A Visit To The Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle View

Castle Road

Castle Restaurant

Castle Tower Stairwell

Sitting high above the city of Ljublana as a majestic ruler is the imposing Ljubljanski grad, or more commonly known to us mortals as the Ljubljana Castle. A structure that has watched over the city for more than five centuries, it is the perfect place to take in the fantastic valley city surrounded by mountains and morning fog. The castle is reachable by cable car or the old-fashioned way, by simply walking up the hill along a lusciously green country road. Mind you, that the cable car is perhaps the easiest way to make the short trip, but not necessarily the most satisfying for a photographer. So up the hill it was, and I couldn’t have been happier with the decision. The castle has a varied history, to say the least, and throughout its five century existence, it has housed everything from local rulers to a prison. It’s present use as a museum and tourist destination are the perfect place to spend a morning. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t even think of leaving the place before lunch or dinner, for to do so would mean to miss out on an incredible Slovenian meal washed down with local wines at the elegant Na Gradu restaurant.

The views from the castle tower are the best in the city. It takes a little bit of climbing to get to the top of the tower, but as you can see in one of the photos above, the stairwell alone is worth the effort of going up. Obviously, a lot of renovation has taken place at the castle, but there are plenty of original hallways and chambers throughout the structure to enjoy the historical flavor of the place. Best of all, once you pay the small entry fee, you are free to roam throughout the castle without anyone hurrying you along. On the way down from the castle, there are several trails to follow leading to another part of town and to another fantastic coffee shop. In one carless morning, a walk in the woods, a tour of a castle, a sumptuous meal at a beautiful restaurant, and a Macchiato to die for. I may not be certain, but I think that this is how you begin to fall in love with a place.

Oh Diner, My Diner

The old-fashioned diner remains one of the quintessential symbols of America.
The old-fashioned diner remains one of the quintessential symbols of America.
Diners don't change much, and that is perfectly alright with most people.
Diners don’t change much, and that is perfectly alright with most people.
It may not be high-end cappuccinos like in Rome, but diner coffee always hits the spot.
It may not be high-end cappuccinos like in Rome, but diner coffee always hits the spot.

When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.

But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.

 

Imagination Defines The Image

What we see if usually more important than what we look at. [Click photo for larger version]
What we see if usually more important than what we look at. [Click photo for larger version]

As far as I’m concerned, imagination, or simple flights of fancy, are the stuff of life. I say this because no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to look at the world for what it is. No, not possible. Images, and the scenes I constantly see before me, are mere windows into an imaginary world. For some reason or another, I keep thinking of what I see as incomplete stories, almost begging for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination. A man standing at a corner is not just simply a man standing at a corner. This untamed imagination refuses to see just that. He must be waiting for someone, he has nowhere to go, time doesn’t matter to him, he is there because the events in his life, he seems to be in love, or appears to be totally devoid of it. Whatever. It just goes on and on, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. Imagination, like time, is simply impervious to boundaries.

And thus the photograph above. Is it just a picture of a man in a white uniform staring at passerby’s? Or a baker taking a break from the morning rush? I stood there for nearly ten minutes observing the ongoing scenes, and all that I could think of was the title of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What to make of this solitary man with his forlorn look, staring at a “madding crowd” of shoppers and consumers? Surely, more than twenty or so feet separate their world from his, and there is no doubt that he was being ignored by the very people who’s lives he was enriching by his labor. Did he envy these people? Or pity them? Did he aim to join them, or leave them? I wondered what his plans were for the holidays. Who would be waiting for him at home. Who misses him when he’s gone, while he quietly observes the crowds, not uttering a word to anyone and no one uttering a word to him. And so it goes, imagination trying to add context to the scene, something that photographer Duane Michals understood very well when he addressed the subject: “I believe in imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” I must agree, because therein, behind the raw data collected by our senses, lies the mystery, and the wonder of the things we see.

 

Empty Tables

There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.

I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.

