Let's be dead honest for a minute folks - 2016 was a freaking rough year for most of the world. Whether it was the Syrian refugee crisis, the siege of Aleppo, the slew of celebrity deaths, the UK's Brexit vote, the insane US election cycle, or the poisoning of Flint's water supply, it's been difficult to limp into the last week of December without feeling like the whole world is nothing more than a series of raging dumpster fires.
But it wasn't all bad news this year!
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, I got engaged after 8 years of dating the man I love, and despite the complete shit show of hatred and vitriol being spewed across the globe I was uplifted by the many voices raised in solidarity for human dignity, rights, and life.
There's always light if you're looking, people.
It was also a great year of travel for me. I spent a lot of time exploring Europe the past twelve months, from the desolate landscapes of Scotland's Isle of Skye to the mishmash of architecture that constitutes the city of Tbilisi in the Caucasus. Georgia's inclusion in Europe is debatable but everyone I spoke to there considered themselves European and I'm a big fan of letting people choose their own fate! Europe is probably one of the most widely explored areas of the globe for those interested in travel, though till this year I had focused much more heavily on Asia. Other than a week spent in Marrakech my entire international travel schedule for the year was in the European sphere. That's quite a change from my normal adventures!
With 2016 coming to a very welcomed close, I think one of the best ways for me to look back on the explorations and adventures I experienced over the year is to pick out a few of my favorite photos that were snapped on the road and share them with you. Many of these photos have been featured on my Instagram account (LINK), though a handful haven't ever been shared. Whether unseen or previously posted, each one encapsulates a feeling, a scene, or a memories that I found important over the course of the year.
So. Without further ado.....!
Rome - Italy
Fresh off the 16 hour journey it took me to get from Chicago to Rome, I was a bleary-eyed mess of a traveler when I finally set my bag down on the floor of my hotel. While I was eager to get out and explore, I made the practical choice to get a little bit of a nap first. When I awoke my ears were filled with the sound of motorcycles zooming across pavement stones and drunken pedestrians meandering down the narrow alleyways outside my room. Eager to see a bit of Rome, I grabbed my phone and a coat and headed out into the night. The very first thing that caught my eye was the marble monster above - gleaming elegantly against the stark black Italian night. This is the Altare del Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), also known as Il Vittoriano, a temple of patriotism that simultaneously serves as a museum to Italy's reunification, a monument to unknown soldiers, and a makeshift vista from which to view the Roman skyline.
It's quite the welcome wagon for your first 15 minutes in Rome.
While making my way from the foot of the famous Spanish steps to the Piazza Navona I crossed in front of the Biblioteca Angelica, a library housing a large collection of historical documents from the period of the Reformation. While the history within its walls is priceless, it was the simple wooden doors, crumbling wall, gently curved archway, and the bright blue moped parked in front that caught my eye.
It was all just so damn Italian.
Imagine my surprise as I walked through the Roman Forum when my ears picked up what sounded like the beginnings of a dance party from the mountains of South America. With police blocking off vehicular traffic on both sides of a stretch of road, women in pollera skirts and bowler hats twirled with glee. Was I in Rome or La Paz? Apparently I had stumbled upon a small celebration of Bolivian expats living in Rome.
It was really a bit of a surreal experience. There I was walking on the ancient stone ruins of a marketplace in a city that ruled over much of the known world while women with roots in a land completely unknown to the men who laid those stones below our feet. The scene really spoke to the insanity of the modern world we live in. Is it weird that I almost felt like the statue of Caesar was smiling as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors swirl before him?
Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, coming in with a total area smaller than one square kilometer. Smack dab in the middle of Rome, most visitors to the Papal state enter on foot without any passport or visa necessary but can only visit the very limited amount of publicly-accessible space. This of course includes Vatican City's most popular sights - St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums. A visit to any other portion of the Holy See requires more formal border crossing facilities.
