Most people who visit Puerto Rico will never make it to this part of the island. That is because admittedly, the somewhat sleepy town of Aguadilla lacks the high energy vibe of San Juan with its rhythmic night life and slew of fancy hotels. Nothing wrong with that. But one thing that Aguadilla can lay claim to is the beautiful Crash Boat beach (there is actually a crashed boat there) with its incredible sky-blue waters and its blinding white sands. In fact, I’m certain that to find another place like it you will have to travel far and wide to the Pacific, Africa, or parts of Asia. Crash Boat is nature at its best; devoid of development and almost demanding that you slow down, relax, and forget about such mundane notions as the time of day.
Getting there, though, is not as easy as you would expect for such a world-class beach. Also, do not expect too many high-end hotels in the area, as they are few and far between. But if you are willing to drive a little out of town, you’ll find some top rated resorts well worth your trip. One thing you won’t have to worry about is where to find something to eat. Local vendors occupy some of the most prominent real estate at the beach and are at work early in the morning frying plantains and preparing out-of-this-world fish and pork “empanadillas.” Linger there until the late afternoon hours and you will be treated to some of the most incredible sunsets in the world. I just bet most non-local visitors to Crash Boat wish they could have a place like this within driving distance of their homes. As a matter of fact, so do I.
One of the first things I head when visiting Philadelphia over the weekend was that the only reason anyone went to South Street downtown was to consume the delectable Philly cheese steak from Jim’s Steaks. I grant you that this local institution, which has been making cheese steak sandwiches for more than 70 years, is reason enough to visit the neighborhood, but it is certainly not the only reason. OK, you can also go there to get a tattoo or to sneak into some of the local “adult” shops, but the colorful neighborhood with its mosaic walls and lively street life is what really attracts people to this part of town (at least I think so). You can reach South Street from Independence Hall by walking down the quaint 4th Street, lined with some of the most exclusive (and expensive) properties in Philadelphia. Along the way you will see some of the greatest city parks I have ever seen in any city. They give the downtown a definite “green” look, and in a city this size, this is always a welcomed sight. And then there are the historical cemeteries along 4th and 5th Street on your way to or from the South Street neighborhood. Not to be morbid here, but for a photographer, these cemeteries with their Colonial era backdrops and twisted, weather-beaten tombstones, are the stuff people behind the cameras live for.
But the South Street neighborhood remains the main attraction, at least for this photographer. This very informal part of town is not necessarily where you will find most members of the local tea society, but if it’s real people you’re looking for, this is indeed the place to find them. Great coffee shops, cheap local restaurants, and street characters galore will keep you snapping those photos for hours. In some sense, South Street could be considered the Bohemian side of Philadelphia, and worlds apart from the city’s historical center. It is also quite an ethnic melting pot with over 60 eateries serving everything from the famous cheese steaks to fusion and Jamaican specialties. For me, though, it was what was happening out on the street that made my trip there so rewarding. People were extremely friendly, approachable, and didn’t seem to mind much the many cameras clicking away at them at a discreet distance. Day or night, this is one of those unique neighborhoods you just can’t miss when visiting this great American city.
This is not a happy post. I say that because after paying a short visit to what used to be a unique downtown section in Fairfax County, it became readily apparent that the relentless march of “progress” is slowly swallowing a big chunk of Virginia’s history. My initial impression after walking the few local streets for a while was that of a desolate town that appeared to have had the wind knocked out of it by some invisible force. Once a vibrant historical site anchored around the Old Fairfax Courthouse built just as the 18th Century was coming to an end, the Old Town section appears to be loosing the war against developers, law firms, and speculators trying to capitalize on the sprawling government complex housing the Fairfax County Courthouse and Public Safety Center. This complex is the new town center, with its uninviting architecture and the uneasy feeling brought about by the knowledge that somewhere within its walls you will also find the county jail. That’s right, this is ground zero for the county’s legal community and a sure one-stop-shopping for anyone committing a crime within this jurisdiction. It just doesn’t make for a nice downtown.
But from my conversations with some of the locals, it appears that not everyone is “going quietly into that goodnight,” and some of the folks who have been around for a while continue to hang on as much as they can. There are still a few quaint, elegant restaurants like the Italian Bellissimo and at least one good music venue like The Old Fire Station left in town (see photos above). But walk through the Old Town on any particular day during the daylight hours and you are most likely to find yourself there alone staring at empty establishments. The only real action in town these days seems to come from the multitude of people who have been summoned to court against their will, the lawyers with their overstuffed briefcases, and the bail bondsmen who most people would rather never meet. What you will no longer see, though, are elegant couples walking in the early evening hours to the former world-class Bailiwick Inn, with its beautiful decor and small, gourmet restaurant that was the perfect setting for a romantic night out. Where former lovers met at the start of some wonderful rendezvous, you will now find business offices, tacky signs, and a hanging business banner directly staring at the potential costumer visiting the courthouse across the street. Sadly, the lovers appear to have moved away.
