Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
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.
Don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no more perfect season than autumn. Sure, it’s wet, days are shorter, and you definitely need to bundle up a bit before going out. But that’s precisely what makes it so perfect. Nature’s colors at their best, sidewalks covered with fallen leaves, and chilly temperatures that elevate every quiet moment to the level of supreme enjoyment. The heat is gone, and so is the colorless haze that unmercifully mutes the summer colors. The sounds of life’s constant drums are reduced a decibel or two, and nature’s lights are dimmed a bit as if to force us to slow down and take in the transformation that is going on all around us. So here’s a salute to the perfect season: bring out the port wine, dust off the scarfs, put logs on the fireplace, and watch the reluctant sun barely raise over the horizon. Walk out, let the morning dew caress your face, count the colors of the leaves, and breathe the clear, chilly air of a perfect autumn day. Worry less, live more, sit on a bench, hold someone’s hand, and stare at the magnificent spectacle that lies before our very eyes. Let go, let in, and just be. Let nature remind you that every year is different, that you are different, and that in spite of the changes (or because of them), life will still be as colorful as the golden trees adorning the autumn countryside.
Today I’m concerned with the notion of visual context. Yes, while the world goes to pieces, I’m worrying about context, and the lack of it. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the rest of the world (because I do), but rather that after taking this photograph a few days ago, I came to the realization that everything around it, or external to it, only detracted from what I deemed to be unique on that lonely leaf. The environment in which this leaf existed seemed irrelevant at best, and obstructive at worst. I simply didn’t care about that environment because my eyes were so fixated on what I was seeing, that everything else was, at best, irrelevant. If nature had a standing before our courts, I would’ve considered filing scene trespassing charges against it. The leaf was visual melody, the rest was simply noise.
The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.
There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.
But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Every year after the 4th of July celebrations in Washington, DC, a sort of lethargy descends on the locals. Not that this is a character trait, mind you, but rather that after all the fireworks and concerts (not to mention the terrorist threats) people are kind of spent. This year, not even the weather was adding any cheers to the weekend, as storms forced the evacuation of the National Mall hours before the concert and fireworks were about to start. Talk about damper.
But if there’s something you can always count on during summer weekends, it is the myriad of seasonal farmer markets that come-hell-or-high-water, will be there to sell their products. The region is blessed when it comes to farmers and produce. Vendors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia descend on DC every weekend bringing such variety of products that they often leave these city slickers dumfounded. And then there’s the Chesapeake Bay, with a seafood bounty that could even impress the folks from the Deadliest Catch in Alaska.
But when it comes to rarity, there’s one product that always challenges the best of them: artisanal bread. Who would’ve known that we have so many great artisanal bakeries (and even patisseries) in the tristate region. When I lived in the suburbs I could’ve sworn they had been rendered illegal. Bread came from the supermarket, mass produced and with enough preservatives to guarantee that future archeologists could still eat it 1,000 years from now. Luckily, there’s still hope, an local farmer markets are giving these emerging bakeries some well-deserved exposure. My waistline awaits their renaissance.
Talk about happenstance. This past week I had a chance to photograph inside a building that I’ve been eyeing with my camera for a long time, but one that is not generally open to the public like other places in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m referring to the Seaport Center, a floating structure that is the area’s only boat-building facility along this part of the Potomac River. Endless times I’ve walked along this building, at times seeing people inside hunching over small tools while chiseling away at curved pieces of wood. But the doors have always been closed, obviously to prevent the inevitable procession of visitors from interrupting the detailed work going on inside. But to my surprise, his past week those same doors were open, and a gracious member of the staff who saw me with my camera even asked me if I would like to come inside and take a tour of the place.
Finally, after so many misses, a chance to step inside this photogenic gem, and with all the time in the world to spare. One problem, though. Not imagining this would ever happen, I had only taken a 50mm lens with me for what was to be a short walkabout, leaving my best-suited-for-the-job wide-angled lenses safely inside a bag at home. This being a relatively small facility, those wide-angle lenses would have been perfect for the occasion, but at the time all that I could think of was the old saying that “now is all I’ve got,” so in I went into the boat house with a grin on my face.
This particular day just happened to be an “open house” day for the Seaport Foundation project. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular initiative prior to my visit, but after hearing what these folks were doing to help the young people in the area, I had my faith in humanity restored quite a bit. Under a “Building boats, building lives” slogan, the Boatbuilding Apprentice Program run by the Seaport Foundation is not only a one-of-a-kind craftsmanship program, but one that directly impacts the lives of young people by introducing a much-needed environment of belonging and purpose into their lives. These folks are doing tremendous work, one life at a time. As a photographer, I walked through those doors thinking that my day was about to be made amazing by the opportunity to photograph something I’ve been wanting to capture for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, what was about to make my day truly amazing was meeting such a wonderful group of people engaged in one of the noblest causes you could ever imagine. They possess something that I could never capture with a camera, but which served as a reminder that in small places like these all over our country, people are working diligently (and more-often-than-not, anonymously) to make a better world for others. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time, and they deserve all the credit in the world for what they do.
