Less than 24 hours in Milan

IMG_20171023_180506
The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We have arrived later than we hoped in Milan thanks to the Phantom Train fiasco, with our train on to France departing in ~20 hours. Which is a shame, because it turns out Milan is gorgeous and everything I wanted in a city: walkable and beautiful.

IMG_6024
The plaza of the Duomo Cathedral
IMG_6102
The Disco di Arnaldo Pomodoro
IMG_20171023_180401
The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
IMG_6107
Evening commute at dusk
IMG_6132
Milan bokeh!

Milan also has a Chinatown! With some actually good Chinese food!

20171023_221857
Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
20171023_221851
Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
20171023_211606
Bubble Tea in Milan

It really is too bad the new EMA HQ didn’t end up here.

Verona

IMG_5923

Like many other Italian cities, Verona’s architecture is fantastic. The historic center sits in the middle of a peninsula, where ancient cathedrals, churches, and even a Roman coliseum sit side by side with old residences converted to shops, restaurants, and markets. It’s also a very popular tourist spot – close to Austria and Switzerland, it gets a large number of visitors from both countries and the rest of Europe, especially young school and college groups. In the most popular spots it can feel a bit crowded, but for the most part it’s

IMG_5889

The famed sight in this city is supposed to be Juliet’s Balcony. It might have some literary interest, but overall it wasn’t worth the stop. It can be very crowded, the building is not particularly interesting.

IMG_5907

On one of the walls, people leave tokens of affection. Bandaids seem to be the thing to put up. There’s a little shop that sells pink themed everything, and while we were there a couple went through a proposal up on the balcony as the crowd watched.

IMG_5917

The house of Romeo is also in Verona, and is much, much less popular.

IMG_5922

Nearby Romeo’s house is a real gem of architecture and sculpture – the Scaliger Tombs. Once a ruling family, now a mausoleum. The style is gothic and stands out with its pinnacles and spikes among the straight lines of the rest of the city.

IMG_20171020_105641

The arena in the south of the city is still used for holding events. On the rainy day we visited, it was closed except for a fairly pricy tour. For me the real beauty is from the outside, how the arches have held up over the centuries.

IMG_5941

We also got a peek into the repairs going on inside!

IMG_5949

All around the peninsula are bridges connecting it to the mainland. We crossed on the north east side, only to find a traveling piano player playing from the middle of the bridge.

IMG_5947

The restaurants and houses crowd the water’s edge on the old-city side of the bridge.

IMG_5945

Across the other side there’s more room to expand. A wide street runs along the river, bordering the many churches.

IMG_5945

The bridge itself is of lovely old Roman construction – unfortunately not original. The Ponte Pietra was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt.

IMG_5950

We tried climbing up into the hills, but wound up lost in a series of small alleys.

IMG_5973

We crossed back across to the old town, passing one of the many churches in the city. This one is Cathedral Duomo, one of the largest in the city.

IMG_5981

Our last stop was the castle on the southern edge of the old town. The Castelvecchio is part castle, part bridge, and all medieval. The name means, literally, old castle, and it was built by the same family that’s entombed in the gothic tombs – the Scaligers.

IMG_20171020_145117

There’s no shortage of beautiful buildings in Verona. It’s easy to imagine it was an inspiration to painters of old, and it remains a great subject for sketching today. A day is well spent walking around and marveling at the construction. There’s even more to see, inside the various museums and churches in the city. Done with the city, we headed home by train. Between the frequent local buses and the rapid trains, Italy’s transportation system served us amazingly well once again.

Venetian Architecture (and also boats)

IMG_5671

The look of Venice is fairly unique. Not too many places in the world can boast canals paired with Renaissance architecture. It’s a good fit, and wonderful for taking pictures and drawing. A fun fact we learned : most of the people drawing at any given time are not art students from one of the nearby colleges, but are tourists. It’s pretty fun to join them too!

IMG_20171018_114701

While there are plenty of famous scenes and views all around the city, we strayed a bit from the travelled path and took pictures of mostly anything that caught our eye.

20171016_171503

There was no shortage of interesting views, even just out our hotel window.

