Pueblos Blancos

February 27th, 2015

Another place that I think should be on UNESCO World Heritage list but isn’t, Pueblos Blancos is an area peppered with little villages all boasting distinctive white-washed look. Although this architecture is not exclusive to this part of Andalusia, the name of the area – “White Villages” – certainly reflects the high concentration of this particular style. With houses frequently adorned by bright flowers, the villages are quite easy on the eye, too.

Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain

Repeating my usual lament, I do not find in our archives many pictures of Pueblos Blancos worth exhibiting on this blog, but that is a negative reflection on the photographer rather than the place.

Villages vary among themselves in tourist entertainment quotient, and aside from Ronda, none could probably support more than a few hours of exploration. Which makes it possible to visit four or five of them in the course of a couple of days. Zahara de la Sierra has most attractions of all little villages and Ronda can definitely occupy you for a full day or more. It is about a 2-hour drive to Ronda from either Granada or Seville, and a bit over an hour from Costa del Sol.

Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #38 (Greenwich)

February 21st, 2015

Greenwich should rightly claim the 9th sequential spot on my World Heritage roster, as I definitely visited Greenwich Park and climbed up to the Royal Observatory on my first trip to London in 2000. That fact somehow got lost in the shuffle when I first put the list together, and Greenwich was chronologically numbered with the start of our residence in London. But as we officially resided within the borders of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, this World Heritage site is undoubtedly the one we visited most frequently of all.

The inscription on the UNESCO list mentions over a dozen of different places. We have been to the Royal Observatory no less than half a dozen times, in or around the Royal Naval College on more than occasion, and simply enjoyed the Greenwich Park on warm weekends as anyone would their neighbourhood parkland. I have little doubt that in our years living in the area, we at the very least walked by every single edifice recognized by UNESCO in Greenwich.

Here is a perspective of the twin buildings of the Royal Naval College, viewed from the terrace of the Queen Anne’s House.

Royal Naval College, Greenwich, England

Canary Wharf, the business district that was my erstwhile place of work, is in the background.

Taking a picture of oneself straddling the Prime Meridian – one foot in the Western Hemisphere, the other in the Eastern – is as common in Greenwich as pretending to prop up the Leaning Tower while in Pisa. A child, of course, can be forgiven.

Straddling Prime Meridian, Greenwich, England

This next picture holds similar significance to one of the shots presented in the Westminster entry. It was taken on our very first family foray into Greenwich historic area. It depicts Cutty Sark, the famous clipper that sits on the bank of Thames in Greenwich. On that very first visit to Greenwich, we decided not to go to the Cutty Sark Museum. The following Tuesday or Wednesday, ongoing renovation works caused a fire on the ship, and the museum closed due to damage, not to be reopened several years later after we had departed back to the US.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich, England

Maritime Greenwich is not directly served by London Tube, but taking Jubilee line to Canary Wharf and changing to DLR towards Lewisham will deposit you by the main attractions at the Cutty Sark station. A stroll through the town, the park, and the royal buildings ensemble, a visit to the Observatory, and possibly a visit to one or two other points of interest would require at least half a day.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #7 (Westminster)

February 15th, 2015

My very first visit to London, nearly 15 years ago, happened sometime before we started travelling extensively abroad, which explains London’s sites’ relatively early sequential numbers on my World Heritage roster. On that week-long business trip I ended up with sufficient spare time to check out main attractions of the British capital, including the magnificent Westminster Abbey.

It remains to this day the only named part of the World Heritage site that we stepped into. In our time living in London, we frequently walked through Parliament Square where all parts of the site reside and even lingered on the benches facing the palace – those benches provide unexpected serenity akin to an eye of the storm that is the busy square. But we never ventured inside the Gothic Saint Margaret’s Church nor partook in a tour of the Parliament. I suspect we are unlikely to ever rectify the latter, but might rectify the former the next time we are in London.

The site’s recognition on the UNESCO list is due to both its historic and symbolic significance. It is also one of the London icons, photographically speaking. The view of the Westminster Palace from a south-east angle is one of the most frequent photos taken in the city. The addition of the London Eye to the South Bank landscape in 1999 opened a hard-to-pass-by aerial perspective of the entire Westminster complex.

