Friday, March 30, 2012

The Majesty of Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral

I am by no means a professional photographer. I like to take pictures, mess with them on Photoshop and look at them from time to time. But I have to imagine that for professional photographers, there are certain locations around the world that offer an unlimited supply of perfect picture subjects. 

If I by some freak act of aperture a professional photographer asked my opinion on the matter,  my vote would have to go to St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. As one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, St. Stephen's is photographed thousands of times a day. But as I stared out over its scaled, multi-colored roof, strolled in awe underneath the massive pipe-organ or studied the intricate external carvings, I realized there must be thousands of possibilities for a good shot. 

Immediately upon exiting the train station at Stephansplatz, the cathedral dominates the Austrian sky. The immense gothic structure acts as a hub of sorts for Vienna's main thoroughfare. To the right and left, the pedestrian-friendly road leads to high-end shopping, outdoor cafes serving slices of Vienna's famed pastries, and more of the city's landmark sites. But it's hard not to stop and strain your neck up for a full glimpse of the huge door and ornate towers at its front entrance. I walked into two people as I circumnavigated the cathedral's perimeter, simply because I was looking up.

Gargoyles and elaborate gothic detailing covers the outside walls and spires, giving St. Stephen's an eerie beauty. It is a beauty that you may find nostalgically familiar, reminiscent of historic movies and images. Until you step back a few steps and see the roof. Like dragon scales, the tiles shimmer in bright greens and yellows and reds. The mosaic forms the traditional Hapsburg double-eagle, along with the coats of arms for the city and country. This location was home to two previous churches, but what you see today was rebuilt and restored after a World War II fire.

Inside, the sunlight fractures through ceiling-high stained glass. After you awe at the massive pipe-organ above the entrance, the full beauty of St. Stephen's interior unveils up and down the center aisle. An ornately decorated pulpit stands close to one end and pews weave up through a series of grand pillars. An ironwork gate would be a piece of art in itself, but amongst the beautiful glasswork, intricate gothic stylings and checkerboard floor, it seems almost dull. 

And even after all the exterior and interior finds, St. Stephen's has one more to offer. Ascend to the roof for an up-close look at the roof and a panoramic view of Vienna. It's a good first stop on a trip to this city. From up high, you can see most of the other landmark's you'll want to visit, like the amusement park across the river and it's famous, old-time ferris wheel. 

But while you're up there, try not to get caught up taking too many photos. There are plenty more opportunities for great shots around Vienna. Most of them located just a short ride back down into St. Stephen's Cathedral. 

(Below are some of my favorite photos from St. Stephen's Cathedral, taken in March, 2012)

Pigeon & Gargoyle

Ornate Tiled Roof

St. Stephen's Interior

Intricate Iron Gate In Front of Stained Glass (black & white)

St. Stephen's Gothic Exterior

Stained Glass to the Ceiling

St. Stephen's Roof and Spire

St. Stephen's Front at Night (black & white)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where To Go - Palaces in Bavaria/Austria

Neuschwanstein Castle - Bavaria, Germany
Home of Mad King Ludwig for a total of 172 days, he spent more time focusing on the building of his beloved fairy-tale castle than he did performing his kingly duties. It took 17 years to build Neuschwanstein, with major influence coming from composer Richard Wagner's operas and other artists and writers of the time. No wonder Walt Disney used it for inspiration. For the best view, hike up to Mary's Bridge from the shuttle stop and peer down over the valley. Unfortunately, right now (2012) the main, tallest tower is in scaffolding, but the castle is no less gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

Hohenschwangau Castle - Bavaria, Germany
Built in the 12th century, this was the childhood home of King Ludwig. He watched from its window as his dream castle, Neuschwanstein, was built next door. But this yellow masterpiece, once used as a hunting lodge, is a relatively more realistic look at the Wittelsbach royal life. Relative in comparison to the looming fantasy castle on the neighboring outcrop. You get a few great views of Hohenschwangau on the hike from Neuschwanstein.

