Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at a building in Chicago and wondered about its history or wished I could see inside. Fortunately, one weekend each year, the Chicago Architecture Foundation makes that possible during Open House Chicago, a citywide architectural festival that offers free, behind-the-scenes access to more than 150 buildings around the city.

With so many intriguing buildings on display, choosing which one to visit was the most difficult part. I was tempted by famous downtown skyscrapers like the Tribune Tower, properties such as the Frank Lloyd Wright mansion, and a handful of historic theaters. But in the end, I opted for a more obscure building in the Bridgeport/Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side.

As I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Back of the Yards is more than a name to me. The neighborhood was named for the infamous Union Stock Yards, which in my youth was the largest livestock processing and distribution facility in the world. As a teenager, my father worked at the Stock Yards as an apprentice electrician. By the time I came along, the meat packing industry was winding down, but it was still active enough that the sickly smell of raw meat reached my nostrils on days when the wind blew just right.

Organic vegetables in the garden supply local restaurants

Organic vegetables in the garden supply local restaurants

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On occasion, I write about travel related products that I use, but there’s another whole side of my life that I rarely talk about – the equipment needed to publish this blog. As most of my readers will know, photography is a big part of what I do, and the possibility of losing photos from a trip causes me to lose sleep. At the end of each day, I transfer my photos from the camera’s SD card to my laptop, but that’s only a temporary fix. The storage capacity of my laptop is much too small to hold all my work, so I always travel with an external hard drive, where I keep a backup copy of the more than 100,000+ photos I’ve taken.

The WD My Passport Wireless external hard drive offers a sleek silhouette and compact size, with built-in SD Card slot

The WD My Passport Wireless external hard drive offers a sleek silhouette and compact size, with built-in SD Card slot

Recently, I was contacted by a representative from WD, who offered me the opportunity to test their new WD My Passport Wireless drive. I’ve been using My Passport drives for a number of years and they have always performed perfectly, however this new wireless drive has an SD card slot, so I would be able to eliminate backing up to the laptop entirely. And with its wireless capacity, I would also be able to upload photos from my iPhone to the drive on the fly. I eagerly accepted their offer to try it out. Read More

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During my Viking River Waterway of the Tsars cruise down the Volga-Baltic Waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, I captured these panoramic photos of Russia, showing four of the most iconic views in the country. They are not my usual quality, since I shot them with my iPhone, but they do capture a great view of the sweeping public spaces that seemed so prevalent in Russia’s two most important cities. Click on each of the thumbnails to see a larger view:

Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

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On any other day, I would have passed by the spartan, crumbling building without a glance. On this day, however, Viking River Cruises had invited me to visit a Kommunalka, a communal living arrangement that is still practiced by a large percentage of residents in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Typical Kommunalka apartment building in the city center, St. Petersburg, Russia

Typical Kommunalka apartment building in the city center, St. Petersburg, Russia

Across the interior courtyard, a heavy metal door opened onto a gloomy corridor where we groped our way up granite steps chipped and worn from decades of use. At the top, a long, mustard-colored hallway was crammed with makeshift storage cupboards, footlockers, and discarded furniture. We walked single file to the end, which opened onto an L-shaped kitchen and two bathrooms that are shared by residents of the eight apartments on the second floor. Read More

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“You’re going to Saint Petersburg? It’s such a beautiful city.”

Everyone I knew who had visited Russia’s second largest city shared this sentiment, and after a few days of wandering the manicured avenues and placid canals, I agreed. Seeking a port and access to European trade, Tsar Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 on a low-lying piece of land at the confluence of the River Neva and the Gulf of Finland. Drawing on city-building techniques he learned during travels in the Netherlands and England, he drained the swamplands by digging a series of concentric canals and raising the elevation of the land on what would eventually become the historic enter of the city. Today, the 18th and 19th century Baroque and neoclassical buildings that line the banks of the canals have earned the city both the nickname “Venice of the North” and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of many lovely canals in the historic city center of Saint Petersburg

One of many lovely canals in the historic city center of Saint Petersburg

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Freezing rain splashed off the massive stone walls of Belozersky Monastery, pelted my face, and trickled down my neck. I pulled my hood closer and surveyed the leaden surroundings. On my left, the monastery loomed dense and gray, threatening to tip the earth. Ahead of me lay a gray corpse of a lake. The only relief from the monotonous landscape was a stand of birch trees to my right, rising white and stately from a luxurious patch of grass.

“Beautiful, are they not?” remarked my tour guide. “Every spring and summer, we tap the trees for their sap, which is used to make a drink that has curative properties. Some of the sap is even frozen, so we have a supply throughout the winter.”

Stately stand of birch aside Belozersky Monastery, near Kirillov, Russia

Stately stand of birch aside Belozersky Monastery, near Kirillov, Russia

I had seen dense stands of white Birch trees earlier on my voyage down the Volga-Baltic waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. At one point I braved teeth-chattering temperatures to capture photos of flame tipped birches in the setting autumn sun. But as I would discover, to Russians, birches are more than just a pretty picture. Read More

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