This blog post has been planned for a while…The story was going to start like this: ” Last year, I was planning a trip to Japan that was going to end in a remote Japanese ceramics village, but I ended up in a remote Polish village creating a travelogue of the exquisite Japan inspired ceramics. Does it mean that this year, 2020, I will end up in Japan while planning a trip to Poland?”
That draft was written in January this year. The world has been ravaged by the pandemic since, and our travel remains, for the time being, an armchair traveller’s one. I cannot help though, but to share the photos of the ultimate craftsmanship that can be found in a remote village of Southern Poland that I visited on a balmy October afternoon. I discovered the artist through a magazine article that my Mom shared with me. Next time I visited my parents there were already 3 miniature bowls waiting for me. But there was more to come. My parents happily agreed to a road trip through an iconic countryside so I could experience it myself. That will be part two of this blog post. But now, let me present Ceramika Jurek Szczepkowski. A world of its own, where inspiration, beauty, refined simplicity, and remoteness collide.
One particularly rainy evening in October last year brought me to Starý Plzenec, a small town in west Bohemia. Little over an hour from Prague, it is decisively off the beaten path, and requires a detour from the highway (and detour around its much bigger neighbor Pilsen). Another words, perfect. My brother and I were taking a road trip through Czech Republic on the way to Germany. Small town vibes and old world charm were definitely high on the agenda, as we left rainy and moody Žižkov district of Prague (my enthusiastic “new favorite!”, just brought a confidently restrained “I knew it” smile on my brother’s face). After all, he has been staying there every time he had visited Prague, for several years now. Leaving Žižkov, we were already properly conditioned, if not under the spell, of all the literary and historic references we were trading all day long since we left Kraków.
That evening, we arrived at our guesthouse, complete with a tavern of course, and a bartender genuinely concerned if a small beer was enough for the evening. It was, as we were starting early the next day, but the place was a delight in watching local folks, who gravitated to the place for an evening chat while walking a dog, or a beer and a round of cards game after a day’s work. And then a thick, dark blue and moonless night descended on the little valley and a total silence settled onto this small community.
The next morning was time for a spontaneous adventure!
At this point of the story, a bragging moment! I was recently awarded grand prix for the photo below and its accompanying words in a contest organized by Passion Passport and the sponsor, HotelTonight. The theme was ‘spontaneity’.
“I took this photo at 8 in the morning, in a small town of Stary Plzenec in Czech Republic, where we stayed overnight. All packed, ready for the 2 hours drive to Nuremberg, we walk outside, and suddenly are awaken by frigid morning. The air is practically sparkling, as we survey the surrounding hills and lock our eyes on a medieval looking rotunda above town. Quick time check, ‘we got this!’ and we race up the hill in a muddy path, business attire and all, me out of breath with the ‘big” camera backpack, and laughing, and promising ourselves that we will return here with our families to soak up this view again. And hike to the castle we just spotted on another hill. I was never more happy to be cleaning mud off my shoes, as I was that morning.”
Beyond my, now well documented, love of Lisbon there is a little secret. The countryside outside of Lisbon, all within less than 2 hour drive. Looking deeper, past the veneer of maybe little too perfect home renovations, there are still captivating stories to be told, with colorful local characters, oblivious to the demands of instagrammable perfect shots. Moments that unfold into stories, and only take time and curiosity to develop. Enter the village of Ericeira, on the Atlantic cost. While my traveling companions went into the cave looking for elusive sea urchins (elusive mostly because they were not in season!), I opted for the above ground vantage point, mesmerized by the waves. This is how I spotted a local fishermen in the churning and terrifyingly crashing waves. Sometime later, he was happy to tell me his story of the day, but only in a very animated Portuguese! Through little research I figured out that he was harvesting a local delicacy, gooseneck barnacles.
Meandering through the countryside on the back to Lisbon we stopped at Veronica’s farm. The table was set for a casual feast of clams cooked in a simple garlicky broth, bites of cheese, rustic bread and, of course, sardines. The conversation was just like the food, honest, unassuming, and wholesome. Challenges of leaving a steady job in Lisbon to focus on restoring the farmhouse and the small farmland, some successes, some failures, struggling orange trees, dreams and hopes. The every essence of gathering around food outdoors is that you can turn your gaze to the patch of garden where the strawberries on the table came from, or run your hand through the thyme perfuming the clam broth. The connection is made, the homage to the land and the human cultivating and foraging it is paid. Watching the golden light setting on nearby hills feels almost like a frivolous bonus by then.
