My time in Switzerland came to an end at the cosmopolitan city of Geneva. Had the weather cooperated a bit more, this would have been a great finale to a most wonderful journey to what has become one of my favorite countries in the world. And while it does take more than three days (and hopefully, sunny days) to visit this wonderful city, its compact city centre and incredible transportation system are a great help in getting the most out of a limited visit, even in the non-stop rain. Walking, however, is perhaps the most rewarding activity for visitors. Venture out along the ritzy Quai du Mont-Blanc from the Pont du Mont-Blanc, with its magnificent hotels catering to a high-flying clientele, and then head on back via the more down-to-earth Rue Philippe-Plantamour (also home to some very good restaurants). Cross the metallic Ponte de la Machine and spend some of those Swiss Francs along the shopping heaven that is the Rue du Marché (it changes names various times as it goes along). And when you’ve had enough of people and crowds, get lost in old town and find one of those small cafés that hide along one of the many narrow, cobblestone streets. Your feet may get tired, but you will hardly notice. What you will surely notice, though, is that the time you’ve got in this incredible city will never be enough. Befitting one of the most international cities in the world, there are a myriad of incredible museums, sights, and restaurants that will require more than a single visit to even scratch the surface of this city. But don’t despair, because the good news is that no one will ever need a reason to visit Switzerland. Great food, great people, and some of the most incredible scenery you will ever see in a lifetime. Good enough for me, and I can’t wait to go back.
A short bus ride from Locarno (Bus #1) along the shores of Lago Maggiore sits the sleepy town of Ascona, Switzerland–a lakeshore town for which there are simply not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it. A major tourist destination during the warm summer months, it dramatically slows down the moment the days begin to shorten and the wet, cool days of fall begin to appear before the winter snow. Depending on your climatic preferences, this may be a good or a bad thing, but for this tired traveler, fall is the perfect time to wander along the Alpine wonderlands like Ascona. Empty cobblestone streets, incredible restaurants tugged away along the winding, narrow streets, and friendly locals not worn out by the endless masses of tourists from the summer months. It is the slow life at its best, and it feeds something in us that never gets much attention during our busy, everyday lives.
For most people like me, places like Ascona are the stuff we generally view through movies or old postcards. They are indeed “the road less traveled,” too detached from our daily lives, too remote, and somewhat off the front pages of most travel guides. Mention Tuscany to anyone and you will sure get a smile and the usual “I’d love to go there.” Mention Ascona (or Locarno for that matter) and most likely what you’ll get is a “where’s that?” type of response. Can’t blame anyone for not being familiar with the place, for after a nearly six-hour train from Geneva followed by a 20-minute bus ride from Locarno, I can fully understand why this place is not on people’s everyday radar. It certainly was not in mine, but once I discovered, I couldn’t help but think that I should have placed places like this much higher in my to-do travel list. With a local population of just over 5,000 people (2008 figures), this Locarno municipality is not the kind of place you would visit if late-night revelry is your kind of thing. But if you are a writer, or a creative artist, then this is certainly the place for you, specially during the off-summer months. It is a place for leisure walks and self-renewal, in town or beyond its borders in the Centrovalli (100 valleys) area. But one word of warning: once you’ve visited Ascona, you will never be the same. The mere thought that places like this actually exist in this world at all is enough to take your wanderlust to a new, stratospheric level. And no matter how much time it takes to get to this quiet, romantic shore, it will definitely be worth every tired, aching step on anyone’s journey.
Nearly ten years ago I had the pleasure of driving near Locarno, Switzerland on my way to Lucerne, it’s more popular neighbor to the north. At the time I remember being so fascinated with the landscape that I promised myself that one day I would return to visit Locarno and its surrounding areas. Well, here I am, and to say that Locarno has lived up to my expectations would be a gross understatement. The postcard beauty of this small town by Lago Maggiore is only exceeded by the friendliness of its people. And while I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of the description of the Ticino area as one having “Italian culture with Swiss efficiency,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is indeed the case.
Four great sights seem to be at the heart of this great Swiss region. For starters, there is the imposing Lago Maggiore, which appears to be suspended in air while blessed with clear Alpine waters. Then there is the center of Locarno, the curved Piazza Grande, lined by the old town to its north. Further up the mountain is the famous Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, with its imposing views of Lago Maggiore, the city of Locarno, and the snow-capped Alps around the lake. And last, but not least, there are the Alps themselves, ruggedly imposing and with snow tops reminding you of that idyllic world we all experienced only in postcards. It is all the kind of visual wonderland that only existed in our imaginations. Perhaps too much to take in during just one visit, but it all leaves you with the unmistakable feeling that whatever magic the place is playing on you, there is no doubt that you want more of it in your life, and lots of it. I know that the moment I watch Locarno from my train window receding in the horizon, the same feeling which consumed me so many years ago will immediately return. I will have to come back someday, but this time it will not be out of curiosity. Rather, it will be out of an incredible sense of wonderment.
