Big City Tales

The WOW Factor in Washington, DC

January 20, 2012
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The statue that stands strong and proud atop the U.S. Capitol Building is fittingly called Freedom.

The founding fathers of the United States were true visionaries and after achieving independence from British rule they set their sights on building a capital city befitting of this proud new nation.  The ultimate goal was to send a strong and powerful message to all foreign countries that America was a force to be reckoned with by virtue of the massive and impressive structures constructed throughout the nation’s capital, from the U.S. Capitol Building to the White House and everything in between.   Drawing inspiration from the great capital cities across the pond, the original architects/planners of Washington, DC adopted a “best of the best” approach in their plans and it served them well.  Some 200+ years since its introduction on the world stage, the city still evokes a sense of wonder, power and visual delight at every turn, and has definitely maintained and added to its WOW factor!

The reflecting ponds in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the National Mall.

A stoic, solemn and sombre Abraham Lincoln is symbolic of his leadership style and personal demeanor.

Memorials, The National Mall and Museums

Whether paying homage to past presidents or war veterans, there are plenty of memorial sites to visit in and around DC.  Located at the far west end of the famous National Mall is the stately Lincoln Memorial with its vaulted ceilings and sturdy columns that are the perfect backdrop for the marble statue of the stoic “Honest Abe” deep in thought as he sits and looks out over the landscape of the Mall and its reflecting ponds toward the U.S. Capitol building.   In Abe’s sight line is the towering Washington Memorial that is akin to the Egyptian-styled obelisks found in both Paris, France and Buenos Aires, Argentina and is a tribute to the first U.S. president, George Washington.  In between these two impressive memorials are others of equal repute: the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and the World War II Memorial.   Along the banks of the Potomac River is the gigantic and grand rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial with the Declaration of Independence etched into the walls behind a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing tall and looming larger than life.  To the west of this area lies a winding green space that stretches many miles and features a number of cascading waterfalls, rock gardens and statues of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his wife, Eleanor.   FDR was the longest-serving U.S. president and the design of this memorial is symbolic of both the many years he spent in office and the many years he spent at the Warm Springs Spa in Georgia where he sought water therapy treatment for his polio affliction.

A side view of the Jefferson Memorial, the statue silhouette is Mr. Jefferson himself.

The reflection of the Washington Memorial glistens in the calm waters of the Potomac River.

One of many cascading waterfall features along the path at the FDR Memorial.

As if the memorials weren’t enough to look at along the Mall, the Smithsonian Institute and its associated museums, including the American Museum of History, along with the National Gallery of Art and the National Gallery Sculpture Garden provide many more thousands of treats for the eyes to behold.  The American Museum of History houses treasures such as Julia Child’s kitchen, the inauguration attire worn by many first ladies, and extensive exhibits of America at War.  For its part, the National Gallery has an impressive collection of art from around the world and showcases some of America’s finest artistic contributions over the centuries, including a Modern Art wing.   Away from the Mall, the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art are worth a visit and, for the sports fans out there, can easily be paired up with taking in a hockey or basketball game at the Verizon Center located just a few blocks away.  The Newseum along Pennsylvania Avenue will appeal to the news hounds out there who are still partial to seeing the news in print.  In fact, over 80 front pages from newspapers around the world are posted on a daily basis in the Today’s Front Pages gallery area that is partially visible from the street level.

Julia Child's collection of copper pans on display in the American Museum of History.

All roads lead to the U.S. Capitol Building…including Pennsylvania Avenue

As you drive into DC off of the interstate, the U.S. Capitol Building dominates the skyline and with every passing mile as you draw nearer to this iconic structure, it is clear that the forefathers of America created a lasting legacy in this large, legendary and not in the least lugubrious building.  If ever there was a building dripping with proverbial power that immediately captures your attention and makes you want to see more, this is it!   Designed in the neoclassical style, the sheer size and sprawl of the Capitol is awesome in itself, but it is the intricate details of the cascading, multi-tiered 100 foot diameter dome and the soaring Freedom statue that sits atop it that garner the most oohs and aahs.  The Capitol flanks the most eastern end of the Mall and off towards 3rd Street is where the suits meet to have their power lunches and extended after hours fun in a host of trendy and tasteful restaurants.

A stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue looking east toward the U.S. Capitol building.