View of Westminster Palace and Abbey from London Eye, London

The palace and its instantly recognized bell tower dominate the foreground; the Abbey and the Church can be seen on the right-hand side.

The next picture already featured on this blog in the favorite sights of London entry but it is one of my all-time favorites despite the tree that crept into the prominent leading role. This perspective is from not so commonly encountered south-west angle.

View to Westminster Palace, London

And this fragment of Saint Margaret’s Church with Big Ben in the background is taken from near the main entrance to the Westminster Abbey.

Big Ben and St. Margaret Church, London

The next picture has a bit of family significance. This is the very first family outing to the central London after our relocation. Natasha and the girls are still on their first week of living in the UK at this juncture. And on our first excursion around the city, we made the Westminster Abbey the highlight of the itinerary. It is a fascinating place to visit.

In front of Westminster Abbey, London

Finally, Big Ben on its own. You cut the rest of the palace from it and it remains just as instantly-recognized iconic London sight.

Big Ben, London

And a rare blue sky in a London photograph to boot.

I suspect no visit to London passes without some viewing of the Parliament Square’s edifices. As World Heritage sites go, this is among the most easily accessible ones. However, a tour of the palace and the Houses of Parliament is available only in very limited quantities on specific days, so planning is required if you wish to get inside the building. The Abbey is not open on Sundays and closes earlier than most of the other major sights on the days when it is open, so some planning is also required here. Give it at least an hour and a half for a good visit to the Abbey.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Sending your child to study in Europe

February 10th, 2015

This coming summer Kimmy will follow in the steps of her big sister by taking a language program in France. The organization that we are using for the second time for this purpose, SPI, invited me to contribute a guest entry for their blog on the topic of why we are sending our child to study abroad. That entry can now be found at this location.

Update: If you went to read the post right after I announced it, you may have seen a picture of unfamiliar girls on Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo. That picture was added by SPI into my post. After I pointed out to them that it would be better to actually have a picture of my own child, they replaced it with a photo that I myself provided.


Re-counting World Heritage sites: #32 (Gaudi)

February 4th, 2015

I love Barcelona nearly unconditionally and it contests with Paris and Rome the title of a European city that I know best aside from London. It has a lot to offer to any type of visitor but works of Antoni Gaudí are likely to feature on every itinerary, however brief or otherwise. And you could hardly do worse than tour his Modernist creations.

Gaudí is one of the few architects whose name is likely known worldwide even by those who have never seen his buildings up close. The style and creativity of his designs put him apart even amongst his fellow Modernists, whose works are also on ample display in Barcelona. (As an aside, I always say that if you can only see one sight in Barcelona, go for Sagrada Familia; but if you can see two, the second one should be the Palace of Music, architected by Gaudí’s contemporary Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and a World Heritage site on its own merit.)

The short and long versions of the UNESCO inscription give slightly diverging lists of properties that comprise the recognized Gaudí collection. The five main ones that are in or around the center of the city are Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Casa Batlló, Parque Güell, and Palacio Güell. Of those, only the latter never made our itineraries on the trips to Barcelona, which likely puts it near the top of attractions for our next visit.

Sagrada Familia, though, we visited on no less than four different occasions. Here is the view of four towers and the Nativity Façade, completed while Gaudí was still alive and in charge of construction.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

The great church has been under construction for over 130 years, and the work is not yet complete. On the very last visit, in 2011, I was able to view the completed interior (but did not take any pictures). On our previous visits, the church was an active construction site even during the touring hours.

Here is the view of one of the church walls with stain-glass windows from an earlier visit.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

And here are the palm-tree-inspired pillars in the central nave, also from the time of on-going construction.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Casa Mila – or La Pedrera, as it is colloquially known – is a remarkable example of inventive civic architecture, a building where no two walls ever join at a ninety-degree angle. But those who toured the building probably remember the most its roof, a maze of fantastically shaped chimneys.

On the roof of Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Barcelona, Spain

One other Gaudí masterpiece, Casa Batlló, neighbors three other Modernist buildings by different architects. They are all so unlike each other that the block on which they are located has a semi-official designation of “the Island of Discord”. Because Gaudí is the most recognized of the names, Casa Batlló is the most visited of the properties on the block. I cannot vouch for others, but it is certainly worth the visit.

