.

I thought it would be fun to share a few key I’ve used to produce really cool photos with my phone. Obviously this doesn’t apply so much if you use IG as more of a social app, but it’s always fun to test out what your phone is capable of. And it’s a great way to get creative (and play around with the basics of composition, lighting, depth of field, etc.), especially if you don’t have your own camera.

I’ve rank each part of this post in order from least to most involved/complicated.  I’ve also included some examples throughout (all my Instagrams) to help illustrate!

lighting1. Be conscious of lighting. If your photo is underexposed (dark), it will look grainy once editing. With an overexposed picture, parts of the image will be less clear. You can also play around with lighting to create contrast in your photos. The beauty of having a portable phone camera is you can practice with as many photos as you want! See above for a couple examples.

2. Take photos with your camera, not the IG camera. The quality will be better and you’ll be able to edit your photo on other apps as well (see #10). And make sure to use your camera’s focus by tapping the part of the image you want to highlight before taking a photo.

contrast filter3. Don’t abuse the lighting enhancement feature. This is the button that looks like a half dark, half light sun in your IG editing tools. It doesn’t really up the contrast, but it WILL blow out your picture. See the difference in the images above?

food filters4. Be careful with filters for food! Food is one of the hardest things to photograph (I struggle with it A LOT), regardless of whether you have an iPhone or a Nikon DSLR. Make sure you have lots of bright lighting to capture colors correctly, and choose a filter that doesn’t discolor food (Amaro is usually good). See the above photos — the one on the left is yellow-y and dark, while the one on the right is brightly lit (but not overexposed) and shows colors accurately.

5.  Don’t overuse frames. You can turn this feature on and off using the frame editing button, but in general they only detract from your photo.

cropping6. Crop carefully. IG uses a square format, so keep in mind that you’ll be cropping to those proportions as you’re taking photos on your phone. Pay attention to the way the subject is framed and the way your eye is drawn across the image. You’ll get better at creating good compositions with practice! In the above example, the photo on the left is far too busy and it is difficult to figure out the subject. On the right, positive and negative space are used relatively well, and the focus of the image is clear.

blurring7. Use focus to create depth of field. You can use your camera focus to do this (which is more effective), but you can also fake/enhance depth of field with the blur feature on IG. Just be discriminating with when you use it — if you can see the edges of the blur clearly, you should probably skip it. The image on the right disguises the added focus on the subject’s face, whereas the blur on the right just makes zero sense.

8. Layer filters. Play around with different filter combinations to create your own effect. To do this, start with a filter of your choice, then screenshot the entire image. Editing the screenshot by cropping to the original photo and choosing a new filter to layer on top. You can do this as many times as you want!

9. Use Statigram to view your photos online. Statigram is an Instagram web viewer where you can sign in with your IG login to view your photos, and view and like friends’ photos. You can also enter Instagram contests. It’s ultimately just an easier way to view your pictures if you’re an avid user. They also collect stats for you based on your Instagram usage (ie, number of likes, favorite users, favorite filters, etc).

beautified10. Use external apps to help with the editing process. There are many external apps that you can download to edit your photos before instagramming (or just to use for fun!). A few (free!) apps of note:

  • PhotoGrid — lets you grid multiple photos in one frame (you may see these on Instagram sometimes)
  • PS Express — short for PhotoShop express. Super easy to use, but gives you greater editing features (ie, brightening and contrast) that you won’t find on the IG app.
  • Photosynth — awesome app for taking easy panoramas.
  • Photo wonder — developed to slim features and smooth blemishes, this app also works to smooth out harsh edges and noise in photos with non-human subjects. It definitely can help add the right mood to select images (see photos above).

11. Print your shots with Printstagram. This web app is a great way to share your photos! The prices are super reasonable, with 24-48 prints for $12 or a set of two 50-photo minibooks for $12.

12. Consider using add-on phone lenses to enhance your iPhone’s photo-taking capabilities. Photojojo (an awesome site for photo junkies) has a great selection of these, ranging from $20 to $25 each. They also offer a flash attachment for $30 or a macro lens band for $15. I’m just a little bit obsessed.

Have you tried any of these techniques/apps to edit your iPhone photos? If so, I’d love to know. Happy editing!

