Big City Tales

Exploring the New Found Land of St. John’s

January 30, 2018
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As one of North America’s first established settlements, the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland is also the continent’s most eastern point. Rich in both natural resources and natural beauty, and full of history and lore, St. John’s is a city worth exploring by land, sea or air.

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Located on the Avalon Peninsula, the city’s harbour flows into the Atlantic Ocean and was an ideal landing port for European explorers sailing from Spain, Portugal and England as far back as the late 15th century.

While John Cabot is largely considered the first explorer to make landfall in St. John’s in 1497 and claim the region for the King of England, it would take the Brits nearly a full century to officially establish the city in 1583.

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Signal Hill

Given its strategic location overlooking the harbour, fortifications were constructed on the top of Signal Hill many centuries ago to provide protection and alert the locals of impending enemy attacks by sea.

In addition to its military value as a flag mast signalling post, the site eventually became useful for testing and completing the first transatlantic wireless communication between North America and Europe in 1901. Signal Hill was also utilized by the Americans during World War II to thwart off German aircraft and marine vessels attempting to attack the east coast.

While it’s just a mass expanse of ocean water looking to the east of Signal Hill from Cabot Tower, the view to the west includes St. John’s Harbour, Gibbet Hill and Deadman’s Pond. The latter two names may be morbid, but it’s actually a very pretty and peaceful area complete with whimsical heart-themed arches and flower beds along a winding gravel path.

Government House

Whether driving or walking along Military Road, it’s not hard to miss the grand main entrance to Government House.

As the official residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, Government House is a two-storey Georgian-style stone home situated on sprawling grounds complete with gardens, stables and a greenhouse.

Completed in 1831, the design of the house was intended to reflect the status of its occupants and thus included a salon, dining room, and ballroom meant for entertaining dignitaries. The main entrance hall was also configured to allow for full pomp and circumstance ceremonial processions.

Military Monuments

The National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s is the most elaborate World War I monument in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The base of the memorial starts on Water Street and extends up to the large cenotaph on Duckworth Street.

The five figures depicted in the cenotaph are representative of Newfoundland involvement in World War I. The centre female figure symbolizes devotion to the Empire and the fight for freedom. The two figures below are representative of the fishermen and lumberjacks who enlisted and served with the Merchant Marine and Forestry Corps. The two figures on the right and left pay tribute to those who served with the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Further west along Water Street is the Thomas Ricketts Memorial. Ricketts was only 17 years old when he began his service in World War I and was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery on the battlefield, the youngest ever army recipient in a combatant role.

The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Dedicated in 1855, the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is situated on the highest ridge overlooking St. John’s.

At the time of it’s opening, the basilica was the largest Irish cathedral anywhere outside Ireland, was the largest church building in North America, and was notable for its base materials. Limestone and granite were imported from Galway and Dublin, Ireland; 400,000 bricks came from Hamburg, Germany; and local sandstone was quarried from St. John’s and Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay.

Today, the basilica is recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada and is the mother church and symbol of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland.

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Jellybean Row Houses

Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of St. John’s is its brightly coloured row houses.

Local lore suggests that fishermen of yore started the practice to help them pinpoint their lodgings during foggy weather, but the reality is the initiative is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Back in the late 1970s, the downtown core was in dire need of a revitalization effort and paint was used as a way to spruce things up and add some cheer to rundown buildings. The idea caught on and eventually spread to the city’s outer neighbourhoods; local businesses also joined in by modifying their storefronts.

When it comes to paint colours in St. John’s, the brighter the better reigns supreme and there’s no need to be matchy-matchy with the trim: contrasting colours are just fine.

Quidi Vidi

The fishing village of Quidi Vidi is famous for its microbrewery and Mallard Cottage, one of the oldest wooden structures in North America.

The district extends inland and includes Quidi Vidi Lake where the Royal St. John’s Regatta is held the first Wednesday in August, weather permitting. The regatta is North America’s oldest annual sporting event and attracts numerous men’s and women’s crews (6 members and a coxswain) eager to navigate the course and lay claim to the coveted rowing championship.