Schönbrunn Palace - Vienna, Austria
Those crazy Hapsburgs just had to outdo everyone else in Europe. Palaces in Vienna, on the outskirts of Vienna, in the countryside, in the suburbs. You can't throw a schnitzel in Vienna without hitting a haughty Hapsburg homestead. Which is why the immensity and beauty of this elaborate villa makes it that much more impressive. Stroll its corridors, but be sure to spend time strolling the gardens. And if there off-season, don't pay for the zoo. Just walk along the pathway running behind the menagerie, and be sure to look down through the fence for a glimpse of a rhino, some otters, a few herds of hoofed creatures and a giant raptor bird. It's a truly breathtaking plot of land, made even more so by the awesome structure at the hub.

Munich Residences - Munich, Germany
Bavaria's Wittelsbach royalty lived in this lavish and large city residence. Much of it was destroyed in WWII but rebuilt faithful to the original. The Antiquarium is an ornate arched hall, lined with busts of emperors and historical leaders. If you're lucky, you'll catch a string quarter warming up in the Chapel before their evening show (there is music in the Residence many nights).

And don't miss the relic room, filled with cherished bits, scraps and splinters of religious symbols and important artifacts. Complete with the supposed skulls of John the Baptist and his mother, lovingly preserved and presented adorned with jewels.

Hohensalzburg Fortress - Salzburg, Austria
Built above the Salzach River by a Catholic Archbishop, the fortress was so intimidating that it was never invaded in 1,000 years. The old, dark wood room at the top is lush but inviting. They hold concerts in this room, open to the public, almost nightly. If you take the funicular up, be sure to hike back down the long way, towards the Salzburg Modern Art Museum. From the Modern, you get some spectacular views of the Fortress and the city over which it stands sentinel. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Salzburg Side Trippin'

From any angle, the Austrian city of Salzburg offers breathtaking views. Looking down from high up on the Hohensalzburg fortress, tiled house peaks cower beneath a seemingly endless array of mammoth church spires, while the Salzach (river) skirts around the Old Town like Julie Andrews in a meadow.

Standing at riverside, the Hohensalzburg hilltop battlement looms over the spires like an armed shepherd over his flock. Flanked by steep cliff faces and an outlook plateau, the gleaming white, sprawling military castle is imposing even in the 21st century. Even the pedestrian-friendly Old Town streets are picturesque; each shop – from Tommy Hilfiger to McDonalds – has an iron sign hanging above the door, decorated with the symbol of their wares, a tradition that goes back centuries. With Easter approaching, many of the shops are strung with beautifully decorated eggs.

Climbing along the ridge between the stronghold and the Modern Art museum, you can wrap behind the Honesalzburg for a backside view and a stroll past old watchtowers and ramparts. At the Modern Art museum the entire city, from river to steeple to fortress, opens up in a sparkling panorama, complete with a white-capped mountain backdrop.

The city unfolds like a perfectly constructed opus, pristine beauty at riverside, across the rising, elegant churchtops to the powerful climactic hilltop fortress and the majesty of the surrounding alpine range. If you listen you can probably hear some of the music that made this corner of Austria so popular; although it may just be Sound of Music songs cycling through your head (but if you’re luckier, it’s a music student pounding out a Mozart classic in a nearby open window).

Salzburg’s views are outstanding, but the best perspective might require a trip outside the city walls.

A short bus ride (#840 from Mirabelleplatz, Mozartplatz or the train station) takes you out of Austria completely, right across the border into Germany and the mountain town of Bercthesgaden.

The town offers little more in the way of sightseeing than its Nazi-era train station, built large and imposing for Hitler to utilize during his retreats to the region. But from the train station / bus terminal, the options are many.

One bus will bring you to the Saltzburg salt mines and an underground tour of the product that put that eponymous city on the map. Another sweeps you up into the mountains to the Documentation Center, a museum housing World War II and Nazi exhibits. This former Nazi stronghold was bombed into oblivion by British forces but reconstructed over the spiderweb of underground bunkers. From the Center, in-season, you can head up above to the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain retreat that looks down over Bavaria like a megalomaniac on a rocky throne. The building has since become a restaurant. 

