Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Starry Night at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum

During the evening an artistic air wafts over Amsterdam’s museum-studded park Museumplein. The magnificent Rijksmuseum, recently restored and renovated, is warehouse of historic masterpieces, and the exterior’s sweeping grandeur, spotlighted from the surrounding gardens, is a work of art in itself. Tourists and locals play and pose amongst the oversized, recognizable, “I amsterdam” letters, which take on ethereal form from nighttime mood lighting. The entire scene shimmers and distorts in an elongated reflecting pool. And at the far corner of the park, past the gardens, café and outdoor art exhibits, the Van Gogh museum inhales the artistic air and transports visitors to the world of a virtuoso.
Vincent Van Gogh had the rare ability to capture viewers with his paintings; leaving them somewhere between genius and madness, flush with vivid colors, distinctive techniques and deep emotion. Fittingly, his museum works from that same palette.

The Van Gogh Museum weaves the artist’s trademark individuality and layered emotions into its exhibition space. And like many of Van Gogh’s paintings, a quick glance does not do the museum justice. Luckily, the museum offers late hours until 10:00pm on Friday nights, complete with cocktails, moody music and interactive activities. The result, much like a Van Gogh painting, is a multidimensional and somewhat hazy experience that reveals the deeper stories behind the artist and his works.

The building itself is not filled to the brim, as you might expect from a museum dedicated to one person, and some famous pieces like The Starry Night are not located here. Regardless, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh works, including well-known masterpieces such as the vibrant Sunflowers and The Bedroom, and the colorful but mournful Wheatfield with Crows, one of his last paintings.

Large portions of the works are grouped chronologically, while other sections focus on comparing pieces and highlighting specific aspects of his work. The collection ranges from early works to his final masterpieces, and also displays sketches and writings. Taken all at once, the collection demonstrates his artistic evolution and personal devolution.

The Potato Eaters from 1885, for example, is a dark, intricately detailed scene where Van Gogh plays with light and shadow. But by 1889, Undergrowth portrays Van Gogh’s trademark heavy brush strokes and use of color; varying shades of green, yellow and blue are pulled from the underbrush up the twisting trees, adding a fluid, wave-like motion to a dense forest landscape.

The contrast of Van Gogh’s own works is, in many instances, stark and shocking – bright colors versus stormy landscapes, detailed sketches versus harsh brush strokes. The range of paintings shows the range of Van Gogh’s skill, as well as his cutting-edge use of novel techniques, and how his own emotions so vividly play out in color on a canvas stage.

The Van Gogh Museum tells the story of the artist’s tormented history through his artwork, and also pays special attention to his influences. As a complement, they include paintings by contemporaries and friends of Van Gogh, and in some cases written correspondences. In many instances, works from friends like Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin are placed in sequence next to Van Gogh’s own interpretations. The same is done with the international cultures that influenced him, from France to Japan. The result on many walls is a seamless transition that explains, without words, a surprising array of inspirations.

Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, for example, painted in 1890 as a gift for his newborn nephew, displays very clear Japanese influences, with delicate, wispy branches set against a vivid color scheme.

As an artist Van Gogh evolved, and true to form, his museum also has not been content to remain static in its aesthetics. The main building opened in 1973 but renovations updated and modernized the structure with a new exhibition wing in the late 1990s. Mobile apps, classes and special events were developed for a more inclusive experience. A new glass entrance building is slated to open in the summer of 2015.

So while his painting by the same name is brilliant and beautiful, spending an actual starry night in Amsterdam is a much more fitting way to experience Vincent Van Gogh.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Behemoth in Black Canyon

America’s most memorable attractions are known for one common theme: their enormity. California Redwoods dwarf surrounding foliage. The Grand Canyon carves a massive cleft in the land. The Rocky Mountains reach to the heavens. Roadside attractions range from the largest ball of twine to the largest bottle of catsup. Clearly, Americans like things larger-than-life.

But one structure located in America’s Southwest outpaces them all when it comes to actual, practical utility – because it is actually a utility plant.

The Hoover Dam, wedged down into the craggy, plunging Black Canyon, is a behemoth concrete cascade that spans two states while controlling and contorting a force of nature – the Colorado River.

Located 45 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, the Hoover Dam is an easy, worthwhile day trip away from Sin City. However, the thought of leaving Las Vegas to go see a mound of concrete in the desert may not appeal to the wild and crazy vacationers dancing, gambling and eating their way through the casino resorts. But it should.

For all the awesome man-made sights on the Strip – the curving Wynn towers, the MGM’s massive golden lion, the Eiffel Tower – I would argue none of them can compare to the Hoover Dam when it comes to sheer immensity. It is awe-inspiring, over-the top, larger-than-life; everything Vegas embodies. But you remove the stomach-churning decadence and add in a large dose of American ingenuity. Besides, getting some fresh air is a welcome change from the recirculated casino oxygen.  

The ‘wow’ moments come early and often when you arrive at the Hoover Dam from the Nevada side. As soon as you step out of the car at the parking structure, you notice the massive wires overhead. Let your eyes follow them on their run down to the steel towers jutting from the cliffs, before they leap into oblivion as they cross the gorge.  

Up to the right, the swooping bypass bridge – itself a marvel of modern engineering – soars among the clouds, allowing traffic to flow and not clog up the road atop the Hoover Dam.

The visitor’s center across the road from the parking structure is a good stop and the launching point for the power plant tours that take you deep into the heart of Hoover Dam’s inner workings. It also affords a great view.

But being atop the dam is undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of visiting this National Historic Landmark.

As you stroll out onto the dam, you pass tall statues and a memorial paying homage to those who sacrificed to construct this engineering monster. Also tucked away into the side of the rock face is a small plaque with a dog embossed on it. It marks the grave where the workers’ mascot is buried: a stray puppy who accompanied the workers from the crew campsite to the worksite every day.

The height, the size, the smooth, curving drop all the way down to the river – it is breathtaking from every angle. I started on the left side of the road, looking up the mighty Colorado River at the long arms reaching out into space, ending in the lanky cylindrical turbine towers. There are two sets of two, standing erect like guards outside castle gates.