 

A Summer Stop By The Windy City

 

One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
One of the best things to do in the city is to take a walk down the Chicago River riverwalk downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
The Theater District downtown allows for walking access to numerous Broadway productions.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
Taking a break from their street performance, a couple remains in character even when relaxing.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan's Candy Bar will make sure you don't leave the store empty-handed.
The centerpiece structure at Dylan’s Candy Bar will make sure you don’t leave the store empty-handed.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
Friends party down the Chicago River while fueling the trip with a couple bottles of champagne.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the Chicago River appears to be a big party venue, there are plenty of quiet spots still available along the riverwalk.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
While the city has plenty of formal dining establishments, informal hangouts remain the best places for enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.
The incredible cheese counter at the Eataly store is only one of the many wonders to be discovered at this Italian import.

The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.

There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.

But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

If It’s Sunday, It Must Be The Market

Cutting Fruit
Local markets present a great opportunity to taste products before buying them. [Click photos for larger versions]
Chives
When was the last time you had a chance to talk to the actual producer at a supermarket?
Pancakes
It may not be fancy, but these loaded pancakes will guarantee that you won’t leave hungry.
Bread Shopping
The great variety of artisanal bread at the Dupont Circle market are reason alone to be there every Sunday.

Every year after the 4th of July celebrations in Washington, DC, a sort of lethargy descends on the locals. Not that this is a character trait, mind you, but rather that after all the fireworks and concerts (not to mention the terrorist threats) people are kind of spent. This year, not even the weather was adding any cheers to the weekend, as storms forced the evacuation of the National Mall hours before the concert and fireworks were about to start. Talk about damper.

But if there’s something you can always count on during summer weekends, it is the myriad of seasonal farmer markets that come-hell-or-high-water, will be there to sell their products. The region is blessed when it comes to farmers and produce. Vendors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia descend on DC every weekend bringing such variety of products that they often leave these city slickers dumfounded. And then there’s the Chesapeake Bay, with a seafood bounty that could even impress the folks from the Deadliest Catch in Alaska.

But when it comes to rarity, there’s one product that always challenges the best of them: artisanal bread. Who would’ve known that we have so many great artisanal bakeries (and even patisseries) in the tristate region. When I lived in the suburbs I could’ve sworn they had been rendered illegal. Bread came from the supermarket, mass produced and with enough preservatives to guarantee that future archeologists could still eat it 1,000 years from now. Luckily, there’s still hope, an local farmer markets are giving these emerging bakeries some well-deserved exposure. My waistline awaits their renaissance.

 

Expo Milano 2015

The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with  over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to feeding the world.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to the world’s food supply.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
With all the great food at the Expo, it was virtually impossible to avoid putting on the pounds.
With all the great food at the Expo, it is virtually impossible to avoid putting on a few pounds.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
The many Expo canals between pavilions provided a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine.
The many, small canals between pavilions provide a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine while resting their feet.

Love food? Ever dream of finding yourself at a place where most of the food of the world can be found a mere short walk away? Then you should definitely make plans to visit the 2015 Milan World Expo taking place from 1 May to 31 October this year. For the first time ever, the World Expo is entirely dedicated to food, from its production and management, to its distribution and consumption. It is a spectacle like no other, and the fact that it is being held in the beautiful city of Milan, Italy just adds gravy to the mix, so to speak. More than 140 countries from around the world have gathered in Milan to educate and showcase their contribution to feeding the world’s population, and a lucky 20 million people are expected to visit the Expo grounds and consume endless amounts of food from every region of the world. In between education and consumption, everyone will will have the chance to meet neat people from all over the world while enjoying one of the most unique Expos in the history of these events.

