My photo-story – The Horrors of Auschwitz – currently on Conde Nast Traveller India. Click here to read it!
Round and Round in City Squares
You can’t help it. All new cities you visit, you’ll end up going round and round in their city squares. A city square defines a city. During my travels, a few that have impressed me are Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Main Square in Krakow, Red Square in Moscow and Covent Garden in London. I invited a few serious travellers to share their favourite city squares. Here’s their take!
Piazza San Pietro, Rome, Italy
One of my favourite squares in the world, and truly one of the most scenic city squares in the world is Piazza San Pietro in Rome. Rome is one of my favourite cities in the world and you will find Piazza San Pietro located directly in from of St Peter’s Basilicia in Vatican City. Whether you are admiring the square from afar, from above (top of St Peter’s Dome) or from the centre of the square you’ll realise what a truly remarkable place it is. Each time I have visited Piazza San Pietro it is always bustling with a mixture of tourists, locals and nuns/monks. The square is encircled by enormous colonnades and overlooked by 13 statues at the top of St Peter’s Basilica. The square also features two beautiful fountains, designed by Bernini and Maderno. Piazza San Pietro is a stunning and architecturally beautiful city square that has been the location of an incredible about of history in its time. This beautiful, scenic city square is one of the most visited in the world and is a must see on any visit to Rome.
Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
In the heart of Brussles, Belgium is one of the most beautiful squares I’ve seen: Grand Place. Incredible detail surrounds you on all four sides, the centrepiece being the Town Hall.
On the opposing side is the just as ornate Museum of the City of Brussels. You could spend hours in this space just admiring the historic artwork that will hopefully survive many centuries to come.
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
Welcome to Piazza del Campo in Siena – one of the most famous throughout Italy (and Europe). What makes it so unique? It’s original shell shape. While we do not recommend you eat here (tourists traps), we do recommend an aperitivo or a gelato and do not forget the photos – and try one from each angle. For a great photo, stick around for the sunset – your photos will look amazing!
Piazza del Campo is dominated by the red Town Hall (Palazzo Pubblico/Palazzo Comunale) and its tower, Torre del Mangia. The Town Hall, as well as the Duomo of Siena, were built during the Council of the Nine (1286-1355), which was the greatest economic and cultural splendour of Siena. From the courtyard of the Town Hall leads to the Civic Museum and the Torre del Mangia, on top of which, climbed the 500 steps, you can enjoy a splendid view of the city. Truly one of the most scenic squares in the world!
Old Town Square, Warsaw, Poland
Upon arrival to Warsaw I had no idea what to expect. I was informed by many people that Warsaw was nearly flattened in WWII so there would not be much to see in the terms of old historical architecture. While these people were not altogether wrong, I discovered that Warsaw is a stunning capital to Poland with some of the most beautiful mixtures of old and new architecture thus far. My favourite part of being in Warsaw was exploring the Old Town located through Castle Square. Completely blown away by the beauty that this reconstructed square holds, I didn’t think I would find anything else to match it. After getting lost down the streets of Old Town I found myself in the the most stunning and vibrant square I have ever seen. Old Town Market Square takes the gold for me in beautiful squares. Tiny and hidden from the less adventurous travellers, Old Town Market Square is a hidden gem of quaint, cozy and colourful and I quite enjoyed spending my afternoon here.
Place Massena, Nice, France
While visiting France I had the opportunity to stay at the stunning city of Nice for a couple of weeks. Nice is the second-largest French city located on the Mediterranean coast. The full name of the city is Nice la Belle (Nissa La Bella in Niçard), which translates to Nice the Beautiful. The location of Nice includes Terra Amata, an archaeological site, which contains historic use of fire. Through the years, the city has changed hands many times. Its location has been of military importance and the port significantly adds to its maritime strength. When walking around many attractions catch the eye and visualise the beauty of this old city square. It’s not long before the colourful square and old buildings transform into the old city. This part of historical Nice curves round past Castle Hill and near to the scenic Promenade des Anglais. Like Italy, the streets are lined with tall households. The vibrant buildings are often up to five stories high and the old narrow streets are full of interesting cafes and boutique stores to explore.
Red Square, Moscow
Red Square defines ‘BIG’! The four sides of this square are marked by St. Basil’s Cathedral (the iconic onion domed colourful church that perhaps inspired Disney’s logo), the outer wall of Kremlin with Lenin Memorial smack in the middle, State Historical Museum that places evolved masonry amongst the premier art forms and Gum Departmental Store, a 242-metre façade, which is illuminated every evening!