It seems that whenever you talk to someone in Copenhagen and say that you are going to cross the long Øresund Bridge in order to visit Malmo, Sweden, the question that pops up is: “Why would you want to go there?” Of course, you start telling people that Malmo is the third largest city in Sweden and that its old town has the type of scenery that is every photographer’s dream, but I’m not sure even this argument would convince most of the Copenhagen locals. But notwithstanding the humorous comments, the city of Malmo is definitely worth visiting. Once you have a chance to stroll the city’s historical center with its great squares and cafes, it will become readily obvious that this sleepy city across the water from Denmark insists on moving at a much slower pace than its more cosmopolitan neighbor to the west. Crossing the Øresund Bridge into Sweden was like moving from a busy main street to a much quieter, and less populated side street of a major city. However, it was precisely this slower pace (and cheaper prices!) that made Malmo such a nice place to spend a sunny summer day.
Getting to Malmo from Copenhagen takes about 45 minutes when you allow for some of the local trains to be a few minutes late. But the good news is that once you arrive at the Malmo train station, the city is just a short walk across the Rundan Canal bridge linking the station to the old town. Follow Hamngatan street for about one block and you will find yourself at the imposing Stortorget square (see photo above), the heart of the old city. From here any direction will take you to quiet side streets with quaint cafes and restaurants where you can sit and watch the day go by. But if shopping is what’s on your mind, then you want to head on down the pedestrian Sødergatan street with its many shops and well-stocked department stores. Of course, I’m referring to the ladies, as I am convinced that men only have one store in the world and it follows us everywhere we go. Well, that didn’t seem to matter in this beautiful city, and at the end of the day I felt tempted to label Malmo the European version of “the big easy.” Relaxed, civilized, and photogenic, the city leaves you with the feeling that you have only just begun to discover this wonderful Nordic country. Yet another thing to add to my long and ambitious “to do” list.
There is no better day to visit some of the most magnificent Danish castles than on a cloudy, rainy day. This was the case during my recent visit to the imposing Frederiksbørg Slot in Hillerød and the mysterious Krombørg Slot of Hamlet fame in Helsingør. Both these properties are simply incredible, but they do evoke different feelings from the visitor, specially on a rainy day. Where Frederiksbørg Slot and its beautiful gardens evoke romantic notions of gold-plated chariots and majestic ball dances in a glorious setting, the mere sight of Krombørg Slot and its imposingly fortified walls will make the hair on the back of your neck stand while your senses immediately go on high alert as if you were about to storm the fortress during its glory days. These castles could not be more different, or more magnificent. What a difference a century or so makes.
As you walk up the cobblestone road that leads to the fountain courtyard at Frederiksbørg Slot, this Dutch Renaissance gem from the 17th Century immediately begins to take your breath away. Its imposing architecture and magnificent fountain at the main courtyard will make you think that you have just wandered into a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. But if you only stick to the castle while there, you will miss out on the sumptuous Baroque gardens with sections edged into royal monograms and the scenic walk around the moat surrounding the castle. This place is simply a photographer’s dream. But so is the dark and dramatic Krombørg Slot, which stands guard at the entrance of the Øresund while staring at Sweden right in the eye. Adding to the charisma of this castle is the story that Ogier the Dane sits there in a pronounced slumber until the day that Denmark is in great danger, at which time Ogier will come out of his prolonged slumber to save the nation. Let’s just hope that he will never have to do this.
A few blocks from the imposing King’s Gardens in Copenhagen, you will find the historic, but somewhat unassuming neighborhood of Nyboder. At the center of this colorful district you will find the intensely orange housing units that were originally built to house members of the Danish naval forces. But while these orange row houses seem to dominate the area, there is much more to Nyboder than these orange dwellings, which give the area its unmistakable “military” atmosphere. Walking along the Gerdersgade street and past the imposing St. Paul’s church (see photo above), you get the feeling that this both a family-friendly neighborhood and a historical military district. Of course, the fact that around 09:00 in the morning its streets were pretty much deserted kind of gives away the fact that the military no longer inhabits the neighborhood, but the past continues to live through the architecture and neatly-kept streets. The center of activity on the morning I visited seemed to be the local bakery (see photo above), where people seemed to trickle in slowly, but steadily, as in an orderly procession to purchase some of the best baked goods I’ve tasted in a long time.
