Sitting high above the city of Ljublana as a majestic ruler is the imposing Ljubljanski grad, or more commonly known to us mortals as the Ljubljana Castle. A structure that has watched over the city for more than five centuries, it is the perfect place to take in the fantastic valley city surrounded by mountains and morning fog. The castle is reachable by cable car or the old-fashioned way, by simply walking up the hill along a lusciously green country road. Mind you, that the cable car is perhaps the easiest way to make the short trip, but not necessarily the most satisfying for a photographer. So up the hill it was, and I couldn’t have been happier with the decision. The castle has a varied history, to say the least, and throughout its five century existence, it has housed everything from local rulers to a prison. It’s present use as a museum and tourist destination are the perfect place to spend a morning. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t even think of leaving the place before lunch or dinner, for to do so would mean to miss out on an incredible Slovenian meal washed down with local wines at the elegant Na Gradu restaurant.
The views from the castle tower are the best in the city. It takes a little bit of climbing to get to the top of the tower, but as you can see in one of the photos above, the stairwell alone is worth the effort of going up. Obviously, a lot of renovation has taken place at the castle, but there are plenty of original hallways and chambers throughout the structure to enjoy the historical flavor of the place. Best of all, once you pay the small entry fee, you are free to roam throughout the castle without anyone hurrying you along. On the way down from the castle, there are several trails to follow leading to another part of town and to another fantastic coffee shop. In one carless morning, a walk in the woods, a tour of a castle, a sumptuous meal at a beautiful restaurant, and a Macchiato to die for. I may not be certain, but I think that this is how you begin to fall in love with a place.
If there is a secret in the travel world, that secret must be called Slovenia. Granted, that recent world events have brought some much-deserved attention to this Alpine wonder, but if you ask anyone around you, you’ll find out that Slovenia has yet to make it to most people’s bucket list. That’s a shame, because as I recently discovered, it is not until you get there that you realize what you’re been missing all this time. Incredible natural beauty, a hiker’s paradise, castles, crystal clear lakes, fantastic food, and the rich history that accompanies a country that sits on the crossroads between Europe and distant lands in the East. Don’t get me wrong, Slovenia is as European as they come, with its feet firmly planted in the west. But there is a freshness to it that is reminiscent of an Europe from long ago, from a time when mass tourism and globalization had not yet arrived with the intensity of a tsunami to transform the local atmosphere in most European capitals. And believe me, that lack of overwhelming feeling is indeed a good thing.
I only spent a week in this wonderful country, but judging from the “I’m not ready to leave” feeling I had at the airport, I know that I’ll be back someday soon. The rain in the mountain region did change my hiking plans a bit, but perhaps it was for the best, for I had a chance to spend more time at Ljubljana, the wonderfully romantic capital bordering the Ljubljanica river. To the traveler, it appears that everything in Ljubljana emanates from the Prešernov trg square and the adjacent Triple Bridge. Every visitor to Ljubljana find his or her way here, and for good reason. The number of restaurants and coffee shops along the banks of the Ljubljanica river will put most capital cities to shame. And did I mention that Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe for 2016? Sitting under the green canopy of one of its luscious trees by the river enjoying a leisurely afternoon Macchiato and a flaky croissant would make it almost impossible to argue with that. Add to that the friendliest, most approachable people I’ve met in Europe in a long time, and you can see why this country has made such an impact on this tired traveler. Slovenia is simply a refreshing take on Europe, and as such, it is a place that rekindles your appetite for wanderlust and those feelings that only take form when we travel to distant places and are moved by all that appears before us. I only regret that it took me this long to visit, but I can assure you, that it won’t take me as long to go back.
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.