I was reminded of this when wandering through a museum and walked past a massive iron gate that opened onto a cobblestone driveway. Through the door was a Vatican police officer with his iPhone in hand, slowly scrolling through his social media while the tip of St. Peter's poked through the treeline. While he wasn't watching me, I was fully aware that stepping through those gates was a big no-no as the other side of those gates was a part of that forbidden non-public Vatican land.
Still, what a beautiful day in the world's smallest nation. Even if I couldn't enjoy it outside.
Unlike many smaller churches, St. Peter's Basilica doesn't stay upon all hours of the day. I had already spent over an hour wandering the interior of the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, so when the guards started making their rounds and ushering people out the front door I dutifully followed instructions. I followed the marked barriers funneling the stragglers into St. Peter's Square, dragging my feet slightly to allow those around me to lap past.
With no one else around, I turned back to take in the sight one last time. Row after row of empty seats sat patiently awaiting the arrival of those seeking the Pope's wisdom during his weekly blessing. Twin monitors bookended the elegant columns and sleek exterior of the Basilica while scrolling through uplifting, Catholic-inspired affirmations. I knew the history of the building and the religion led from within it. It had brought many beautiful things to humanity, but also cut deeply into the psyche of mankind. Like most things in life, this building represented what was good in life, but also was the root of much of what was bad as well.
In the soft glow of the death of the day, it all seemed so harmlessly though.
Marrakesh - Morocco
There's a few things that Marrakech seems to have in spades - mint tea, maze-like alleyways, and beautiful doors. I was a bit lost despite having left the twisty-turny confusion that constitutes the city's old medina on my way to the Saadian Tombs. As I walked up a street with a flurry of cars and bicycles playing the Moroccan version of chicken next to me, I turned to my left and caught the scene above. I loved the expansiveness and playful curve of the door, but it was made all the better when juxtaposed with the two diminutive women in modest Muslim dress sitting on a bench and chitchatting the day away.
It feels like no matter where you turn in Marrakech, someone is trying to sell you something. As you wander through the city you pass an endless stream of carpet shops, trinket emporiums, kebab houses, and spice vendors, all staffed with people who's sole purpose is to get your body inside and your hands to open your wallet. While the calls to buy something can get aggressive and annoying, it does bring a certain charm to your visit. One of my favorite types of shops were the numerous carts parked along the main square in town selling juice. They were eye-poppingly colorful - seemingly endless rows of round fruit in a soothing pattern of citrus hues. Lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges. The sight was only rivaled by the heavenly scent of fresh squeezed juice wafting from each vendor. In a city filled with shouting touts, car honks, and clanging pots, the juice carts were an oasis of beauty and calm.
If you know me at all, it's no secret that I didn't exactly love Marrakech. I had a series of unfortunate encounters the culminated in what may or may not have been anti-gay harassment (LINK). Despite my unease, I still made my way out into the kasbah at night to explore and grab a bite to eat. As someone I used to work with used to say - "One monkey don't stop the show!"
The medina's main square, Djemaa El-Fna, transforms from a sleepy crossroad during the day into a seething, heaving pair of lungs for a lively city at night. Crammed with fortune tellers, snake charmers, drum circles, and restaurants, it actually provided what felt like a safe space for me. The narrow streets throughout the medina can be a bit claustrophobic but the open space of the square, even with all the people, let me relax and feel uncramped. I can still hear the sounds of the square mixed with the heady scent of roasting meat wafting about the smoke filled walkways to this day.
Soccer is a unifying sport across most of the globe outside of my home here in the US, where apparently we still haven't figured out the allure of the game. Morocco seems to be no exception though! The local soccer team, Kawkab Athletic Club, has fans that are so rabidly supportive that they have earned a name for themselves - the Crazy Boys. As you wander the streets of Marrakech, if you keep your eyes peeled, you're sure to find a graffiti-style mural on a ramshackle wall touting the fervor of the soccer team's fans with their trademark logo of a boy tying a bandana around his head. They're all over the place if you look carefully.
