Ever Growing, Never Aging | Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia_growsI came across these delightfully retro-looking tiles, embedded at equal intervals into the sidewalk of a tiny street, tucked away in one of Sofia’s oldest, grandest and most aristocratic and charming neighborhoods, which occupies several blocks around the Doctor’s Garden, locked in between the Tsar Osvoboditel, Vassil Levski, Yanko Sakazov and Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi boulevards.

If I had to, I’d guess that these tiles were put in around 50 or 60 years ago, and stepping onto them somehow felt like stepping half a century back in time. The tiles are embossed with the city of Sofia’s coat of arms, which contains (clockwise, from top left): the image of a woman’s head, supposedly taken from an ancient coin and belonging to the Empress Julia Domna, which is meant to symbolize Ulpia Serdica, as Sofia was known in Roman times; the Saint Sofia Church, which is Sofia’s second oldest church (dating back to the sixth century) and which in the fourteenth century gave the city its current name (changing it from Sredets); a baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus, which represents all the mineral springs in and around the city; and the Vitosha Mountain, located on Sofia’s outskirts. Written just below the coat of arms is Sofia’s motto, Raste, no ne staree, which translates roughly to “Keeps Growing but Never Aging.”

The coat of arms dates back to 1900 (it was created for the city’s participation in the Paris World Expo), and the motto was added to it in 1911 – this was a great period of modernization for the city and almost all of Sofia’s now iconic buildings date back to it, many of which are actually in or around the Doctor’s Garden neighborhood. The neighborhood itself – as the place where the city’s changing (intellectual and/or political) elite has lived over the last century, captures much of Sofia’s turbulent history in a nutshell, or as the case may be, in a radius of just a few blocks. Like the tiles themselves, the entire neighborhood – although still considered very fashionable, seems to belong to a bygone era and whenever I walk around its cobblestone-covered streets, I feel like I can still smell the old spirit of Sofia in the air.

Cowboys & Indians | Marvelous Bridges, Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria

indianMy last “outing” for the year was a visit to the so-called Marvelous, or Wonderful, Bridges – a short drive from the Chepelare ski resort in the Rhodope Mountains, where we spent New Year’s Eve.

These so-called Bridges are a couple of pretty impressive natural arches, at 1,450 meters (4,760 ft) above sea level, formed over hundreds of years by the erosive activity of the once larger Erkyupryia River. There are all kinds of legends about the place – one involves shepherds fighting off a dragon who devoured their flocks, but none mention the presence of any Indians. And yet today, when one climbs to the top of one of the bridges and looks down at the rocks, there’s a Native American’s face carved into them.

In the Footsteps of the Romans and Van Gogh | Arles, France

arles_manhole_coverThe small town of Arles, located on the banks of the Rhône River in the South of France, has two major claims to fame.

The first is the town’s Antique history, testified by the Roman architectural remains, including: the humongous Arena, where – in addition to plays and concerts, corridas are still being held; a smaller open-air theater, which is currently undergoing restoration; the Alyscamps (Roman necropolis); and the Obelisk, located on the Place de la République.

arles_antiqueThe second is the relatively short period that Vincent Van Gogh spent living and working in and around the town between 1888 and 1890, during which he produced over 300 paintings. All over Arles, there are plaques embedded into the pavements, which take visitors on a walking tour of the spots, where Van Gogh set up his easel to paint some of his best known canvases, such as Starry Night Over the Rhône, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, and The Yellow House. arles_van_goghInitially I thought the image on the plaques, somewhat inexplicably, represented a hiker with a backpack (oops!), though it turns out that apparently it is based on one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits The Painter on His Way to Work, which showed the artist walking on the road to Montmajour. (The painting used to be part of the collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Magdeburg, but is unfortunately believed to have been destroyed by a fire in World War II.)

arles_tilesArles was very much a delight to walk around in, not just on, but also off the tourist paths, over grey cobblestones and faded mosaics. We went to the enormous Saturday market; visited the Salon international des santonniers (the makers of the simultaneously very weird and strangely fascinating traditional “little saints” nativity scene figurines), which was housed in Arles’ former Hospital (where Van Gogh was admitted, following the infamous ear-severing incident and whose internal courtyard he captured in one of his paintings); wandered around La Roquette neighborhood, where our gracious hosts live and which – with its narrow, winding and deserted streets and colorful doors and windows, looked like a film set; and spent almost an hour in the shop&studio of Léon – the jeweler and international man of mystery, who was probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met (though that’s a whole different story!).