IMG_5601

I personally love the semi-planned stacking of buildings that look like they’ve grown from the water, huddle together in a very visually pleasing arrangement.

IMG_5622

It’s hard to ignore the boat-lined tunnel canals – the only way to get to a lot of these doors and boats is to have someone else drop you off.  There are many, many doors, that lead to a tiny dock and boat, or worse, drop straight out into the water. The best are private bridges – smaller versions of the canal-spanning bridges that lead to a single door.

IMG_5649

Between the crowded living spaces spring up massive cathedrals. It’s an odd contrast.

IMG_5644

One of the amazing and frustrating things about Venice is the constant haze. It comes from being warm and on the water, and it makes for some exciting and terrible photo conditions. During colder parts of the year the atmosphere is probably clearer and the photos come out crisper.

20171018_095445

We really enjoyed getting lost and seeing the smaller details of the city. It’s easy to miss in light of the surrounding grandeur.

IMG_5651

Walking is really the best thing to do. Every bridge, canal, and tiny alley offers a new and unexpected view.

IMG_5822

Sometimes the alleys are extremely small. This one, we think, was meant for people. Notice the streetlamp in the center. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.

IMG_20171016_181802

There are big life goals and small life goals. After we decided to come to Italy, and specifically Venice, I knew I had to recreate the View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana, by Bernando Bellotto. It’s one of the few paintings I know by name, and since seeing it at the Getty have wanted to see this view in person.

IMG_20171016_175718

Of course, since we were here in person, there was no doubt we’d eventually see the Dogana up close. It’s fantastic in its size and detail.

IMG_5684

Each one of the statues lining its parapet is a work of art unto itself, and the structure as a whole is breathtaking, especially in the low setting sun when its lines and minute details are thrown into sharp relief.

IMG_5678

Next stop, Venice!

IMG_20171016_172719

Venice is a beautiful and fascinating place. I’ve always wanted to visit, Natalie not so much. It turns out that it’s got a little bit of everything, good and bad. Its beautiful, winding alleys interspersed with canals and bridges and spires are inspiring. The measures taken to keep buildings from falling and the island from sinking are a testament to human ingenuity and stubbornness. Its attitude towards tourists and the costs (and sometimes smells) of living on the island are saddening. In my view visiting Venice is worth it for two things – the history and architecture, and the marvel of engineering that keeps the city alive. Most of the tourist traps should be rightfully avoided, and it’s best to stay away from popular areas at peak hours.

20171016_164618

There are basically two ways to see Venice. The cheaper and arguably more lively route is to stay on the mainland at one of several campsites or large hostel-like buildings, and bus in in the morning. The other way, significantly more expensive, but better for seeing Venice the way we wanted to, is to stay on the island itself. It’s not cheap, but for a very short stay, the value of waking up before dawn and walking the empty streets is worth the extra fee.

IMG_20171016_091239

We took the bus out of Sant’Agata, then on to the next bus to Rimini, and finally on to the train north to Venice. Midway through the trip our train stopped and a bunch of announcements came on in Italian. We did not understand them. The train stayed in the station and eventually people started shuffling off. A conductor came by and told us, in slightly broken English, that the train would not be moving again soon, and we should go on to a different track to catch the replacement. We’ve been through worse transportation adventures, but the feeling of an impromptu change of plans in a language we don’t understand is always exciting.

20171016_164218

There is the last station on the mainland, and then the open water. The train tracks cross over a narrow bridge, on either side the Venetian Lagoon. Technically, the mainland just before the crossing is also part of the district of Venice, but what everyone thinks of when they hear the name is found across this bridge.

20171016_165058

Right out the gate, Venice does not disappoint. The church of San Simeon is literally the first thing most people see when they leave the station. It’s gorgeous and only a taste of what’s to come.

20171016_165547

There are a few ways to get to the inner islands – all of them are connected by bridges, with a bus ferry, or with ferry taxis. The ‘bus’ is actually fairly expensive, and the distances are short. With so much to see the natural choice is to walk everywhere. If we were here for a week or more, maybe the bus ferries would have been a more appealing option.

