Grey is Not the Color of the Balkans | Sofia, Bulgaria

One of my favorite places to walk through in Sofia is the staircase that links Dondukov Boulevard to Moskovska Street, which starts right after Budapest Street stops in a dead end.

The two flights of stairs are a convenient shortcut for pedestrians, but whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I always make it a point to go and climb them even if they’re a bit out of my way, just for fun. There’s something whimsical, quite unusual and surprising about this open-air staircase right in the middle of the city, surrounded by greenery (or dried foliage, depending on the season) and built into the slope that separates the two streets – to me the stairs seem kind of like Harry Potter‘s Platform 9¾ and whenever I climb them, I half expect to come up not to one of Sofia’s central streets, but into some fairytale world. Once, I even saw a baby hedgehog on the landing between the two flights, as if it had fallen out of some Brothers Grimm story and ended up on the landing.

I was in the area recently, after having spent a few months away from Sofia, and decided to go by the stairs. This time, they looked even more whimsical than usual, as I found them painted in all the colors of the rainbow. When I got up to the landing between the two flights, I noticed a stencil that read, “Grey is Not the Color of the Balkans.” The colorful intervention apparently dates back to the beginning of September and was done to show solidarity with the “quiet protest” and wave of stairways-painting in Istanbul (where, unlike Sofia, such pedestrian stairways don’t seem to be a rarity) and the rest of Turkey. Also unlike Istanbul, it seems that the Sofia Municipality didn’t bother to paint the stairway back to grey – a feat worth celebrating, especially considering its proven record of speedily wiping away all traces of such colorful (and political) transformations of public space. So, although it’s a little faded by now, the rainbow is still there today. To me, it was a good reminder of a year marked by protests, not just in Bulgaria but in many other places around the world, as well as a welcome burst of color on a drab and grey January day.

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.

Fleurs-de-lis | Florence, Italy

florence_collageThe fleur-de-lis is Florence’s emblem and can be seen everywhere around the city, from the its coat of arms to the manhole covers and the water drainage grates on the ground. Also known as the Florentine lily, its design is distinguishable from the conventional and widely used fleur-de-lis symbol by the stamens between its petals.

Übercool underground | Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

The subway system in Bilbao turned out to provide not just a super efficient and convenient way to get around the city, but it was also filled with visual feasts that suckers for good design and strange languages like me simply couldn’t pass up.

To my delight, warning signs in the wildly incomprehensible Basque, or Euskara, language abounded, whose meanings I could only guess imaginatively. Case in point: I assumed that the phrase above warned metro passengers to “mind the gap” or something to that extent, as they waited to board the train from the platform. But I can only guess. Even google translate fails miserably, providing the following unintelligible translation: ‘off the train into the’.

The metro signage, including the Rotis font typeface, the colors and the logo in the photos above and below, was designed by German graphic designer Otl Aicher – the man behind the visual identity of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, who is also credited with paving the way for the ubiquitous stick figures currently used in public signs, which he initially employed as symbols for the various Olympic sports.

Although impossible to capture within the format of this blog, several other features of the subway system’s design also impressed me and are worth mentioning. Most obvious, perhaps, were the glass tunnels that cover the escalators or stairs leading in and out of the stations, which were designed by Norman Foster as part of the entire underground system’s structure, and which are endearingly referred to as ‘fosteritos‘ by Bilbao’s residents.

The concrete vaults that house the stations themselves, also designed by Foster, were quite impressive as well. About them, the architect was quoted as saying:

“A tunnel dug by man through earth and rock is a very special place. Its shape is a reaction to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the seal of man. This must be respected, not covered up to make the place look like any other building. One must be able to feel being underground, and make it a good, special experience.”

And it is one indeed. Even without awareness of the impressive design that is behind Bilbao’s underground systems (various features – from the Sariko station to the seating systems, have received design awards), using the Bilbao metro was nothing short of a special experience in pleasure and efficiency – something that very few subway systems in the world could compete with. To their defense, however, it’s worth remembering that the Bilbao Metro is relatively new (its first line opened in 1995) and small in scale – currently consisting of only two lines and 45 stations.