Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Twelve of 2012: People

Travel, for many, is about arrival at a place. Others enjoy the things they acquire at various stops. But when it comes to travel, I'm a people person. 

I've noticed that the focus of my most memorable travel stories revolves around a random conversation, a street performance or a chance encounter with a lovable local lunatic. Aside from tips on where to go, what to do and what to see, the people of the world, more often than not, offer perspective. And at its root, isn't that what travel is all about? Interacting with people places and things that we normally would not and in the process, exchanging ideas in a sort of international lifestyle best-practices roundtable. I'm not saying you have to debate the meaning of life with every Frenchman along the Seine, or even talk with the goofy street performer in Dublin. Interacting or observing both provide an opportunity for appreciation, if not agreement. I've found, especially over the past year, that it takes very little effort to enjoy the kindness of strangers abroad. I highly recommend it, for no other reason than the story. 

In 2012, from Chile to Chicago, Munich to the Magic Kingdom, I was astonished, embraced, intoxicated, amused, educated and inspired by locals and wanna-be locals like myself. I'd say it goes down as one of the best travel years I've had, when it comes to great stories and great people.

These are my favorite folks from 2012, in all their photogenic glory.  

Alex - Greatest man in Munich

This is Alex. Alex is the greatest man I have ever met. Anywhere. He was a blonde bear of a man, large and wide with a shaggy beard and shaggier hair pulled back underneath a traditional, wide-brimmed German hat. We were at Munich's world-famous Hofbrauhaus when he slammed his stein down onto our table and dropped himself onto the bench next to my wife. More than a few suds sloshed over onto his lederhosen and traditional Bavarian garb. But Alex didn’t care. In fact, I doubt Alex had a care in the world that night. We spent hour after hour sucking down steins and exchanging stories about our home, his home and everywhere in between. If this wasn't a memorable experience, I don't know what is. He also taught me a few traditional Bavarian drinking songs. Prost!

Dublin Street Dancer

A lot happens on the streets of Dublin, and most of it fueled by multiple pints of Guinness. Whether or not this rowdy gentleman was inspired just so, I'm not sure. But his dancing suggested either alcohol or just plain Irish exuberance. In the midst of a busy weekend afternoon, with the sun shining and crowds bustling, he jigged along to an inner tune, clanging miniature symbols attached to his hands and feet. He kept perfect time and garnered a sizable crowd around him. Perhaps it was because of his smile, which sharply contrasted the small group of Irish children a couple blocks over who were step-dancing with scowls on their faces. They clearly didn't want to be there, whereas this lively old gent embodied the festive spirit of Ireland that I had been experiencing since arriving in Dublin.

White House Choir

There isn't much that can make a Christmas time tour of the White House much better. The Voices of Renaissance, a children's choir from Boston, Massachusetts, did. I was lucky enough to get the chance to see inside America's most famous home at its most festive and fun, ducking in and out of historic and important rooms, past gingerbread White Houses and massive Christmas trees. But throughout, the cheerful sound of children singing filled the halls. Right inside the front portico this band of singers belted out holiday tunes for all the visitors. Them being from my hometown made it all the more special. 

Chess Champions

I don't understand chess but I love anything oversized. Therefore, oversized chess boards in the middle of Salzburg, Austria, in a courtyard surrounded by the city's soaring, gorgeous spires, was something I lingered around to enjoy. The gentleman in orange was playing an older gentleman dress in his Sunday best, a couple of Austrian pugilists doing battle in a checkered, concrete arena. I stopped and stood by to watch the match, along with a few dozen other passers-by. But when the horse-drawn carriages began trotting by in the background, the whole scene gained a strange nostalgic ambiance that I had to sit down for. The man in the orange won, his foe's great dismay. But they shook hands politely and began setting up for another round in the Austrian sun.

The People of Chicago

The Bean in Chicago's Millennium Park draws a good size crowd on most days. But the best thing to do is to try to not chuckle at all the twisted reflections corralled by the city's beautiful skyline. I snapped this photo of a guy lost in deep thought with the city bulging around him. The Bean is an incredible yet simple piece of modern art, in a very modern city. There is more to do here than you can fit into a weekend, although I recommend trying (and here's how it can be done). Bar-hopping in the Windy City will pose numerous opportunities to interact with Chicagoans young and old, nature and transplanted. Every one of them has a story and with enough beer they'll tell you. 

Mr. Patriotic Pants

There are a lot of strange people in Washington, D.C. And I'm not just talking about the suits on Capitol Hill. Summer brings out the best of America and the best Americans to visit America's center of government, as well as the multitude of monuments and memorials. On a visit to the Jefferson Memorial, I encountered this mobile shirtless wonder, who spent a good portion of the morning spinning back and forth on his rented bicycle, flashing a pair of the most patriotic pants I've ever seen. That rag hanging out of his pocket? A matching sleeveless shirt that he was not about to put back on. 

