Friday, August 23, 2013

A Little Scottish Mussel

One of the best dishes I've ever eaten

Cuisine is not necessarily at the top of anyone’s tourism to-do list on a visit to Scotland. After all, their most well-known dish is comprised of a sheep’s stomach filled with a spiced intestine stuffing (haggis). But just because the United Kingdom’s culinary reputation lacks the luster of other European destinations, does not mean there isn’t a pearl to be found in some oysters.

The town of St. Andrews revolves around a castle, a cathedral and of course, a golf course. All of it is situated along a picturesque stretch of Scottish coastline with rocky jetties and expansive beaches. A drive through the surrounding coastal region reveals fishing villages nestled between the tee boxes. If Scotland was going to excel at one type of cuisine, it would assuredly be coming from the sea.

I had just finished exploring the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, situated at the tip of the town, overlooking a rock wall breaker, a beach and the sea beyond. I exited the crumbling walls through a side door and stepped onto a cliff walk that skirted down to the beach in one direction and off along the ridge in the other.

I heard crashing waves below and wandered to the right, declining downwards toward the water, past the small remains of a chapel and several signs identifying the historical significance of one of Scotland’s most important religious buildings. I strolled down to the breaker wall that projected out into the water, framing the adjacent beach, East Sands. At the tip of the breaker wall I turned to look at the St. Andrews skyline, which was made up predominantly of the cathedral’s jagged towers, roofs popping haphazardly and the silhouette of St. Andrews Caste standing guard castle further up the shoreline.

The panorama was spectacular, and a different perspective that I had not seen trekking through the village streets. I scanned the scene, noticing some fishing boats and smelling the briny water lapping up at the rocks. In that moment I was hungry.

My stomach rumbled as I retraced my steps back along the water and up to the cathedral. The smell of something delicious wafted along the sea air, prompting me to stop short and engage the man responsible. Since I had last been here outside the cathedral walls, a green umbrella had popped up and a young man with a pedal-powered food cart had positioned himself along the cliff walk. His setup was unlike a traditional hotdog or ice cream cart. It was a bicycle-powered mobile cooking unit - with large pots bubbling up on miniature stove tops and an elongated cooler at the end. Neatly printed in gleaming white on the emerald green cooler was, "The Wee Caboose."

He was selling mussels – that’s it. He had no other options besides freshly caught, local mussels gathered about an hour earlier a little ways up the road. Did I want some? My growling stomach almost answered for me.

I attempted to hand him my money but he said not yet, wait until they were cooked. He pulled a small bucket full from the cooler and dumped them into a creamy broth bubbling on his cooker.

They’d be ready in four minutes, he said. That was four minutes I had to figure out how and why he had gotten to be here on this cliff walk. As it turned out, this was the street vendor’s first time selling his mussels in St. Andrews and I was his very first customer. We chatted about where he came from and where the mussels came from (both in a village nearby) and he gave me some advice on other seaside Scottish towns I should explore (which I did a few days later, to great acclaim). He described his homemade recipe and I compared it loosely to the way seafood is traditionally prepared in New England, which took us off on a tangent about traveling and my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. We even covered the military and military bases, after a few fighter jets swooped by in the distance.

All in all it was quite an enlightening discussion with this local Scot, and a fair introductory course before my main meal.

He broke off our conversation mid-sentence, knowing exactly when the mussels needed to be removed from the heat. He pulled out a cardboard rub, roughly the size of a sand pail, and tumbled in a couple dozen cooked mussels. He then kept pouring the milky broth until the shells were swimming. I handed him six pounds, he handed me lunch. He clapped me on my shoulder, said it was nice talking and wished me well.

Two passers-by saw the exchange and stopped to ask me how the food was. I hadn’t tried it yet, nor had I barely stepped away from the cart but the smell alone told me it was going to be unforgettable. The couple got two orders.

I took my lunch to a bench sitting along the cliff a few yards away. Flanked by rose bushes behind me, the outline of St. Andrews Castle a few hundred yards further along the cliff walk and the ocean crashing on the rocks below, I dove in. The mussels were perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. I had never tasted shellfish so sweet, even in New England. The broth was creamy with a strong pepper and garlic flavor, and really nothing else. The simplicity was its strongpoint. After I gorged on the mussels, sopped up the juice with the bread, I drank the remaining broth.

The combination of stunning venue and savory snack turned this afternoon into one of my most memorable food experiences. As it turns out, reputations are flimsy things. All it takes to break them is a little mussel.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Weekend in Washington, D.C.