In a city that can often seem tilted toward aggression and disjointedness, it was nice to have a constant reminder of something that brought people together in happiness.
Inverness, Isle of Skye, & Edinburgh - Scotland
This photo from the Isle of Skye is a bit of a poignant reminder for me. This was taken on the pathway leading up to one of the island's most famous sights - the Old Man of Storr. A craggy rock formation at the top of hilly terrain, my fiance (then boyfriend) and I were making our way up along with a handful of other visitors when I reached this point. I couldn't make it any further. My body, and more importantly my lungs, were at their breaking point. The climb wasn't particularly steep or difficult, I was just in terrible physical shape. Sadly, my closest view of the Old Man of Storr was still a pretty distant one. The view is beautiful, but the memories are difficult because prior to this I had never chosen to skip a sight simply because my body could not handle the demands.
While I found the Isle of Skye breathtakingly beautiful, I was also struck by how lonely some parts of the island seemed. The undulating hills and winding roads through the Scottish Highlands create a stunning landscape but I couldn't help but notice that the towns were tiny and the majority of the island seemed to be dotted with solitary homesteads few and far between. While driving through one of these quiet corners of the island, we passed a single dilapidated phone booth on the side of the road. I tapped my boyfriend on the arm and told him to circle back around. We stopped on the side of the road and hopped out to snap a few pictures. A little keepsake of the lonely beauty of the Scottish Highlands.
I was surprised by Edinburgh. I knew that the city was filled with old world charm but I didn't realize I'd end up feeling like I was walking through a Harry Potter movie our entire trip. From the tightly packed rows of shops to the historic castle perched on top of a hill in the center of the city, the area just oozed with history. I still remember wandering through St. Giles Cathedral and sitting down in an empty row of seats to watch the sun stream through the windows. Like some sort of magic spell, the beams of light seemed to dance in the aisle.
It was late May when we were jaunting through Scotland, and while summer was just around the corner it was still a bit chilly in Edinburgh. Despite the lack of warmth I was struck by how residents of the city still spent so much time outside in their public spaces lounging and living life. Whether it was sunset in the Meadows public park or midday at the Price Street Gardens, the residents of Edinburgh seem to revel in their beautiful outdoor spaces. Looking at the photos above, can you blame them?
Paris - France
Paris is a city of lights and home of elegance, and there was no more beautiful combination of those two things than inside the Sainte-Chapelle. A vaulted ceiling with seemingly endless columns of stained glass glimmering in the soft light of the sun. Vibrant hues of red, blue, and pink fill your eyes as you gaze upward in pure awe. Welcome to Paris, friend!
Sadly it rained a good portion of our time in Paris. It's still a stunningly beautiful city but it looks a little different when everything is wet. Don't we all?
Spring flowers were still blooming all about and the showers continued to fall as we ducked in and out of cafes and museums during our several day visit to the City of Lights. As we waited for the signal at a crosswalk, I turned around to gaze back at the Paris Metro exit we had just left. The retro sign screamed Parisian cool and the pretty pink flowers in the trees above it evoked the season. Then I saw the woman with the bright red trench coat walking toward the stairs and I put my camera up. It really encapsulated my time in Paris well.
Paris is a city of love, and countless people visit in the hopes that they will either fall in love, find love, or firm up their existing love. Because the immigration line at the airport took us almost two hours to clear (you can read more about my love for French efficiency here: LINK), we ended up missing our appointment to pick up the keys to our rental apartment and that threw our whole day off. By the time we had sorted everything out it was a little before midnight and the rain was starting to fall. It was our first night there and I wanted to see at least one beautiful thing before we called it a day, so we grabbed our umbrellas and walked a few blocks over to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Just as we arrived, a middle-aged couple walking past the building stopped for a moment and proceeded to have an adorably delicate, tender kiss.
The city of love indeed!
