The city of Berlin never disappoints, and seeing it again after a few years, I find it continues to be an energetic and dynamic metropolis. If you believe everything you read in some publications, you would be forgiven for believing that the city has lost most of its mojo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The city remains as vibrant as before, if not more. Great stores, historical sites, and lively neighborhoods keep the city on the move, with streets packed with people at all hours of the day. Hang around the Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstrasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt and you’ll soon know what I’m talking about. No doubt that when the time comes time to leave, I will once again regret my departure from such a great city.
Some travelers do not enjoy returning to places they have visited in the past, but I’m not one of them. Granted that with so many places to see around the world, it is perhaps advisable not to narrow your travel focus to a mere few of these. Nevertheless, there’s something nostalgic about visiting old stumping grounds after your feet have taken you far away from those familiar places, and for far too long. Strasbourg, France is one such place for me, and while it has been undoubtedly too long since I once roamed its streets accompanied by those happy days of youth, the magnificent sights of this great city still evoke the sense of romance and awe that was there when life was nothing but a long, uninterrupted spring.
During the month of December the city of Strasbourg, with its award-winning Christmas Market, dresses up for the holidays like very few cities in the world can. Anywhere you go in the Old Town there will be too much to see, too much to eat, and when it comes to that great, spiked wonder that is Gluehwine, too much to drink. And while in other places of the world people may complain about cold, overcast, and otherwise sun-deprived days, in Strasbourg these sort of days only add to the pure magic of the season. Small, cozy restaurants and cafes around the inner city will be beautifully illuminated and decorated, affording couples the perfect backdrop for conversation accompanied by a glorious Alsatian wine. Stopping during the blue hour on the Passerelle de l’Abreuvoir bridge to take-in the ancient rooftops surrounding the Cathédrale Notre Dame will transport you back to those days in the 17th Century when the cathedral was considered the tallest building in the world. And if it is your softer side you need to get reacquainted with for a change, just walk the narrow, twisting streets of La Petite France at night and you’ll be reminded that life is not just about speed, or about the eternal chase of golden mirages. Walking along these streets as if in a mindless drift, I could not help but think that the sheer beauty of this dimly lit city during the Christmas season had to be the perfect antidote to the many worries afflicting us these days. A beautiful city, lit by candlelight. An energy drink for the soul, and the stuff of which life’s most pleasurable moments are made of.
There are some places that are not that easy to figure out. This may have to do with the grey area that lies somewhere between expectations, reality, and perceptions, but whatever it is, warming up to them may take longer than you have when you visit. For me, Luxembourg City is one of those places. During my short visit there, I found this banking enclave in the heart of Europe to be both beautiful and a bit of a riddle. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but it sort of reminded me of those parties where everyone is having a good time, but nothing much exciting is taking place. Lots of mingling, but no music, and definitely no dancing. A city that you travel to not so much with the intention of being in the middle of it all, but rather with the intention of being a bit removed from it all.
In all fairness, though, my first impressions may have had something to do with the time of the year. November in that part of Europe can result in some rather gloomy, sun-deprived days. In fact, for the three days I was there, the thick fog never quite lifted, casting a mysterious (and quite wet) blanket over most of the city. I know there was sunshine there somewhere, but I never saw it in great abundance. But what I could see was quite impressive. The views from the magnificent Monument of Remembrance high above the Rue de la Semois are nothing short of spectacular. And if shopping is what you’re after, you can’t do any better than along the designer stores along the Rue Philippe II (just take a lot of cash with you). Take a stroll at night along the Place Guillaume II and the Palais Grand Ducal during this time of the year and you will find yourself in one of those mysterious, foggy scenes right out of a Hollywood thriller. Without a doubt, everything that is happening in Luxembourg at these hours is happing inside, somewhere behind those imposing doors and majestic facades.
So what to make out of Luxembourg City? A quote by Lady Edith of Downton Abbey comes to mind. Upon hearing from Anthony Gillingham that it would not be very English to make public scenes about things people were passionate about, Lady Edith said, “No, but I envy it… all those Latins screaming, and shouting, and hurling themselves into graves. I bet they feel much better afterwards.” As my train left the Luxembourg station on its way to Belgium, I couldn’t help but think that a little bit of that Latin attitude could do the city of Luxembourg a bit of good too. I can only wonder if all those bankers would agree.
Once again, and after a few years, I find myself in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, and unlike the last time I had the good fortune to visit this wonderful city by Lake Geneva, this visit was a short one. In fact, it lasted barely 24 hours, and while admitedly too brief, it was nevertheless enough to remind me of why I fell in love with this place during my first visit. Perhaps it was the much slower pace than I’m used to, or the contagious courtesy of the Swiss people, or perhaps it was the natural beauty of an old, hilly city dotted with twisting cobblestone streets that captivated me. Not sure. But one thing I do know for sure: Lausanne is a hidden gem hidden from most people’s travel radar, and that is a pity.
