Fredericksburg, Virginia

Fredericksburg, Virginia is one of those towns that oozes history and is therefore a photographer’s dream.  Surrounded by Civil War battlefields and sporting many historical buildings downtown from the same era, you can easily lose yourself for hours walking the same routes taken by those who fought in that bloody conflict.  But if walking old battlefields is not your thing, then head on down to Caroline Street (Fredericksburg’s main drag) with lots of room in your media card.  But be forewarned, if photographs of people is what you have on your mind, it pays to get to meet the locals before you start clicking away.  This may be a historical town, but my experience has been that the locals do not particularly like to see those lenses staring at them.  Make friends and you’ll make good pictures.

Rincón, Puerto Rico

I just visited Rincón, Puerto Rico for the first time in more than 20 years and I could not believe how much this sleepy seaside area had changed during all that time.  Of course, the sea and its seafood bounty remain the same, but the upscale resorts and villas dotting the place are a sight to behold.  It is obvious that this once backwater of a place has been discovered, and with a vengeance.  OK, many of the beach-front condo buildings still had plenty of properties for sale, but the area remains a hot commodity for beach-loving folks with some disposable income.

The great thing about this out-of-the-way place is that you can have your choice of fancy restaurant or beer hut party on just about any day of the week. Head on down to the world-famous surfing beach and you will immediately find yourself immersed  into a Hawaiian-like  surfing culture (you can even sign up for some surfing lessons).  The place is a mini-USA enclave where English seems to be the main language along the bars and surf shops lining the beach.  However, away from the surfing scene and the resort area there’s not much to occupy your time there and you will have to drive for about half an hour to find a large grocery store.  A bit isolated, yes, but that seems to be what makes the place unique.

Jamestown, Virginia

Jamestown, Virginia is not a big place in terms of size, but quite a big and significant part of our nation’s history.  This satellite English settlement in Jamestown island is also in a remote part of Virginia.  Driving down the Colonial Parkway kind of feels like you are getting away from it all as you pass large marshlands and vegetation which you can’t quite make sense of.  There is a very impressive Visitors Center very close to the historical settlement that is a good place to start your visit.  And if you are not into reading all those brochures, you can catch one of the short films available at the center that will introduce you to the history and meaning of Jamestown.

Once there, you will soon discover that there is more about Jamestown that meets the eye.  Actors in period outfits are a great source of information, as they will describe in great detail the history behind the activities in which they are engaged.  This is the case with canoe building, cooking, farming, weapons, metallurgy, construction, sailing, and many other daily routines of colonial life.  As you can see from one of the photos above, you can also tour the dock and board a replica of one of the ships that sailed from England in 1607.  This is all good stuff for photographers, specially during the late afternoon hours.  However, one thing that is in short supply around the settlement are good places to eat, so be prepared to drive back to Williamsburg, Virginia if the center’s cafe is not your kind of place.

Berlin, Germany

I was not able to hang around Berlin for more than a couple of days, but believe me, this was love at first sight.  Berlin is an incredible city that is full of mystery and all sorts of wonderful sites.  Most of my time there was spent around the famous boulevard Unter Den Linden and the key historical sites like the Reichstag with its incredible glass dome (see photo above).  When it came to photographing this impressive city, be forewarned that the weather will play some nasty tricks on you.  Glare, rain, fog, you name it and Berlin has it at one time or another.  But look at it from the bright side: this is a great place to hone your photo skills.