Spend too much time in Washington, D.C. and its multitude of treasures can fade from vision. Spend too little, and you miss more than you know. Such is the dual nature of a city built on twos (two major political parties, two chambers of Congress). So it is only appropriate that spending two days here provides ample opportunity to take in America's capital city.

Make no mistake, a weekend jaunt to D.C. is not a relaxing vacation. Like most pedestrian-friendly tourist destinations, walking is required here. And summertime walking - with oppressive humidity and heat – should not be taken lightly. But this is also one of America's most beautiful metropolis centers: thoughtfully laid out, artfully designed in the Francophile style of the founding fathers, and stuffed to the hilt with historical, cultural, gastronomical and just plain whimsical sights. 

To see them all, to really see everything in, on and around them all, you'd need an extended stay. And even then, the transient nature of DC and the over-abundance of surrounding distractions would make that accomplishment more difficult than uniting the colonies. There are so many close daytrips and side excursions. Whether up to Baltimore's harbor, over to the shores of the Chesapeake, down to Virginia's burgeoning wine country or out to refreshing Appalachia, it becomes easy to stray from the city limits. 

But with a weekend, a good pair of sneakers, a filled water bottle and a loose plan, you can focus on downtown and conquer D.C. And with a slew of free museums and monuments, you can do so on the cheap.

The majority of D.C.’s sights are clustered downtown, on or tangential to the National Mall. The National Mall, however, is formidable in length. Long and rectangular, it stretches from Capitol Hill in the East to the Lincoln Memorial in the West.

The best way to begin tackling any city is to seek high ground in the morning and get a lay of the land.

Unfortunately, the most obvious choice in D.C., the Washington Monument, is not an option. Due to a 2011 earthquake, the famous obelisk is currently closed and covered in scaffolding for repairs. But close by at the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is the Old Post Office, complete with a soaring clock tower that offers visitors a sweeping panoramic view of the city. Built in 1899 and currently run by the National Park Service, the Old Post Office is free to enter and to take the glass elevator to the tower’s top. The incredible view engulfs all of the city’s major monuments, a treat you wouldn’t even get from the Washington Monument.

While atop the clock tower, you’ll notice the massive dome of the U.S. Capitol watching over the city. After leaving the Old Post Office, continue your morning by heading in that direction. Utilize the Metro, Washington’s subway system, which is easily navigated, well-marked and stations are generally conveniently located.

One of the most recognizable buildings in the world, the U.S. Capitol is home to America’s Legislative branch of government. Regardless of your political philosophy, the structure is overwhelmingly beautiful, with its columns and soaring white dome capped by the Statue of Freedom. That’s just the outside.

Touring the inside of the Capitol unveils not just government, but the history of American progress and the pioneers who sparked it. The halls are immaculately adorned, and watched over by statues of historic difference-makers. Only a limited number of same-day tour tickets are available, but a quick call to your Member of Congress will get you reservations in advance. Also inquire about gallery passes, which if Congress is in session will nab you a chance to see the Floor in action.

After a morning at the Capitol, explore the Capitol Hill grounds and loop around to the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. Both are worth a visit and require only as much time as you see fit. Guests at the Supreme Court are encouraged to walk the halls, while docent-led tours at the Library of Congress take you through extraordinary art and architecture, not to mention the full breadth of the word’s literary masterpieces.

Leaving Capitol Hill on its South side brings you down Independence Avenue, past the Botanical Gardens to the Smithsonian American Indian Museum. Free to enter, head into this museum for lunch – yes, lunch – after taking in the smooth, curvaceous exterior imbued with Native American symbolism. The cafeteria located on the museum’s basement level offers native, authentic and delicious dishes from around the country, like fry bread and buffalo chili. 

After refueling, it is a short walk next door to one of the most visited museums in the world: the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Upon entering this massive complex, heads immediately crane upwards to gaze at actual aircraft seemingly suspended mid-flight. Aside from the planes, military and spacecraft hanging all around the building, this free museum offers creative exhibits ranging from the Wright Brothers’ first flight to an in-depth look at World War II aircraft carriers.

If there is still time left in the day, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art are located directly across the Mall from the Air and Space Museum. Regardless of which you choose, do not miss the sculpture garden nestled in between the two museums. The large circular fountain at the garden’s hub, with larger-than-life works of art dotted amongst the trees and flowers. On Friday evenings in the summer, jazz bands play from a makeshift stage and vendor carts sell pitchers of sangria. Relaxing under a tree next to a massive metal sculpture, sipping a cold drink and listening to music – no better way to end a day in D.C.