The city impresses the moment you set foot on it. Walk up from the train station via the curvy Rue du Petit-Gêne and you will begin to see boutique hotels and quaint restaurants that you are sure to visit during your stay. Reach the higher elevation Rue du Grand-Gêne and (after you have a chance to catch your breath), you’ll be right next to the majestic Lausanne Palace Hotel and the imposing Place Saint-François. Walk down to the Rue Centrale to find some of the best cafes and pastry shops in the city before getting lost in the old town. This was pretty much all I had time for during my 24-hour visit while in transit to Locarno at the tip of Lago Maggiore. Overlooking the tiered vineyards of the Valais from the train on the way out of the city, I found myself wishing for more time in Lausanne and wondering whether Locarno would be just as enchanting for this wondering photographer. I was soon to find out that the answer was a resounding yes, but that is a story for a later day.
It has definitely taken me a long time to visit this jewel of the north, but the long wait has only made me enjoy this glorious city that much more. Stockholm, Sweden is one of those places that is much more than a city. Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful architecture and incredible views that seem to pop right out of a postcard. But more than that, Stockholm seems to be a state of mind, a place that for those of us coming out of the über busy, constant stress western part of the world, seems to have almost a zen quality to it. Don’t get me wrong, the place is quite busy on its own, but you can’t spend more than a few days in the city without feeling that there is a certain rhythm to life here that is somehow lacking in our personal worlds. When visiting the residential area of Hornstull in the southern island of Södermalm, I actually met couples of professionals around 10:00 AM at a café who were actually enjoying a cup of coffee and a croissant together before going off to work. That’s right, 10:00 AM, couples, moving as in concert with the slow, yellow light of a morning sun. Who are these people?
No doubt the city itself has a lot to do with people’s attitudes towards everything from work to family life. A conglomeration of islands, Stockholm is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty that is best appreciated during the warmer summer months. The busy city center of Norrmalm rapidly gives way to the incredible middle island of Gamla Stan, or Old Town, anchored around the imposing Royal Palace and Parliament building. And then, there’s easy-going Södermalm, with views of the city of Stockholm that will take your breath away. Perhaps more than any other area in the city, Södermalm personifies the quintessential Scandinavian lifestyle, at least as the rest of the world imagines it. Beautifully old architecture around the cobblestone streets of Bastugatan and Pryssgränd, eclectic and trendy in the SoFo (south of Folkungagatan street) district, and idyllically laid back around its western Hornstull waterside neighborhood, Södermalm appeared to me to be the perfect place to live and raise a family. The incredible city views along the Monteliusvägen trail and the hilltop hangout at Mosebacke Terassen only add to the area’s incredible charm.
But there’s a lot more to Stockholm than Södermalm that I will be addressing over the coming days, even when fully aware that nothing I say here can truly capture the full scope and wonders of this great city. Even now when my feet are firmly planted back home where the skies are not as blue in a 24/7 world of take-out coffee and fast food restaurants, I’m finding it hard to release my mental grip from around that Stockholm state of mind. Don’t know how long I’ll be able to hang on to that feeling, but I’m going to try as hard as I can not to loose it.
After a few days in Amsterdam I’m beginning to realize that like Venice in Italy, this is a city that requires a little time to get used to it and discover its hidden treasures. It is a place of stunning beauty, but also one that doesn’t divulge its true nature easily or perhaps willingly. As a visitor, it would be too easy to walk through the narrow streets in the Museum District or the Jordaan without ever talking to any local or getting to know what gives a particular neighborhood its character. The locals, while quite friendly, do seem to expect you to make that first friendship move, but once you take that first step you invariably find how friendly and nonjudgmental everyone seems to be.
Hang around the city’s many neighborhoods and you will be amply rewarded. From the ethnic diversity of the Pijp in the southern part of the city to the more genteel dwellings around Leidseplein to the west, Amsterdam is a city that begs to be discovered (and even in winter when constant rain and high winds remind you how far north you really are). Behind the imposing City Hall and the curved Amsterdam Music Theater you will find some of the most interesting shopping experiences in town, which are perhaps better characterized by the seemingly popular Cafe Reefer (the name very aptly describes it). But the city Flea Market and Rembrandt House are also in the area, thus providing a good balance to the neighborhood. Continue further west and you will soon be crossing the gorgeous Old Town section and the über-busy Kalverstraat, where you will also find the tiny Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx french fry legend. They have been making fries at this place since 1957 and topping them with as many as 25 different sauces. But be prepared to stand in line for a while and to eat out of a paper cone down the street, as the place serves its potato delicacies out of a window.
