Monday, January 28, 2013

Finding Paradise in Napa from Destinations Travel Mag

Finding Paradise in Napa Valley
by Michael Hartigan
February issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Check out my article in the February, 2013 issue of Destinations Travel Magazine!

Majesty of Vienna - Monthly Column

Wherever It Takes: Majesty of Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral

By Michael Hartigan
Jan 28, 2013 

Any tourist with a Hawaiian shirt and point-and-shoot knows that photography, at any skill level, goes hand-in-hand with travel. For me, traveling is a chance to tell a story, and taking pictures adds to that opportunity in a vivid, visceral and inherently memorable way, whether I’m across the Atlantic or just up at the lake.

I am by no means a professional photographer, but with a little luck and a few minutes on Photoshop, I’ve captured some moments that look professional enough to adorn my walls, my desktop or my Facebook page. I’ve snapped stills of mountains and monuments, statues and street performers, during the day and at night, in clear weather, cloudy skies and during those magical golden hours when the sun hits just right. Besides writing about travel, photographing it — no matter where or when — is the next best souvenir.

I have to imagine that for professional photographers, there are certain specific locations around the world that offer an unlimited supply of picture-perfect subjects. The Eiffel Tower, perhaps, or the snowcapped Alps, or the neon lights of Vegas — the pros must have their favorites. All those experts must have that one spot on earth that evokes all the history and emotion of a live visit, simply by seeing it in a photo album.

If by some freak act of aperture a professional photographer asked my opinion on the matter, I could pick from some colorful places. I’ve captured bright greens in the grass along Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, deep blues in Wyoming’s big sky country and fiery reds in the chili peppers strung from eaves in Santa Fe.

There is little doubt, though, that the one place I’ve visited that made a permanent mark on my camera, was St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria.

As one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, St. Stephen's is photographed countless times a day. On my visit, camera in hand, I climbed to the top, stared out over its scaled, multi-colored roof, strolled in awe underneath the massive pipe-organ and studied the intricate external carvings. Through my lens, I realized there must be thousands of possibilities for the perfect shot.

Immediately upon exiting the subway station in Vienna 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 the cathedral’s front entrance.

I walked into two people as I circumnavigated the St. Stephen’s perimeter, simply because I was looking up.

Gargoyles and elaborate gothic detailing covered the outside walls and spires, giving St. Stephen's Cathedral an eerie magnificence. It was a beauty I found nostalgically familiar, reminiscent of historic movies and images. Then I stepped back a few steps and gazed up at the roof. Like dragon scales, the half-moon tiles shimmered in bright greens and yellows and reds. The mammoth mosaic formed the traditional Hapsburg double-eagle, along with the coats of arms for the city of Vienna and the country of Austria. This location was home to two previous churches, but what I saw was rebuilt and restored after a World War II fire.

Inside, the sunlight fractured through ceiling-high stained glass. After I awed at the massive pipe organ above the entrance, the full beauty of St. Stephen's interior unveiled up and down the center aisle. An ornately decorated pulpit stood close to one end and pews wove up through a series of grand pillars. An ironwork gate could have been a piece of art in itself, but amongst the beautiful glasswork, intricate gothic styling and checkerboard floor, it seemed almost dull.

Even after all the exterior and interior finds, St. Stephen's had one more spectacle to offer. I ascended the tower to the perch and walkway among the gutters and gargoyles where I got an up-close look at that elaborate roof. And of course, I was awarded a stunning panoramic view of the bustling Vienna. It was the perfect first stop on my trip to this city. From up high, I could see most of the other landmark's I’d want to visit, from the amusement park across the river and it's famous, old-time ferris wheel, all the way to the ornately decorated opera house.

My camera was snapping constantly. While I was up there on the roof, I had to try not to get caught up taking too many photos. There would be plenty more opportunities for great shots around Vienna. Many of them were right back down inside St. Stephen's Cathedral.

So I tucked my camera away. I had to see this exquisite site with my own eyes. I do love writing about travel and photographing travel. But some things just can’t be fully enjoyed through a lens.

Mike Hartigan of Saugus, an alumnus of St. John’s Prep, is a writer and traveler looking for good story, wherever it takes. Follow along at or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Read more: Wherever It Takes: Majesty of Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral - Danvers, MA - Danvers Herald

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Democracy in Action

Shut down the parties. Clean off the mudslinging. Ignore the partisan posturing, the media skewering and the talking head, well, talking. Do me a favor and take the politics out of it.

What are you left with? A group of 800,000+ happy, cheering and optimistic people gathered together amidst monuments and museums, looking ahead to the future - their individual future and their collective. Somewhere in there are left leaners, right leaners, reds, blues, donkeys and elephants, whigs, torries and maybe even some bull moose. But strip that all away and you just have a group of forward thinkers - and the simple, unalienable right for them to be that way. In free nations we have something that many other nations around this great spinning ball of ours search, fight and kill for. In short: Democracy. 

I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 57th Presidential Inauguration on Monday, January 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C. It was an opportunity to do something I rarely experience while traveling: engage history in the present, not just visit spots from the past. Regardless of your political views, the experience was something that should not be missed should the chance ever arise. To watch a shining example of that privilege unfold surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance fit for a Royal Wedding, was awe-inspiring by its very nature. 

