Let’s face it, winter time in the Washington, DC area could be a very dreary time indeed. Politicians take lots of time off, and with them, whole armies of lobbyists and contractors who have carved an impressive symbiotic relationship with them. They don’t stay away for long, mind you, but that precious period of low tide in the city is both wonderfully quiet and a great opportunity for exploring the many world-class museums and galleries that dot the area. No need to stand in line for an hour to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum or at any other venue in town. And the often-ignored Freer Gallery of Art (pictured above) becomes even more magnificent in its undisturbed silence. To walk those empty, silent grand hallways and emerging into a room full of historical treasures is nothing short of bliss. The sound of slow-moving, tapping footsteps at a distance reverberating through those empty hallways, nothing short of music to our ears. This is more the case if you happen to find yourself at the museums the moment they open, when that feeling of having the whole place to yourself transports you into a world of ancient Chinese scrolls and golden figurines from centuries gone by. It is all wonderful stuff, and about as close as you can get to losing track of time, and of yourself.
Everything is too complicated. Really. Or should I say, we make things too complicated for our own good. Here as I seat pondering a new year, I can’t help but wonder whether my expectations for 2018 will be any different from those I conceived of for the year 2017. After all, what difference does a year make, or should make? I would like to think that with every passing year we become a somewhat better, refined version of ourselves. As our vision narrows with time, the complicated expectations of fame, fortune, and endless adventure are gradually fined tuned to a more personalized set of intentions. This focus was perhaps where our vision should have been all along, but when life is enjoying its boisterous spring time, it surely must be allowed some leeway for its blessed recklessness and exuberance. With time, however, we manage to gradually squeeze the essence of things, just like the concentrated extract of a fine perfume. What really matters gains in potency by the process of discarding the superfluous. During this process, slowness becomes a virtue, and simplicity a much-cherished objective.
And so it goes with my approach to 2018. No need to visit a hundred countries when spending a lot more time in a few would do. No need to live it up in fancy, über-expensive hotels when a quaint b&b in the French countryside would do. No need obsessing over eternal money pursuits, when loved ones are starving for a little more time with us. It is far too easy to become a slave to the constructs in our heads, to that complicated notion of who we should be that always comes at the expense of who we are. Less, with simplicity as its accomplice, may well be secret passage to a life of happiness and bliss. That scarcity, strange as it may sound, may just be the sweet fuel of our dreams and expectations. A new year, a new approach to living and traveling. And if anyone out there, like me, comes to the realization that it would be virtually impossible to see all the stars in the universe, then we all should just pick one, and give it all we’ve got. The journey will be equally rewarding.
I often wonder what the subjects of my photographs think when they see me with a camera pointing in their general direction. The optimist in me would like to think that what they see is a creative in action, someone who has somehow managed to set himself free of the daily trappings of the world in order to pursue the higher calling, that of creating photographic art. Wouldn’t that be nice. However, I’m not sure that is the case, or at least not the case in the majority of situations. I have no doubt that for some people, finding themselves on the receiving end of a telephoto lens is the functional equivalent of finding themselves unwittingly facing a weapon. Not that they think for a second that the lens will do any bodily harm to them, but rather that their selection as your subject from amongst the crowd could prove to be somewhat of a disconcerting feeling. Why me? Who is this person? Has he or she been following me? Why is that photographer so fixated on me? We could go on forever with these questions.
What the subjects of our photos may not realize is that in the vast majority of cases, photographing them is a form of flattery, of recognizing their uniqueness in a particular setting or situation. Most serious photographers are extremely selective, and when they pick a person or a place as the subject of their photos, rarely it is with the intention of accentuating something negative. Look at a site like Instagram on any day, and what will immediately jump at you is the overwhelming positive nature of the photographs. This applies to photographers of all kinds, from the casual mobile photo enthusiast to the equipment-heavy pro. And while there will always be a few rotten apples in the bunch, their numbers are absolutely minimum compared with the millions of photographers who are using the their skills to tell a happy story. With their captures what they are saying is that you, the subject of their photographic interest, are special, a key figure in a creative process, and the unique protagonist of a story in the making. The photographer may be insignificant to you, but you are not insignificant to them. In that brief fraction of a second when the shutter clicks, you immediately become an integral part of a larger photographic narrative the world is eager to see, or at the very least, should see. The photos that will be part of that story will remind people that there is a lot more to the world than their own, limited surroundings. They will remind them that humanity is constantly on the move in a world that is forever changing. The photographs, like the great travel narratives, will be part of the living record of society, of its people, and of the places that occupied our imaginations and time. The necessary proof of the wonders and tribulations of the world we all lived in.
