Tag Archives: beauty

Beauty, darkness and hope: or today would be a good day to be in Kraków

I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.

Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.

What did I love about Kraków?

Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.

At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.

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Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,

and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.

Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.

Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …

… and gardens  …

… and courtyards.

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Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,

with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.

The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.

Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.

From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river

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with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.

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What did I learn from Kraków?

It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.

Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.

It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.

A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.

Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.

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One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.

But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.

Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.

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Would you like a selfie stick with that?

I can’t remember what it used to be.

I know that when I was in Europe a few years ago, there was something that everyone on the streets was hawking, the latest tourist must have, an item whose name became a cry that you would hear over and over as you walked past, as they tried to sell it to you.

I can’t remember what it used to be, but I know what it is now. Walking around heavy tourist traffic areas in cities like Rome, Lisbon, and Barcelona the last few weeks, there are two words that you hear on constant repeat, every few metres or so:

“Selfie Stick?” “Selfie Stick?”

It’s the street vendors’ current offering of choice, and therefore I assume the current tourist must-have. No matter where you are, for 5€, you can buy your very own phone holder on a stick so that you can more easily take photos of yourself in front of the various monuments and views to your heart’s content.

Walking inside busy sites like the Colosseum or St Peter’s Square, you only need to look in the air to see the results: hundreds of hands holding up hundreds of sticks with hundreds of phones attached.

The selfie sticks are everywhere. And I hate to be that person, but I have to say, I just don’t get it. Or maybe, I just don’t like it.

I think I’m allergic to selfies.*

Why do I think I’m allergic to selfies? There are a few reasons, to be sure. I don’t love many photos of myself at the best of times, so why would I want to take more of them? More to the point, I figure that I and my friends already know what I look like, so I want to get out of the way so that I can capture the amazing sites that I am privileged to be visiting and that I may not get to see again.

And being the kind of person I am, I also wonder what the seeming obsession with selfie sticks says about some bigger questions like why we take photos, and perhaps even why we travel.

If I take a photo of an ancient building, or a beautiful natural landscape, what is my intention? To capture the beauty of what I have seen? To preserve it? To remember it? To be able to show it to you so you can share in my wonder and admiration?

If I take a photo of the same monument or landscape with me in front of it, what is my intention? To have proof that I went there (and, perhaps, that you didn’t)?

When I share with you a photo I took of a beautiful city or an impressive work of art, I hope that I am inviting you to share my own sense of wonder and admiration, to see something of what I saw and to feel something of what I felt.

When I show you a photo of me in front of that same beauty, I don’t think I am communicating the same thing. Rather than “Look at this!” it appears to say “Look at me” or, “Look where I went!”

It seems to me that the focus has shifted from me inviting you to share an appreciation for what I saw, to me inviting you to appreciate me for having gone and seen it.

(There’s a reason selfie sticks have been dubbed “wands of Narcissus“.)

I’m also thinking that this can feed into a sense that travelling is about making sure you tick places off “the list” – that it’s about the fact of having been there and being able to say you went there, rather than about what you experience and learn while there.

Perhaps one reason this bothers me is because I do recognise that temptation within myself. Particularly when travelling somewhere like Europe where there are so many beautiful places and so many famous sites, it is all too easy to slip into the ‘tick off the list’ mentality. To lose the wonder and joy at being there in the moment, to miss out on what there might be to learn from what is being seen and experienced.

I know that I am incredibly privileged to be able to do the travel I have done. And I don’t want to take that for granted, nor allow it to become merely some kind of symbol of status or accomplishment. I travel because I want to take in beauty and history and art and culture, and I want to be changed by it and have my life and work shaped by it. I love knowing that the world is a big place, a diverse place, and that I am but one tiny part of it. I love being challenged, provoked, and stretched by experiencing more of the world and its people and I pray that that is what I can share with others – whether through stories, insights, or photos. But, no thank you, Mr. Street Vendor, I don’t think I need a selfie stick to do that.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre: aren't you glad my head isn't blocking that beautiful view?
Vernazza, Cinque Terre: aren’t you glad my head isn’t blocking that incredible view?

* Caveat: Okay, I do think that selfies can have a place. Particularly when they are used to capture a shared memory between a group of people who experience an event or place together. I have a handful of selfies from my recent trip and all but one of them are of me with people I met on the trip, which is a lovely way to record and remember our interactions. The other one? It’s of me looking up in an art gallery: taken when I was aiming to capture the beautifully painted ceiling and accidentally turned the iphone camera around!

 

Today would be a good day to visit the Eiffel Tower

There are few buildings in the world more instantly recognisable, more iconic, than La tour Eiffel.

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It doesn’t matter if it is summer or winter, day or night, twilight or sunset, it’s a beautiful place to visit.

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Seeing it on the horizon instantly reminds you that you are in Paris, with all the emotions and possibilities that city’s name conjures up.

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It is the most visited tourist attraction in the world.

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And yet it was originally intended to be only a temporary structure after its design was criticised as a blight on the city’s skyline.

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It remains – 126 years later – as a testimony to the fact that we cannot always imagine what something will be until it is fully realised and appreciated over time.

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What do I love about the Eiffel Tower?

The views.

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Oh, the views.

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The views of it …

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… the views from it,

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… the views through it,

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… and the views within it.

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The Eiffel Tower gives the opportunity to see Paris from so many different perspectives.

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To look down and watch the world go by.

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To look around and see the other architectural delights of this incredible city.

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To look across and imagine the hidden treasures waiting to be discovered in neighbourhoods on the horizon.

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What have I learned from the Eiffel Tower?

The tower, built for a World Fair, is named after its designer and so it reminds me of the limitless possibilities of human ingenuity and creativity.

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But at 324 metres, the Eiffel Tower is nowhere near the tallest structure in the world today, yet it continues to be the most visited. And so it reminds me that you don’t have to look like the biggest or the brightest to capture the world’s imagination.

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This structure has also witnessed history. For four years a Nazi flag flew at its top as the city was under occupation. Apparently Hitler ordered the tower to be destroyed in August 1944 but the order was defied and the French Tricolore raised again on August 25.

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Most of all, trying to capture this iconic structure in photographs is an exercise in looking at the same thing from different perspectives.

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Depending on the time of day (or year), where you are standing, and how you choose to tilt you head, it can look so recognisable and yet ever so slightly unique.

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Today it challenges me once again to consider how a small change in my perspective can help me to see things in a completely new way.

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And perhaps you too might be surprised by the beauty and imagination you can find when you look at even the most familiar things from a new angle.

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