Notes on a train boarding pass… Zagreb, a welcome to Croatia

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It was almost noon as the train rolled into Zagreb. We had left Ljubljana early morning, wending our way along the banks of the Sava river, through Slovenia’s pastoral countryside of summer greens, tidy chalet-style farm houses and tall church steeples.

At a nondescript station, the train stopped abruptly. We were at the Croatian border, a sister country also once part of Yugoslavia – the former federation of the southern slavic peoples.

Guards stamped our passports with curt efficiency (and a charming small train icon). Croatia, until recently absent from my travel wish list, now laid before us.

As I write this now, on day six, how fortunate I feel to be meeting Croatians in their own country. They are disarmingly gregarious, welcoming, and prone to robust outbreaks of humour.

As to the sites and the history? Beautiful and richly layered.

The drawbacks? It is scorching hot, summer-tourist busy, and that’s before we’ve even reached the epicentre of tourism that is Dubrovnik. Yet already, I have developed a fondness for Croatia, for its people and place.

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We’ve journeyed through the Slovenian hinterland before, the views are familiar, yet on the Croatian side of the border, the countryside was not quite as picture-perfect. Absent was the pristine orderliness of farms and villages, those neatly stacked woodpiles and signature window boxes in blossoming reds.

We passed through towns like Zadine Most, Sevinca, Blanca Rozno and Libna. At each station I noticed a station master standing at attention as the train passed. In Slovenia they were dressed in blue shirts, navy trousers and berry-red berets. In Croatia, their shirts shifted to white and each man, or woman, stood as if a sentinel as the train passed.

I began to watch for them, with just a hint of anticipation. I imagined the station masters’ presence as assurance that the trains are running as they should, that all is in order – my mind drifted to the heartaches of this once war-riven region .

Today, the trains are efficient, safe, economic and as always, I relish the unhurried pleasure of train travel. For does not a train journey ease one more gently into a new country, allowing it, mile by mile, to introduce its signature and beauty?

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Zagreb…

We alight at Zagreb, the once-ornate station now showing signs of neglect. Across the street, a park greets us, modern bright blue trams glide past grand buildings. I immediately love that hydrangea is prolific in green spaces and in planters; splashes of colour against the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets.

I try not to compare Zagreb to the more-polished Ljubljana, our ‘home base’ for this past month, but Zagreb at once feels different.

The city is wrapped in much the same layers of history, yet perhaps it reveals its treasures more slowly. But then how better to delight than rounding a bend to come across the chapel within the Kamenita Vrata, the stone gate that guards the old upper town, or encountering the impressively coloured tiled roof of St. Marks. And within half an hour of arriving, I’m welcomed in traditional Croatian style with a glass of chilled local wine. It is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country.

 

The market just off Dolac Square is winding down as we stop for a late morning coffee at Cafe Opatovina. The café has front row seats to the busy market, its chairs mostly occupied by older men, gently rotund, straw hats shading tanned faces, some reading the morning paper, others chatting animatedly. All are already enjoying a beer or glass of wine. As in neighbouring Slovenia, anytime of the day is wine and beer time.

Outsized umbrellas shade both produce and vendors and after coffee, I take note of the cast-iron scales weighing the fruit and veg. I have observed these intriguing contraptions in markets far and wide and notice that these possess a unique ‘holder’, almost like a bucket. And as in India, the vendors rent the scales on a daily basis. I offer a ‘Dober dan,” as greeting to the young man operating the scale-rental stall. I learn that he charges only 13 kuna (about 2 US dollars) for a rental and his face tells me that he’s mystified at my interest.

Meanwhile, my travel companion has ventured off to St. Mark’s to survey the intriguing tiled roof that bears this country’s coat of arms. I’m happy to be alone for an hour or so as it often opens different doors. So it is here that I enjoy a pleasant and unexpected welcome to Croatia.

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I meander through the nearby market stalls; amply stocked with lace and aprons, wicker and honey. A small tavern in hues of Greek blue is tucked alongside and ever curious, I take a peek inside.

Five men, of a certain age, are nestled inside the postage-stamp of a bar, though I soon learn its actually a private club. It’s a cool refuge from the scorching heat and I’m immediately invited to join them.

I’ve read enough about Croatian culture to know that it’s impolite to refuse and after all, the church bells have just chimed noon! I accept a glass of  dry white and join the locals on the long banquette. It seats maybe six people, the exact width of the club at the back.

“Zivjeli”, Cheers! Their toast is wholehearted and genuine.

I ask Branco, Miro, Nikola and Seavo if they come here often. They’re deadpan serious when they retort, ‘every day, and all day’.

When they that learn that I’m Canadian, they’re surprised to hear that our capital isn’t Vancouver or Toronto. Ottawa is indeed a revelation. We discuss the recent Raptors win – big news in basketball-crazy Croatia. Another glass of wine is placed in front of me before I can refuse.

When the ‘men’s club’ discover that I’ve spent time in Slovenia, Branco nudges his heavy glasses up on his nose and settles a little deeper into the sofa to qualify the situation in Croatia.

“Here’s not as rich. Many young people leave Croatia,” he laments. “The retirement pension isn’t enough and we can’t work even if we wanted to. It was better when we were part of Yugolsavia.”