I never wanted to write a guide book, or even a blog post that would serve as a miniature guide book. Not because of the research involved, but because I consider travel deeply personal event, and choose to express and convey my favorites places through photography and mood, rather than a list to follow. I no longer pay much attention to “must see” lists of any destinations I go. I probably will never admit what I did not care to see in Rome for example…Still there are places that struck a chord with me that I am more than happy to share. The memories though are a function of people I saw as part of my journey, mood of the day, light of the day and it goes on and on…Everyone’s will be different, even if you stand in exactly the same spot I stood. Let’s explore Lisbon, installment 1. Alfama is my favorite part of Lisbon. Medieval walls hiding winding streets and courtyards, Moorish influences, the bay that connects to the ocean in the distance and just a faint whisper that Africa might be closer than I thought. I will take espresso in a tiny corner store here over any trendy cafe. Truly a “if these walls could speak” moments.
My favorites while in Lisbon listed here. Stay tuned for Portugal installment 2, the countryside.
- Casa Balthazar
- Lisbon Story Guesthouse
- Lisboans Apartments
- Aqua Pela Barba
- Graca do Vinho
Mention Venice even in a casual conversation and more often than not you are bound to unleash a monolog of “when I was in Venice…” type. What if you have never been to Venice? What if you want to go and just cannot bear the thought of crowds and the cliches? Well, I got you covered. This past October I embarked on a solo 3 day visit to Venice, my first time to this city. Ryan Air had a great deal on a round trip ticket from Krakow, so off I went just with a carry on and my camera. Read through for my survival tips and personal approach to this amazing city, camera in hand, of course.
I arrived at Marco Polo Airport and took the Alilaguna public transportation – 1 hr 15 minutes water bus to the heart of the city. It is great for sightseeing at the same time, and not crowded as the regular vaporettos you will see later on the canal. Some of my favorite impromptu photos are from the arrival, which happened to be right as the sun was hitting the roofs along the Grand Canal. I did not see that beautiful golden light again for the remainder of my stay. Lesson one: don’t wait for later, when you are more rested/less hungry/already checked in to the hotel. The view from water level was amazing, and affordable! Lesson two: public transportation rules.
Hotels – I am afraid no good news here in terms of price, so I went for the second most important thing – safety and ease of getting there, especially when traveling solo. Easy access is a relative term in Venice, so lesson three: come prepared with old fashion maps and notes, and don’t just rely on your phone. I came armed with maps and essay long notes (and drawings!) on how to get to the hotel. I got to hotel Flora, and for the remainder two nights to its sister hotel Novecento, without a hitch. Availability can be tricky when only portion of your stay runs into the weekend.
Food in Venice can of course be overwhelming, there might be a language barrier, you might not feel comfortable sitting by yourself at a white linen table. Myself, I prefer more casual dining when traveling, which does not mean I am willing to eat pizza, especially when in Venice. I also prefer to eat the evening meal early. Venice has a perfect solution to this: cicheti (lesson four!). Small bites such as fish balls, calamari, boiled potatoes (I could live on those alone) are served at the counter and eaten standing or perched on a bar stool. Usually served until 8pm or so. Order a glass of Savignion Blanc or Verduzzo and relax into people watching. My two places for cicheti were Trattoria E Bacaro da Fiore and Da Zemei near Rialto.
Venice is very walkable and less crowded especially before 8am, so head to Rialto Market on foot. I spent some time there just watching the food scene unfold. The seafood selection especially the local Nostrana type, is hard to absorb! Side street also hide some down to earth, but fantastic bakeries.
I steered clear of San Marco, except for an early morning outing, even though my hotels were there. I spent my walking energy on getting away from crowds, mostly in back corners of Dorsaduro, but also in San Polo. Dorsaduro is where I saw the most of ordinary, but charming Venetian life, with its Piazza Santa Maria and tucked away small shops and businesses. San Polo is where I stared at a marvel of a church I Frari and its masterpiece Asunta. Lesson five: churches have amazing art collections and tickets are very affordable as compared to museums. Time your visit right and you have a unique and very personal experience, away from the crowds.
There are is so much to see and feel in Venice, and so much pressure to check places, restaurants, and events off the list, to compare to what others did. But dare to create your own must see list, challenge your own expectations, find your silver lining, go ahead and document the details only you noticed, and others just rushed by…
Sometimes all it takes is few morning hours to restore the creative life spark. Welcome to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I have been long saying that this neighborhood of Brooklyn has the same eclectic mix as the Shoreditch, London, or my own Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am also happily adding Grünerløkka, Oslo to this category as of October this year. See two posts earlier why!