What is it about empty, lonely roads that we like so much? After all, we are there ourselves, at least physically there. But even when not technically empty, there is just something about those long stretches of road, devoid of masses of people and sounds, that simply appeals to us. And as easy as it would be to say that this appeal rests primarily on the absence of others, or other things, it would be somewhat inaccurate to claim as much. On the contrary, it seems to be the constant presence of others, of that relentless humanity around us, that makes us appreciate these empty roads that much more. As only noise can make those quiet moments that much sweeter, or daylight such a great antidote to those long, wintry nights, the solitude of these roads, and what they mean to us, would totally lack meaning if it were not for its opposite condition.
But while empty, these roads were never made for speed. Rather, they seem to have been constructed for the sole purpose of stretching time, and for the type of movement and grace associated with a Viennese waltz. One floating step after another, we slide down a circuitous trail along these straight roads, head looking left, then right, as if afraid to miss any of the emptiness along the way. And for a brief moment, those lonely roads are ours, and we become as reluctant to share them as we are reluctant to share our last breath. When the end of that road comes before us, as it always will, we will turn around and take that long, longing look at the well-worn road behind us, only to realize that only the roads ahead of us are empty and not the ones we leave behind.
One of the great things about travel is that there is no requirement to stick to the familiar and the popular. In fact, lately I have been paying a lot more attention to travel destinations that hardly anyone recognizes at a social gathering. You see, most people stick to the familiar, to the popular places where tourist companies deposit endless armies of umbrella totting tourist groups. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting those famous locations, for they are indeed full of “must see” attractions. The point is that by now they have become far too familiar to everyone, with endless photos and printed material dedicated to their immortality. This level of exposure has somewhat taken away the mystery that once accompanied their distant locations. What’s more, many of these famous places have recently been making the news because of the local aversion to uncontrolled tourism, which kind of sets the mood for when we all get there.
Thus, for a while now, I’ve been putting my attention to the periphery, to the less-traveled places where I’m finding renewed enthusiasm for the travel life. And that is what brought me to Osaka, Japan. Heard of it but have never been there? You’re not alone. This large port city with its incredibly vibrant business community has to be one of the best kept secrets in the world. It hides in plain sight, as most travelers have only ventured 30 minutes away by train to splendid Kyoto. And yet, if you value great food, friendly locals, and a shopping experience second to none, Osaka must be at the top of your list of places to visit. Everything from some of the world’s largest covered and underground markets to the European designer scene can be found somewhere between the Namba and Umeda metro stations. And even if your plans did not involve eating and shopping yourself to death, you just can’t help it. When tiredness sets in, the side streets around Kitahama, with its sexy champagne bars and rowdy English pubs is where you want to end your day. Yes, Osaka is all that and more, and it just doesn’t want to let go of you.
But not all is hectic in Osaka. Just like every other major Japanese city, once you leave the city center behind, a whole new world of traditional neighborhoods and quiet oases sit there as if frozen in time. Like an antidote to the rest of the city, these are the places where old ways are not really old. Places where you are met at the entrance of a restaurant with a simple bow and a polite greeting by an impeccably dressed hostess. Places where small, manicured gardens give new meaning to the concept of reflection. And places where you find yourself suddenly immersed in the mystery and romanticism of a faraway culture that up to then only existed in the old narratives of explorers from another era. A feeling that forms the very essence of the travel life.
It’s been a long time, and yet, upon my return to the wonderfully busy city of Tokyo after many decades, I have found the city as enchanting as the day I left, if not more so. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is packed with people and activity, with pedestrians crisscrossing each other with the grace and precision of professional ballerinas. I had read some recent travel articles describing the city as a monument to organized chaos, and perhaps that is an apt initial description of what a traveler encounters when taking the first foray into its busy streets. But once you get the hang of the city, you will just marvel at how precise and organized everything is. Even the seemingly intractable metro system is easy to navigate and quite logical in its layout. The smooth and on-time rides to anywhere in the city is something that people back home can only dream about.
But what makes Tokyo so special above everything else is the diversity of its neighborhoods. From classy, elegant Ginza to rowdy, loud Akihabara, the vibrant neighborhood scenes are a marvelous study in contrasts. Need more excitement, then head on to Shibuya with its world-famous intersection crossing and incredible array of restaurants. Camera and tech shopping? Then it is Shinjuku you want to visit, with the imposing Yodobashi mega store right outside the metro station and Bic Camera not far down the street. Not sure if there is such a thing as a technology center of the earth, but if there is, it surely has to be right here in Tokyo.