There really isn't much backstory to this photo - I'm just a huge fan of graffiti street art. While walking through Le Marais neighborhood, we saw people coming in and out of a non-descript alleyway next to some high end fashion outlets. We ducked into the alleyway and discovered the entrance to a museum of some sort that is currently slipping my mind. We didn't go into the museum, but we did spend about 10 minutes enjoying the slew of graffiti murals in the alley. The section above was my favorite.
Spring flowers. Cloudy skies. Rain. The Eiffel Tower. The only thing missing from this photo that summarizes our trip to Paris is a delicious meal.
Taking a little break from destination photography for a few minutes to take a look at a few of the aviation-related shots I snapped this year that made me smile. This was taken as I climbed the stairs from the tarmac at Tbilisi International Airport to board my Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kiev. It was somewhere around 6 AM in the morning and the sun was just starting to peak above the horizon.
My first flight with Royal Air Maroc from Rome to Casablanca. The sun was setting off in the distance and as we started our descent the snowcapped outline of the Atlas Mountains came into view.
A little later that night I had arrived in in Marrakech after connecting in Casablanca. My flight was the last one into the airport that evening and the staff wasn't exactly interested in waiting for us to make our way out of the terminal before shutting down for the night. They were shutting off lights and locking up the facility as we stood there waiting for our bags. It seemed a bit odd to me but at the same time I didn't mind at all - the geometric diamond facade of the terminal really looked its most beautiful in the dark.
This is perhaps my favorite picture of the year. I had flown to Manchester, New Hampshire for a long weekend exploring a new state but I ended up getting sick and barely left my hotel room. i was disappointed that I didn't really get to see much of anything worthwhile and I was willing to write the whole trip off as a lost cause. I boarded my flight with Southwest Airlines back to Chicago and zoned out. As we started to descend into Chicago I did my usual - watch the world pass by. I don't fly in and out of Midway airport often but every time I have we've never passed over the city upon approach. Well, this time we did.
And *hand clap* it *hand clap* was *hand clap* glorious. Trip officially not wasted.
A quick trip to Los Angeles to visit with some friends for a weekend of food and fun. Since I needed to be in California I figured it would be a great opportunity to fly with Virgin America one last time before their likely disappearance due to the merger with Alaska Airlines. After take off from Chicago I plugged my headphones into my ears and spent most of the flight drifting in and out of sleep while listening to some of my favorite podcasts. After a few hours I decided to crack open the window and take a gander outside. Good thing I did - we were soaring over the Grand Canyon. It wasn't the first time I had seen this wonder from the air, but the blue tint of Virgin America's windows and the star-spangled tip on their wings really helped bring a sense of national pride to the photo. America the Beautiful.
The very first trip I took this year was a short five day visit to New Orleans for work. Business trips for me are rarely very entertaining as I'm often driving into some forgotten corner of the American Midwest with little to do and only Golden Corrals to dine within. Due to a unique project I'm working on though, suddenly Bourbon Street was in play.
My hotel was booked in the French Quarter but my work station was out in East New Orleans. Every day I would drive past the above mural painted on the side of what looked like an old abandoned building. On my last day in Louisiana I pulled off the highway on my way back to the hotel and did my best to navigate over to the piece of art. Indeed, it was located on the side of an abandoned movie theater with broken glass and overgrown grass all over. I parked my car along the side of the road and carefully walked out to the middle of the grass and snapped the picture above.
I later learned it was painted by artist Brandan Odum with a $5000 grant from hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. Based on Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", it's designed to encourage anti-violence and was placed in this area of town due to its statistically high rates of violent crime. A beautiful, modern take on a classic piece of art with a great purpose for the surrounding community.
This one happened during a trip to the Chicago Art Institute. My brother and his girlfriend invited me to tag along with them and her family when they went to see a special exhibition of Van Gogh's "Bedrooms". After taking in the various versions of that famous painting, everyone split off for a few hours to explore the massive complex on their own. I made my way through the exhibition on Chinese and Japanese pottery before I exited into an atrium with a giant curved stairwell and took a seat on a bench. While rested my feet I took in the architectural beauty of the sight before me. I kept thinking that the light coming through the windows was really exquisite at that time of day. Suddenly a man in a suit started to slowly ascend the steps. Without much thinking I pulled out my phone and snapped this photo and prayed it turned out like I thought it would. It did.
