Big City Tales

Getting Some Culture in the ‘City of Champions’

February 7, 2013
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Once upon a time the city of Edmonton, Alberta was well-known for producing championship winning teams in both the Canadian Football League (CFL) and National Hockey League (NHL).

With a total of 13 CFL Grey Cup titles, the Edmonton Eskimos football team ranks as one of the league’s most successful teams, and one of its most impressive dynasties in winning the Grey Cup five times in a row between 1979 and 1982.

The city’s other sports dynasty to be reckoned with in the 1980s was the Edmonton Oilers hockey club. During this period, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times and the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson became household names and local heroes.

Some 30+ years later, the city’s haul of professional sporting championships has dwindled, but even though the lustre of the ‘City of Champions’ mantra has faded, the city’s cultural scene continues to shine brightly.

Culture Comes in Many Forms

From museums to art galleries, to folk festivals and symphonic concerts, to improv theatre and street buskers, there is no shortage of cultural activities to take in throughout the year.  But it is the summer months when live theatre enthusiasts from near and far flock to Alberta’s fair provincial capital, particularly mid-to-late August when the annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (a.k.a. ‘The Fringe’) takes place in the historic Old Strathcona district.

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One of many public art installations around Sir Winston Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton.

The Fringe

The Fringe celebrates a variety of theatrical mediums, including improv, comedy, drama, and mystery productions staged in both indoor and outdoor venues. The festival also features a large offering of street performers, such as acrobats, musicians, magicians, puppeteers and other acts eager to display their talents and earn audience applause, as well as a few dollars for their efforts.

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The Fringe is a ‘colourful’ two-week celebration and decorative posters from the past add to the festivities.

As summer festivals go, The Fringe is the largest of its kind in North America and for over 30 years has thrilled audiences with cutting-edge, world-class, unedited and uncensored entertainment. Add in a picturesque setting that spreads over multiple city blocks (not far off of trendy Whyte Avenue and close to the University of Alberta campus), it’s not surprising that The Fringe is a much-beloved cultural institution in Edmonton.

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Street performers come to The Fringe from around the world. This extreme cyclist/juggler hails from Australia.

Art & Architecture

For those who prefer looking at paintings over watching plays, the Art Gallery of Alberta in the city’s downtown core just east of Sir Winston Churchill Square and City Hall houses a collection of over 6,000 art pieces with both permanent installations and rotating exhibitions. Recently renovated, the building itself is a work of modernist architecture with interesting views from the street level and within its inner stairwell and exterior patio.

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The Art Gallery of Alberta is a unique work of art and a wonder of architecture in its own right.

More eye-appealing architecture is just around the corner at City Hall. Featuring two steel and glass pyramids, a 200-foot clock tower, and a water fountain, City Hall flanks the northern end of Sir Winston Churchill Square. It is a popular destination for the lunchtime business crowd, as well as weekend explorers.

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Edmonton’s City Hall is known for its glass and steel pyramid that towers high in the sky.

For history buffs and followers of Alberta politics, a trip to the Legislature Building and surrounding grounds is a definite must. Standing 176 feet high and made with 1,100 tonnes of steel, the legislature’s elegant dome dominates the western end of the downtown skyline. Meanwhile, the immaculately landscaped grounds include a water fountain, a memorial garden, a bowling green, and an assortment of statues, plus a towering totem pole.

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In 2012, the Alberta Legislature celebrated its centennial anniversary in fine style and the grounds looked lovely.

Not far from the Alberta Legislature is the iconic High Level Bridge connecting downtown Edmonton to the Old Strathcona district located across the North Saskatchewan River. Whether you cross the bridge by car, on foot, or on the High Level Bridge Streetcar, it is a marvel of construction that is designated as a Municipal Historic Resource. The High Level Bridge is also noteworthy for being the route to take from downtown to the High Level Diner, a local eating establishment that has gained wide acclaim for an array of mouth-watering comfort food menu items. Be prepared for a long line to get in, but your taste buds will thank you for waiting!

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The historic High Level Bridge spans the North Saskatchewan River and connects downtown with the University district and trendy Whyte Avenue.

