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.

Folly on Foley Square | New York, USA

Foley Square in Lower Manhattan has quite a rich history, part of which is explained in this bronze medallion – one of five such pieces installed in the sidewalks on and around the square. But I won’t go into it all here, as this collage took me way too long to make and almost drove me mad with folly (har har har).

If you’re curious, though, you can click and zoom in on the imagine and read about the square’s history and architecture. If you’re too lazy, but still thirsting for knowledge, go here.

Albi, the exceptional | Albi, France

The town of Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was so breathtakingly beautiful that I couldn’t help but take my eyes off the ground and look up and be smitten by its rusty pink townscape: the old brick houses, huddled together along the banks of the River Tarn; the graceful church of Saint Madeleine and the Saint Salvi cloisters; the remarkable cathedral of Saint Cécile, which – having been built over a period of 200 years is still the largest brick building in the world, the millenium-old bridges; and, of course, the imposing Palais de la Berbie, which looked more like a fortress than a palace, with its perfectly symmetrical and “remarkable” French garden.

The views were so stunning that even I was compelled to make an exception and temporarily abandon my preoccupation with taking pictures of feet.

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Well, ok, not entirely. And only temporarily.

When I did manage to look back down at the ground, I discovered that, luckily for me, Albi’s grounds didn’t disappoint either and were as filled with the character, detail, history, layers and colors as its architecture.

[Thanks, Emerich, Adeline and Naomi, for the tour and the gracious hosting. :)]

Something old, something new | Madrid, Spain

Images of the ground in and around the CaixaForum building in Madrid can only barely begin to suggest how thoroughly impressive the entire space is. But even they, on their own, manage to hint at the broad sweep, thoughtfulness and consideration for consistency with which the turn-of-the-century former industrial building and space around it was remodeled and turned into the present-day contemporary art center.

Located in the middle of Madrid’s three most import art venues – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, the CaixaForum building – originally a power station built in 1899 in the industrial style typical of Madrid at the time, was redesigned by the Swiss architectural duo Herzog & de Meuron (who also designed London’s Tate Modern 2, which used to be a power station as well).

In the renovation process, the old brick structure was hollowed out on the inside, lifted up off the ground and additional floors, encased with rusted steel, were constructed on top. The reconstruction, which took place between 2001 and 2007, created an entirely new and thoroughly impressive space while still giving a nod to the building’s historical appearance. Next to the main structure, in stark contrast to its brick and rusted steel façade, now stands a 24-meter high “vertical garden” – a large green wall, on which 15,000 plants from 250 species grow.

The garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, is supposed to establish a connection with the Botanical Garden, located across the Paseo del Prado from the CaixaForum, while the wooden railing along the staircase inside the building somehow seems to organically tie the otherwise industrial interior to the garden.

I suspect that I would have been slower to notice the inspired way in which the building was transformed and the thoughtfulness with which it interacts with its surroundings if it weren’t for my recent dismal visit to Sofia’s newly opened, hastily “brought up to date” and hugely disappointing Museum of Contemporary Art.

Set in stone | Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

There I was again, walking around a landmark of global importance with my eyes firmly fixed on the ground instead of looking up at the sights around me. This guy, on the other hand, knew how to act like a proper self-respecting tourist and put me to shame.

In this case, the landmarks I should have been looking at were the elaborate rock-carved monuments of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Still, in between all the downward gazing, I managed to have a quick look at the Five Rathas, dating to the 7th century. Each of them is a monolith shrine sculpted in a different style, carved whole from a single piece of pink granite rock in situ. Historians say the area served as a school for young sculptors who had to learn and practice different architectural styles. Today, there are still dozens of workshops around the site, which sell hand-carved granite sculptures.

Another structure of the site was the Shore Temple, a five-story structural (unlike the rock-cut rathas) Hindu temple dating to the beginning of the 8th century, which stands right on the Bay of Bengal.

One thing that took me by surprise was the unexpected sense of serenity that dawned on me when I entered the temple. Away from the scorching sun and the heat (which I was tempted to describe as oppressive before I remembered that at the same time temperatures in Sofia reached -15 °C), the loud, gawking and pushy tourists crowds, I felt the cool granite beneath my bare feet and the light breeze around me, and a certain tranquility set it.

Speaking of serenity, I owe the chance to see Mahabalipuram, as well as my whole stay in India, to my wonderful friends and the most gracious of hosts Lika and David. They handled my last-minute and highly disorganized visit with enviable composure, along the way effortlessly dealing with my culture shocks, freak-outs from insane traffic, endless questions, frustrated haggling over pashmina prices, lack of proper footwear, danger of serious sunburn and allergy-inducing mosquito bites, sore throat bouts and spicy food challenges. All with four-month-old baby Elena in tow.