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.
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.
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.
It’s been a long while since I last visited Zurich, Switzerland. In fact, it’s been about a decade, to be precise, and if it was wonderful the day I left, it has gotten even better now. Sure, the crowds have increased quite a bit, and this world financial center has not gotten any cheaper. But the Alpine magic that once captivated a younger version of myself is still there, and in great quantities. The blue evening glow generated by the sun’s reflected light from the snow-capped mountains, the chilly morning strolls along the Limmat river, and the joyful holiday spirit that makes the Christmas season so special along the Alpine Region of Europe. Yes, they are all still there, and so is the evoked feeling that you are visiting a very special place in the world, where in the course of one day you can’t avoid but feel that you have heard just about every language under the sun spoken along the old, cobblestone streets in the city. I may not understand most of them, but one thing I do know for sure: that they are as fascinated as I am with this gem of a city. How do I know this? Because a happy face is easy to spot, and happy faces they have. After all, couples don’t hold hands and kiss in public places when they are not happy. But Zurich has that effect on people, and as long as it does, this aging traveler will continue to come back to find its incredible magic.
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.
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.
Once again, and after a few years, I find myself in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, and unlike the last time I had the good fortune to visit this wonderful city by Lake Geneva, this visit was a short one. In fact, it lasted barely 24 hours, and while admitedly too brief, it was nevertheless enough to remind me of why I fell in love with this place during my first visit. Perhaps it was the much slower pace than I’m used to, or the contagious courtesy of the Swiss people, or perhaps it was the natural beauty of an old, hilly city dotted with twisting cobblestone streets that captivated me. Not sure. But one thing I do know for sure: Lausanne is a hidden gem hidden from most people’s travel radar, and that is a pity.
The city impresses the moment you set foot on it. Walk up from the train station via the curvy Rue du Petit-Gêne and you will begin to see boutique hotels and quaint restaurants that you are sure to visit during your stay. Reach the higher elevation Rue du Grand-Gêne and (after you have a chance to catch your breath), you’ll be right next to the majestic Lausanne Palace Hotel and the imposing Place Saint-François. Walk down to the Rue Centrale to find some of the best cafes and pastry shops in the city before getting lost in the old town. This was pretty much all I had time for during my 24-hour visit while in transit to Locarno at the tip of Lago Maggiore. Overlooking the tiered vineyards of the Valais from the train on the way out of the city, I found myself wishing for more time in Lausanne and wondering whether Locarno would be just as enchanting for this wondering photographer. I was soon to find out that the answer was a resounding yes, but that is a story for a later day.