Just west of the High Level Diner is the sprawling campus of the University of Alberta. Located in one of the city’s most established districts, the campus is dotted with fully grown trees along winding trails overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. Walking around the grounds, you can’t help but feel inspired by the beauty of nature and the beauty of century-old buildings such as Rutherford House, the home of Alberta’s first premier, Alexander Rutherford. Built in 1911, the house is now a provincial historic site and is supported by the Friends of Rutherford Society, a non-profit group dedicated to the home’s long-term preservation.

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Rutherford House is located on the peaceful and picturesque University of Alberta campus.

River Valley

The northern perimeter of the University of Alberta runs parallel with Edmonton’s River Valley, an extensive network of trails and parks where more natural beauty and historical gems abound. Chief among them is the Queen Riverboat, an old-fashioned paddle boat that sails day and night along the North Saskatchewan River and also offers a unique dining experience for those who enjoy partaking of a meal out on the open water.

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The Queen Riverboat operates day and night, offering a unique fine dining experience on the water.

Whether setting sail on the river, enjoying the wonder of the great outdoors in the River Valley and university areas, feasting on a sumptuous plate of steaming diner food, crossing a historic bridge, milling about with political figures past and present, admiring the work of notable Western Canadian artists, or taking in a highly lauded theatre production, getting some culture in the ‘City of Champions’ is a sure thing. And, who knows, perhaps Edmonton’s sports teams will return to their glory days and the city’s winning ways will once again become a ‘sure thing’ as well!

 

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Every City Has A Silver Lining

January 24, 2013
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Prior to visiting Philadelphia in the fall of 2010, a friend of my sister’s had this to say:

“Why do you want to go to Philly?  It’s a dump!”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a city of incredible historical significance to the American people, and one that is equally proud of its rich sporting traditions, renowned cheese steak sandwiches, and refined arts community.

Undaunted by the less than favourable review, we decided to keep Philadelphia on our list of East Coast historical cities to see and made it our mission to discover the beauty within this Pennsylvania landmark.

Truth be told, the beauty was at first hard to find.

Approaching the city from the north where industrial plants are abundant, my sister and I looked at each other in a moment of utter defeat for Philadelphia did, in fact, look like a “dump!” Further, it appeared to be a veritable barren wasteland. Granted, it was a rainy, overcast day so the grey of the dimly lit sky was not helping matters, but we still couldn’t help but think we may have been a tad overly optimistic about uncovering any hidden pearls in the midst of this less than awe-inspiring scenery.

Such was our mindset as we exited left off of the interstate and headed for the inner city. With each passing mile, our spirits were buoyed and even though the rain was still pelting down with a vengeance, the city’s silver linings were nonetheless all around us shining in all their splendor.

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Feeling the LOVE in Philadelphia!

Here is a sampling of what we took in:

On the city’s south side, Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and the iconic, still-standing at the time Philadelphia Spectrum formed the impressive cornerstones of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

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The Philly Fanatic is the well-known and much-loved mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.

In the city’s core, the downtown skyline beckoned with the resplendent and expansive City Hall complex as its prime showpiece.  Another feast for the senses was the Reading Terminal Market, a large farmer’s market boasting everything from Amish specialties to more urban street fair.  The Market is definitely the place to grab a bite to eat, but be prepared to have a tough time choosing from the many diverse options.  Of course, you can’t go wrong with a classic cheese steak, whichever way you prefer it prepared! 

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Until 1987, City Hall was Philadelphia’s tallest building.

Just east of downtown, despite being in the midst of a restoration at Independence Hall, the historical district glimmered as the clouds eventually cleared on day two of our visit and the sun cast a warm, welcome glow. There’s nothing like walking the grounds where the founding fathers toiled over the United States Constitution. And you can’t miss paying homage to the Liberty Bell or visiting the National Constitution Center.

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The Signer statue sits outside Independence Hall, where the U.S. Constitution originated.

To the north, sights along the picturesque, Champs Elysees-like feel of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway included Logan Square (where the famous LOVE statue is located),  the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, and la creme de la creme, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Yo, Adrian, now that I’m champ we should climb those stairs and go see the Museum of Art!

