Category Archives: Travel

Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland was not originally part of my European travel plans, but I had two unused train travel days on my pass and had had enough of Vienna. So I took the night train to and from Krakow for a weekend visit.

Per Wikipedia, Krakow is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. It sits on the Vistula River and dates to the 7th century. Krakow was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596 and remains one of the leading centers for academic, cultural, and artistic life in central Europe.

It is also one of the few European cities that escaped extensive destruction during World War II. I found the architecture to be fairly interesting in the same vein as that in Vienna. However, the city is not nearly as beautiful as Prague. The city appears to be a big party town as the beer is dirt cheap and I saw crowds of drinkers bar hopping late at night when I was returning to my hostel from seeing a Brad Pitt movie at the local art house cinema.

Krakow has very nice parks and some of the largest and most beautiful trees I’ve seen in any city. It certainly would be livable city particularly if you enjoy the cool shade of inner city parks.

Additionally, if you have a couple of extra travel days and can get to Krakow, then the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi Extermination Camps are not to be missed. I will cover it in another post.

Overall, I felt that the city was nothing special and for those planning a central European trip, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest are the cities I recommend unless cheap beer is at the top of your list of priorities. However, the Auschwitz-Burkenau concentration camps are highly recommend although depressing and disturbing.

Berlin Airport

I’ve been in dozens of airports, large and small, in the US, Canada, South America, and Europe. Despite legendary German efficiency and design, the Berlin Airport is one of the worst airports that I’ve experienced. Small, cramped, and horrible inefficient (the bathrooms are a joke that you can experience yourself if you can manage to get through the tiny door with your luggage).

I flew in from Vienna for a plane change on the way to New York and you are forced by the airport design, to exit secured areas and then re-enter and re-screen at the gate. There were more than one hundred people inline checking bags with a couple of hundred more milling about with absolutely no place to go; the gate was closed as there were no police to check passports and screen carry-on.

The good news is that the airport provided exactly six seats for these several hundred passengers. The flight was naturally delayed for one hour since they couldn’t possibly process all these people, so I spend my time writing this post from the hard and cold floor were I was lucky to get a spot to place my ass.

So while the airport provided no place to sit, there was plenty of space devoted to overpriced stores to spend money in. Germany is not part of my tourism plans this trip, but should I return to Europe, I may avoid Berlin altogether based on this awful experience. If I remember correctly, the airport in Dusseldorf is much much more comfortable than the torture chamber that is the Berlin Airport.

Update: The departure gate area (with all the comfy unused seating areas) is still closed and there are about three hundred people standing around looking irritated. I’m told the gate area won’t be opened till two hours past the original departure time, which means all these people will have to stand or sit on the concrete floor till then (there is no open gate seating in any other areas as you need a boarding pass for them). My ass has fallen asleep and I may not be able to stand if and when they do decide to open the area. The people next to me smell very bad and must not be allowed to use deodorant in their Muslim sect. I’m getting very cranky as are the kids near me. I want out of Germany very badly.

St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

Interior - St. Stephen's Basilica - Budapest, Hungary

St. Stephen’s Basilica (Hungarian: Szent István-bazilika) is a Roman Catholic basilica in Budapest, Hungary. It is considered the most important church building in Hungary. The church is named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose mummified hand is housed in the reliquary.

Equal with the Hungarian Parliament Building, it is the one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest at 96 metres (315 ft). Current regulations prohibit any taller buildings in Budapest. It was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. During construction, the dome collapsed in 1868 which required complete demolition of the completed works and rebuilding from the ground up.

The architectural style is Neo-Rennaissance; it has a Greek cross ground plan. The façade is anchored by two large bell towers. In the southern tower is Hungary’s biggest bell, weighing over 9 tons. St. Stephen’s Basilica is a lovely church and one of the top tourist destinations in Budapest.

I was able to complete all my photography, while being ignored by the clergy. Then on the way out the door, a priest approached me and pointing to the tripod said, “not allowed.” I said “OK” as I was all done. I do not know why so many people are against tripods. I was careful to keep out of everyones way and my rubber tips certainly do not harm the floor. I think rules are created because of some problem years ago with one photographer, and the rules just get passed on down without any reasoning or understanding. The whole anti-tripod thing sure gets old. The very next day, I was prevented from photographing in the subway system because of the tripod. This was surprising as I’d been photographing for weeks in the system and been observed and ignored by countless metro employees. I just takes one guy who feels he has to exercise his authority over others to really ruin a photographer’s day.