Street Musician Extraordinaire 

He was one of the most talented musicians I had ever heard. Sitting alone in front of his audience, his head bent in concentration over the cello. His fingers fluttered effortlessly in time with the bow and generated a haunting, complex melody. And he didn't even flinch when a black Mercedes zipped around him, horn blaring. You expect to find gifted musicians in Vienna, Austria, a city world-renowned for producing and nurturing many of history's greatest composers. You expect to attend a concert, hear the disciples of Mozart and Strauss practice their craft at the highest level. You do not expect to do so in the middle of a traffic circle. 

Chile's Changing of the Guard

Imagine standing up against the Buckingham Palace wall, staring across the yard from the inside out while hundreds of tourists enviously look through twenty foot gates for a glimpse at one of the world's most recognizable pomp and circumstance spectacles. Now move it to the Southern Hemisphere. A visit to La Moneda, Chile's Presidential Palace, requires prior booking but luck allowed for a last minute reservation and private tour of the facility. The tour ended just as Chile's version of the changing of the guard began and since the tour guide enjoyed our American enthusiasm, allowed us to stand right outside the door of the Palace, in the actual yard, to watch the event while all the other tourists leered from outside the gates. It was reminiscent of its British counterpart, with musical numbers, synchronized marches and intense patriotism. But the Chileans give you better seats. 

River Surfers

Did you know Germany had a thriving surfing subculture? And did you know it doesn't take place on beaches? I know, right? One of Munich, Germany's best attractions isn't in a palace or museum. The river - or more like a channel - running through the English Garden park ends with manmade rapids, which have been turned into a surfing hot spot by local thrill-seekers. Stop for a moment or a picnic lunch and watch them take turns leaping from the banks into the rapids, glide back and forth and tumble over into the surf. Your heart stops every time they jump and their courage is nothing short of inspiring. You'll be chatting about it for days afterwards over a few steins of brew.

Paparazzi Family Photos

There are no shortage of good photo ops in Disney World. But I just couldn't resist snapping a paparazzi-like shot of my cousin and his wife. It turned out to be one of my favorite pictures of 2012, and a perfect example of the great time we all had in the most magical place on Earth. You don't always have to strike up conversations with strangers or sneak a secret snapshot of someone not  looking. Sometimes the most interesting and fun people you encounter on vacation, happen to be the ones you arrived with and will see again. 

Paralympic Marathoners

The Paralympic marathon combines thrills, energy and downright inspirational courage. Unparalleled athleticism, strength of heart, will and mind all make this one of sport's premier events. I visited London in the final days of the Paralympics and felt the city still abuzz from its summer of Summer Games. Watching the men and women streak by in search of glory was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life, not even just the year. Every spectator along the rails cheered for every participant, regardless of flag. It was a truly international feeling with truly international camaraderie that I am proud to have been a part of. 

Long Lines

I can't say that I talked to these people and I can't say this was a fantastic moment. But it puts in perspective the popularity of ancient artifacts, as well as the draw of all things Irish for American tourists. This weekend happened to be the same weekend as the Notre Dame - Army American football game in Dublin. This meant hordes of American tourists flocking to Ireland and its respective tourist spots. This also represents my own procrastination, which resulted in me not seeing the Book of Kells. I wasn't waiting in this line (considering what you can't see is that it wrapped twice around the courtyard). Instead of standing on the cobblestones, we went to a nearby pub, grabbed a couple pints of Guinness and watched the Irish Football semi-final match between Dublin and Mayo with a rowdy bunch of locals. I think I like this photo so much because it reminds me that I made the right choice.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Monthly Column - Just Jump! Hiking Maryland's Catoctin Mtns

Check out my monthly travel column - this month, hiking in the Catoctin Mountains, northern Maryland! Great views from Chimney Rock and a fantastic day trip from a Baltimore or Washington vacation.

Click here to read the full story

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Twelve of 2012: Photos

With trips to Scotland, Ireland, London, Germany, Austria and Florida - yes, Florida - 2012 seemed to be a year of castles. There were ancient ones, crumbling ones and even one owned by a mouse. Not surprisingly, most of my favorite photos from the past year had something to do with these palatial residences. Even the pictures that aren't of actual castles, represent places or things that a king would probably like to have in or around his home: firearms, beverages, music, carnivals and a space shuttle. OK, so some things don't exactly fit the castle theme but if you were a rich monarch with unlimited resources, what kind of transportation would you want? 

Here are my top twelve travel photos of 2012, an homage to some of the most amazing, fantastical locales I've ever visited. Whether strolling through the medieval graveyard at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Scotland, listening to an up-and-comer at Tootsie's in Nashville or sipping a pint atop the Guinness factory in Dublin, 2012 afforded me a lifetime of memories, great stories and of course, amazing photos. 