I kept walking and as I did stepped from Nevada to Arizona. On one set of towers is a clock marking the time in the Pacific Time Zone, while the other has a clock marking the Mountain Time Zone. In the middle, a plaque from 1955 commemorates when the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Hoover Dam one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders in the United States. The plaque also marks the state line between Nevada and Arizona.

I crossed to the other side of the road atop the dam and gazed over the railing from one of the protrusions. The view down was iconic: a pale white, smooth curving slide, plunging to the facility and river far below. It was dizzying, and the stomach lurch came each time I looked over the edge.

The history and factual information woven throughout the dam and the power plant add to the extraordinary sights. The power plant tour provides much of it, putting you face to face with the gargantuan generators at the heart of the Dam. Each year the plant generates enough power to serve 1.3 million people and is still one of the largest hydropower plants in the U.S. 

In the visitors center I learned the history of the dam’s construction, from start to finish.
From 1931 to completion in 1935, the daredevil workers erected the dam, defying death at every turn. The dam was named for 31st President Herbert Hoover. It was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The Hoover Dam is a steadfast testament to America’s ingenuity and pioneering spirit.

Everything about the Hoover Dam is big: wide views, a vast and fascinating history, and a big rush of excitement every time you peer over the edge. It all adds up to a Dam good time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Get lost in a lost city: Pompeii


I stood atop the hill at the far end of Via del Vesuvio, overlooking the ruined city of Pompeii, Italy.

Crumbling brick walls sprawled in every direction forming a red-gray rock labyrinth that seemed to run from the foot of the infamous volcano all the way into the sea. Row after row of ancient buildings crisscrossed the landscape, with sunken roads marked by deep cart grooves and lined by an unending array of historic artifacts – some well known, and some unknown.

As I watched the tourists crawl along the timeworn walkways, I began to think about how easy it was to get lost here.

From my vantage point, underneath a large tree with weeping branches nearby the old city walls, my eyes traced the main avenue, trying to use the site as a living map to plan my next route through this massive, ongoing archaeological dig. But my imagination kept getting in the way, as I thought of the city in its prime, buzzing with people from every social stratum going about daily, ancient life unaware of their weighty place in history – not unlike the tourists walking around the grounds at that very moment.

I was getting lost – lost in the mystique of Pompeii, which just so happens to be the best way to experience this ancient city.

A visit to Pompeii can be grueling. At peak season, tourists abound, scampering after their guides like chicks after the mother hen. Uneven stone streets, heat and the sheer size of the site make for a labor-intensive visit. Then add in the historical weight, which hits you the moment you see a body frozen in time, twisted as it gasps a final breath.

Hiring a guide to show you around Pompeii is one way to alleviate at least a portion of the burden. Guides are easily accessible and can provide a deeper knowledge of the individual highlights, such as the mansions, bath houses and statues unearthed and preserved from the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption.

But with a map and guidebook, provided at the ticket office, I explored the city without trouble, finding the big attractions and stumbling upon some spots not highlighted in the visitor’s booklet. Every once in a while I would linger at the back of a large group to grab a little extra (free) information from their guide, but for the majority of my day in Pompeii, I wandered the streets. I got lost and my experience was richer for it.

Without someone narrating, my imagination had to work a little harder and in doing so, I got an appreciation for the seemingly mundane things. Everyday items awed me.

Right along one of the main thoroughfares I came upon a large group examining an open-air plot, clearly marked by the guidebook as a bakery. The House of the Baker contained ovens and mills, easily identifiable among the stones and collapsed walls.

Walking past it, I took a few more rights and lefts and separated myself from the crowd. I came across another open-air building with similar structures inside. There were the familiar vat-like ovens and large stones for milling. This one wasn’t on the map or in the guidebook, but it was clearly another bakery. The larger bakery had prime real estate, probably meaning it drew a large crowd back in its heyday, as well as in modern day. But this smaller bakery, off-the-beaten-path, was just as well preserved and just as impressive. I began to wonder who made the better bread and who the Pompeii locals back in 79 AD preferred.

It was a similar experience when I came across what appeared to be a storefront. There was a stone counter with deep holes bored into it – it was a bar. The guidebook described how shopkeepers would fill the holes with beverages or foodstuffs. Hungry people strolling by would stop in for a snack or a drink, leaning at the counters to chat with their neighbors. I wandered past one of the heavily attended bars and zigzagged my way down side avenues. I began to notice more and more of these bars – the familiar counters easily recognized by their holes.

By getting lost in Pompeii, the city became more than just a tourist attraction with great photo ops; it was more than a few dozen highlights in a guidebook. Pompeii became a real city, full of real people living every type of life.

In one ruined mansion, a shattered mirror was embedded and melted into the rock wall. Climbing through the rooms of another destroyed home, I found a stone staircase leading nowhere, but at the top was a 360-degree view of the city.

Of course the better-known attractions at Pompeii are also well worth your time, and even a full day will not be enough to see everything. The Forum Baths are well preserved and house a variety of interesting sights. The Forum itself, the center of life in ancient Roman cities, extends for hundreds of yards, lined by columns, statues and broken buildings. At one end of the Forum the ever-present volcano Vesuvius heaves in the background – just a little too close for comfort.

The Ampitheatre and Gymnasium located in the corner of the site near the Sarno Gate give insight into the ancient city’s devotion to entertainment, as do the famous brothel houses such as the Lupanar with its erotic frescoes. You’ll know the Casa del Fauna by the easily recognizable statue of a dancing faun and beautiful grounds.

It is all part of a city that, at its heart, embraced balance. Mansions sat next to hovels and temples, government buildings were not too far from the brothels. It lived and died with the workers nearby the vacationers.

I wandered, stumbling upon top spots and hidden gems alike. My route ultimately took me to the top of the hill at the far end of Via del Vesuvio, where I spent a few minutes soaking in the extraordinary view and letting my mind do some wandering.

I say get lost in this lost city. You will be amazed at what you find.