The Canadian Embassy is located along the famous Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) and Mount Vernon

A trip to DC would not be complete without crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Virginia and visiting the burial site of many of the nation’s leading political figures, war heroes and veterans, as well as George and Martha Washington’s “home away from home”, the pretty, peaceful and picturesque Mount Vernon country estate.  Just a sidebar here that traffic is atrocious in Virginia and if you can avoid travelling on inner city and town roads that become quite bottle-necked and grid-locked during peak rush hours then do yourself a favour and stick to the expressways.  That said, both of these tourist attractions can still be fit into one day even if you find yourself in a traffic jam, but be advised to plan ahead and allow ample time to stroll through the 600+ acres at ANC and be sure to make your way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visit the Eternal Flame constructed in honour of President John F. Kennedy and his family members.   The grounds and country estate home at Mount Vernon offer up a slice of what life was like for the Washington family, and the view of the Potomac River from the back lawn is incredible.  It’s clear that George and Martha had their very own little piece — or should I say, BIG piece — of paradise on earth and it’s no wonder that they preferred the country over city life!

The front view of Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's country home in Virginia.

The back view from Mount Vernon overlooking the crystal clear blue waters of the Potomac River.

The White House

When George and Martha had to leave their cozy and idyllic abode in the Virginia countryside for the political squalor in DC, the White House awaited them as it has for every president and first lady since.   Although it is now heavily guarded and barricaded from the street level, it is nonetheless still visible from afar and you can get a good sense of the expansive grounds and what the view is like from the West Wing.

The stately White House in all its perfection and glory!

The Kennedy Center, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom

Overlooking the Potomac, the Kennedy Center is the home of cultural arts and entertainment offering opera, orchestra and theater productions.  Heading west from the Kennedy Center are the trendy and popular districts of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom where students, lobbyists, pundits and all movers and shakers in general like to congregate for eating, shopping and people watching.

The Lincoln Memorial stands out as bright at night as it is during the day.

"Honest Abe" is deep in thought as he looks out toward the National Mall.

The Final Analysis

As capital cities go, Washington, DC is right up there with the likes of London, Paris, and Rome.  From its awe-inspiring architecture to its fine dining and cuisine, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this fair city, which is very much alive and well and is a strong, vibrant testament to all that it means to live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The entrance of the Jefferson Memorial sparkles and shimmers in the morning sun.

Statues of FDR and his dog sit in front of a classic quote made at some point during his long presidency.

The Korean War Memorial shows soldiers trudging off to battle in a land forlorn.

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Home Sweet Home

January 6, 2012
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The Calgary Tower surges to the sky on a hot summer day.

For those, like me, who have ever lost touch with their home town, I invite you to take the time to explore and rediscover the sights and sounds in your own backyard — it might surprise you to find that adventure awaits at every turn!

And so it was, after returning from Europe in the summer of 2010, that I found myself wandering around the streets of Calgary in search of some of the same history, beauty, and awe that had struck me so deeply in London, Paris, Rome and spots in between.  I freely admit that I was initially highly dubious about finding anything to match the splendor of Europe, but am pleased to report that this little exercise resulted in a change of heart and truly opened my eyes to what Calgary has to offer.  It is, indeed, a big city of the world in its own right and deserves a post in this blog, so please read on and discover the hidden treasures to be had in the “Heart of the West” and home of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”…

Heritage Park – Celebrating the charm of days gone by

Granted, Calgary is still a “young” city on the world stage, but there is nonetheless a rich and colourful history that is proudly on display at Heritage Park.  Once a humble outpost, Calgary has grown in leaps and bounds and evolved into a major urban centre, but its western small-town roots are firmly entrenched and well-preserved.  A stroll around Heritage Park takes you back in time to the early days when the “wild west” was being tamed and the seeds of modern-day civilization were planted.  An old-fashioned train and steamboat, along with horse-drawn wagons and crank-style cars provide a glimpse into early modes of transportation, and the sweet and succulent aromas emanating from the bakery and candy shoppe leave your taste buds salivating for the goodness of simple pleasures like home-baked bread and melt-in-your-mouth gum drops!   Period costumes are donned by all staff members and there is even a theatrical troupe that shares their acting, singing and dancing skills in entertaining (and sometimes hysterical!) skits staged throughout the park.  The most recent addition on the grounds is the large and impressive Gasoline Alley that boasts outdoor and indoor displays showcasing the transition from the old to the new west once cars, trucks, planes, etc. became more prevalent and enabled the expansion and growth of Calgary from a small town to a big, booming city, which it remains to this day!

A classic red barn at Heritage Park.

