One of the great things about travel is that there is no requirement to stick to the familiar and the popular. In fact, lately I have been paying a lot more attention to travel destinations that hardly anyone recognizes at a social gathering. You see, most people stick to the familiar, to the popular places where tourist companies deposit endless armies of umbrella totting tourist groups. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting those famous locations, for they are indeed full of “must see” attractions. The point is that by now they have become far too familiar to everyone, with endless photos and printed material dedicated to their immortality. This level of exposure has somewhat taken away the mystery that once accompanied their distant locations. What’s more, many of these famous places have recently been making the news because of the local aversion to uncontrolled tourism, which kind of sets the mood for when we all get there.
Thus, for a while now, I’ve been putting my attention to the periphery, to the less-traveled places where I’m finding renewed enthusiasm for the travel life. And that is what brought me to Osaka, Japan. Heard of it but have never been there? You’re not alone. This large port city with its incredibly vibrant business community has to be one of the best kept secrets in the world. It hides in plain sight, as most travelers have only ventured 30 minutes away by train to splendid Kyoto. And yet, if you value great food, friendly locals, and a shopping experience second to none, Osaka must be at the top of your list of places to visit. Everything from some of the world’s largest covered and underground markets to the European designer scene can be found somewhere between the Namba and Umeda metro stations. And even if your plans did not involve eating and shopping yourself to death, you just can’t help it. When tiredness sets in, the side streets around Kitahama, with its sexy champagne bars and rowdy English pubs is where you want to end your day. Yes, Osaka is all that and more, and it just doesn’t want to let go of you.
But not all is hectic in Osaka. Just like every other major Japanese city, once you leave the city center behind, a whole new world of traditional neighborhoods and quiet oases sit there as if frozen in time. Like an antidote to the rest of the city, these are the places where old ways are not really old. Places where you are met at the entrance of a restaurant with a simple bow and a polite greeting by an impeccably dressed hostess. Places where small, manicured gardens give new meaning to the concept of reflection. And places where you find yourself suddenly immersed in the mystery and romanticism of a faraway culture that up to then only existed in the old narratives of explorers from another era. A feeling that forms the very essence of the travel life.
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.
I love to travel. Yes, I do, and the pages of this blog can attest to that in more ways than one. But I also love to look around my neighborhood, which in my case happens to be the greater Washington, DC area. I couldn’t begin to tell you the many hours I’ve logged walking the streets of DC and the northern Virginia neighborhoods with my camera in search of visually interesting scenes. It’s kind of visual grunt work, and more often than not all I have to show at the end of the day are sore feet and a few, if any, possible keepers. But sometimes, and I say this with a bit of creative emotion if that’s even possible, you are rewarded for being in the right place at the right time. A few seconds in a long day, a man alone, and a sunset in the most unlikely of places for such a spectacle by mother nature. Nobody comes to Washington, DC to watch sunsets, but on this particular day, in a place where thousands of people live, work, and roam the busy streets of Rosslyn, a single, pensive man stood there enjoying one of the rarest, and most wonderful gifts of nature. It was nature at its best; it was glorious solitude at its best. One click. The man walked away, and a moment in time captured forever. I guess it is true, that if we care to see, we will find photographs all around us, regardless of where we’re at.
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.”
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.
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.
Over the past few days it has dawned on me that photographers, together with many other artists out there, may well be some of the greatest linguists in the world. I kid you not, they really are. Think about it. What language is the Mona Lisa? Or the photo above? It really doesn’t matter whether I snapped this photo myself or someone from Botswana took it. Does it? Photography, like so many other artistic forms, truly enjoys the virtue of universality. It speaks not in a single language, but in a way that anyone from any part of the world can understand. A single voice, a single moment. It renders language barriers irrelevant and elicits those simple feelings that are common in us all. It makes us aware of the fact that while we are all rather unique creatures, in the end, we are also so very much alike.
Some travelers do not enjoy returning to places they have visited in the past, but I’m not one of them. Granted that with so many places to see around the world, it is perhaps advisable not to narrow your travel focus to a mere few of these. Nevertheless, there’s something nostalgic about visiting old stumping grounds after your feet have taken you far away from those familiar places, and for far too long. Strasbourg, France is one such place for me, and while it has been undoubtedly too long since I once roamed its streets accompanied by those happy days of youth, the magnificent sights of this great city still evoke the sense of romance and awe that was there when life was nothing but a long, uninterrupted spring.
During the month of December the city of Strasbourg, with its award-winning Christmas Market, dresses up for the holidays like very few cities in the world can. Anywhere you go in the Old Town there will be too much to see, too much to eat, and when it comes to that great, spiked wonder that is Gluehwine, too much to drink. And while in other places of the world people may complain about cold, overcast, and otherwise sun-deprived days, in Strasbourg these sort of days only add to the pure magic of the season. Small, cozy restaurants and cafes around the inner city will be beautifully illuminated and decorated, affording couples the perfect backdrop for conversation accompanied by a glorious Alsatian wine. Stopping during the blue hour on the Passerelle de l’Abreuvoir bridge to take-in the ancient rooftops surrounding the Cathédrale Notre Dame will transport you back to those days in the 17th Century when the cathedral was considered the tallest building in the world. And if it is your softer side you need to get reacquainted with for a change, just walk the narrow, twisting streets of La Petite France at night and you’ll be reminded that life is not just about speed, or about the eternal chase of golden mirages. Walking along these streets as if in a mindless drift, I could not help but think that the sheer beauty of this dimly lit city during the Christmas season had to be the perfect antidote to the many worries afflicting us these days. A beautiful city, lit by candlelight. An energy drink for the soul, and the stuff of which life’s most pleasurable moments are made of.
