mirror’s edge

Chicago is known in the world of architecture as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. The motivating force behind much of this vertical way of thinking was one of the most destructive events in the history of the United States as a whole – the Great Chicago Fire. In rebuilding itself from the cinders of the inferno, the city began reaching ever higher. Architects like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan dreamed up ever taller edifices, financed by railroad and steel money pouring into the reborn city’s affluent upper crust. Before long, the city was home to artificial canyons, the sunlight at ground level dictated by the heights of the soaring buildings lining the streets. By the time the 1990s came to an end, Chicago was host to not only the tallest building in the world (at the time, the Sears Tower), but an entire skyline full of towering monoliths of glass, steel, and concrete.

Click on any photo in this post to view it large on black.

My experience with rooftopping began in Toronto back in 2009, giving rise to my current habit of getting on the tops of buildings in pursuit of photographs. Late winter 2011 saw an opportunity to visit Chicago – fertile ground for seeking heights. With only a few days to spend in the Windy City, plans to this end needed to be made carefully. Tops on the list for this trip was a 40-odd story skyscraper conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This glittering strip of pavement is one of the most expensive streets in the world for real estate; a mere square foot of room on this high-rolling boulevard will cost you a cool $127/mo in rent. Let me put that into context: this absurd going rate means that a tiny 250ft² shoebox of an apartment would cost you more than $30000 every month. Well-heeled is a nice way of describing the residents of this street; however, despite all the massive piles of cash money all over Michigan Avenue, the best views here cannot be purchased; they must be attained.

I headed to the building in question (which I will refer to as the H) to see what the upper reaches of the stairwells held in store. It was late afternoon, the lobby packed with travelers and patrons for the establishment’s swanky first-floor bar. Thankfully, the herd of people made it easy to dodge the prying eyes of the concierge and head for the lifts. The ride up the elevator to the top floor (a base camp, so to speak) is one of the best parts of rooftopping – nothing but anticipation and butterflies in one’s stomach as the numbers tick upwards.

The door opened at my floor with an insistent *ding*, and out I went. The corridor seemed to be vacant, save for a housekeeper’s cart propping open a door on the far end. Unfortunately, this next part gets a bit fuzzy (funny how that works), but the next thing I can remember, the roof door was opening and I was face-to-face with Chicago’s Near North side. Paydirt.

The next day, I hopped an ‘L’ train and headed into the city to revisit the H after dark. However, the central Loop neighborhood was my first destination as the sun began to drop behind the artificial horizon of Chicago’s skyline. So named for the layout of the elevated railway encircling it, the Loop is the center of Chicago, and home to many of its tallest buildings. However, sometimes in the quest for ever greater heights, it’s easy to forget the shorter buildings that offer cityscapes that are just as appealing. Blue hour was fast approaching, so I made for some strategically located rooftops near the elevated.

After dark, I met up with Katherine of Chicago and headed for the H’s now neon infused rooftop. The mob that had been in the lobby the previous day was still present albeit in smaller size, allowing us to once again take the lifts all the way up. A few minutes later, out into the frigid night we went, the world suddenly shrinking as the door opened to the seemingly endless cityscape. This was a scene I was not prepared for; the jaw-dropping, brightly lit vistas on the skyscrapers to our north and south and the great, tangled blanket of streetlights in the neighborhoods and suburbs to the west.

While some fellow rooftoppers have used the fisheye lens to great effect, as of late I’ve been a fan of the multi-shot panorama. The idea here is to pivot the camera around on the tripod through a given arc, taking overlapping images all the way across. These images are then combined (after a lot of thinking by my computer) into a single image.

Bear in mind this image is actually much larger than this blog will hold, so I strongly recommend clicking on this one to view large.

Chicago is not a city known for its mild winters, and tonight, the arctic blast coming off of Lake Michigan was amplified threefold by the heights. After our fingers were good and numb, we descended back to the street below, the clueless concierge politely holding the doors open for us as we exited.

Michigan Avenue at ground level is something altogether different, our peaceful rooftop sanctuary replaced by honking taxis and hapless tourists stumbling all over the sidewalks. Ah, well…there’s always tomorrow night!

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prague after dark

How do you get to know a city? A tricky question.

A city is more than the sum of its numbers; population, crime rate, area, and so on. It is more than what merely lays on the surface, apparent in the light of day to the casual observer. The onset of night, in particular, brings a different character; a change simple and routine, yet profound. The shadows that crept across the narrow alleyways of Prague turned the city into a moon- and neon-lit playground, one echoing not only with the half-hourly bells from the Týn church but with a sense of movement and electricity, even during the hours of the night.

night trams

kino svetozor

Margaret and I headed for U Sudu, a legendary Prague watering hole. I’d been told that it’s a hidden bar built out of old beer caves, tunnels and the like. Sounds right up my alley. We headed out among the denizens of the night, the sounds of tram cars clinking down the tracks and voices bouncing off the buildings acting as our soundtrack as we ventured through the medieval streets. Gone were the swarming hordes in Wenceslas Square, the tourists from all over the world who now slumbered in in their hotel rooms. The city at night seems to belong more to its residents, coming out from behind desks and out of apartments to enjoy the Bohemian night.

bohemian nights

night falls

U Sudu was indeed a cave, a concealed bar made up of dozens of interconnected underground rooms, mostly made from rough-hewn brick arches that once may have been used to store beer and wine, sausages, maybe even secret prisoners during the Soviet régime. The dark chambers narrowed farther back, much like the medieval sewers farther beneath the city. We found our way into the last chamber for a well-earned pint, the smoke from cigarettes and spliffs wafting through the air, the patrons speaking in hushed tones as if it were the Czech version of a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy. Classy.

self-portrait, u sudu

Three A.M. came all too swiftly. After another ‘hidden’ bar: an art loft on the second floor of a nondescript office block, and yet another in the north of the city known for both its artwork (done completely in feverish twists of wire) as its drinks (ice cold shots of a local liquor called Becherovka), we found ourselves hopping off a night tram after crisscrossing the city. Before long, the sun would be rising over Žižkov hill to the east of the city, but we would be soon be sound asleep, exhausted after the hours of darkness.

paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)