Like any other major event of this kind (or city, for that matter), it is impossible to see everything there is to see unless you have lots of time to spare. This is particularly the case if you want to visit some of the largest national pavilions, where the lines waiting to enter can be quite long. However, some of these long queues will be well worth the wait (like the one at the incredible Japanese pavilion). Amazing technological shows, information booths, and elaborate information displays are everywhere. But perhaps of equal interest to us mundane consumers of good stuff, at the end of the presentations you will usually find a small restaurant serving some wonderful food from the country being represented at the event. Definitely not the place for dieters, or those over-concerned about an expanding waistline. Then again, who ever visited Italy avoid eating too much? But don’t despair, the Expo’s 1.1 million square meters will give you plenty of time (and room) to walk off those extra calories. Yes, the place is big, real big.

And while the endless, world food venues are reason alone to visit the Expo, a more sober and important reason to visit is highlighted by the event’s theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Great costs have been incurred by over 140 nations to showcase the endless networks of producers, laborers, managers, and distributors that are necessary to feed our world’s ever-growing population. With its underlying theme that food is life and good food leads to a good life, the message being sent by the Expo is a crucial one for us to understand the complexities associated with feeding the world. Globalized resource networks work around-the-clock to guarantee the availability of these food products, but behind it all there will always be a person. Someone to walk the fields to plant and harvest the goods; someone to sort, preserve, and distribute the goods; and someone to transport the goods to markets near and faraway. Along the way, these individuals also live their everyday lives, go to work, get paid, try to achieve their dreams, and plan for a better tomorrow. They are the heroes being celebrated at the Expo this year. Their efforts and sacrifices sustain our lives, while allowing us to engage in a myriad of non-food-producing activities thousands of miles away from the source of our food.  This is indeed an incredible world we live in.

 

What Occupies Us

There appears to be some truth to the fact that what occupies us most of the time defines who we are as a person.
Some would argue that what occupies you most of the time may define who you are as a person.
Admittedly, some activities may be more helpful than others in determining what makes a particular person click.
Admittedly, some activities may be more helpful than others in determining what makes a particular person click.
It is entirely possible that what occupies a person most of the time may not be a true reflection of who that person believes he or she is.
It is entirely possible that what occupies a person most of the time may not be a true reflection of who that person believes he or she is.

 

Recently, I came across a quote by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, that got me thinking about the things we say and the things we do.  What made this quote even more puzzling for me was that it came in stark contrast with something I read in one of my favorite books of all times, “Cassanova In Bolzano,” by the famous Hungarian author Sándor Márai.  The contrast between Carl Jung (a realist) and Cassanova (an idealist) could not be more stark.

Let’s start with Carl Jung. The quote I’m referring to goes as follows:

 

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.

 

Jung could not be more blunt.  A waiter, then, is just a waiter and not a writer.  An office worker is an office worker, and there’s no use describing him or her as a painter.  If you have a great voice, but don’t sing professionally, then you are definitely not a singer, according to Jung.  No room for dreamers here, or for trying to convince anyone that you are really an artist trapped in the daily toil required to put food on the table.  Plain and simple, no amount of talk, of dreaming, or wishful thinking will change what is obvious for everyone to see.  A harsh reality indeed, but Jung obviously called them like he saw them.

And then, there was Sándor Márai, telling us through his character Cassanova that what you do does not necessarily defines who you are.  That you, in your hearts of hearts, could be a painter even if you’ve never painted anything.  That what defines a writer is not the product of his or her labor, but rather the poetry that forms inside his or her heart.  What we think we are is what we are, not what the trappings of life and circumstance have forced upon us.

In his book, Cassanova is somewhat annoyed by his assistant (Balbi) questioning why he called himself a writer if he had never written anything, or gotten paid for it for that matter.  For Cassanova, his life was, in a sense, his writing.  It was just that he had yet to put it down to pen and paper:

 

… I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about! You asked me how much I have written? … Not much, I admit… I have been envoy, priest, soldier, fiddler, and doctor of civil and canonical law… But that’s not the point, it’s not the writing, it’s what I have done that matters. It is me, my life, that is the important thing. The point … is that being is much more difficult than doing… When I have lived, I shall want to write.

