Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
During most of the year, one of the most famous lake regions in the world lies quietly and ignored by the masses of travelers around the world. No doubt, accessibility plays a part on this, even if the place is quite accessible. But perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is the fact that the country is not particularly associated with grandiose structures like the Eiffel Tower, or the Vatican, or the works of Michael Angelo. No, its incredible beauty is the result of nature itself, of mountains and crystal-clear waters, of ever-changing weather patters, and of course, of a small, but incredibly beautiful church that happens to be sitting on a tiny islet in the middle of a lake. Welcome to Lake Bled in Slovenia.
The most visited place in Slovenia is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places this tired traveler has ever seen. Its inherent beauty is not just the result of what you see, but also of what you feel when you are there. It is as if the majestic Alpine chain forms a frame around the lake to share with us one of the most incredible windows in the world. On a late April day, when hardly anyone was around, the silence alone, softly punctuated by the cool breeze of an early spring day, was the stuff of dreams. A person here and there, then solitude. The rhythmic sound of ores slowly moving the Pletna boats carrying travelers to the only island in Slovenia and the Assumption of Mary Church sitting 99 steps above the water level, was nothing short of Alpine music to my ears. Legend has it that if you pull the massive rope to ring the church bell three times while looking at the Virgin Mary, your wishes will someday come true. So, with eyes that seemed overwhelmed by all the beauty that lay before them, I firmly wrapped my hands around the rope and pulled as hard as I could. The deep sound of that bell spreading in all directions over the green, transparent waters of Lake Bled were as sweet to my ear as the sound of a Mozart sonata filling a concert hall in Vienna. Staring out of the window during the 35-minute drive back to Ljubljana along valleys dotted with small villages and green pastures, I couldn’t help but think that I had just seen one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. What’s more, the deep, endless sound of that bell traveling beyond the mountains that surrounded it, still rang gloriously inside my head. I knew there and then, that the legend was true. My wish had already come true.
The road less traveled. We’ve all heard of it and would like to think that our lives are spent down that unmarked, desolate trail where everything is discovery and excitement. I know this because I’m one of those dreamers, constantly looking for the entrance to that road everywhere I travel. In fact, in the few instances where I have actually found that entrance, I have been rewarded with great photographs and incredible experiences. The effect is so uplifting, that no matter how many times you experience it, you just can’t have enough of it. So there we go every chance we get, down backstreets and narrow alleyways in faraway lands looking for that something to recharge our lives and fill them with the wonderment that very few daily experiences can match.
This constant pursuit, however, could easily make us miss the wonders that lie right before our eyes on that well traveled road. I have to admit that my frequent sojourn down the well traveled road has more to do with limitation of funds and time, but whether by design or imposition, I have come to discover that the familiar always holds a mystery or two for the visually creative types. That is because on different days and times of year, the backdrop changes, as does the light and the intensity of the colors. And thus the photo above, which shows a place I have photographed a million times from just about every angle imaginable over the years. Notwithstanding this level of photographic attention, this is the first time I publish a photo of the fountain at the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Not that I believe that this is a perfect photo, but rather that for the first time, there was blue in the sky, the light was about right, and the eternal crowds were nonexistent. It is the same place I’ve visited far too many times in the past, but one that chose to reveal itself in a complete new manner simply because I stayed away from that road less traveled. I guess the familiar, when seen with fresh eyes, will never cease to surprise us. So as we look for those roads less traveled, perhaps it bears remembering that sometimes the wonders we’re looking for can also be found along those familiar roads.
Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
Think most politicians dream of spending time in the White House? Then think again. It just so happens that high up on a hill barely three miles north of the White House, a simple cottage next to a civil war cemetery was the preferred dwelling of none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. During the Civil War years, when more than your usual number of shady characters walked the power hallways of our nation’s capital, old Abe managed to spend around one-forth of his presidency conducting business from the quieter government quarters a short walk away from the Soldier’s Home in the District. And after spending a few hour recently touring this little-known Washington attraction, I can definitely see why he chose to spend his summers there. He may not have been able to avoid the raging civil war, but he was able to put some distance between himself and the grinding politics of Washington during these troubled times.
