Not all colors are alike. How’s that for a tautological argument? But let me explain. I spend a considerable amount of my time on earth walking around cities searching for interesting photographic subjects. And while my somewhat optimistic searches don’t always prove fruitful (ok, some of it may have to do with my inherent photographic limitations), there is no denying that colors, or the lack of them, kind of influence what I look at, or at the very least, what I find interesting. They make objects stand out from their surroundings and dramatically influence the visual choices we make out there in the world.
So what is it about the color red that usually makes it stand out supreme from other colors? It’s not even my favorite color. But no matter where my eyes take me, red is a color I’ve found impossible to ignore. In its own silent way, it screams at me, demanding my visual attention like no other color out there (well, maybe with the exception of the neon oranges that some tourist groups wear so they won’t loose anyone). From a fashion perspective, you would not catch me dead wearing such a color. Perhaps because different to other colors, I don’t find red to be a passive color, or unassuming for that matter. It visually pokes you and demands not to be ignored. In its own convoluted way, it represents both passion and pain, smiles and tears. It can’t hide and cannot be missed. It pulls more than it pushes, and demands a photographer’s attention like no other. Resistance is futile, so it’s not even worth trying. Isn’t that wonderful?
Some places have a way of captivating you through their quiet, unassuming ways. They usually don’t make the front pages of travel magazines, nor do they become world-famous for hosting major events like the Olympics or the World Expo. And yet, for those who venture outside the normal touristy venues to explore a bit deeper into a country, these somewhat out-of-the-way gems are full of rewards. In a type of understated way, they charm you not with UNESCO-type monuments to humanity, but rather with the easy-going simplicity that characterizes most of our everyday lives. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany is such a place.
Straddling the western side of the Black Forest, this smallish university city in the state of Baden-Württenburg provides a much welcomed break from its more touristy French neighbor to the north, Strasbourg. It’s geographical location alone (sitting on the south-west corner of Germany by the Black Forest) makes it somewhat of a refuge from the tourist lanes that crisscross most of Europe these days. To go to Freiburg, you must want to go to Freiburg, because it will require you to get off the main road to do so. But this, my friends, is the good news about this wonderful city. It charms you for what it’s not, which if you have traveled any time recently to the overcrowded, major European cities that dominate most vacation brochures, you will soon come to appreciate.
If I had to pick a term to describe my time in Freiburg, I would probably refer to it as “slow travel.” None of that need-for-speed stuff that characterizes major metropoles these days. On the contrary, days wandering the twisted, quiet streets in Freiburg tend to blend into each other with the ease of day passing into night. After spending some time in a major European city, life in Freiburg felt like you had arrived at a place you could call home. Orderly, clean, and charmingly low-keyed, it is the kind of place where you go to recharge your batteries while enjoying a simpler way of life. But don’t get me wrong, Freiburg is not some desolate city where nothing of any consequence is happening. Rather, it is a charming city with all the trappings of a larger city, but on a much smaller scale (and a lot cheaper too), and with a lot less tourist traffic. And even if you wouldn’t think so from trying to find a free table at the incredible Hausbrauerei Feierling brewery (which by the way, is reason enough to go to Freiburg for a few days), you will be able to dispense with any notion of speed during your visit there. The city, with its easy-going, unassuming rhythm, will definitely grow on you. And as you board that train on your way to Basel, Stuttgart, or wherever your travels are taking you, you will be glad you took the time to stop and visit this charming city by the Dreisam river.
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.
It’s been a long while since I last visited Zurich, Switzerland. In fact, it’s been about a decade, to be precise, and if it was wonderful the day I left, it has gotten even better now. Sure, the crowds have increased quite a bit, and this world financial center has not gotten any cheaper. But the Alpine magic that once captivated a younger version of myself is still there, and in great quantities. The blue evening glow generated by the sun’s reflected light from the snow-capped mountains, the chilly morning strolls along the Limmat river, and the joyful holiday spirit that makes the Christmas season so special along the Alpine Region of Europe. Yes, they are all still there, and so is the evoked feeling that you are visiting a very special place in the world, where in the course of one day you can’t avoid but feel that you have heard just about every language under the sun spoken along the old, cobblestone streets in the city. I may not understand most of them, but one thing I do know for sure: that they are as fascinated as I am with this gem of a city. How do I know this? Because a happy face is easy to spot, and happy faces they have. After all, couples don’t hold hands and kiss in public places when they are not happy. But Zurich has that effect on people, and as long as it does, this aging traveler will continue to come back to find its incredible magic.
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.
Talk about a place surpassing all of your expectations. For a long time now I’ve known about this wonderful small town that lies deep in the heart of Flanders, Belgium, but my feet have always taken me somewhere else in Europe. So why not? Off to Brugge then. Six incredible days later, I now realize that I should have visited this postcard-perfect city a long time ago. Yes, Brugge, a city that without even trying has moved near the top of my dream list of places that I would love to relocate to. Friendly, approachable, and real, it is the kind of place where people just don’t seem to have the kind of attitude that keeps people “on edge” in other parts of the world.
With time, I’ve come to realize that there are places you travel to because of the attractions that every tourist must see, and places you travel to because of the feelings they evoke. Brugge is definitely in the latter category, and while there are plenty of local attractions to occupy you during your visit, it is the city’s attitude (or vibe, for that matter) that totally grabs you the moment you set eyes on its wonderful architecture. Venture in any direction from the central Grote Markt square and you will find an idyllic world of quiet canals, small cafes, and quaint, little restaurants that look like places out of a Hollywood romantic movie. Very few places that I’ve ever seen will compare with the serene landscape along the canal bordering Groenerei Street on a rainy day, where arched, brick bridges covered in dark, green mildew, blend seamlessly with the surrounding houses bordering the canal. Wander north to Spinodarei Street to enjoy viewing groups of swans that seem to fly along the watery clouds of the canal. Then head on west along Gruuthusestraat to the 12th Century Oud Sint-Jan hospital site and its incredible courtyard where the statute of two monks consoling each other will almost move you to tears. And what better place to get lost at night, when the soft, yellow lights of barely lit restaurants cast a dimmed glow on the narrow cobblestone streets of an ancient city. It is often said that Paris is prettier when it rains, and undoubtedly there’s a lot of truth to that. But so is Brugge, and in the cool, dark nights of mid-November, it is the stuff of dreams.
What can you say about Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany? If you ever have the opportunity to visit the place, descriptors like idyllic, beautiful, postcard perfect, and incredible will readily come to mind. It certainly is no understatement to say that this hilltop medieval town at the beginning of the Romantic Road has to be one of the most wonderful places on earth. At the very least, a visit to this romantic town will transport you back in time several centuries to a time when when knights and lords roamed the undulating hills of central Germany. Walk the cobblestone streets at night when hanging lights from ancient buildings glow dramatically in the thick, mountain fog, and you will swear that you have just been transported to another world. Picture perfect, Rothenburg is like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Frozen in time, it stands there with towns like Siena in Italy as places that will simply take your breath away. It is beauty personified, and without a doubt, the perfect place for romantics everywhere.