Archive for the ‘Canada’ category

Wandering Downtown Montreal

February 19, 2009

Much of my family lives in the city of Montreal, Quebec. And so I’ve visited the place a couple times and figure I’ll do a writeup on it as it’s an interesting city. One of the most interesting in the world actually, if not nearly as historic or dramatic as many of the others I’ve visited.

Hmmm… Montreal is a fun city to wander because once you escape the confines of the local tourist trap area (charming although it may be) you get a nice blend of old meets new with all sorts of quirky results. Sometimes impressive, other times not-so-much, but fun as hell to explore either way! The main shopping street, named Saint Catherine I believe, is a collection of smaller shops spread along a fair distance with a smattering of big businesses and malls along its length. The most popular and widely visited length of the street is mostly a collection of fashionable clothing shops with ye-olden style fronts, quaint stone gargoyles, stone carvings and the like, while in either direction from this main fashionable shopping core the quality of the storefronts begins to slip some and smaller, more unique stores pop up among generally lesser quality and seedier shops. This extends till suburbs on one end and industrial another. It’s also fun to note that ‘adult’ stores are plentiful along this street with all sorts of fun and hilariously out-of-place signs. It’s a bit awkward to see a seedy looking strip bar with pictures of skanky girls all over it among otherwise high-end stores and sporting a nice classical storefront, but hey, can’t deny it adds a bit of flavour to the area.

To the west of this core avenue I believe you’ll find what I interpreted to be the ‘upper class’ shopping area, a series of quaint little shops all in perfect great condition that look extremely pretty, for lack of better words, and are for the most part jewelry stores, high quality restaurants and more clothing stores till it dissolves into mostly office buildings. To the south is housing, I’ve never explored it much, and to the north is industrial. Finally to the west are mostly office buildings leading to tourist trap central and the pier, a fun area to be sure. Keep in mind my north-south-east-west are all based on about ten minutes I spent looking over a map of downtown Montreal once while relaxing in a Chapters bookstore, so I’m probably wrong on my directions here but nevertheless I hope you atleast get the general idea. Probably the main attraction here is Old Montreal, a street nearby the waterfront that’s a depiction of downtown Montreal circa-whenever (Mostly built around the 1700’s I believe.). Most memorable for its twisty narrow brick streets with storefronts left and right all well maintained older buildings with wooden signs out front for that added ‘ye-olden’ look that’s only broken by the fact that most of the stores are souvenir shops, local novelty shops and expensive restaurants. Still, nice street to walk along.

Then there’s the pier area, mostly waterfront shops and boat docking, all closed for the season while I was last there and the ice frozen over (It does tend to get quite icy and cold in Montreal, which makes it perfect for sight-seeing in my opinion since it all but eliminates the usual droves of tourists and can provide a much more relaxed, if chilly, experience. Mind you I’ve always rather liked winter so opinions will vary!). Great view though! Nearby is the Basilique Notre-Dame, an amazing cathedral-style church somewhere between st.catherine street and the pier. The only place in Montreal that I’ve payed money to see, $4 in-fact, and so impressive I spent that extra $1 from my fiver to buy a postcard just in-case my pictures didn’t turn out alright. The architecture is extremely impressive, exterior the usual stone carvings and the like but the interior an amazing display of wooden craftsmanship and design the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. There’s even a modern touch in that the lighting in the Cathedral is set up to enhance certain areas presenting an absolutely glorious display of color and setting an extremely dramatic tone to the entire experience. I’m told there are even full light-shows that take place there complete with music, which I someday hope to see since even the default lighting is extremely impressive. Very interesting place and more than worth the admission price. Go there on a chilly day as I’ve done, and you’re likely to have the place to yourself too which makes the experience all the more moving!

Perhaps my favorite part of Montreal though is the number of quiet corners and forgotten spots where time just seems to have slowed to a crawl or stopped entirely. An abandoned old school-like building, now covered in graffiti and the gate around it breached in so many places, yet stained glass windows still visible from one corner of the building and nice stone architecture untouched. A single small shop, now fallen into disrepair and surrounded by a parking lot, looking lonely and awkward there all by itself like the last man standing after a long conflict. A series of storefronts underneath the train tracks, all boarded up long ago and forgotten. Nothing remarkable in themselves, but the frequency of such little spots adds up until there’s a sort of all-pervading vibe throughout the city. And I’m not talking slummy areas either, those you can find in any city, more… forgotten spots that just seem to have been pushed aside and left while the rest of the city continued to advance and grow.

Wandering downtown Montreal is an entertaining experience both for its diversity and its uniqueness which set it apart from other places in the world. Certainly worth a visit. Me? I recommend during winter as there’s nothing quite as dramatic as walking along the streets with the wind and snow in your face and not a crowd to be seen. But that’s me. Either way; visit, enjoy! It’s a beautiful place.

