Winter Days in Strasbourg, France

Some of the small restaurants near La Petite France are the sheer definition of ambiance. [Click photos for larger versions]
Some of the small restaurants near La Petite France.
A characteristic establishment in La Petit France could not be more inviting.
La Petit France.
Friends enjoy the few, precious hours of sunshine during the short days of December.
Friends enjoy the few, precious hours of winter sunshine.
A sole gargoyle sits on the grounds of the cathedral as if keeping an eye on it for all eternity.
A sole gargoyle sits on the grounds of the cathedral.
The religious fervor of the locals was quite evident during the days leading to Christmas.
The religious fervor of the locals was quite evident during Christmas.
Cold December days convince customers to move inside, much to the consternation of the smoking crowd.
Cold December days convince customers to move inside.

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.

 

Attempting To Figure Out Luxembourg City

An old observation post sits high above the Vallé de la Petrussé. [Click photos for larger versions]
Above the Vallé de la Petrussé.
Great places in small packages.
Great places in small packages.
While there seems to be a lot of French influence in Luxembourg, the city has its unique, classy character.
A unique, classy character.
The European artisinal café culture is alive and well in Luxembourg.
The artisinal café culture is alive and well.
The dancing figures stood in sharp contrast to the foggy, dreary days of November in the city.
The dancing figures and foggy days.

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.

 

A Slow Journey To Nowhere

Old Tractor
Some of the most picturesque farmland in the country can be found along Virginia’s Route 50. [Click photos for larger versions]
Horse farms and polo grounds dot the Virginia countryside along Route 50.
Horse farms and polo grounds dot the Virginia countryside along Route 50.
Red Barn
Beautiful, old barns have been restored all along the picturesque town of Middleburg.
Bird House
An old birdhouse adds to the charm of one of the rustic yards in the town of Middleburg.
Bails of Hay
Bails of hay dot the fields along Route 50.
Covered Driveway
Long, covered driveways are extremely popular with the folks who live along Route 50.

I think our parents were up to something when they hauled the entire family into their vintage cars for the purpose of doing a little road tripping. And as rare as it sounds today, the habit of going out for a family ride in those old cars was one of the things some of us remember fondly from our youth. No agenda, no plans, and no particular destination in mind. Cruising around to check out what was happening in town had its own rewards. It was pure automobile zen. Right turns, left turns, slow down here and speed up over there, an unchoreographed dance where everyone’s performance became the stuff of family legends.

This sort of nostalgia is what led me recently to get in my car and hit the road, so to speak. All I knew was that I would drive down Virginia’s Route 50 for as long as I felt like it and that at some point I would perform a Forrest Gump-like turnaround and come back home. So along I went, music playing on the radio, windows down, and no destination. With my camera sitting next to me, I did tell myself that I would stop at whatever site caught my attention, even if it took all day to complete my journey. I knew this would be a problem because Route 50 is one of the most scenic country roads you’ll encounter anywhere in the US. But here was a unique opportunity to try out some of that “slow travel” concept that the Europeans have mastered so well over the years. Would it really be possible to do away with all notions of time while driving into the sunset of our minds? Well, the short answer seems to be no, but if it’s impossible to do away with that old torturer time, it is definitely possible to ignore it for a while.

Route 50 may just be the perfect place for this. And while I’ve written about this area before, the sheer beauty of this American landmark makes it the place you keep coming back to, over and over again. Hard to think of a better place in the area for a road trip, although admittedly, Route 211 past the town of Warrenton comes close. BBQ’s and horse farms are big in the area, as well as quaint, little towns where you can find everything from Amish patio furniture to Alpaca socks. But it’s the landscape that will make you forget all notions of time for a while. The green meadows just seem to go on forever until they reach the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, while happy horses graze on grass so green that it looks as if it has been painted recently. It is easy to loose yourself in this scenery and the delicate touch of a morning breeze. Who knows, perhaps it is possible to make time stand still after all, even if for that brief moment when nothing else mattered but what was in front our my eyes.

 

The Lakeside Town Of Como

Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region's hidden treasures.
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region’s hidden treasures.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta  is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town's main train station.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town’s main train station.

If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.

Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.

The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.

On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is.  Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.

 

Expo Milano 2015

The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with  over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to feeding the world.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to the world’s food supply.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
With all the great food at the Expo, it was virtually impossible to avoid putting on the pounds.
With all the great food at the Expo, it is virtually impossible to avoid putting on a few pounds.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
The many Expo canals between pavilions provided a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine.
The many, small canals between pavilions provide a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine while resting their feet.