Day two takes you to the other side of the National Mall and entails a bevy of outdoor eye-candy. Grab a hearty breakfast (donuts from GBD in Dupont Circle should do the trick) and a bottle of cold water before you begin your day.

Starting across the Tidal Basin at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial gives a whole different perspective of the city. The memorial itself is stunning, a scaled down version of Rome’s Pantheon, complete with a massive Jefferson statue that has its gaze fixed across the water at the White House. The line of sight is clear, as builder’s wanted Jefferson to always be able to keep an eye on the Office of the President. 

Skirt the Tidal Basin to the West and come upon two of the most moving monuments in the city. Meander through the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, touching upon each stage of his extraordinary tenure in the White House, from the Depression through World War II. It is a serene yet surreal layout, with water features and a deity-like statue of Roosevelt and his dog that assuredly makes an impact. Continuing along the water’s edge brings you to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, a striking and powerful homage to the civil rights leader.

A quick stroll to the National Mall will bring you to the foot of the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial. At the beautiful WWII memorial, visitors reflect upon the sacrifice made by servicemembers, while admiring the symbolism wreathed around every crevice of this beautiful site. The pylons bearing the names of the states and U.S. territories are laid out in order of statehood.

If there were ever a perfect time for a picnic lunch, this would be it, parked along the Tidal Basin or on the Mall. But if air conditioning is a priority, head to Old Ebbitt Grill, a historic oyster bar and Washington, D.C. staple. After filling up, you’re in position to join the throngs snapping photos of the most famous house in the world – the White House. Be sure to see both sides of the Presidential mansion, circling around to the Ellipse.

From there, make your way back along the Mall to the far West end, where Abraham Lincoln awaits upon his gargantuan stone chair. After you’ve read the inscriptions of Lincoln’s most famous words carved into the monument, visit the somber memorials to the Vietnam and Korean wars flanking it.

The cherry on top of a day in the District can be found at any number of top-notch eateries. The D.C. restaurant scene is a bustling one, from the high end to the low. For a burger and a beer - or one of a few hundred beers – the Bier Baron is a basement dive bar with a massive beer list. Or go more upscale at Birch & Barley in the Logan Circle neighborhood, or downtown at the tapas-inspired Jaleo, run by famed chef Jose Andres.

Without a doubt, America’s capital city is bursting with significant sights and sounds, much more than can be experienced in a weekend. But with a good game plan and a little enthusiasm, two days in D.C. is plenty to get at the heart of America’s capital city.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

You get what you need in Switzerland - Destination Travel Mag

The following article was published in the August, 2013 edition of Destinations Travel Magazine. To read the article at the Destinations website, click here. 

I was tired after a summer day of hiking the Swiss Alps, but the couple at the outdoor bistro table next to me looked exhausted. While my sore feet breathed a sigh of relief, they had plodded over with roller-bags in tow, from the direction of Interlaken’s train station. They looked out of place, out of sorts.

I sipped a local beer and gazed off at the snowy peaks whipped up like meringue towards heaven, and the newcomers all but fell into the sidewalk chairs of Des Alpes restaurant.

My waiter came by to check on me and then engaged the new customers. The man something in an unfamiliar language – not the English, German, Italian or French I had been hearing while in Interlaken and the Alpine villages.

The waiter didn’t understand either. He looked over to me and said, “I have no idea what he just said.”

“I don’t know what language he’s speaking either,” I said.

“Oh it doesn’t matter,” the waiter replied. “I may not know what he said, but I know what he needs. Watch.”

The waiter turned to the couple and held up two fingers in a peace sign. He said in English, “Two.”

The couple nodded.

Then he put his hands together in front of him, one on top of the other, and separated them vertically to about a foot apart.

“Large,” he said. They nodded again.

Then he made a fist, held it in front of his chest, brought it to his mouth and then abruptly down to the table, as if slamming an empty stein.

“Beer,” he said. “Two large beers.”

The couple smiled and nodded ferociously.

Then he turned to me and said, “the international language of beer. Everyone understands it.”

As he disappeared back into the courtyard of the open-air restaurant to fetch their brew, the couple next to me melted into relaxation. They turned out to be from the Czech Republic, spoke Czech, and from what I could gather had a rough journey getting to Interlaken, Switzerland. The waiter did not know this, nor did he know what they wanted to eat or drink. But as if some alpine soothsayer, he knew exactly what they needed.