Ever noticed how most travel photography seems to be sometimes about the same old things? Not that the world’s most famous landmarks are not worth visiting, on the contrary, they are, and we should all be so lucky to have seen a few of them. Finding them is also rather easy, as every travel guide in the world points directly to their location and to the logistics of making it there during the best times of the any travel day. All this is good and well, but just like our own countries of origin, there is a whole new world of undiscovered possibilities in every country that are totally ignored by travel guides and tourists alike. To a large extent this is quite understandable, as time and resources are necessities that most of us don’t have in great quantities. One single trip to Italy in your lifetime? Then it is time to choose appropriately and wisely as to what to see, and the well-trodden tourist path is definitely the way to go. And as we all know, there’s a guide book for that.
But there’s also another world out there, and one that hardly ever makes it into any travel guide, but which is full of rewards and undocumented beauty. Yes, Madrid has the Prado, but it also has off-the-beaten-path cantinas where locals will treat us as family if we are willing to relax our western stiffness for a second. Same in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Kyoto. But these off-the-city-center experiences do take time and somewhat of a personal involvement. Like making friends in our own neighborhoods, we are required to sit, linger, and be willing to engage in conversation. These are things that are hardly, if ever, addressed by travel guides, and if it were not by some very creative bloggers and YouTube folks, they would remain unknown to the world. Alternative media is where it’s at, if your goal is to get off that beaten path. After all, who needs to be eating at the Ritz in Paris anyways when you can be having a great conversation with the locals at a German currywurst food truck. Ok, that’s a pathetic stretch, but let’s just say that if you cannot afford the Ritz, then that food truck is a great place to hang out while meeting the locals and dreaming of the Duck a l’Orange at the Ritz.
As it happens every year during the last days of December, I find myself unwittingly drifting down the introspective channels of my subconscious. I say unwittingly because such meditations are not the result of conscious efforts to sort things out in my life, but rather because without warning or intention, the cold, dreary days in December carry me there like a Pharaoh being carried to the temple. At first I thought this was a case of repressed nostalgia, or something to that effect. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, different from any other time in the year, the last few days of December form some sort of chronological bridge in our lives. Like an unmarked threshold, they seem to separate the historical “us” from the “us” that has yet to emerge and be realized. It is an offer that presents us with the kind of challenges and opportunities that only change can bring in order to give life to the idea of us that constantly roams inside our heads. But this happens every year, you would say, and I would have to agree. Nevertheless, like a full moon over a dark, endless horizon, the recurrent and cyclical nature of this phenomena does nothing to dampen the excitement of its arrival.
One such idea inside my head is that of an insatiable world traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I do get to visit some wonderful places from time to time, but the life of a visitor is dramatically different to the life of a traveler. One flies by while the other lands and lingers. One visits countries with populations of 40+ million people and leaves without being able to call a single one of them a friend, while the other takes the time to forge friendships that may last a lifetime. Those in one group tend to miss more the places they’ve been, while those on the other group will miss more the people they’ve met. And on that line between those two divides is where I find myself on this gray December morning, a witness to the vanishing December days of another year gone by. Far into the distance I can see the silhouette of a magnificent bridge whose beautiful arches and ancient wooden structure beckons travelers to cross the rumbling river below. We’ve all seen this bridge before, but seldom have we decided to cross it. Perhaps now, before a new year dawns into our lives, is the time to dare cross that bridge so we can live more in tune with the self that only dwells in our imaginations. After all, self actualization would me meaningless without the self. Such crossings are deeply personal in nature, but as for myself, the aspiring insatiable traveler, I think I’ll start hastily walking toward that arched bridge on the horizon. After all, that feeling of December will not last forever.
Some things we just cannot have enough of in our lives, and for yours truly, one of those things is the Alpine culture of Europe. I’m not talking about mountain climbing here, although there’s plenty of that going on along the mountain chain. Rather, I’m referring to that overall feeling that immediately hits you the moment you come in contact with those mountains and the endless villages that dot its lower elevations. I’m talking clean air, transparent rivers, green vegetation, breathtaking scenery, and a much slower pace of life than anything we Americans are accustomed to. But wait, did I forget the food? Well add that too to the mix. I’m sure that those used to seeing such places in a regular basis may feel a bit different about them, but for a traveler whose life only provides such sustenance in small, occasional dosages, such sights serve as emotional antibiotics to the many routines that consume most of our existence.
