Big City Tales

No Time for a Siesta in the South of Spain

May 5, 2018
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While a mid-day or late afternoon break is a long-standing tradition in many European and Mediterranean cultures, given the sheer amount of beautiful sights to behold and historical stories to soak up there is truly no time for a siesta in the south of Spain. Si amigos, a trip to the provinces of Andalusia and the heralded capital cities of Cordoba, Granada and Seville promises to be a jam-packed experience so plan to catch up on sleep mas tarde.

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Cordoba

Once upon a time, Cordoba was the largest city in Western Europe and for many centuries was the Islamic capital of Spain.

Under the rule of the Moors, a monumental mosque called the Mezquita was constructed in the city centre and it served the Muslim faithful until the Christian conquest of Cordoba in 1236 resulted in the building being converted into a cathedral and a main altar (Capilla Mayor) and choir loft being added. To the credit of the Christian conquerors, who appreciated the exceptional beauty of the Mezquita, the bulk of the mosque remained intact to be admired by generations to come.

Other highlights in Cordoba include the Puerta del Puente memorial gate and the Callejon de las Flores, Cordoba’s most photographed street, where many homes are adorned with potted plants on their patios and balconies that are perfectly presented in delightfully bright and cheery colour-coordinated designs.

Mezquita – Great Mosque of Cordoba

Considered to be one of the best examples of Moorish architecture, the Mezquita features a 54-metre high belltower (Torre Campanario) that provides an inner view of the mosque’s courtyard, as well as a panoramic city view. The mosque’s interior is noted for its striped arches that have the look of a forest of date palm trees and are supported by decorative columns.

The overall architectural design was ground-breaking for its time in that it was largely considered to be quite simple compared to the likes of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus. Simple or not, the Mezquita dominates Cordoba’s skyline and is particularly spectacular at night when a one-hour sound and light show takes place.

Puerta del Puente

Originally the main city gate, the Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) was first constructed during the rule of Phillip II in the late 16th century.

The primary goal of the gate was to help facilitate the flow of people and materials in and out of the city, but there was also an aesthetic purpose to help in an overall city beautification effort. Shaped like a triumphal arch, the Renaissance design also features columns and carvings on both of its sides.

The gate now functions as a memorial and is situated on the northern end of the Roman Bridge close to the back entrance into the Mezquita.

Callejon de las Flores

Not many city streets have their own website, but the Callejon de las Flores (Street of the Flowers) does have one and for good reason: it’s one of Cordoba’s most visited spots and one of its most beautiful.

Although it’s not a very long or very wide street, tourists clamor to it in droves to take in a residential gardening spectacle like no where else in the world. Winding through narrow cobblestone lanes and surrounded by white-washed walls decked out in a riot of terracotta pots boasting brilliant hues of pink, purple and red flowers, Callejon de las Flores delights the senses at every turn.

Granada

Welcome to the last stronghold of the Spanish Moors and the land of a thousand castles, where the Alhambra palace and fortress stands out for its intricate Islamic art and exquisitely maintained gardens and fruit orchards at the nearby Palacio de Generalife.

Like Cordoba, Granada also features many Christian monuments and heritage sites such as the Capilla Real, the royal resting place of Spain’s Catholic monarchs, and the Cathedral of Granada that was built over top of the Great Mosque of Granada after the fall of the Nasrid dynasty in 1492.

Alhambra

Before it was re-built as a palace for Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Yusuf (Muhammad I), the first ruler of the Emirate of Granada in the 1300s, the Alhambra served as a small city fortress. The emir had a grander vision for the complex, including taking full advantage of its forested mountain location to create a visual spectacle around the theme of “paradise on earth” that would ultimately continue into the interior space of the palace.

Even though the structural design of the exterior is purposefully simple and plain, the interior showcases elaborate Muslim art forms such as geometrical patterns, arabesques, mosaics, wood ceilings called alfarje, and ornamental vaults called muqarnas. Other interior design features include a central courtyard, columns, fountains and reflecting pools.

Some of the main structures within the Alhambra include the Court of the Lions, Court of the Myrtles, and Hall of the Ambassadors. The Court of the Lions is the main courtyard of the Alhambra that was added by Muhammad V and is noteworthy for its blend of Moorish and Christian aesthetic elements, and its central Fountain of the Lions that was a marvel of hydraulic engineering in how water flowed from the basin and spurted from the mouths of the 12 marble lions around the fountain’s base.

One of the best vantage points to take in the full glory of the Alhambra is from Mirador de San Nicolas. Along with being an ideal spot to take a sunset shot of the palace/fortress and appreciate the trees and Sierra Nevada mountains surrounding it, Mirador de San Nicolas is a popular hangout for local buskers showing off their performance talents.

Palacio de Generalife

Originally connected to the Alhambra via a covered walkway across a ravine, the Palacio de Generalife was the summer home of the Nasrid rulers.