IMG_5606

In the fading hours of the day we made our way to the hotel. Despite the day’s journey and the weight of the packs, we still lingered and turned in all directions staring at the city around us. In short order we were introduced to both the magnificent Italian architecture, the tightly clustered houses and apartments, and the occasional but persistent vendors of tourist things.

20171016_165835

We also found that the city of Venice has an attitude, and the people are not shy expressing themselves on the walls. This was probably the largest demonstration we saw, but there are plenty of smaller ones scattered alone or in clusters around the city. The topics range from banning tourists to saving the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change is often on the minds of those living here.

20171016_194830

Night fell and we left our hotel in search of food. To set expectations, hotels in Venice are not very similar to most people’s idea of a hotel. Unless you pay a lot of money, it will resemble something of a walk-up, 2 to 3 stories of three or four rooms on each floor with a shared bathroom. Much like a hostel in any other part of the world. Similarly, the food is not reasonably priced. This is entirely expected in an extremely popular and difficult to supply city, but it’s good to be aware.

IMG_20171018_113247

Luckily for us, right near our hotel was a Bigoi. This is a small, almost fast-food version of pasta, where you pick your noodles, sauce, and meat, and they make it fresh for you. It costs about 5 euros and each bowl is enough for a person. Not the best in terms of nutrition, but they taste great and they’re cheap! There are also small grocery stores available, but they still run fairly expensive, and they do tend to run out of key ingredients at night, especially bread. We relied pretty heavily on Bigoi and the snacks we brought with us while we were in Venice.

20171018_091659

Also pastries. We didn’t eat a lot of fancy food in Venice but we did make room in the budget for coffee and pastries in the morning. The coffee is still very affordable – 1.20 Euro. The pastries can be a little expensive but are still around a few euro each. This one is called a sfogliatelle. It’s small, packed with cream and syrup, and somehow amazingly crunchy and flaky. It’s fantastic and we found the one we liked best was in the pastry shop Pasticceria Toletta. The lady working the counter in the morning is super nice, and their pastries and coffee are fantastic.

20171018_091646

Next time – Venetian architecture!

European Capital Hop: Prague is magic

IMG_8626
Prague in the late afternoon, as seen from the Petřín Lookout Tower

Before I visited Europe, I remember hearing from friends and family about the magical beauty of European cities. “They’re gorgeous!” people swooned, “The cobblestone streets and rows of old buildings are photo-tastic. It’s magical!” So far, we haven’t really gotten that. Sure, the old town of whatever city we happen to be in is nice, but it hasn’t been anything to write home about.

But Prague stands out because it does feel magical. Part of it is the architecture: rows of pastel-colored buildings, each covered with neat cinnabar-colored tiles; the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys; the lights of the city shimmering on the Vltava River at night. It really is gorgeous, and Prague’s title as the “Heart of Europe” is well-earned.

Part of the magic is also in the pricing. We’re coming from the sticker shock of Vienna, but that aside vacationing here is downright affordable, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Czech Republic, like Hungary, is still recovering economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union. We found two beds in a hostel in Malá Strana for $24 a night. We ate lunch and dinner and dessert out for $36 a day for two people, less than $10 per person per meal. And while we weren’t eating at the fanciest restaurants, we got REALLY good food. This bar right around the corner from our hostel called U Magistra Kelly was our regular go-to, with hearty entrée portions, sweet fizzy lemonade, fresh beer, and a killer baked brie.

