December 30, 2013

2013 as the Instayear: A look back on my year on Instagram

One thing I try to avoid is taking "selfies",
though when I do I try to have fun with it.
This is the year of Instagram! In September this humble social media platform passed Twitter (the previous social media phenom) for having more daily active users on mobiles. Selfie —“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”— was dubbed the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 Word of the Year. And Instagram has given birth to, or at least accelerated all kinds of bizarre social behaviors, such as “Simon Says” styled self-photographing: #fromwhereIstand, #lookup, #followmetoI can feel my attention-span getting shorter... Everyone is doing it, even President Obama!

What can I say? In this respect I’m no different from anyone else. Looking back, 2013 was the year I got hooked on Instagram, too. (Go ahead! Check out my account.) So I thought I would do a wrap-up blog entry about it, recapping the year as seen through my Instagram posts. Below I share some visuals on recurrent themes of my posts, feature some posts from each month throughout the year, and, finally, end with the Top Ten Posts of 2013. Along the way I'll share a few tips of what I think helped improve my photos, though I'm n expert and welcome your thoughts and experiences in comments below. (Certainly, a glance at this page's list of top filters, tags, and Instagramers will depress help you.)

It's worth a look, especially if you're hooked on Instagram.

Some significant technical clarifications: I got a new cell phone in August, greatly improving the quality of pics I take with it on-the-go. And many of the pictures I take with my Nikon J1 fancy-cam, and then transfer to the mobile for uploading.
Digression: It’s funny how everyone has their own ad-hoc rules and opinions about what’s “natural” for posting on Instagram… pictures taken _only_ with the mobile, or _only_ _in the moment_… or, more polemical, pictures that are _only mine_. Since I don’t want to waste money on data plans, I usually try to aim to post pictures the same day, upon getting wifi access. Or, if posted later, I aim to make them relevant to the moment when I am posting. Otherwise I put the #latergram tag on them.
Valenciagram's photo of the Instawalkers
in front of the North Station on Nov. 11th
As with all of these social media experiments, part of the interest in it for me has been discovering new communities and new modes of social interaction. On April 6th, and then again on November 11th, I joined the Valencia Instawalks organized by Valenciagram. (There's another Instameet this Saturday January 4th in Benimaclet, this time organized by Igersvalencia.) The people I met were great, and have been wonderful, active followers on Instagram (and also useful guides for me in finding photographic inspirations). If I had any complaints, it’s that many of them don’t see past my photos. That is, I continue to be amazed with how rare it is for them to actually go from my Instagram account to my blog… many didn’t even know I had a blog! (So Instagram has limited value if your goal is to get people to visit your blog, since there is no easy linkback feature on captions and comments.)

April 6th Instawalk, a view of the participants taken from the Torres de Serranos

The Mercado de Colón, one of many stops on the November 9th Instawalk

I’ve gone through my pictures to see what were the most popular, and what themes the most common. I had to adjust for one major shift on my account: my year on Instagram was marked by a dramatic growth in followers, from less than 100 followers at the start of the year to over 550 by the end. Needless to say, this skewed the popularity of new posts over old ones. For that reason I thought I would first share with you a portfolio of my instapics before delivering the most popular ten...


It would be no surprise that Valencia features prominently in my Instagram pictures. It's where I live, it's a beautiful city, and, aw heck, I'm totally smitten. Blogging about it already incentivized going out and seeing the city, but Instagram has added a visual element to that obsession motivation. Perhaps the coolest thing about posting daily pictures of what I'm about in the city is how it creates a visual documentation over time, changes in seasons, weather, and so forth.

One of the more interesting Instagram experiments I did was to photograph Valencia's
Viveros park rose garden from the same angle at one month intervals.
The results was you could see the advance of the seasons, up to the blossom in May

It is fun to see the marking of seasonal changes as you look back over your year of photos.
Valencia in the rain, roses blooming, fall colors, oranges on the trees...

But in addition to the hometown, there are some other themes that pop up repeatedly throughout the year, and are worth a bit of explanation...

• Running

Aside from Instagramming, 2013 for me will be the year of running. One of my personal motivation techniques for running was to post a picture after each run, which is why the Rio Turia and Viviros parks feature so prominently on my feed. Social media is all about naval-gazing sharing your lifestyle with others, right?

My main running accomplishments in 2013 were: 1) running the full 16KM loop of the
Rio Turia park in May, 2) running a half-marathon in October, and... well, running more times
in a year than I've ever run before. Thus, the pics of all the running bling.