Yet Luca, positioned by chance under a poster of his home town on the island of Hvar, listens to the conversation. He interjects only cautiously. He’s debonair in a movie-set kind of way with a white fedora and a thick moustache complimenting his handsome face. He becomes a little more mysterious still when he mentions that he’s spent time I San Francisco, but doesn’t elaborate. The discussion trails off to handball, local wine and our upcoming itinerary.

“Go to Jelsa for sure,” Luca suggests just as an older gentlemen, with the face of a cherished grandfather, rises from the bar to shake my hand. He proffers me a piece of notepaper. On it is a name of a distant relative.

“In case, you’re in Toronto, go visit. Tell him you met Nikola in Zagreb,” he says with the genuine warmth and another handshake.

It’s time to take my leave and my attempt to pay for my wine is emphatically rebuffed and I accept gratefully. “Hvala lepa,” I say, thanking them for my ‘official’ welcome on Croatian soil. They ease themselves off the banquette.

“Time for lunch,” says Miro. He gives me a final wave from the doorway.

I disappear into the streets of Zagreb’s old town to find Bruce and over a late lunch, we brush up on Croatia’s history. As a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, it borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Its people are a legacy of their maritime past and history of a former territory of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian Empires… and that’s just the recent past. Even the Greeks and the Romans built on what came before. As Miro had mentioned at the club, “We are a proud mix of everything.”

As we glide out of Zagreb on the 3:20 to Split, I’m appreciative for this snapshot of a city that despite being the capital, is often overshadowed by Split, Dubrovnik, and the much vaunted Adriatic coast.

By 9 pm, Croatian flags fluttering on lamp posts welcome us into Split. The station master, tips his berry-red beret and we enter a city for the ages…

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Escape from Tiananmen Square… A Remembrance

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The newspaper clipping has long since tattered and yellowed. It is now thirty years old, with the heading, ‘The Day Tanks Laid Down the Law in Beijing,’ and the article I wrote not long after the event, bears witness to the events of those tragic days.

I was in my mid-twenties when, with my backpacker-boyfriend, we fled the carnage and atrocities of what many simply refer to as ‘Tiananmen Square’. Thirty years have passed, yet I think often of the innocent lives lost in the struggle to open the doors to democracy – something that should never be taken for granted.

The events of early June, 1989, are deeply etched in my memory. Most especially our fortunate escape. I don’t quite know how, but in the height of that emergency we survived and managed to secure train tickets to Shanghai. It was the last train that made it out… the one afterwards would be derailed.

Once aboard in the corridors, rising over the stillness of shock and disbelief, we listened to the fearful, whispering voices of the students and protestors who were still alive and managing to escape. They were being wrenched from their lives – from their families, studies, careers and from their country that would soon paint them as insurrectionists and traitors. All they had hoped for was dialogue and a peaceful solution; a voice in a new China.

“Please, please tell the West what has happened. Do they know, do they know?” we were asked in hushed tones as the train carried us sombrely through the night to Shanghai.

I recall the guilt I felt, knowing that for the most part life, for us life would resume. To those who fled, to those who lost their lives, and to the families who still mourn… I remember you often.

As fairly savvy backpackers who had already been on the trail for five months – Thailand, India and Nepal was the common route in the late ‘80’s – we were naïve in purposely traveling to Beijing. We had been in Hong Kong when the news of the fledgling democracy protests reached us and were surprised to be granted tourists’ visas. Entering China around mid-May, we made a long sweeping arc, first to the western provinces and then to the north. As news of escalating protests reached us, we foolishly threw away any caution and journeyed to what we imagined would be history in the making for democracy.

We entered the city on June 2ndand immediately witnessed long convoys of army vehicles stalled on the main arteries, apparently at an impasse with the locals who were nevertheless provisioning them with water, food and smokes. For all that it was alarming, the scene looked hopeful and there appeared still to be friendly banter between the troops and the people.

On the afternoon of June 3rd, we joined the crowds in Tiananmen Square. The obvious perseverance, sacrifice and courage of the hunger-striking students was profound. Colourful protest banners flew proudly over their tents, their only protection from the blazing sun and blustery nights. Many sat, quiet and pensive, smoking to stave off hunger.

The square around them was showing signs of deterioration and garbage littered the area. Mounds of clothing lay out for disinfection by medical aides. Above the flags, a new symbol of hope now surveyed the scene… the recently erected ‘Lady Victory’ Statue. She beamed radiantly across the Avenue of Eternal Peace at the pug-faced portrait of Chairman Mao. The half-villain, half-hero looked out of place in the students’ vision for a new China.

Earlier that morning, in an area behind the People’s Assembly, we had encountered a sea of green army helmets. They were young, mostly frightened teenagers and at that time still unarmed. We would learn that these early waves of troops mostly spoke local dialects and had been brought in from the countryside with little appetite for becoming embroiled in this political impasse.

We watched as crowds quickly surrounded them and a driver pulled his bus across the road to block their onward passage to the square. The bus became a vantage point for newsmen and for those few Chinese who possessed a camera. Thirty years ago, there were few luxuries in evidence. The streets were still teeming with millions of bicycles, only a few thousand cars travelled the city streets.

Eager to secure a good photo, Bruce hoisted me up on his shoulders. Many flashed the victory sign which, caught up in the moment, I returned to the cheers of the crowds. Besides my own, I gladly took photos for those who handed up their camera to me. Not until an irate senior soldier motioned towards me, did I grasp the enormity of the situation and hastily clambered down to the questionable anonymity that my auburn hair might enjoy amidst a crowd of Chinese. Of course, we were never truly able to disappear into the crowd. Time and again over the next few days, we were told to leave, ‘Foreigners bad now, go, go!’

