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My favorite sights of Rome

March 28th, 2012
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Some people come to Rome for its millenia of history. Others may be attracted by the treasures found in the Vatican Museum as well as a number of less-known galleries. Yet others explore architectural beauty of its many churches and palaces.

Me, I come to Rome for its squares.

We’ll start with a night-time view of Piazza Navona.
 

Piazza Navona, Rome

 
The large rectangular square, which follows the shape of a 1st-century stadium, has not one or two, but three elaborate fountains. It is not exactly my favorite Roman square, but it is certainly one of the most photogenic. So here is another shot of it, surprisingly not looking too busy in the middle of the day.
 

Piazza Navona, Rome

 
And, of course, spires piercing the skies. The obelisk crowns the main fountain on the piazza, called the Four Rivers Fountain, and the church is Sant’Agnese in Agone.
 

Piazza Navona, Rome

 
A different kind of square is Piazza del Popolo. Besides being round as opposed to rectangular, it is much more open. The huge obelisk at its center is surrounded by four small fountains. This is the view onto the square from a viewpoint on Monte Pincio.
 

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

 
In the distance, you can see the dome of the St Peter’s cathedral. We’ll see it again from other perspectives.

One of the busiest but nonetheless one of my favorite squares is Piazza della Rotonda, Pantheon, Romewhere the requisite obelisk with a fountain is facing Pantheon, a uniquely well-preserved structure built nearly two thousand years ago.

Whereas most of the architecture from the Ancient Roman times reached us mostly as ruins (whether in the Coliseum or at the Forum, you really have to give your imagination a workout to be able to appreciate what the structures looked like in their heyday), Pantheon stands more or less in the same shape as it was designed in 118 AD. It had its re-incarnations as a church and, at present, a historical monument, but it has not been rebuilt since then.

Piazza della Rotonda, RomeLeaving aside the obvious attraction of the Pantheon as a major point of interest, here is a quirky chance experience that you might have there. If you ever find yourselves around Pantheon during rain, observing falling raindrops inside the building is simply fascinating. The roof of the structure has a large circular opening that is the only source of light in the building, but in addition to sunlight the rain gets in as well. The floor directly underneath the opening is laid with an almost unnoticeable incline, so that the water flows towards the drains rather than accumulates in puddles. When it does rain, the raindrops fall to the floor as though in an aerodynamically-created cylindric tunnel – and you can practically follow the descent of distinct drops even during heavy rain.

The shot at the left is the view towards the center of Piazza della Rotonda from the entrance to the Pantheon. Just an illustration of how busy the place looks on a sunny day.

For some reason, I do not have a good shot of the magnificent Piazza San Pietro to include here. It’s a real shame because the square is as regal as anything you can imagine, an instant “wow”-inducer. Nonetheless, the eponymous Basilica, the most-sacred Catholic shrine in the world, features on many of our photographs, towering in the background. Below is a relative close-up, taken from the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo.
 

View to Vatican from Castel SantAngelo, Rome

 
From the same vantage point, you can take in this amazing view over the city and towards the mountains.
 

View over roofs of Rome from Castel SantAngelo

 
The conical roof near the left edge of the picture is the Pantheon. The white palace with identical statues capping its wings is the monument to the first king of the unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele IIView from Quirinale, Rome (the exuberant building which looks out to Piazza di Venezia is colloquially known to locals as “the typewriter” or “the wedding cake”). If you have really good eyes, you can spot the top tier of the Coliseum peeking at you immediately to the left of the wedding cake. And slightly to the right of the monument, the lone tower marks Palazzo Senatorio at the top of the Capitoline Hill.Piazza di Spagna, Rome Plus the numerous church domes, of course.

Rome was famously built on seven hills, which becomes obvious in certain spots. For instance, the view on the left is the perspective towards St Peter’s from a corner of Piazza de Quirinale that marks the top of the Quirinale Hill. From here, it looks like we are level with the cathedral’s dome, just as we were when we looked onto Piazza del Popolo.

The shot on the right is a perspective that goes up, not down, taken from the bottom of the Spanish Steps on Piazza di Spagna. This is normally one of the most crowded pedestrian areas in all of Rome, so I count myself lucky to have been able to catch it at a comparatively quiet moment.

Piazza di Spagna, RomeThe church of Trinità dei Monti at the top of the steps may not be a point of interest by itself, but it holds its place at the summit gloriously.