And then there are the roses. All along Kronprinsessegade, which runs through the middle of Nyboder, the somewhat strong facade of the row houses is dramatically softened by row after row of colorful rose bushes which even in the early morning hours of the day were being meticulously cared for by local residents. Roses seem to be quite popular in Copenhagen, but in Nyboder they kind of assume a more prominent role when splashed against the deep orange walls of its humble buildings. Nyboder is indeed a great off-the-beaten-path neighborhood to explore on your way to visiting the adjacent Copenhagen University or the Gefion Fountain area with its views of the Opera House and the historic Kastellet. What’s even better, this is a great place to take photos without having to bump into fast-moving tourist groups exiting large buses on their 10-minute stop. No, on the contrary. You’ll be pretty much alone here, but that is precisely what makes Nyboder such a wonderful neighborhood to explore.
Undoubtedly, one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in Copenhagen is the small canal in Nyhavn, with its colorful attached houses and its magnificent sailboats docked next to some great local restaurants. This part of the city is easily reached within a 10-minute walk from the famous pedestrian shopping district of Stroget. The entire neighborhood is anchored at one end by a small square and the majestic Hotel D’Angleterre, with its imposing white facade, and at the other by the Royal Danish Playhouse with its imposing architecture.
But it is what’s in between these two great Danish institutions that will catch the attention of most mere mortals. Just walking around the canal in the early morning hours when the orange sun begins to bounce off the multi-colored buildings will give you the impression that you are in one of the traditional rose gardens that seem to dot this wonderful city. This is a great place to watch the city come alive in the mornings, and you can do it all while enjoying a cappuccino at any of the many restaurants lining this colorful canal. Finish your coffee and your Danish pastry and then hop on to one of the boats to take a canal tour of the many waterways surrounding the city and its adjacent islands. Later, walk north along the waterfront until you reach the Museum of Danish Resistance (Frihedsmuseet) with its displays depicting the Nazi occupation of Denmark during WWII. This whole area is indeed a testament to the diversity and great history of the Danish people.
If I were to describe a city as a “state of mind,” I would be talking about Copenhagen, Denmark. This beautiful Nordic city, full of winding, narrow streets and grandiose buildings is both a vibrant modern city and a laid-back community where bicycling seems to be most common form of transportation. In fact, the city’s pace seems to be dictated by the speed of these ever-present bicycles, and we are not talking Tour de France here. Everyone seems to ride them, from ladies in colorful summer dresses seemingly taking their time to get to wherever they happen to be going, to young professionals obviously in a hurry to get to work. It all happens in somewhat of a rhythmic dance where pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists seem to miss each other by what to the visiting photographer seem to be the narrowest of margins.
This is specially the case in the historical Latin Quarters located between the law faculty of Copenhagen University on Fiolstraede and the King’s Gardens on Gothersgade. The neighborhood is replete with quaint city squares lined with shops and cafes that are jammed-packed during the current jazz festival, which seems to bring music to just about every corner of the city. Anchored in the middle of this old neighborhood are the Trinitatis Church with its larger-than-life round tower and the ultra-hip First Hotel Skt. Petri with its famous Bar Rouge. But what it does seem to lack is any form of parking, so forget your car if you are coming here. However, you can pretty much cover the Latin Quarters in a morning of brisk walking, but that would be a pity. To fully appreciate the ambiance in this student area, it is the lingering on an outside table in one of its many bistros that will make you truly appreciate how wonderful a place this is. Somehow, here in Denmark, time seems to take a backseat to life. What a concept!
Annapolis, Maryland must be one of the most photogenic cities in America. The home of the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the great boating sites anywhere in the world, Annapolis is one of those places where old and the new have struck an apparent seamless coexistence. But what really distinguishes this Capital City of the State of Maryland is indeed its naval tradition. To say that Annapolis is about water and sailing would be a gross understatement. Expensive yachts, suntanned boat hands, and nautical paraphernalia are everywhere. What’s more, walking its many quaint, narrow streets lined with wooden row houses will transport you to another era when these houses must have been occupied by sea-fearing sailors who found freedom in the open oceans. Of course, the expensive BMW and Lexus luxury sedans in front of them now will quickly remind you that poor, blue-collar boat hands don’t live there any more; but hey, what’s wrong with a little daydreaming.
