Lucerne, Switzerland

Is it possible that an entire nation could feel like a big health spa?  You bet it is, and Switzerland may just be such a nation.  Just about everywhere you go in this relatively small piece of heaven in the middle of the European Alps, you will soon notice your stress level disappearing faster than the Euros in your pocket.  Small, mountainous, and postcard-perfect, the entire country feels like this is the place to take it easy and enjoy the bounties of modern Europe.  That is, if you are not hiking with a rucksack at nosebleed elevations in the mountains.  But even at those high altitudes, the country is a feast for the eyes.

However, if there is one city in Switzerland that epitomizes the laid-back culture of the place, this city must be Lucerne.  The city lies at the northern shore of the magnificent Lake Lucerne and is reachable by a combination of highways and narrow alpine roads with some of the greatest views that you’ll ever see anywhere in Europe.  Once in the city you will be somewhat surprised by the fact that drivers actually stop at intersections to allow people to merrily cross the street, which admittedly is not a common site for white-knuckled drivers from Washington, DC.  Once you’ve gotten over the shock of excessive civility, the real joy in this city comes from walking its narrow side streets and taking the views from the flower-lined Kapellbrucke (photo above) on your way to the restaurants on Rathausquai.  In fact, the food in Lucerne is quite good, with its infusion of French, Germanic, and Italian influences.   Perhaps that is why after a few days in this small corner of the world, it is just as hard to leave as it was getting there in the first place.

La Morra, Italy

Perched on top of a majestic hill near the town of Barolo in the province of Cuneo lies the Nebbiolo-blessed town of La Morra.  It is a small town that usually plays second fiddle to its more popular neighbor Barolo, which is the name of the region’s premier wine.  However, if when driving to the town of Barolo you don’t take the sudden turn from Via Corsia into Via San Pietro, you  would miss one of the great jewels in one of the greatest wine regions of the world.  Unlike most visitors to touristy Tuscany, travelers to this rolling hills region of Italy are primarily in search of two things: great food and great wine.  And the place delivers, because the hills bordering La Morra and the town of Barolo are indeed home to “the nectar of the Gods.” Endless, tiered roads of vines full of Nebbiolo grapes will bring tears to any oenophile’s eyes.

But it is the quaint, sleepy nature of La Morra that seems to eventually get your attention.  Walking down its somewhat deserted, cobblestone streets, it is impossible not to feel time literally slowing down.  In fact, during those post-noon hours when all of Europe seems to take a break, the empty town streets seemed as if out of a movie where everyone had escaped from town just in time.  Only the high-pitched voices of children going home from school for lunch seemed to break the self-imposed silence.  The whole scene was obviously result of a well-choreographed dance which had undoubtedly taken place for longer than anyone cared to remember.  The world needs places like this.

Riquewihr, Alsace

Tucked away amongst some of the most beautiful vineyards in the Alsace region of France is the fairy tale village of Riquewihr.  Frankly, I didn’t know such place existed in Alsace until I read a local brochure and something about this idyllic place caught my attention.  Originally, my eyes were set on the larger town of Colmar, the gateway to the entire region of Alsace, which happened to be just across the Rhine River and the spa town of Baden-Baden in the Black Forest.  But Riquewihr seems worlds apart from its more modern neighbors and within its walled confines you will find a wine tasting room in just about every corner you turn.  This is a great place to taste some of the best wines in the area and to indulge in some of the local fare with its heavy Germanic influence (think pork and Sauerkraut).  But don’t be confused, this is still France, so the French style always comes through.

However, if there is one memory of Riquewihr that sticks in my mind more than any other, it is the magic of the town’s delectable macaroons.  Yes, it is impossible to walk down the Rue du General de Gaulle without being captivated by the most wonderful macaroon aroma in the world.  In fact, you can see the ovens from the street and the attending ladies at the bakeries make sure you get to taste one of these delights for free, as they know that this is all it will take before the suppressed glutton in you wakes up and overtakes your personality.  Dozens of macaroons and wine glasses later, you will be convinced that even if you don’t know where heaven is, the journey there must surely pass through the colorful streets of Riquewihr.