And that is precisely why a traveler should not travel all the time. How else to avoid the disenchanted effect of the routine life? Travel, if done in excess, could have the same soporific effect as not traveling. It will suffer from its own excesses, just like eating a sumptuous meal every hour of the day for the simple reason that you happen to love food. Too much of it, and it looses some of the magic that resides in its absence, in the lack of, and the longing. That is why my extended absence from the beautiful European alpine region has such a dramatic effect on my travel life. Many years ago, and somewhere along those clear, mountain rivers lined with small villages and pine trees, I discovered a sense of serenity that only shows its face when confronted with such beauty. It never lasts long enough, or comes around often enough, but its scarcity is no doubt part of its wonder. The other part lies within us, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us so many years ago, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
It is often said that we go where our feet take us. No doubt, there’s a lot of truth to that, as all travelers seek something in their journeys. It is as if the world were a blank canvas and each one of us were given a brush to paint on it. What we paint will say a lot about us, and the choices we make of colors, strokes, and form. The same with travel. Do we choose to climb mountains when we can, or do we choose to navigate down silent rivers? Choices. We all make them, and oftentimes because that just happens to be how we were feeling at the time.
So what to make about my choice to spend some of my September time in Alsace, France when there were so many other choices available at the time. The title of one of my previous blogs pretty much gives it away. It was simply the pursuit of solace that let me to Alsace. Rolling, green hills filled with blooming vineyards. Blue skies. Absence of major cities. The rural lifestyle. The Vosges mountains dotted with sleepy villages. Fantastic wine and food. Empty, undulating trails. Narrow, country roads lined with trees. Quiet. The list could go on and on. For me, Alsace is just one of those places where your mind is free to roam, where the oppressive nature of large cities simply does not exist, and where every hour of the day appears to strike a balance with your long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The region’s beauty and easygoing flow totally transforms your days from a high-energy break dance into a Viennese waltz. Time to think, time to live, and time to be. Who would’ve known. Driving away from the area down the enchanting Rue de Vin country road, I couldn’t help but think that making a yearly trip to this part of the world would be the best therapy any human can enjoy. As Alsace drifted away in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but think that I was leaving much sooner than I was willing to let go of the place. And like a sailor going out to sea, all I could do was look at that receding horizon and hope that I would get to see those shores once again in my future. No doubt I will. No doubt I must.
There are areas of the world that no matter how many times you visit, you never cease to be enchanted by their beauty and atmosphere. For me, the wine region of Alsace, France is such a place. From its undulating hills covered with luscious vineyards, to the quaint, ancient villages that dot the countryside, the entire region comprising the Rue de Vin is the stuff of fairytales, and romance. At its heart, the picturesque village of Ribeauville, with its easy vibe and postcard-perfect setting, is the kind of place you never heard about, but can’t imagine leaving once you set foot on it. The great Alsatian food and wines alone will keep you there longer than what your credit line would consider prudent. Walking its narrow, cobblestone streets under the spell of freshly baked bread and just-out-of-the-oven macaroons is enough to transport you to a world that only existed in your imagination. No use resisting, though. The village of Ribeauville alone is one of those reminders that life is a wonderful thing and that it’s worth living to the fullest. And if you add copious amounts of local wines, macaroons, and Alsatian baked tarts to your visit, you’ll immediately understand what I’m talking about. One day at the place is enough to make you forget the problems of the world, even if for a brief, yet wonderful, moment. I just added a second day just to be sure.
