A Few Days Of Heaven

Monument Blossoms

Like happiness, it never last very long. That’s just the way it is, but while it lasts, it is nothing short of heaven. I’m obviously referring to the yearly spectacle that is the Cherry Blossoms blooming season around the Tidal Basin area downtown Washington, DC. That’s right, the same town where politicians have given new meaning to the word hate, but where nature, in spite of their attempt to spoil it, explodes in all its beauty for a few days in March every year. Around the grassy meadows of the Washington Mall, the eternal fights just a few blocks away seem as in a different galaxy. The beautiful bloom of these bendy trees remains as oblivious of the politicians as the politicians remain of their delicate flowers. In fact, the Cherry Blossoms are a happy zone, a zone where smiles and enjoyment of what life has to offer are potent enough to exclude any feeling of unhappiness and dejection. A zone where “public demonstrations of affection” are not only evident everywhere you look, but where they are impossible to repress amongst so much beauty. It is a yearly ritual that only lasts three or four days, but one that that is the clearest symbol of spring and of the beauty, happiness, and hope that still exists in the world. Nature, and people, at their best. The world could use a little bit more of both.

City Hopping In Europe

Prague will always be at the top of everyone's favorite cities in Europe.
Prague will always be at the top of everyone’s favorite cities in Europe.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
In Berlin's Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.
In Berlin’s Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.

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.

Walking And Dreaming In Brugge

One of the many beautiful canals in Brugge. [Click on photos for larger versions]
Beautiful Brugge canal.
Viewed from the top of the Belfort Tower, the city of Brugge is a wonderful sight.
View from Belfort Tower.
One of the most romantic ways of seeing the city is by horse-drawn carriage.
An incredible romantic city.
Just about every street in the old part of town appears to come right out of a movie set.
Scenes right out of a movie set.
Get lost along the city's narrow streets and you will find some incredible restaurants.
Getting lost can be rewarding.
The statute of monks consoling each other is one of the most emotionally moving in the city.
A most powerful work of art.
At night, the city of Brugge is as wonderful as in the daylight.
The simple elegance of Brugge.

Talk about a place surpassing all of your expectations. For a long time now I’ve known about this wonderful small town that lies deep in the heart of Flanders, Belgium, but my feet have always taken me somewhere else in Europe. So why not? Off to Brugge then. Six incredible days later, I now realize that I should have visited this postcard-perfect city a long time ago. Yes, Brugge, a city that without even trying has moved near the top of my dream list of places that I would love to relocate to. Friendly, approachable, and real, it is the kind of place where people just don’t seem to have the kind of attitude that keeps people “on edge” in other parts of the world.

With time, I’ve come to realize that there are places you travel to because of the attractions that every tourist must see, and places you travel to because of the feelings they evoke. Brugge is definitely in the latter category, and while there are plenty of local attractions to occupy you during your visit, it is the city’s attitude (or vibe, for that matter) that totally grabs you the moment you set eyes on its wonderful architecture. Venture in any direction from the central Grote Markt square and you will find an idyllic world of quiet canals, small cafes, and quaint, little restaurants that look like places out of a Hollywood romantic movie. Very few places that I’ve ever seen will compare with the serene landscape along the canal bordering Groenerei Street on a rainy day, where arched, brick bridges covered in dark, green mildew, blend seamlessly with the surrounding houses bordering the canal. Wander north to Spinodarei Street to enjoy viewing groups of swans that seem to fly along the watery clouds of the canal. Then head on west along Gruuthusestraat to the 12th Century Oud Sint-Jan hospital site and its incredible courtyard where the statute of two monks consoling each other will almost move you to tears. And what better place to get lost at night, when the soft, yellow lights of barely lit restaurants cast a dimmed glow on the narrow cobblestone streets of an ancient city. It is often said that Paris is prettier when it rains, and undoubtedly there’s a lot of truth to that. But so is Brugge, and in the cool, dark nights of mid-November, it is the stuff of dreams.

 

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.

 

Are People Necessary For Good Urban Photography?

While I prefer to photograph people in urban environments, sometimes the emptiness of a scene is what makes the photograph.
While I prefer to photograph people in urban environments, sometimes the emptiness of a scene is what makes the photograph.
I often wonder whether we like seeing people in photographs because they enhance our ability to relate to the scene.
I often wonder whether we like seeing people in photographs because they enhance our ability to relate to the scene.

I have to admit that just about every time I go out with my cameras in any city, it is people scenes that I am after.  I think this is probably true of just about every street photographer out there, and even when I do not consider myself a street photographer in the strictest sense of the term, I can totally sympathize with the impact (or sense of wonderment) that people bring to a photograph.  What can I say?  It’s all pretty much a matter of personal preference, and personal means that everyone will have a slightly different opinion about this.

Having said that, I do think that people add an additional dimension to our interpretation of a photograph.  If anything, they make these photographs a bit less flat, less three-dimensional in our heads.  Human nature also makes us identify with people in photographs.  If they are looking in a particular direction, so do we.  We feel the weight of anything they carry, the sadness in their expressions, and the love in their eyes.  Their emotions, real or imagined, become our emotions.  We try to see through their eyes, to relive the scene as we imagine they lived it when the photograph was taken.  It becomes personal in a way that an empty scene will have a hard time emulating.  It is the magic of the still photograph and the reason why so many of us love this art form.