Casa Batlló, Barcelona, Spain

Parque Güell, which I do not have good pictures of, is slightly further afield, reached by subway and not very long uphill walk. It is certainly a contender for a place in the top five sights in Barcelona, so don’t let the required extra effort keep you from going there.

We have once done all of these four sights in one day, with plenty of leisurely walks in between, but it was in the “shoulder season” – ticket lines were reasonable. Those lines at busy times can readily take over an hour each, so buy tickets in advance whenever possible (we still spent an hour and a half in line to get up the Sagrada Familia towers on that same day, but that part of the attraction may be run more efficiently now that the interior construction is over). If I remember correctly, Palacio Güell requires advance ticket purchase at all times. I have serious doubts that any reasonable itinerary (by “reasonable”, I mean no rushing between sights and no hurry during any individual tour) can fit all these properties into a single day even in the relative off-season. But Barcelona offers attractions to fill a week and a half, easily. Sparing a couple of those days on Gaudí is a fairly obvious choice to me.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #27 (Toledo)

January 29th, 2015

We visited Toledo twice on day-trips several years apart and definitely left some places unexplored there even after two visits. Recognizing two millennia of history on display in Toledo, the UNESCO inscription mentions over a dozen sights by name, of which we can claim good familiarity with no more than half. The religious monuments, most importantly the cathedral and two major synagogues, have been our main targets, and we extensively explored the city on foot bypassing interiors of a number of other attractions.

At the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue, we found ourselves completely alone on our first visit. The space, empty of anything but mudejar columns and arches and remnants of Christian frescoes from its turn as a church, felt especially evocative without anybody else in sight.

Santa María la Blanca Synagogue, Toledo, Spain

The second time we visited the synagogue hosted an exhibition of Jewish symbolism, which somewhat dulled the impression of the great hall.

The Monastery of St John of the Kings is easier to photograph from the outside than the cathedral, which is hemmed in by the surrounding buildings in the center of the city. The monastery is located near the edge of town and is an impressive sight in its own right.

San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

Walking uphill in the city, you come across gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. Here is one such view with the top tier of the monastery at our eye level.

View in Toledo, Spain

Toledo is reachable as a day-trip destination from Madrid via a speed train, a regular train or a bus, with the total one-way trip lasting between an hour and two hours, depending on which option you choose. If you intend to see all of the major religious sights, explore the army museum in Alcázar, visit El Greco home-museum in addition to viewing his masterpieces in various churches, and peek at the Roman circus, you will probably need to budget an overnight stay. Or to come back again.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #15 (Avignon)

January 22nd, 2015

Our single day-trip to Avignon during our very first voyage to France ended up one of the best days of that itinerary. The tour of the Papal Palace took nearly three hours and exhausted us a little, so we shortened our sightseeing program, leaving quite a few hours until our evening dinner reservation. That time was spent wandering fairly aimlessly around town center, checking out shops and galleries, stopping for coffee and tea on a couple of cute intersections. An active day morphed into a rather lazy one, enjoyably so.

Avignon’s entry on the World Heritage list recognizes the city’s leading place in 14th-century Europe and mentions several specific monuments as part of the ensemble. Had I been more aware of the UNESCO list back then, I would probably insist on visiting more than a couple of those. As it was, we got a very in-depth look at the Papal Palace and lingered on the remains of 12th-century Pont St-Bénézet for a bit, but only looked at the Cathedral and Petit Palais from the outside.

Here is the austere and remarkable Papal Palace in the background.

Papal Palace, Avignon, France

It is also seen in the very back of the next picture, taken from near the surviving end of the St-Bénézet bridge. There is a tiny – in comparative chapel terms – Chapelle St-Nicolas directly on the bridge, seen on the left.

Pont St-Benezet, Avignon, France

A full day is about the right duration for a visit to Avignon, especially when casual perambulation is part of the program. We should do that again ourselves one of these days.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #28 (El Escorial)

January 14th, 2015

The Royal Palace and Monastery of El Escorial attracts quite a bunch of superlatives on its UNESCO description, including an awestruck passage of “there is nothing [about it] that is not exceptional”. In my subjective view, all of those are well deserved. El Escorial is an architectural wonder of the highest grade.