We circled on our bikes toward the southern approach to the square, blending into the fringe of a crowd that was interacting with another contingent of troops. Peeling away from that crowd left us feeling exposed, but we had pulled back only a few metres when there was a roar from behind. We turned as the masses bolted away from the troops towards us. Dropping our bikes, we ran with them. It was a false alarm and untangling our bikes, we pedalled away, hearts pounding and very conscious of the growing intensity – much like the electric charge in the air before a thunderstorm.

Along the main thoroughfare of Chang ‘an Avenue, now around 6 pm, steadily more people filled the streets. All traffic had stopped. A group of protestors marched past, the crowds singing loudly to drown out the bark of party propaganda blaring from the tinny loud speakers mounted along the street. The atmosphere was raw and pulsating.

Ahead, an army truck had been set upon by the angry crowd, now a study of twisted metal and shattered glass. A block further was more frightening and perhaps foreshadowed what the night held for Beijing. A machine gun was propped on a desk atop a bus that had clearly been commandeered from the army. As students conferred on the roof and others within the bus, it was possible to imagine that perhaps the students might just have the upper hand. It was not to last.

Knowing, as foreigners that we had exposed ourselves enough, we pedalled back to our hotel just in time for the 8 pm martial law curfew. Yet thousands were defying it. People still gathered in groups and in conspiratorial voices, were either strategising or sharing anecdotes… all appeared greatly on edge.

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Returning to the rudimentary comfort and relative safety of our backpackers’ hotel, we tried to sleep; fully clothed, backpacks ready at the door, bed pushed away from the window. As the long night unfolded, we could hear tanks moving through city streets, the unmistakeable squeal of metal on pavement, gunfire piercing the air – both single shots and long sustained bursts. I was terrified, and convinced… surely, they would come looking for the foreigner who had dared to take so many ‘illegal photographs.’ Indeed, a news broadcast had warned of this traitorous act.

At daybreak, a gaggle of backpackers gathered in the lobby. Upon arrival, some of us had signed up for a bus trip to the Great Wall. Now, the visibly frightened desk clerk hinted at the grave reality on the ground. “No buses. No buses anywhere. Everywhere stopped. All danger.” With a trip to the Great Wall now the last things on our mind, we struggled to comprehend the horror that had unfolded overnight. A crackling voice from the BBC World Service was coaxed out of a transistor radio in the hotel’s austere lobby. The news that many had lost their lives both in the square and at the university confirmed our worst fears.

We learned later that as darkness had fallen, battalions of heavily armed soldiers made their way into the city through underground passages to walled-off confines of the Forbidden City. No longer the teen soldiers of the local militias, this new wave pitted battle hardened troops from the provinces against unarmed democracy protesters. Independent sources estimate that some ten thousand innocent people were murdered that night.

Panic gripped us and sensibly most travellers elected to remain inside and plot their next move. Five of us however, decided to venture out. In reality, Bruce and I had no choice. Our prime concern was to retrieve his passport. On the first afternoon of arrival, we had foolishly left it for security for our bike rentals.

Overnight, the city had turned into a war zone and we knew we must escape. Making our way cautiously around the south-east flank of Tiananmen, we pressed slowly forward, one block at a time. It was unknown territory accompanied by an unfamiliar heart-pulsing fear. We pushed on, past charred remnants of trucks and buses. Past disarray and destruction – crushed garbage cans, mangled barriers, torn-up pavement – visible signs of the merciless trail of army tanks. At strategic junctions, armed convoys blocked access to the square, ground zero of the atrocity.

A lone soldier strode towards us as throngs of people cheered his obvious desertion. His eyes fixed ahead, he clung to his crumpled shirt then disappeared into the crowd. Small clusters of soldiers, separated from their squads straggled cagily past, dishevelled and edgy. Crowds of bystanders angrily harassed forlorn groups of army wounded.

We moved on, skirting smouldering wreckage, until Tiananmen Gate came into sight. Suddenly shots pierced the air. Dropping our bikes, we all bolted ahead with the crowd. Then all stopped a little further on. Out of breath, Bruce and I found each other in the chaos then I waited anxiously as he and a friend retrieved the bikes.

A crowd surrounded me. A man who spoke little English became agitated, repeatedly telling me to not go further. Forming a gun with his hand, he warned that the Army would shoot indiscriminately. More shots rang out. I was desperate for Bruce’s safety… finally he reappeared and we quickly turned down a back street, edging our way towards the bike shop.

I don’t quite know what caused us to hope that it would be open – except, escape of course – and when we saw the shutters rolled up and the shop open for business, I finally broke down and sobbed. All these years later, the thought of not having retrieved the passport still fills me with panic. Chastening ourselves at our stupidity, we continued on foot towards Chang ‘an Avenue, the main boulevard.

We had no choice but to try to book a train out; I would learn much later that some 250 Canadians had been flown to safety by the government. Hoping to gather some insight on the situation from other travellers, we stopped at what was at the time an iconic bastion of the West, The Beijing Hotel. For the moment, it was relatively unscathed, though bullet holes pierced the front door reminding guests they were in range of random gunfire.