To the left is the view exactly perpendicular to the one before, showing the small but unusual fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps and the perspective towards another one of the dozens of columns and obelisks found on Roman piazzas.

There are plenty more enticing squares and fountains in the center of Rome that I could include here: the traffic-burdened Piazza Barberini with understated but sublime Triton Fountain; the not-exactly-square intersection of Via di Quattro Fontane and Via XX Settembre with a fountain signifying one of the four seasons built into each corner building; the noisy Piazza Campo dei Fiori, where a monument to Giordano Bruno is surrounded by a lively market; the grand Piazza di Venezia, dominated by the aforementioned “typewriter”, which has a couple of fountains of its own; and so on. But that would stretch the limits I set for myself in this series.

So, I’ll close this photo-essay with the shot of probably the most famous – and definitely our personal favorite – fountain in Rome: Fontana di Trevi.
 

Trevi Fountain, Rome

 
Beautiful. As is the Eternal City itself.

Photography, Travel

Hooked on Beatles

March 19th, 2012
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Last weekend we went for a movie screening of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, shown as part of New York International Children’s Film Festival. Lifelong Beatles fan that I am, I have never actually seen the movie in its entirety before, so it was a treat (followed up by a nice dinner with friends at an Upper East Side eatery).

I actually do not think Yellow Submarine is a kids movie – there aren’t that many general-audience jokes or visuals in it, the songs from the eponymous album that all get an airing during the film are all centered around adult concepts (All Together Now is a notable exception; even All You Need Is Love can hardly leave a proper impression on a small kid beyond the title line refrain, IMHO), and some flashing imagery may be disturbing even for adults.

Nonetheless, my 11-year-old daughter after watching the movie is suddenly completely hooked on the Beatles. She had me put my entire digitized collection of the Fab Four songs onto her iPod and, according to her, is currently listening to nothing else.

I find her mostly unprompted affection for the band quite amazing. Considering that they disbanded more than 40 years ago – the music was way too different then.

On the other hand, therein probably lies the perfect explanation. The music kids listen to today can hardly stand any comparison to The Beatles.

A reason for me to smile.

Movies, Music

My favorite sights of Paris

March 17th, 2012
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OK, let’s next pick a city that would present me with a welcome problem similar to what I had with Florence or London – plenty of photographs to choose from.

We’ve been to Paris many times, and repeatedly professed our love for the city on the pages of this blog (most recently as part of a movie review). In our time there, we took tons of pictures and plenty of videos (even producing a Paris-centric music video). Vast majority of those are of instantly recognizable sights and edifices, so I’ll stay mostly on the touristy side with this Parisian essay.

We’ll start with that obvious symbol of the French capital, the Eiffel Tower. Say what you want about it aesthetic impact on the city, but it is a tremendous feat of engineering prowess. I have to admit, though, that when Parisians complain about the tower being visible from practically everywhere in the city, they have a point. One of my favorite perspectives of it is from the edge of the Place de la Concorde, where it fits in together with various monuments and pillars.
 

Place de la Concord, view to Eiffel Tower, Paris

 
In the center of the shot above, but way in the background, you can see the two columns that happen to adorn the most opulent of the bridges over Seine. Here is a closer look.
 

Pont Alexandre III, Paris

 
This is Pont Alexandre III, named after the father of the last Romanov, built at the end of the XIX century. Another engineering marvel of the times, and gorgeous too. In the background there is the dome of the St Louis Cathedral, which headlines the Invalides complex.

The next shot is one of my favorite perspectives in all of Europe. The famous Champs Elysées runs in a straight line from Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concord, where the 3400-year-old Luxor obelisk marks the square center, and then is sort of continued by the wide main alley of the Jardin de Tuileries, which runs all the way to Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in front of the Louvre. With a better equipment, one can take in the entire length of the way from Louvre to Arc de Triomphe in one shot – about two miles of distance. With my tourist-grade SLR, a pretty good view from the Tuileries pond is still possible.
 

View from Tuileries towards Arc de Triomphe, Paris

 
You can even see the silhouettes of the buildings in the financial district of La Défense, another couple of miles beyond the Arc de Triomphe.

Notre Dame de Paris hardly requires introduction, being another of the iconic Parisian sights. For an interior view of a place of worship, nothing beats nearby Ste-Chapelle, but the exterior shots of Notre Dame are simply majestic, especially in night-time lighting.
 