The design of the peaceful country retreat nestled in the Cerro del Sol hillside includes a central courtyard called the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel) that is decorated with mosaic stone walkways, flowerbeds, fountains, colonnades and pavilions, and the Jardím de la Sultana (Sultana’s Garden) that showcases the style of a traditional Persian garden from Medieval times.

The Palacio de Generalife and Alhambra are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Capilla Real (Royal Chapel)

Given the historical significance of Granada to the Reconquista era, which marked the return of Spain to Christendom, the city was chosen by Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II as the final resting place for them and their family members. They decreed in 1504 that a royal chapel be built in Gothic style and be dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. In addition to elaborately carved tombs, the interior features a treasury of paintings and other works from Spanish, Flemish and Italian artists.

Cathedral of Granada

Boasting a Gothic foundation with both Renaissance and Baroque design elements, the highly unique Cathedral of Granada is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The interior of the cathedral features a large main altar in a circular format along with several chapels, and a high dome decorated with stained glass windows and sculptures depicting various religious stories and themes. The cathedral’s exterior is noteworthy for its triumphant arch design with three high arches decorated with marble reliefs, and its three carved wooden doorways.

Seville

Similar to Cordoba and Granada, Seville’s architecture reflects the best of Moorish and Spanish design elements. From the stunning Real Alcazar to the sprawling Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa, the city is a living piece of art bursting with colour, texture and technique.

As much as Seville celebrates its glorious history in the epic Catedral and Giralda bell tower, it has also opened its arms to modern structures such as the Metropol Parasol (Las Setas de la Encarnacion).

The past and present blend seamlessly in Seville, and culture also abounds with flamenco dancing, bull fighting and tapas sampling making the city a top “must see” destination in the opinion of many travel guide reviewers.

Real Alcazar

The Real Alcazar is a mixture of Christian and Mudejar architecture and is considered to be one of the most beautiful attractions in Spain.

One of the main features of Real Alcazar is the Palacio de Don Pedro, that was built for King Pedro of Castile in the late 1300s. The palace layout includes the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) containing a central reflecting pool, sunken garden and surrounding reception rooms; the Salon de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) that is the most elaborately decorated part of the palace where King Pedro’s throne was located; and the Patio de las Muñecas (Courtyard of the Dolls), where the royal family resided.

Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa

Built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, the Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa are prime examples of Spanish Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival architectural styles.

The Plaza de Espana was the main exhibition area and was constructed of bricks and decorative tiles. The plaza includes fountains, canals and footbridges inspired by Venetian designs. The tile work is extensive and was used to create regional maps and historical scenes from all of Spain’s ancient provinces.

The Parque de Maria Luisa is an inner city garden oasis that features tiled fountains, pavilions, walls, ponds, benches, as well as plenty of flora such as palms, orange trees, Mediterranean pines, and decorative flower beds.

Catedral and Giralda

The Seville Cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic church and legend has it that church and city leaders intended it to be so beautiful and grand that it could not be replicated. From its highly ornate facade to its vast interior that has the longest nave of any church in Spain, the world’s largest altarpiece, and contains some 80 chapels, the Seville Cathedral is also notable for being the site of royal baptisms and burials, as well as being the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.

The Giralda bell tower stands 104 metres tall and the view from the top offers one of the best panoramas of Seville. The tower is decorated with tiles that change colour according to light conditions in the sky and it is topped with a weathervane, known as El Giraldillo, that represents the concept of faith. The Giralda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an iconic symbol of Seville.

Metropol Parasol

Located in the old quarter of Seville, the Metropol Parasol is the world’s largest wooden structure and is shaped like gigantic mushroom parasols, which are intended to emulate the vaulted arches of the Seville Cathedral and the leafy branches of ficus trees growing nearby.

The Metropol Parasol contains four levels and includes a museum that showcases Roman and Moorish artifacts found on site during construction, a large Central Market, an outdoor plaza/performance space, and panoramic terraces.

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The Sights and Wonders of South and Western Australia

May 1, 2018
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In a land where the Gold Coast and Great Barrier Reef attract travelers in droves to its north and eastern shores, the sights and wonders of south and western Australia are sometimes sadly overlooked. This blog shines the spotlight in the direction of lesser known cities such as Adelaide and Perth that rival the likes of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and are major urban centres in their own right where beaches, parks and other top-notch amenities are just waiting to delight intrepid Down Under explorers.

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Adelaide

Surrounded by lush vineyards and beautiful coastal beaches, Adelaide is also known for its Mad March festival season, wildlife parks and reserves such as Kangaroo Island, and a vibrant culinary scene featuring a diverse array of international cuisines. Another main attraction is the Adelaide Oval, a world-renowned cricket venue that is heralded as much for its landscaped grounds and pedestrian-friendly plaza as it is for its immaculately maintained stadium turf and seating capacity of 50,000.