Once again, and after a few years, I find myself in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, and unlike the last time I had the good fortune to visit this wonderful city by Lake Geneva, this visit was a short one. In fact, it lasted barely 24 hours, and while admitedly too brief, it was nevertheless enough to remind me of why I fell in love with this place during my first visit. Perhaps it was the much slower pace than I’m used to, or the contagious courtesy of the Swiss people, or perhaps it was the natural beauty of an old, hilly city dotted with twisting cobblestone streets that captivated me. Not sure. But one thing I do know for sure: Lausanne is a hidden gem hidden from most people’s travel radar, and that is a pity.
The city impresses the moment you set foot on it. Walk up from the train station via the curvy Rue du Petit-Gêne and you will begin to see boutique hotels and quaint restaurants that you are sure to visit during your stay. Reach the higher elevation Rue du Grand-Gêne and (after you have a chance to catch your breath), you’ll be right next to the majestic Lausanne Palace Hotel and the imposing Place Saint-François. Walk down to the Rue Centrale to find some of the best cafes and pastry shops in the city before getting lost in the old town. This was pretty much all I had time for during my 24-hour visit while in transit to Locarno at the tip of Lago Maggiore. Overlooking the tiered vineyards of the Valais from the train on the way out of the city, I found myself wishing for more time in Lausanne and wondering whether Locarno would be just as enchanting for this wondering photographer. I was soon to find out that the answer was a resounding yes, but that is a story for a later day.
I’m always fascinated by bookstores. Never mind that long ago I made the transition to e-readers, though, because no matter this surrender to the modern era, I still can’t resist the lingering nostalgia that comes from having been part of the pre-Internet generation. Not that my memory of simpler times leads to any sale during my visits (carrying a camera all day seems enough for me these days), but rather that in the process of transitioning to the digital age, all sorts of things were admittedly lost in the process. The physical sensation that comes from walking between rows and rows of books, the orderly lack of uniformity and topics on the shelves, and the childish satisfaction that accompanied the process of purchasing a book. All great things, but perhaps more relevant to an era when physical access to a whole slew of bookstores was more the norm rather than an exception. Notwithstanding this reality, bookstores out there are not giving up without a fight and seem to have figured something out by concentrating in neighborhoods that do away with the need for anyone to get into a car to reach them. This is good news. But is this a last stand or the wave of the future? Hard to say. What I know is that bookstores are still out there, and that just in case, we must all enjoy them while we can.
Here’s one place that most likely very few of you (if any) has ever visited: the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t blame you, though, because admittedly, I recently discovered the place myself. Well, discovered in the sense that someone else led me there during this year’s Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk (read rainy, cold day). Not having had much time that day to photograph the place, I decided that I would come back to this somewhat isolated spot along the Potomac River when I didn’t have to fight a multitude of photographers for position, or the weather for that matter. But once I set out to find the place, I began to realize why the lighthouse is somewhat of a desolate, albeit beautiful, place. The lighthouse is just not easy to find, let alone bump into, even when millions of people drive by it everyday as they cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Virginia to Maryland. Getting there, though, is half the fun, specially during the fall season when the park seems to be celebrating a festival of colors, with reds, orange, and yellow leaves shinning bright against the deep blue sky of autumn. Considering that downtown Washington, DC lies only a few miles away, you would think that the Jones Point park and lighthouse would be on people’s radars when visiting the area, but the opposite seems to be true. Quiet, isolated, and only reachable by foot, it sits majestically and alone by the water’s edge, with its occasional visitors enjoying the zen-like experience the place seems to induce.
As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
Like so many other visitors to Hong Kong, I was fascinated by this complex metropolis. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is a sea of constant activity and a dynamic vibe that would make lots of major cities in America look like they are on life support. And while I do intend to post a little more about this former British territory soon, I couldn’t help but start my Hong Kong posts with the most famous event taking place there during my recent visit. Of course, this was not all that was happening in Hong Kong during this past week, but rather that if you read anything about the place recently, most likely it had something to do with the pro-Democracy demonstrations taking place at various places in the city.