Notre Dame de Paris

 
I am a big fan of the following view of the edge of Île de la Cité, with Seine prominently in the foreground and Notre Dame’s spire piercing the sky in the background.
 

Seine and Notre Dame de Paris

 
There is a shot in Midnight in Paris with Owen Wilson walking along practically the same stretch of the riverbank.

Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, ParisAnother instantly recognizable church in Paris is Sacré-Coeur Basilica at the top of the Montmartre hill.

Montmartre arouses mixed feelings in visitors. It is fun and vibrant, and climbing the staircases towards the Basilica is among my best-loved things to do in Paris, but it can also be oppressive and stifling with the number of tourists and those locals who aim to take advantage of visitors. For instance, you always stand a fair chance of being accosted by walk-about artists who offer to draw your portrait right there in the street – I suggest you firmly refuse and continue on your way;View to Sacre Coeur from Boulevard Hausmann, Paris the fact that they roam the streets as opposed to having a stationary location on Place du Tertre does not speak in favor of their abilities, and once you agree to pose you’d find it hard to avoid paying them for their middling efforts afterwards.

On the other hand, the blocks surrounding the Basilica and the nearby Place du Tertre are famously quaint and tranquil. You will need to descend some distance to get back to vibrancy and noise.

On the right, there is a very different view of Sacré-Coeur, after the fall of darkness through the streets from the center of the city. It looks surprisingly close from here, being still more than a mile away.

Something more amusing than the standard tourist fare? No problem! Since we are very partial to French bread and pastry, we tend to look out for boulangeries and patisseries on our walks around town. I definitely count the signs announcing this specific variety of stores among my most favorite sights in Paris. But one day, we came up to a store that clearly had an identity problem.
 

Do not believe your eyes in Paris

 
Either that or I am way out of the loop on the modern clothing brands.

There is something distinctly Parisian in a simple shot of buildings alongside the Quai des Célestins as seen from Pont de Sully. After all, central Paris is all built at nearly uniform height with nary an exuberant exterior decoration in sight.
 

Quai des Celestins, seen from Pont de Sully, Paris

 
I’ll be the first to admit that Parisian architecture in its mass does not qualify as beautiful, but I find it always comforting and never detracting from the overall romantic feel of the city.

Back to famous attractions. Versailles, well outside of the city boundaries but nearly a must for at least a half-day trip for an infrequent visitor to Paris, is an especially magnificent sight when fountains are in operation (which, unfortunately, only happens on weekends during summer).
 

Versailles

 
The top level of the palace is barely seen in the background because of the layout of the gardens. If you do not spend too much time admiring the palace until you approach it via the wide staircase that connects the vast lower grounds with the upper gardens, you are in for a major sensory jolt as the monumental façade floats in on you with each ascending step.

The Luxembourg Gardens are a favorite place to take a break from it all. Just commandeer a spare chair and enjoy the scenery.
 

Luxembourg Gardens and Palace, Paris

 
On one of our visits to the city, we took the RER train from the airport to a stop nearby, and literally crossed the gardens as our very first steps in Paris on that particular occasion. The sight of it brought a feeling of returning back to something very cherished. Sort of like coming back home after a long absence.

Yeah, I can easily identify with Midnight in Paris‘s Gil.

Photography, Travel

Drive-by movie review: Hugo

March 15th, 2012
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It is brilliantly made. It deserves all of those non-acting Oscars that it received and probably a couple more (I loved the score and the overall editing was superb, but those two awards went elsewhere). And it directly speaks to our love of cinematography as a magical art form – the sentiment I share with uncounted movie fans.

Against that background, the few nitpicks I have about the visually arresting story of a gifted orphan in search of his purpose in life appear minor. Mostly, they have to do with plot devices that I find superficial. For instance, Hugo is looking for a message from his deceased father, and his only remaining link to him is the old notebook; that notebook may have been burned by Monsieur Meiles or not, but as soon as searching for it leads the boy to the old drawings related to the cinema, it is completely forgotten, as is the father, really.

I was also left a bit fuzzy on the timelines. The events are seemingly placed somewhere between the two world wars, with the fallout from WWI having a significant impact on Georges Meiles. Even if we push the story to the late 1930’s, it has been no more than twenty years since the end of that war until Hugo meets Meiles. And yet, both the depiction of Monsieur Meiles as at least a septuagenarian and several references to “long-long time ago” suggest that more time should have passed.