As we tried to force down some food, sporadic gunfire jolted any sense of safety. My stomach reeled as Bruce tried to remain calm for my sake, yet each of us silently wondered if we would make it back to our hotel alive. Word emerged that troops had been indiscriminately firing at people in a twisted logic of revenge.

The constant chatter of helicopter rotors washed ominously over us. And then a new sound emerged – a rumble that vibrated through the hotel foundations. Following the lead of a few others, and against the better judgement of staff, we climbed the stairs to a roof-top vantage point. A column of tanks, as far as we could see, was crawling down Chang ‘an Avenue. The sound was deafening.

Peering out to the square some five hundred metres distant, we watched as the dark silhouette of a rising chopper, the black payload swinging beneath the machine told us all we needed to know. Helicopters were ferrying body after body from the cordoned-off square just beyond our view.

Suddenly, the convoy of tanks grounded to a halt. Below us and to our right, strode a single man who blocked their path. He would not yield and even as the lead tank made to detour around him, he stepped deliberately back into its line. This indelible scene, captured from the hotel on a sixth floor balcony and smuggled out by a French student concealed in a box of tea, was soon shared with the world. Even in that simpler era before the endless news cycle, the scene would play out infinitely as a symbol of peaceful resistance. It was an act so defiant, so brave… simply unfathomable for anyone who had witnessed the display of might emanating from the long column of tanks.

Already then, we knew. During the night, these same tanks had been less sparing of life. Randomly and deliberately, they had mowed down the innocent, their own people. Writing this today, my whole being recoils in disbelief… and still, in deep sadness.

Realizing that our parents would be panicked, we sought to telephone from the main post office four blocks away. The telephone wires at the Beijing Hotel had been cut and it was no surprise that the post office was shuttered. The overpass directly beyond the building was awash with crowds gathered to observe the tanks and the troops stationed below. Edging closer to the scene we stumbled upon flattened bikes and then the sight of the bloodied, crushed body of a young man. His image became another rallying cry, an iconic image on magazine covers that rekindled the rage against the government.

Finally, we reached the railway station, thankful, then almost perplexed at our good fortune of obtaining tickets outbound for Shanghai the next evening. Once back outside, the darkening sky now broke into torrential loud claps of thunder and pounding rain. Like blows on an anvil, I saw symbolism in the storm’s anger. The aggressor had won – driving a final emphatic nail in the coffin of democracy.

Hailing a cycle rickshaw, feeling relatively invisible behind the plastic sheet that protected from the downpour, I occasionally poked my head out to the wreckage of the streets. I saw army trucks smouldering in the cool, misty air. I cried when I glimpsed sight of the charred, distorted image of a young soldier hanging from an overpass. My composure broke when the Chong Wen Men Hotel finally came into sight.

There, we would wait it out until our train left the next evening. We all gathered often around the transistor. We ate little and sleep eluded us. In fact it was pointless to even try. For as night fell, the clatter of gunfire erupted anew – rapid, staccato, unceasing for a second night of retribution against democracy protesters and anyone thought to be associated.

The next evening with the sound of gunfire still in the distance we boarded the train, we escaped the city. A city that only days before had been bathed in the hopeful glow of awakening democracy.

In Shanghai, we slept on the airport floor for two nights and like so many others, were desperate to fly to the safety of Hong Kong. Bribes were plentiful and we travellers fought continuously to secure seats on an outbound flight.

Once in Hong Kong, we took a flight to Japan. Within days we had found jobs teaching English in Osaka. While there, one year later, we ventured home to Canada for a reunion with family, and to marry.

Rather unexpectedly, we have largely lived a global life since and raised our three sons. And especially, as a mother, I lament for those who yearn for their deceased children… without any official recognition of wrongdoing, apology, or justice.

For all of the fallen of Tiananmen Square, and their families… I offer this remembrance.

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On Penang Island… a writer in residence, a canvas of storied heritage

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I write this from the island of Penang as a writer in residence. To use that cliche, if I may,  over the moon begins to describe it. I’m ensconced in a studio apartment on Lebuh China, the street of George Town’s earliest traders. In fact, the Chinese have called it Tua Kay, Main Street, since it was laid out in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. That same year, Light with the audacity of those colonial times, ‘claimed’ this island for the British East India Company.

The narrow street that I call home for the month of May, reminds me of so many places; of our travels through China and Thailand, of our two-year stay in Japan, and most recently of our home in Bangalore, India. Lebuh China fringes Little India, and for me, George Town encompasses all of those treasured places… melded into one storied milieu.

Not long after arriving, I set my workspace, found my friendly flower wallah, sourced my go-to corner shops and just a few steps away, found my favourite local cafe. The setting of Ren i Tang – an old Chinese medical hall now a Heritage Inn and Bistro – is simple yet evocative. Its tall ceilings, aged ceramic tiles and reminders of its days as the neighbourhood dispensary, are characteristic of George Town’s iconic shop houses. Many have a unique story to tell and at Ren i Tang, my favourite low table often seems to be waiting just for me at the bistro’s edge. With its open view to the street beyond, I can watch life pass by in a contented and unhurried flow. I might savour a bowl of spicy Laksa, then fresh watermelon juice to help combat the heat and humidity. I admit, I revel in this climate!