It didn’t take long for the press to dub these youth-driven demonstrations “The Umbrella Revolution.” The simple umbrella, which initially served to shield the protestors from the barrage of pepper spray that descended on them on 28 September, rapidly became the symbol of resistance against mainland China’s decision to require any candidate for the top post in the city during the upcoming 2016 elections to receive pre-approval from Beijing before qualifying to run for office. To say that the young people in Hong Kong disagreed with this mandate would be a gross understatement. To the streets they went, specially to the part of Central Hong Kong known as Admiralty, where the main government offices are located right along Victoria Harbor. Having booked a hotel nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check the demonstration out, praying all along that my visit would not coincide with the next pepper spray festival downtown. What did I find when I got there? For starters, some of the best behaved and friendly demonstrators I’ve seen anywhere. There were teams organized to pick up garbage around the clock, for water and food distribution, and for communication. People constantly approached me to see if I understood why they were out there and to make sure I fully grasped the seriousness of their concerns. A generation that was mostly born after the British ended their authority over the islands wanted the world to listen to their defense of freedom and democracy–two words that are growingly taken for granted by so many, but which still fuel the dreams and aspirations of countless others around the world today. And did they mind being photographed while protesting? Not at all. Their only concern appeared to be that the world would ignore their plight, but judging by what I have seen in the press over the last week or so, their story has received quite a lot of attention all over the world. Whether their demands will ever amount to anything is perhaps a more challenging question. I guess we will have to wait and see.
What can you say about the yearly H Street Festival downtown Washington, DC. Have I mentioned before that this is by far my favorite street festival in the area? Well, it is, and every year I go back to take some pictures and to enjoy the music, the incredible restaurants, and above all, the laid-back party atmosphere at the place. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that way, as judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, this must be one of the best attended festival in DC. Not served by a metro station and somewhat out-of-the-way from the tourist areas in the city, H Street is one of those places that you reach by either intentionally walking there for a reason (and there are many reasons to visit) or simply by getting lost. But no one has problems finding the place in September, when masses of revelers and artists descend on the neighborhood for a cultural festival like no other in this town of buttoned-up politicians. Boasting some of the best ethnic restaurants in town, H Street more than makes up for its otherwise glamorous-challenged existence by becoming party central for a day. That the festival happens to coincide with the start of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich is even better, because just like in that great German festival, the folks at H Street never run out of beer either.
Architectural photography is not something I practice with any degree of regularity. In fact, I generally try to avoid it if I can, as the genre is really more difficult than it looks. On rare occasions, though, I dabble a little in it more out of sheer curiosity than anything else. This is specially the case during scorchingly hot days, when people avoid venturing outside and nothing much is happening on the street. A few days ago, this was exactly the case. In order to avoid the heat, , I headed out to find some good structures inside the many national museums in DC to photograph (get it, air-conditioned museums). After visiting a few of them, my mind kept wandering back to the first time I visited the somewhat out-of-the-way National Building Museum, and before I knew it, my feet started moving in the direction of Judiciary Square where the museum unassumingly sits.
Not sure what it is about this place that attracts me so much (aside from the obvious architectural beauty of the place). Compared to the traffic you see in other DC museums, this place is a ghost town. Sure, in most normal days people kind of trickle in and kind of meander along its Great Hall, straining their necks to look up to its long, arched hallways and imposing, marbled columns in the center of the hall. But most of the time the place is also a gem of a quiet space in the midst of a busy metropolis. This silence is no doubt accentuated by the scale of the place, which dwarfs anyone who enters its carpeted Great Hall. I can’t help but think that this grandiose scale is some sort of reminder that human creation is vastly more grandiose than the individual humans themselves. Can’t quite put my photographic thumb on it, but for whatever reason, I keep coming back. Hallucinations from the scorching heat or elevation of the human spirit when witnessing such incredible human creations? I would much rather think it’s the latter, air-conditioner or not.
Ever been to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market? Well, if you haven’t, then I would suggest that you add this place to your bucket list, and do it soon. But before you visit this food paradise at the “City of Brotherly Love,” there are a few things that you must get out of the way, or come to terms with, to be more precise. For starters you must convince yourself that all food products in the world were meant to be eaten. Then you tell yourself that dieting is a bad thing, but unchecked consumption is a virtue. Follow that with some brainwashing on the benefits copious amounts of pork, beef, and Provolone cheese to your health, and then you will be mentally ready to tackle this heaven of culinary extravagance. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of lighter, salad stuff at the place, but this is Philly we’re talking about, and that to me means only one thing: go big, or go home. Dinic’s over-the-top pork sandwich? Must you ask. A few Amish filled doughnuts dripping with glaze? Why not. A block of Peach corn bread? Can I get an Amen! So as you can see, overindulgence will be the least of your problems at the Reading Market. Your greatest problem will be resisting the temptation to camp overnight so you can be the first in line the next morning. It is that good of a place and one that I’m sure I will be visiting many times in the future, but only after I’ve given my body a rest.