Wine Country

With more than 60 wineries in the Adelaide Hills region alone, it’s easy to understand why Adelaide is referred to as one of the great wine capitals of the world. The cool climate in this area offers ideal growing conditions for grapes that produce Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc wines, and opportunities for tastings and food pairings are plenty. Local favourites include Mt. Lofty Ranges Vineyard, Pike & Joyce, The Lane Vineyard, Shaw + Smith, and Ashton Hills.

Beach Scene

Whether heading north or south along Adelaide’s long coastline, most beaches are within 30 minutes to an hour of the city centre. Glenelg is a popular family-friendly destination that is also known for its trendy boutiques and cafes located on Jetty Road. Henley and Brighton beaches also offer a variety of shops and eateries along with ample space to park a towel and grab some rays. Semaphore Foreshore is lauded for its long and wide beach that is bordered by sand dunes and provides an ideal location for the annual Adelaide Kite Festival. The Semaphore Jetty is a popular landmark that extends 585 metres into the Gulf of St. Vincent. Other local attractions include a vintage 1920s carousel and an old-fashioned steam locomotive that runs along the scenic Semaphore to Fort Glanville Tourist Railway.

Festival Line-Up

Be it theatre, dance, music, visual arts or comedy, Adelaide is the place to check out a plethora of annual festivals and events. During the month of March the city is a veritable festival frenzy with a line-up that includes the Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Adelaide Writers’ Week and WOMADelaide, the latter a multicultural celebration of music, arts and dance held at the Adelaide Botanic Garden.

Perth

Boasting an average of 8.8 hours of daily sunshine, Perth is the sunniest capital city in Australia that also prides itself on offering a unique blend of urban living in the heart of a natural setting. Skyscrapers in the Central Business District make for an impressive skyline that is minutes away from trendy hipster communities, the shores of the Indian Ocean, as well as one of the world’s largest inner city parks. Perth has also gained recent Instagram fame due to a camera-friendly marsupial called the quokka that is only found in Western Australia, and seems to take great pleasure in posing for selfies.

Urban Appeal

Cafes, clothiers and cultural establishments abound in Perth neighborhoods such as Northbridge, Leederville, Mount Lawley and Subiaco.  The Elizabeth Quay district features apartments, office buildings and retail outlets along the waterfront. Barrack Square is home to the Swan Bell Tower, a set of 18 bells contained in a copper and glass tower that stands 82.5 metres high. Other public art in the area includes the Spanda and First Contact sculptures, the latter is a five-metre bird with its wings stretched on a boat. First Contact was created by a local Indigenous artist and depicts how the Noonjar people viewed the arrival of British colonists on their sailing boats.

Cottesloe Beach

Similar to Adelaide, the beaches in Perth stretch for miles along a gorgeous coastline but they are have the added attraction of crystal clear turquoise water that pops against the light coloured sand. Cottesloe Beach is known for its cafe scene, Norfolk pine trees, and an annual art exhibition called Sculpture by the Sea that takes place in March. The outdoor gallery begins at the sea wall and works are found along the sand, in the water and continue north toward a grassed sculpture park.

Kings Park and Botanic Garden

Bushland meets the inner city at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, a sprawling 400 hectare natural oasis in the heart of Perth. While admiring the city skyline, waterfronts of the Swan and Canning Rivers, and peaks of the Darling Ranges, visitors can wander native bushland walking trails, gardens and parklands. Kings Parks also celebrates aspects of Aboriginal and European history, as well as contemporary culture. The Botanic Garden contains 3,000 species of flora unique to Western Australia, and is lauded for its horticultural and conservation efforts.

Rottnest Island

Located 19 kilometres south of Perth, Rottnest Island is a quick and quiet natural get-away destination offering a car-free environment, six distinct habitats, 60 beaches, coral reefs, salt lakes, historical buildings, and the aforementioned quokka, referred to as the “happiest animal in the world” because of its penchant for smiling and grinning for pictures. Rottnest Island is a wildlife protected A-Class Reserve that promotes the simple pleasures of life and encourages sustainability from water recycling and renewable energy initiatives.


Get Your Country On in Tennessee

April 27, 2018
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As the likes of Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, and other one-time aspiring country music artists can attest, the best place to get your country on is in Tennessee. Aside from the numerous recording studios and production companies, there’s just something about the general ambiance and physical setting that draws wanna-be cowboy/girl crooners to the state like flies to honey and fills them with sweet inspiration.

Whatever the country superstar chart-topping formula actually is, there’s no denying that it works. Some of the most memorable toe-tappin’ and foot-stompin’ melodies with both tear-jerkin’ and spirit-liftin’ lyrics have their roots in the heartland of Tennessee. Grab your hat and put your best boots on…this blog explores the state’s two main cities of Memphis and Nashville and their respective attractions, which there are plenty to sing praises about.