But the most peaceful of the Berchtesgaden choices is the quick 10-minute bus to Konigsee (King’s Lake). A tiny lakeside village, Konigsee is pristine by nature and on purpose – the only watercraft allowed on the lake are the electric motor shuttle boats that loop the water in silence. They bring tourists and hikers out to the famed St. Bartolomae, a red onion domed chapel tucked into a glacial groove halfway out on the lake. Its setting is fairytale to the core. Even the boat ride to St. Bartolomae comes complete with whimsy: the captain stops midway, cuts the engine and pulls out a trumpet. Standing at the edge of the vessel, he rattles off a Bavarian tune, pausing in between lines to hear the crystal clear echo bouncing off of the surrounding sheer cliff faces.

From one end of the lake, the mirror-like water stretches out and then disappears behind beautiful outcrops. On the water, you see St. Bartolomae’s red dome’s contrast in front of soaring white mountains. Standing at the chapel and its nearby fishing hut, you scan back over the lake, the only disturbance the infrequent ripple from a fish. In the distance, the Eagle’s Nest can be seen propped high on its perch amidst ivory peaks. Natural and man-made beauty in every direction.

Konigsee offers a peaceful afternoon for those seeking to complete their Salzburg experience. It borders on more Bavarian, but its charm is similar to Salzburg. The Bavarian mentality pervades both places – relaxed, hospitable and jolly. It’s a perspective that is easy to indulge in. And no matter where you end up, it seems you’re always in line for a great view.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Poplars - 3/10/12

There is a photograph - blown-up, black and white and grainy - in the middle of Dachau Concentration Camp. This particular picture weighs almost nothing compared to the thousands of others lining the memorial site’s museum; other photos of slavery, brutality and evil that bear heavy on the soul.

But if you look closely at this particular photo, you will notice something that resists the gravity of Dachau: life.

At one side of the camp’s main yard, two reconstructed barracks remind you there used to be 30 more rows erected behind them. Instead, their rectangular foundations run in an ordered, militaristic line down both sides of the camp’s main road.

This particular photo stands a few steps behind the existing barracks, on the left side, somewhere near the start of the road. The photo shows the road and the barracks as they once were when Dachau was in operation. Prisoners stand outside in the dirt, gaunt and stripped of clothing and dignity.

But standing between each barrack building and the road, is a tree. Dozens of small poplar trees, bigger than saplings but still young. There is one planted for each row of barracks, lining the main road from start to finish.

The photo itself would mean very little, if not for the view you get when you lift your eyes from past to present.

The barracks are gone. The poplars have grown.

They soar above the camp, tendril branches jutting up in a conic swoop, converging high in the sky above. They are stark and bare, a reflection of the season and the setting, and the bark is gray-black like ash.

There they stand. Living things lining a road that led to so much death.

The solemnity of a visit to Dachau may not strike the average tourist as a fun way to spend your afternoon in southern Germany. There are, of course, so many beer halls and Bavarian castles awaiting your arrival with open arms and empty steins. But the thoughtful traveler will go and be struck by the power in a few photographs, or a small concrete room, or a twisting rusty barb-wire gate, or a long row of poplar trees.

There is meaning here and no one person can tell another how or where to find it. The gate through which you enter reminds you, “work will make you free" and the inscribed stone above a tomb of unknown prisoner ashes says, “Never Again.” Cause and effect personified. But some things pluck different strings on every heart. A young Italian woman in a tour group could not stand to look into the cremation ovens.

Inside the museum an American visitor read a page of anti-foreigner Nazi propaganda and said out loud, “this doesn’t sound too different than some of the things those crazy conservatives say about Mexicans.” I tried to put all political affiliations aside; she may be right about similar rhetoric, perhaps not about intention and we can only pray not the implementation. But nevertheless, the sight struck this woman deeply, caused her to apply the lessons of the past to the world in which she lives.