The entry into the square is allowed only after 1pm but once it opens for public, the place is normally buzzing with people. Being here around sunset and beyond will surely delight the photographer in you!
If you have some more gems to add, please share in comments for inclusion!
Equipment: EOS 5D Mark III TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
EXIF: 24mm f/5.6 5.0sec ISO 100
Travel Photography – Cityscape – Warsaw
I conceived this shot of Palace of Culture & Science as my Warsaw Cityscape shot even before I figured out the shooting vantage and the challenges I will face. The shot had to have the Roundabout in the foreground as it would act as a forecourt and would provide, as an element, a perfect balance. The timing had to be the blue hour to provide a contrasting backdrop for the purple illumination of the building. This roundabout needed to have near-complete light trails and needed to look like an oval. And Hotel Metropol’s green neon must provide a leading line for the main subject.
Now that I had conceived it in my imagination, I realised the only vantage available was my room in Hotel Novotel.
- The window glass pane had multiple glares that I needed to handle;
- The lit-up hoarding on the facade of Hotel Metropol was far too bright for a long exposure;
- The angle necessitated that I tilt the camera down and that would lead to distortion; and
- Blue hour is just a 15-minute window and hence I didn’t have much time for experimentation.
Addressing the Challenges:
- I switched off all the lights in the room, meticulously wrapped myself and my camera (mounted on the tripod) in the window curtains and used my hands to cup the areas which were still getting some glare;
- Ensured that I exposed the hoarding just short of complete burnout so as to be able to address this overly bright object by clipping highlights during post-processing;
- Kept the camera level to the ground, used a tilt-shift lens and shifted it down to handle distortion; and
- Systematically exposed frames from 3 seconds to about 8 seconds, narrowing the aperture in slower shutter speeds, to achieve a perfect oval of light trails.
I am obliged nature painted brilliant clouds during the blue hour to further embellish the shot. And, here’s the result I found to my satisfaction.
This little write-up has been posted with a view to help other travel photographers as ‘Travel Photography – Cityscape’ Photography Tip. It has appeared under a regular column called ImageTech in India’s leading Photography Magazine called Classic Imaging.
Equipment: EOS 5D Mark III EF17-40mm f/4.0L USM
EXIF: 17mm f/6.3 1/1000 ISO 200
A travel photographer always dreams of capturing the place, the people, the history and the culture of a destination – ideally, all in one shot. I am no different. Recently, while in Warsaw, I was roaming about the old town (which, incidentally, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). When I reached ‘The Mermaid’ – a bronze statue that’s considered one of the two saviors of Warsaw – I was fortunate to have landed right in the middle of one such situation that offered all this and more.
There was a newly wed couple that arrived at this spot for their wedding candids. Before I could say Nicolas Milaslovic, they entered the small fountain pond around the statue and started jumping up and down. The expression of crowds around (both, tourists as well as locals) was priceless. The light was just right. And fortunately, the lens on the camera too was just right.
I went to the widest possible focal length (17mm), narrowed the aperture to f/6.3, increased the ISO a bit to 200, checked the shutter speed and, at 1/1000, found it was just right to freeze the water droplets mid-air. After that, I shot a burst. The happy-go-lucky uninhibited couple, the onlookers, the historic bronze statue, the sidewalk cafes and the colourful old houses of Warsaw – all these elements just summed up this East European City for me. What’s your view?
WarSaw or WarSee – Photography – The Art of Seeing
War (WW-II) saw to it that Warsaw was decimated. 80% buildings were destroyed by the aggressors.
But, remarkably, the Poles have rebuilt the city on its ruins and modelled it on the pre-war architecture. Result: you can still see the old town that was almost completely destroyed. This prompts me to call this resilient city WarSee.
As travel photographers, it becomes our responsibility to fine-tune our eye and develop what we call in photography – the art of seeing. My attempt, here, is to illustrate just that.
The old town is dotted by small memorials associated with WW-II. A gentle, yet horrific reminder of the War. And while moving about, these details must not be missed.
This gives the city a unique flavor – especially the Old Town. The basements are visibly old. But the aboveground structures, despite their pre-war architecture, are modern.
This nightmare has done little to the happy-go-lucky spirit attributed to the Poles. While acknowledging this gory past, they remain as brimming with life as ever. Such cultural imprint is what brings a city or a town alive for your viewers.
In acknowledgement of this near-perfect reconstruction, UNESCO accorded the Old Town the World Heritage status in 1980. You can rightfully say that here’s a phoenix that rose remarkably well from its ashes!