 This article appeared in the October issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Dam it, leave Las Vegas

The following appeared in the September, 2014 issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Tell people you ventured off the Strip during your trip to Las Vegas, and you’ll more than likely be met with a guffaw, a wry, unbelieving smile or a downright nasty rebuttal. Sure, there are advertisements all around the city for helicopter rides and day-trips, and nearby “Old Vegas,” where the original casinos hawk penny slots and a more rugged, smoky version of Sin City. But for most, the glitz, glamour and round-the-clock sensory stimulation that is modern Las Vegas envelopes visitors, providing no reasonable need to stray from its sparkling casinos, dazzling dance floors and bountiful buffet lines.

Vegas, an oasis in the desert, is hard to escape because it has been constructed in such an over-the-top, larger than life way. It is a showcase of man-made wonders, even if they’re hard to recognize behind a thick veil of neon lights. There are engineering and architectural marvels up and down the Strip, from the sultry golden curves of the Wynn and Encore resorts, to the booming Bellagio water fountains. While you are staring at the Luxor’s pyramid-shaped hotel, it can be hard to remember you are staring at a pyramid-shaped hotel.   

So much of Las Vegas is impressive. From the sheer size of the resort hotels, to the level of creativity, planning and engineering that goes into their operation, and success.

But for all the awesome sights on the Strip, none of them can compare to the man-made edifice looming just outside the city. More impressive than a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, or a giant golden lion, is an awe-inspiring, over-the top, larger-than-life manmade marvel that dwarfs them all, and also enables them to exist: the Hoover Dam.

About a forty-five minute drive from the Strip, the Hoover Dam is an easy side trip for anyone looking to get outdoors and away from the stale air inside the casinos. Most resorts either have rental car options or can point you to one nearby. The short drive through the dusty city outskirts in a convertible is a treat in itself. 

But the whoa moment comes after you park that rental car and stroll down past the visitors center. Like so many sights back in Las Vegas, the sheer size is what hits you first – only here, there are no flashing lights and colorful signs to detract from the impression. There is only enormity: the craggy, plunging rock walls of Black Canyon; the swooping bypass bridge soaring high above it in the distance; and ultimately, the dam.

Wedged into the gorge, it cascades like a massive concrete waterfall – like if Niagara Falls was solidified in alabaster.

One of the benefits of a visit here is that it costs nothing to walk across the dam (although you pay to park), which happens to be the most exciting aspect of this National Historic Landmark. Statues and memorial honor those who sacrificed to construct the behemoth, but a stroll out onto the dam does more justice to their memory.

Standing atop, looking up the mighty Colorado River, you see long arms reach out into the ether, ending in cylindrical turbine towers. There are two sets of two, standing like sentinels at the gates of some medieval fortress. The dam is so big it actually defies time – with one side sitting in Nevada and the other in the adjacent state of Arizona. One set of towers has a clock marking the time in the Pacific Time Zone, while the other has a clock marking the Mountain Time Zone.

Cross to the other side of the road atop the dam and gaze over the railing from one of the protrusions. The view down is iconic. It is a pale white, smooth curving slide, plunging to the facility and river far below. It is dizzying, and if your stomach doesn’t lurch you need to clean your glasses.

Steel towers jut from the rockface, wires crisscross through the air, and a steel cable traverses the gorge, used in its heyday to carry supplies from side to side.

The question is inevitable: how did they do this? The visitors center is the place for answers. Multiple options are available for you to delve further into the Hoover Dam’s history and relevance.

The hands-on powerplant tours take you deep in the bowels of the facility and put you face to face with the beating heart of the Dam – the gargantuan generators. Each year the plant generates enough power to serve 1.3 million people and is still one of the largest hydropower plants in the U.S. Besides power, the water control brings domestic water to more than 20 million people from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

But if you don’t have time for the tour, or the interest, the cheaper option of walking the visitor’s center affords just as much information. The self-guided stroll past exhibits describes the construction process from start to finish. Lest you think learning about rocks, water tables and river currents are antithetical to your Vegas vacation, think again.

The tidbits and facts swirling like eddies around the dam’s history and construction are almost as impressive as the dam itself. From 1931 to completion in 1935, high-wire acrobatics and daredevil workers made the building possible, with death a constant threat. And the particulars are equally inspiring. The dam’s namesake, President Herbert Hoover, urged the dam be self-sustaining, and today the facility is supported financially solely from the money it brings in through selling the power it creates. And perhaps most impressive of all, the dam was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.

The Hoover Dam also provides tangential recreation, if a multi-day trip away from Vegas is more your style. Lake Mead, north of the dam on the Colorado River, is one of America’s most popular recreation destinations. Any and every form of water sport and water vehicle populate the lake year-round, since it has a 12-month season.

But the Hoover Dam is the gatekeeper of it all, and a simple, worthwhile day trip from Las Vegas. You can see how the Dam and Sin City share many of the same traits. Both were built with the same American ingenuity, unflagging tenacity and overwhelming creativity. Both remain larger-than-life testaments to human innovation and potential. The difference is that the Hoover Dam’s finishing coat is a dull gray, while Las Vegas is continuously painting itself with multicolored swatches.

The Hoover Dam may not sound like the most exciting site in Sin City and a lot of Vegas goers will question your sanity if you suggest a side trip. But dam them – if you want a real rush, go peer over the edge of the Hoover Dam.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Passing on the travel torch

 It took me seventeen years to set foot in Europe. When I finally got there, the experience changed my life.

It took my daughter, Cordelia, less than one year to visit Europe, but the affect it had on me was quite familiar. This time it was my little girl who changed my life.

My love for travel began in earnest when I was in high school at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. My World History teacher, Brother George Donnelly, had a knack for weaving Europe’s intricate history into a rich tapestry of narratives, set against some of the most beautiful and interesting locations on the planet. When he planned a school trip to Italy, Greece and Turkey, my friends and I could not get permission slips signed fast enough. Brother George colorfully articulated the world’s most historic places, but made sure we all understood there was no replacement for seeing them in person.