• Travel

Instagram of Plaza Mayor in Salamanca.
My other big lifestyle tendency is to travel, which also dominates my Instagram feed from time to time. There were short trips to Sevilla, Istanbul, Sierra de Francia, and the Spanish Pyrenees, and two month-long trips: Vienna (and Salzburg) in June and the #USARoadTrip2013 driving down the west coast in early Fall. No real surprise that iconic landmarks get lots of likes. (People don’t get tired of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge or Eiffel Tower… as if liking it is a way to say, “I’ve been there!”) Some my most popular Valencia pics are of that most iconic of Valencia sights, the City of Arts and Sciences. Still, it is nice to know that a breathtaking view can also win you Likes (for example, hikes in the Redwood Forests), since I’m a nature lover. As a personal rule, I always try to take pictures of the less obvious charms of a place, or its quirky attractions. But it’s a poor rule for getting votes.

Some of the most popular pics from my June in Vienna: the steps of the Albertina,
puddle reflection of the Riesenrad, and the facade of one of Otto Wagner's buildings.

The most popular pictures from the West Coast road trip I did in September and October:
Crater Lake, the Chandelier Drive-Thru tree, and sunset on Pfeiffer Beach.

• Street art

In the beginning, Valencia street art was the subject for which I garnered the most likes on Instagram, and also the most valuable responses… other street art enthusiasts would comment to identify who were the artists I posted, and where else I could find their works. Instagram is a boon to street art enthusiasm. The “Insta” in Instagram celebrates the ephemeral, and street art is the height of ephemeral art. (One personal tip: in my opinion the “Lo-Fi” filter is best for street art and any other cartoon-like images. It helps bring out the contrast in lines and colors.)

A composite of a small number of the many, many Instagrams I took this year.

• "Cloudporn"

Talking about ephemeral, there are also all those cloud posts. The hashtag, #Cloudporn, for purdy cloud pictures, can turn you into a bit of an idiot… staring up at the sky snapping photos as you're rushing from one place to another. But it has the merit of being one of the most egalitarian subjects. Anyone can find a pretty cloud to photograph. Some tricks I’ve picked up while taking cloudporn pics: 1) backlit clouds make for very resplendent images, 2) everyone loves a good, fortiutous contrail shot (the cloud stream left by a plane), and 3) people are suckers for palm trees outlining your shot (nothing says paradise quite like a palm tree).

Me with my head in the clouds.

• Cats

I’m not as crazy a cat picture poster as some people, but I do love cats. I have a cat, I foster kittens (PEOPLE, PLEASE ADOPT!), and I see cats all the time in the Rio Turia and Vivero parks. If I see a good cat picture, I’m gonna take it, and some of those pictures show up on my Instagram account. They’re sure to get a fair number of Likes, though very few of them ever get a huge number. The exception was this picture, taken in the Rio Turia Riverbed park around sunset. I think the yellow hue (not a filter!) and the serene look of the cat, instantly won people over.

• Food & Coffee

And then there were all those Sunday paella posts. You guys never got tired of those. (Neither did I!) Yep, I'm guilty of posting pictures of my food. I had a friend who didn't know about this blog, who was making fun of people who take pictures of their food to share on social media. I didn't have the courage to fess up to it. The shame! But I make no apologies. It all tasted better than it looked. (Food photo tip: make sure to photograph food where the main light is to the side of the food, to cast a shadow that is appetizing; and if the light is too low to get the food in focus, you should probably just not post that pic, no matter how good the food tasted.)

I try to justify my food picture posting in the name of sharing culture...
but who am I kidding? It all just looks so delicious!!!

And COFFEE would probably come in a close third for central themes of 2013. Turkish coffee, Viennese coffee, third-wave Portland coffee. This blog post was powered by coffee!

For some reason, people who can give you a lot of flack about posting food pictures
are perfectly happy with you posting coffee pictures. Huh, funny that.


Here are the pictures with the highest number of likes for each month, minus those selected for the top ten list (see below). I’m doing this because I noticed that there was a major shift in my quantity of Likes for photos from June onwards due to the higher number of followers I had. Before July, getting anything over 30 Likes was a miracle. By this fall it was common for many of my posts to get that, and the better photos to get twice that.

So this gives you a sample of the kinds of photos people have liked throughout the year…

- - - January - - -

- - - February - - -

- - - March - - -

- - - April - - -

- - - May - - -

- - - June - - -

- - - July - - -

- - - August - - -

- - - September - - -

- - - October - - -

- - - November - - -

- - - December - - -


These are the top ten pictures on my Instagram account for 2013, in reverse order. As you can see, half of them were taken almost within a week of each other in mid November, which either means that month I was an amazing photographer or, more likely, that there are some trends or outside factors that determine a photo’s popularity… a mystery to be solved in 2014…

... and the winner is... 