In short, Prague is the magic city of Europe everyone has been telling you about. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

IMG_8527
The waterfront along the Vltava.
IMG_8339
The Prague Astronomical Clock, representing the movements of the sun and moon while keeping time.
IMG_8328
An ivy-covered storage courtyard.
IMG_8372
A statue over one of the doors.
IMG_8542
Giant mushrooms sprout from astroturf in this man-made display.
IMG_8315
Wedding photoshoots are common. The couple pose alongside a fence covered in ‘love locks’.
IMG_8487
An ornate lock on a door in the city.
IMG_8304
A bronze relief on the Charles Bridge, effaced by thousands of hands over time.
IMG_8559
Workers repainting a buildling.
IMG_8562
A katydid, lost in the city.
IMG_8174
That baked brie I mentioned earlier, from U Magistra Kelly.
IMG_8595
Streetcars and pedestrians share the narrow streets.
IMG_9116
Street art in the northern part of the city.
IMG_8232
St Vitus Cathedral (I think), bathed in golden floodlight at dusk.
IMG_8224
Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge at dusk.
IMG_8228
The lights of Pragues bridges reflecting on the Vltava.
IMG_8492
Bear-shaped cookies posed in a window at the local bakery.
IMG_8995
Men weld trolley tracks in the north part of Prague.
IMG_8600
Picnickers gather apples in the same park that hosts the Petřín Lookout Tower. The orchard is free to pick from, with a limit on how much you can take home.

 

IMG_8620
More views of Prague from the tower.

 

IMG_8714
Sunset from the tower.

 

IMG_8501
A shot of the moon from the tower.
20170904_211628
Prague at night.

 

European Capital Hop: Budapest

20170826_210259
The Hungarian Parliament Building behind the silhouette of Rákóczi Ferenc lovasszobra, a national hero who led the uprising against the Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire.

Over the next three weeks we’ll be European capital-hopping, where we have a few days in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague before ending up in Linz, Austria for the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival.  Like Riga, we have little time to get to know each city, but hopefully it’s enough to get a feel for what makes it unique.

First up: Budapest, capital of Hungary and the fusion of two prior towns – Buda, and Pest. Stretched across the Danube, the city is a mix of beautiful architecture, verdant parks, and busy car-filled roads. The most beautiful time for photography is dusk, when the city lights up its most iconic buildings.

IMG_6765
The Hungarian Parliament Building, as viewed from utilitsa Alkotmany.
IMG_6837
The moon rises over the southern wing of the Hungarian Parliament Building.
IMG_6870
Visitors pause to read signage at the the impromptu protest memorial in front of the German Occupation Memorial. The protest memorial accuses the government of rewriting history to make Hungary seem like victims rather than supporters of the Nazis.
IMG_6872
Memorabilia laid out at the protest monument, which argues that many Hungarians participated willingly in the murder of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals during World War II.
IMG_6885
St. Steven’s Basilica at night.
20170826_211053
Moonrise over Buda, on the other side of the Danube.
IMG_7749
The stairwell leading up to our hostel.
IMG_7700
Graffiti drawn on the side of an ornate building.
IMG_7723
A sad robot.
IMG_7706
Possibly some kind of revenge.
IMG_7696
A team  of students participates in a scavenger hunt across the city.
IMG_7661
Protesters occupy the edge of Varosliget, where the city has proposed to remove green space and replace it with a museum.
IMG_7659
A stuffed animal watches over a donations box for the protestors.

 

IMG_7566
A man pedals a Ferrari boat around the pond in Varosliget.
IMG_7538
A typical day at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths in Varosliget Park. They were nowhere near as warm or relaxing as a Japanese onsen.
IMG_7555
Men play cards on a patio at Szechenyi Baths.
IMG_6919
A tour group wanders by a bronze statue in downtown Pest.
20170830_124648
Lunch – lemonade, chicken with spaetzle, and strawberry soup.
IMG_6942
The bank of the Danube.
IMG_6949
A plant grows from a discarded bucket, washed ashore from the Danube.
IMG_7757
Budapest Central Market Hall.

Moscow, the capital

Photos from the the capital of Russia, celebrating the space race, architectural grace, and its ever-growing consumer base.