I was nervous to go. I had never been that far away from home for that long. But once we arrived, the breathtaking moments began piling up – atop the Acropolis peering out over Athens, scurrying through a Turkish bazaar, and trekking through the ruins of Pompeii.
My nerves were replaced by a bubbling sense of adventure that continued to grow exponentially into adulthood.

As I grew to love travel, I grew to love sharing my experiences with others. I write, I photograph, I tell stories – and somewhere along the line, I hope to spark the same sense of adventure that was instilled in me by the people and places of my youth.

So when my daughter was born on August 1, 2013, I was given the opportunity to do what so many people at home and abroad had done for me: pass along the travel torch.

My wife shared my ambition, after several attempts to reel in my ever-expanding imagination for what was possible with an infant.

Our first trips with baby took us all over America’s East Coast. Cordelia went to Colonial Williamsburg, Fenway Park and Shakespeare in the Park. She visited beaches, big cities, Civil War battlefields, went inside the White House and to the top of several mountains. She fell asleep at more than a few wineries.

Along the way something happened I did not anticipate.

As the baby grew, so too did my anxiety about traveling with her. All the uncertainties and unknowns that new parents face every day clouded the excitement of sharing adventures together.

Suddenly the international experiences I had always envisioned seemed too difficult and worrisome to attain. My confidence waned; I even wrote fewer travel pieces.

I was most apprehensive about an impending family trip to Italy for Cordelia’s first birthday. Normally I would have been reading up on local limoncello makers and hole-in-the-wall gelato shops. Not this time.

The week before the trip the baby got sick. Then numerous world events coalesced to make it feel like danger lurked at every airport. Questions scrolled through my head constantly: Would she be good on the plane? What if we hit turbulence? Would the stroller hold up on cobblestone streets? Would she make a mess at every Italian restaurant?

For more than a decade, my most loyal travel companion was my uninhibited sense of adventure. Now it was gone, replaced by hesitation and shot nerves.

I let myself worry away my sense of adventure. I had forgotten the personal credos forged from years of improvising and exploring. But we went to Italy.

In one week, my one-year-old daughter restored what I had lost.

She was good on the plane, better than we could have ever hoped, even with turbulence. Our hand-me-down stroller took everything Italy threw at it, even the rough Naples Airport baggage crew. And of course the baby made a mess at every restaurant – but every Italian server and proprietor loved her for it.

We were in Pompeii the day of Cordelia’s first birthday. I was carrying her around in a backpack carrier, traversing the ancient streets in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. We stopped to hydrate and I leaned against the rough stonewall of a ruined building. I felt the backpack sway and Cordelia’s weight shift out the side. I turned my head just enough to see her lean out of the backpack carrier and touch the building wall, unprompted. Her little head peered out with wide eyes and she was smiling, fully engaged by the simple feel of ancient stone on her fingertips. She may not remember it in the future, but in that moment she was enjoying the experience.

I’ve learned the best travel moments are rarely planned, especially the ones that change you on a deeper level.

In high school I stood in Pompeii awed at the sight of a sprawling city where time stands still. In the same place fifteen years later, I watched my baby pat an historic stonewall and giggle as she rubbed the red dust together in her hands.

Cordelia reinvigorated my sense of adventure by exhibiting a hint of her own.

I am under no illusion that traveling with a child will get any easier. But now, thanks to my daughter, I have no reason not to try.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Traveling 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, seeking out or stumbling upon animals, either in the wild or in feigned wild, can add a whole new element to your vacation. 

Washington, D.C. is a great example. The city is full of tourists exploring monuments, museums and memorials. Most are worth a visit, but the Smithsonian National Zoo takes the action out of the past and into the present. The National Zoo is free like many of the museums in D.C., and it has undergone a makeover in recent years to make for a park that flows well from top to bottom. The main attraction is usually the pandas, and the new baby panda Bao Bao that has set Washington on another panda craze. But there is much more to the zoo, including a small mammal house packed with everything from meerkats to marmosets. The deepest belly laugh I ever heard come from my 10-month-old daughter was when a golden lion tamarin bounced around in front of her. The tamarin was very effective – we left the Zoo with a toy version.  
At Disney World in Orlando, one of the secret trick’s I’ve found is to arrive at Animal Kingdom park early, hustling right to the safari ride first thing. The animal activity is more energetic than later in the day. On my last visit a herd of giraffe followed the truck for most of the ride.

Other zoos around the world are also worth a visit. In Vienna, Austria, in the gardens of the famous Schonbrunn Palace, lies a sprawling zoo. But instead of paying, visitors can get a glimpse of the animals by walking along the pathway running behind the menagerie. It loops up and around, affording views through a fence of rhinos and other zoo inhabitants. It is a fun contrast to the grandeur and opulence found in much of this great European city.
But you don’t have to save a specific itinerary slot for a zoo or safari park. Many times animal encounters are unplanned, making them all the more exciting.

On a drive back from Canada, I had the pleasure of seeing a moose trotting through the forest along the road. In Interlaken, Switzerland, high in the Alps, a St. Bernard and mountain goats greeted passengers disembarking from the mountain train, a scene straight from a postcard. Staying at a lake house at Eagle Rock Resort in the Pennsylvania mountains, we woke one morning to a large family of deer nibbling on grass a couple feet from the back door. The loud but lazy sea lions at San Francisco’s Pier 39 left a lasting auditory impression, and the wild bison that surrounded my car in South Dakota’s Black Hills came close to leaving an impression in my fender. And of course, the pigeons in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square are one of the most iconic images in Italy.  
The lure of animals has to do with genuineness and unpredictability – and our desire as travelers to experience 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 Los Angeles. Customs can be learned, cultures can be appreciated and languages can be absorbed. But what happens when the language is chirping or roaring and the culture is walking on all fours? Well, as a traveler you get a genuine form of unpredictability, and that can cause some very memorable experiences. Just make sure your camera is at the ready and you’re at a safe distance.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Night moves -- Traveling after dark