I looked around at the row of chalets nearby then to the lush green foothills encircling the gorge just ahead, and finally back up at the mesmerizing white-capped peaks, which were just then turning pink from the fading daylight. I sank back in my own bistro chair, had a long drag from my own beer and I too melted into relaxation. It really didn’t matter what the Czech couple or I wanted. At that moment, anything we could ever need was right here in Switzerland.

It is hard to describe adequately the beauty of Switzerland’s Lautebrunnen Valley, which is part of the Berner Oberland – the Bernese Highlands. Situated in central Switzerland, the town of Interlaken sits between two pristine lakes and serves as the sentinel before the valley’s opening. This massive cleft cuts into one of Europe most aesthetic mountain ranges. Isolated alpine villages zigzag through the foothills and cling to the cliffs as tenaciously as their grazing goats. An efficient (of course it’s efficient, it’s Swiss) system of trains, cogs and cable cars string it all together, providing easy delivery to villages, hiking trails and snowy summits. Watching over it all is the queen summit of the Berner Oberlands: Jungfraujoch. 

The Jungfrau, or the Top of Europe as it is referred to, is one of the Swiss Alps’ most divine mountaintops. It boasts an ice palace, Europe’s highest railway station at 3,454 meters above sea level and an observation station playfully nicknamed, “The Sphinx.” But the main attraction, as it is in so much of Switzerland, is the view.

I began my trek into the mountains earlier that day by riding the rail from Interlaken to some of the small vacation villages ringing the valley. Each one embodied the essence of Switzerland. At the town of Kleine Scheidegg, a St. Bernard dog, complete with a barrel on his collar, was keeping watch at the train station, sniffing the hikers and families that strolled past with their eyes pinned on the Top of Europe.
There I boarded another train that chugged through the mountains to the Jungfrau. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the crisp mountain air or the extraordinary view that made my heart skip a beat, but as soon as I stepped onto the Sphinx observation deck all five senses were in awe.

On one side, a massive glacier field stretched between two mountain ranges and fell over the horizon. Opposite this, green hills rolled down and cascaded over the cliffs into the valley’s maw. All around the peaks stabbed into the sky like the spearpoints of a hundred marching soldiers. Snow spun in torrents from each tip and dissipated; a few daredevil hang-gliders rode the same currents down toward the far-off valley floor.

Off to the side, like a queen upon her throne, stood the Jungrau summit. She is an imposing crag, comprised of equal parts strength and natural beauty. It is hard to describe the feeling of standing in her shadow, except to say I almost genuflected.

After exploring the observation deck, I made my way onto the glacier and into the snow. The persistent snow was a welcome juxtaposition to the warm summer scene playing out just over the edge, back down in the Lautebrunnen Valley. I found a row of Adirondack chairs perched on an icy rise overlooking a row of helicopters. All around visitors hiked far off into the tundra or hopped a tourist chopper to buzz the mountaintops.

When I finally pulled myself away, I felt like I was descending Olympus after a divine audience. The cool alpine air was ambrosia for my body, the incomparable panorama like manna for the soul.

Arriving back at Kleine Sheidegg’s station, I opted out of any more trains. I threw some sausages in my trusty yellow backpack, patted the St. Bernard and began the long, winding hike down to Interlaken.

At points the trail declined steeply, at others it wound back through wooded glades only to pop out along the ridge of the soaring valley walls. But always it went down, down, down.

Rocky terrain gave way to rolling emerald hills, which themselves were deceptive. I was still atop the valley, high above the floor, following the landscape as it undulated and stepped lower and lower.

. At the top of one crest I looked down upon a cluster of chalets – the village of Wengen – perched along the ridge. There were some signs that a few months from then would guide skiers around the bend. But for now, the sound of cowbells clanged even though there were no cows around. Far across the gap, on the other side of the valley, a herd was grazing on a hillside, the gentle ding of their bells echoing across to my ears.

I reached the valley floor and the town of Lautebrunnen, where a train would speed me back to Interlaken. But Lautebrunnen is more than just a boarding platform. Before I hopped the train, I entered the village. At the local cheese shop I bought a wedge of the owner’s recommendation, and paired it with sausage made from up the valley. After grabbing a crusty loaf at a shop nearby, I trekked back toward the mammoth valley walls. I sat by the town’s cascading waterfall, in awe of the wonderland around me.