Nashville, TN

One of the first things you notice upon landing in Nashville, Tennessee is how nice everyone seems to be.  This was my first visit to this American icon, but I couldn’t help but think that this was a city that actually had a life, if you know what I mean.  And when they say that there’s music everywhere in Nashville, they really mean it.  Walk down 2nd Avenue and Broadway Street downtown and you would think that all the local music joints are competing with each other, not to mention with the multitude of street musicians that dot these loud streets in search of fame or perhaps more accurately, some meal money.

But Nashville is so much more than country music and during my short visit I was able to experience some of the unique treasures to be found within this melodic city.  One of these was a fantastic rock & roll band called Zig Zag, which had the house on its feet during their entire gig at a local club aptly called The Basement.  Another more exotic find was the soon-to-be-opened Australian Spa by the name of Corroboree, where everything from the food to the product line will remind you of the land down under.  And if you feel like driving a few miles, then you can’t miss the incredible Las Paletas, where its mouth-watering assortment of home-made popsicles from natural products will make you wonder why you never thought of this type of business before. Basically, the whole city is an incredible, not-to-be-missed revelation.

Faces, Everywhere

I am fascinated by faces, specially those that for some unexplainable reason get a hold of your attention and don’t let go for a while.  Everywhere we go we see them, working behind a counter, passing by while we sit at an airport, or across the room while we are having lunch at the company’s cafeteria. What makes them interesting is not just the fact that they are all different, but rather that they all make us wonder about their lives and what lies behind those piercing eyes or that exotic look.  It is precisely in those situations where photography makes one of its greatest contribution: the capturing of a split moment expression forever.  Photography freezes time in order to give us time to absorb what otherwise would have been a lost moment in an endless continuum of frames passing before us at breathtaking speed.  It’s like magic.

Warrenton, Virginia

Where would you go in Northern Virginia if you wanted to get away from the Blackberry crowds , but not quite go full country?  The answer is the quaint town of Warrenton, about an hour west of the District of Columbia.  This gem of a town is easy to miss if all you are doing is zooming down Route 29 and on to Route 211 on your way to the more famous community of Little Washington or the hiking trails of The Blue Ridge Mountains.  That would be a big mistake, for this small town offers some of the best shopping and dining in the area, not to mention some great photo opportunities.

Warrenton is a small town with a little over 6,000 people, and while it was named after a Revolutionary War hero, it is Chief Justice Marshal, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who remains its most prodigal son.  His regal statute sits there in front of the Juvenile & Domestic Court as if watching every move in town.  Next to Chief Marshall you can also find the Old Jail Museum and several of the others courts in town, a stark reminder that this is a town that is quite proud of its contributions to the law.  But keep on walking past the Courthouse Square and on to Waterloo Street and you will discover one of the reasons why you will keep coming back to this town: the Red Truck Bakery & Market.  This converted gas station (photo above) and its selection of home-made baked goodies and sandwiches will renew your faith in the great American culinary tradition.  But be forewarned, self-discipline doesn’t work here, so make sure that you have enough room for what will surely be an experience of a lifetime.

Mount Vernon Trail, Virginia

Along the western shore of the mighty Potomac River from Washington, DC to the former residence of our first President at Mount Vernon, there is this wonderful trail commonly known as the Mount Vernon Trail.  On any given day along this undulating hard-surface trail you will experience some of the best scenic views in the area, from wild geese trying to maneuver their way through the river’s marshy shores to colorful marinas with their colorful sailboats and expensive 40-footer motorboats.  In fact, the entire trail seems to be a micro-ecosystem of joggers, bicyclists, fauna, botanical wonders, and Rollerblade fast movers, all competing for your attention and for a piece of the trail.

