Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wherever it Takes column: A day in flashy Florence

Printed in the Wicked Local Weeklies
May 16, 2013

Florence, Italy is saturated with treasures, from statues to paintings to culinary masterpieces. But the city itself is its most exquisite work of art. Their architecture is as flawless as any statue. Their people are as colorful as any painting. Inspiration flows right along with the city's river. From morning, to noon to night, you can experience the best of Renaissance Italy just by strolling the streets of flashy Firenze.

The Duomo and its sparkling red, green and white facade absorb the morning light like a marble sponge. With a crisp morning sky, the entire impressive structure instantly becomes more photogenic than supermodels strutting the catwalks of Milan. A short walk away and the Ponte Vecchio shimmers like the jewelry being sold in its shops. This Old Bridge is like no other bridge you've ever seen, bustling with shoppers scouring the stores that hang out over the water like flower-filled windowboxes.

If you're lucky, your stomach will let you know it is lunchtime before the bell towers around town. 
In Florence, as in a lot of Italy, most anywhere will provide a good bite. But a stop at Trattoria Mario's or All' Antico Vinaio and you've been whisked to another plane of gastronomic excellence. Most obviously, you're getting something fresh for lunch: fresh-sliced proscuitto or porchetta piled high on fresh-baked bread, or perhaps a bowl of freshly-made pasta next to a plate of freshly picked vegetables.
Walking is the best remedy for a full stomach, especially after a carbo-loaded lunch. Of course, having a scooter at your disposal is another option for motoring about town. You can zip between some of the other tourist destinations, like the Uffizi Gallery or the Academia, where Michelangelo's David calls home.

As your afternoon begins to wane, Firenze is just getting revved up. The trattorias, cafes and bars begin to buzz with life, as well as the open piazzas. Street musicians playing cellos, violins and guitars warm up, quickly shifting into classical masterpieces, Italian songs and a few familiar pop hits. You've never heard Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” until you've heard it plucked on a cello by an old, Italian man standing next to a carousel.

Before the Tuscan sun begins to drop behind the far-off hills, your trek should circle back to the Duomo. By now, you've hopefully burned off your lunch, or else the 400-plus steep stairs to the top of the cupola might be sluggish. The reward at the top is well worth it. From the top, the stunning 360-degree view of this exquisite Renaissance city is emphasized by the burnt-orange halo descending over every terra-cotta roof and marble column. The purple Tuscan hills in the distance heave and fall in the gathering evening shadows, a perfect backdrop to the glowing city sprawled out below. Take a deep breath, exhale into the Italian air and take in Renaissance Italy.

By the time you make your way back to ground level, and night has fallen over Firenze, a new beauty awakens. Again revisiting an earlier landmark, walk past Ponte Vecchio to one of the other bridges crossing Florence's river. From the middle of any bridge, the Arno River reflects the city lights and an artistic dance of shadow and illumination unravels in the dark current.

Florence - from its buildings to its food to its people - is a picturesque playground. There are treasures around every corner, and since you can't take snapshots in the art museums, you'll be snapping away along the streets. But even with the naked eye, most anything you see will be indelibly saved in your mind’s memory. So spend a day basking in the unforgettable flash of Firenze.

Mike Hartigan of Saugus is a writer and traveler looking for good story, wherever it takes. Follow along at or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Read more: Wherever it Takes column: A day in flashy Florence - Saugus, MA - Saugus Advertiser
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Friday, May 10, 2013

Travelin' on the Wild Side

Everyone has a wild side, especially travelers. We instinctually seek out the unknown, explore the unexplored and we traverse the globe looking for excitement. It's in our nature, which might be why we feel a kinship with our friends in nature. 

I've met plenty of interesting people in plenty of interesting places around the world. But I have to admit, some of the most memorable souls I've shared a laugh with, had fur and tails.  Zoos, parks, mountains, forests - the lower levels of the food chain are sometimes much better company than the top.  As long as they don't turn you into a chew toy, stumbling upon wildlife, either in the wild or in feigned wild, can add a whole new element to your vacation. 

It has to do with genuineness, unpredictability and our desire as travels for both. We want to live like temporary locals when we go to a foreign place, which entails eating, drinking and acting unlike we normally would at home. It's easy to do that in Dublin or Santiago or LA. Customs can be learned, cultures can be appreciated and languages can be absorbed. But what happens when there is no language at all and the culture is walking on all fours? Unpredictability and genuineness are at a premium. 

When was the last time you gnawed on a stalk of bamboo while sitting on a log? Or trotted vertically up a sheer cliff face with a brass bell around your neck? Or perched on a gargoyle high atop a gothic cathedral? Never? Then you haven't lived at all like these locals. 

Here are my ten favorite animal encounters from around the globe.

Panda Karaoke - National Zoo, Washington, D.C.

Red Squirrel - Vienna, Austria

Pigeon on a gargoyle - St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

Goat - Interlaken, Switzerland

Lazy Sea Lions & the Golden Gate Bridge - Pier 39, San Francisco, CA

Friendly Giraffe - Disney's Animal Kingdom, Orlando, FL

Up close with a butterfly - Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

Wild Bison on patrol - Black Hills, South Dakota

Two gulls, one cracker - Rome, Italy

Got Moose? - Franconia Notch, New Hampshire

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wherever it Takes column: Good old places for a pint

Printed in the Wicked Local Weeklies
May 9, 2013

Barley, hops, yeast, water – seems like such a simple concoction. Yet somehow, a beer is never just a beer. It’s a round with a few friends or a toast in celebration. It brings people together and consoles in silence. In so many places around the globe and here in America from coast to coast, beer is a lifestyle, an attraction, an identity.

