Urban Zen

Lausanne Plaza

Living right next to a big city, you can’t help but become aware of the impact that architectural development has on the people who occupy these urban centers on a daily basis. No doubt that a lot of thought has gone in producing the type of urban environment in which some of us live, and no doubt that what has resulted from all that deep thinking is what confronts us every day as we go about our daily routines. So, with this in mind, it seems to me that there are a couple of overarching goals that influence the development of major city centers around the world. From what I can discern, the development of cities tends to promote either need to design these urban centers to increase the flow of people (efficient movement from point-to-point), or the promotion of lingering. That is, some cities are made for people on the go, while others seem to cater primarily to people’s need to hang around and interact. Hurry up or slow down, that’s pretty much it. And yes, the illusive balance between the too remains a goal in many places, even if somewhat haphazardly achieved.

The photo above of downtown Lausanne, Switzerland is a case in point. I took this photo some years ago during one of my many trips to that wonderful city by Lake Geneva, and it kind of illustrates what I’m talking about. The hilly city of Lausanne is literally built for lingering. Just about everywhere you go in the city, you will find small parks, lots of benches, and an atmosphere that calls out at you to stop and take in the surroundings. The place is definitely not designed for the worshipers of the “New York minute” lifestyle. Quite the opposite. In Lausanne the problem is finding the will and disposition to overcome the internal voices screaming at you to get off the fast-moving train of life and to transform minutes into hours. The city’s architectural design, with its public art displays and congenial gathering spots, is like an antidote for the never-have-time crowd. Call it architecture as therapy or whatever, but somewhere between what your eyes see and the opportunities to linger, your mindset is altered in ways that are hard to describe. We may not totally understand this metamorphosis, but it happens, and it is very real. We slow down, we take the surroundings, we imagine, and we feel less stressed. Medicine for the soul, and a welcomed break from the race around us. Architecture and art as medicine for the modern human condition. Who would’ve known.

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.

 

Geneva In Black & White

The views overlooking the Place de la Madeleine in Old Town Geneva are some of the most magnificent in the city.
The views overlooking the Place de la Madeleine in Old Town Geneva are some of the most magnificent in the city.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in Geneva, the Jet D'Eau started life as a relief valve for a city water pipe.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in Geneva, the Jet D’Eau started life as a relief valve for a city water pipe.
A typical street in Old Town Geneva during the early morning hours.
Even in crowded cities like Geneva, starting the day early before the crowds show up will always lead to some magnificent scenes.
A lady crosses the Rue du Soleil-Levant on her way to the Cour de Saint-Pierre, one of the greatest squares in Geneva.
A lady crosses the Rue du Soleil-Levant on her way to the Cour de Saint-Pierre, one of the greatest squares in Geneva.
Lovers kiss by the historical display at the Geneva Arsenal.
While most people in Geneva seem to be in a hurry, lovers still find time to kiss at the historical Geneva Arsenal.
The cafe restaurant immediately in front of the Geneva Arsenal Museum is a throwback to Europe in years past.
The cafe restaurant immediately in front of the Geneva Arsenal Museum is a throwback to Europe in years past.
The metal Pont de la Machine provides safe passage over the mighty Rhône River.
The metal Pont de la Machine provides safe passage over the mighty Rhône River.
The building housing the Dante Alighieri Association sits quite imposingly between Rue du Perron and Rue Otto Barblan.
The building housing the Dante Alighieri Association sits quite imposingly between Rue du Perron and Rue Otto Barblan.
Always good to find out that while people are curious about your photography, a simple thank you and a smile always go a long way.
Always good to find out that while people are curious about your photography, a simple thank you and a smile always go a long way.

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.

Enchanting Krakow

The Maly Rynek Square is one of the most beautiful in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The Maly Rynek Square is one of the most beautiful in Krakow. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The views from Wawel Castle hill are the best in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
The views from Wawel Castle hill are the best in Krakow. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Krakow has one of the liveliest restaurant scenes in Europe.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Krakow has one of the liveliest restaurant scenes in Europe. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
Walk down Krakow's side-streets and you will be richly rewarded by small, quaint restaurants and bars.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Walk down Krakow’s side-streets and you will be richly rewarded by small, quaint restaurants and bars. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
Street bread and pretzel salespeople are a fixture in Krakow's Old Town.  Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
Street bread and pretzel salespeople are a fixture in Krakow’s Old Town. Leica M 240, APO Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH.
Parts of the old city wall still sorrow Krakow's Old Town.  Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Parts of the old city wall still sorrow Krakow’s Old Town. Leica M 240, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
A nation's pride for its beloved Pope is felt every day in Krakow.  Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.
A nation’s pride for its beloved Pope is felt every day in Krakow. Leica M 240, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM.

After spending nearly three weeks touring Europe, I can honestly say that Krakow, Poland has been the most captivating place I have visited in this journey.  This gorgeous city, with its many churches and regal Wawel Castle Hill, is without a doubt one of the best kept secrets in Europe.  It may be Poland’s second largest city, but it is the country’s unquestionable spiritual center.  From the imposing Wawel Cathedral atop Wawel Hill to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary at the Grand Square, the city’s (and the country’s) devotion to the Catholic faith could not be any stronger.  Coming from a country where seeing a nun walking down the street is as rare as seeing a comet in the sky, you can’t help but marvel at the collective devotion of the Polish people for its church and for its prodigal son, John Paul II.

But Krakow is not just about religion.  Friendly locals, great architecture, and a lively social atmosphere add to the city’s charm.  During my four-day visit to the city I saw nothing but packed city streets leading to the Grand Square and the lively energy of a city bent on putting its mark on the world.  The energy level was so high, that I found it very hard to rationalize the country’s troubled history during the last century.  The Polish people, with their hard-working, yet friendly disposition, are obviously more concerned with building a future than with lingering in the past.  And while reminders of that past can still be found around the city (like the cross in honor of the fallen during the Katyn Forest massacre by Russian troops), for the casual visitor they remain virtually invisible.  As I get ready to leave this beautiful city, my only regret is that it took me so long to get here.  This city, with its wonderful people and bright future, have been the highlight of my nearly ten thousand mile journey.  So dziękuję Krakow, and I hope we meet again.