While all sections of the trail offer some incredible views of the Potomac River and other area landmarks, it is the section of the trail from Old Town Alexandria to Mount Vernon where you will find yourself closest to nature and that feeling that you have left Washington behind.  I think George Washington had definitely figured something out.  Be forewarned, though, that there are not too many places to park along this part of the route, so most of the time I had to park about half a mile from where the best scenic areas were.  Not too bad, but once you are on the trail you begin to realize of the biggest dangers lurking on this great trail: the speeding bicyclists.  Don’t get me wrong, most of them are quite polite and will warn you that they are passing “on your right” or “on your left.”  They are not the problem.  The real problem are the others who just say “bicycle” when attempting to perform a Tour De France type of maneuver around you.  If you value your photographic life, then I would suggest to stay off the trail when you are trying to compose that next, great photograph the world is desperately waiting for.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

This was my first visit to Harpers Ferry and frankly, I’m not sure what took me so long.  This gem of a historical town which sits right where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet is a throwback to pre-Civil War America, with some well-intended renovations thrown in there for the tourists.  The town itself consists of several main streets lined with narrow sidewalks and quaint stores, not to mention a wine shop and a multitude of restaurants.  This being West Virginia after all, you can expect to climb some steep rock steps when visiting local attractions like St. Peter’s Catholic Church (see photo above), which sits above the town as if watching its every move.  However, walking down the main historical buildings on Shenandoah Street will bring you back to some flat terrain and the great historical buildings that surround Arsenal Square (see photo above).

One thing that immediately caught my attention within minutes of getting into town was how friendly the people were.  From the gentleman who sat down at my table to chat while he was waiting for his lunch, to the friendly owner of the Wine & Gourmet shop (196 High Street) who introduced me to a wonderful West Virginia Riesling (yes, I was surprised too), everyone seemed willing to make a perfect stranger with a couple of cameras feel welcomed.  My only regret: not having bought a bottle of that Riesling wine before leaving.  Maybe next time.

Cherry Blossoms, Washington, DC

Yes, it’s that time of the year in our nation’s capital when all the photographers in the area convene around the Tidal Basin in DC to photograph anything that moves.  After a brutal winter, it seemed as if everyone was out there enjoying the peak cherry blossom weekend, and to say that it was a spectacular day would be a gross understatement.  It was like a mini-United Nations down there below the trees, with people from all over the world strolling amongst the trees and trying to suck-up as much of the scenery as possible.  As in every year, there were picnics, tours, joggers, and lovers staring at the sheer spectacle nature had put up for them.  I was particularly struck by that most rare of Washington scenes: lovers kissing out in the open.  There is hope for this town!

Of course, the whole scene was a photographer’s dream.  The light was perfect and provided you could avoid the occasional tourist wandering in front of your perfect shot, not much could go wrong in such a great setting.  People were quite friendly too and didn’t seem to mind the hordes of photographers taking pictures of everything in sight.  You couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Music, Anywhere

One of the greatest things about photography is that sometimes, less is more.  Walking around any city in the United States or abroad, we are bound to encounter simple scenes that somehow move us to take photographs of everyday people making music out on the street.  These artists are very easily dismissed by some as money peddlers trying to make a quick buck from the unsuspecting tourists, but for me, they are what give cities and neighborhoods their character and sense of identity.  They expertly play their instruments during the cold days of winter and during the steamy, sun-drenched days of summer.  People hurry past them sometimes oblivious of their craft and the hard work it must have taken for them to produce such great sounds.  They are anonymous musicians, and sadly, most people are anonymous to them.  But for a brief moment in both their lives, a melodic scene played itself on a street concert hall, enriching the lives of perfect strangers with the sweet music of a long-forgotten sonata.  I’ll be sure to linger there a little longer next time.