20170728_103233
A relief of Yuri Gagarin and the scientists who made spaceflight possible at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
IMG_3190
A larger-than-life statue of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, beside a model of Sputnik, first man-made object sent into space.
IMG_3203
A twist on the traditional Matryoshka at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
IMG_3145
The top of the monument at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
IMG_2921
Spasskaya Tower on the Red Square, one of the ceremonial entrances to the Kremlin.
IMG_2983
Workers assemble scaffolding to prepare for an event in the Red Square.
IMG_3135
The State Historical Museum on the Red Square
IMG_3108
A waxing moon over Moscow’s downtown and the Kremlin.
IMG_3084
Men construct a new bridge across the Moskva River, causing traffic delays.
IMG_2973
A man jogs through a construction zone while on his cell phone.
20170729_171201
A view down the escalators of the Metro.
20170724_100849
GUM, the historic shopping mall on the Red Square, is conveniently located across the way from Lenin’s mausoleum.
20170729_101401
Odd Matryoshkas for sale at a souvenir shop on the promenade.
20170729_095801
A man sweeps the promenade in front of a summer display, part of a month-long festival celebrating artisinal jam and honey.
20170724_113005
Tourists take photos of their ice cream in front a fountain in GUM.
20170727_213107
The Moskva and Cathedral of Christ the Savior at dusk.

Hang Nga Crazy House

IMG_20170426_113352457_HDR
A view of the guesthouse portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House. Yes, you can stay there, although it’s not the cheapest accommodation in Da Lat.

You know how some cities have an iconic ‘thing’, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else? Something like the Hollywood Sign of Los Angeles, the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, or the Opera House in Sydney. That’s what Hang Nga Crazy House is to Da Lat. An ever-growing, organic architectural feat, the twenty-seven year old structure is the child of Dang Viet Nga, an architect who found inspiration in the natural beauty surrounding the city. It opens its doors on weekdays, allowing visitors to explore the structure’s winding paths, snaking staircases, and baffling rooms. And it’s a one-of-a-kind place, in part because almost anywhere else in the world it would have accrued hundreds of building code violations. Watch your head while you take in the magic.

This was my favorite place in Vietnam because of its architectural whimsy, but also because it’s still under construction. Hang Nga Crazy House has already swallowed up two nearby lots that went on sale, and Dang Viet Nga shows no signs of stopping. As we wandered through the labyrinth of passages, we stumbled into sites under construction and some laying fallow, waiting for the artist’s hand. Several artists work on the house at any given time, and they’re excited to show you their art.

Below are our most amazing pictures of Hang Nga Crazy House. It stole my heart with its unapologetic quirkiness and unwavering commitment to the organic form. I’ll have to go back one day to get it. ❤

IMG_5169
The guesthouse, hidden amongst trees and bougainvillea.
IMG_5251
Narrow stairs with low railings snake around the structure like vines, leading you between different buildings.
IMG_4769
Two women pose for a selfie atop a stairwell.
IMG_5186
A maze of stairs leading between the different levels.
IMG_4789
Touirsts duck under another stairwell while climbing, as another tourist eyes the short railing warily. This place is definitely not childproofed or adultproofed.
IMG_4933
People wander the labyrinthe paths, which wind through gardens and over buildlings.
IMG_4714
The front garden, complete with concrete mushrooms and a koi pond.
IMG_4915
A live soursop tree grows among the buildings. The entire Hang Nga Crazy House is a mix of living plants and concrete structures shaped like living plants.
IMG_4820
A tourist finds his way into the under-construction region; you can see the normal apartments across the street in the background.
IMG_5342
The back portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House lies fallow, waiting for artists to continue work on its extension. The project has grown from its original size, and looks poised to grow more.
IMG_4865
Artists discuss a mural in an under-construction part of the house. I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman in the hat is Dang Viet Nga (the project mastermind), but chickened out out on asking her.
IMG_4869
Stoytcho stands in an under-construction ocean-themed part of the house, where coral and anemonae await paint in the background.
IMG_20170427_101031996
I talk with artist Hoàng Đức Thành about his work on the house. They’ve been working for months on this part, using reference material to create undersea-inspired sculptures from concrete and plaster and painting murals on the room’s walls.
IMG_5313
Hoàng Đức Thành’s workspace and reference material.
PANO_20170427_084729
A Google Photosphere produced from one of the balconies, making the house no more or less strange than it already is.

Want more architectural wonderland? You can find it here, because I don’t know how to embed Flickr Galleries into WordPress yet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146223950@N02/albums/72157687692351401