Ask the little boy in front of me. When President Obama began to speak, his father hoisted the boy up onto his shoulders to see better. The boy was wearing an Obama wool cap and could not stop smiling. He glanced around the mass of people, which he now towered over, before resting his gaze squarely on the President, a couple hundred yards away. The boy smiled and stared at Mr. Obama for the entire duration of the President's address. He couldn't have been more than 10 years old, and I'm sure he didn't fully grasp every detail and policy pitch. But it didn't matter. That boy understood he was watching something special and will remember it the rest of his life. Maybe it inspires him to get into politics, or public service or just get out and see the world looking for more unforgettable moments. Maybe it is just a fond memory of a day he spent with his dad while that guy spoke for a while in the shadow of a great, big dome. But it doesn't matter. He was there, participating in history. 

I had to wake up at 4:30am just to get to my spot, where I stood for hours until the ceremony even began. The crowd ebbed and flowed and swelled to enormous before settling into a cold, dreary waiting patience. When the heavy hitters of American politics began streaming onto the dais, I recalled that this was something special. When my toes got a little too cold, I glanced over at that boy perched on his dad's shoulders and the chill disappeared. I was in a nation where my rights, that boy's rights and those of everyone huddled together on that lawn are protected by the very thing we stood around witnessing. 

It is one thing to travel overseas and walk the grounds of ancient ruins or the halls of a foreign palace - to learn about the past. It is quite another thing to engage history - to live the present. 

A few more photos from the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC - January 21, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Airport monkeys

I’ve heard a lot of strange things at airports and on airplanes; children screaming about monsters in the overhead bins, one-sided phone conversations reminiscent of a shady drug deal, and impromptu reviews of recent food court purchases gone bad. Perhaps the funniest, and simultaneously most unsettling, was the Southwest flight attendant who forget to shut off the PA before take off and cited the need for a major, “lav dump in Albany.”

But in our nation’s capital, (to be accurate Dulles Airport is located in Virginia, but who’s counting?), the chatter seems more muted, at least when it comes to the odd or the interesting. Passengers are too honed in on checking their multiple smart phones and conversation is dominated, as it so often is in Washington, D.C., by legislative jargon and topical chitchat. You’d be more apt to overhear a two men in a suits verbally posturing for the promotion at their K Street firm than a memorable tidbit.

Then again, sometimes the travel gods toss you a surprise that you just aren’t ready for, and frankly aren’t sure how to react.

I was filling out a crossword puzzle, nestled in a seat waiting for my 6+ hour flight to London Heathrow. My wife was nodding off on my shoulder, her input on 24-across reduced to mere mumbles. I felt myself starting to doze when the airline attendant announced we would be boarding shortly.

Along with the other overseas travelers around us, we packed up our time-wasters and moseyed into a haphazard line. A businesswoman stood behind us, a young couple right in front and a businessman to the side. We all exchanged those courtesy half smiles – you know, the ones you give just in case you’re sitting next to these people for the next six or seven hours.

The airport-wide speaker made an announcement that some gate across the campus was looking for someone that was supposed to be boarding, some innocuous name like Smith or Johnson. Our individual gate airline attendant made an announcement about boarding.

We stood waiting. Another announcement from the gate attendant let us know we would board momentarily. So we waited some more. After ten more minutes and no boarding, the frustration of all travelers began to percolate in the form of shuffling in place and agitated glances.

Still more waiting. I wished we had stayed in our seats with our crossword puzzle.

After another ten minutes or so, that bubbling frustration was starting to spill over. One traveler made an off-hand comment to no one in particular that garnered a similar response from the person standing beside him. There was clearly tension as we approached that make or break moment when you hear the attendant say either, “now boarding” or “there has been a slight delay.” But our gate attendant remained silent.

Then the PA system crackled on and a gate attendant made an announcement. Unfortunately it was not our gate attendant but rather an airport-wide call for a missing passenger.

“Can I have your attention please,” the female announcer said. “Would Zurich passenger Get-A-Monkey-Bed please come to Gate C-25.”

Then she paused, everyone in line around me looked up at the ceiling for the omniscient metallic voice that just said something about a monkey bed. The pause broke and the announcer started again.

“Um, yes. Passenger Getta, um, Getta Monkey . . . Monkey Bed. Yes, Get – a –  Monkey – Bed please come to report to Gate C-25.” Then she did something as unprofessional and yet wholly hilarious as I’ve ever experienced – she burst out laughing with the microphone still on.

But it had an affect on those around that I’m sure the gate attendant was thankful for, if not a bit mystified about. The tension that had been building form our delay erupted not in anger but in laughter.

The woman from the couple near me said to her companion, “Did she just say ‘go get a monkey bed?’”

The businessman replied to her between laughs, “I think she did. I think she just said ‘monkey bed.’”

When she came back on the PA system and announced it again a few minutes later, “Get – a – monkey – bed,” I think the entire terminal burst out in hysterics. Even the gate attendants were chuckling up at the desk.

I heard the practical businesswoman say, “I think she’s pronouncing that name wrong.” No kidding.

The comic relief must have spurred something because in the midst of laughter we were called by our own gate attendant to start boarding our flight.

Just before we started down the jet way, another airport-wide announcement was made – by a different announcer, a male voice this time.

“Can I have your attention please,” he said. “This is the last call for Ibed Gettamunk. That’s Ee-bed Getta-monk. Please report to Gate C-25.”

I’m pretty sure the incident made our flight to London a little more enjoyable. But I never did find out if Ibed ever made it to Zurich.