Terry Fox Memorial – Mile 0

In 1980, a heroic young man who lost his right leg to cancer began a cross-Canada run called the Marathon of Hope to raise funds for cancer research.

The starting point of Terry Fox’s epic journey was in St. John’s Harbour and the Mile 0 memorial fittingly marks the spot where Terry dipped his artificial leg into the North Atlantic Ocean and headed out for the TransCanada Highway.

Tragically, Terry’s cancer returned before he could complete his journey (he had to stop in Thunder Bay, Ontario and he ultimately passed away in 1981), but his Marathon of Hope efforts continue to this day.

Terry Fox Memorials can also be found in Thunder Bay and Victoria, British Columbia.

The City of Fog, Wind and Cloud

Not surprisingly, considering St. John’s geography the city is the foggiest, windiest and cloudiest in Canada. The good news is that while socked in dense fog conditions are common, once the wind picks up it rolls out the fog as quickly as it rolled in. When the sun is shining and the sky is blue, there’s nothing like a stroll along the harbour to take in the large shipping vessels docked and waiting to head out to sea.

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Vivid Memories of Vienna

January 27, 2018
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For a mid-October day, it certainly felt more like summer when I arrived in Vienna making for ideal sightseeing and picture-taking conditions. With the temperature expected to climb over 20 degrees Celsius, and nary a cloud in the brilliant blue sky with just a hint of a light breeze, my first vivid memory of the home of the Habsburgs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and wiener schnitzel was forever etched in my mind. Thankfully, more than just the weather enthralled me…here are some highlights of a quick day tour through one of Europe’s most glorious and grand cities:

Schonbrunn Palace

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Before the Palace of Versailles in France came Schonbrunn Palace in Austria, the imperial summer home of the Habsburg royal family for hundreds of years. The palace consists of over 1400 rooms and its Baroque design evokes awe beyond its distinct golden yellow exterior. The word Schonbrunn means “beautiful spring” and refers to a large, natural well on the grounds that supplied the palace occupants with a plentiful water source and allowed for an expansive garden.

In keeping with other residences of great European monarchies, the Schonbrunn property covers nearly 200 hectares and consists of expansive, immaculately kept lawns, flower beds and shrubs. I could not have chosen a more wonderful way to take in a splendid day in Vienna than wandering the grounds of one of its most popular attractions.

First up was admiring a series of marble statues that line the perimeter of the lower level garden in the area known as the Great Parterre, the space between the palace and the immense Neptune Fountain. Located at the foot of a hill, the sculptures of Neptune and his entourage were certainly impressive, but Gloriette, the crowning jewel of the palace garden took my breath away, literally and figuratively!

– Great Parterre

The Great Parterre includes over 30 life-size sculptures that represent mythological deities and virtues. The statues were carved over a period of seven years between 1773 and 1780 under the direction of a German artist and garden designer.

– Neptune Fountain

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The centre-point of the Neptune Fountain is, of course, Neptune, God of the Sea, and his entourage that includes a nymph seated on his left and the sea goddess, Thetis, kneeling on his right. Neptune holds his trusty trident high in the air and his stance is imposing as if to strike a sense of fear into any person or sea creature that attempts to block his path. A group of four tritons (half man-half fish beings) also adorn the base of the sculpture with each holding a conch shell trumpet to herald Neptune’s dominion.

– Gloriette

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Ironically, the root word of gloriette (gloire) means “little room,” but there is nothing little about the building that Queen Maria Theresa intended to be a symbol of Habsburg power and the Just Wars it carried out in the name of securing lasting peace and prosperity. The Schonbrunn Gloriette sits at the top of a 60-metre-high hill overlooking the Neptune Fountain, the Great Parterre, the Schonbrunn Palace immediately below it, and ultimately the city of Vienna beyond the palace complex borders. The Gloriette is thus both a focal point and a lookout, and was also utilized as a large dining hall and a venue for hosting festive events. It is well worth taking the time to make the trek from the palace, which can be done via two pathways: one is straight up; the other curves its way up the hillside. Either way, there are rest stops to take in wonderful vistas and sit and enjoy the company of ducks that flock to the many water features and grassy banks.