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.
They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape. Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction. And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods. The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.
This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it. And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the city after all.
Out of nowhere, magic. That is perhaps the best description of my recent trip to a place I barely knew existed less than a week ago. But all that changed thanks to a phone call from my photographer friend Mark, who during the course of our recent conversation, casually asked whether I would be interested in joining a group of local photographers during a Bald Eagle photography outing. Now, I am not a nature photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of observing Bald Eagles at their James River winter habitat while cruising down the river on an old pontoon boat before the sun even came out, was simply too much for me to resist. So, away I went at 4:00 AM to meet the group of photographers at the Deep Bottom Park boat ramp, which appropriately enough lies at the end of the Deep Bottom Road to the south-east of Richmond, Virginia.
Little did I know that by the end of this otherwise normal morning I was to experience one of the most magical spectacles nature has to offer anywhere in the world. It is far too easy for those of us who live in an urban environment where concrete and shopping malls rule the day, to forget that day after day, moment after moment, and in spite of mankind’s ingratitude towards it, nature continues to remind us of the simple beauty of our planet and the irreplaceable feeling of being alive. The pale, orange light of a morning sun, the gentle flow of a mighty river, and the first, hesitant sounds of nature’s first hours on a new day. And all under the watchful eye of ospreys and eagles sitting majestically above the tree tops waiting their turn to glide as in a choreographed dance in search of prey near the surface of the mighty river down below. Life begins and ends in rivers like the James. In between these two realities, a great spectacle always takes place. Battles are won and lost, the sun rises and the sun sets, there is silence and there is sound, and above all, there is life. I may never become a nature photographer, but this short trip down the James River surely made me understand why these photographers would not have it any other way. It is indeed food for the soul.
Anyone suffering from the winter blues? No doubt by now the cold, rain, ice, and snow are wearing out most mortals out there, to include your’s truly. Not that my camera has been sitting idle since the holidays, but rather that frankly, I’m having a bit of a challenge in finding those unique city scenes that make those long hours worth every shivering, tedious moment out there. During these cold January days locals appear to be perfecting the practice of hybernation. Tens of thousands of people are out-and-about in cities like San Francisco, Barcelona, and New York, but in the commuter heaven that is Washington, DC it is empty sidewalks and parks that rule the days.
Hoping to capture a little of that wintry solitude, I decided to take a walk by the shores of the Potomac River with my camera. As expected, the wind-swept shores were devoid of people, and with the exception of your occasional jogger vent on getting rid of some winter spread, I mostly enjoyed the company of geese, lots of geese. This panoramic section of the Potomac by Ohio Dr. SW sits relatively close to the famous Tidal Basin area, but somehow gets very little attention from visitors to DC. This may have to do with the fact that there are no monuments in the area, or many benches to sit at. But what this section of the National Mall lacks in amenities, it more than makes up with the beauty of the lanscape, specially during the winter season. Both Memorial Bridge and Arlington Cemetery are clearly visible from the river shores. Small boats and rowing teams from local universities slowly fight their way upstream on their way to Georgetown, while departing flights from National Airport with smoky, white trails splashed against the dark, blue skies of a winter day. It is all quite impressive, even if in a quiet, unasumming way. And for a city that prides itself on how fast it moves, it is quite refreshing that there are still areas that reward those who slow down to enjoy the sound of waves crashing on a river shore.
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.
Remember the fun days of summers from your youth? Well, they’re still there, even if these days we are mainly occupied with work, achievement, and all sorts of other important things. However, after watching this summer youth program along the Potomac River yesterday, I started to think about a conversation I once had with my college professor brother. Having asked him why he had chosen to remain a college professor for life in the place he did instead of entering the corporate world to make the big bucks, his reply kind of took me by surprise. He pointed out that while he recognized the earning potential of those who toil at their work all year round, he had made the conscious decision to choose a career where he “had not worked a single summer since his high school graduation.” Summers were his to engage in all sorts of personal projects and activities, and that long-term freedom must certainly have a value that cannot be measured by dollars alone. Fun? Summers off? Freedom? You can only imagine what was going through the head of yours truly, a never-summer-off dedicated public servant who spent most of his professional life in the United States Marine Corps. So here I was with my camera at the Washington Sailing Marina recording how much fun summers can be, thinking about how few of them we will have in our lifetimes, and realizing that my brother was a genius for the choices he made. It took a bunch of laughing, giggling, sun-drenched youth fumbling over sails and choppy waters to remind me of that.
Something good always happens in our national capital region when a snow storms forces most of the government to shut down for a few days. For starters, the entire region’s stress level comes down a notch or two. Bureaucrats get to enjoy a paid day off courtesy of the taxpayers and the environment gets a bit cleaner thanks to tens of thousands of commuters staying home for the day. What’s more, a sort of calm sets into the area with the falling snow, giving people a chance to reconnect with themselves and the place where they live. It may not be quite enough for advocates of the Slow Movement to label Washington, DC as a Slow City, but it’s nice to experience for a day or two what all that slow stuff is all about. I’m digging it.