You have to allow yourself time to let it sink in, though. On approach, the grandiose edifice looks too severe and even somewhat grim. It was meant to be not outwardly exuberant, built in fulfilment of a vow and intended as a contemplative retreat. Nonetheless, the spaces inside are richly decorated and, coupled with the sheer size of the monument, leave a remarkable impression.

Let me emphasize, the monument is gigantic. It is likely visited on a day-trip from Madrid, but you have to set aside about three hours just for taking self-guided audio-tour at a crisp canter. Lingering will require additional time, obviously, so you may have to plan for setting aside an entire day for the visit. And there are quite a few spots to linger at; for instance, the splendid library.

The Library, El Escorial, Spain

As is common to our early travels, photographic memories from the visit are limited. Another shot of yours truly with a fragment of the monastery in the background is all I can offer.

El Escorial, Spain

If I recall correctly, the train from Madrid takes about 45 minutes to get to San Lorenzo El Escorial station, from which you can either take the bus to the monastery or walk uphill for about 15-20 minutes. I’ll probably walk the next time – I’d like to see how it comes out to meet me now that I know what awaits me inside.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Becky’s excellent adventure

January 9th, 2015

Our eldest is off to Brussels for a semester of study abroad. Although she has traveled to foreign countries on her own in the past, this will be the longest and likely the bumpiest of journeys. We are all excited for her and obviously just a smidgen worried.

She promises to keep a journal of her adventures, resurrecting her long-dormant blog. The first post just went up there. Anyone who is interested, feel free to go there (or use the link on the menu) and give her your love and best wishes. And help us keep her from feeling lonely by coming back to the blog, checking it out and commenting. She’ll appreciate it. I will as well.


Travel and obligations

January 8th, 2015

In 2014, I visited 5 foreign countries – of which 3 were first-time visits for me – and added 11 World Heritage sites to my roster (admittedly, most of those featured on a single trip in a matter of two weeks).

Certainly far above the average American intake of overseas travel.

Definitely not too shabby in the broadest measure, for a guy who is office-bound in his professional capacity and has to ration his vacation time.

And yet, puny by standards of people who somehow manage to turn international travel into a full-time occupation.

There are quite a few of these modern nomads to be found on the interwebs. Some are kids just out of school. Others are location-independent entrepreneurs who run online businesses or earn with their writing. A few are escapees from the rat race. Every single one of them at one point or another posts a treatise on the topic of “Everyone can travel”.

I envy them more frequently than I should be admitting. I’d love to exchange sitting in my office chair for walking around cobblestone streets in a faraway destination with my camera in hand. Part of my ongoing mid-life crisis, I suppose.

What separates me from all of those travelers is obligations. I have them. They don’t.

They are, as a rule, unattached. Most are proud of travelling solo and exuberant about making new friends wherever they land, but majority are not in any long-standing relationship, to say nothing of matrimonial ties. A small segment of those who travel as couples are yet to convince me that they function as families rather than primarily as travel companions.

They are, practically without exception, childless. In extremely rare cases, a family may lead a comparatively nomadic lifestyle with small children who are too young to have adverse reactions to the lack of stability in their lives, but that only reinforces the general no-children rule. (I am not considering here expatriate families who relocate to be stationed overseas; obviously, we have done it ourselves and certainly found our opportunities for travel greatly enhanced, but that was still within “travel-when-you-get-time-off” paradigm rather than “travel-all-the-time”.)

In other words, if these people ever had to sacrifice something in order to start and lead their nomadic lifestyle, it was just themselves who had to make that sacrifice and not anyone who depended on them.

Me, family, children, level of income that is not high enough to have allowed me to retire by now and yet is too high to be easily replicated in any other accessible alternative career path – if I ever seriously considered a lifestyle change it would be hard to reconcile with my obligations to support our collective needs.

So, when a breezy 23-year-old, who admirably has been able to build a notable online presence translatable into a career as a travel blogger in just over a year, expounds the idea of choosing nomadic lifestyle, I recognize that I am not her target audience.

Instead, I’ll plan for as much travel as my office-bound existence allows.

Tentatively, in 2015, I will visit 7 countries – of which 3 will be for the first time ever – and add another dozen or so World Heritage sites to my list.