(See this bronze cast image above? Such little nuggets lie sprinkled inconspicuously in the destination you visit. And these need to be unearthed. This, in effect, is what we call in photography – the art of seeing!).
Travelove Series is about the smiles I have gathered during my travels. I consciously look for Travelove during my travels.
Travelove Series 4 – True Meaning of Homage
I am not a Jew. Yet my visit to Auschwitz moved me. And for Jews, a visit to Auschwitz is akin to a pilgrimage as Nazis murdered millions of their ancestors here in cold blood.
To give the visitors an understanding of the scale of WW-II holocaust, the museum-cum-memorial has exhibited an architect’s model, which graphically details out the prisoners being led into the gas chamber and their subsequent fate.
I was struggling to shoot this exhibit through thick sheet-glass partition that separated it from the visitors. In the process, I was perhaps blocking a Jewish group’s view partially. Seeing this, their guide yelled at me in a booming voice that I needed to wait till the group has exited from that area.
I turned around with helplessness writ large on my face to notice that at least 4-5 members of the group had already raised their hands to stop the guide from interfering with what I was doing and with hint of encouragement, gestured me to go on.
In that moment, the true meaning of homage dawned on me and I felt a deep sense of respect for the Jewish visitors who were there.
Do you look for Travelove during your travels? To read more of my Travelove series, click here.
Part-1 of a Trilogy comprising Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz
Warsaw: A Phoenix that Rose from its Ashes
I have always held a fascination for the erstwhile eastern-bloc countries and cities; and for me, Warsaw was perhaps the most iconic of those cities. Hence, a visit to this city was obviously on my bucket list.
From my landing in Chopin Airport to my taking off from there, even though I saw, learnt and imbibed a lot, I still found myself confused. Here was a city (actually the whole country) where there were two names for every place – an English Name and a Polish Name. I am sure that the language factor has made me miss out on some of the important landmarks in this central European city replete with history.
The people in Warsaw took me by surprise. Despite their war-torn ancestry and background, they are completely grounded and sans any airs; they are happy-go-lucky; upright with a ‘don’t-mess-with-me-and-I-won’t-mess-with-you’ attitude; love their drink and food and can be boisterous. All in all, it reminded me of Punjabis – natives of Punjab, a state repeatedly attacked by various exploitative and plundering kings, generals and rulers over many centuries – who also display similar traits.
Warsaw came out of WW-II as the most battle-scarred and decimated city. The aggressors destroyed almost 80% of this city’s buildings, but, remarkably, the Poles have rebuilt the city on its ruins and modeled it on the pre-war architecture. This gives the city a unique flavor – especially the Old Town – as the basements of the buildings are visibly old, but the aboveground structures, despite their pre-war architecture are modern. In acknowledgement of this near-perfect reconstruction, UNESCO accorded the Old Town the status of a World Heritage site in 1980.
Warsaw is a beautiful, well-planned and extremely green city, with many lakes. Vistula (Wisła in Polish) River divides the city into 2 distinct halves – the left bank and the right bank. Most of the government buildings and other tourist attractions are sprinkled around on the left bank.
Besides a large number of museums and auditoriums, the city boasts a large number of places of historical importance. From Jewish cemeteries to Old Town; from small and big war memorials in lush green parks and gardens to an Empire State building look-alike called Palace of Culture and Science built by Stalin; from churches and cathedrals to Chopin’s musical benches – the city has it all. In fact, it has so much to offer that if you decide to spend a few weeks here you will end up discovering at least one new thing everyday. It is an important centre of education, culture, history, arts, science (remember Marie Curie?), architecture, etc. not just in Poland, but also in Central Europe.
The Old Town houses Jewish quarters, Warsaw University, many significant cathedrals, the Royal Palace, the President’s House, King Sigmund’s Column (Zygmunt III Waza in Polish) and one of the 2 custodians of the city – the Mermaid. The square that houses the Mermaid reminded me of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and the square in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, as it is packed with roadside cafés offering beer and food, artists offering to paint for you, performers playing concert instruments, tourists gaping in awe, newly-weds excitedly engaged in their portfolio shoots and locals just chilling.
Though you’ll find trams, metro, buses and taxis as modes of commute in Warsaw, the locals and even many tourists prefer to rent a bicycle here. The city is not as well planned for cycling as many others in Europe, but is surprisingly safe for the cyclists as the traffic is good-natured and generally tolerant towards them.
The place offers beer and vodka in plenty and you’ll find all sorts of eateries offering cuisines as varied as Lebanese, Indian, Italian, French and Brazilian. It even has a Hard Rock Café. But once here, you’ll do well to not miss the Polish dishes predominantly comprising meat and potatoes. One special mention is a soup called Zurek – made from rye flour and potatoes as its base, with a lavish helping of diced potatoes, sausages and hard-boiled eggs thrown in. This is a meal by itself.
Do take a vacation in Warsaw. It isn’t an expensive place and I promise it will also leave you richer in more ways than one!
Part-2 of a Trilogy comprising Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz
Krakow: The City with Many Faces
While Krakow, the second largest city in Poland, may have been relegated from being the capital of Poland during medieval times to being the capital of Lesser Poland today, its charm surely has not lessened. In fact, in the year 2000, it was declared one of the European Capitals of Culture. Not only that, this year it has been selected as the European City of Sports.
It projects multiple identities. The area around Wawel Castle and Town Square (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is distinctly medieval. Ghetto, the Jewish quarters, Kazimierz, and the Schindler’s Factory collectively have a WW-II Holocaust gestalt. The riverside of Vistula (or Wisła in Polish) is as scenic as any other European city on banks of a river and the newer outskirts of the city have a strong European countryside imprint. That prompts me to call Krakow the city with many faces.
Many things fascinated me about Krakow and these were instrumental in my cancelling my trip to Prague as Krakow itself offered plenty to see and experience. I was fortunate to have a couple of local friends act as guides. They helped me determine my itinerary. I decided to do what the locals in Krakow would.
I spent a couple of evenings in the Kazimierz area generally strolling around the Jewish quarters of the city, checking out an old building block where Steven Spielberg shot ‘Schindler’s List’, visiting a Jewish cemetery and sipping beer at roadside cafés popular amongst the locals.
I also spent almost half a day in the Town Square. It is the largest town square in Europe. Besides housing the Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and the old clock tower, it also has St. Mary’s church, a Hard Rock Café, a few bronze statues and a few score roadside cafés.
That sunny afternoon in the main market square turned rainy in a couple of hours. Mesmerised, I watched the rain while an endless stream of people, with or without umbrellas, walked, cycled or skated about the square. My viewing vantage was the outdoor summer lounge of Hawełka – a restaurant established in 1876!
Another afternoon, I found myself collecting ink-stamped postcard souvenirs in ‘Schindler’s Factory’, which has now been turned in to a museum. It vividly illustrates the role played by Oskar Schindler in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews while Nazis were sending them all to Auschwitz and other concentration and extermination camps. This is certainly the best curated museum I have ever seen.
I even devoted a day driving out to a couple of ancient castles (Zámek in Polish), which attract local weekend picnickers. It was a joy to drive through quaint small towns where the cemeteries had fresh flowers on every grave, thick forests had well-defined walking trails, roadside offered a view of freshly harvested fields with rolled up hay bails and every face you saw had a genuine smile.
One of the castles we visited was in ruins – the Ogrodzieniec Castle. This late 14th century castle is perhaps the most scenic one I have ever seen. The landscape around is idyllic, the calcium (limestone) rocks in the vicinity have a character and the approach to the castle ruins had a carnival feel. Locals from Krakow throng here for a weekend outing. Since it was a warm summer day, there were plenty of ice cream and drink kiosks. I found visitors donning both, the most modern attire and the period outfits.
In Krakow, it didn’t surprise me to see buskers playing concert instruments like the cello or the concert flute, the tourists sipping a Tyskie beer in stagecoach drawn by a couple of well-fed, well-looked after, spotted stallions, or even a roadside café using old sewing machines as tables for the guests. Like Warsaw, cycling seems a religion even in Krakow. Despite its many ups and downs, the disposition of the city is generally happy and I have no hesitation is saying that here is a city I would perhaps want to settle down in.
This notorious entrance to Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), a WW-II Nazi Concentration Camp in Poland, was the worst site of the WW-II Holocaust. Various estimates put the number of people murdered here as between 1 and 4.5 million. The official figure displayed at Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is 1.3 million, out of which 1.1 million were Jews. The train would pull in, prisoners would be made to disembark, they would be sorted in to ‘healthy’ and ‘weak’, ‘weak’ would be immediately shot or gassed, and ‘healthy’ would face a slow death through over-work, exhaustion and starvation. This is the site that marks the worst barbarism of humans against humans.
For more images from Auschwitz and Birkenau, please visit my ‘Travelogues’ blog – http://bit.ly/1vQih0U
Part-3 of a Trilogy comprising Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz. ‘Smart Photography’. October 2014 issue.