But those are truly only nitpicks that speak primarily to how I process what I see in movies rather than to how good or bad the movie is. These few loose ends are nicely counterbalanced by the mind-blowing imagery and the incandescent vignettes with just a handful of secondary characters that richly bring the train station to life. There are few lines that these characters speak – in fact, dialogues are definitely secondary to visual imagery throughout the movie – but that only serves as a perfect illustration of how movies allow us to see things that we would otherwise have not seen.

And the flashbacks of the early silent movies production process – reenacted with enough passion and mischief to be both funny and fascinating – are pure gold for a history-minded spectator.

Highly recommended for dreamers of all ages.

Movies

Travel memories: I once bought a painting

March 7th, 2012

We never pass up a chance to walk through a street market. Sampling foodstuffs, stopping to admire craftsmanship, checking out odd or antique objects on display – there is little in the form of free entertainment that beats that experience. Yet, we practically never buy anything, not being much into collecting things that we probably do not need. We take pleasure in browsing without the added gratification of acquiring stuff.

Street art galleries exacerbate that dichotomy. I love paintings – in another life, given more resources, I would have been an art collector. In my existing life, the only paintings that I can afford to buy are sold on the street markets (not counting an occasional neighborhood garage sale), and I always stop to browse. And almost always let my pragmatism win and refrain from buying anything – after all, a painting bought in the street will almost certainly end up as a relatively expensive souvenir rather than an appreciable asset.

One time, on Montmartre’s famed Place du Tertre, I vacillated for nearly half an hour in front of a beautiful painting of just the kind that I love. By the time I finally decided to let my impulsive desires trumpet my pragmatism, the artist had already sold it to someone else.

While in Cracow a few years ago, we came across a colorful open-air art gallery near Florian’s Gate at the edge of the Old Town. Here are a couple of pictures with different degree of focal length.
 

Art Market, Florian Gate, Cracow

 
 

Art Market, Florian Gate, Cracow

 
A connoisseur undoubtedly will point out that knock-offs, kitsch and no more than average skill predominate on this display (as is the case at any other such gallery). And yet, for an amateur art lover such as myself, there are plenty of works that strike my fancy.

So I did find one painting that I especially liked. I even inquired about the price. 750 zloty, which at that point was equivalent to about $150. Not too expensive – but I dithered. In any case, I did not have enough cash in my pocket, and instead of going in search of the nearest ATM, we continued our leisurely stroll around town.

Eventually, as we decided to spend some time on a bench in the main city square, Natasha and Becky somehow talked me into going back and buying that painting. I must have had a really wistful expression on my face. And I gave in. We stopped by an ATM, got the cash, and went to Florian’s Gate half expecting the painting to be gone from display.

It was still there, but the guy who gave me the original price was nowhere to be seen. I asked another of the sellers who were all lounging in garden chairs near the center of the exposition. He said, six hundred and fifty. I asked, six hundred even? He agreed. An equivalent of $120 exchanged hands, he took the painting down, wrapped it in some paper, and we were on our way again.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, we realized that the painting was too big in size to transport with us on a plane. I figured it would not survive traveling with the checked-in luggage but also had no desire to spend as much money again to ship it to our address in London, especially since it was attached to a simple wooden frame that would have to be replaced anyway. So I ended up taking it off the frame and fashioning it into a tube, wrapped into a lot of clothing, so that it could fit into our biggest suitcase. Felt a bit of a smuggler, to be honest.

The painting arrived in pristine shape. It’s been hanging in the choice spot in our London house and then in our New Jersey house ever since.

It even partially featured in one of the photographs that I posted in the last year or so. If anyone is adventurous enough, you can try to figure out on your own which painting it is based on the photographs in this post and the partial one from the archives herein. For all others, here is a part of that open-air gallery, which I snapped to remember the painting at the moment when it seemed I would not be buying it. Top row, second from right.

I love that painting.

Memoirs, Photography, Travel

Carnegie Hall

March 5th, 2012

I’ve heard it many times in the past that performing at the Carnegie Hall in New York always features among the major highlights of a musician’s career. Well, one of my children have gotten it out of the way at a pretty early stage. Becky and her high school choir participated in a program at the Carnegie Hall earlier in the week. With her name in the playbill, she officially arrived
 

 
Here is a less-than-perfect mobile phone photograph of what the auditorium looked like before the show.
 

 
I suspect that there will eventually be videos of the performance available through the usual sources. If/when that happens, I will be sure to link it.

Children, New York City & Environs