Just because the sun goes down, doesn't mean your camera has to go away or that the traveling has to stop. For photography, night time brings out colors, light, shadows and movements impossible to capture during the day. And with modern cameras, anyone can snap clear photos after dark. For travel in general, night time is the right time to experience those famous landmarks in a new light.
Given the propensity for action photos to blur in low light, I have always found static objects to be excellent evening subjects, especially for someone not schooled extensively in shutter speed and aperture, or someone who does not have bags of lighting and equipment. But in reality, some of the most beautiful things in the world are man-made structures. And as tourist attractions go, the most popular ones around the world more than likely have already perfected the art of nighttime mood lighting.
Take Dublin, Ireland’s Harp Bridge, for example, with its swooping white tower and elegant string-like cables. It makes for a sturdy and whimsical site in between pubs. But after last call, the bridge takes on an effervescent glow reminiscent of the city’s late-night pub vibe. Nighttime Dublin — whether near the bridge or not — is when the tourist and the local crowds come together. Irish hospitality is never more pronounced than when it comes from the guy sitting on the stool next to you. Sing a few songs and then stumble out to see the illuminated Harp Bridge.
The Opera House in Vienna, Austria, was one of the most extravagant buildings I had ever seen, naturally. In a city where music and architecture move together like two ballroom dancers, there are bound to be stunning sights around every corner. When the sunlight dims and the street lights buzz on, the whole city erupts into new life. The Opera House is just one of the more beautiful uplit structures, almost surreal and sparkling like a massive, glimmering gemstone.
But Vienna at night is itself a treasure. Before the Opera House lets out from its last performance of the night, park yourself at one of the sidewalk cafés. There you can indulge in a slice of Viennese pastry, a cocktail and the hum of nighttime passers-by enjoying their stroll along the city’s pedestrian walkways. Even the city’s famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral, eerie with gothic aura during the day, becomes even more so when the shadows begin to creep along its decorated façade and spired, tiled roof.
Vienna is not alone in its knack for nighttime sights. Grab a gellato nearby Rome's Pantheon and enjoy the silence that comes with an empty well-known tourist stop. Sit around the fountain at the entrance to the famed dome, enjoy your treat and listen to the late-night tinkling of utensils on plates as the Italians finish up dinner, whether at the cafes nearby or in their homes in the apartments above. The fountain is perfectly lit to provide a compliment to the rough stone Pantheon, whose blemishes, age and weighty importance are revealed between dancing shadows.
Two of the most well-known buildings in the world — the Eiffel Tower and the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. — are prime examples of the transformative power of nighttime. Both are immense structures rising out of the darkness, battle-worn but unscathed; symbolic of their respective country’s emergence from obscurity — and, of course, stunning from behind a lens.
So I say get out there at night and see the world when the sun goes down. While you’re at it, try out some of those strange settings on your camera or your iPhone and see what develops. The night belongs to the adventurous.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Viennese Trio: Music, Opulence and Decadence

The following appeared in the June, 2014 issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Vienna, Austria does three things better than anywhere else: music, opulence and decadence. Opera houses, palaces and sumptuous desserts are the tangible reflections of a history rich with tradition and royalty.

But what does Vienna really do better than anywhere else? Make music, opulence and decadence accessible to those of us not named Hapsburg. The treasures of Vienna are there for the taking, no matter what your wallet size.

When it comes to music, music history and musical experiences, Vienna is unrivaled. The Staatstoper, Vienna’s majestic opera house, should be on everyone’s European must-see list. The building is the very essence of extravagance, beginning with its grand exterior that shimmers like a jewel at night. The plush interior spills into the main hall and onto the stage where performances from around the world continue this city’s great musical tradition. Tickets for a show can be purchased from any number of venues, including the ticket hawkers accosting most tourists outside of the busiest train stations.
But inexpensive music is just as easily attainable in Vienna. Street musicians abound here, and they are more talented and freer than most any other musician you’d find in Europe. The aforementioned Opera House, with its beautiful soaring façade and eclectic mix of world-renowned performances, offers day-of standing room tickets for just a few euro. And the standing room section just happens to be one of the best seats in the house, located center-stage elevated behind the sprawling floor.

As evidenced by the Staatsoper, extravagant architecture abounds in Vienna. You can't throw a schnitzel here without hitting a haughty homestead, typically one associated with the famous Hapsburg royal family. Palaces and cathedrals adorn the city and its outskirts like gems in a crown.
Gargoyles and elaborate gothic detailing embellishes the outside walls and spires of St. Stephen's Cathedral, one of Vienna’s eerie beauties. The real wow moment, though, comes from the top of the cathedral when you look down upon the roof. Like dragon scales, the colorful tiles shimmer in bright greens, yellows and reds. The mosaic forms the traditional Hapsburg double-eagle, along with the coats of arms for the city and country.

But the most undeniably beautiful location in Vienna is Schönbrunn Palace.
Schönbrunn’s immensity and beauty makes it that much more impressive. It is worth the price of admission to tour its elaborate corridors, ornate halls and gilded music rooms, but be sure to spend time strolling the palace gardens. The villa’s yellow exterior pops against the blue Austrian sky and rows of intricately arranged springtime flowers explode with color. Get lost amidst its labyrinth of footpaths, stopping at various statues and looming fountains. And be sure to scale the hill at the far end for an exceptional view of the palace and the city beyond. It's a truly breathtaking plot of land, made even more so by the awesome palace at its hub.

Instead of paying for the zoo located on the grounds, just walk along the pathway running behind the menagerie. It inclines up and around, allowing visitors to down through the fence for glimpses of rhino, otters, a few herds of hoofed creatures and a giant raptor bird.
Back in the city, you don’t need a ticket to wander through the streets gawking at striking architecture. To get a real sense of royal city living, go to Hofburg Palace, the Hapsburg’s winter city residence. Sit in the park opposite this massive white structure or stroll beneath its archways and past the horse stables where stars of the Spanish Riding School live.

Decadent meals, particularly pastries and cakes, cap off any long day of strolling pedestrian-friendly corridors. The city is known for the original Sacher-Torte, one of the most famous confections in the world. Since 1832 the Sacher Hotel, itself a gorgeous example of Viennese style, has been serving slices of this rich chocolate cake filled with a thin layer of apricot jam and coated with chocolate icing. As decadent desserts go, the original Sacher-Torte is a crowning achievement.