 

It would have been an event to remember to hear Carl Jung and Sándor Márai discussing this contrasting philosophies.  I can’t help but think that at times I’ve found myself fervently ascribing to one of these camps or the other.  That is why photographs like the ones above make me think so much about the nature of people, or at least, the nature of the people depicted on the photos.  Who are these people?  Are they what I see, or is there something more to them (perhaps their true nature) that is hidden from my eyes?

Unbeknownst to me, about a month ago I was standing precisely on the line of demarcation between these contrasting approaches.  Upon visiting one of the major art galleries in Washington, DC (will not mention names here in the name of privacy) and walking down one of the empty, yet beautiful corridors, I came face-to-face with one of the security employees who hangs around the hallways making sure no harm comes to the artwork at the gallery.  What my eyes saw was a security guard doing his job, and one that at first impression, did not look like a very exciting one.  After a short conversation I discovered that he and his family had come to this country in search of the safety that they could not find back home in their African country.  More than that, he confided that he had run for President back home and lost, but that it remained his dream to go back and try again when the conditions were right.  He also gave me a short lesson in African economics and development, and all without me ever asking.  Obviously, there was a longing in his heart and a vision of the role he felt he was meant to play in his life.  I was just surprised at the trick my eyes had played on me.  Now looking back at this experience, I can only wonder whether Jung and Márai, had they been in my position, would have seen the same man in front of them.  The eyes, after all, can be quite deceiving.

 

Reading Terminal Market: A Market Like No Other

The Reading Terminal Market attracts people from all walks of life to its bountiful eateries.
The Reading Terminal Market attracts people from all walks of life to its bountiful eateries.
While enjoying a reputation as a down-to-earth market, it won't take you long to find high-end products being made right on the spot.
While enjoying a reputation as a down-to-earth market, it won’t take you long to find high-end products being made right on the spot.
You may not know what some of the baked products being put together in the premises are called, but that won't stop you from trying them out.
You may not know what some of the baked products by name, but that won’t stop you from trying them out.
The constant music at the Reading Terminal Market creates a festive atmosphere  that is hard to beat.
Local bands playing at the Reading Terminal Market dining area create a festive atmosphere that is hard to beat.
The Amish doughnut stand is perhaps one of the most popular spots at the market, but be prepared to stand in a very long line for a while.
The Amish doughnut stand is one of the most popular spots at the market, but be prepared to stand in a very long line for a while.
You can't say you visited the Reading Terminal Market without a visit to the famous Dinic's roast pork and beef stand.
You can’t say you have visited the Reading Terminal Market without a visit to the famous Dinic’s roast pork and beef stand.

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.

Virginia Whiskey Distillery Hits The Right Spot

Hand-crafted whiskeys and gin are being produced by the dedicated craftsmen of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia.
Hand-crafted whiskeys and gin are being produced by the dedicated craftsmen of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia.
While producing some award-winning whiskeys, the distillery remains a small business at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While producing some award-winning whiskeys, the distillery remains a small business at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Behind the busy production facility lies a delicate and well-choreographed fermentation process.
Behind the busy production facility lies a delicate and well-choreographed fermentation process under the careful eye of master distillers.
Regular tours at the distillery give visitors a detailed understanding of the distilling process and the variety of products at Copper Fox.
Regular tours at the distillery give visitors a detailed understanding of the distilling process and the variety of products at Copper Fox.
Aside from the distilling process, product preparation for market at the distillery remains largely a methodical, hands-on process.
Aside from the distilling process, product preparation for market at the distillery remains largely a methodical, hands-on process.
Walk past the simple entrance at the end of River Lane Road and you will be transported to a wonderful world of malted barley and cherry wood aromas.
Enter the distillery at River Lane Road and you will be transported to a wonderful world of malted barley and cherry wood aromas.