Love food? Ever dream of finding yourself at a place where most of the food of the world can be found a mere short walk away? Then you should definitely make plans to visit the 2015 Milan World Expo taking place from 1 May to 31 October this year. For the first time ever, the World Expo is entirely dedicated to food, from its production and management, to its distribution and consumption. It is a spectacle like no other, and the fact that it is being held in the beautiful city of Milan, Italy just adds gravy to the mix, so to speak. More than 140 countries from around the world have gathered in Milan to educate and showcase their contribution to feeding the world’s population, and a lucky 20 million people are expected to visit the Expo grounds and consume endless amounts of food from every region of the world. In between education and consumption, everyone will will have the chance to meet neat people from all over the world while enjoying one of the most unique Expos in the history of these events.

Like any other major event of this kind (or city, for that matter), it is impossible to see everything there is to see unless you have lots of time to spare. This is particularly the case if you want to visit some of the largest national pavilions, where the lines waiting to enter can be quite long. However, some of these long queues will be well worth the wait (like the one at the incredible Japanese pavilion). Amazing technological shows, information booths, and elaborate information displays are everywhere. But perhaps of equal interest to us mundane consumers of good stuff, at the end of the presentations you will usually find a small restaurant serving some wonderful food from the country being represented at the event. Definitely not the place for dieters, or those over-concerned about an expanding waistline. Then again, who ever visited Italy avoid eating too much? But don’t despair, the Expo’s 1.1 million square meters will give you plenty of time (and room) to walk off those extra calories. Yes, the place is big, real big.

And while the endless, world food venues are reason alone to visit the Expo, a more sober and important reason to visit is highlighted by the event’s theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Great costs have been incurred by over 140 nations to showcase the endless networks of producers, laborers, managers, and distributors that are necessary to feed our world’s ever-growing population. With its underlying theme that food is life and good food leads to a good life, the message being sent by the Expo is a crucial one for us to understand the complexities associated with feeding the world. Globalized resource networks work around-the-clock to guarantee the availability of these food products, but behind it all there will always be a person. Someone to walk the fields to plant and harvest the goods; someone to sort, preserve, and distribute the goods; and someone to transport the goods to markets near and faraway. Along the way, these individuals also live their everyday lives, go to work, get paid, try to achieve their dreams, and plan for a better tomorrow. They are the heroes being celebrated at the Expo this year. Their efforts and sacrifices sustain our lives, while allowing us to engage in a myriad of non-food-producing activities thousands of miles away from the source of our food.  This is indeed an incredible world we live in.

 

24 Hours In Lausanne

Even during a short visit, it won't take you long before you are captivated by Lausanne's easy-going rhythm and wonderful scenes.
Even during a short visit, it won’t take you long before you are captivated by Lausanne’s easy-going rhythm and wonderful scenes.
While not a large city, Lausanne's many twisted streets and hidden treasures will surprise you at every turn.
While not a large city, Lausanne’s many twisted streets and hidden treasures will surprise you at every turn.
The downtown section between Rue Centrale and Rue de Bourg is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in Switzerland.
The downtown section between Rue Centrale and Rue de Bourg is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in Switzerland.
Perhaps the most prominent landmark in Lausanne, the Lausanne Cathedral sits majestically over the city.
Perhaps the most prominent landmark in Lausanne, the Lausanne Cathedral sits majestically over the city.
As in most of Europe, old and new sit side-by-side in this ancient city.
As in most of Europe, old and new sit side-by-side in this ancient city.
Trendy, new bars are beginning to appear down the famous Rue du Petit-Chêne leading to the main train station.
Trendy, new bars are beginning to appear down the famous Rue du Petit-Chêne leading to the main train station.
Young lovers seemed perfectly at ease during a school break in the middle of the day.
Young lovers seemed perfectly at ease during a school break in the middle of the day.

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.

Meandering Through Hong Kong

Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen's Road Central.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen’s Road Central.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you'll find anywhere in the world.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.

As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind.  I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday.  I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history.  It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward.  Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future.  This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness.  Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future.  Not sure.  But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage.  The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.

But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact.  Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways.  This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen.  Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry.  And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay.  Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world.  As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past.  As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past.  Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts.  If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.