A nice way to end the year, no? I imagine that in twenty years some street artist will be painting a mural using Instagram as an emblem of the past, a retro platform, an old acquaintance long forgot. What have I learned from all this? Mostly it has just been very entertaining, though it has expanded my virtual social network some. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of it, in a less superficial dimension, is that it has increased my interest in photography. After posting around a 1000 photos to Instagram this year, Santa Claus very wisely thought to bring me gifts relating to photography (a new lens!) and books to help me in my quest to discover new photographic subjects relating to my expat immigrant fascination with discovering Spain.

Still, one can get a little carried away with it. Likely New Year’s Resolution for 2014: aim to improve quality over quantity of Instagram posts!

Got these gifts for Christmas and what did I do, Instagrammed it!

December 14, 2013

Pueblos con encanto: La Alberca and the Sierra de Francia

Sun setting on Miranda del Castañar and the Sierra de Francia
Last weekend I took a road trip to Salamanca, my first time there! Rather than write about that, which I imagine dozens of bloggers and travel guides have already done to death, I thought I would write about the other part of that trip: a visit to the beautiful, and less-well-known Sierra de Francia south of Salamanca. Most visitors to Spain, particularly to Madrid, often manage to see the many impressive mid-sized cities of interior Spain... Ávila, Salamanca, Toledo, Segovia... etc. But once again I want to make a plug for seeing Spain's rural, off-the-beaten-path sights. Which is why I'm revisiting my series, "Pueblos con encanto", with this photo recollection of my visit to La Alberca, a hike through the surrounding Sierra, and my jamón fest in the other must-see pueblo of the Sierra, Miranda del Castañar.

Some of the many "Lugares de Interés Turístico" listed on a sign at a
pit stop on the AP-6 between Ávila and Madrid. I've been to three of these
(Ávila, Salamanca, and Segovia), and seen a fourth from the highway.
What about you?

• Autumn in the Sierra de Francia

There are many hiking trails that you can do in the Sierra de Francia. Unfortunately we only had time to do one: La Alberca-Herguijuela, a 3-hour (one-way) trail that connects La Alberca with another, even smaller town Herguijuela de la Sierra. The trail is rated medium difficulty (although it's pretty easy if you skip the final section, a steep descent to Herguijuela that I imagine might tire you out going up it). This is not the most famous trail in the region, which would probably go to the Peña de Francia Trail that leads up to the tallest peak in the region, and which is rated as very difficult, though you can cheat and simply drive up to the top. (Next time!) Still, any hiking in the Sierra de Francia is going to be pretty darn pleasant, especially if you are as fortunate as we were to do it in the Autumn, when fall colors were setting in.

The yellow-white mark of the "P.R.", pequeño recorrido, trails.

And a river runs through it... always fun to see streams crossing the trail

This was about the steepest ascent we had to deal with

You can see the leaves of the Chestnut, Oak, and Pine trees changing colors at different stages, and the trail is covered in fallen leaves, giving it extra charm...

... and you'll find frost on the ground along the turns in the trail where the sun don't shine (a.k.a. "la umbría")!

And like all good trails, eventually you come out to some very nice overlooks, great panoramic views of the Sierra...

That haze or smoke you can see over the valley is from wood-burning fires.
The entire valley, all the towns we visited, smelled of the fireplaces warming houses.

• La Alberca, a foodie's paradise

The Peña de Francia, which
you can see from La Alberca
After our hike we walked around La Alberca, an incredibly quaint and photogenic small town in the Sierra. You'll notice the white-with-wood-stripes architecture typical in this Sierra, which make the main plaza particularly pretty. (I must have taken dozens of photos of it, trying to figure out the right angle of light, since the shadows were difficult at certain times of the day.)

I wouldn't say the town is a secret in the region, since there were large groups of local tourists visiting it on the puente holiday weekend. But it's not so well-known outside of the region, despite its clear beauty and tourist appeal... not to mention the food!

The main square in La Alberca

La Alberca's main square, seen from another angle

The house on the right is an example of the typical architectural style of the pueblos of the region.

Smile for the picture!

Awesome brick-walled path leading from the town center out to the edges of town.

I've written in earlier "Pueblos con encanto" entries that the perfect formula for enjoying these day trips to towns is to hike early in the morning and then save time to visit the town shops for local foods and to eat a hearty meal in the homey, traditional restaurants that always populate these places. Needless to say, that's precisely what we did. We booked a lunch at a recommended restaurant, La Cantina de Elías. After our hike, we were ready for the meat-heavy fare typical of the region.