Don’t know about you, but for me, Philadelphia has to be one of the most incredible cities in America. And while the city has a somewhat “working class” reputation with outsiders, once you get to discover it in some detail, you’ll come to realize that the city is better described as eclectic and culturally complex. Sort of like where the rough seas meet the quiet shore kind of place. World class museums and cultural sites sit only a few blocks away from down-to-earth wonders like the Reading Terminal Market. Hang around the popular JFK Square for a few hours and you’ll get to see people from just about every level of society. Wedding parties having their picture taken under the famous “LOVE” structure at JFK Square muscle endless amounts of tourists for their ten-minute spot in front of the cameras. Walk farther afield down Walnut St. to Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square Park and you will be rewarded with some of the neatest urban spots of any city anywhere. Add to this the fact that people actually live and interact all over the urban landscape, and you will get one of the best places for people watching and street photography on the East Coast. Philly is definitely not your sleepy, little town where watching grass grow has been elevated to an art form. The city is definitely alive with activity, and no matter your disposition when you get there, you won’t be able to resist becoming alive along with it.
Not sure whether it was nostalgia or mere curiosity, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to go and photograph the old Florida Avenue Market (or Union Market, as it is commonly known today) one last time before it disappears forever. No wrecking crews there yet, but there is no doubt that major developers in the area are already salivating at the mouth about the money they will make when this part of Washington, DC is finally brought to the 21st Century, so to speak. Not that progress in of itself is a bad thing, mind you, but rather that it is not clear at this point how much of the old market’s character is to be retained and how much of the new development will make the area undistinguishable from so many other developments in the area. In talking to one of the displaced butchers yesterday, it was obvious that he was lamenting the magnitude of change in the area and the upscale transformation of the market. I can’t help but share some of his sentiments, as I was kind of fond of visiting the cavernous warehouse businesses where all sorts of products from Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia were on sale by immigrants with heavy accents, but whose rhythmic sale chants were exotic melodies to my ears. A bit rough, a bit chaotic, but a place like no other in the area. As it disappears in the name of progress and modernism, I can only wonder whether I’ll ever hear again those imagination-inducing, linguistic melodies that so easily transported me to those far-away markets around the world. I’m afraid progress has its very unique way of dealing with those voices.
Going over my photographs from recent trips to Europe, I came to the realization that I had spent a lot of pixels photographing bicycles. In fact, it became clear that I was working the scenes with the meticulous care of a photojournalist photographing a major sports event. But why? Why bicycles of all things? Maybe it has something to do with nostalgia, or memories of growing up, or perhaps a simple fascination with the fact that an old technology remains alive and well to this day. Not sure what the case is, but the seeming compulsion to photograph these two-wheeled marvels is alive and well in my photographic psychic, and judging from what I see in places like Flickr, I don’t seem to be alone. Perhaps it has to do with the setting, as the older character of some European cities make for the perfect travel photography backdrop. All I know is that if I were a novelist, there is no doubt that one of these photos of lonely bikes on desolate cobblestone streets would be the subject of the opening scene in one of my novels. How’s that for imagination?
I’ve written about the Ricoh GR before, but the little wonder just never ceases to amaze me. This “backup camera” is simply one of those technological feats that when paired with its natural street photography habitat, could easily challenge any DSLR out there. Not that it will necessarily give you any more dynamic range or sharpness, but rather that when you consider what the little rocket brings to the table, its shortcomings are easy to forget. You see, when you are out and about trying to record everyday life and scenes on the street, the GR is almost unparalleled in its ability to silently move in, snap that photograph, and capture that scene. Quick, silent, and covering enough photographic real estate to make sure nothing is left out of that picture. With its snap mode and ability to quickly compensate for available light, this little camera and its large APS-C sensor will be about as close to ideal as you’ll ever get in the street photography arena. Perfect? Nope. But when I leave my Leica M240 at home for the day to hang out with the Ricoh GR, that’s telling you something. Will it replace the incredible Leica out on the street? Absolutely not, but it will surely be in my pocket when every time I venture out to capture bigger photographic game.