And that is why I stood riveted amidst towering poplars. It was the connection to the past; application to the present. For some reason I thought about the current struggles in Syria (in large part because international television actually reports on worldwide events, unlike American news which spends 23 of its 24 hour cycle rehashing why donkeys and elephants can’t get along). How many cedar trees in that country have witnessed such horrors?

I’m not going to make any lofty connections or place a haughty meaning on something that I, as a young American, could never truly understand.

All I know is that the Dachau poplars are there. And if you look at the photo, then look at the line of trees in front of you, something in your stomach will drop. The Dachau poplars, literally rooted in not-so-distant history, left my eyes a little more open.

Lights over the Atlantic - 3/9/12

When a stranger on a plane turns around suddenly and says in an elevated voice, “open the window,” you comply, expecting to see one of three things: flames, a gremlin or the rapidly approaching ground.
So it came as somewhat of a relief that I saw nothing that resembled my impending death. What I did see, however, was as unexpected as if a small green gremlin had been chomping on the wing.  

It looked as if a painter had swathed a green-purple ribbon across a pitch black canvas. But he wasn’t done; was continuously changed the colors, an invisible artist’s hand creating a piece of living, moving art in the midnight sky over the Atlantic.

The full-blown Aurora Borealis was literally moving in parallel with our 747. Greens, aquas, jades, violets and purples rippled in waves outside the window, like some eerie serpentine apparition.

The ribbon of light shimmered and pulsed and brought back memories of my childhood when I first saw the Northern Lights - from the ground in New Hampshire. Back then it was one of those rare mountain-vacation novelties. Mom woke us up in the middle of the night, took us out front of the condo to stare up at a beautiful, hazy glow above the pine trees. I was a child standing underneath the canvas, the paint dripping down toward earth.

The perspective changes dramatically when you yourself are on the canvas.

“The solar flare is causing Aurora Borealis,” the plane stranger said, his chin resting on the headrest in front of me. “They’ve been talking about how maybe this would happen.”

I don’t know which “they” he was referring to. Scientists, maybe. Perhaps a group of his friends. Probably just the generic, universal “they” we all use when we want to sound informed and intelligent.

I nodded him away and turned back to the window, pressing my face against the thick plastic. The cold from space permeated through to my skin as I watched the ghostly dragon suddenly deviate from our flight plan.

It trailed off; our plane outdistancing the green-lit stream. In moments it dissolved into the ether.

From the ground, it was just another celestial aberration explained away by the science story du jour. But midway over the Atlantic it was a singular look inside a cosmic artist’s studio; a masterpiece at work, then immediately lost to the world forever.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

WiTList - Travel Themed Books (Fiction)

SSomewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I read the last few lines of J.R.R Tolkien's Return of the King, wrapping up the author's masterpiece Lord of the Rings trilogy. I shoved the fat paperback down into my backpack and reflected on the protagonist's harrowing adventure, a journey across swamps, over mountains and through forests. Before I fell asleep, I remember my mind drifting through recent memories of my own trek across the Mediterranean, over waves and through the ancient ruins of my ancestors.

That was twelve years ago, mid-flight on the return trip home to Boston after my first international trip. Tolkien was a high school assignment read, but no less engaging and thought-provoking. More than a decade later, the books come in sleek, light-as-a-feather e-reader form and school is no longer telling me what to read. But the adventure novel, from classic to contemporary, still calls to me. I'm not talking about the hackneyed, bubblegum Live, Love, Pray, Fart books that have saturated pop-culture. This is literature - insightful, creative and inspiring.

The travel theme runs throughout literature, as a the driving plot point, a flowery setting description or a bit of character development. Whatever its use, the journey clearly outweighs the destination. And as a writer, nothing chews up the in-flight hours like discovery and exploration on the pages of a good book.

My picks:

10. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Better than Apocalypse Now. I never thought I'd ever write that because there really aren't a lot of things in this world that are better than that movie. But Conrad's original prose intertwines a sense of adventure with the shadowy reaches of human nature. Brando was great and all, but Conrad's Kurtz is one crazy king. The layers of symbolism, from the dark jungle to the dark British treatment of African tribes, make this novella on of the best examples of how travel writing isn't all souvenirs and sunny beaches. 

9. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
In making this list I realized that a lot of my favorite travel-themed books came from my childhood. Is there a better tale of adventure and overcoming obstacles than that of two dogs and a cat, trekking home and fighting porcupines? I think not. Shadow made me want to train dogs. I never did. But still, I wanted to. 

8. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Every list about travel books is required to have this on it. Forget the fact that the places Good Ole Gulliver visits don't actually exist. OK, maybe they do, maybe they're just representations of various nations and societies that Swift so intelligently skewered in this satiric masterpiece. But in reality, you and I aren't going to hop a plane to an island of horse people or tiny warriors. Nevertheless, Swift's spot-on satire expresses the human flaw of never being satisfied. But for an adventure-seeker, that trait must have left Gulliver with some great vacation pictures. 

7. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I very easily could have chosen White Fang for this spot. This image cover was just cooler. Either way,  every kid I grew up with loved London, wanted a wolf for a pet and thought he could rough it in the Great White North with a backpack and some sticks. Like Incredible Journey, this book proves adventure is not just for bipeds and a skilled writer can articulate the lure of a place through the eyes of any warm-blooded creature. While mostly considered a children's book, Buck the dog encounters some pretty hairy adult situations, making The Call of the Wild a formidable piece of literature, and a damn good read. 

6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It's hard to pick one Hemingway piece, since the man practically defined literature in the 20th century. All at once a travel writer, novelist, essayist and adventurer, Hemingway paved the way for other writers seeking to convey freedom through travel. The Old Man and the Sea is a prime example of Hemingway's ability to build complexity through simplicity. The protagonist goes fishing, catches a huge fish only to have it picked apart on the way back to port. Find whatever symbolism you want, or just enjoy the ride.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sticking with the classics, Twain's epic novel of a young boy's trip down the Mississippi conjures feelings of youthful exuberance and blissful ignorance. Huck's sense of adventure and willingness to explore the world he knows and doesn't know, could inspire anyone. Twain's masterful prose doesn't hurt, either.

4. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

One of the most enigmatic writers of American writers, Kerouac based this book on his own road trips that he randomly took with friends. Drugs, alcohol, music, scandal - pretty much the cornerstones of the great American road trip. For the Beat Generation, anyway. I don't recommend following Kerouac's itinerary to the letter, but by all means indulge the free spirit.

3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The pinnacle of the fantasy epic, Tolkien's defining work spawned three blockbuster movies and the brief acting rebirth of the kid that played Rudy. Movies aside, Lord of the Rings at its core is a story about a journey, undertaken by a reluctant traveler at the behest of a weary traveler. Strip away the orcs, wizards and floating eyes encircled by fire, and you've got a genuine buddy tale that carries across swamps, over mountains, into forests and through castles. Frodo's trip to Mordor motivates wanderers and walkabouts to this day. 

2. The Odyssey by Homer

I've sailed in the Mediterranean and did not come across harpies, giant teeth-filled whirlpools or an island of cyclops. Nevertheless, Homer's epic has always been one of my favorites. After being forced to read it in high school, it was the main reason I joined up for a school trip to Greece and Italy. Odysseus' adventures, as gruesome as they may have been, inspired me to see the world. I'll always have a soft spot for the Great Tactician.

1. Ernest Hemingway's Short Stories

The only person that warrants more than one mention on this list is also the most misunderstood. Hemingway, probably better known for his longer form books, was in my opinion a much more skilled short story writer. These two are just examples of the myriad short stories Hemingway wrote that deeply describe a location, tell a heart-wrenching tale and pose world questions all within limited space. That takes skill; a skill not many others have ever had. The man deserves the number one spot and I dare anyone, man or beast, to question that. 

Your picks:

- Sarah from @Shemkus says: E.M. Forster's A Room With A View

- Jen from @myownaudience says: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers