Big City Tales

Athens – The Birthplace of Democracy and Western Civilization

March 12, 2018
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With its recorded history dating back several thousand years and its innumerable contributions to the arts, sports and culture, and philosophy and politics, the city of Athens, Greece is often referred to as the birthplace of democracy and cradle of Western civilization.  Whether you want to walk where Plato, Aristotle and Socrates trod or visit the site of the first-ever modern Olympic games, you’ll be taking a trip back in time through well-preserved ancient ruins and enduring ceremonial rituals.

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Acropolis of Athens

Located high above the city, the Acropolis of Athens is one of the world’s most famous citadels. In addition to ancient Athenians taking refuge on the Acropolis Hill during war times, they also congregated there to worship the Greek gods in temples such as the Parthenon and the Erechtheum.

The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Greek architecture, particularly because of its Doric-style columns and elaborately carved and brightly painted statues. The columns surrounded the inner temple that was comprised of two chambers: one housed a large statue of Athena; the other contained an area for priests to utilize and safeguard the city’s treasury.

The Erechtheum is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon and is noted for the Porch of the Caryatids (or Porch of the Maidens), a series of six draped female figures that were installed as supporting columns.

Other buildings of significance that form the Acropolis include the Propylaea, the monumental gateway, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

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Greek Parliament House

Moving from the ancient era to more recent times, the Greek Parliament building was built in the 1800s and was originally used as the palatial home of King Otto I, the first king of modern Greece. After the monarchy was abolished, the building was re-purposed for use first as a hospital and museum; later as the official house of the Greek parliament.

Located in Syntagma Square (formerly Palace Square), Parliament House is designed in the Neoclassical style and is situated by the National Gardens and Zappeion Gardens, two expansive green spaces. The gardens are popular gathering places because of their tall, shady trees and winding paths that provide a peaceful refuge.

In front of Parliament House is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that is guarded by Evzones, members of the presidential guard. The Evzones wear traditional attire, known as foustanella that consists of a pleated white skirt, white shirts with long sleeves, red pointed shoes with large pom-poms, and an embroidered vest. To mark the hourly changing of the guard, the Evzones kick their feet on the ground and in the air.

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Pomp and Circumstance in Ottawa

March 8, 2018
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When it comes to global capital cities, Ottawa, Canada is still a relative “young pup” next to the likes of London, England or Paris, France. 2017 was a significant milestone year, however, and there was no lack of fanfare to mark the occasion of Canada’s 150th birthday, especially in its capital region. Indeed, the pomp and circumstance in Ottawa on Canada Day (and throughout the year) extended from the heights of the iconic Peace Tower to the far reaches of the Rideau Canal and beyond instilling a strong sense of pride within the hearts of all Canadians in our nation’s symbols, institutions and its historic landmarks.

The Maple Leaf

Canada may have declared itself a country in 1867 but its national flag, known as the Maple Leaf, wasn’t unveiled until nearly a century later in 1965. True, debate over using the maple leaf had been going on since 1895 when the idea was first suggested but subsequent committees struck to broach the subject in more depth could not reach a consensus. It wasn’t until Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was in office during the 1960s that the contentious matter was finally resolved and the maple leaf has been flown high and proudly worn ever since.

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Parliament Hill

The primary venue for Canada Day celebrations on July 1 is Parliament Hill (commonly referred to as ‘The Hill’), an area of Crown land located on the southern side of the Ottawa River. The Hill features a suite of three modern Gothic Revival buildings that make up the Parliament of Canada.

The main building of Canada’s parliamentary complex is referred to as the Centre Block. It contains the House of Commons and Senate chambers, as well as the Library of Parliament, administrative offices and ceremonial areas such as Confederation Hall and the Hall of Honour. The Centre Block is one of Canada’s most recognizable buildings, particularly because of the Peace Tower that fronts the building and dominates the downtown skyline. Standing nearly 100 metres high, it is both a focal clock and bell tower, as well as a memorial to Canadians who died during World War I.

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The other two buildings on The Hill are the East Block and West Block that contain offices for ministers and senators along with meeting rooms and other general administrative spaces.

The grounds surrounding The Hill cover close to 90,000 square metres and include a quadrangle where many public events are staged, a gazebo and a series of English-style gardens featuring statues and monuments mostly of famous politicians and monarchs.

Confederation Square

Located to the east of Parliament Hill, Confederation Square is noteworthy for its association with the City-Beautiful Movement that was prevalent around the turn of the 20th Century, as well as its central location and proximity to landmark historical buildings such as the Chateau Laurier Hotel, the National Arts Centre, the Central Post Office and Langevin Block, the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

The square is considered to be the second most important ceremonial centre in Ottawa, after Parliament Hill, and is the proud home of the National War Memorial that commemorates all Canadians killed in past or future conflicts, as well as the Valiants Memorial.

The main features of the National War Memorial are a tall granite arch, bronze sculptures, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The bronze figures underneath the arch represent the branches of the Canadian forces called into war and who subsequently helped to forge peace, which is symbolized by the figures shown in movement emerging through the arch from war on one side to peace on the other.

The Valiants Memorial commemorates fourteen of Canada’s key military heroes and consists of nine busts and five statues. The figures chosen to be memorialized date back as far to conflicts that occurred when Canada was part of New France, and more recently to participants in World War II.

Rideau Canal

Operated by Parks Canada, the Rideau Canal is a waterway that connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The canal uses a lock system to transport boats through it between mid-May and mid-October. As the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

When the water freezes during the winter, a portion of the canal is transformed into an outdoor skating rink, the world’s largest in terms of width and second longest. The skateway is the focal point of the annual Winterlude festival that takes place in February.

Tulip Festival

Tulips may be the symbol of Holland and Amsterdam but Canada has also become famous for this beautiful bulb. The Canadian Tulip Festival held annually each May in Ottawa displays over one million tulips of all colours at five theme sites around the city:

  • Lansdowne Park – The Art & Culture Tulip Experience
  • Commissioners Park/Dow’s Lake – The Garden Tulip Experience
  • ByWard Market – The Urban Tulip Experience
  • Garden Promenade – The Community Tulip Experience
  • Zibi Gatineau — The Culinary Tulip Experience

Of note, Canada’s association with tulips dates back to World War II when the Dutch Royal Family sought refuge from the fighting in Ottawa, and Canadian troops helped to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. As a show of thanks after the war, the Royal Family sent a gift of 100,000 tulips and has continued to do so to this day. The Canadian Tulip Festival was established in 1953 to acknowledge this generous gift and showcase the flower as an ongoing symbol of friendship and peace.

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The WOW Factor in Washington, DC

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

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

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

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

Memorials, The National Mall and Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Canadian Embassy is located along the famous Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) and Mount Vernon

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

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

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

The White House

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

The stately White House in all its perfection and glory!

The Kennedy Center, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom

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

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

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

The Final Analysis

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

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

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

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