The day certainly sapped my energy, which is why I ended up at the bistro table at Des Alpes. As the Czech couple sipped their hard-gotten beer, the waiter strolled back over to me and asked if I wanted anything else.

I told him no, I didn’t want anything. I was happy relaxing after a long, fulfilling day.

He nodded suspiciously and produced an unmarked bottle filled with clear liquid.

He put a shot glass on my table and filled it.

“You need some schnapps. Homemade, on the house,” he said.

The fumes were potent. This was the stuff they put in the barrel around the St. Bernard’s neck.

 “Everybody needs some schnapps,” he said.

He was right. Switzerland really did have everything I could ever need. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

War-related destinations are worth the trip - Wicked Local

The following article was published in July, 2013 in the Danvers Herald and other Wicked Local newspapers. To read this article on the Danvers Herald website, click here.

In Massachusetts, it is no surprise that many of the best tourist destinations revolve around Revolutionary War history and the people who fought to found our nation. Locals grow up learning from an early age that they live in the place that gave birth to America. The names Paul Revere and John Hancock become legends, their deeds have become lore and visitors from around the world now tread the ground they once walked.

Destinations where significant moments in war took place require a delicate balance between information and entertainment. How do you make visitors enjoy a visit to a place where hundreds or thousands of people died? How can someone understand the weight of a patch of grass, overgrown over time? What do you want visitors to tell people back home when they’re asked, ‘how was your trip?’” If the trip was to a battlefield, a gravesite or a concentration camp, the answer to that question may not be easily arrived at.

That does not mean, though, a war-related location should be avoided. On the contrary, they can add depth to a vacation that is otherwise flittering between beaches and amusement parks.

Monuments and memorials are everywhere but the actual locations where historical moments occurred, such as battlefields, offer the most significant experiences. The accessibility of these types of tourist stops is surprisingly easy.

The major conflicts that changed the course of history attract tourists from far and wide.
Boston and towns like Lexington and Concord where Minute Man National Historic Park & Battlefield is located, puts you on the same patches of gravel and grass where the American Revolution began in earnest.

The American Civil War has many buffs but you don’t need to be dressed in era garb to enjoy a visit to the battlefields of the mid-Atlantic and the South. About an hour west of Baltimore and northwest of Washington, D.C. is Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.
Located in Maryland’s most visited Civil War region, Antietam is awe-inspiring because of its sheer size. The location played host to the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and as you drive around the battlefield you imagine holding a line or retreating to the trees. 

Antietam is full of bridges, fields and overlooks, all dotted with canons and hundreds of metal signs that tell the tales of skirmishes and soldiers, no matter what rank or side they fought on.

The value of war-related sites remains true outside the United States, as well.

Munich, Germany, is famous for its beer and rambunctious autumn festival, but a short bus ride outside the city brings you face to face with the heavy realities of World War II.

The solemnity of a visit to Dachau Concentration Camp may not strike the average tourist as a fun way to spend your afternoon in southern Germany. But the thoughtful visitor will make a side trip to Dachau and leave moved by its power and raw emotion.

There is an informative museum about Nazi concentration camps and the grounds themselves, open and devoid of much color, leave a most unimaginable impression. So many prisoners suffered and died on the stone dust paths that you explore; so much evil was built upon the bare stone building foundations. Words inscribed on a tomb and a memorial read “Never Again,” and “Never Forget.” You will not forget a visit to Dachau.

Many other World War II sites can of course be visited around Europe, in Germany and France. But France also has a war-related site that harkens back to its own revolution.
In Paris lies Les Invalides, home to the Army museum and other military-related exhibits and venues. However, Les Invalides should not be visited for what it is today. It should be visited because of what once happened there and who now calls it home.

Les Invalides was an armory. On the night French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, they first stormed this facility. They took from it ammunition and weapons used later to storm the Bastille and erupt the French Revolution into full-blown, bloody conflict. It’s historical and military significance is unrivaled.

But Les Invalides is also significant because of its most famous resident: Napolean Bonapart. His tomb is located in the central rotunda and is impossible to miss. In stark contrast to his short stature, this historic giant is laid to rest in an enormous wooden ark. It can be viewed both from above and below, making Napolean’s final resting place an awe-inspiring symbol of dominance, and Les Invalides a must-see.

Travel experiences to war-related locales are more personal, and that is where they truly hold their lure. Regardless of a site’s solemnity, the impact a war-related destination can have is different for everyone, sometimes immeasurable and almost always emotional. We travel for these experiences; and we remember the emotional ones the longest.

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

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