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Memphis

Elvis Presley may be known as the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ but he grew up in Memphis and was a fan of early country artists such as Hank Snow and Roy Acuff. He also enjoyed hillbilly music made popular by radio star Mississippi Slim, and he liked to hang out around the blues clubs located on Beale Street as a young teenager in the early 1950s. These influences would ultimately result in Presley becoming a pioneer of the rockabilly genre that fused country music with rhythm and blues. Within a few years he was well on his way to fame and fortune and, once he hit the big time, he needed a home befitting of a star, and one that would keep his fans at a safe distance.

Graceland

Presley bought Graceland Mansion in 1957, which was originally a farmstead situated outside of the city limits. As Memphis grew, suburbs surrounded Graceland and the mansion become a city landmark and pilgrimage destination for legions of The King’s fans while he was alive, but particularly after his untimely death in 1977 when the exterior fence line became a shrine. The property lay dormant for a period and was then converted into a museum and opened to the public in 1982.

The entrance to Graceland off of Elvis Presley Boulevard is a wrought-iron gate shaped like a book of sheet music, with green colored musical notes and a silhouette of Elvis. Visitors are free to walk around the grounds and visit the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried along with his parents and grandmother.

After a recent expansion effort, there are 14 new exhibits and attractions to take in across the street from Graceland, including Presley Motors Automobile Museum where the star’s famous Pink Cadillac is on display. A new AAA Four-Diamond luxury hotel called The Guest House at Graceland was also built and features 20 Elvis-themed specialty suites.

Beale Street

In addition to Graceland, The King is also honored down on Beale Street, the home of the blues in Memphis and where Elvis honed his craft. A large bronze statue in Elvis Presley Plaza captures a young Elvis doing his rockabilly thing and wearing an outfit that he likely would have purchased from Lansky Brothers, his favorite Memphis clothing store.

Stax Museum

In addition to being a hotspot for the blues, rockabilly and rock’n’roll, Memphis celebrates soul music at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum is modeled after an old recording studio and includes artifacts such as the Soul Train dance floor, a Cadillac El Dorado owned by Isaac Hayes, and an old Mississippi Delta Church that depicts the gospel roots of soul music.

Nashville

Welcome to Music City, U.S.A. where the Grand Ole Opry House and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum delight country fans with concerts and artifacts galore.

Opryland

The Grand Ole Opry House is located a short drive from downtown Nashville and is visited every year by fans numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The Opry seats 4,000 and shows are performed every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from March through November.

The Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center is one of the world’s largest hotels and is known for its cascading waterfall and atrium containing over 8,000 plants, and its indoor river that transports guests on flatboats for a one-quarter-mile ride.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Known for unique architectural features such as its bass clef exterior shape, windows that look like piano keys, and a rotunda that mimics a grain silo, a water tower and a drum kit, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum also contains the largest collection of country artifacts in the world. The latter distinction earned the museum the nickname of “Smithsonian of country music” that the main exhibition called Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music proudly showcases. Inductees into the Hall of Fame are immortalized in bas-relief portraits cast in bronze that are mounted on plaques shaped like musical notes and are then hung in the 70-foot-high rotunda.

Music Row

Legendary musicians such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are also celebrated in Nashville museums, and there are numerous recording labels, instrument shops and honky-tonk bars to take in. The heart of Nashville’s entertainment scene is located in the historical district called Music Row where RCA Studio B, Nashville’s oldest surviving recording studio, still stands.

 


Home on the Range in Oklahoma

April 20, 2018
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Back in the late 1800s, the south-central region of the United States was largely unpopulated, but that would quickly change thanks to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. This government-sponsored initiative resulted in a mass influx of 50,000 settlers, many anxious to lay claim to coveted plots of land and build a comfortable home on the range in Oklahoma. Some settlers were so intent on grabbing the best homesteads that they snuck into the territory in advance of the official land release date, which resulted in them being called ‘Sooners’, a term that eventually lost its negative connotation and evolved into Oklahoma’s beloved ‘Sooner State’ nickname.

While the majority of Oklahoma’s early settlers farmed the open land, many congregated in newly created towns such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa seeking to cash in on the lucrative livestock trade and eventual discovery of vast oil and gas deposits in these regions.

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Oklahoma City

When the dust from the 1889 land rush had settled, some 10,000 homesteaders had parked their wagons in Oklahoma City and by the turn of the new century the population had doubled. The rapid growth trend continued and the city was soon the center of commerce leading legislators to eventually declare Oklahoma City as the state capital a few years after Oklahoma became part of the United States in 1907.