Along the old railroad tracks & among the new plants of the High Line | New York, USA

Note: the pictures above can be viewed in a slideshow. Just click on an image to look through them separately.

Each and every day of the week I got to spend in New York was an absolute joy – whether it was while attending my dear friend’s wedding, getting to witness another two friends’ wedding dress and tux fittings, waiting for 2+ hours in the rain to see an exhibition consisting of rain at the MOMA, getting drinks, eating lunches and dinners and hanging out with old friends, visiting my erstwhile haunts (including our former apartment on East 11th Street), roaming around and discovering new places in Manhattan and Brooklyn, even simply riding the subway – I loved every minute of it.

But one of my favorite days (and the only day it didn’t rain) was spent walking along the High Line with my friend Maria. The High Line is New York City’s newest park, which stretches along the former railroad tracks that used to carry the freight trains supplying Manhattan’s largest industrial district until 1980. The structure, elevated 30 feet (about 9 meters) above street level, was redesigned and turned into a public park, whose first stretch opened to the public in 2009. It is an exceptional place – not just because of the extraordinary way in which the structure was transformed while many of its original features were kept (such as the actual railroad tracks, as well as many of the species that originally grew on the rail bed) and incorporated into the park’s landscape, but also because walking along it makes for a kind of green “escape” from the city while never having to take your eyes off of it. And that is my favorite kind of escape from New York.

P.S. I wrote a little story [in Bulgarian] about the High Line, complete with more pictures – you can see it here.

Starstruck | Cannes, France

cannes_palmdorIn Cannes, even the pavements celebrate the grand film festival, which has been taking place in the city every year since 1946, with a design in the shape of the festival’s highest prize – the Palme d’Or.

Just over a month before the beginning of this year’s festival, there were no flesh-and-blood movie stars to be seen anywhere, but their traces – or rather hand prints – were literally everywhere.

On the rather crummy-looking ceramic tiles in the little park next to the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès…

cannes_ceramic_tiles

Here, in a clockwise direction, starting from the image on the top left, we have: Whoopi Goldberg; Wim Wenders; the Pink Panther (!?!?!); Ben Gazzara and David Lynch; Isabella Rossellini; and Akira Kurosawa.

… on the decidedly more glitzy silvery tiles embedded into the ground around it…

cannes_tiles_silver

Here, starting from the largest image and going clockwise, we have: Sylvester Stallone; Sophia Loren; and once again, David Lynch.

… and leading up to (as well as underneath!) the red carpet at the Palais’ entrance.

cannes_red_carpetWalking along the Promenade de la Croisette, I could almost smell the faint whiff of celebrity, as I tried to imagine what this part of the city felt like during the time of the festival.

cannes19

Lady of the keys | Poitiers, France

According to local legend, when the city of Poitiers was besieged by the English in 1202, the mayor’s clerk promised to bring the keys to the city to them in exchange for a lot of money. But when he tried to steal the keys in the night, the clerk found that they had disappeared from the mayor’s office. In the morning, upon discovering that the keys were missing and that treason had been committed, the mayor went to pray and request a miracle at the church of Notre Dame la Grande, where he discovered the keys in the hands of a Virgin Mary statue. In the meantime, according to the legend, the English armies – disconcerted by the appearance of both Mary and the local saints Hilary and Radegund fell into disarray, started to fight among themselves and eventually fled the city.

Unfortunately for Poitiers’ pride, this is only a legend. According to historical fact, in 1202, Poitou formed part of the English duchy of Aquitaine, under the reigns of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. During the actual battle for the city in 1356, the English beat the French, captured their king and only released him for an enormous ransom.

Oh well.

¿Qué es esto? | Barcelona, Spain

I saw these on Passeig de Gràcia during my last short trip to Barcelona, but can’t seem to find out any information about what they are.