Here's to a great 2012 and looking forward to seeing where the New Year takes me. 

Scottish Grave
St. Andrews Cathedral Graveyard, St. Andrews, Scotland

A Disney Christmas 
Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Civil War Canon
Antietam Battlefield, Maryland

A Tribute Bell
Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown, Massachusetts

The King's Summer Home
Hohenschwangau Castle, as seen from Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Carnival Time
Ferris wheel on Navy Pier, Chicago, IL

A Lucky Pint
A  couple pints of Guinness in Dublin, Ireland

Lights of Broadway
Music and bars on Broadway, Nashville, TN

Space Shuttle Discovery, Air & Space Museum Hangar, Virginia

Spring Thaw
Lake Konigsee, Berchtesgaden, Germany

I Spy an Irish Castle
Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara, Ireland

Shore Sunset
Sunset on the Eastern Shore, St. Michael's Maryland

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Disney World, Unwrapped

Orlando's Walt Disney World, at any time of year, is full of tourists toting point-n-shoots and SLRs, chasing screaming kids past princesses and plaster mountain ranges. The Happiest Place on Earth, however, isn't just for family photos. Real or not, Walt's vision has resulted in acre after acre of stunning scenery, soaring structures, characters, animals and animatronics, all worth their weight in pixie dust.

Christmas time brings it all to a new level. With the most famous landmarks draped in lights and the parks decked in much more than holly, Disney World is, and Alice would agree, a veritable camera's Wonderland.

Whether you encounter a family of galloping giraffes along the Animal Kingdom safari, experience the dancing Osbourne lights at Hollywood Studios or traverse the world at EPCOT, Mickey and friends will assuredly not disappoint when it comes to photo ops. And of course, the lights dripping from the famous castle will spark the imagination of any visitor, young or old.

Here are some of my favorite snapshots from Christmas time in Disney World. 

Icing on the Castle - Magic Kingdom

Better than a Slipper - Magic Kingdom

Carousel & Castle - Magic Kingdom

Toy Soldier - Magic Kingdom

Home of the Yeti - Animal Kingdom

Caution, not robots - Animal Kingdom

Black & White - Animal Kingdom

The Tree of Stars - Disney Hollywood Studios

Lights, Lights, Lights - Disney Hollywood Studios

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

MetroWest Daily News: On Hallowed Ground

The following text was published in the MetroWest Daily News on Sunday, November 25.

On Hallowed Ground: The Civil War Sesquicentennial in Maryland and West Virginia

By Michael Hartigan
Posted Nov 28, 2012 @ 02:12 PM

Historically speaking, New Englanders are spoiled. As the hub of the Revolutionary War’s most important events, we're able to tread the same cobblestones as the legends of American history.

Due as much to geographical convenience as it is to historical significance, most experience at an early age the people and places that birthed the nation. Teachers point out their classroom windows at nearby landmarks; students walk the Freedom Trail and are back to school by lunch; neighbors watch reenactments of the Battles at Lexington and Concord.

That war is more than 230 years gone, its results integrated long ago into daily life. To the victor go the stories. Paul Revere and John Hancock are historical heroes. Accounts, like the Boston Tea Party or the, "Shot heard 'round the world," teeter on the brink of folklore.

New Englanders, those from Massachusetts especially, accept and embrace their role as bearers of this epic history, in part because it is easy to do so; not many people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean take issue with the occurrences of 1776. Without diminishing the sacrifice of our founding fathers, visitors to popular sites like Paul Revere’s house in Boston or Minuteman National Historical Park in Lexington and Concord, Mass. float past exhibits and battlefields on a cloud of patriotic nostalgia.

But beyond the happy confines of Revolutionary New England, there are war-based tourist destinations that face a starkly different situation: where reconciling blood and steel for sympathetic visitors becomes less about a nation’s triumph and more about its tragedy.
Many tourist attractions across the globe, from battlefields to concentration camps to killing fields, open their nation’s deepest wounds to the prodding of outsiders. Closer to home, some of America’s most profound sites literally balance victory and defeat; hero and enemy; North and South.

Along the border of western Maryland and West Virginia, in a small corner of Appalachia, lies what is commonly referred to as the Heart of America’s Civil War Heritage Area. Part of the larger corridor known as Hallowed Ground, this region saw some of the bloodiest, most pivotal engagements of the 1860s.

A visit here, especially over the next few years as America commemorates the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial anniversary (1861–1865), tells the full story, unbiased even in the shadow of fraternal carnage, often giving visitors a visceral understanding of what it was like to fire upon your neighbor.