The heart of Annapolis remains the downtown dock area, bordered on one side by Dock Street and on the other by Compromise Street. Here is where you will find the greatest concentration of boats and people, all mixed into a somewhat overwhelming visual experience. Photographically, you really don’t want to be caught there around noon, as the blinding glare coming off the water and the surrounding buildings pretty much washes away the colors of this most colorful city. Get there early in the day (and before the few public parking lots in the city get full) or head on down to the area late in the afternoon during the summer months if you want the best sunlight for your photos. And if overhead city photos is what you are after, then head on out to the top deck of the public parking lot sitting between Gorman and Main Streets. This tip came thanks to a local gentleman who stopped me down Main Street to give me some well-intended photographic advice. Not mentioned by my new-found friend, but well deserving a visit was the well-off section of Eastport right across the short bridge connecting Compromise and 6th Streets. Only about a five-minute walk from the downtown dock area, Eastport is replete with restaurants, bars, and marinas, not to mention multimillion dollar waterside properties that will make you wish you would have paid more attention to your business courses in college. It’s very easy to fall in love with this place.
Every time I set foot inside a train station, be it here in the United States or in the grand stations of Europe, I can’t help but feel that these stations are a lot more than mere transportation hubs. Of course, they are that, but there is a certain romantic air that permeates these places that you generally do not find in airports, or bus stations for that matter. Not sure what gives rise to this feeling, but I tend to think that the sheer magnitude of these places, combined with their slower tempo and meandering crowds, have something to do with it. Walk the hallways of Union Station in Washington, DC, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is a grand, 102-year old station that is the hub of ground transportation for the city of Washington and a great place from which to start a visit to this great city. Filled with restaurants, bars, and tourist connections, you can pretty much start and end your day at this building. Walk downstairs and you can either catch various metro lines or pig out at its huge food court. And of course, there are the more upscale restaurants on the main floor, which are quite good.
But it is the overall atmosphere at Union Station that makes it so special. You can’t walk through it without feeling that some great change in your life is about to take place. You are going somewhere, or returning from a journey, or meeting a loved one, or watching people on their way to-and-from imaginary places. It is all a rhythmic movement of people whose lives we like to imagine as being a lot more sophisticated than our own, but which perhaps are just as ordinary. Movement, however, gives these lives a sense of purpose and we as observers tend to busy ourselves filling in the blanks as to the purpose of their journeys. Surely that couple must be on its way to participate in a New York fashion show. That girl with the guitar, I’m sure that she is a folk singer on her way to some gig in Philadelphia. And the the couple kissing at the departure gate must be be saying goodbye because one of them is headed to military service and possibly to war in faraway lands. In these sumptuous stations we can’t help but imagine these great stories. I’m sure too that for many of these people the guy with the cameras walking around talking the pictures above also conjured some romantic notion of the carefree travel photographer who never has to go to an office to earn a living. If only we could make each other’s fantasies come true!
Nothing like good BBQ on a very hot day, right? With temperatures reaching well into the 90’s today, you would have thought that people would have stayed away from the annual Safeway National Capital BBQ Battle, but that was certainly not the case. From my Texas days I do remember that BBQ and heat seemed to go together like wine and a meal, but I must admit I was somewhat surprised to see that our bureaucrat-filled city had so many grill lovers. The longest lines seemed to be at the Safeway tent, where it appears that some freebies were being passed out to anyone with a hungry face. And believe me, there were plenty of hungry people and food to go around. This year I also got the impression that they had more tents than in previous years, but fewer of the big BBQ rigs that could best be described as industrial grills that could feed an army. But what really made this BBQ event remind you that you were not in Texas was the $10 they charged you to get into the event. Oh well, how else would you be reminded that you are in one of the most expensive cities in the USA?
One of the fascinating things about Washington, DC is that on any given day the streets of this great city are filled with a kaleidoscope of people who are here to make political statements or to participate on some great, national event. It is easy to take all this activity for granted, as most locals by now do seem to have adopted a nonchalant attitude toward signs held together with broomsticks or loud megaphones in front of the White House. But to ignore all these demonstrations, parades, and human displays downtown would be a great mistake, specially if you are a photographer. My advice: pack at least a few memory cards in your bag, don’t take too much equipment, and research these events before you get there. With all the walking you’ll be doing, the last thing you need is to carry heavy equipment or not have a clue as to where to go or when. Adding to these challenges is the fact that most of these events take place around the noon hours, which for most serious photographers is the equivalent of sunshine for vampires (at least from what I’ve seen in the movies). Count on lots of lost detail on your photos unless you are one of the lucky ones who managed to get a good spot up high on some of the local monuments or government buildings. Those precious high-ground spots will allow you to point that expensive telephoto downward and away from the city’s shiny government buildings.