Because of its size, Berlin is really not a walking city.  However, taxis and a “go anywhere” metro system will get you around without too much hassle.  This is a good thing because hotel prices away from the Unter Den Linden area are a lot more affordable.  Of course, you will have to come back to this area if you are to visit the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the holocaust memorial, but you’ll have a few more euros in your pocket when you do.  Oh, and when you do, don’t forget to stop by the sumptuous Opera Cafe (photo above) just down from Humboldt University, where a guy named Einstein spent some time (check out some of the impressive list of alumni and professors here).  And if you get tired of all this quasi-formal sightseeing and still have a few euros to get rid of, head on down to KaDeWe, one of the most impressive department stores in Europe and perhaps the largest.  Head on up to the Gourmet Floor to indulge in everything from wine and gourmet food stands to Italian coffees and chocolates galore.  Needless to say, with so much to see and do in this great city, a couple of days is simply not enough to fully appreciate all this city has to offer.  Oh, and if you are wondering why I would include a photograph of a parking lot, that is because underneath of all that dirt lies Hitler’s famous bunker.  It is a desolate and barren place, but you cannot stand there without feeling history pulling at your heart-strings.

City Walk, Prague

There is really not much I could say about Prague that has not already been said.  Nevertheless, some of my experiences could prove useful to those who are visiting the city for the first time.  For starters, Prague is a city like no other in the western part of Europe.  Perhaps this has to do with its preservation during WWII, or perhaps with the fact that you tend to arrive with a more pronounced feeling that you are visiting the “old” Europe.  Now, having been to most of the countries west of Prague, I’m not sure that it is that easy to distinguish between old and new Europe, or that we should use these terms.  But maybe its small size and cobblestone streets have something to do with that inescapable feeling of having stepped back into history.  Whatever it is, it is a wonderful feeling that will continue to grow until it is time to go back home.

Prague is a walking city.  In fact, most of the old part of the city will make it almost impossible to drive there. But driving or taking taxis is something you won’t miss at all.  My hotel was just right off Wenceslas Square and a walk to the old part of the city would take less than ten minutes.  That is, if you closed your eyes and merely walked there, which is practically impossible to do in light of the endless attractions on your way.  And by attractions I’m talking primarily of shops full of glassware and items you don’t get to see every day.  One of these great attractions will undoubtedly be the great Prague Opera House and its magnificent café, which are a must even if the lines to get into the café set you back on your schedule.  However, if it is a hardy meal that you are after, then you need to head on down to the wonderful restaurants that you will find all over the city.  One of the city’ culinary highlights is the Bellevue French restaurant, which is located not far from Wenceslas Square.  This would take care of the obligatory “fancy” night out in town.  For a more down-to-earth Czech dining experience, the place you should not miss is the U Ceskych Panu medieval restaurant.  A word of advice, though: before you go, make sure that you get a waiver from your cardiologist because this is good, old-fashioned eating at its best.  I’m definitely going back.

Mala Strana, Prague

In an earlier post I alluded to the Prague district of Mala Strana as one of the most underrated neighborhoods in this beautiful city, and believe me, to miss this neighborhood is to miss a true gem of the Czech Republic. In fact, booking a hotel in this area for your stay in Prague could be a great idea because you will end up paying a lot less than what you are going to pay by staying in the Old Town section.  A short walk across the Charles Bridge gets you there in a hurry and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll be right in the middle of some wonderful coffee houses that will help you sober up in style.  What is more, Mala Strana has many attractions that are lost on most tourists hanging around the Old Town for their entire visit, not to mention lots of winding, narrow streets that are a photographer’s dream.  You can check some more sites here.

But perhaps the biggest attraction in Mala Strana is the Prague Castle.  If you have some energy left after a few days in Prague, you can try walking up the hill to the castle while taking all the sites on the way up. However, if your heart is not up to it, then you may take a taxi or Tram No. 22 up the hill and then walk back down after a few hours.  This will be a whole morning or afternoon trip, so check out the weather to make sure that you avoid crappy picture weather when you head up the hill.  And if taking those dramatic pictures is what you’re after, then I would suggest the early morning hours when that soft, foggy light will be working for you instead of against you.  But whatever you do, planning for at least a couple of days exploring this romantic part of Prague will be infinitely rewarding.