Yes, things may have initially looked very bleak from the outskirts of Philadelphia, but the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ opened its arms and we heartily soaked up what it had to offer.

Fast forward two years and the release of the new hit movie, Silver Linings Playbook. Based in Philadelphia, the film is more than just an exploration of recovering from mental illness, it is a celebration of a great city that does, indeed, have its fair share of silver linings.  Check it out and be your own judge!

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Independence Hall was the home away from home for America’s founding fathers.


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.


It All Began With a Trip to Los Angeles…

December 16, 2011
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From London to Paris to Rome and beyond…every big city has a tale to tell and through this blog I would like to share a few of mine.

Where all the news that's fit to read is printed.

I have been fortunate to visit all of these iconic cities in recent years, but my fascination with large concrete jungles actually began when I was in my late teens on a trip to Los Angeles for a Christmas holiday.  As luck would have it, my first flight to the City of Angels was at night and soaring over the seemingly never-ending coastline to get to LAX gave me ample opportunity to ooh and ahhh from my window seat at the mesmerizing and breathtaking bright lights (fortunately not shrouded in smog on this glorious evening!) that dot the landscape for miles.  This first foray to LA was all too short and was really more about having fun at Disneyland with my high school friend than gaining a true appreciation for the beauty of this big city, but my first impression from the air at night was nonetheless a strong and lasting one.

Walt Disney Concert Hall: Bright and shiny on the outside; pitch-perfect sound on the inside!

In subsequent years I travelled through LAX on many occasions en route to other destinations but always vowed that I would one day return to see LA through adult eyes.  I finally accomplished this in 2011 and my return visit did not disappoint.

A light mist of fog/smog lingers after a morning rain shower.

The Omni Hotel located in the heart of the theatre district proved to be a perfect central location to embark upon my grown-up LA sightseeing adventure as it provided quick and easy access to everywhere I wanted to go.  With Disneyland not being on the agenda this time around, my activities included going to a Lakers game; strolling around the historic East LA/City Hall/LA Cathedral areas; visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Getty Center; attending a one-man play by John Lithgow and a choral concert celebration at Walt Disney Concert Hall; and touring Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood Boulevard and Universal Studios.  Aside from one half-day of clouds and rain, the weather was a picture-perfect California postcard of blue skies and warm sun making for a fantastic few days exploring the diverse range of architecture, sporting and cultural activities that LA has to offer and then some.

An eclectic and colourful building in East LA.

The Angels Flight Tram still operates in downtown LA.

No trip to LA is complete without star-spotting and my exposure to local celebrities included the aforementioned John Lithgow, but I also saw Jack Nicholson sporting his typical blazer, pants, slicked back hair and tinted glasses court side at the Lakers game; I encountered two movie/TV shoots in progress (one involving a tear gas explosion at a church in East LA); and Keith Carradine sat right behind me at the Lithgow play.  If he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of his ‘people’, I would have turned around and engaged him in conversation as, being a fan of Criminal Minds, I was literally dying to ask him if playing the part of the highly twisted serial killer Frank (who was the arch nemesis of Gideon) had anything to do with John Lithgow taking on the award-winning role of Arthur Mitchell in the Dexter series (also a very dark and disturbed character).  Alas, not wanting to impose on what was clearly a night out for Keith and his family/friends to show support for his longtime industry friend, John, I did not voice my question but took great delight in hearing Keith’s bellowing laughter as he reacted to the humour in the well-written and acted play paying tribute to John’s father.

All told, it was a great return visit to this grand, glorious and great big American city.  Long overdue, rest assured, but well worth the wait and affirmed my belief that LA has a lot to offer from the sky and from the ground.   Here are some more pictures that I hope give you a sense of what I’m so enamored with – enjoy!

Historic Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

The Staples Center: Home of the NBA's World Champion LA Lakers.

The marble exterior of the elegant and expansive Getty Center glistens in the morning mist and dew.

LA Opera: Placido Domingo's home away from home.

The reflection of City Hall softens the modern exterior of LAPD headquarters.