But what really makes the streets of our nation’s capital so interesting is the people. Young, old, gay, straight, Asian, European, Latin, African, you name it and it is there every day. And if you are wondering how to keep up with everything that is happening in DC, here are some places you may want to check on a regular basis: the Washington Post activity page (click here), Metromix (click here), the Smithsonian calendar of events (click here), Georgetown Life (click here), all things food from The List (click here), and National Mall events from the National Parks Service (click here). Yes, I know that there are many other sites that could have made my short list, but the intent is just to provide you with a sampler of the events that regularly take place in the heart of the city. So pack your camera and water bottle and go take those great photographs that are out there just waiting for you to record them.
OK, so these are not exactly the normal travel photographs I generally post on this blog, but since characters like these represent an inescapable reality in our cities all over America, I thought I would include them here for a change. These photos were taken in San Francisco and Washington, DC, where tens of thousands of people roam the streets every day in search of everything from a popular tourist attraction to a bowl of food. In cities like Washington, DC, the homeless figures are simply astronomical and reach numbers in the thousands. They are also a migratory bunch, traveling as far as California during the winter months only to reappear back in the area once the snow begins to melt. They get around by Greyhound bus, as I discovered a couple of years ago when my wife and I offered a ride to a guy by the name of Johnny, who happened to be living under the I-395 overpass near the Pentagon. Every year, though, Johnny is back there during the summer months, disappearing from the area as soon as temperatures begin to drop. But here is where all these stereotypical ideas I had of homeless people came to a screeching halt. The reason: Johnny the homeless is one of the most voracious readers I have ever seen. Drive by him while he sits at all the local intersections with his shopping cart waiting for someone’s generosity and you will always see a book on his hands. Ask him what he wants and he will generally ask for three things: food, books, and cigarettes. Most of the time he gets the first two, but not the last one. Talk to him about modern literature and popular authors and he will happily engage in a conversation that will prove that the thirst for knowledge knows no boundaries or social class. In spite of all that, I am sure that for most people this man will always be nothing more than a beggar on the street. For me, though, he has become somewhat of an inspiration.
The famous Capital Pride Festival took place in Pennsylvania Avenue today and as always, it was quite a colorful event. Lots of food, lots of performers, and a lot of people just out to have some fun on a very hot Sunday afternoon. In fact, the only discordant note for the day was the relentless heat, which gave everyone in the District a taste of what it feels like to live in the tropics. It was brutal and I’m sure that there must have been a run on the local pharmacies today looking for anything that would block the incessant heat. Of course, people made the best of it while checking out a whole slew of promotional booths selling you everything from exotic travel vacations to Chinese food. There was even a dog booth, but frankly, I’m not sure what the purpose was. People just seemed to be playing with the dogs, which could very well have been the whole idea. And then there were the cardboard replicas of Hillary Clinton (obviously a friend) and the Virginia Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli (obviously not a friend). You could have your picture taken with them while onlookers encouraged you to do all sorts of things to the props. Only one got hugs and smiles, and it was not the Attorney General of Virginia. But it was all clean fun and a great group of people coming out to have a good time on a scorcher of a day.
One thing you can say about San Francisco is that the streets are never dull. There’s something happening all the time. What’s more, just about everywhere you turn you will find all sorts of characters going about their daily lives in ways that make this city by the bay one of the most colorful places in America. For photographers, San Francisco is the city that just keeps on giving. From the eclectic Union Square with its many demonstrations and artists showing their latest wares to the world-famous Chinatown, the faces of this city are as unique as they are varied. However, not everyone in San Francisco will be happy to see your camera pointed at them. In Chinatown the locals do not appear to be very amused by your creative pursuits, although there will always be exceptions. For the most part, Chinatown demands a good telephoto lens because even though you are unquestionably in America, you can’t help but feel that you have stepped into a different world where every spoken word transports you to some far-away land.
Around other parts of the city (like Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square) the feeling is exactly the opposite. The many street performers and attention-seekers in the area just love to have their pictures taken. If you ask them, they will even pose for you. As always, though, it is the way you ask that will make a difference. For me, it is all about capturing those photos that make you feel as if you are there with the people who call the city home. I am fascinated by the way they dress, the way they smile, and the way they go about their daily lives while weaving that incredible tapestry that gives communities everywhere their character and cultural identity. Their lives are our lives, a few states removed. Like us, they go about their daily activities in search of profit, sustenance, and fun. It is all as if we travel thousands of miles for an opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror, but through the lives of others. They are us and we are them. No question that life has more in common than we can ever imagine.