Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Monthly Column - Windy City Whirlwind

Check out my latest monthly travel column from the Wicked Local newspapers. May's edition: From giant skyscrapers to giant ferris wheels to giant beans, how to bring the large-scale scenery of Chicago, IL down to size. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Guest Blog: Cheap Music in Vienna

Check out my Guest Blogger piece over on the great Where I've Been (and then sign up for their site!): http://blog.whereivebeen.com/2012/05/singing-in-streets-cheap-music-in.html

Great music and eats in Vienna, Austria!

You can also read the full text below from the Where I've Been blog

TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2012

Singing in the Streets: Cheap Music in Vienna, Austria

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. 

But Vienna's music culture is not allocated solely to expensive opera houses and ornate palace halls. Music and music's history are so much a part of Vienna, that standing room and street corners often offer easier and more authentic substitutes.

I stumbled upon the cello player one evening in Michaelerplatz, a round courtyard carved into a corner of the enormous Hofburg Palace. The setting itself juxtaposed the elaborate, baroque wing of the Hapsburg’s winter residence, deity-laded fountains and all, with the trappings of modern traffic patterns. A narrow road emerged from the bowels of the palace itself, shooting out from underneath an archway before skirting Michaelerplatz's circular perimeter and branching off into a series of quaint boulevards. 

In the center of this roundabout, across from some preserved ancient Roman ruins, a young man sat alone with his polished cello. He was dressed in a full tuxedo, his dark hair purposefully disheveled. He was accompanied by a small speaker at his feet and an open instrument case a few feet away. 

Michaelerplatz, a plaza at one end of the Hofburg Palace

We must have caught him between pieces because people were already gathered along the waist-high stone wall that dissects the plaza, forming a perfect audience pit.
I believe in joining any impromptu group gathered in a public place, especially when it involves a musician. The quantity and quality of a city’s street performers is a good indicator on whether or not the indoor entertainment is worth anything. At the very least, it’s fun for free. So I claimed an empty wall spot just before the cello strings began humming.

In an instant, Vienna lived up to its musical reputation. The man with the cello played effortlessly through three classical movements. His small speaker supported him with taped percussion and horn, but his strings were always the star.
He began with a slow-paced piece, drowned in emotion. He paused briefly for applause, tipped his head in recognition and launched immediately into a fast-paced staccato. He tipped the scales, leaning into each stroke with gumption. More than a few heads bobbed along, mine included. He wrangled in the energy level for the third piece and boomed out a vaguely familiar tune. It was then that a black Mercedes raced out from the archway, bathing the cello player in headlight. He embraced the unplanned spotlight by closing his eyes, craning back his neck and hitting the song’s climactic point. His bit of flare earned a collective, “ooh” from the onlookers. 

The Mercedes sped off, the cello player came to a rousing finish and twenty pedestrians erupted in applause. Without a word, he stood up from his stool, bowed, picked up his speaker and case and strolled away. In seconds, Michaelerplatz was empty.

I could not name any of the cellist’s pieces, nor did that matter. I had listened to beautiful music in the shadow of one of Europe’s most ornate buildings, played by a master artist drowned in a soft lamplight. The atmosphere rivaled any opera house.

Vienna's street performers are like no other
Which is not to say the Staatstoper, Vienna’s majestic opera house, should not be on everyone’s Austrian must-see list. There is a fair amount of chance associated with finding good street musicians. In Vienna, or Salzburg or Munich for that matter, the odds just happen to be greatly in your favor. 

But most visitors seeking that classic musical experience have no shortage of opportunity, either. As soon as you emerge from the subway in the city’s busy Stephensplatz, salesmen dressed in Renaissance garb bombard tourists and locals alike with talk of cheap opera tickets and dinner shows. They are unnecessary.