Auschwitz – Remembering the WW-II Holocaust
This photo-feature is my humble homage to the people of various nationalities who were murdered in cold blood by Nazis during the World War-II Holocaust all around Eastern Europe.
I have grown up seeing movies woven around this theme – Warsaw Story, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Odessa file, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and many more. I have read about the Holocaust extensively, both in magazines as well as in novels. As a photographer, I have also been through thousands of images of the Holocaust and its sites. As a result, somewhere deep down, I had a desire to visit the biggest Holocaust site of all – The Auschwitz.
Last month, this desire was finally fulfilled. I visited Poland on a photography trip and besides visiting Warsaw and Krakow, I specially made time to visit Auschwitz. Unlike my other photo-trips, this time I stayed away from any preparation or specific study, as I wanted my psyche to confront an unprejudiced experience. It is almost like not reading the review of an eagerly awaited movie because of fear that the review might expose the plot.
I drove from Krakow to Auschwitz, a neat little town with a population of just over 40,000. I chose a country road and avoided the Expressway. The distance of about 65 kilometers gave me more than a glimpse of the Polish countryside, which was as beautiful as in most of Europe.
Upon reaching Auschwitz, I realised that it is no longer referred to as a concentration camp, but is now a well-maintained memorial and museum. Another fact I learned was that Auschwitz consists of not just one concentration camp, but three – Auschwitz-I (Auschwitz), Auschwitz-II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz-III (Monowitz) – each approximately 3 – 4 kilometers from the other. As surprising as it may sound, this 10 sq. km. area accounted for the slaughter of anything from 1.5 to 5 million human beings, 85% of those being Jews.
I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30 A.M. This gave me 2 advantages – no entry fee (from 8 A.M. to 10 A.M. people are allowed in for free) and no queue (upon returning to Krakow, I heard horror stories of people being in the entry queue for over 2 hours). From a photography perspective, it also meant that I was able to get shots without too many tourists in them.
Not knowing what to expect, I just started following a few people with guides. The entire place was extremely organised, with a solitary entry gate that led me into a complex with rows of warehouse-like buildings – approximately 25 of them. The entry gate arch displayed 3 words in German – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – which ironically translates to ‘Work means Freedom’. For an instant, the images of how ‘free’ the inmates of this concentration camp were, danced in front of my eyes.
It was pure chance that the first building I ended up in was the Gas Chamber. Thousands of prisoners were gassed to death here. The building had 2 incinerators, which were used to mass-burn the dead bodies. All of a sudden, I found that my mood had turned sombre.
Walking around, I started reading the fact boards in the premises. Let me share the essence of one such board – ‘The plunder of human beings was complete. Healthy ones were chosen for a slow death through overwork, exhaustion and starvation; while the others were straightaway shot or gassed, but not before their hair was shaven off for using as yarn for woollens; their gold teeth were extracted and their valuables stripped.’
As if in a daze, I moved from one building to another. In each, some reminder of the ghastly Holocaust faced me – its scale and magnitude evident in the exhibits I was witnessing. Each building had 3 floors; each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances. There was a building full of victims’ hair; another full of their clothes and even more buildings with suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hair-brushes, toothbrushes, shoes, toys and other belongings.
There were thematic photo-exhibitions on the murder of Jews, Poles, Romas, Simtis, etc. There were also touching descriptions under the images like ‘This woman weighed 64 kilograms when brought to Auschwitz; weighed a mere 25 kilograms when this image was shot’. There were terrible stories of one Dr. Mengele – a psychotic man who conducted half-baked and brutal medical experiments on children, in particular, twins.
When I couldn’t take it any more, I decided to step out. One thing I wanted to see was the rail track that used to bring the prisoners to Auschwitz. Upon enquiring, I found that it was in Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), and promptly made my way there.
Here was the notorious ‘Hell’s Gate’ or ‘Gate of Death’. The entrance had an arch through which the train would enter the camp. When the prisoners disembarked, they would get sorted as either healthy or weak. The healthy ones were taken to the barracks (akin to horse stables) while the weak (women, children, elderly people) would either be shot on the spot, or taken to one of the 6 gas chambers built to murder and then incinerate them.
The paucity of time didn’t allow me to visit Monowitz. But I had seen enough. In both – Auschwitz, as well as Birkenau – I saw a lot of Jews. I could understand that for them, it was almost a pilgrimage. They were there in hordes, to pay homage to their ancestors who had faced the worst.
If you ever get a chance, do visit this solemn place, which has the power of bringing you face-to-face with the barbarism of humans, against humans.