Middleburg, Virginia

The town of Middleburg, Virginia is sort of like one of those expensive bottles of perfume, which is measured not by its size, but rather by its quality.  This small community sits about 50 minutes west of Washington, DC, but it seems to be worlds apart from the high-stress, Blackberry-driven politicos in our nation’s capital.  Urbane, elegant, and obsessed with its equestrian culture, this is horse country at its best.  For a second I thought I was back in Texas because of the never-ending parade of heavy trucks you see in the area.  Don’t get me wrong, these whereabouts is where you find that rare breed of American: the truck-driving gentry that spends its weekends playing polo in properties that cost as much as some islands in the Caribbean.

But what really struck me during my brief visit was that the people of Middleburg are amongst the friendliest I have seen in a long time.  Just about everyone you meet in town wishes you a good morning or asks you how you are doing.  Even when entering the quaint Cuppa Giddy Up underground coffee shop in town, I was approached by a very nice lady in riding boots who inquired about my cameras.  At the Home Farm Store (photo above) in the middle of town, a lady attendant informed me that I should go upstairs to the yogurt bar so I could get better pictures of the store below.  This amount of hospitality kind of blew me away and definitely made that $5 cupcake worth every penny.  I really need to learn more about polo.

Weekend Protests, Washington, DC

What happens during your typical weekend in Washington, DC?  Well, as soon as the spring sun begins to shine on the Cherry Blossoms, every protestor in the planet seems to descent on the nation’s capital.  I’m not taking any sides here, but everything from Tea Party activists to immigration reform proponents will hit the mall with an axe to grind against someone in the big Capitol building.  However, the demonstrations don’t seem to be as exciting for many of the area residents, who must contend with traffic disruptions and packed metro cars.

But you’ll never hear a photographer complaining.  Just about every demonstrator there seems to love having his or her picture taken and is willing to pose for you with placards flying all over the place.  The secret to a good photo day: don’t take sides and keep on clicking away.  Oh, and do keep that telephoto lens out of people’s faces.

Faces, Washington, DC

From time to time I will be including some photographs here of interesting people from the Washington, DC area.  All these shots are candid photos taken in demonstrations, museums, and in the many venues that make the nation’s capital such a big attraction.  What makes this type of photography so appealing is its very simplicity.  No one is posing or paying attention to the camera, and their expressions are as natural as they come.  To a large extent, these and other photos to come represent the people who catch our eye as we walk down the street because for some reason or another, they stand out from the crowd that surrounds them.  So, in some sense, this is my simple tribute to them and a thank you note for making that millisecond of life out there amongst the crowd such a memorable visual experience.

National Gallery Of Art, Washington, DC

One of the great things about Washington, DC is that even when rain puts a damper on outdoor activities, there is always plenty to do indoors.  Case in point: the National Gallery of Art.  What’s more, it is one of the most photo friendly places in the District.  Only major exhibits are off-limits when it comes to photographs, and judging by the many photographers there, it is obvious that the word has gotten around.  However, tripods or monopods are strictly forbidden, so be prepared to deal with high ISO’s and the noise issue.

The Gallery itself is a wonderful and quiet place.  There, amongst works of the great Masters, are endless moments of silence and plenty of room for reflection.  Garden areas lined with benches also add to this away-from-it-all atmosphere.  Head on down to the lower level to grab some good food and then walk to the East Gallery via the tunnel’s undulating light show in order to enjoy the modern art displays at the brighter side of the mall.

Windows, Washington, DC

Sometimes it seems that the most interesting scenes are the ones you happen to be passing by on the way to an event or some landscape.  This was the case with these photographs, which were taken while on my way to various Washington, DC Metro locations.  The interesting thing about these photographs is that they are very easily missed in our hurry to get somewhere.  In preparing the photographs for publication, I was reminded of an essay I had read years ago about the virtues of moving slow.  It’s fundamental theory was that the notion of moving faster to capture more of life was in the final resolution a flawed illusion.  The secret of living more, seeing more, and enjoying more could only be discovered by going slow, by noticing everything about us, by taking the time to absorb all those things that our haste will generally deprive us of.  After all, windows like the ones above are meant for us to look through them and not past them.