But if you can’t get a seat in the hotel’s café, there are still plenty of opportunities for an after-dinner treat. Stop at any of the outdoor cafés along the pedestrian walks, many near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and pick a cake slice from their menu. It will be delicious, especially accompanied by a cocktail, and the buzz from passers-by will make for exciting outdoor ambiance.

Away from many of the glitzy examples of Viennese opulence and decadence, sits a grittier, more whimsical reflection of the city’s traditional grandeur.
The Prater, a large public park in the Leopoldstadt district,  is home to one of the world’s oldest amusement parks – and an impressive one at that. The massive, sprawling carnival houses rollercoasters, funhouses, a train ride, carnival games and every amusement park and kiddie ride imaginable. Enjoy traditional food and drink amidst traditional fairytale scenery and characters. 

Access to the Prater is free (individual attractions charge), making it one of the best ways to engage with Vienna. Like any typical carnival there is music tinkling through the air. Opulence here comes in the form of neon lights and over-the-top funhouses. And the food is just as decadent as anything you’ll find at the Saccher Hotel.
But there is a fun, lighthearted flare to the Prater that is absent from many other locales in Vienna. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, such as at the bumper car venue with the U.S.A. theme - it is decorated with a laughable array of American stereotypes, from the Hollywood blonde to the Texas cowboy.

The crown jewel is the Vienna Riesenrad, or Giant Ferris Wheel. Built in 1897, it is just as much as part of the city’s history and identity as St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the Saccher Torte. The Giant Ferris Wheel encompasses all the best traits of Vienna, and offers quite the view in the process.
Whether you’re leisurely ambling past a priceless palace or screaming around a Prater rollercoaster, you can be sure that music, opulence and decadence are everywhere in Vienna. And you don’t have to be descended from the Hapsburgs to enjoy every bit of it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bloom watch, the National Cherry Blossom Festival

Washington, D.C. is a sightseer’s smorgasbord. From monuments to museums, spaceships to ruby slippers, landmarks to legislative bodies, the city is awash in historic and fascinating attractions. But once a year, the sights that bloom are D.C.’s most unforgettable. 

Every spring the cherry trees scattered around America’s capital burst into life, sending vibrant shades of pink showering over the white marble monuments. They draw massive crowds from all over, who gather around the Washington and Jefferson monuments around mid-April to experience this annual natural wonder.

The timing is somewhat of a guessing game each year, typically falling early to mid-April but varying from a number of factors. Nevertheless, when the cherry blossoms arrive, the city takes on new life.

Washington, D.C. celebrates the arrival of spring each year with an annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which in 2014 runs through April 13. Throughout the celebration are family days, a parade, a road race, a kite festival and a fireworks display. But the main attraction is, of course, the famous cherry blossoms. The faux petals draping every storefront and restaurant signals that the cherry blossom effect is all-encompassing. 

Well-placed signs and notices let you know where the best viewing is and help guide visitors around the city. Flower lovers will find the experience mesmerizing and photographers are as close to heaven as they can get. But everyone, from adults to children, is transported to another world when walking through the cherry blossoms.

As soon as you emerge from one of the National Mall’s nearby subway stops (and taking the Metro subway is a smart idea with large crowds around the city), a whimsical atmosphere abounds. Underneath the massive Washington Monument burst white and pink-hued flowering trees. They welcome onlookers and urge them to continue further into the surreal setting.

Once across to the Tidal Basin, a body of water ringed by a pathway and several national monuments, the entire world is engrossed by overarching branches laded with magenta petals. The Jefferson Memorial shimmers in the background and if you make your way around to it, offers an astounding view of the trees.

Cherry blossom season all the senses are pricked. Springtime aromas mix with the buzz and hum of awed tourists. And before Washington's infamous humidity hits later in summer, this time of year typically offers visitors a comfortable springtime climate. The sights themselves are a visual feast. The natural beauty of the trees juxtaposes with the manmade monuments and buildings. It is a springtime awakening in every way.

For an even more astounding view, visit the Tidal Basin at dusk. The pool reflects the setting sun and the colorful trees, which in turn infuses the pinkish-white blossoms with an amber glow.

Despite the beautiful scenery, some D.C. locals will take a negative view of cherry blossom season, mostly because of the enormous crowds of tourists the trees draw to the city. Crowds can be overwhelming, as the most awe-inspiring viewing is in a relatively small area. But if D.C.’s large crowds are a turnoff, there are other options for viewing the cherry blossoms.

The Kenwood neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, a short car ride outside of Washington, is lined with the same type of cherry trees that circle the Tidal Basin. It is a treasure-trove of blossoms in a much different setting. They line this residential neighborhood, which in its own right can get crowded with visitors at peak season. But for many, this setting is more serene in its suburban enclave. And for much smaller crowds, the National Arboretum in Northeast D.C. is an excellent and free stop, boasting its own selection of beautiful cherry trees plus a bevy of other natural sights.

Regardless of where you see them, or the size of the crowds, a trip to Washington, D.C. in April is worthwhile for anyone who wants to see some natural beauty. The D.C. cherry blossoms are certainly a sight to behold.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Get away with springtime skiing

For skiers, persistent snowfall and frigid temperatures usually mean a winter full of quality runs on the slopes of New England. But as the blizzards ebb and warm weather eventually awakens from hibernation, there may still be a chance to steal a few treasures from the ski mountains.

Springtime skiing is an unexpected pleasure, extending the ski season and offering a most unique day on the slopes.

There is a certain feeling associated with spring skiing that is unnoticeably absent during mid-winter’s pelting snow and subzero wind chills. The sun spurs it on, but this feeling goes way beyond the weather. In fact, many times the heat makes for mushy, granular, sub-par snow.

But spring skiing is more mindset than mint conditions: joy, adrenaline, escape. Don’t be surprised at the speck of guilt scraping at you like a bared rock on your skis. When you walk out onto the lodge deck, a cold beer cooling your sweating hands, a sunburn on the parts of your face that weren’t covered by goggles and the parts of your forearms not covered by your t-shirt, you know you got away with something.

