Saint Patrick's Day, Alexandria, Virginia

Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Old Town Alexandria brought out massive crowds that had been suffering from snow-induced cabin fever.  After weeks of relentless snow and crappy weather, all the vitamin D deficient people in the area seemed to be congregating at Old Town for the parade.  Green-clad people were everywhere, but what was curiously missing from the parade itself was much of an Irish theme.  Yes, the music was there and there were several bagpipe bands with their colorful kilts, but these soon gave way to South American dancers, military honor guards, expensive sport cars, and even a group of people whose role in the parade consisted of walking their dogs (no, I’m not making this up).  This level of diversity, though, did make for a good photo day, so “all is well that ends well.”

Del Rey, Virginia

There are those neighborhoods around the country that are somewhat outside most people’s radar screens.  The Del Rey neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia is one of those neighborhoods.  This place is very easy to miss, as the “downtown” area pretty much consists of a single street (Mt. Vernon Ave) and about 4 blocks of eclectic shops and eateries.  Yes, this is one of those sleepy, little neighborhoods with a charm out of proportion to its size.  But it does have plenty of charm and some great places to hang out, drink some great wine, and disappear from the radar screen.

While everyone seems to have their favorite shops in the area, two of them will get your attention real quick.  The first of these is the Planet Wine Shop and the adjacent Evening Star Cafe.  The other is the wonderful Cheesetique Specialty Cheese Shop with its chic wine bar (see photo above).  Yes, there are other businesses in the area, but wine and food lovers will pretty much hang around these three places until it is time to crawl back home.  The good thing is that you won’t have far to go because Del Rey is quite close to Alexandria and Washington, DC.

Fredericksburg, Virginia

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

Rincón, Puerto Rico

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

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

Jamestown, Virginia

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

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

Berlin, Germany

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

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

City Walk, Prague

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

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

Mala Strana, Prague

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

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

Charles Bridge, Prague

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

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

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

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

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

Copia, Napa Valley

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

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

Union Square, San Francisco

OK, so Union Square in San Francisco is one of those places where you’ll see pretty much anything.  And the best thing is that you can pretty much stand on one spot and it all comes to you.  The place is simply like a magnet for people from all walks of life.  I found myself there because I was attending the Second Life virtual world conference, which turned out to be as colorful as the scenes that were playing out outside at the square.  This kind of led to the dilemma of whether to go to the conference or just hang outside at the square.  Of course, the outside was a lot more enticing, primarily because the place is so photo-friendly that it almost makes you forget the photo-phobias of the Washington, DC area.  What’s more, some of the most colorful characters in the place are more than glad to pose for photographs.  OK, not everyone.  I did take a picture of a homeless person and found myself on the receiving end of a string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush.  This was a bit disconcerting, specially when everyone there looked like a tourist with a camera hanging from his or her neck.  Lesson learned, though.

In addition to the many photo opportunities there, what makes Union Square such a great place to linger for a day are the many chic stores that face the square, as well as the great eateries that lie just a few blocks away between Sutter and Bush Streets.  The square is only a few blocks from Chinatown and its commercial heart is dominated by the two Macy’s stores (his and hers) that sit just across the street from the square.  Of course, the ever-present trolley cars are there too, packed with tourists precariously hanging from the back section.  Come to think of it, they make good photographs too.  And when you’ve had enough of all the hustle and bustle (or when your camera memory card is full) for the day, not far from the square on your way to Chinatown you’ll find the famously sleek Rouge et Blanc wine bar.   The great choice of wines-by-the-glass will surely take care of all your troubles.

Washington Marina, DC

Believe me when I say that I’m not totally sure what the Marina’s official name is, although if you dig a little you will find out that Southwest Waterfront is about as official a name as it will get.  Most people seem to refer to it as the place by the Potomac River where all those seafood restaurants are, or where you can catch a dinner boat for a few hours. I did discover a name for the section where the boats are docked: The Gangplank Marina.  Frankly, after living in the area for a while, this is the first time I ever hear of a Gangplank, although admittedly, I am not much of a boat person.

This place was extremely popular in years past, but fell of the “hipster” radar screen some years back, and for reasons I can’t remember. Notwithstanding this lost reputation, it remained one of the best places in DC to photograph, specially if you like those late afternoon shots like the ones here.  The light is simply amazing, even if some of those highlights insist on creeping into your pictures.  Walk the entire length of the waterside promenade and you will see people working on their boats, lovers walking slowly as if they had all the time in the world, and the occasional incredible portrait of someone who just stopped by to catch the last few minutes of sunshine in the day.  Oh, and if you get hungry at the end of it all, you will be only a few steps away from some of the area’s popular seafood restaurants.

Adams Morgan, DC

Adams Morgan is one of the most (if not the most) ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the Washington, DC area.  They could move the United Nations here and the delegates would feel right at home walking its streets.  Of course, one of the big drawbacks is that the place doesn’t have a metro stop, which means that you either get off at Dupont Circle or at Woodley Park-Zoo metro stops and then walk for about 8-10 minutes to get there.  But if your intention is to find interesting people and places to photograph, or get some great ethnic food in its many restaurants, then the walk is well worth it.  Be forewarned, though, that this diversity also bring some questionable characters to the area, so you will have to keep your eyes open while enjoying the lifestyle.

The neighborhood is also a great place for photographers, but you need to be mindful of the fact that some people do not want their photograph taken and are quite vocal about it.  This is specially the case around the small South American market that occupies the small square at the intersection of Calvert St. and 18th Street.  Took one photo of the group and they were on me like a cheap suit saying that photographs were not allowed by order of the “administrator,” whose office apparently was next to one of the many food stalls at the square.  The gentleman who approached me said the current administrator was really the “acting” administrator because the real administrator (a woman from Puerto Rico) was out of the area.  Apparently, the “official” reason they didn’t like anyone to photograph the market is that “people” were constantly trying to kick them out of the square by accusing them of something. However, he did smile when I asked him if that was the only reason. We left it at that and I moved on after snapping a couple of more pictures of the market from across the street.