That’s why it takes a truly special place to serve it well and serve it in abundance. True, any old bar can pour from a tap or crank the top off a bottle for you. But only a unique, dedicated establishment becomes a watering hole. At places like that, there is no pretension, no expectation, no snobbery or braggadocio. Just an empty seat, a lengthy beer list and a perfect pour every time.

All across America there are places where everybody knows your name. And if you’re just passing through, there are places that will learn your name, at least for the night, long enough to say it in a toast.

Everyone has their own personal list of favorite bars, compiled without scientific evidence, unless you like to measure in pints. Fortunately, there seem to be an unlimited amount of worthy contenders from sea to shining sea.

I have always had trouble narrowing down my own and have vowed to ensure it is not a finite list. There is always another microbrewery or neighborhood bar off the beaten path. But some of my favorites from around the country run the gamut of what a bar can be: some are classic and some are unique, some are famous and one is infamous. Each has a distinct identity that reflects the community around it in the same way an annual brew reflects a specific season.

During any season, Colorado's microbrew community is legendary and you can't go wrong with most any choice in the Rockies. But Wynkoop Brewery has staked a claim near the top. Why? Three words: Chili Pepper Beer. Patty's Chile Beer, to be exact, a Wynkoop house specialty. The award-winning brew comes infused with Anaheim chiles and smoked Ancho peppers. It is light, with a golden color and a slightly reddish hue. The pepper aroma hits you before the smoky flavor on first sip. The chile bite is there but not overpowering and it goes down surprisingly smooth. There's a savory heat that builds up the palette from a traditional German-type beer to something totally unique and flavorful.

The offspring of the Colorado microbreweries that dominate the Rocky Mountain region can be found at Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City, South Dakota. Firehouse is historic – it is South Dakota’s first brewpub and is located in Rapid City’s original firehouse. The relaxed atmosphere, local entertainment and genuine people honing their craft are just like most small brewpubs, but Firehouse adds nostalgia and a surprising sense of escape. Sitting out on the patio, watching some live music and sipping a glass of Smoke Jumper Stout or Brown Cow Ale is the best way to take a timeout from whatever cross-country, family road trip you’re enduring. The boys on Mt. Rushmore can wait; they’re not going anywhere. Just have the waiter bring another round.

A few states south is Anodyne in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Throw around a large bottle selection (over 120 by their count), including some great locals like the clean Alien Amber, and you’ve got yourself a full-on, fun-time beer bar. Located on one of ABQ’s main drags, this upstairs, dimly lit pool hall is bedazzled in beer paraphernalia and jukeboxes. It has an edgy hipster vibe that is surprisingly approachable and welcoming, in part due to the comfy seating possibilities at the top of the staircase. The regulars stream in, clapping each other on the backs and petting their dogs, which health codes or not, were just as welcomed as their bipedal owners. The name - Anodyne - means, "a medicine that relieves or allays pain." Exactly.
Over on the Eastern seaboard, I have an affinity for Trinity – Trinity Brewhouse. Mostly because a good amount of my college days were spent in the basement at this Providence, Rhode Island microbrewery, where the dark walls, tables and corners make it the perfect place to unwind after (or instead of) a study session. Upstairs they serve spectacular burgers to help sop up the pints of award-winning beer, like the Rhode Island IPA. While enjoying the delicious Redrum Imperial, check out the mural high along the dining room wall depicting famous musicians enjoying a brew. You can spot John Lennon and Kurt Cobain sharing a pint with The Notorious B.I.G. and The Rat Pack. If you’re swinging through New England, make it a point to hit Lil’ Rhodey and one of the state’s best brew pubs for dinner, a drink or to pick up a growler.

There are countless great bars and happy hour specials a few hours south of Rhode Island in Washington, D.C. But the founding fathers would have appreciated gritty denial of no-option tyranny at The Bier Baron. The beer menu here – 500 bottles and 50 drafts – should be housed in the National Archives and the no-nonsense atmosphere and service lets you know this place takes hops seriously. The comfortable brick wall basement bar feel makes this establishment worth crossing the Potomac for.

But at the end of the day, I would travel to the literal end of America to indulge in a legend – Captain Tony’s. Ernest Hemingway sat on these stools. Jimmy Buffet too. And so did some guy named Earl from Poughkeepsie in his Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. That’s the beauty of the world’s greatest dive bar, located at the southernmost point of the United States in beautiful Key West, Florida.

Captain Tony’s is infamous not just because of its inclusion in the Buffet song, “Last Mango in Paris” or because of its eponymous, grizzled owner. It is legendary because it is accessible. Fisherman and tourist sit side by side while a local band rattles away. Grab a stool. Grab a beer. Grab a conversation with anyone. Next thing you know, the dusk is settling in and you’re a few steps away from Key West’s best show – the sunset.

I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Tony himself before he passed away. The Captain was a staple at the bar, his weathered face a welcome reminder that a hard life is filled with equal parts hard work and hard partying.

He may be gone now, but Captain Tony’s Key West vibe remains at his bar and ripples all along Duval Street.

All of these bars, from Denver to D.C., offer unique brews and fuzzy but fond memories. But in the end, they are all simply good old places for a pint.
Mike Hartigan of Saugus is a writer and traveler looking for good story, wherever it takes. Follow along at or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Read more: Wherever it Takes column: Good old places for a pint - Saugus, MA - Saugus Advertiser
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