I still think it not too shabby, given the obligations.



January 3rd, 2015

Ever since I started paying attention to the UNESCO World Heritage list I have been extremely baffled why the Bavarian town of Rothenburg does not appear on the list. It has long and illustrious history. It escaped destruction at several important junctures of Western history (and each of the stories of those escapes, however embellished, should be an envy of any locale in need of a colorful past). It is simply one of the best-preserved Medieval towns in all of Europe.

Although my sample size of UNESCO sites is still relatively small, only at 7% of the total, I can already name places on the list that I do not rate as high as Rothenburg. Yet, as far as I can tell, it does not even figure on the future candidates tentative lists. Something inexplicable is going on here.

We spent just a little bit over a day in town as part of our itinerary around Germany nearly a decade ago. It is compact and easily walkable, with a few key points of interest situated around the main square which is overseen by an imposing Rathaus. You likely can cover the cumulative length of all streets within the boundaries of old city walls in the matter of a couple of hours. Seeing a couple of museums and churches is optional. Partaking in the Night Watchman Tour after the fall of darkness is highly recommended, so plan to stay overnight.

This photograph is quintessential Rothenburg for me. One of the city towers guards over a street full of artisan and craftsman shop signs.

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Germany

In fact, I cannot think of another town with such a high concentration of emblematic shop signs as in Rothenburg. I find that quite delightful.

The other picture is a corner of Burggarten, an oasis of serenity high over river Tauber.

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Germany

One of my favorite small towns, no question.

Photography, Travel

Holiday lights

December 28th, 2014

Last night we made a tour around the best-decorated houses in our corner of New Jersey. Christmas may be in the past already but they stay lit for New Year, helping us to get into necessary holiday spirit. Taking pictures hand-held at a high ISO turned out reasonably well, so here are a few examples. These houses would not be out of place in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights.




At one house, we were greeted by a visibly relieved Santa.


Photography, Suburbia

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #39 (Brussels – Grand-Place)

December 26th, 2014

In an interesting dissonance, Brussels never figures on the list of must-see destinations and yet there are three separate World Heritage sites within its greater boundaries. The grandest of them all – appropriately named Le Grand-Place – is definitely worth the visit to the Belgian capital.

The inscription pays respects to the homogeneity and the successful style blending of the architecture surrounding the square, in addition to its emblematic social value. It is simply awesome to behold. The impressive features look as if they stepped out of a Gothic illustration from centuries ago, which makes perfect sense because many buildings date back that far. There are many grandiose squares in cities around the world, but for an architecture aficionado few induce the same level of fascination as the Great Square.

The City Hall dominates the scene, even more so than its tower dominating the central Brussels skyline.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

The building underwent alterations and renovations in its lifetime but it’s been largely built in early 15th century. That’s 600 years ago, for those not inclined to count. An age where mechanical supplements to labour were not even dreamed up by Leonardo yet. How did they built these things? (I suppose the winch is a pretty ancient invention, but they still have to use manual power to operate them, no?)

I like this majestic palace so much that I am including a “blue hour” perspective of it as well.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

And here is a corner next to the City Hall, featuring a row of somber yet imposing buildings.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

There is a city museum on the square and you can step into the City Hall and into a couple of other public buildings for an inside look. If you choose not to, you may find it a matter of minutes to get acquainted with the square. I’d recommend approaching it akin to a room in a picture gallery, with every building representing an artifact to be stood in front, its details to be viewed and admired.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #10 (Versailles)

December 19th, 2014

Having had been introduced to Versailles through the works of Alexandre Dumas before I reached my teens, and having had visited modelled-on-Versailles Peterhof in the years before emigration, I had the Sun King’s palace on my must-visit list for our very first trip to France nearly a decade and a half ago. Although that visit was very detailed – we managed to see all parts of the main palace, plus smaller palaces in the gardens – it left a significant gap due to inactivity of the waterworks. We had to return on one of our subsequent stays in Paris specifically to enjoy the fountains.

The UNESCO inscription is minimalist to the extreme but it does state that the palace served as the ideal royal residence model all through Europe. I have since seen quite a few of those attempts to imitate Versailles and exceed it in opulence at the same time, and in my humble opinion, it remains at the head of the pack.