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.”
My time in Switzerland came to an end at the cosmopolitan city of Geneva. Had the weather cooperated a bit more, this would have been a great finale to a most wonderful journey to what has become one of my favorite countries in the world. And while it does take more than three days (and hopefully, sunny days) to visit this wonderful city, its compact city centre and incredible transportation system are a great help in getting the most out of a limited visit, even in the non-stop rain. Walking, however, is perhaps the most rewarding activity for visitors. Venture out along the ritzy Quai du Mont-Blanc from the Pont du Mont-Blanc, with its magnificent hotels catering to a high-flying clientele, and then head on back via the more down-to-earth Rue Philippe-Plantamour (also home to some very good restaurants). Cross the metallic Ponte de la Machine and spend some of those Swiss Francs along the shopping heaven that is the Rue du Marché (it changes names various times as it goes along). And when you’ve had enough of people and crowds, get lost in old town and find one of those small cafés that hide along one of the many narrow, cobblestone streets. Your feet may get tired, but you will hardly notice. What you will surely notice, though, is that the time you’ve got in this incredible city will never be enough. Befitting one of the most international cities in the world, there are a myriad of incredible museums, sights, and restaurants that will require more than a single visit to even scratch the surface of this city. But don’t despair, because the good news is that no one will ever need a reason to visit Switzerland. Great food, great people, and some of the most incredible scenery you will ever see in a lifetime. Good enough for me, and I can’t wait to go back.
A short bus ride from Locarno (Bus #1) along the shores of Lago Maggiore sits the sleepy town of Ascona, Switzerland–a lakeshore town for which there are simply not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it. A major tourist destination during the warm summer months, it dramatically slows down the moment the days begin to shorten and the wet, cool days of fall begin to appear before the winter snow. Depending on your climatic preferences, this may be a good or a bad thing, but for this tired traveler, fall is the perfect time to wander along the Alpine wonderlands like Ascona. Empty cobblestone streets, incredible restaurants tugged away along the winding, narrow streets, and friendly locals not worn out by the endless masses of tourists from the summer months. It is the slow life at its best, and it feeds something in us that never gets much attention during our busy, everyday lives.
For most people like me, places like Ascona are the stuff we generally view through movies or old postcards. They are indeed “the road less traveled,” too detached from our daily lives, too remote, and somewhat off the front pages of most travel guides. Mention Tuscany to anyone and you will sure get a smile and the usual “I’d love to go there.” Mention Ascona (or Locarno for that matter) and most likely what you’ll get is a “where’s that?” type of response. Can’t blame anyone for not being familiar with the place, for after a nearly six-hour train from Geneva followed by a 20-minute bus ride from Locarno, I can fully understand why this place is not on people’s everyday radar. It certainly was not in mine, but once I discovered, I couldn’t help but think that I should have placed places like this much higher in my to-do travel list. With a local population of just over 5,000 people (2008 figures), this Locarno municipality is not the kind of place you would visit if late-night revelry is your kind of thing. But if you are a writer, or a creative artist, then this is certainly the place for you, specially during the off-summer months. It is a place for leisure walks and self-renewal, in town or beyond its borders in the Centrovalli (100 valleys) area. But one word of warning: once you’ve visited Ascona, you will never be the same. The mere thought that places like this actually exist in this world at all is enough to take your wanderlust to a new, stratospheric level. And no matter how much time it takes to get to this quiet, romantic shore, it will definitely be worth every tired, aching step on anyone’s journey.
Nearly ten years ago I had the pleasure of driving near Locarno, Switzerland on my way to Lucerne, it’s more popular neighbor to the north. At the time I remember being so fascinated with the landscape that I promised myself that one day I would return to visit Locarno and its surrounding areas. Well, here I am, and to say that Locarno has lived up to my expectations would be a gross understatement. The postcard beauty of this small town by Lago Maggiore is only exceeded by the friendliness of its people. And while I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of the description of the Ticino area as one having “Italian culture with Swiss efficiency,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is indeed the case.
Four great sights seem to be at the heart of this great Swiss region. For starters, there is the imposing Lago Maggiore, which appears to be suspended in air while blessed with clear Alpine waters. Then there is the center of Locarno, the curved Piazza Grande, lined by the old town to its north. Further up the mountain is the famous Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, with its imposing views of Lago Maggiore, the city of Locarno, and the snow-capped Alps around the lake. And last, but not least, there are the Alps themselves, ruggedly imposing and with snow tops reminding you of that idyllic world we all experienced only in postcards. It is all the kind of visual wonderland that only existed in our imaginations. Perhaps too much to take in during just one visit, but it all leaves you with the unmistakable feeling that whatever magic the place is playing on you, there is no doubt that you want more of it in your life, and lots of it. I know that the moment I watch Locarno from my train window receding in the horizon, the same feeling which consumed me so many years ago will immediately return. I will have to come back someday, but this time it will not be out of curiosity. Rather, it will be out of an incredible sense of wonderment.