Deafening tranquility. That is how I would describe the simple abode I happen to be staying at for a few days at the foot of the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. Green apples strewn around the orchard floor, grapes on the September vines waiting for pickers to arrive, and a sweet morning fog enveloping a valley that has yet to wake up. Serenity, a blooming garden, a slow moving tractor reminding you that you are amongst farmers. Morning coffee, soft pastries from the village bakery, and the melodic sound of a common, but never tiring, Bonjour. Morning dew over the herb garden, a butterfly, a drop of rain. Silence. The first touch of a morning breeze. Peacefulness. The simple life. Happiness.
Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.
You would’ve thought that after so many years of traveling, I was over it by now. That after a great trip, my mind and attitude would accept that I had had enough, and that now it was time to adjust to the daily routine that is my everyday life. After all, it is not like it’s the end of travel for me. Rather, it is more like a pause of some sort while aching joints and muscles catch their breath and a new, even more exciting travel adventure begins. Been there a thousand times in the past, so I should be very used to it. Right? Well, no. So what’s the problem? The problem is that I’m not well and have a recurrent, and quite serious case of “Post Travel Stress Syndrome.” It is a case induced by a travel experience that ended way before I was ready for it to end. A classic disconnect between the body that came back home and the mind that stayed behind wandering around the cobblestones and canals of Europe. Been there yourself? Then you know what I’m talking about.
But what’s really strange is the feeling that this incurable condition may actually be a good thing. Like hunger driving a good appetite, the time and financial limitations of travel drive the desire to see more, to experience more. A feeling of scarcity induced by limitations, real or imagined. Longing tempered by reality. Like seafaring discoverers of yesteryears, once back at shore it is impossible to look at that vast, open ocean again without something pulling at your heartstrings, and at your feet. A mermaid’s distant call, whose sweet melody foreshadows that there will be many journeys still to come. It is the sweetest song of all.
“We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered.” … Kahlil Gibran
I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
There are some things you just can’t have enough in life. For me, that’s traveling through Europe. That is because no matter how much I visit that continent, there’s something new to discover and experience. The fact that you can find a completely different language and culture by just driving the equivalent of crossing an US state line, just adds to the experience every time. But today’s Europe is not the same as the one I experienced during the days of the Cold War and before globalization. Today, it is a much-changed cultural landscape, where the old, great architecture is still there, but goods and services are pretty much the same as in any US major city. Of course, I’m referring to the large cities in the continent, because once you get to the countryside, the Europe of your imagination is still hanging on to culture and mores. Of course, this is not to say that the large cities have lost all manners of cultural identity (because they have not), but rather that the forces of globalization are a lot more evident in the great capitals than anywhere else in the continent.
But whatever the changed landscape, return to Europe I must. And just like every time before, what I found was quite incredible and left me (as always before) wanting to return as soon as possible. In true “slow travel” mode, I once more discovered that slowing down, venturing off-the-beaten-path at odd hours of the day, and taking time to absorb everything around me, made all the difference in the world. From the royal architecture of Vienna, to the cobblestone streets and towers of Prague, it is all fascinating to me. The quiet, precious moments at daybreak, when the majestic, war-scared buildings of Dresden were drenched in the lazy, yellow light of a new day ricocheting off the mighty Elbe, inevitably transported you to another century long the stuff of history books. And then, there were the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hannover. You could spend an entire day enjoying what has to be one of the great, and most romantic gardens of the world. New and old, coexisting for centuries. In Berlin while wrapping up this never-long-enough European tour, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible talent that centuries past created such works of beauty, and the incredible hatred that so often tried to destroy them in equal time. Human frailty and the human spirit, battling it out throughout history. We can only hope that the spirit continues to help preserve such gems for future generations.
The city of Berlin never disappoints, and seeing it again after a few years, I find it continues to be an energetic and dynamic metropolis. If you believe everything you read in some publications, you would be forgiven for believing that the city has lost most of its mojo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The city remains as vibrant as before, if not more. Great stores, historical sites, and lively neighborhoods keep the city on the move, with streets packed with people at all hours of the day. Hang around the Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstrasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt and you’ll soon know what I’m talking about. No doubt that when the time comes time to leave, I will once again regret my departure from such a great city.