At the end of the Main Street, at the edge of town, are these old arches and, behind them,
the restaurant, La Cantina de Elías, where you can get some excellent,
homey traditional local food.

I order sopa de ajo every time I'm in a Castilian region, a specialty there.
(Note the beers in the background... they always taste so good after a hike!)

Chuletón! This is one Texan who is always desperate for the steaks in Castilla y León,
in my opinion one of the few regions in Spain where they know how to prepare beef.
This chuletón was made with ternera morucha, a local breed of cow from this region.

After lunch, despite being totally stuffed, we could not resist stopping at half a dozen shops in La Alberca and buying local food products... beans, a specialty of the region, but also sweets and pastries from a highly rated, nationally renowned bakery...

We didn't know about it in advance, but we recognize a good bakery when we see it.
Small towns in Spain are famous for their bakeries, but this bakery in La Alberca was another level!

"Estos jarrones de turrón han salido en el telediario de la primera el día de nochebuena del 2010."
Why take my word for it? If it's good enough to get national news coverage on Christmas Eve,
then it must be good, right?

In addition to the usual suspects, you can find a variety of
local bean varieties in the Sierra de Francia.

Jamón epilogue in Miranda del Castañar

We stayed overnight in the pueblo Miranda del Castañar, which is noteworthy for its castle and its history as an important center for the Spanish Inquisition. (Don't worry! That was many, many years ago.) While not as pretty as La Alberca, it has just as much to see and do. In our case, the highlight of our stay here turned out to be jamón! The Sierra de Francia is in the heart of Spain's jamón iberico de bellota country. (Please feel free to review my blog entry on it here.) On our drive from Salamanca to Miranda, I was floored when I realized that there were pata negra pigs roaming around the fields of acorn-bearing oak trees adjacent to the country road we were on. It was like right out of a jamón advertisement. (My wife must have wondered if the squeal she heard was from me or the pigs.) The Sierra de Francia is extremely dry, which is why it is a major center for producing the famed Spanish ham, and in particular the high-end variety from pigs that feed on acorns.

One of the coolest things in Miranda del Castañar is this point
on the main street where two opposite houses nearly touch. I can
just picture the owners passing each other the salt.

The town walls, after the castle, are what the guides sell up the most for this town.
There is a shop adjacent to them where you can hear about an old bodega,
which used to run the wine through the walls pouring it out here onto the street for buyers.

Apiarian tools right next to the town walls... Yes, there
is a lot of local honey to be found at the markets here.

The castle during the day.

On our first night we went to a great bar with great atmosphere, La Mandrágora, and ate tostas featuring different high-quality cuts of ham. (I confess, we violated our usual rule of trying different restaurants, and returned there the next night for more.)

From the traditional, quaint exterior, you'd never imagine that La Mandrágora
would have such a hip, modern atmosphere inside.

Mmm... tostas de lomo. This was the nicest quality lomo I had ever had.

While talking to the owner of La Mandrágora, we asked where we could buy some good jamón at a reasonable price, thinking she'd direct us to one of the shops in Miranda del Castañar. Instead, she replied, "You should just go directly to the jamón factory here in town where I get it." She gave us directions (it's not a big town) and told us to tell him that she sent us. We thought, "What a bargain! We'll get it from the source. No middleman!"

But it was even better than that. This is small-town Spain, in an under appreciated tourist area, where people are friendly and proud. (Moreover, as an American, I'm a curiosity in such places, since we're not common there.) So when we struck up a conversation with the jamón factory owner, Jamón Benito Pérez (if you're curious), about differences between food in Spain and the U.S. (e.g. he laughed when we told him that tapas bars in the U.S. are a fancy affair), he invited us down into the cellars where they age the ham and produce the different cuts. Next thing you know, we're getting a free tour and lessons in how jamón is produced!

This is where they cut it up, grind it, and process it.

Salt. Lots of it.

This is only one corner of only one room on only one floor out of four floors full of
hanging jamones! For the best jamones it will take them 3-4 years of hanging here in
the dry Sierra climate to age to perfection.

So our brief weekend in the Sierra de Francia was delicious, and fun, and relaxing. I encourage you to add it to your list of destinations for the next time you're in central Spain. You won't be disappointed. And for the moment, it's still a hidden gem!

One of many spectacular sunsets during our stay in the Sierra de Francia

Another sunset seen from just outside the town walls of Miranda del Castañar

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