And then there is the more quiet, sedate part of Tokyo. Strolling along the Imperial Gardens and the forest grounds surrounding the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world, a sudden feeling of solitude taking over your senses. This shifting landscape character, and the gentleness of its everyday people, are what make Tokyo such a wonderful city. Drumbeats followed by poetry. Like the silk in its famous kimonos, the city flows in a constant, rhythmic movement that is both captivating and disarming. A city not to be missed in a lifetime.
I love to travel in low season. Granted that not much is happening after the masses of tourists dwindle to a trickle in any part of the world, but that is precisely what I find so enchanting about going places. It is a way of finding plenty in the absence of rather than in the abundance of. And Homer, Alaska with its pristine environment, was such a place in mid-September. Almost barren of tourists and wanderers, the majority of local businesses closed for the season, and the first salvos of the inevitable Alaskan winter beginning to appear, the setting was nearly perfect for the advent of a much-needed, mind-clearing brew. Long, bundled-up walks by the rocky beach during the early morning hours, beautiful sunrises over the glaciers in Kachemak Bay State Park mountain range, and long, sumptuous seafood dinners washed down with California wines under the dark-blue skies of Cook Inlet, were the perfect antidote for this city dweller. Think of it as food for the soul, a reset for lives too occupied with too many “silly little nothings.” And the silence, whith only an occasional interruption by the high-pitched call of a passing seagull, or the rhythmic drumroll of the crashing waves. I’m not accustomed to hearing those sounds these days, and yet, their unpretentious melodies brought back memories of places far away, of lives already lived, and of times when dreams and the imagination were as unencumbered as the wind flowing down Kachemak Bay on a September morning. There, along those cold and desolate nordic rocks and the majestic ocean keeping guard over sleeping glaciers, I was reacquainted with someone I once knew, so very long ago. I guess sometimes it does take a distance of over 4,000 miles to arrange such a meeting with those we once knew.
Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.
Everyone has his or her weaknesses. It’s only human. One of mine is a recurring one, and by recurring I mean like once a year, but not more in deference to my waistline. I’m talking about your traditional, run-of-the-mill county fair, where your shoes get dirty with God-knows-what, and where even the mention of new wave cuisine could find you fed to the animals for lunch. Not that I have a drop of farmer in my blood. On the contrary, as a self-proclaimed urbanite, you are more likely to find me eating al fresco at some city bistro rather than standing devouring a turkey leg with my bare hands while some unknown red sauce drips down my cheek. That is, most of the time, because come summer, it is the county fairs that get my attention (this year, the Loudon County Fair, to be precise), and I frankly couldn’t care much about those bistro. It is secret sauce I want, lots of it, and I want it on everything from greasy fries to corndogs.
But county fairs are a lot more than a food pilgrimage for me. They are also therapy. That is because there, amongst the people bathing pigs, parading cattle, and taking care of show goats, I will also find the kind of real people that you rarely see in the big cities. You can’t pretend much when you’re rubbing clean a pig and herding goats the next minute. Things are, well, what they are. No pretentiousness, no bragging, no posturing, no nothing, but heroes all in my eyes. As I see it, the farmers who take part in these county fairs are some of the key linchpins in that complex system which feeds every one of us. And that is why taking out a day to see the fruit of their efforts is something I never miss every summer. They don’t even mind being photographed, which is an added bonus. All I know is that it always feels good being out there learning about things I don’t know anything about and spending some enjoyable moments with people I have never met before. Just can’t wait for next time, and those corndogs better be there.
Some attractions never get the amount of publicity they deserve. That seems to be the case with American central markets. You see, I am convinced that food is culture, and you simply cannot experience the culture of any country unless you experience their food and the social interactions that takes place around the local tables and the people who make it all possible. And if there’s a place to experience the local culture, it has to be in those unique, historical markets that dot the landscape everywhere from Istanbul to the colorful street markets of Asia. That certainly includes the many farmer markets of America, of which the oldest in existence (dating back to the 1730’s) is the colorful Lancaster Central Market in Pennsylvania.
While not as large as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the somewhat reduced size gives the Lancaster Market a little less of a commercial feeling, which translates into a somewhat more personal experience. And yes, the Amish are there with their wonderful fruit and baked goods offerings, but to my surprise, so are the Puerto Ricans, with their pulled pork and rice and beans. Nevertheless, it is the proximity to what one local described as the “bionic soil” of the old Amish farmland that makes the Lancaster Market so special. Drive along the luscious, winding farm hills of such towns as Strasburg, Paradise, and Intercourse (it really exists) and you will soon realize what makes this part of the country such a natural treasure. Stop by a local farm and try their home made Root Beer and jams, and you will regret not living closer to the area. I’ve always associated the state of Pennsylvania with great food, but after visiting the Lancaster area, I am elevating the state a few notches on my scale of places to visit any time you can. After all, food is culture, and as a self-appointed culture seeker, it is high time I become more cultured, so here I go.
For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
During most of the year, one of the most famous lake regions in the world lies quietly and ignored by the masses of travelers around the world. No doubt, accessibility plays a part on this, even if the place is quite accessible. But perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is the fact that the country is not particularly associated with grandiose structures like the Eiffel Tower, or the Vatican, or the works of Michael Angelo. No, its incredible beauty is the result of nature itself, of mountains and crystal-clear waters, of ever-changing weather patters, and of course, of a small, but incredibly beautiful church that happens to be sitting on a tiny islet in the middle of a lake. Welcome to Lake Bled in Slovenia.
The most visited place in Slovenia is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places this tired traveler has ever seen. Its inherent beauty is not just the result of what you see, but also of what you feel when you are there. It is as if the majestic Alpine chain forms a frame around the lake to share with us one of the most incredible windows in the world. On a late April day, when hardly anyone was around, the silence alone, softly punctuated by the cool breeze of an early spring day, was the stuff of dreams. A person here and there, then solitude. The rhythmic sound of ores slowly moving the Pletna boats carrying travelers to the only island in Slovenia and the Assumption of Mary Church sitting 99 steps above the water level, was nothing short of Alpine music to my ears. Legend has it that if you pull the massive rope to ring the church bell three times while looking at the Virgin Mary, your wishes will someday come true. So, with eyes that seemed overwhelmed by all the beauty that lay before them, I firmly wrapped my hands around the rope and pulled as hard as I could. The deep sound of that bell spreading in all directions over the green, transparent waters of Lake Bled were as sweet to my ear as the sound of a Mozart sonata filling a concert hall in Vienna. Staring out of the window during the 35-minute drive back to Ljubljana along valleys dotted with small villages and green pastures, I couldn’t help but think that I had just seen one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. What’s more, the deep, endless sound of that bell traveling beyond the mountains that surrounded it, still rang gloriously inside my head. I knew there and then, that the legend was true. My wish had already come true.
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.
If there is a secret in the travel world, that secret must be called Slovenia. Granted, that recent world events have brought some much-deserved attention to this Alpine wonder, but if you ask anyone around you, you’ll find out that Slovenia has yet to make it to most people’s bucket list. That’s a shame, because as I recently discovered, it is not until you get there that you realize what you’re been missing all this time. Incredible natural beauty, a hiker’s paradise, castles, crystal clear lakes, fantastic food, and the rich history that accompanies a country that sits on the crossroads between Europe and distant lands in the East. Don’t get me wrong, Slovenia is as European as they come, with its feet firmly planted in the west. But there is a freshness to it that is reminiscent of an Europe from long ago, from a time when mass tourism and globalization had not yet arrived with the intensity of a tsunami to transform the local atmosphere in most European capitals. And believe me, that lack of overwhelming feeling is indeed a good thing.
I only spent a week in this wonderful country, but judging from the “I’m not ready to leave” feeling I had at the airport, I know that I’ll be back someday soon. The rain in the mountain region did change my hiking plans a bit, but perhaps it was for the best, for I had a chance to spend more time at Ljubljana, the wonderfully romantic capital bordering the Ljubljanica river. To the traveler, it appears that everything in Ljubljana emanates from the Prešernov trg square and the adjacent Triple Bridge. Every visitor to Ljubljana find his or her way here, and for good reason. The number of restaurants and coffee shops along the banks of the Ljubljanica river will put most capital cities to shame. And did I mention that Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe for 2016? Sitting under the green canopy of one of its luscious trees by the river enjoying a leisurely afternoon Macchiato and a flaky croissant would make it almost impossible to argue with that. Add to that the friendliest, most approachable people I’ve met in Europe in a long time, and you can see why this country has made such an impact on this tired traveler. Slovenia is simply a refreshing take on Europe, and as such, it is a place that rekindles your appetite for wanderlust and those feelings that only take form when we travel to distant places and are moved by all that appears before us. I only regret that it took me this long to visit, but I can assure you, that it won’t take me as long to go back.