It is still mind boggling to me, how few stops on the L train and you end up in a neighborhood that is such a far cry from Manhattan. I made my base at the Wythe Hotel, just to check out the decor, but also for its iconic restaurant Reynard. I am very much of a morning person, so the charms of the 6th floor hotel bar, however lovely, due to the sweeping views of Manhattan on the other side of the river, were lost to me. But 7am at Reynard, that’s another story…Come along.
Bedford Ave. is the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood that hides gems like Catbird, my go to jewellery store, or Sweet Chick, for some solid food. Then, there are countless bakeries, coffee shops, vintage shops, for every taste. Toby’s Estate and Blue Bottle are just some of them. Views from the waterfront are a bonus, well worth spending time and soaking it all in, even on the rather chilly December morning.
We headed to Oslo early October, hoping for some seasonal weather and trying not to utter the word “snow” to each other. The city, that I have not seen since my student days, and that was completely new to Carl, did not disappoint. As always, I steered us clear of the touristy, or just simply predictable (sorry, no Viking Museum this time) and booked us in a hotel in Grünerløkka part of town. Adapted old industrial district, with a bohemian flair, with parks and small town feel main squares (reminded me of Poland a bit), it stole my heart instantly. The city is perfectly walkable, it took only 20 minutes to reach the hotel on foot from the main train station, which is connected to the airport by a fast and frequent train. And then it all begun, just on the other side of the small but raging river (where else do you get waterfalls and white water in the middle of the city, if not in Norway), lay the coffee paradise: Tim Wendelboe.
We walked around the block before we located the tiny and unassuming coffee shop, but once you step inside, it has almost electrifying intensity. I happily delegated the coffee ordering choices to Carl, and focused on taking photos, watching him chat with baristas, compare notes on gear, techniques and generally soak up the convivial, yet very focused atmosphere. We returned here 3 times…
That afternoon, wandering further through our neighborhood, we discovered super friendly, and beautifully stocked, bike shop Krankenhaus. We left with staff recommendations for places to see and places to eat (record shops are usually a given!). It turned out, that what became one of my favorite spots on Oslo, was on the hill on the other side of our hotel. A little road called Telthusbakken, was captured in Edward Munch’s painting in 1880 (still visible those days from his apartment across the river, just down the road from Tim Wendelboe. Quite steep and lined with wooden houses (some with matching roses still in bloom), let to even more magic. As if one painting was opening the door to another setting, like theatre. The area is called St. Haushaugen, and if you climb the winding paths in the park to the top, there is a splendid sunset view and the shimmering waters of the Oslo fjord.
It is impossible to ignore the Oslo Opera house and the modern architecture around, but if you carefully craft your itinerary, you will end up in the historic medieval part of town (although with a modern backdrop), mostly well preserved ruins, but enough to get the imagination going exploring stories of kings, Vikings, and the medieval drama: St. Clemens’ Church and St Hallvard’s Cathedral. Much better than any museum!
Before I sing my praises of our hotel, Scandic Vulkan, let me make it clear that this is not a sponsored post! I just truly enjoyed the stay here, and I find it to be an incredible value for money. So was the hotel breakfast with freshly baked bread from Handwerk Oslo next door, and the best natural wood table (those photo backgrounds!).
As always, there were things and places I wish I had more time to do and visit. One purely magical moment occurred when emerging from yet another “almost got lost” escapade (my favorite), we turned the corner and run into Jannicke Krakvik in front of her (old location) store, locking it up, actually. In a split second I remembered the article I carefully tore out of the NYT Magazine this spring about Kollekted by Frama. You can read the article here.
Truly one of those “it was mean to be moments”, so when she returned momentarily to the store, I mustered all my courage to say hello and introduce myself and say how much I admired her and Alessandro’s design style and the business. I missed the opening of the new location by just one day, it turned out. So I must return one day to Grünerløkka to visit the new location of one of the most inspiring businesses these days.
Traveling through North Zealand part of Denmark felt like discovering one of the biggest secrets of Instagram. So this is how people get to take these perfectly moody blue/gray photos! Of course, before Instagram this was called the painters’ light, as my Danish friend Sussi reminded me when we pulled up to a particularly stunning vista.
Our day started in Hundested, a small, coastal town northwest of Copenhagen. Then, onto Torup, and heading towards the sea, I encountered my first Danish fairytale village. It was 10 in the morning, as we meandered through the village’s country lanes, only greeted by a lone dog walker. No cars, no crowds, the only commotion caused by chickens running through the veggie patches.
The coast was getting steeper and wilder as we headed towards Tisvildeleje strand. It was a windy day in May, but you could imagine the summer folk flocking to the area’s as far as the eye can see beaches, framed by sand dunes.