It is the same feeling as the one you had when you were a kid and you took a cookie but did not get caught with your hand in the jar; or that feeling you got in high school when you snuck in after curfew and mom and dad did not wake up. That is the feeling of spring skiing: I shouldn’t be here, but I am and I’m not leaving until they make me.

At Maine’s Shawnee Peak they embrace the circumvention of Mother Nature by hosting their annual Spring Fling (March 22, 2014). The seasonal contradictions are reminiscent of many regional ski resorts post-March 1. There’s a BBQ, plenty of skiers in t-shirts, beer specials and more than a few radio station promo prize giveaways. It all takes place in the shadow of a mountain just starting to lose its snowy edge.

But you don’t go spring skiing in New England for the packed powder. You go to get away and to get away with something. You go for that moment at the summit when you look out at a green valley and ice-less lakes surrounded by larger mountains that remain covered in snow. You go for the next moment when your gaze turns downward at your ski tips quivering over an icy black diamond trail pockmarked by puddles and pine needles. The obstacles are merely part of the semi-risky gamble we humans like to make when we are seeking reinvigoration after a cold, dark winter.

At Shawnee’s Spring Fling event, the pond-skimmers take it to a new level. When they’re hurtling down the main trail toward the manmade rectangular slush pool, surrounded by spectators and ski patrol/lifeguards, all they’re thinking is speed, speed, speed. There are few crossings, many valiant attempts and a lot of wet participants who end up submerged in the slush pool. From a bystander’s perspective, however, the sopping costumes and on-their-way-to-being-rusted-shut ski boots are just another entertaining perk of spring skiing.

Many other mountains across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine host similar springtime events with the hope of drawing in a crowd for some fun in the sun. It all depends on how long they can keep up useable conditions, and how many people think outside the box come late March.

So in the midst of this frigid winter, remember that spring is right around the corner and with it an opportunity to enjoy New England’s ski mountains in a unique way. No matter whose slopes you hit, you can get away with having a good time skiing this spring.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Provincetown, Year-Round

The malasadas are reason enough to drive out to Provincetown, Massachusetts. But these warm hunks of sugary, fried dough at the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery disappear when the store shuts down for the off-season.

Fortunately, there are many reasons to visit this seaside destination that don’t rely on the summer season, making a road trip to the tip of Cape Cod a sweet proposition any time of year. 

Like many beach towns, Provincetown’s vibrant, eclectic and active summer atmosphere cools off with the weather. The town stays busy enough, but is noticeably calmer and with fewer crowds than during peak season. This translates into little waiting at the best restaurants, vacancy at inns and hotels, and a romantic, meditative peace permeating the beach dunes. Even the drive out along Cape Cod, which many people dread during summer months due to traffic, becomes a leisurely ride through classic seaside towns.

In the midst of winter woes, it is easy to see why Provincetown is a relaxing haven.

Even before you reach Provincetown proper, several nearby treasures set the stage for leisure and romance.

Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod, about ten minutes away from Provincetown, is one such place. This local, family-owned and operated company produces quality wines, such as the crisp and refreshing Diamond White. Reminiscent of summer, a few glasses can warm even the chilliest of winter evenings.

After the winery closes for the season in mid-winter, Truro’s wines can be found in stores throughout the region. Adding a little whimsy and local flare to their stock, Truro features several vintages in a lighthouse-shaped bottle, in both clear and blue-colored glass.

The wine bottles are just one of many symbols of classic New England that abound here. The beachfront is perhaps the most appropriate, in any season.

Race Point Beach is part of the larger Cape Cod National Seashore, which is run by the National Park Service. Accessible right off of Route 6, Race Point Road is the scenic two-mile drive through a beach forest, complete with windswept oak and beech trees, dunes and foliage. It connects to other scenic roads or ends at a parking lot from which you can walk to the sand.

On crisp winter days there is a unique beauty in the dunes and widespread flats of Race Point Beach. Located opposite downtown on the other side of the peninsula, this classic, sprawling Cape Cod beach transforms into a barren, naked lunarscape when the summer sun tanners have gone. Only waves, seabirds or a frosty ocean breeze break the silence here. An occasional strolling couple will stop to sit on an oversized piece of driftwood, perhaps waiting for the early sunset or weighty winter moon to bathe the tableau in ethereal lights and colors. For the artist and tourist alike, inspiration and peace seem to be frozen into the dunes.

Closer to downtown, where the curvature of the Cape Cod tip curls in towards Provincetown Harbor, is the Breakwater Walk or Provincetown Causeway. The straight shot of massive stones that make up the breakwater traverses the harbor, connecting the corner of town to an outermost spit of scimitar-shaped land. Summer visitors scramble along the boulders, inches from the harbor, getting sprayed by seawater until they reach the other side where two lighthouses stand sentinel.

Off-season, the hordes have disappeared, the walk becomes a bit more daring and the seawater sprays just a bit icier. But the view of the Provincetown skyline – mainly marina buildings, small shops and the towering Pilgrim Monument – is unrivaled. So is the serenity and surrealism that comes from standing on a boulder surrounded by the ocean.  Even on ill-weather days, peering out at the stone causeway affords glimpses of the lighthouse through the fog: a confident symbol of the gritty dependability at the foundation of New England culture.

That culture is alive and well in the year-round restaurants and other establishments.

One of the town’s top spots, Mews Restaurants and Café, is open 363 days a year. Besides its exquisite setting, the award-winning Mews serves up delectable dishes, many which put a local twist on foreign-inspired dishes. Or sip a cocktail and fine-dine at The Pointe Restaurant with views of the Pilgrim Monument, which resembles the medieval Tuscan towers in Italy. Find a more casual and classic Cape Cod seafood meal, as well as spectacular oceanfront panoramas at Fanizzi’s by the Sea.

The benefit of a compact, walkable downtown, especially during winter, is the easy accessibility to the diverse array of open restaurants, shops and art galleries. The Provincetown Chamber of Commerce website (www.ptownchamber.com) makes it easy to determine year-round establishments – and there are many – by labeling them with a blue snowflake.