Thanks to the discovery of oil within the city limits in 1928, Oklahoma City fared better than other municipalities during the Great Depression years and the city became a major production hub. A unique aspect of the city’s new oil business was that one of the fields was located under the State Capitol building so rigs needed to be constructed to extract the oil. To this day, the Oklahoma State Capitol Complex is the only of its kind in the United States with active oil rigs on its grounds, which makes for interesting pictures of them dotting the landscape amidst the white limestone of the Capitol building and Governor’s Mansion. Other points of interest within the complex include State Capitol Park, the Oklahoma History Center, and the Oklahoma Judicial Center.

Another notable city landmark is the Myriad Botanical Gardens that is located downtown and features lush botanics surrounding a sunken lake, as well as interactive displays to educate the public about rain forests and gardening techniques. The main attraction is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory where palm trees, tropical plants and flowers, waterfalls, and exotic animals convene together in a mammoth living museum. The surrounding grounds contain many sculptures, including a 14-foot tall abstract sculpture called ‘Gateway’ that sits on a raised berm.

For a city that has recently become known as ‘The Big Friendly’ there was unfortunately a period of extreme sadness following a domestic terror attack in 1995. A bomb set-off in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building resulted in 168 deaths, many young children that attended a day care center located in the facility. Notwithstanding the terrible devastation, Oklahomans rallied together and built a beautiful tribute to pay homage to the tragedy. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was constructed on the site of the demolished federal building and honors the victims, survivors, rescuers and others affected by the bombing. The Memorial features 168 empty chairs designed from glass, stone and bronze representing the innocent lives lost; there is also a reflecting pool, twin bronze gates, and a survivors’ wall that is made of granite panels salvaged from the Murrah Building.

Tulsa

Like Oklahoma City, the oil industry is one of the main economic drivers in Tulsa that contributed to its early development. Thanks to oil revenues, the city was awash in cash at the turn of the 20th century that was reflected in the creation of upscale residential neighborhoods and lush arts and cultural centres. For a significant time, the city held the distinction of being the ‘Oil Capital of the World’ until the drastic fall of oil prices in the early 1990s forced the city to diversify in the interest of long-term stability.

One of the early benefactors of the oil boom in Tulsa was businessman Cyrus Avery who was also an advocate of developing a highway system that would run through Tulsa and connect Chicago to Los Angeles. Avery became known as the ‘Father of Route 66’ and his efforts would literally put Tulsa on the map as a popular rest stop along this well-traveled road.

Tulsa is considered to be the arts and culture hub of Oklahoma and it boasts world-class museums, symphony, opera and ballet companies. The Philbrook Museum of Art ranks as one of the Top 50 fine arts museums in the United States and is unique for its combination of offering visitors a look at an historic home, formal gardens, and a private art collection. The Gilcrease Museum contains the world’s most-renowned collection of art and artifacts of the American West; and the Woody Guthrie Center features thousands of the folk artist’s items, including personal effects, sheet music, manuscripts, books, photos, periodicals, etc.

Public art is prevalent throughout the city, especially along the Arkansas River trail system where one new sculpture is installed every year.  The Golden Driller is a famous statue that stands at the entrance into the Tulsa County Fairgrounds as a tribute to the city’s roots in the petroleum industry. The Tower of Reconciliation and Hope Plaza located in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park tell the story of African-American involvement in building Oklahoma, and memorialize the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

Tulsa is also known for its large number of Art Deco buildings and structures such as the Southwestern Bell Main Dial building, the Mid-Continental Tower, Will Rogers High School, and the Boston Avenue Methodist Church.


The Ooh-La-La Factor in the French Riviera

April 19, 2018
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Known for its vivid blue waters and extensive shoreline, the Cote d’Azur region (a.k.a the French Riviera) in the southeast corner of France is one of the world’s first modern resort areas. Originally a winter spa getaway destination for British royals and members of the upper class in the late 1800s, the area eventually started attracting other European aristocrats, as well as literary and artistic types who were drawn to its warm climate and beautiful surroundings. To this day, the ooh-la-la factor in the French Riviera is undeniable and seaside spots such as Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez and Toulon serve up an array of amazing scenes and experiences that are also, thankfully, able to now be enjoyed by one and all.

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Beach Scene

From the Promenade des Anglais public boardwalk in Nice to the private topless beaches in Saint-Tropez, the French Riviera coastline stretches for 115 kilometres and the mild, Mediterranean climate serves up over 300 days of sunshine. Be sure to pack some Bain de Soleil sunscreen to obtain the perfect golden glow, and seek refuge under an umbrella or in a tent when the temperatures soar in the summer months.

Of course, being a beach bum is perfectly acceptable in this part of the world, and there are plenty of beaches to choose from. Monte Carlo Beach was originally built from imported sand and Princess Grace was known to spend time at it. Plage de Tahiti (Tahiti Beach) in Saint-Tropez was made famous by actress Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s/60s and is known for its afore-mentioned topless/nude sunbathers.