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The most beautiful sunsets you might ever see.

October 28, 2008

I’ve often written about the other places I’ve been, but so far other than a few offhand comments I’ve never really described where I live. Alright. I’m in a good mood and I feel like typing, lets see how this works out.

Calgary, Canada. Many people see it as a commercial city, the home of the Alberta oil companies, a strictly business city of wealth and power. That’s true to an extent, Calgary is a new city and it shows. An extremely new city that really only ever came into being with the sudden boom economy of oil in the 1970’s-80’s that boosted its success and the Winter Olympics it hosted in 1988. Since then it has grown into a thriving city of over a million with a distinct vibe all its own. You will not find any distinct old monuments here, no stylishly outdated architecture or mighty old Cathedrals, it’s fairly uncommon for a building to be over 50 here never mind a hundred or more, so if it’s history that you seek when touring the world this is not the city to be. That said being new has its advantages; the streets are well designed and easy to navigate, the buildings in good condition and usually well kept, the streets are clean and the people generally quite friendly compared to many older cities which have had time to grow old and bitter about its success. Indeed, if I were to picture Calgary as a person it’d a be a young man, well kept and clean shaven in an expensive suit. Nice enough fellow really, very keen and work minded however and his buddies Edmonton and Vancouver often tell him he needs to relax and take a break every now and then because for someone his age he’s far too uptight. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good guy, he just needs to learn to relax and have some fun. I mean he’s what 150ish? That’s still a kid and yet all he does is work work work.

But lets not stop here. Unlike most other places I’ve visited, I *know* Calgary. With my habit of exploring and wandering aimlessly on foot, I like to think I know this city better than most people ever will. So when in most of my rundowns I give a description of the places vibe and what I saw and did there, here I can give details. Let us begin.

In Europe, Germany and UK especially, there are some spectacular parks. Hyde park in London is breathtaking, and in Bordeaux France there are some amazingly lush and green gardens. In Germany they have a love of greenhouses and more exotic plants as well as landscaping. Calgary doesn’t have anything like that, not really, what it does have though are parks with of a different sort of beauty. Where in Europe the gardens and parks are well tended and tailored artistic creations Calgary has natural preserves; fields of wildflowers springing up from the ground among the light shrubs and twisted old poplar and willow trees. Perhaps you might catch a glimpse of a deer among the tall grass, there are a few that live in Fish Creek park, or a rare birds nest within the trees. It’s a different form a beauty than the structured man-made parks of older cities, a sort of place that is only enhanced by the cities youth, carefully preserved slices of the wild in the midst of the city. Another example: There’s a pathway along a small waterway called Nose Creek which follows the twists and turns of this small creek and the train tracks alongside it, and when the weather is right and the city is quiet, it’s easy to picture yourself stepping through time as you wander down this path. The sounds of birds in the trees and the gentle wooshing sound of tall grass being blown by the breeze, that distinct yet not entirely unpleasant smell of a trains grease and oil that makes ones mind turn to western movies and cowboys, the soft lulling of the water. It’s idyllic and easily one of my favourite walking paths.

That’s not to say there arn’t atleast some attempts made to make a tailored park for relaxing and fun. In the Downtown area there is a place called Prince’s Island Park which is a favourite for downtown business men and women to enjoy a nice lunch or for families to have picnics. Connected to downtown via bridges to the more stylish and artsy district known as Eau Claire, it’s also a favourite hangout for buskers and street performs. I’ve seen a street magician performing a few times now who’s particularly good, and if the weather is nice it’s common to have at the least one or two people playing their guitars somewhere with the instruments case or a hat before them for spare change. It’s heavily wooded in places and has well tended flat lawns in others, benches are plentiful as are small gardens and even a cafe, meanwhile Canadian Geese and other winged wildlife are a regularity there which seems to stun most tourists as whenever I’m in the area you’ll see at the least two obviously tourist families pointing excitedly at our geese while snapping pictures of their relatives with the poor birds in the background. (And when will you realize those are wild animals folks, please stop letting your children wander too close, those birds can be mean when provoked as anyone who’s encountered them as a child themselves can tell you.)

The city itself is a massive suburban sprawl with a very centralized downtown that stands out starkly in the otherwise flat prairie lands. A collections of Tall skyscrapers of polished glass all crowded together with the notable Calgary tower among them. Travelling through the city is fairly easy once you figured out the public transportation system but I can imagine it could be frustrating for visitors. The LRT is the main transit system which branches out from central downtown into the more suburban areas, an above-ground train system that’s free to use downtown but otherwise costs the same as a bus ticket for travel to or from the downtown district to other outlying areas. Relies on an honor system rather than booths like you’ll find in subways but is occasionally patrolled by transit cops who’ll ask to see your ticket and will fine you if you don’t have one. Traffic isn’t really my concern seeing as I’m not much a driver (Aka I don’t drive because I’m too cheap!) but it can and does often get congested on the streets around 4:00 PMish when work usually lets out and everyone is rushing to get home. Drivers arn’t too bad in general, and there are plenty of walking paths and traffic stop-lights for pedestrians like myself to use. So getting around isn’t hard once you’ve got it figured out. Not bad.