Think that you have to travel to Scotland to find great whiskey?  Then think again, because some great spirits are being concocted right here in your Virginia backyard.  That’s right, just where the mighty Blue Ridge Mountains give way to the undulating plateau of Rappahannock County, the Copper Fox Distillery is quietly producing award-winning whiskeys and spirits that you have will not easily find at your local liquor stores (at least not yet, but check out the press they have received).  These are not your average high-volume, mass-produced products for a global market, though.  On the contrary, the whiskeys and spirits coming out of Copper Fox are handled by hand in relatively small batches that reflect the artisan’s approach to producing low-yield, high-quality products.  During one of their scheduled tours, it was quite surprising to see how bottles were being handled one at a time with the painstaking care characteristic of a Swiss watchmaker.  And while the distillery has been around since the year 2000, modernity appears to live well hand-in-hand with traditional methods of craftsmanship that are so rare in today’s world.  One barrel at a time, Copper Fox seems to be putting Virginia whiskey on the connoisseur’s map.  So what did I end up bringing home after my short trip down River Lane Road?  I went for their signature Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (Batch No. 107).  I am definitely no connoisseur, but I already have plans to enjoy this elixir as if I were one.  Cheers.

The Bureaucrat’s Lunch

While the power lunch is alive and well, not all Washington bureaucrats get to enjoy it on a regular basis.
While the power lunch is alive and well, not all Washington bureaucrats get to enjoy it on a regular basis.

While most people around the country imagine the glamour of working at a big city like Washington, for many of the local bureaucrats the magic seems to have faded a little.  Not that the so-called power lunch is a thing of the past, but rather that the road to the inner circle appears to require some time on a bench like the one depicted on the photo above.  But in a city where who you know is more important than what you know, the distance from that bench to a table with a white table cloth and expensive silverware could indeed be a short one.  Better keep those eyes open and that suit pressed just in case.

The Charming Secret Garden Cafe

Simple elegance is the best way of describing The Secret Garden Cafe in the community of Accoquan.
Simple elegance is the best way of describing The Secret Garden Cafe in the community of Accoquan.
Bright and spacious, the Cafe is where you are going to find many of the locals socializing at lunchtime.
Bright and spacious, the Cafe is where you are going to find many of the locals socializing at lunchtime.
The simple lunch fare at The Secret Fountain Cafe includes some creative takes on traditional sandwiches.
The simple lunch fare at The Secret Fountain Cafe includes some creative takes on traditional sandwiches.
When the weather is good, the garden, multi-layered patio dining area is the place to hang out.
When the weather is good, the garden, multi-layered patio dining area is the place to hang out.

Once in a while you come across a restaurant where all the elements seem to click.  I’m not referring to some drain-the-bank-account type of place, mind you, but rather to a restaurant that seems to seamlessly combine those little things like good service, elegance, and basic good food with a little flair.  One such place is the Secret Garden Cafe in Accoquan, Virginia.  Not that I knew about this place before today, or that I would have found it without my good friend Mark suggesting I check the place out (the entrance is down a short alleyway and the restaurant is at the back of a local business).  What I discovered at the end of that short alleyway was one of the most quaint and charming places I’ve seen in a long time.  The white-linen tablecloths and the soft, pastel colors inside set the tone for the type of clientele that is always looking for that little extra in a place.  And when you consider that you can have a two-course lunch with enough freshly squeezed lemonade to kill a horse for less than $20, the place becomes even more attractive, specially for someone used to DC restaurant prices.  Next time I’m in Accoquan, I know exactly where I’m going for lunch.

From Van Gogh To The Heineken Experience

One of the most visited museums in Amsterdam is the Van Gogh Museum, where a large collection of his paintings are on display.
One of the most visited museums in Amsterdam is the Van Gogh Museum, where a large collection of his paintings are on display.
Characterized by spacious, open spaces, the Van Gogh Museum seemed to attract a surprisingly young audience.
Characterized by spacious, open spaces, the Van Gogh Museum seemed to attract a surprisingly young audience.
The color yellow seemed to be a favorite of the artist and the Museum staff made sure you didn't forget such details.
The color yellow seemed to be a favorite of the artist and the Museum staff made sure you didn’t forget such details.
The so-called Heineken Experience in the company's former production facility should not be missed in Amsterdam.
The so-called Heineken Experience in the company’s former production facility should not be missed in Amsterdam.
While the old production facility is now a tourist attraction, most of the old equipment has been left intact for visitors to experience.
While the old production facility is now a tourist attraction, most of the old equipment has been left intact for visitors to experience.
An incredible informative experience culminates with some serious Heineken beer tasting and a souvenir to take home.
An incredible informative experience culminates with some serious Heineken beer tasting and a souvenir to take home.