Food Scene

Whether it’s a picnic on the beach or a snack at the market, the food offerings in the French Riviera are guaranteed to be served up fresh and fragrant. Grab a baguette from the local patisserie, pair it with some wine, cheese, salami and grapes and, voila, lunch is ready (don’t forget some macarons for dessert!). Seafood options are also plenty and the region is noted for its jumbo-sized oysters and scrumptious Bouillabaisse soup made straight from the catch of the day. Ratatouille is another popular dish that can be eaten on its own or as a side-dish for fish and meat. Salade nicoise is a specialty of Nice along with socca (chickpea pancakes) and pissaladiere (onion, olive and anchovy tart).

Hotel Scene

Be it a hillside villa, beachfront resort, or inner city hostel, there is an accommodation option catering to all budgets and tastes. The French Riviera is busy year-round and there are many two-star, three-star and luxury hotels operating at peak capacity, especially during the summer months. The area’s major seaside resorts include Menton,  Villefranche sur Mer and Monte Carlo in the east; Nice, Cannes and Antibes in the central region; and Saint-Tropez and Sainte Maxime in the west.

Shopping Scene

When the afternoon sun becomes too hot to bear, head inland to the luxury shops in Monte Carlo, or the famous Flower Market and large malls in Nice. Like the hotel options, there is an affordable price-point for everyone and certainly a wide variety of local and imported designer goods to choose from.

Water Scene

While many tourists descend on the French Riviera solely to hit the beach and soak up the sun, the Mediterranean coastline is full of other fun water-related activities. Saint-Tropez holds an annual regatta every September that attracts the super-yacht jet-set crowd; Cannes offers sailboat rentals in its port and beachfront hotels; and Monaco is home to the Museum of Oceanology that features many fish, crab and eel species in its aquarium, and contains marine artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages.

Picture-Perfect Paradise

With its temperate year-round climate and vivid colours saturated by the sun, little wonder that the French Riviera has attracted some of the world’s best painters over the centuries. From the Impressionists to the Expressionists to the Surrealists, the pretty seascape was irresistible and produced numerous prints of the region from the likes of Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Renoir.

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Monaco is Mini But Oh So Mighty

April 17, 2018
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Covering an area of just two square kilometres in the French Riviera, the Principality of Monaco is the world’s second smallest country but, as the saying goes, size isn’t everything. Yes, Monaco is mini but this unique city-state is oh so mighty in many other ways.

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House of Grimaldi

Ruled by the Grimaldi family dating back to the 12th century, Monaco’s current royal leader is Prince Albert II, who is the son of famed American actress, Grace Kelly, and Prince Rainier III.

When Kelly married her prince in 1955, the nuptials caused quite a stir around the globe. The “Wedding of the Century” was broadcast live and watched by 30 million viewers. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier started a family within a couple of years and were happily married until her untimely death due to a stroke in 1982.

Prince Albert II came into power after his father’s death in 2005. He is considered to be one of the world’s richest royals due to revenue earned from shares held in the Societe des Bains de Mers that operates Monaco’s lucrative casinos and entertainment properties. The prince and his family reside in the Palace of Monaco, which offers a daily viewing of the changing of the guard ceremony and a tour of the state apartments.

Millionaire Mecca

If ever there was a place that embodied Robin Leach’s “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” catch phrase, Monaco is it. Indeed, with 30 per cent of its population classified as being millionaires, Monaco is often referred to as a playground for the rich and famous. And, there are plenty of places to play at from the beach resorts to the yacht clubs to the high-rolling casinos, most notably the Casino de Monte Carlo.

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Monte Carlo High-Rollers

Gambling has been a major part of Monaco’s culture for over 150 years.  Princess Caroline, wife of Prince Florestan I, first conceived the idea to create a casino business in the mid-1800s as a means to keep the royal family afloat.

The task of carrying out the business plan fell to Prince Charles III who brought in experts from France to conceive an opulent architectural design and help garner sufficient investment funds to sustain the enterprise over the long term.

While the casino idea was not immediately successful, the royals continually tweaked their vision and upgraded the facilities in order to attract high-roller players and provide high brow entertainment. A concert hall/opera house, known as the Salle Garnier, was built in the 1870s and its illustrious design was based on the Palais Garnier in Paris.

Today, the gold and marble fixtures of the Casino de Monte Carlo complex continue to dazzle the jet-set crowd, and the casino has also become synonymous with the fictional character, James Bond.

Formula One Grand Prix

The Monaco Grand Prix is one of Formula One’s original races and one of its most prestigious and difficult. The annual race is run on the Circuit de Monaco, which is noteworthy for its narrow passing lanes, tight curves, and elevation changes, along with a tunnel section.

Given the Grand Prix’s location in Monaco, the race’s circuit is heralded for its glamour and is known for its wealthy fans who gather in the harbour areas to watch the race from aboard their boats and yachts.