The Calgary Tower / Downtown Corridor – Look up, way up, progress is high in the sky

Calgary may be referred to in some circles as “Cowtown”, but while this term is appropriate for the city’s western heritage, it unfortunately does not do justice in reflecting the truly urbanite aspects the city has taken on over the years, including the host of large concrete buildings that stretch for blocks of avenues and streets, east to west and north to south.  In fact, one of the things I like the most about Calgary is the expansive downtown skyline, which is impressive from any direction it is viewed from, and, for my money, rivals the likes of NYC, TO, LA and other major centres.  I will concede that by current standards the Calgary Tower is certainly dwarfed by its competition, but it nonetheless has a very unique shape and still attracts its fair share of visitors.  Despite the lagging economy and predictions of doom and gloom around the globe, new buildings continue to be built and The Bow and Eighth Avenue Place are both recent additions to the landscape that have greatly added to Calgary’s claim to fame as the mecca of corporate headquarters.

Eighth Avenue Place glitters and gleams in downtown Calgary.

Olympic Plaza / City Hall – Where the past glory of the games meets the current hustle and bustle of daily civic activity

One of the lasting legacies of the 1988 Winter Olympics is found across the street from City Hall.  Olympic Plaza is where the medal ceremonies took place and to this day is still a main gathering site for Calgarians to congregate throughout the year be it for New Year’s Eve, Canada Day, or Stampede celebrations.  It was also the site for Calgary protestors showing support for the Occupy Wall Street inspired movement that swept through many cities in 2011.

Olympic Plaza as seen from the Calgary Tower.

McDougall Centre – This old stone beauty shines brightly all year-round

During the December/January holiday season, McDougall Centre is one of the most festively decorated buildings in the downtown core and is a sight to behold, but it also has tremendous eye appeal during the rest of the year.  The grounds are well-treed, well-groomed and well-lit making it a very fitting office for when the Premier of Alberta is in town.

The setting sun casts a warm glow across the stone exterior of McDougall Centre.

Prince’s Island Park / Riley Park – Have park, will picnic and photograph!

Too much concrete can be overwhelming, so kudos to those city planners from days gone by who had the foresight to allow for natural green spaces to remain intact while still allowing for the growth and expansion of new areas around the city’s core.  Calgarians love their parks and flock in droves to them as time and weather allow.  Alas, if only Mother Nature would cooperate and deliver up a warmer and longer summertime, these parks would be utilized all the more!

A flower bed boldly blooms in Riley Park.

The Beltline District – A mix of old and new makes for a popular place to shop, eat and live

Halfway between downtown and the well-known 17th Avenue corridor lies the Beltline that attracts quite a Bohemian crowd with its bevy of diners, coffee houses, shops, libraries, parks, apartment/condo complexes, churches and every other conceivable creature-comfort needed to survive in the big city.  Yes, it’s a trendy spot to set up an abode or just while away the time on the weekend.

Historic Lougheed House in the scenic and popular Beltline district.

Elbow River Pathway – Nature in the heart of the city offers the best of both worlds

Truly one of the most picturesque settings in Calgary (and highly priced real estate areas!), the south end of 4th Street SW that converges with Elbow Drive is a little bit of paradise in the big city.  Like the Beltline, this area also has a lot of amenities and draws a large crowd for the annual Lilac Festival in the spring.

A view of downtown from the Elbow River Pathway.

The Calgary Zoo – Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, and don’t forget about the dinosaurs!

Arguably one of the best zoos in the world, Calgary’s home to wild and domesticated animals of all shapes and sizes — including the life-size and oh-so-real looking models of dinosaurs — continues to expand its exhibits and looks forward to welcoming penguins in the near future.  Zoo Lights is a popular winter attraction that sets the zoo aglow during the holiday season and beckons us to not forget our fine furry, feathered, finned and otherwise friends during the long dark days of winter.

A giraffe and zebra live together in peace and harmony at the Calgary Zoo.

So, as you can plainly tell, there is much to see, do, and enjoy in Calgary and 2012 is the ideal year to plan a trip being the centennial celebration of the Stampede in July.   The hootin’ and hollerin’ will be in high gear as Calgary welcomes the world and shows off both its western and urban sides, a duality that makes it a great place to call home sweet home!

Some more sights around town…

An old grain elevator still stands tall and proud at Heritage Park.

Pretty as a peacock in its prime!

A classic stone church adds charm to the Beltline district.

Galloping steel horses near Court of Queen's bench.

The ferris wheel spins in the sun at Heritage Park.

CP Rail headquarters along 9th Avenue SW.

Old City Hall is home of Calgary's Mayor and City Councillors.

The fountain at Prince's Island Park.

The Calgary Tower framed in greenery and bright blue sky.