But there are also some downsides. For one while the city is getting crowded thanks to it’s unusually quick growth. Too many business, not enough people to work all those businesses, yet too few houses, so it’s common to see NOW HIRING signs all over the place, even the occasional ‘closing because we don’t have enough staff’ sign and service can be lacking in many venues. Meanwhile housing costs have skyrocketed so when people DO move here for a job, they suddenly discover that actually living here might be more expensive than planned. It also means that there are quite a few homeless in the city and that tents being pitched along pathways and in parks is depressingly common, and although its not as bad as many other places yet, it could prove a major problem in the future. Calgary is also a bit of a business city, as I stated earlier, which means that entertainment can be annoyingly hard to find sometimes. Oh it’s there if you know where to look, but compared to say Montreal or Vancouver, Calgary is a relatively boring city at times. Whether that’s really a good thing or a bad thing is up to you…

But then there’s the view. If there’s one experience I’d like to describe from here, it’s this. Calgary is a prairie city that sits on the borders of the mountains, this causes some strange weather effects such as a neat little thing we call chinooks. Hot air will rise over the mountains from the western coastline then descend over and into the prairies making the weather often windy and unpredictable at best. Calgary is particularly known for its warm winters where a chinook wind will blow down from the mountains and while everywhere else is suffering -20c temperatures we’re relaxing in t-shirts and enjoying the warm breeze, next day will be cold as usual and perhaps the next will bring another burst of warm winds, it’s hard to tell. But besides making weather forecasting a headache for poor newscasters, this also produces some of the absolute most stunning sunsets (And sunrise, although I like my sleep so I rarely see those myself.) you will ever see. This effect isn’t really uncommon, any city situated nearby mountains will get it to some degree, Calgary just happens to be perfectly placed for some spectacular views you have to see to believe.

Lets play pretend here, try to visualize what I’m describing. I’d say close your eyes, but that wouldn’t work out so well considering this is written, so just ‘pretend’ your eyes are closed as you read to help you picture it. You’re on a steep hill, tall brown grasses billow in the warm winds that brush against your skin pleasantly. From up here you’ve got a good view of downtown Calgary with the Rocky mountains clearly present in the background as a jagged outline in the distance contested only by the tall glass towers of mans creation. To the east and away from the mountains the sky is a dark purple, black almost from the clouds while to the west and the mountains it’s clear but for a few wisps of cloud that form a whimsical pattern in the sky. And as the sun descends you see it; those black clouds slowly being lined with the most bright pinks and oranges you can imagine, bright patterns standing out starkly among the clouds. You tilt your head upwards and the entire sky above you is a pitch black with those wonderful patterns of oranges and pinks throughout, the patterns slowly and lazily shifting even as you watch from that same warm breeze you feel now. Then you look back down towards the horizon and you see that amazing sky reflected in the windows gleam of the tall skyscrapers of downtown, and for a moment you don’t see Calgary, but you see a painting that can’t be real: The distant horizon is a jagged series of mountains with the sun descending behind it, the sky a perfect soft blue but for a few wisps of white cloud, then starts the big dark mass of contrasting purples and pinks reflected in the mighty crystalline spires before you. It’s getting dark by now so some of the houses are turning on their lights, and while the horizon is still a bright blue, before you you see a scene where the ground is a series of sparkling star-like lights with that central series of crystal spires and the sky that twisting contrasting mess of dark and light colours, and perhaps you wonder if you’re still standing and if the world hasn’t turned upside down, the warm winds still tugging at you making you wonder if you arn’t flying. The illusion quickly fades, the sun descends fully and the sky goes back to a simply dark cloud that makes you wonder if it might not rain or snow later. But for those few brief seconds it lasted, it’s one of the most amazing experience you will ever have.

Doing a quick google picture search brought up a few results and here’s the best I could find, and here’s another. Picture the sky from the second with the skyline of the first, and you’ve the picture I’m describing.

Calgary has its flaws and its annoyances, but in the end after I’ve walked back down that hill and I’m on the train home, all is forgiven. I know, I’m a bit of a dreamer to enjoy this stuff so much and I’m sure reality will come crashing down on my head someday and leave me a nice proper drone, but till then here’s to beautiful sunsets in shiny new cities! Calgary ain’t the greatest city in the world, but hell, it’s my home and I love it here.