Shop houses like Ren i Tang, help give George Town its rich and eclectic character. Many have been refurbished, some are in need of saving, but they all very much contributed to the city being accorded a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008… as did the heritage buildings, narrow roads, colonial-era mansions, Chinese clan houses, ornate temples and Little India. And of course, we must mention the iconic street art, the fantastic street food and the traditional artisans – rattan weavers, garland makers, wooden sign-board carvers, lantern and joss stick makers. Even generations of tart makers are deemed part of George Town’s cultural heritage.

As I pass through the streets whether to research, to an event at Hikayat ‘my’ excellent local book shop, or to meet friends for dinner, all of my senses are invited to engage. The strains of Hindi love songs drift through the balmy, sandalwood-infused air. The tok-tok-tok of an enthusiastically wielded spatula against a wok, large as an upturned umbrella, pre-empts the aromas of Penang’s beloved street food. And as always, commerce abounds – gold jewellers and saree shops, refined displays of colourful Malay batiks,  profusions of collectable Chinese and Nonya porcelain.

Yet, the intrinsic backdrop of George Town is the layer upon layer of founding cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Armenian, British, German, and more – all of which appear to exist in respectful harmony. Languages, religions and cultures brush Penang’s canvas with rich and intricate tones, creating a hopeful picture of balance and acceptance.

How did the young Malay taxi driver put it on my arrival?

“Welcome, welcome. First time to Penang, Miss?”

I smiled just a little that, in Malaysia and Thailand, they still endearingly call me ‘miss.’

“No, I’ve been here quite a few times I admitted,” explaining that I have visited often since first working on a book project a number of years ago.

“So you know then. Here, we all live in harmony, many religions, many cultures. How the world should be.”

He could not have said it more poignantly and in truth, I believe this is one of the reasons why I so embrace this small island in the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered through researching its history for the book previously to this one, there are many facets to uncover, yet the building-blocks of this unique and multi-cultural island are steadfast and represented just a short walk from my apartment … the cornerstones of four religions on one harmonious street.

A few evenings ago, I strolled to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling just before dusk. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of this treasured street. Initially named Pitt Street after the once British Prime Minster, still today, it is proof that religions can live side by side.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, over-sized joss sticks burned in quiet reverence at the edge of the temple. A few last visitors cupped their much smaller pieces of sandalwood, circling them in devoted hands… a quiet Taoist prayer.

A few doors away, the gleaming white spires of St. George’s Church reached skyward, mirrored by the tips of tall palms and framed by the sprawling branches of a grand mahogany tree. It is the oldest Anglican Church in South east Asia. “Two hundred years old today,” a proud parishioner told me. “Please, you are very welcome.”

As sunset swept the sky with wisps of golds and luminous pinks, the melodic call to prayer drifted languidly from a little way down the street. As it has done since 1801, the Mosque seemed to entice rather than summon its believers for evening prayer. As Muslim Malays and Indians made their way, many took the time to nod a hello or bid a ‘good evening.’ In an instant, I drifted back to our seven years in Qatar and Oman where I recall going to Christmas church services. Perhaps, where I first experienced this diverse blend of coexistence. And here? It has been crafted from the outset, as Francis Light encouraged a multi-cultural settlement.

In my glow of bonhomie, a rainbow of pastel colours soon caught my eye from the opposite side of the street. It was the Indian gopuram of Sri Mahamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in George Town. Since 1833 it has welcomed followers. Many were the original stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships dockside. The temple must have been a refuge and a comfort to some of these first hard working migrants.Then, as now, one enters into a cool, incense-clouded interior. Intricate garlands of roses, jasmine and marigolds also permeate the air. Once a year the devotees place their statue, the goddess Mariamman, on a wooden chariot and an evening procession parades her through the streets of Little India.

That evening however, things were much more serene. Tourists paused to marvel at the dance of colours in the sky and trishaw peddlers waited sanguinely for one last fare. As I continued my evening stroll, I pondered if there was any city in the world where four prominent religions occupy the same street in harmony?

I meditated a ‘gratitude’ for the friends and many acquaintances I have here… all of them representing one of these religions, others, or perhaps none at all. As the young Malay driver commented, “This harmony, is how the world should be…”

 

The tulips of Keukenhof… the flower of Kings and Sultans

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There is a sense of anticipation as we are near the Keukenhof. In gaps between farmhouses and buildings, glimpses of colour flash through the windows of our bus. Field upon field of tulips are slowly revealed, like living rainbows laid flat and narrow. They are a preview of what is to come – a tantalizing aperitif before the sumptuous feast that will soon be laid out before us.

With some time to spare in our travels, we’ve taken a bus from Schiphol Airport to one of the world’s most expansive and joyous displays of flowers. Even before we pass through the gates of these once 15thcentury hunting grounds, murmurs of anticipation bubble and swirl. As we enter, we are arrested, transfixed by the first of many beautiful vistas that have been planned with such loving attention. It is truly a remarkable sight.

Many years have passed since my last visit and so it felt almost like seeing it with fresh eyes. Despite my Dutch heritage, I don’t think that I fully appreciated just what a treasure the Keukenhof is… and just how intimately it is linked to the identity and history of this small nation. Keukenhof, which essentially means kitchen garden, is a wonder, a pride and joy… a celebration of one of earth’s most coveted gardens.