The only things you need to enjoy a night of fine music, are strong legs and an open mind, because the Staatstoper offers standing room tickets. It’s a trick located in many good guidebooks, but one well worth taking advantage of.
I am by no means an opera guy. But an hour and a half prior to show time, I lined up at the Staatsoper box office with a couple hundred other people, curious about what was waiting for me inside. Four Euro later, I was being shuffled by ushers to a waiting area outside the mezzanine. Forty-five minutes prior to curtain, we entered into the shimmering, golden hall. We claimed spots along one of the tiered railings set aside for the standing room customers (they say bring a scarf to tie on the rail to save your spot, but any scrap of cloth will do). The railings provide good leaning and even have small screens that scroll translations during the show. 

If there is a better view inside this gorgeous opera house, I didn’t see it. Center stage, elevated above the floor seats, this box should have been reserved for royalty. Instead, a hundred or so casually dressed deal-seekers stood gawking at the elaborate, lush décor. The rows of red boxes stacked encircled the hall like a lush, velvet-trimmed beehive, and buzzed with a similar excitement as they filled with opera enthusiasts. 
With the start of that night’s production, Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow for all you non-German speakers), an opera by Richard Strauss, I found myself ignoring the translation screen altogether and focusing on the powerful voices onstage. Mainly, I did so because the opera’s story made little sense to me; a strange Prince and the Pauper-esque tale of a barren woman who teleports and casts spells. But the composition was beautiful and unlike any other musical experience. So when I left after an hour and a half, during the first intermission, I felt completely satisfied with my four Euro investment. 
That evening ended the way any good Viennese night should end: sitting under an umbrella at an outdoor café, sipping a bright orange Aperol spritzer, noshing on a slice of cake and listening to urban chatter floating down pedestrian boulevards.

The Staatsoper, Vienna's ornate opera house
On the walk back to the hotel, I took the long way through Michaelerplatz, thinking maybe I could catch lightning in a bottle twice. I walked across the roundabout to where the cello player had sat the previous night. Tonight the stone plaza was empty. There was no audience lined along the half-wall.
But I had no reason for disappointment. For fewer than ten U.S. dollars, I attended the opera and listened to an immensely talented cellist, who by all rights could have charged admission. A win all around, even if the street musicians had taken the night off. 

Just as I turned to leave the plaza, a group emerged from a chapel on the other end of the roundabout. They formed a haphazard half-circle near a street lamp. And for the next thirty minutes, I leaned against the half-wall along a street in Vienna, and listened to an angelic choir.


Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer from Boston, Massachusetts. From San Francisco to Salzburg, he has explored and written about unique people, places and traditions. Michael's writing has been featured in the Arizona Republic, USA Today and in his monthly travel column published in a series of local Massachusetts newspapers, such as the Danvers Herald. He believes that you should go wherever it takes, but always come back with a good story. Follow his blog at www.whereverittakes.com and on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Friday, May 4, 2012

Signs, Signs Everywhere the Signs

No matter where we go, what languages we attempt or what cultures we infiltrate, us travelers must always rely on the kindness of strangers. Or at least their words of wisdom. More often than not, those sage suggestions come printed, painted or carved on an infinite array of canvases.

No doubt, if you've traveled you've depended on a sign or two to get you where you're going. Road signs, business signs, exit signs, bathroom signs - silent communication brings the world together.

Signs give direction; but guiding the lost means much more than rights and lefts. When humans post words on a wall (or a tree or a gate or anything), it immediately adds weighty significance to whatever comedy or tragedy they're enacting. Whether hilarious or hear-wrenching, urgent or introspective, a good sign can provide a travel memory as unforgettable as any statue or museum.

What better way to make sure the world remembers your legacy than by carving it into a tree on top of a mountain? If you went through those lengths to tell us, it must be important. I should probably pay attention. I could learn something, get a good laugh or at the very least, find the way to where I'm going.

Here are some of my favorite signs I've encountered around the world.

Location: Outside Denver, Colorado at Buffalo Bill's grave site and souvenir shop, atop the Rocky Mountain foothills.
I tried to put this ad out in a newspaper and I did not get the response I was hoping for. As soon as you walk through the door of the restaurant/souvenir shop (which sells fantastic bison meat hot dogs), you feast your eyes on this old-time want ad, straight out of a Western saloon. Why is this my favorite? Because if this describes a "good woman," what makes a "great woman"?