This is the façade of the palace as seen from the gardens.

Versailles, France

As you walk towards the palace from this point, you will start losing the sight of it as your plane of view gets obscured by the wide main staircase connecting the palace level with the garden grounds. But then, as you walk up those stairs, the massive structure of the palace comes out to meet you in a shock of awesomeness.

Inside the main palace there is a sizable sequence of rooms of varying luxuriance, but they all get overshadowed by the Hall of Mirrors which takes the entire length of the façade you see in the picture above. Tourists tend to linger there, so in high peak times even that space can become pretty crowded. Nonetheless, this is one room (which is part of the “Grand Apartments” tour of the Palace – there are other itineraries that do not take you there) that you have to see for yourself to appreciate.

This other perspective towards the palace includes a fountain.

Versailles, France

Because of well-documented Versailles’ problems with water, the fountains only get turned on on weekends in summer. Obviously, those are the busiest visiting times on the grounds, but the grounds are so vast that you probably will not feel hemmed in when you are outside. Although there are a few very beautiful waterworks in different parts of the park, they probably do not by themselves rise to a reason to visit Versailles. The park is certainly more beautiful when they are on, so if you can plan your itinerary to see Versailles on one of those water-enhanced days all the better for you. But if you have to miss the fountains for whatever reason, the gardens themselves, and the couple of smaller palaces, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, are remarkable enough to make a visit not just about the main palace.

If you plan to explore the garden, to see smaller palaces, and to go on as many itineraries in the main palace as possible, a full day is barely enough to see the entire complex. I recall that we bought combo visit tickets at a train station in Paris proper on our first visit and that significantly expedited our access to all attractions. If you do not buy tickets in advance, budget non-trivial time for waiting in line to buy them onsite (probably less so in decidedly off-peak intervals); security line to get through to the palace can also require some wait.

If your goal is to just see the most lavish parts of the main palace coupled with a quick jaunt around the garden, you may fit it all into 2-3 hours, depending on wait lines and your rate of haste. Although organized tours do just that, I think you are short-changing yourself that way. I would recommend a healthy dose of lingering instead.

Versailles is reached by one of the RER lines from the center of Paris – the train ride takes about half an hour.

One other picture is the rare travel portrait work of mine that I count among my best efforts. The young lady in the picture has grown up quite a bit in the years since. The wide central alley running towards the lake probably looks the same today as it looked when we last saw it.

Versailles, France


Photography, Travel, World Heritage

A meal unlike any other

December 15th, 2014

Imagine yourself, if you would, sitting on a terrace overlooking an amazing landscape. We will tentatively pin the place as a hamlet alongside Amalfi Coast, but it might as well be Albaicin in Granada, Amboise in Loire Valley, or any number of other places. The grand view is not a mandatory attribute – if all you can imagine is a cozy dining room that puts you in a romantic mood, you are fine. The sun slowly sinks into the sea or the fireplace gently crackles in the corner – these attributes are welcome but do not define the experience.

You are here to enjoy what will undoubtedly be the highlight of your overseas trip – a traditional local meal. Haute-cuisine establishments or anything that advertizes itself as having a menu turistico need not apply. We are talking a small bed-and-breakfast whose lovely owner offered to treat you to a dinner one night.

Since we decided to call it Italy, the meal is starting with a flute of Prosecco. Sipping the wine and enjoying the atmosphere, you greet the arrival of bruschetta with enthusiasm, as you do not yet suspect what is in store for you. The opening dish is as non-pretentious as it is delicious.

Then comes antipasto. A grand word to encompass slices of cheese and meat plus some olives and vegetables. You can’t make a dish simpler than that, but for a light eater it itself can constitute a whole meal.

Afterwards, pasta arrives. It could be penne or linguini or tagliatelli or more prosaic spaghetti, but it’s the home-made sauce that will taste as nothing you have tasted before. No point in asking for the name of the sauce – alla mia nonna Maria is the likely answer. You can ask for the recipe, of course, and the gracious host will oblige, but you will never be able to replicate the heavenly taste back home. Must be something to do with Italian air.