The Cottage is a bit out-of-the-beaten-path for most people. You pretty much have to drive there, although you could get there by bus if you have unlimited patience reserves, or by Metro if you if long walks are your thing when you travel. However you get there, the Cottage is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history and the personalities of the Civil War era. Be mindful, though, that the place is not what I would call photography-friendly. The DC area as a whole is a bit paranoid about photographers, but at this restricted installation you would think that you just entered Area 51 or something like it. No photographs inside any building, severely restricted movement around the Cottage, and security personnel on you like a cheap suit. You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that President Lincoln was still there. But the place is part of the rich history of our country, and well worth enduring the minor photographic and movement inconveniences that come with visiting.
I must confess that even when having lived here for a long time, the good, old state of Virginia just keeps on surprising me. It seems that everywhere you turn, you’ll find someone making some great product that you’ve never heard of before. This week for me it was bourbon. Now, I do know that in some parts of Virginia little details like Prohibition have never dampened the local’s taste for liquids other than water, but bourbon is something that we all tend to (and by default, I’m afraid) associate with the folks in Kentucky. This probably has more to do with ignorance than with taste, though. Well, no more. From what I experienced at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg recently, Virginia is definitely a bourbon state, and in a big way. We’re talking about the hand-crafted, small batch stuff here, not the gallons coming out of a mega-distillery partially owned by some European investment group. And while I was familiar with the famous saying, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” this was the first time that I had a chance to walk in to a facility where I could smell the perfume bourbon scent in all its glory. One hour touring the distillery and there was no doubt in my mind that if you are a bourbon aficionado, this place has to be on your radar screen, and pronto.
How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil’s Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon, and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter. (W.C. Fields)
Tucked away right off Rt. 17 South right past the town of Fredericksburg, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery has to be one of the best kept non-secrets in Northern Virginia. The distillery not only produces an impressive variety of bourbons locally (have I mentioned the great aroma yet?), but they also provide some extremely informative tours of the place before you get down to the “business” of sampling their products. Unfortunately, and to my chagrin, I happened to find myself there without a designated driver and had to pass on the tasting portion of the tour (which required serious depletion of my residual self-control supply). But, there’s always next time, and in the words of the great Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
Here’s one place that most likely very few of you (if any) has ever visited: the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t blame you, though, because admittedly, I recently discovered the place myself. Well, discovered in the sense that someone else led me there during this year’s Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk (read rainy, cold day). Not having had much time that day to photograph the place, I decided that I would come back to this somewhat isolated spot along the Potomac River when I didn’t have to fight a multitude of photographers for position, or the weather for that matter. But once I set out to find the place, I began to realize why the lighthouse is somewhat of a desolate, albeit beautiful, place. The lighthouse is just not easy to find, let alone bump into, even when millions of people drive by it everyday as they cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Virginia to Maryland. Getting there, though, is half the fun, specially during the fall season when the park seems to be celebrating a festival of colors, with reds, orange, and yellow leaves shinning bright against the deep blue sky of autumn. Considering that downtown Washington, DC lies only a few miles away, you would think that the Jones Point park and lighthouse would be on people’s radars when visiting the area, but the opposite seems to be true. Quiet, isolated, and only reachable by foot, it sits majestically and alone by the water’s edge, with its occasional visitors enjoying the zen-like experience the place seems to induce.
Architectural photography is not something I practice with any degree of regularity. In fact, I generally try to avoid it if I can, as the genre is really more difficult than it looks. On rare occasions, though, I dabble a little in it more out of sheer curiosity than anything else. This is specially the case during scorchingly hot days, when people avoid venturing outside and nothing much is happening on the street. A few days ago, this was exactly the case. In order to avoid the heat, , I headed out to find some good structures inside the many national museums in DC to photograph (get it, air-conditioned museums). After visiting a few of them, my mind kept wandering back to the first time I visited the somewhat out-of-the-way National Building Museum, and before I knew it, my feet started moving in the direction of Judiciary Square where the museum unassumingly sits.