In Photographs: Cities of Morocco

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Last summer, as I mentioned in this post, I had the opportunity to study Arabic intensively in Morocco. It was a fantastic experience, and I also had the good fortune of being able to travel and see some of Morocco’s amazing cities. Each has its own character, especially because of Morocco’s unique location at the tip of Africa — in the North, most locals speak Spanish as a second language because of the country’s proximity to Spain (literally — you can see Spain from Tangier), whereas in Rabat (the capital), French is much more common. Tourism is also a huge part of the Moroccan economy, and many of its more popular cities (Casablanca, Fes, Marrakesh, etc.) are centered around this industry, with markets tailored for a Western audience. This means that it’s a bit challenging to get the authentic Moroccan experience (if that’s what you’re seeking), but often if you can bargain effectively with shop owners in Arabic (read: know numbers in Darija) you’ll avoid most of the tourist pricing.

Anyway, I wanted to share some of the photographs from my trip, so I’ve organized them by city here. Missing are Tangier and Marrakesh, because I usually didn’t have my DSLR on me to keep it safe (that camera is my baby, no kidding).

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Rabat is the capital of Morocco and where all of Morocco’s government buildings (including its brand-new parliament) are based. Because French is one of the official languages used in government, most of the upper class in Rabat speak French fluently (convenient for me, because my French is far better than my Arabic). Above is an inscription on a souk wall in Rabat (which I’ve posted before, if it looks familiar). The quote translates, roughly: “but in the remembrance of God does the heart find rest.” (Correct me if I’m wrong…)

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There are cats everywhere in Morocco, especially Rabat. Most of them are strays, but this one belonged to a neighbor in the city. I’m really not a cat person, but this guy’s adorable!

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This was taken on the drive from Casablanca to Rabat. Satellites are very popular in Morocco, and television is a big part of the culture (although its not as bad as it is here in the US).

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The rest of these images are from Dar Al Hadith Al Hassinia Institute, which is a graduate-level Islamic school in Rabat (with a rigorous application process, if I remember correctly). It is pristine and absolutely stunning, inside and out. The architecture is gorgeous — lots of intricately carved wood, colorful tiling, and stained glass. We were able to go on a tour of the school and sit down for a conversation with the director, who served us traditional Moroccan tea.

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Fes (not Fez, which is an incorrect transliteration of the Arabic spelling) was hands-down my favorite city in Morocco. It’s a really popular tourist destination, and it’s claim to fame is that it’s the leather capital of the country. If you bargain effectively enough in the souk, you can purchase a leather jacket for 300-400 dirhams (about 40 USD). You’ll probably get ripped off while you’re here, but Fes definitely has one of the coolest souks in Morocco — not just for shopping. There’s also a lot of history in the city, and it’s home to University al-Karaouine, founded by Fatima al-Fahiri in 859. Many still refer to it as the oldest university in the world.

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The above two photos are from an amazing riad (ree-ahd) we stayed at during our visit to Fes. (A riad is a traditional Moroccan house style — common in Fes and Marrakesh — with an open interior courtyard. This one had rooms looking over into the courtyard as well as a huge rooftop with a full view of the old city.) Stay at Riad Ahlam (“Riad of Dreams,” literally) if you’re ever in Fes; it’s definitely one of the best bookings you’ll ever make.

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Above: the old city of Fes at night.

 

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Meknes is close by Fes, in northern Morocco. We were only there for the afternoon, but again, it’s a tourist city. It’s also home to Bab Mansour, which was at one point the biggest door in Africa (although it’s really not that impressive in person, in my opinion). It’s a cool stop, but definitely not on the top of my list of favorite Moroccan cities. Above and below are images from a huge historic grain store that runs under the city. The lighting come from holes in the ceiling.

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Above: Bab Mansour, supposedly the former biggest door in Africa.

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The above four photographs are from the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail (one of Morocco’s greatest sultans) in Meknes. The interior was beautiful, although we weren’t allowed to see the tomb itself.