Also known as the Garden of Europe, between October and Christmas, the Keukenhof’s horticultural team plants a staggering 7 million flower bulbs, covering almost 80 acres. With practiced precision, they are ‘timed’ to bloom for the garden’s springtime opening and we are fortunate to be here at the sweet-spot– the day is warm and sunny, the tulips profuse and the first tender green leaves of the trees provide a pastel-lime backdrop to the displays beauty. There is no colour of the spectrum not represented – buttery yellow, creamy white, saffron yellow, crimson and carmine red, plum and deep purple, single colours or variegated; evocative in their diversity.

Without question, tulips are all hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female characteristics. They have petals, sepals and tepals. I learn that their waxy leaves are ‘cauline’, emanating, unwinding from the stem of the plant and that they thrive in climates with long, cool springs for germination. That climate is certainly not only found in The Netherlands, but also in the steppes, meadows and shrubby chaparral, from Afghanistan to the plains of India. But in their journey from eastern origins, it is clear that in the Netherlands they truly found their full blossoming.

Babur, who founded the Indian Mughal Empire five centuries ago, mentioned tulips in his memoir. They were precious, like melons and grapes, and presented as fond gifts. In Turkey, tulips were considered holy, revered even by Sultans who displayed them artfully on their turbans. In fact, it is held that the word tulip is derived from the word duliband (or dulib) the Persian for turban. While the tulips were abloom, tulip gardens were settings for the sumptuous parties of Sultans, some replete with candle-backed tortoises illuminating the sublime setting.

The scene at Keukenhof is more elemental, but no less marvellous than those extravagant scenes. It is serene, yet also exuberant, in its carefully orchestrated scenes and vistas. Exciting, but also hushed, as crowds marvel at the spectacle. In this spectacular parkland setting, the tulips are the main event with fragrant hyacinths and narcissus playing supporting roles to the star attraction.

The tulips are arranged in swathes of colour – some like streams flowing amongst trees or like a manicured English garden, precise and geometric. Other vignettes are simply riots of colour, exuberant explosions. Plaques throughout the garden speak of the vast number of species and variants. Each cluster is labelled, names inspired by their origins or distinct characteristics – pointed like stars, jagged and rustic, or smooth and delicate like a peachy, fulsome breast.

Surely there’s a perfect tulip for everyone’s taste and I quickly spot my favourite… it’s my typical white flower but with wisps of the softest pink. A simple flower, unlike the variegated and marbled varieties which at one point in the tulip’s history became sought after to the point that a bulb could trade for the same value as a well-appointed house in Amsterdam.

During the mid-1500’s, Sultans commonly gave the coveted tulips as gifts to visiting Western diplomats. Then in 1573, one Carolus Clusius planted tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens. He completed the first major paper on the flower, with specific notes on the variations of colour. When appointed director of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Clusius planted a teaching garden and then a private garden in the late 1593. Thus, 1594 is considered the date of the tulip’s first flowering in the country, yet the tulip expert would lose more than one hundred of his precious bulbs to raiding in his garden… the secret of the precious tulip was spreading.

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Tulips gained in popularity across Europe with more opulent varieties pursued to the point of mania. This was a time when people’s appetite for curiosities and natural oddities was at its height in the Netherlands, France, Germany and England, driven by the spice trade from the East Indies. This created a new wealth and introduced a steady stream of novelty.

The ‘exotic’ tulip acquired an aura of mystique and between 1634 to 1637, this enthusiasm sparked a tulip trading frenzy. Bulbs became a form of currency, a luxury product that spoke of the good taste and esteemed learning of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also collected valuable paintings – the tulips themselves were soon depicted in Dutch still-life paintings of the rich and opulent Golden Age.

With the crash of the tulip market in 1637, this former flower of Kings and Sultans set forth on a more democratic path through history, one in which tulips could be owned and adored by all. Today, the Dutch grow almost 80 % of the world’s tulip bulbs – some 3 billion – yet as we stroll through Keukenhof, it strikes me that is not simply a business. It is a source of pride and identity, one that is exquisitely showcased to the world year after year in a springtime of abundance and unbridled colour.

67A86EBD-65E3-48E4-A4E6-9C81B7008E49And I give the visionaries who have shaped this former ‘kitchen garden’ much credit, it has it all!

Play areas for children, indoor displays, whimsical themed arrangements, even the opportunity to climb the steep steps of a traditional windmill to take in the vistas beyond. And their view? None other than those rainbow fields of tulips… as we say in Dutch, echt prachtig,just beautiful!

 

Seeking colours in unlikely places… from urban landscapes to an ink-maker’s palette

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We often talk about putting colour in our lives, enjoying colourful characters, revelling in the vibrancy of autumn colours… so it’s little surprise that the absence of colour can leave us searching.

For the first time in more than twenty years I spent a full winter in Canada and in the process, it seemed almost like a re-learning of what it was to yearn for colour. Beyond the whites and blues that dominated my vistas – and yes the rosy hues of the alpenglow on the mountain peaks are always spectacular – I longed for splashes of primary colours. Oh give me greens, blues and yellows, pops of red, maybe even a dash of ‘bird of paradise’ orange!

After experiencing five months of continuous snow and sub-zero temperatures, I’ve concluded, I’m not a true winter-connoisseur. As the days fused into a continuum of meagre chromatic tones, I found my mind wandering endlessly back to India. At this time last year, our posting in Bangalore was coming to an end and I knew that I could never replace the vivid colours of my daily life there – the vibrant sarees, the exotic fruit piled high on vegetable carts, the canopy of lush greens that was the backdrop for our apartment. And so through those long winter months I felt bereft of colour, almost starved, as if it were nourishment for my soul.