The View Looking In

The buildings in Vienna tend to be: 1) beautiful; 2) old; and 3) well-built. During my student study abroad trip, I’m staying in a neighborhood-sited youth hostel, and near this hostel are some apartment/office buildings with typical, thick walls and deep window sills. Deep window sills naturally create a place to put “stuff” and stuff is what I found while walking the neighborhood with camera in hand.

From plants to blueprints to antique small appliances, lots of unique old stuff can be seen from the outside looking in while talking a stroll down the sidewalk. Of course, interesting reflections from the outside are also seen in these windows. You just have to walk slow and look carefully and interesting micro-sets of human lives can be seen. Of course, photographing into windows tends to upset folks.

I was yelled out in German by several concerned Austrians who were not at all impressed or placated by my odd choice of subject matter. As far as they were concerned, I was up to no good and was invading people’s privacy (even though I wasn’t photographing any people and was on the public sidewalk and the stuff in the windows wasn’t hidden to curtains but was instead in full view of the street). Austrian’s (and perhaps most Europeans from what I’ve been told) have the general feeling that you need permission to photograph nearly everything (I just do my best to ignore them while making my image and moving on).

More images from the outside of Vienna’s streets “Looking In” can be seen in my gallery section “Looking In.”

Wachau Valley Austria

My fellow students and I took a wine/grape juice tasting bike trip through the Wachau wine-producing valley in Austria. This valley is famous, not only for its vinyards and fine wines and picturesque small towns, but also as the locaton of the castle ruins where King Richard the Lion-Heart of England was held captive by Duke Leopold V.

The small towns along this beautiful valley are lined with narrow cobble-stone streets and charming architecture, reflected in its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Europe’s second longest river, the Danube, runs along the bottom of the Wachau valley.

Are Photographers Junior Terrorists?

The world has gone and become afraid of photographers; very afraid. Afraid of photographers with big cameras anyhow. There was a time when many tourists walked around with big cameras. Heck, even 4×5 view cameras “back in the day” (before TV and microwave ovens). Of course, these have been replaced for most tourists with the mighty cell-phone-cam-computer-stereo-wonder-gadget. Now days, anyone sporting a camera bigger than a Hostess Twinkie is suspected of nefarious activities. Oh, and carrying a tripod too? Could be used for mounting a rocket launcher I suppose. Why else would someone be carrying such a contraption with ISO 56 million soon to be released?

Confronting the Stranger with the Big Camera

I was up to my ears in suspicion yesterday while carrying said “big camera” and “rocket-launcher-tripod.” Perhaps it is also my “strange” photo subjects. I kink of fell in love with photographing in the Budapest subway stations at 5:00 am when few people were around. I think there is something kind of creepy yet hauntingly beautiful about these places, particularly when they are empty of people. But these places also have security cameras mounted in the ceiling all over the place.

About an hour into my photographing the escalators, security couldn’t take it any more and sent two young kids to see what the heck the crazy foreigner was up to. They spoke even less English than I speak Hungarian (I don’t speak any). So, I showed them some images from the back of the camera. Images that showed empty escalators or dragged shutter images with me riding up and down the escalators and hand holding the shaking camera. You know; crazy stuff that only a camera nut would do. No, not a single image of missile silos or secret terrorist plots. The junior security men then scratched their heads while looking at me as if I had two heads, then gave me thumbs up and left me to my insanity and my escalators.

After finishing a meal at McDonald’s in Budapest, Hungary (I know how sad that sounds), I stopped to mount my camera on my tripod before heading out into the concrete jungle. But I didn’t even get the tripod head clamp tightened on the camera before I was pounced upon by an every vigilant Mickey D manager who admonished me, “no photography in McDonald’s.” Really? Are you serious? Are there legions of photographers hiding in the Golden Arches, just waiting to snap a pic of Britney Spears buying Happy Meals for her tots?

I mumbled something about the fries being too salty then fled the place. Out in the real world I began to look for something interesting to photograph. The last couple of days I had developed a fondness for phone booths. You know, those things that Superman would change into before cell phones and vandalism killed them all over the United States. Got it? Ok, so I see an interesting looking specimen sporting a pink phone. In fact, there was two identical booths not 10 feet apart. Except… one of the booths had a “poor” person leaning against it with a sign in Hungarian, likely asking for money since there was a little cup in front of him. Which one do I shoot? I spent nearly 10 minutes deciding and in the end, thought that the poor person added something to the photo. Something about a technological device (old as it was) propping up the back of someone who has likely been passed over by technology; someone who’s life has not been improved by technology.