Amsterdam is a city of contrasts.  On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly.  What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings.  Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.

Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78.  From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth).  But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere.  The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy.  A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.

About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988).  What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam.  The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses.  They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process.  And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store).  Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot.  This city is definitely growing on me.

Pilgrimage To Chili Heaven

There is simply no other Washington institution like Ben's Chili Bowl Restaurant.  Ricoh GR.
There is simply no other Washington institution like Ben’s Chili Bowl Restaurant. Ricoh GR.
Ben's Chili Bowl is a beehive of activity at all hours of the day.  Ricoh GR.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a beehive of activity at all hours of the day. Ricoh GR.
Leaving Ben's hungry or unsatisfied is simple impossible, so be ready for some real eating when visiting.  Ricoh GR.
Leaving Ben’s hungry or unsatisfied is simple impossible, so be ready for some real eating when visiting. Ricoh GR.

Yes, like all our recent Presidents and entertainment celebrities, I must confess that I too have succumbed and gone to Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant for a little 1,000 calorie snack.  I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I started thinking that if I came out clean and made a full confession, that this somehow would help me with my caloric redemption.  Since 1958 Ben’s has been serving some of the world’s greatest chili from its 1213 U Street NW, Washington, DC location, and to say that Ben’s knows chili would be a gross understatement.  Get it in a bowl, over a whole selection of dogs, over fries, you name it and they have it.  And the cheese covered fries?  No comment, and I’m afraid that I must invoke the 5th Amendment.  Total calories consumed during my short visit?  Talk to my attorney, but if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it.  All I know is that I’m headed back to Ben’s as soon as possible.  Just need to do some prep work before I cross that U Street threshold again on my way to chili heaven.

Great Breakfast Food: The Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich

The grill at Jim's Steaks South Street in Philadelphia never gets a day's rest.  Ricoh GR.
The grill at Jim’s Steaks South Street in Philadelphia never gets a day’s rest. Ricoh GR.
Jim's Steaks walls are covered with thank-you notes from all sorts of celebrities from the world of entertainment.  Ricoh GR.
Jim’s Steaks walls are covered with thank-you notes from all sorts of celebrities from the world of entertainment. Ricoh GR.

Sometimes you just have to step out a little out of the box.  Well, maybe a lot.  Today was one of those days.  The place: South Philly.  After waking up this morning in Philadelphia after partying with friends the night before I got to thinking that if I left the city without having one of those 717-calorie Philly cheese steak sandwich the world would definitely come to an end.  Yeap, not even the 189 calories from fat in that monument to blue-collar gastronomy could dissuade me from doing everything within my power to get to one of the local sandwich joints to get my much-needed fix, if you know what I mean.  My first challenge, though, was sorting through all the different suggestions by the locals.  It appears that everyone in Philadelphia has a very strong opinion on the subject.

For me this morning, convenience won the day.  So the famous Jim’s Steaks at South Street was my “breakfast” choice.  If you ever plan to visit, do keep in mind that South Philly is not for everyone.  With bars and tattoo parlors in just about every block and a few “adult” stores sprinkled there just for character, this is definitely not a place for the Jaguar crowd.  But Jim’s is there, and that alone makes a trip to South Street a must when visiting downtown Philly.  Even at 10:00 Am when it opened, crowds were already lining up, with your truly  and his Ricoh GR right there with them. Was the heart-stopping caloric intake worth it?  Is the Pope catholic?  This is great stuff, and now I understand why that fellow in 2007 consumed 13 of these sandwiches in an hour.  Unbeknownst to him, he is now my new hero.