Impatient for the promise of an early spring to deliver me, I began in earnest to seek out colour. On a bright sunny afternoon we visited Fort Steele, a heritage village nestled against the Rocky Mountains. The aged wooden buildings seemed to be making a grand entrance to the new season, the still snow-draped mountains  providing the perfect framing for their subtle colours. At this time of year, Fort Steele is still absent of its summer crowds, the silence seeming only to enhance the simple washes of colour, the nuances of gentle palettes.

 

A week later, a trip to Vancouver confirmed that, at least on the coast, spring had most definitely sprung… budding crocuses and darling daffodils announced the re-birth of colour. On Granville Island, I soaked in bursts of peony pink, carrot orange, and radish red. There were vivid blues and yellows. I found shadows on walls and textures on lights. Even the sky swirled its own evocative design with soft, billowy clouds. I gratefully extracted sustenance and delight from every play of warmth.

 

Then this past weekend, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I found myself in Calgary attending a lecture/conversation where colour was very much the topic.

Jason Logan is a modern day urban forager, with a very specific cause. An individual with a unique perspective on the hidden bounties of the city. His purpose, quite simply, is to make ink. His book, MAKE INK, A Foragers Guide to Natural Ink Making, chronicles his surprising and delightful endeavours.

Jason’s bespoke palettes of ink practically burst off the pages and I can only imagine how vibrant they must be in real life. Their names more than hint at their origins… evocative concoctions like Hawaiian turmeric, sap green, carbon black, black walnut, wild grape purple and acorn cap silver.

“It all started with a black walnut tree,” Jason told the audience at Calgary’s stately Memorial Park Library. Years ago, he had quickly used up a purchased bottle of ‘black walnut ink’ while working as an illustrator in New York. He loved the texture, the depth of the colour and rapidly filled up an entire sketchbook with the mahogany-black hue. But when Jason tried to replenish his supply, he found the ink maker had stopped producing black walnut ink.

Seven years later and now back in Toronto with a young family, Jason’s daily cycle to work took him past a beautiful aged tree. Discovering it to be a black walnut tree, he waited not so patiently as the tree’s bounty of nuts slowly matured into green hulls. When they shed in late September, Jason soon had them boiling into a rich brown ink in his kitchen. After repeated tweaking of the recipe, he was hooked.

His passion has translated into the Toronto Ink Company, and he now takes plants, roots, berries, metal, gypsum, weeds, in fact whatever he may find in a specific city, to create inks evocative of a specific area.

The day after his lecture, I noticed on Instagram that Jason had foraged in Calgary as well. ‘Paint chips of Calgary: pried off of a cement block in the Paliser Parkade, the CN bridge downtown, a rusty pipe near the Bow and Elbow rivers, an old Toronto Sun newspaper box in the East Village and the underside of a bridge.’ The colours were luscious and will no doubt reveal themselves as they’re transformed into a bottle of ‘Calgary Ink’.

One of Jason’s clients and confidantes is Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. In MAKE INK, the two creatives discuss shellac, the necessary binder for ink.

Jason comments, “The shellac that I buy comes from these little beetles from a bush in the high mountains in India. Almost everything I make, I make from the streets of Toronto, except the shellac. I would at least like to meet those little beetles.”

“The first creature I remember very vividly is called the golden beetle in Sri Lanka. It was sacred,” Michael Ondaatje replies. The ink maker confirms that, “Beetles strangely play a really important role in pigment and ink.”

Their conversation meanders to beetles that live on prickly pear cactus feasting on the purple magenta syrup, to the ‘witchy relationship’ the English have with herbs and the dyeing of wool, to making ink from ancient lichen, rust, bone, wood, land and quinine all of which pay homage to the Franklin Expedition, the doomed British Arctic endeavour of 1845.

I find it original and fascinating; Jason’s mantra, ‘Colour is Everywhere’, rings true. During the presentation, there is an earthy, visceral, almost elemental, passion that comes through as he speaks. He tells us that his inks are fugitive; they’re alive, they change, even in their fading there is poignancy.

And he’s asked, Why ink?”

“They’re an intensification of colour that can be used in communication. It’s democratic, anyone can play. Maybe a fine line of a pen. And with a brush, it loses its mind!”

Post Script

As I publish this post, I find myself in Spain. We’ve begun some months of traveling and yesterday I was reminded of how wonderfully a town can ‘lose its mind’. On the Costa Blanca lies a delightful town, like a colourful box of pencil crayons… La Vila Joiosa

This once small fishing village is awash with colour, across the full spectrum of the rainbow. Its name means ‘jewelled town’ and the vibrant colours were traditionally intended to guide local fishermen home from the sea. Narrow, centuries-old houses lean against each other, each distinctly hued. Shades of powder and cobalt blues, reds, pale lavenders, ochres and mustard yellows and seaside greens. Imagine selecting a handful of your favourite pencil crayons and living amongst them… it’s fanciful and alive.

I was here a number of years ago, and it’s just as beguiling and nourishing as I remember it. My yearning for colour has absolutely been fulfilled!