 

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Hofburg Palace

Having surveyed the splendor of the summer residence, my tour continued on to Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the imperial family. This palace is located in the centre of Vienna and was originally built in the 13th century followed by many expansions. The palace was the seat of power of the Habsburg rulers for centuries, and today is the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria.

 

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The palace consists of a series of wings and overlooks the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), a large, public green space where two notable statues stand honoring great military leaders of the past: one of Prince Eugene of Savoy; the other of Archduke Charles of Austria. The Austrian Crown Jewels are also kept in the Hofburg’s treasury.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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Inside the Hofburg Palace gate lies the heart of Vienna’s Old Town district, the Innere Stadt, where there are numerous places of interests to take in along with experiencing a vibrant market/food scene. I highly recommend trying out the local fusion food carts that offer delicious offerings like duck schnitzel with thick noodles and vegetables.

As the most important religious building in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its colourful tiled roof is also one of Old Town’s most recognized sites. The cathedral is more commonly referred to as Stephansdom and is the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese in Vienna, as well as the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. Stephansdom has hosted many important events in Habsburg and Austrian history, including the weddings of Mozart and Haydyn, and the funeral of Vivaldi; its crypt contains the remains of Habsburg royal family members and other notable Austrian figures.

Austrian Parliament Building

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Across the street from Hofburg Palace and located along the picturesque and majestic Vienna Ring Road (Ringstrasse), the Austrian Parliament is a shining example of the Greek Revival style. With towering Corinthian pillars and numerous allegorical statutes, including the Athena Fountain and Horse Tamer in the images below, as well as bronze and marble statues on the roof and within the pediment, the building’s artistic details were intended to capture the attention of the masses, which they still do to this day. The image above shows the series of four statues along The Ramp that consist of Greek and Roman ancient historians intended to remind politicians of their responsibility to be mindful of history.

Mozart Monument

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Last but not least, no trip to Vienna is complete without paying homage to one of classical music’s greatest composers. A lovely monument of Mozart is found in the Burggarten (Imperial Palace Gardens). As a child, Mozart was a keyboard and violin prodigy but he also possessed a penchant for composing, which dazzled the royal court. Although born in Salzburg, Mozart was a restless lad and longed for the fame and glamour of the city life. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he made the decision not to return to his country roots and make the city his new home. A wise choice…Vienna is indeed wunderbar!

 


The Pride of Pittsburgh

January 11, 2018
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Even with one of its nicknames being “Steel City,” Pittsburgh is a city that has long intrigued me. True, some historical references conjure up images of thick black plumes of smoke hovering over dreary factory buildings in a landscape devoid of green spaces. But that was then and this is now. The industrial town of old has definitely made way for a new cosmopolitan vibe that is attracting curious visitors like me in droves. Indeed, in recent years the city has received notable accolades for its livability, culture, foodie scene and economic prosperity.

Yes, “The ‘Burgh” or “City of Bridges” as the city is also referred to today is chock-full of amazing architecture, museums, parks, educational institutions, restaurants, and sports & entertainment options on par with New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major US cities. Whichever nickname you prefer, each truly represents the best of Pittsburgh’s past and present.

Here is a sampling of the Pride of Pittsburgh:

A “Top 10” City View

As the locals have long been aware, Pittsburgh has a lot of attractions to be proud of. The view of downtown from the Mt. Washington district at the top of the Duquesne Incline (pictured below) is one of the city’s shining gems. This vantage point also just happens to rank in Fodor’s Travel “10 Most Incredible Views of America’s Cities” and shows off many of the city’s bridges, skyscrapers and the fountain at Point State Park, a national historic landmark.
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When dusk makes way to mid-evening and late night, the city lights begin to twinkle and reflect off of the river waters making for a glorious sight that photographers of all levels clamor to capture. Even my humble 35mm point and shoot digital camera produced a decent shot. Having enjoyed a lovely panoramic nighttime view of downtown, I was looking forward to getting a closer look in the daylight of Pittsburgh’s iconic buildings.