So I set up the tripod in clear view of the phone-booth-guy. I fact, I spent a good 5 minutes setting up before I snapped the photo. I figured, if he objected, I’d give him plenty of time to get out of the way or to wave me off, cover his face with his sign, etc. However, I didn’t seem to get any reaction so I made a couple of exposures. At least from him I didn’t get a reaction. But before I could leave the scene of the crime, I was pounced upon by an English-speaking Hungarian women who said that she was a photographer too and that what I just did was “illegal.” That if the police came, they would confiscate my camera card for invading the privacy of the poor person. That my photo would be viewed as showing the poor person in a negative light. She said that there were laws all over Europe making it illegal to photograph the poor without their verbal permission.

That must make photojournalism really tough to do. Ok. So I realize that the case could be made that photographing his “poor person” condition might make some viewers, some photographers, and some poor people, uncomfortable. But isn’t one of the steps to eliminating poverty, to show it? Should not artists do what they can to get people to view poverty and think about poverty, till society decides its had enough and ends it? Is ignoring it, avoiding it, not including it in art and media, going to solve the problem of poverty? I don’t know all the answers, but a photographic artist, I don’t feel that the poor should be invisible to my camera lens.

So I will soldier on with my big camera and dangerous tripod. Trying not to get arrested for photographing people and things that other people think I have no business photographing unless I’m either crazy or a terrorist or both.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building

The Hungarian Parliament Building (Hungarian: Országház, literally country house) is the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary, one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, a notable landmark of Hungary and a popular tourist destination of Budapest. It lies in Lajos Kossuth Square, on the bank of the Danube, in Budapest. It is currently the largest building in Hungary. Construction completed in 1904 [source: Wikipedia].

I haven’t yet visited the Parliament Building but I photographed this twilight image from the opposite bank of the Danube. I used a slow shutter speed to smooth out the turbulent waters of the Danube. The river is turbulent due to the many sight-seeing small cruise ships that take tourists on trips up and down the river each evening. I had to time my exposures to be between the many passing ships, whose lights would have marred the image.

My settings were ISO 100, 6 seconds @ f/16. I would have used my neutral density filters to length the exposure even more, but I did not have them with me at the time. If I have a chance to re-shoot it, then I will try about a 30 second exposure and will post the difference here.

First Impressions of Budapest

I arrived in Budapest, Hungary, two days ago. Budapest is the capital and largest city of Hungary with about 1.7 million people (2010) in the city proper, and 3.2 million in the metro area (Wikipedia). As an English-speaking-only tourist navigating an unfamiliar big city, Budapest is fairly easy to get around in.

Budapest has a very well developed public transportation system comprised of buses, trams, and subways (and trains for city to city travel). I have not traveled by bus yet and I’ve found I can get most places quickly via a tram or subway line. The trams and subway cars come very quickly and I believe my longest wait for one of them has been about 3 minutes. Today, I just missed a tram by about 30 seconds when I was stuck at a red light. The next tram on the line came less than 1 minute later. Other times, I’ve missed a subway car by a few seconds and only had to wait a minute or two before another one arrived.

The hardest part of traveling around the city is not being able to understand the spoken names of the stops. While the above ground trams that electronic signs that announce the stops, the subways do not and the signs at the stops are not always easy to spot. Counting the stops on the map before getting on is a big help in this regard.

The city has a wealth of photographic subject matter available. The architecture is very beautiful and grand. Many of the buildings are made with high quality materials and old world charm. However, the architecture also indicates that a great lack of capital during the last several decades has resulted in a city in decline and decay. Many buildings display decaying facade material. The excellent transportation system mostly features cars that are out of a 1960’s or 70’s time warp.  While some of the trams seem new and modern, others are serviceable but very old.

If you like to photograph urban decay and grunge, it is an excellent city to visit. Safe and relatively inexpensive. I understand that it is one of the least expensive European cities for travelers to visit as it has been to poor to adopt the Euro and still maintains the Hungarian Forint as currency with its more favorable exchange rate with US dollars.