And then, there is the Jordaan. Just about every travel publication exhorts you to visit this neighborhood, and I can now see why. This is indeed Old Europe at its best. Small stores selling eclectic wares, tiny cafes filled with trendy-looking folks, and narrow, colorful streets almost begging you to turn here, or there, or anywhere. It is also one of the places where you are most likely to be run over by a bicyclist, as the narrow sidewalks filled with flower pots and bicycles often force you to step onto the cobblestoned streets where all the fast-moving Dutch cyclists aggressively zoom by while ringing warning bells. But none of that danger really matters, as you will most likely be languishing at a cafe or small restaurant oblivious to the passage of time. And if Amsterdam has any poets, I think you will most likely encounter them at a cafe in the Jordaan. Yes, right there next to you, where time and life’s burdens don’t seem to matter much.
Every time I visit Vienna, Austria, I am simply taken by its sheer beauty and imposing majesty. It is a magnificent city, even when a heatwave is blanketing the city and everyone seemed to be wilting from the heat. But while the constant 90+ degree heat made parts of the day unbearable, the morning and evenings when the light is best, still saved the photographic day.
This time around in Vienna I stayed away from the museums and palaces and concentrated on trying to find the true Viennese. Granted that I’m not quite sure what that is, but I was committed to finding it nonetheless. This proved harder than I thought, as it became readily apparent that in this world of globalized culture and products, that uniqueness that was Europe is becoming harder to find in the great European cities. People dress the same as those we left behind back home, and with the exception of some food items, we all eat pretty much the same things too (although I must admit that no one in the whole world can make croissants like the Viennese, not even the French).
But having said that, I still can’t help but be charmed by this great city. From the Belvedere Palace with its panoramic views of the city to the museum sector downtown, Vienna is about palatial scale. Drivers politely wave you across the street while they wait and locals patiently watch the street crossing signals before making their move. For a city with millions of visitors each year, the city center is incredible clean and a feeling of orderliness seems to prevail in everything locals do (or at least that’s how it feels for those of us coming from other parts of the world). And while I will have a little more to say about Vienna in the coming days, my initial feeling on this fourth visit to the city is the same as when I first laid eyes on it many years ago: simple fascination.
You just can’t miss it. The Buda Castle Hill sits majestically over the city of Budapest as if protecting it like it did a few centuries ago. Before arriving to Budapest I had read a few travel articles that downplayed this particular part of the city as being too “touristy.” And yes, the tourists (to include your’s truly) were there, but frankly, I don’t think that some of these travel writers were doing much justice to this wonderful place. The 360-degree views alone make this part of the city a “must visit” destination. And if you get there around 7:00 AM like I did, you will have the hill practically all for yourself for a few hours. And while public transportation can get you there in no time at all, it is a lot more fun to walk across the famous Chain Bridge and then up the hill through the various winding trails and sets of stairs leading to the castle.
But as great as the views were from the eastern, Pest-facing side of Castle Hill, my favorite part of this journey was walking along the promenade that borders the western part of the hill. This quiet residential area with its tree-lined pedestrian road and incredible views of the Buda Hills at the distance reminded me of the quiet serenity one feels when visiting some of those old European cathedrals. Walking that empty promenade during the early morning hours accompanied only by the soft light of a morning sun has to be the greatest highlight of my visit to this great city. And while I may never see this city again, this wonderful morning stroll, lit only by the melancholy light of morning eastern sun, will remain with me forever.
Ah, Budapest. If first impressions are the only impressions that matter, then this magnificent city overlapping the great Danube has charmed its way into one more heart. It is hard to believe that less than 25 years ago this city was the capital of a communist country. In fact, and quite different from places like Prague, it is virtually impossible to find any remnants of the old “communist mentality” in the city. Budapest is a very sophisticated city with an easy-going vibe and a young, mobile population. Similar to Berlin, there is unmistakable energy in the air everywhere, and it is highly contagious.
I will have much more to say about Budapest in the next few days, but for now there’s one place that has made an indelible impression on me. This is the world-famous New York Cafe at the Boscolo hotel at Erzsebet korut 9-11. From the castle-like opulence to the sophisticated waiters rhythmically moving about to the soft melodies of a concert piano, this monument to coffee lovers everywhere is nothing less than jaw-dropping beautiful. Add one of the most delicate and exquisite raspberry-filled dark chocolate mousse together with their famous Budapest Melange coffees, and you would be excused in thinking that you had died and gone to heaven. As I lingered in that great hall enjoying the soft melodies from that grand piano, I began to realize that this great, coquettish city was beginning to work it’s magic on me. And like so many other travelers before me, I became very well aware of the fact that I would not be able to resist it.