"While those lingering memories can sometimes tint the way in which events are commemorated, Maryland is in a unique position to portray the ‘brothers war’ nature of the conflict," said Mary Koik, spokesperson for the Civil War Trust.

The Hallowed Ground corridor stretches from Gettysburg, Penn. to Monticello, Va. Civil War buffs traverse the landscape like country music fans do Nashville, Tenn.

But situated just an hour drive from either Baltimore or Washington, D.C., are a multitude of powerful destinations that make accessible and worthwhile daytrips for anyone visiting the mid-Atlantic.

Driving west from the town of Frederick, Md., the Old National Pike (Route 40) marches through countryside pockmarked with an abundance of impressive historical attractions.
Less than 15 miles along Route 40 stands the original George Washington Monument, high atop a strategic bluff. This simple stone tower gave Union troops a panoramic view of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

A few miles away in Sharpsburg, Md., the grounds at Antietam National Battlefield are peaceful, with sprawling grass fields still organized by zig-zagging split-rail fences.
The canons dotting the landscape remind you this was not just farmland.

Antietam is so large the best way to see it is by driving the roads crisscrossing the park.
Personalizing the vast expanse are hundreds of metal signs detailing each moment of the brutal encounter. Engaging guides describe troop movements and how skirmishes were won and lost. The guide at the Bloody Road, a deadly sunken no-man’s land, will convince you there are bayonets bobbing up over the opposite embankment.

In contrast to New England’s Revolutionary War sites, where Redcoats bullied the ragtag militiamen, Antietam — the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War — is devoid of historical bias.

Both Confederate and Union soldiers are honored. The signs show no preferred side. The guides pass no judgment. Upside-down canons mark the spots where both Northern and Southern generals fell.

The tradition continues 30 minutes south of Antietam in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where guides dressed in era garb go about the daily business of the 1860s. This picturesque peninsula became famous for abolitionist John Brown’s raid.

Harpers Ferry does not shy away from its alternating allegiance, having been occupied at various times by both sides. Instead, the B&O Railroad still rumbles through the village, and the streets are lined with replica Civil War storefronts. The tangled and extraordinary history of this village remains its greatest asset, alongside spectacular scenery.

In mid-September both 
Harpers Ferry and Antietam commemorated the 150-year anniversary of their respective battles. 

Each location hosted speakers and reenactments. At the Memorial Illumination on Dec. 1, Antietam’s biggest event of the year, volunteers will light 23,000 luminaries — one for each casualty of the battle — along a 5-mile route.

There is ample opportunity to witness Civil War Sesquicentennial events. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg will be commemorated the week of Dec. 7. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address will also be remembered during 2013 with special events March through November.

"Particularly now during the sesquicentennial, much emphasis is being placed on remembering the more universal human experience and toll of the war," Koik said.

The Civil War story is a complex and difficult one. So is the retelling of it 150 years later. For a New England traveler accustomed to vilifying history’s foreign opposition, Americans fighting Americans is a new concept, but one well worth exploring on Hallowed Ground.

If you go

The Hallowed Ground Corridor:

Dec. 7-9: The 150th Anniversary of The Battle of Fredericksburg: ”Fire on the Rappahannock," Fredericksburg, Va. More than a week of events commemorating this pivotal battle in the Civil War. Some highlights include extensive immersion tours and a lecture by renowned Civil War historian and author Frank O'Reilly. Visit

Dec. 1: Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination: 23,000 candles - one for each soldier killed, wounded or missing at the Battle of Antietam - will bit lit on Saturday evening, Dec. 1 In the event of poor weather, the illumination will be rescheduled for Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012.

More Civil War Information and Events:

Michael Hartigan writes for the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Music for your eyes

Nashville is known for country music. Regardless of your opinion of pick up trucks, heartbreak and cold beer, one has to admit that the live music pumping out of every bar on Broadway is a rare treat for the ears. 

But Music City isn't just a one trick pony (no matter how many country songs sing about one trick ponies). The place does due diligence to tickling the other four senses. The weather is pleasant, the food is down-home delicious and the main street smells like BBQ smoke - seriously. Except when you walk by the candy store, then the smoked meat flavor  switches out for the bubbling praline aroma wafting out the door. 

And as all those wanna-be Vince Gills will tell you, you gotta look the part if you want to make it in this town. On that front, Nashville doesn't disappoint. From the buzzing lights on Broadway to Opryland's secret garden to a modern replica of an ancient behemoth, the sights of Nashville come in a close second to its famous sounds. 

Here are a few of my favorite solos from Music City. 

Lights on Broadway

The Best BBQ on Broadway

Grand Ole Opry

A Few Famous Frets

The Hall of Fame

Wall of Records

Elvis' Studio B

Opryland Hotel

The Opryland Garden

The Parthenon

Don't Ruin the Parthenon