Looking at that bowl of pasta if front of you, you are starting to regret the eagerness with which you went after every last bite of the appetizers. You are also starting to consider whether there is any polite chance in hell to tell your host that you cannot finish her offering. However you’d think to express it, it smacks of lacking appreciation for the good woman’s efforts – and you are way too considerate to hurt her feelings that way.

You managed to finish the pasta, but of course, this is not the end of the meal. Next come costolette di agnello with polenta on the side. It does not look elaborate but it tastes out of this world. No way you’ll leave even a smidgen of it on the plate, even if it takes you all night!

Clever person that you are, you try to gauge the remainder of the meal by asking your host in your limited Italian, “And then, dessert?” She makes a face of unbearable sorrow and exclaims what sounds like “What?! You are not having the fish?!?!?!” Embarrassed that you insulted her, you hasten to convince her that you, in fact, cannot wait to taste the fish that she made for you.

After an hour or so you finally claim victory over the lamb chops. To your utter relief, the next course is actually the dessert. The smiling woman tells you something about fish but you are too addled by the amounts of food in your digestive tract to clearly discern whether she was making a joke about fish earlier or simply decided to take pity on you and removed the fish from the menu. The dessert is exquisitely-looking struffoli – the only item on the menu that may not have been made in the kitchen next door but instead bought at the local pasticceria.

Next comes espresso. And after that, five different varieties of limoncello to taste to your heart’s delight. Which you do for the next two hours because getting up from your table is certainly not a physical feat possible at present juncture.

Truly a meal that you will remember for years to come.


As you can probably guess, this was not exactly a fantasy but rather a very fond memory. We did have more or less this exact experience of a meal during our stay on Amalfi Coast more than a decade ago. I find it singularly incredible that we only spent two nights at the coast and each night left us with one of our most cherished memories of all of our travels (the previous night’s experience was recounted in this entry that I posted almost 5 years ago).

It is no coincidence that both of these stories revolve around dining. I am a firm believer in experiencing as much local flavor as practical when in a foreign country. Yes, I do plenty of touristy things and check must-see sights off my list. But if I want to find an approximation of being a local, I head to a market – or seek a home-made meal (although, it should be confessed that I frequently seek popular restaurants offering local fare instead; then, the threat of cumulative expense and the relative anonymity of being a “stranger” who can leave food on his plate combine to safeguard me from inadvertent gluttony even when the food on offer is mind-blowing). Experiencing a foreign culture through food is the most accessible and enjoyable approach no matter where you are.

This post was prompted in part by my recent Amalfi coast World Heritage vignette but also in part by folks at Smartling who approached me to write about my dream dinner destination as part of a project they are working on. I moulded the topic into something that better suits the overall tone of my blog but probably veers too far away from their original intent. Since no promises of monetary or other gains were exchanged, I feel that this exercise of creative freedom is permissible.

They also asked me to cover my views on foreign language website translation. Beyond stating the fairly obvious notion that every respectable business with international clientele nowadays cannot operate without an English-language online presence, I do not know what I can offer. I am a competent reader in four European languages but I certainly prefer to do my research in English. When those English-version sites are bad-quality translations, it impedes my ability to achieve what I am looking for and oftentimes directs my custom elsewhere. Which, I suppose, means that Smartling has plenty of scope to apply their core expertise.

Memoirs, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #6 (San Juan)

December 10th, 2014

In what feels like ages ago but is merely a matter of less than two decades, we were recent American immigrants still awaiting naturalization and possessing decidedly limited financial means. In those prehistoric times, our travel journeys were few and far in between and normally limited to north-American locations where we had residing relatives.

Puerto Rico offered us one of the few opportunities to travel abroad with little hassle and manageable expense. We took advantage of that twice in quick succession, first on a week-long vacation and then on a long-weekend romantic getaway. On the first of the two visits, we explored quite a number of places, including El Yunque tropical forest and Liquillo beach. And, of course, we spent considerable time in San Juan getting to know its historic core.

The World Heritage site, therefore, bears the distinction of being the first one visited by us outside of the confines of the former Soviet Union. The inscription cites the military and architectural value of San Juan’s fortifications in the history of America colonisation. I was not such an architecture aficionado in my twenties as I am today, so I have to confess in not truly having had been impressed by the old forts. Old San Juan, however, was truly a delight as our very first look at the city not at all like American Northeast cities and towns or anything that we could have seen in our youth in the country of our births.