Soon, it was time for a bakery stop. A sourdough, a pumpernickel, and a meringue later, we were ready to find a lunch spot. I could not help noticing that even the store facades sport the blue -gray paint, as if to match the sky.
Our break came in Hornbaek, where we found a retro cafe inside a second hand shop Albi’s Kaffebar. The owner graciously allowed me to roam the floor and photograph while we waited for coffee and homemade cookies. We took them outside to the garden, and joined a laid back gathering of other guests.
Inevitably, there were castles in our way. First, Fredensborg Castle, Queen’s summer residence with a splendid location atop of a hill. The afternoon was sleepy and buzzing with almost summer heat, we looked at a long walk through the perfectly tree-lined alley, and talked ourselves out of it. After all, there was another castle in our path. On cue, came along Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod. Exuberantly baroque, with its own moat, a lake, and a formal garden, the castle now houses a museum. I was mesmerized by the courtyard fountains and took to photographing them. I first learned the technique last year in Trastevere, Rome from Signe Bay. Here, finally there was a fountain worth the challenge! The light, the sparkle of the water, the sheer size of them. And then, just me and my 50mm lens, not so easy.
Just like all roads lead to Rome for some, all roads lead to backyards for me, it seems. Sussi and I set out to prepare a morning breakfast scene the next day to style and photograph some of her upcoming block printed linen collection. We held off as long as we could, before finally diving into our lovely morning scene of coffee and some of the local bread. The website for the linen is coming soon, I will be sure to update this post! Stay tuned.
The story starts in a restaurant with a drawing of a greenhouse in its logo. Instantly smitten, right? I went to Väkst (Danish for ‘growth’) with my Danish friend Sussi to celebrate my birthday. I was not taking any chances. Only few hours after arriving in Copenhagen, I stood at the door right at the opening time, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and giddy with anticipation. Since we were so early, I was able to take photos before the place filled up. But when the food started arriving, I put my camera down to enjoy the red sorrel until the last tiny leaf, and the sourdough bread until the last crumb…And that was just the beginning.
I “maximized” my time in Copenhagen by booking the hotel in the same building, Hotel SP34. It was at the top of my list for a while now, I have seen countless photos on blogs and it did not disappoint. Comfy lobby with a daily wine hour, and a quiet room with great reading light and leather head rest (swoon!) and city views. I just kept recording the Danish bicycle rush hour for Carl on my iPhone!
There was no time for jet lag. Mornings were spent at the bakery 5 minutes from the hotel, Sankt Peders Bageri. A small cappuccino and a raisin brioche bun, with unlimited people watching (and photo taking!) made for great mornings. They also serve lunch sandwiches to go – salmon and cottage cheese was superb.
The neighborhood is great for exploring on foot. Churches with moody courtyards (Sankt Petri), the Copenhagen Cathedral with its restrained but beautiful ceiling, small cafes and then there is Christiansborg, which happens to be the setting for Borgen. Pardon my TV reference here, but this is the only series we ever nearly binge watched and which briefly made me consider learning Danish. Not to mention, I am still searching for the handbag like the one Birgitte Nyborg had in the last season.
Just few minutes walk from the hotel in the opposite direction is Torvehallerne Market, where flowers and coffee were unquestionable delight…
If you have your walking shoes on, head to Nørrebro. My favorite street was Jaegersborggade, filled with small stores, coffee shops, and plenty of space for an afternoon break among the loveliest of the green spaces filled with history – Assistens Cemetery – just around the corner.
My Copenhagen story comes full circle and it ends, for now at least, where it started many years ago. As a child, growing up in Poland, I was given my own illustrated copy of H.C. Andersen’s fairytales. 3 tome collection, which I read over and over. One story, with all consuming drama of a skull in a flower pot and a fragrant jasmine, stayed in my imagination, but I could not recall the title. Just after Copenhagen, I visited my family and my childhood home, and after re-reading several of the stories I came across the one I was searching for. The Rose Elf.
A typical New England spring Sunday, when we actually decide to go out of town, might look like this, perfected by years of habit inducing repetition:
Lunch at Essex Seafood. Many locals, quiet if you arrive early, feel free to discuss Manchester-by-the-Sea movie with people at neighboring table, kind of place.
Post lunch stroll at Cox Reservation. Birds, wild flowers, watercolor painters in fields, never a shortage of subjects to watch.
Smelling the flowers and daydreaming at Long Hill Reservation. Where the imaginations runs wild through the garden paths and house reminiscent of more rural and subdued (and more charming!) Great Gatsby era.