Photographers After Dark

When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
When photographing at night without a tripod, any surface could be a cheap substitute. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

Where is a tripod when you really need one?  Like so many of you, I don’t particularly enjoy hauling a tripod with me when I go out with my camera.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a tripod (I actually own three of them and use them quite regularly), but rather that no matter how light and compact they are, they are just one more thing to carry when you are trying to reduce your load in the first place.  Of course, no sooner after you leave your tripod back at home or at your hotel, that you find yourself in desperate need of one.  That was the case with the shot above.  Finding myself walking through beautiful European cities at night, I couldn’t help but constantly regret leaving behind that tripod I had on my hands when the airport taxi showed up.  Yes, in order to “save some weight,” I put it down and walked out the door.

So what to do when you come to a scene like this one at night and your tripod is 3,000 miles away?  Answer: you desperately look for any surface you can find to support your camera.  In order to avoid blaming myself for being lazy, I have chosen to hide my shortcomings by referring to all sorts of support structures out there as photographic structural support compensation items.  OK, maybe not, but I guess my point is that there’s always a Plan B, even if it is not as pretty as Plan A.  What I have discovered about shooting at night without a tripod is that there are two elements that are absolutely crucial: patience and any type of support structure.  I say patience because speed and motion do seem to go together when night photography is concerned.  You have to look around checking for smooth surfaces, for people to get out of the way, for people to get in the way, for checking your breathing, and for slowly pressing that shutter release.  Not that patience can totally compensate for a good tripod, but if you take the time to adjust your position and angle based on whatever surface you have available to you, you’ll be able to get a fairly stable shot at a low ISO number.  But routinely counting on good luck and providence when shooting photographs at night without a tripod will always be a high-wire act.  Without a doubt, it will lead to a lot more rejects than keepers; and when you are out there for hours looking for that magical shot, having wasted most of your time is not the feeling you want to be left with at the end of the day.  That’s why that contraption is going with me next time I’m headed out with a camera after dark, whether it’s a mile or 3,000 miles from home.

Enchanting Krakow

The Maly Rynek Square is one of the most beautiful in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The Maly Rynek Square is one of the most beautiful in Krakow. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The views from Wawel Castle hill are the best in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The views from Wawel Castle hill are the best in Krakow. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Krakow has one of the liveliest restaurant scenes in Europe.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Krakow has one of the liveliest restaurant scenes in Europe. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Walk down Krakow's side-streets and you will be richly rewarded by small, quaint restaurants and bars.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Walk down Krakow’s side-streets and you will be richly rewarded by small, quaint restaurants and bars. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Street bread and pretzel salespeople are a fixture in Krakow's Old Town.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
Street bread and pretzel salespeople are a fixture in Krakow’s Old Town. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
Parts of the old city wall still sorrow Krakow's Old Town.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Parts of the old city wall still sorrow Krakow’s Old Town. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
A nation's pride for its beloved Pope is felt every day in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A nation’s pride for its beloved Pope is felt every day in Krakow. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

After spending nearly three weeks touring Europe, I can honestly say that Krakow, Poland has been the most captivating place I have visited in this journey.  This gorgeous city, with its many churches and regal Wawel Castle Hill, is without a doubt one of the best kept secrets in Europe.  It may be Poland’s second largest city, but it is the country’s unquestionable spiritual center.  From the imposing Wawel Cathedral atop Wawel Hill to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary at the Grand Square, the city’s (and the country’s) devotion to the Catholic faith could not be any stronger.  Coming from a country where seeing a nun walking down the street is as rare as seeing a comet in the sky, you can’t help but marvel at the collective devotion of the Polish people for its church and for its prodigal son, John Paul II.

But Krakow is not just about religion.  Friendly locals, great architecture, and a lively social atmosphere add to the city’s charm.  During my four-day visit to the city I saw nothing but packed city streets leading to the Grand Square and the lively energy of a city bent on putting its mark on the world.  The energy level was so high, that I found it very hard to rationalize the country’s troubled history during the last century.  The Polish people, with their hard-working, yet friendly disposition, are obviously more concerned with building a future than with lingering in the past.  And while reminders of that past can still be found around the city (like the cross in honor of the fallen during the Katyn Forest massacre by Russian troops), for the casual visitor they remain virtually invisible.  As I get ready to leave this beautiful city, my only regret is that it took me so long to get here.  This city, with its wonderful people and bright future, have been the highlight of my nearly ten thousand mile journey.  So dziękuję Krakow, and I hope we meet again.

Soft Landing In Budapest

A lively night life lights up the Danube shores across from Castle Hill on the Buda side.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
A lively night life lights up the Danube shores across from Castle Hill on the Buda side. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Very few places in the world could match the sheer elegance and sophistication of the New York Cafe at the Boscolo, Budapest.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Very few places in the world could match the sheer elegance and sophistication of the New York Cafe at the Boscolo, Budapest. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

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.