The Look of Luxury

With high-end boutiques, sports cars and yachts everywhere the eye can see, Monaco exudes luxury and glamour. It’s a prosperous and peaceful domain that may not be affordable to all to live in, but is certainly worth a gander to take in its grandeur.


Tripping the Lights Fantastic in Taipei

April 13, 2018
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There are some cities that ‘come alive at night’ and Taipei, Taiwan is one of them. Fittingly, the city is famous for its night markets where street vendors vigorously hawk their wares and serve up delectable xiaochi snacks and drinks amidst a steady din of noisy crowds, blaring music and flashing neon signs. Along with the electric atmosphere of local markets, tripping the lights fantastic in Taipei extends to other city attractions.

Taipei 101

Once the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 stands 508 metres in height and is noted for its unique bamboo-like appearance. Thanks to a high-speed elevator, it takes mere seconds to reach the indoor and outdoor observation decks that provide an incredible 360-degree view of the city, especially after the sun sets and the streetlights come on. Not surprisingly, Taipei 101 is used for New Year’s Eve fireworks that are launched from multiple levels starting roughly half-way up the tower and proceeding in sequence to the top making for quite a show.

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Liberty Square

Featuring a massive multi-arched main gate, Liberty Square is the primary public gathering place in Taipei and its name is symbolic of Taiwan’s struggle to achieve democratic rule. The square covers over 200,000 square metres and contains three major landmarks that are surrounded by ponds and parks offering well-maintained lawns, trees, and pathways.

Along with twin performing arts buildings (National Theater and National Concert Hall), the other important landmark in Liberty Square is the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Chiang Kai-shek was a military and political leader who ruled from 1928 to 1975. He was an opponent of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist movement that arose from the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of China (governed by Chiang from Taipei) and the People’s Republic of China (governed by Mao from Beijing). Although Chiang’s rule was considered to be authoritarian in nature, he was admired for his staunch adherence to conservative Chinese values and traditions, and is also credited for assisting with the Allied defeat of Imperial Japan during World War II.

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Ximending / Xinyi

As two of the primary shopping and night life destinations in Taipei, Ximending and Xinyi are popular with tourists and locals.

Ximending was the first designated pedestrian zone in Taipei and has recently gained notoriety as the place for lovers of all things Japanese to congregate at and experience a good taste of the country’s goods and its culture. The area is thus often referred to as the ‘Harajuku of Taipei’ and it attracts many devoted Harizu. Ximending also boasts 20 theaters and is a frequent venue for concerts, album launches and street performances.

Xinyi is where Taipei 101 is located and the area also offers numerous shopping and entertainment options, including lounge bars and nightclubs. The major malls are the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi complex, Breeze Center and Eslite Bookstore and Boutiques.

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Light Up the Night

When in Taipei, be sure to stay out late and light up the night!


Hanging On and Holding Tight in Hanoi

April 12, 2018
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For anyone who has navigated the crowded streets of Hanoi, the sights and sounds of scooters and horns is likely seared in your memory. Gaining the right of way is the object of the traffic game in this bustling city, which often means a lot of darting, weaving and surging to get where you need to be. Yes, hanging on and holding tight go hand-in-hand in Hanoi…good thing that there is much to safely explore on foot!

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Located in historic Ba Dinh Square, where the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence was first read in 1945, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum contains the embalmed body of the country’s beloved ‘Uncle Ho’ and is one of the city’s busiest attractions. The building is constructed of granite, which is considered to be a highly durable material and signifies to Uncle Ho’s devoted followers (many of whom have made a pilgrimage to the site) that he will remain forever with the people.

Not far from the mausoleum are other important political buildings, including the President’s Palace and the National Assembly.

Lakes and Pagodas

Hanoi is sometimes referred to as the ‘City of Lakes’ because of its many scenic lakes that attract both locals and tourists.

Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned or Restored Sword) is one of the most popular destinations due to its historical significance and central location. Legend has it that while Emperor Le Loi was sailing on the lake, a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked him to relinquish possession of a magical sword.  The sword, named Heaven’s Will, had previously been given to him by the Dragon King, the turtle’s master, and was intended to help Le Loi in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Le Loi initially refused to part with the sword as he was still at war with the Chinese but eventually did return it once his foe was vanquished. Turtle Tower was constructed on a small island in the middle of the lake to mark the importance of this legend.

Another interesting landmark on Hoan Kiem Lake is the Huc Bridge that links the lake to Jade Island where a temple honouring a 13th century military leader stands. The Huc Bridge is constructed of wood and its name means Morning Sunlight Bridge; although it also looks pretty good all lit up at night.

Along with lakes, traditional pagodas can be found around Hanoi. Tran Quoc Pagoda is one of the oldest and best maintained with its bright orange bricks that pop against the lush tropical plants situated at its base. Other pagodas of note are Tay Ho Pagoda located on West Lake and One Pillar Pagoda that sits on a single stone pillar and has the appearance of a lotus blossom.