Anyone know?

This time, even though I’ve photographed and written about them many times before, I couldn’t resist taking *yet another* picture of the beautiful, green-grey, Gaudí-designed tiles that line the boulevard’s sidewalks. I just can’t seem to get enough of them.

… and these tiles!

barcelona_tiles

Breath-taking | Meteora, Greece

I rarely get really smitten with places anymore, especially if they’re super well-known [and, in my mind, overrated] tourist sites, but… I found Meteora to be stunningly beautiful and breath-taking. A magic place, really.

The fact that we got there just as the sun was setting probably helped.

Here are just a few photos of our visit, though – in this case, they don’t really do justice to the magnificence of the place. But then again, neither did all the “standard” shots I saw before going. I cannot recommend enough, if you even get a chance, to see the place in person.

… and here’s a slightly psychedelic video, shot by Leo, in which I seem to be out of breath not just from the view, but also from all the step-climbing.

Canyon of Heroes | New York, USA

Even though I keep an on-going lists of grounds I want to see, photograph and write about, I am rarely so organized when it comes to carrying out those plans. More frequently, what tends to happen is this: I simply stumble upon grounds that look interesting, take photos of them, even though I have no idea what it is that I’m standing on (unless it is self-explanatory) and only later, as I sit down to write about it and do some research, do I find out its meaning and significance and, usually, kick myself for not knowing about it beforehand, as to have taken better and more informed photos.

That is what happened as I waited to meet my friend Maria on the corner of Fulton and Broadway in the Financial District. As I leaned against the fence of the Saint Paul Chapel, I noticed some black granite strips with inscriptions along the sidewalk. Since I didn’t have time to look at them carefully and didn’t want to stray too far from our meeting spot, I just quickly snapped some photos of the ones around me and could not, for the life of me, figure out what those dates and names meant.

It turns out that there are more than 200 of those inscriptions along the Canyon of Heroes – the section of lower Broadway, where the city’s ticker-tape parades traditionally proceed, in which shredded paper (originally actual ticker tape, but now mostly confetti) is thrown from nearby office buildings onto the parade route, creating a snowstorm-like flurry.

Traditionally advancing northward from Bowling Green to City Hall Park, ticker-tape parades have been taking place in New York City since the 1880’s, in celebration of all kinds of events and in honor of the personalities behind them.The inscriptions on the black granite strips list honorees – mostly people and sometime events, of past ticker-tape parades and their dates – from war and sports victories, through national and foreign dignitaries’ visits, to sea rescues, a flight over the North Pole and various other landmark flights, to space missions and expeditions to Antarctica. The first (impromptu) ticker-tape parade took place on October 28, 1886 to commemorate the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, while the most recent one (very much planned, I imagine) took place on February 7, 2012, in celebration of the New York Giants’ win of the Super Bowl XLVI.

The full list represents a kind of compact and skewed modern history of the world and sheds light into the ever-changing tastes of New Yorkers, when it comes to what and whom to celebrate. Looking at it, I see many that I wish had known about and taken pictures of:

  • June 18, 1910: Theodore Roosevelt, following return from his African safari;
  • April/May ??, 1921: Albert Einstein (the only scientist to ever receive a ticker tape parade tribute);
  • August 27, 1926: Gertrude Ederle, first woman to swim the English Channel and September 10, 1926: Amelia Gade Corson, first mother and second woman to swim the English Channel;
  • October 18, 1926: Queen Marie of Romania;
  • After 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens following winning four gold medals in Nazi Germany;
  • November 18, 1947: U.S.-to-Europe “Friendship Train” bearing gifts and supplies;
  • September 17, 1949: Forty-eight European journalists on “American discovery” flight around United States;
  • November 13, 1951: Women of the armed forces;
  • May 20, 1958: Van Cliburn, winner of the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition (the only musician to ever receive a ticker tape parade tribute);
  • January 10, 1969: Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders, following the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon and August 13, 1969: Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins, following Apollo 11 mission to the Moon;
  • October 3, 1979: Pope John Paul II;
  • January 30, 1981: American hostages released from Iran;
  • June 20, 1990: Nelson Mandela of South Africa.