In a town that claims the title of Birthplace of Modern American Drama, entertainment is never in short supply at the local theaters. Many of the artists and art galleries that contribute to this town’s effervescent vibe remain year-round, allowing creativity to spill over onto the icy streets.

Locals gather annually to build a Christmas tree made out of lobster pots, lit, decorated and topped with fishing accoutrement. The result is strikingly beautiful and like the town itself, is an artful blend of imagination and iconic New England. The same goes for the lights strung from the ground to the top of the Pilgrim Monument.

Whatever reason spurs your visit, Provincetown is an attractive getaway option this winter. An off-season stay gives you the best of the beach without the normal fusses.

And if you stay long enough, you can catch the first batch of malasadas when the Portuguese Bakery reopens come springtime.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

There’s no place like home away from home

 No e-mail, no showers, no English. Oh my!

My visit to Mondaino, Italy was a whirlwind of family, food and fantastic personalities unlike anything I had ever experienced. Dorothy and Toto’s trip to Oz is tame by comparison.

To reach this tiny village in the hills along Italy’s east coast, I twisted and turned up and down one pale cobblestone road after another. The impossible inclines and precarious cliffside S-turns snaked through the hills in such a layered, convoluted pattern, that the green arrow on the GPS stopped progressing and simply spun in place like a weathervane caught in a wind storm. By the time the rental car finished the climb, my brain spun in place too.

Mondaino sits high atop the Rimini Province, surrounded by a handful of similar hamlets, all comprised of narrow streets, terracotta-topped homes and spectacular panoramic views. Each village revolves around a medieval church, each one more hauntingly beautiful than the next. Spires and bell towers rise above the rooftops and treetops, reaching like arms to God and signaling the separation of one village from another. It is a world to which Americans are wholly unaccustomed and one that harkens back to an older time. It is a fairytale in a foreign land; the kind of place they write storybooks about.

This visit to a non-touristy corner of Italy was anything but random. Mondaino is the hometown of my wife’s grandfather, who came to America almost 80 years ago. Numerous family members remain living there, making our visit a sort of homecoming, albeit to a home we had never known. 

To navigate being immersed into Italian culture, we needed a guide (and a place to stay). We found both in Anna.

A matriarch of sorts, Anna is my wife’s grandfather’s cousin and well known around Mondaino.

She moved slowly down from the front porch when we arrived at her gate, which gave me ample time to notice the Cheshire grin stretched across her wizened face. Anna spoke no English, although she humorously attempted a few words because it incited laughter out of her foreign guests. She knew we could barely understand her, but she spoke nonstop as she ushered us into her home and gave us the grand tour.

Our bags stowed, Anna bade us sit in the room central to every Italian household: the kitchen. She began pulling cheese, meat, cookies, crackers, wine – oh the wine – from every cupboard and shelf.

“Mangia,” she said. We knew that word. You don’t disobey an Italian grandmother when she tells you to eat. As we snacked, Anna stepped to the dining room table to put the finishing touches on her homemade pasta dough. She took a few breaks to come refill our wine glasses with hearty portions of a vintage made right there in town.

At the back of the kitchen a double door opened onto a balcony. From this vantage point, the Italian countryside sprawled out like a patchwork quilt over a lumpy bed. There were fig trees below and in the near distance the center of Mondaino was noticeable because of the church bell tower. 

After too many glasses of wine, Anna decided it was time to venture out. We were led through town, her cane clacking along each cobblestone. We stopped in at a bar, a pizza shop and the post office. There was an old man at a bar who began arguing with Anna, who took offense to his rude behavior in front of her guests. The young men working at the pizza joint knew Anna’s order before she even walked in.

Partway through, my wife realized we were being shown off. Anna was trotting us around to meet her friends and other family members, with that unmistakable look of pride on her face.

The town itself looked like we were walking through the pages of any Italy coffee table book. Anna took us to the church and the plaza at the end of town that acts as a scenic overlook out onto the countryside. We trekked to a neighborhood inside garrisoned walls, having had to drive through an ancient castle gate and stone ramp just to get up to the main square. We even stopped in at the cemetery to pay respect to the family members interred there.  

Our visit culminated with a home cooked meal, as every visit to Italy should. A dozen family members crowded into Anna’s kitchen to meet their American relative and her husband. None of the adults spoke English. My wife and I, though, persevered, pulling from the Rosetta Stone Italian classes we took in the months prior. It truly is wonderful how much people can communicate by interpreting words, facial expressions, hand gestures and context. The entire dinner conversation never lagged. We carried on full conversations about sports, politics, weather, travel, food, wine, more food and more wine.

One theme stuck out, however, both in the dinner conversation and throughout our two nights in Mondaino: family. We met relatives my wife never knew she had.

There were the only English-speaking members – Sara, Elizabeth and Giancarlo, all between 16 and 19 years old – who helped translate for us at some key junctures.  We met Anna’s cousin Pino, a small, jovial old man with a heart as big as his persona. He spoke loudly, hugged genuinely and helped Anna show us off to the rest of the town. We were introduced to Vittorio, an old business partner of my wife’s grandfather. His house sat high on the outskirts but his hospitality was as warm and unquestioning as the rest.

The night before we left, my wife and I sat Anna down and turned our video camera on her. We asked her to leave us a message we could take home to the rest of the family. She spoke for a few minutes and when she started to say goodbye, she cried.

We had never met Anna before this visit. My wife, growing up, had heard her on the telephone with her grandfather and exchanged holiday cards. She received gifts from her when her grandfather returned to America after his own trips back to the homeland.

But we were immediately and infinitely Anna’s family. Our wedding photo was on her mantle among the dozens of other family portraits. We were welcomed into her home without question and treated like royalty.

By the time the whirlwind blew us out of Mondaino, I had a new respect for the definition – and the scope – of family. My wife’s Italian relatives were warm, loyal, passionate and altruistic to the bone. They wore their traditions proudly and made inclusion a priority.

In short, they made us feel at home in a very foreign place. And there really is no place like home away from home.

 This article appeared in the Saugus Advertiser and MetroWest Daily News in January, 2014