Mobile Markets

Famous for its street markets that offer a plethora of knock-off designer goods, Hanoi also has its fair share of mobile merchants that serve up luscious tropical fruits and other fresh goodies from bicycle baskets and boat decks. Yum yum for the tum tum!

Arts and Crafts

Many Hanoians are gifted artisans and take great pride in producing traditional arts and crafts such as hand-painted pots and figurines depicted in national dress.

Other specialties include silk items and silver goods. Hang Gai Street, also known as Silk Street, is the place to head for quality scarves, dresses and home furnishings; while Hang Bac Street (Silver Street) is where to go for inexpensive silver jewellery. Shoe lovers will want to check out Hang Dau Street where it’s nothing but shoe shops as far as the eye can see.

Hang On and Hold Tight

Getting around Hanoi may strike some as a harrowing experience, but if you hang on and hold tight the city promises to reward you with an amazing display of history, nature, shopping and art.

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Light Up the Night in Yellowknife

April 11, 2018
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The Canadian North is blessed with an abundance of sunshine in the summer and natural light shows in the winter. The latter, known as Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is a spectacular natural phenomenon that is best viewed from January to March,  and one of the prime locations to witness the ‘light up the night’ effect is in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

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Yellowknife actually has the distinction of being the ‘Aurora Capital’ of North America and there are plenty of places to soak up the grandeur of the night skies that include  luxury lodges, traditional teepees and cozy cabins.

While even a mere peek out of a downtown hotel room window will provide a decent show, going outside and getting away from civilization really is a far better option to properly commune with Mother Nature and truly appreciate her gift.

For those wanting to take things up a notch and experience another unique aspect of life in the far north, local dog-sledding companies offer moonlit mushing excursions. Just imagine being briskly pulled across the vast frozen tundra by a team of huskies while the night lights dazzle and delight high in the sky above — excitement and entertainment will surely abound.

Before bidding farewell to fair Yellowknife, take the time to explore the terrain during daylight hours and admire what else this northern capital city has to offer.

  • The Old Town district is where miners and prospectors first set up shop in the 1930s eager to stake a claim to lucrative gold deposits. These early pioneers gathered at the Wildcat Cafe, a rustic log cabin structure that still stands and now serves up gourmet grub.
  • The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre features permanent displays and temporary exhibits about the culture and history of the Northwest Territories, including European exploration, Northern aviation, diamond mining, and history of the Dene and Inuit Indigenous Peoples.
  • The Yellowknife Cultural Crossroads is an ever-evolving monumental piece of public art created by a group of Métis, Dene, Inuvialuit, French-Canadian and English-Canadian artists. The main aspects of the exhibit are a bronze sculpture, a steel teepee and a mural painted and carved on exposed rock that consists of 1,500 signs and symbols representing northern life.

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The Pretty Colors of Panama City

April 10, 2018
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While I have always been intrigued by the idea of taking a cruise through the Panama Canal, I have to admit that visiting port cities was secondary to navigating the lock system waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, after a chance viewing of the movie Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg in which part of the plot unfolds on Panamanian soil, seeing the coastal skyline and pretty colors of Panama City became a primary objective.

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Notwithstanding Wahlberg’s criminal movie exploits and the recent ‘Panama Papers’ exposure of rogue offshore financial dealings, the city’s tourism appeal remains strong. World Heritage Sites include Panama Viejo (Old Town) and Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) that showcase the historical aspects of the city dating back to its founding in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors. Architecturally, all that remains in Panama Viejo are the stone ruins of the original city settlement but Spanish colonial buildings such as Plaza de la Independencia and the Church of San Francisco feature prominently in Casco Viejo in addition to other significant monuments.

Along with its historical districts, Panama City boasts modern neighborhoods with many high-rise towers making for a dense skyline, particularly along the waterfront.

Avenida Central is the main pedestrian walkway in the inner city area that offers bakeries, fruit stands and shoe stores among other shopping options.

Along the waterfront, the Causeway is a man-made boardwalk that stretches for two kilometres and provides an area for both exercising and eating in equal measure, as well as an ideal place to view the city skyline and ships awaiting entry into the canal.

Once the sun sets, the Calle Uruquay club district comes to life and is a prime location to dance the night away and feel the groove of local rhythms.

Demographically, Panama City is quite diverse with a mix of cultures hailing from around the world that is reflected in multiple languages being spoken and an array of arts and crafts being sold. Traditional items on display range from elaborate handmade patterned textiles to simple straw hats.

A Colorful Cityscape

Be it white sand beaches, turquoise blue ocean waters, green and yellow bananas, or multi-colored bins, buses, boats and buildings, Panama City is alive with pretty colors that beckon to be seen and admired.


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