I love how the black and white contrast brings out the quiet serenity of the scene.
A quick visit to Denver for the Thanksgiving holiday with my family lead to my very first foray into Red Rocks. It was November which meant no events were taking place, so we simply parked our car and walked around for awhile. We found ourselves in front of the amphitheater as the sun's last beams eeked along the horizon, lighting up the city of Denver like a Christmas tree.
Leaving work one day I was surprised to see a row of gigantic lamps shooting beams of lights against the Union League Club building. I thought back to earlier in the day when an email was sent out about how there may be some disruption to building access do to filming for the upcoming season of FOX's "Empire". It all made sense.
The American flag fluttered softly in the wind and to the west along Jackson Street the sun was setting and its rays were funneled into brilliant intensity by the skyscrapers' steel frames. What a wonderful reminder that no matter where I go in the world, the place I call home is a beautiful place.
This year I was finally able to cross off a major travel goal from my bucket list - travel across the US on an Amtrak train. The service on Amtrak was hit and miss on a variety of fronts, but the one things that stayed consistent was how beautiful the landscape was out the window. I had booked a private sleeper suite on the California Zephyr service which travels from its first station just outside of San Francisco all the way through the western US to its terminus - my home city of Chicago. The various landscapes changed over time outside my window from coast line to farm land to mountain peaks to arid desert. I snapped a ton of beautiful photos but this one is probably my favorite - high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with snow covering the landscape and the late day's sunbeams zigzagging off the tranquil sheen of ice.
Tbilisi - Georgia
While I have a difficult time pronouncing Tbilisi, most Americans likely don't even know where it is. My trip to Georgia had many people scratching their heads and wondering why I was hopping planes halfway across the globe to visit a place many didn't even know existed. I have to admit that prior to arriving I was having similar thoughts. Had I made a mistake? Once I had climbed up to the top of Narikala Fort on the mountainside overlooking the expanse of Tbilisi and finally took in the view from St. Nicholas Church, I knew I had made the right choice.
After climbing up a steep hill and exploring Tbilisi's Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral, I sat myself down on one of the empty benches lining the park around the building to catch my breath. I looked back at the modern majesty of the cathedral, many parts of which are still under construction. A woman in a flowing dress with a headscarf wrapped around her hair came trotting down the staggered steps leading up to the church. The gentle incline of the stairs and the geometric framing of the straight lines from the steps helped create a sense of movement in the picture that really made me smile.
Tbilisi is a city of heavy inclines and mountainous slopes. I'm in much better shape now but at the time I found myself frequently taking breaks while exploring the sights of the city due to being out of breath and sadly, quite sweaty. Imagine my relief when halfway up the hill to the peak of the Narikala Fortress I saw this man posted up on the ledge of some ruins reading a book while also taking a bit of a break. He was much more fit than I was, though he was casually smoking a cigarette while reading his guidebook. With the Sameba Cathedral and half of the city of Tbilisi spread out on the mountainside behind him, I raised my camera to snap a picture. It didn't end up being very clear but I still love the casual vibes it gives off.
Kiev - Ukraine
Kiev was never very high on my list of potential travel destinations but when the opportunity to visit popped up I thought "why the hell not" and jumped at the opportunity. And I'm so glad I did - it turned out to be one of the most interesting, beautiful, and vibrant destinations I've experienced in years. One of the things I loved most about Kiev was that the city seemed to be filled with thousands of little old Ukrainian women in colorful scarves and flowing skirts slowly shuffling here and there. No matter where in the city I found myself, the grumpy grumble of an octogenarian was never very far. Take this woman for example. She slowly trudged down the steep steps inside the Pechersk Lavra on her way to worship. Despite the heavy incline she plodded down the hill, steadfast and resolute. A nice metaphor for Ukraine in general.