Reviewing our old photo-albums, I realize that we shot at least two rolls of film on that first visit to Puerto Rico, but very little of it is salvageable for posting purposes. We brought home a pretty good collection of postcards with the highlights of our sightseeing itinerary and a few dozen beach/vacationing snapshots. This picture of a monument somewhere on the approach to El Morro is the result of extensive processing and styling to become passable enough to offer to this demanding audience.

I am guessing that you need at least two full days to properly explore the forts and the Old San Juan. I promise to set aside at least as much the next time I come to Puerto Rico.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

10 Movies for vicarious travel

December 4th, 2014

My blogging angle has clearly become almost exclusively travel-oriented, and any self-respecting travel blogger has to have a list of his favorite travel movies. So here is my attempt to establish bona fides.

I set out with the goal of picking not just the movies filmed in gorgeous locations but those that allowed me to identify with the experiences of main characters. This whole idea of vicarious travel, you know… That did not work out in its entirety and I ended up with a list that well approximates the prevailing blogosphere wisdom.

1. A Good Year (2006)

A hot-shot playboy investment banker inherits a vineyard in the south of France and gradually discovers a different side of life – and love. Few people can truly identify with such fortune but I suspect many dream of it. Gorgeous Provençal landscapes provide the perfect setting for acting that is as simple as it is sparkling. A few quintessential London vignettes offer delightful contrast to the serenity of French countryside. And the movie offers the best ever put-down for the kind of obnoxious American tourists who think that every restaurant has to have their specific preferred meal on the menu: “MacDonalds is in Avignon, fish and chips in Marseille. Allez!”


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Movies, Travel

My World Heritage roster

November 30th, 2014

More for my own records than for public consumption – but, hey, feel free to peruse below the cut – here is my World Heritage sites roster, with links to my posts that contain relevant pictures. Links to UNESCO list inscriptions are provided as well, along with the year each site was added (in parenthesis).

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Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #20 (Amalfi Coast)

November 30th, 2014

Amalfi Coast is up there near the top on the list of destinations that we fell in love with and are overdue to come back to. It’s gorgeous, unique and inviting. It left memories worth recounting. And we simply spent too little time there.

The UNESCO inscription recognizes the region’s natural and cultural beauty alike. Driving on the narrow coastal highway – the only road to reach a number of places – you get the amalgam of both: Dramatic cliffs on one side, azure sea on the other, and picturesque terraces of houses clinging to slopes. The vistas are as colorful as they are magnificent.

You probably need no less than three full days to be able to properly explore and appreciate Amalfi Coast. We had only two days and we managed to explore in depth Amalfi, Ravello and Minori (where we were based). The first two are each a must, but many people would also pick Positano as being a targeted destination, on the strength of photographic familiarity with its eye-catching run-down-the-mountain configuration – it is likely the most-photographed sight on the coast. We did not manage to get to Positano, which at my present levels of photo enthusiasm feels as an ever more significant gap that needs to be addressed.

We did fit in a couple of hours on the beach, and drove stretches of the aforementioned coastal highway to absorb the scenery. Since we were in the area at the end of September, we did not encounter too much congestion that tourists bring about in summer. If you do choose to visit Amalfi Coast for a resort-centric vacation in July and August, be aware that getting around will take significant allocations of time even for short distances. I would still probably prefer driving over bus excursions or public transport.

Maybe, it’s a blessing in disguise that when I finally see Positano it will be as a much better photographer than I was in pre-digital times. There are not many good pictures from our visit that I can choose to post here. For the first one, I actually chose to style it vintage-y, because it helps to disguise its flaws that way. This is on the beach in Amalfi.

Amalfi, Italy

And the second one is from the garden lookout of Villa Cimbrano, in Ravello. Ravello is not situated on the coast, but rather higher up in the mountains. The views from there, as such photograph cannot truly convey, are breathtaking.

View from Villa Cimbrone, Ravello, Italy


Photography, Travel, World Heritage


November 28th, 2014

In between of consuming vast quantities of food during the Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’, Becky showed me a few mainstream chords for her ukulele.

Turns out it’s not very complicated. I am practically a virtuoso.