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Architecture

It may not be the tallest building in Pittsburgh, but PPG Place certainly caught my eye as it sparkled against the backdrop of a crystal blue sky.  The complex towers above most of the city’s skyline and its series of buildings stretch over three city blocks. PPG Place is noteworthy for its matching glass design consisting of six buildings, 231 spires, and 19,750 pieces of glass. At ground level, a large plaza paved in a mosaic of red, grey and black granite provides a gathering place for various seasonal activities such as an outdoor skating rink during the winter months and a fountain feature from spring until fall. For those who prefer an indoor refuge, the Wintergarden is a glass-enclosed garden oasis located in the main tower that is open year-round.

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PPG Place is also located next to the Market Square district where restaurants, cafes and retailers cater to tourists, as well as the regular Monday to Friday downtown business crowd. One of the popular casual dining haunts in Market Square is Primanti Brothers, known for their colossal “Almost Famous” sandwiches of grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and french fries piled high between two pieces of thick Italian bread. Believe me, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day, and you’ll probably want to head to one of the city’s nearby world-class museums to walk off some calories!

Museums

From history to art, to soldiers and sailors, or the celebration of the bicycle, Pittsburgh’s wide variety of museum options offers something for everyone’s taste and interests. 

Heinz History Center

Located in the Strip District, which is a one-half square mile shopping area northeast of downtown, the Heinz History Center is Pennsylvania’s largest history museum and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The center showcases Pittsburgh’s past and highlights its tradition of innovation, notably that Pittsburgh is known as a city of “firsts” such as the first Big Mac hamburger at McDonald’s, the first retractable roof, the first drive-in gas station, the first ferris wheel, etc. As depicted in its many permanent and rotating exhibitions, the city is the headquarters of the Heinz food empire, is where famed explorers Lewis & Clark launched their epic trek from Pittsburgh to the Pacific from, and is where the beloved children’s show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed at the local public broadcasting station. A unique feature of touring the museum is that you can start in the stairwell and view highlights of the city’s 250-year history on the walls and steps as you wind your way to the top floor and then work your way down. I highly recommend this approach before taking in the full exhibits; the incline is not too steep and the museum is only six floors so you don’t have to be in tip-top shape.

Andy Warhol Museum

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Before he took New York City and the entire world by storm with his abstract art (most notably Campbell’s soup cans and images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), Andy Warhol was a fresh-faced kid from Pittsburgh. Located in the city’s North Shore district, the Andy Warhol Museum holds the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials, and is the largest single artist museum in North America.

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I found it interesting to see Warhol’s development as an artist before and after his fixation with Campbell’s soup cans, and late in his career when he started using computer generated design and color techniques. It also surprised me to learn that he was a pack rat and amassed quite a collection of knickknacks.

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Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History Museum 

Founded in 1895 by renowned businessman Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Museum of Art is considered to be the first museum of modern art in the United States. With paintings ranging from Monet to Whistler, the museum’s impressive collection also features one of the largest collection of plaster casts of architectural masterpieces in the world that are housed in the massive Hall of Architecture wing. The statues and building facades may be plaster, but they certainly looked authentic which speaks to the high quality of the replication process. The Porch of the Maidens installation captured my attention along with an elaborate burial shrine.

The Natural History Museum is noted for having one of the finest collections of dinosaur skeletons in the world, but has many other exhibits covering subject matter such as minerals and gems, Ancient Egypt, life in the Arctic, and geology. The museum’s high vaulted ceilings are the perfect construction to show off the towering heights of long extinct species.

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Educational Institutions

Situated in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Cathedral of Learning stands 535 feet tall and contains 42 floors.

Aside from its magnificent Late Gothic Revival exterior, the interior features the infamous Nationality Rooms that are located on the first and third floors. The rooms are representative of various cultural and ethnic groups that have settled in the Pittsburgh area. When not in use, the public is free to explore the rooms; there are also great city views from the windows on the 35th and 36th floors.

Sports & Entertainment

Pittsburgh has a stellar record of winning sports franchises and an impressive array of venues to show off their talents in. PPG Paints Arena is the home of the 5-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League; Heinz Field is where the 6-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League play; and PNC Park is where the 5-time World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball hear the cry “Batter Up!” Even if ‘black and gold’ aren’t your colours, there’s plenty to cheer about and admire in this amazing “City of Champions!”