Not sure what it is about this place that attracts me so much (aside from the obvious architectural beauty of the place). Compared to the traffic you see in other DC museums, this place is a ghost town. Sure, in most normal days people kind of trickle in and kind of meander along its Great Hall, straining their necks to look up to its long, arched hallways and imposing, marbled columns in the center of the hall. But most of the time the place is also a gem of a quiet space in the midst of a busy metropolis. This silence is no doubt accentuated by the scale of the place, which dwarfs anyone who enters its carpeted Great Hall. I can’t help but think that this grandiose scale is some sort of reminder that human creation is vastly more grandiose than the individual humans themselves. Can’t quite put my photographic thumb on it, but for whatever reason, I keep coming back. Hallucinations from the scorching heat or elevation of the human spirit when witnessing such incredible human creations? I would much rather think it’s the latter, air-conditioner or not.
Ever come back from a photo outing and notice that there seems to be a pattern with your photographs? I did. After going over my photos after a trip to the Rosslyn area in Northern Virginia, I came to the realization that for whatever reason, I seemed to be fascinated with circular objects in the area. I grant you that this was a strange realization for me, but then again, I guess round objects and architecture do seem to break the linear mold that characterizes most modern, urban development in America. To tell you the truth, I never gave a lot of thought to the notion that our visual world is dominated by rectangles and straight lines. Well, not in Rosslyn, where folks do seem to have quite an artistic flare and love of round things. The neighborhood was already a favorite of mine because of the amazing reflections you see on the side of its tall, glass buildings. There’s simply nothing like it in the DC Metro area. And as far as I know, no one puts it on top of their list of priorities to go and spend a day wandering around Rosslyn, but I’m glad I did. The place never ceases to surprise me.
The weather report is forecasting a very cold, wintry day for tomorrow, but today the weather could not have been any better. A bright, sunny day with temperatures around 50 degrees made for a good day to walk the streets with your camera. The strange thing was that I found myself photographing once again around the Georgetown waterfront as if pulled by some cosmic magnetic force beyond my control. And you know what? There may be something to this after all, because if there’s a place that can exert such force on mere mortals, it must be the lollypop-shaped Georgetown Labyrinth. Never mind that on this day its primary purpose seemed to be to serve as a racetrack for a father and son combo trying out their dueling remotely controlled cars. No, I have to believe that this divine center of gravity in a city mostly known for governmental witchcraft and cutthroat politicians exists to elevate the human spirit above its mundane nature. Yes, that’s got to be it. The Labyrinth must emanate some sort of magnetic field that attracts imperfect souls to its bosom, to the circle of self-discovery and introspection in order to cleanse the spiritual attic of our lives of all its cobwebs and imperfections. There is no doubt that this is the reason why I found myself on this very spot today, looking at the skies from the center of the circle waiting for something great to happen. Well, I didn’t have to wait long for it. First, there was a swoosh, then another, then a rattling noise by my feet that I interpreted as my soul about to be elevated above the clouds to a higher level of existence. And then, there they were, circling around me at high speed, but never to be confused with stars and magnetic forces of any kind: two noisy electric cars moving at high speed in a nausea-inducing crisscross pattern, with father and son busily punching at their control boxes as if they were commanding a nuclear submarine. My spirit safely tucked where it had been all along, I made it out of the Labyrinth before the local Nascar duo had a chance to tromp all over it. I knew it; this place exists for a purpose, and it may well have to do with the bonding between a father and his son.
You just can’t miss it. The Buda Castle Hill sits majestically over the city of Budapest as if protecting it like it did a few centuries ago. Before arriving to Budapest I had read a few travel articles that downplayed this particular part of the city as being too “touristy.” And yes, the tourists (to include your’s truly) were there, but frankly, I don’t think that some of these travel writers were doing much justice to this wonderful place. The 360-degree views alone make this part of the city a “must visit” destination. And if you get there around 7:00 AM like I did, you will have the hill practically all for yourself for a few hours. And while public transportation can get you there in no time at all, it is a lot more fun to walk across the famous Chain Bridge and then up the hill through the various winding trails and sets of stairs leading to the castle.
But as great as the views were from the eastern, Pest-facing side of Castle Hill, my favorite part of this journey was walking along the promenade that borders the western part of the hill. This quiet residential area with its tree-lined pedestrian road and incredible views of the Buda Hills at the distance reminded me of the quiet serenity one feels when visiting some of those old European cathedrals. Walking that empty promenade during the early morning hours accompanied only by the soft light of a morning sun has to be the greatest highlight of my visit to this great city. And while I may never see this city again, this wonderful morning stroll, lit only by the melancholy light of morning eastern sun, will remain with me forever.