 

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Walili/Volubilis is the site of a well-preserved Roman city between Fes and Rabat. Although it is only partially excavated, the city is still huge (although it’s difficult to tell from the above photo) and visitors are free to walk around through the ruins (which feature some amazing architecture, views, and mosaics) without restriction — which is one of the coolest parts about visiting Volubilis, in my opinion. You would never get away with something like that in America. The city, built in the 3rd century BC (!!!), is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 1997. It’s another popular tourist stop, but it’s a stunning historical experience, especially if you’re like me and “old” for you is 200 years back in US history.

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The view from the edge of the agricultural city is spectacular and overlooks a massive rolling plain.

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Chefchaouen is nestled in the Rif Mountains of Morocco and is known for its traditionally blue houses — in fact, most of the city is painted entirely in shades of blue. (It’s also the hashish/cannabis capital of Morocco, but that’s another story.) We stayed at Dar Echchaouen, which I definitely recommend — it’s situated slightly above the main city, so the views are really spectacular, and they had the best showers during my time in Morocco (small detail, but important).

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The mountains around Chefchaouen are also great for hiking. We spent a day hiking nearby, which was exhausting, but we got to cliff dive with some really awesome Moroccans in the mountain’s waterfalls.

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Bottom line: Chefchaouen is a really charming city (sans the drugs) and a photographer’s paradise.

We ended up at a few more cities during my time in Morocco, and I wish I had taken more pictures. Maybe next time I’ll be a little more adventurous with where I take my camera….anyway, hope you enjoyed this post and thanks for reading!

{All images by me. Please contact me for permission before use.}

2012: One Year, Ten Photos

In keeping with the WordPress Daily Post‘s weekly photo challenge, I present to you my 2012 in photos. Originally I wanted to do one for every month but, you see, my life is not exciting enough for that to make an interesting blog post. And since I tend to take photos in bursts at various unpredictable points around the year, it would also be unrealistic. But anyway, here the top ten highlights of my photographic wanderings this year:

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Sheep | Okay, so I technically took this picture on December 31, 2011. Close enough, right? And practically one of the first shots of the new year. This sheep belongs to one of our family friends — they have a beautiful home tucked away in the woods, and lots of animals. I really tried to capture this little guy’s facial expression here.

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Abu Dhabi | If you’ve been following this blog for a decent length of time, you’ll have seen these images — from my January trip to Abu Dhabi — already. (And if you want more, you can view all my photos here and here.) The first is a sunset above the desert, and the second is a image from the exterior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The columns are decorated with gold leaf and precious stones from around the world, and border the entire structure. It is truly breathtaking, and the beauty — of both and mosque and the desert — is just overwhelming.

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Washington, DC | A capture from the White House lawn during the annual White House Garden Tour — it’s a fun experience for the public, although the gardens themselves are not too exciting. The view is spectacular, though, and you can see clear through the Jefferson Memorial if you zoom in enough. It was a bit overcast; sorry about the exposure.

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Morocco | These are just a few of many shots from my trip to Morocco this past summer, where I studied Arabic. It was a fantastic experience and by the end of it I barely felt like a tourist. (It’s especially rewarding when you can bargain in Arabic and avoid tourist pricing in the souks.) The first image is from the city of Meknes, the second is a beautiful riad in Fes, and the third is of Arabic writing on a souk wall — I thought the colors here were especially beautiful. Anyway, I’m planning on doing a big photo and culture post of my trip in the near future, so this is just a small sneak peek!

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Plant | Just a random shot of a plant in our dining room. Not sure why I took this in the first place, but I think it’s really simple and refreshing.

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Christmas Desserts | Just a sampling of all the baking I did for our Christmas dessert party. Clockwise, from upper right: lemon cherry tea cookies, candied orange peels, baklava, and a chocolate orange tart with toasted almonds. All very delicious — the baklava and chocolate tart were especially popular. Hopefully I’ll have some recipes up soon!

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The Puppy | Here’s your daily dose of cute. And proof that I have the cutest golden retriever in the world. He’s actually getting a bit old, but he still thinks he’s a puppy. Or a person — we haven’t really figured that one out.

These images, I think, adequately wrap up much of my 2012 in photography — of course there are many images I didn’t include, but I hope these photos paint a more varied picture. Here’s to a happy 2013 and a another year of photos.