Location: Lover's Leap, The Black Hills in South Dakota
One of the most beautiful viewpoints in America, this sign is tacked on a tree near the precipice of Lover's Leap. From this vantage point, after a short hike through the Black Hills, the entire wooded region of South Dakota's southwest corner sprawls out before you. I printed out this photo and hung it in my office because if these aren't words to live by, I don't know what are. 

 Location: Black Friars Pub, London, UK
London's world famous pubs serve some of the best cask-pumped ale in the world. Creamy and stout, these libations are only half of the Black Friar's charm. A warm, old atmosphere mingles with a rowdy clientele to make a classic British pub. And in the back room, up against a mirror wall is a sign that I wholeheartedly agree with. England is home to some of history's most talented, creative and crafty wordsmiths. But I doubt any of them could say it better than this.

Location: The Jungfrau (Top of Europe), Switzerland
The Swiss clearly are confident you'll obey their signs, because the thin rope preventing you from mimicking the poor soul within the red triangle certainly isn't providing much extra protection. Two steps past this sign and you become a permanent part of the glacier that sprawls far into the distance. Everywhere you look is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen up atop the Jungfrau. Just also be careful to look where you're walking.

Location: Lake Konigsee, Berchtesgaden, Germany
This sign doesn't have as much to do with it's location as it does for what it stands for: beer garden. Anywhere in Bavaria, or anywhere in Germany, Austria or Illinois for all I care, a sign that says "Beer Garden" is a sign you must obey. This particular beer garden skirts the edge of Lake Konigsee, Germany, the most pristine lake in Europe, nestled under soaring alpine mountains in a whimsical Bavarian setting. But of course, this sign means beer - good beer. See the sign, follow the sign.

Location: Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy
It may not seem while you're doing it, but after scaling 382 stone steps in the blazing sun a little congratulations is a nice gesture. You may want to swear at this sign while your calf muscles scream, but once atop this seaside village outcrop, the breathtaking views will calm all anger and salve any pain. Everywhere in the Cinque Terre in jaw-droppingly gorgeous. But it's always nice to have the locals recognize you've done at least some work to enjoy their treasures.

Location: The Badlands, South Dakota 
Being from New England, we don't typically run into many rattlesnakes. Which is why a giant, bold sign that screams, "BEWARE RATTLESNAKES!" sort of catches you off guard. I must say, it worked, because during my entire hike through the moonscape Badlands, I threw rocks at every stick I saw on the ground. Didn't see any diamondbacks, but nevertheless hiking in this corner of America was an invigorating experience.

Location: The Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Turquoise Trail, the scenic route between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a haven for artists and ghost towns alike. And apparently, some jokers. In one of the artsy villages, rows and rows of intricate, colorful mailboxes lined the street sides. But one person decided to go the opposite route, and decorate the other side of his mailbox.

Location: Top of Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
Similar to the Jungfrau, I enjoy this warning atop Nevada Falls in Yosemite because that knee-high railing really isn't doing much to prevent some fool from stumbling into the whitewater and being shot out over Yosemite Valley. That bridge in the distance is over the falls, so disobeying this sign is the last middle finger to authority you'll ever flip, right before you flip into oblivion. The panorama from up here is incredible, though.

  Location: Dachau Concentration Camp, Dachau, Germany
 "Work makes you free" was what prisoners in this notorious Nazi concentration camp saw as the literal gateway to the outside world. Even today, this powerful symbol of blind intolerance stops visitors in their tracks. For more on Dachau, read here http://www.whereverittakestravel.blogspot.com/2012/03/poplars-3101.html

 Location: Docks at Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California
Infamous Alcatraz was known for many things, mostly its slew of famous prisoners and haunting urban legends. But the welcome sign on the docks remains one of the creepiest moments of a trip to the island. It comes into view when you first step off the boat and reminds you that, although it is now, this was not meant to be a tourist stop by any means. The graffiti scrawled around it is a staunch reminder of the later use of the island, when Native Americans gathered here in protest, making it a commune of sorts for freedom fighters. It's a significant piece of Americana, in a place that still mystifies many Americans.