Charles Bridge, Prague

There is something very unique about Prague in the Czech Republic.  Perhaps it is that the city was one of those lucky few that was not bombed and decimated during World War II, or perhaps it is the fact that its many undulating streets absorb you into a stage that is both strange and fascinating.  Prague is not a large city like Berlin, but it is one that is best taken slow, as its many charms are sometimes hidden in places easily missed.  One thing you just can’t miss is the famous Charles Bridge.  This 14th Century marvel is perhaps one the most famous local attractions and the place where everyone seems to gravitate to while visiting the city.  Needless to say, this also makes it one of the best photo scenes in the city.  The looks from this pedestrian bridge are simply amazing in any direction, and if portrait photography is what you’re into, you couldn’t find a better place to capture people doing all sorts of human activities.

The Charles Bridge is sort of the link between two worlds in Prague.  On the one side you’ll find the Old Town, while on its west side you will find the Mala Strana district and the Prague Castle, reputed to be the largest medieval castle in Europe.  The best thing is that walking from anywhere in the Old Town section to the bridge is not much of  a hike.  No need to hit the treadmill before discovering the city.  We’re talking 5-10 minutes from the center of the city to the bridge, provided you don’t stop at every shop along the way.  And if shooting photos is what you plan to do, then I would recommend you get to the bridge early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Noon is just plain bad, as the reflections from the Vltava river do a number on your digital dreams.  Plenty of coffee shops on either side of the bridge too for when you want to get something to eat away from your hotel.  Next time I do this I’ll dedicate an afternoon to the bridge and to the Mala Strana neighborhood, which is generally less visited by tourists, but a well-kept secret for photographers.

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

To say that the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood in San Francisco is a photographer’s dream would be a gross understatement.  You can pretty much walk its streets every day of the week and find a thousand reasons to justify your investment in that shinny, new camera.  One great thing about this place is that every form of human activity takes place on its winding streets.  There will be painters, performers, and pretenders blending in somewhat of a seamless production that never seems to end.  OK, you will always find the obligatory, somewhat questionable characters hanging around the area too, but you will not pay them too much attention because your eyes will be feasting on the many King Crab food stands and the “must eat” sourdough bread bowls that you’ll see all over the wharf.

But if you go, it may also be a good idea to book a hotel somewhere else.  Not that the hotels in the area are bad, but rather that the nightlife there does not seem to match its daytime activities.  Once the sun sets, the place calms down a bit and dining out is the big “to do” thing.  Cable cars and relatively cheap taxis will get you there at any hour of the day and evening, so it might be better to choose one of the “happening” neighborhoods in the city if partying the night away is your thing.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great hang-outs in the area, and one of these gems is the Cellar 360 wine tasting room at Ghirardelli Square.  In exchange for a little of your hard-earned cash they will pour some great California wines to help you forget your sore feet.  Not a bad way to end the day.

Copia, Napa Valley

Copia was one of those great ideas that did not survive the test of time, or put another way, the wine world’s ever-shifting winds.  But its passing doesn’t mean that the great Robert Mondavi does not deserve any credit for his attempt to educate the great American wine lovers.  You could even marvel at Julia Child’s old kitchen there and wonder how all those old posts concocted such great meals.  But the tourists and wine enthusiasts did not show up in sufficient numbers to prevent bankruptcy, and now the main reason to stop by the little town of Napa is to catch the famous wine train that will take you up and down the valley while you try to shamelessly consume what the valley produces.

The day I visited Copia there was not much happening there, which perhaps explains its predicament.  Drove up from San Francisco (bad idea if you are planning to tour the wineries) instead of paying for a guided tour of some of the wineries.  The advantage of driving up yourself is that if you have your precious digital camera with you, you can pretty much stop anywhere to snap a photo of the ripening vines or the colorful wineries.  Well, at least before you start consuming the entire portfolio of wines from every winery down Route 29 and Silverado Trail.  And if you want to have a fantastic meal at one of the most trendy restaurants in the area without breaking the bank, stop by modern Redd for an unforgettable meal.