 

 

The Writing Workshop… on an ‘island’ of creativity

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IMG_3182Fear and procrastination have a way of dissuading… of whispering that perhaps you can put off doing what you know in your heart to be intuitive and true.

I had been promising to host a writing workshop here in Kimberley, since last autumn. Yet, still I hesitated.

I’ve hosted workshops in India and Kazakhstan, and have been part of many writer’s retreats and workshops in various countries. Yet despite knowing how they enrich and inspire, something held me back.

Perhaps it was the promise of spring that prompted me to finally plan the inaugural workshop on home soil. For the first time in many years, I’ve spent the entire winter here and I longed for the first signs of spring. With the first hint of melting snow and birds flitting in the pines, I sensed my own awakening. It was time to share what I know with others. Time to inspire others in their writing journey… call it the renewal of spring!

‘The Joy of Writing’ was full, twenty writers had made the commitment of discovery. And, by the time we set down our pens, flowing emotions had translated to profound words on paper and emerging stories. Friends had committed to the workshop together, but wonderfully, strangers had also become friends, united by their common desire to explore and enrich and expand their writing canvas.

Less a guide or an instructor, I felt more like a midwife to their nascent stories, helping the latent to become revealed. It was deeply fulfilling, connecting me emotionally to those earlier days when my desire to write and my fear were mixed in equal measure.

Yet there’s more here than meets the eye, more here than simply pen to paper. Why do we brave the act of pushing ourselves beyond our boundaries, away from our comfort zone? We humans have a deep-rooted urge to be emotional and in that emotion, to be authentic and, as a consequence, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We long to share, to be heard, to be storytellers… to be connected. Writing does this.

I’ve written often of that first transformational writing retreat for me. Yes it happened to be in Tuscany, an idyllic setting to be sure, but it struck me that our town’s beloved art centre and gallery was no less inspiring. Kimberley’s population of 7,000 or so, fully embraces the cultural hub that Centre 64 represents. How did some of us word it that day?

 

“Instantly, I feel accepted. This room that holds me is large and loving and living. The tremendous wooden beams absorb my Song. Who is the man who first saw this place in his mind? Who is the man who then created it with his hands? I sing to celebrate his authentic Masterpiece.”   Brenda


In this town renowned and beloved for its culture of the ‘great outdoors’ and where so much of the community bond and identity is somewhat related to planks on snow and wheels on dirt, the Centre feels like a foreign island. 

Here, true culture comes to life and pushes the outdoor where it belongs, outside, in a gentle: ‘Fuck you! There is more to life than how many turns you made last winter!’

True expression of ideas, talents, quirkiness and creativity… and vulnerability of the soul. Celebration of the landscape comes in a pure form on canvas, on stage, through strings, copper and words… a world of its own, that would not get to savour unfortunately, if you don’t dare visit the ‘Island’.”  Emile   https://rocksnowandicecream.com


“A space that embraces works of art and quiet contemplation, yet often sings with rhythm and theatre. On this day, it is a cocoon for inspired and creative writers. We share our words and stories like treasured jewels… we laugh, and cry, like kindred souls. We acknowledge the healing power of writing, then give gratitude for the welcoming haven we find ourselves in.”   Terry Anne


“From what I can see, aside from material objects in this mature art gallery, is a bunch of aspiring artists, all searching for a way to express their creative genius. A certain creativity lies dormant in all of us and hopefully today, we can combine forces as a mastermind group and awaken that sleeping genius. After all, each one of us is very unique and has a story worthy of hearing. In other words, a beautiful garden worthy of being shown to the world.”   Niall


 

So who comes to a workshop? IMG_3209

Mature people with a lifetime of stories from Afghanistan to Ireland, within the hippie culture of California and along the quiet backroads of rural Canada.

Young mothers who relish the blessed opportunity to write while their toddler naps.

And then there are teachers, hair stylists, gallery and city administrators. Indeed, the whole gamut, from firefighters to yoga aficionados.

All are people with dreams and talent – writers with the desire to share their personal journey, perhaps for the world or maybe simply for the ‘kids’.

Like me, they may one day see their book on bookshelves, yet that satisfaction can be fleeting. I have come to realise that it is the sharing of experience with others that truly matters most.

The morning after the workshop, I received a message from one of the participants. Shannon had been up early on her lakefront perch and already writing. The first time I met this lady – beautiful from inside and out – she was relocating a ‘wayward’ snake. We were unloading our kayaks close to her home when she appeared pushing her bike. Slithering in a plastic bag, the snake dangled precariously from her handlebars. At a cautious distance, I struck up a conversation and since then we have enjoyed encountering one another, the way that you do in our small town.

Shannon is a gentle, spiritual soul whose eyes perpetually sparkle – whether doing good for the animal kingdom, talking about her latest yoga retreat, or while writing that day at the Centre.

She, and the others, remind me of the joy of connecting. As I read Shannon’s poignant musing that morning, there was no doubting the power of inspiring others, of hearing kindred voices and of why we should always heed our inner voice. In writing and in life, I have learned to follow my instincts – it has become a source of great happiness and contentment.

 

An early morning penning, by Shannon

“We are given this lifetime to nourish our souls and to learn life lessons so that we, as beings of light and love, can evolve.

We know this as babies and children but then ‘life’ happens and we forget.
When we have events occur in our life that cause us frustration, anger, sorrow, disappointment, and fear, we need to step back from the situation and look at it from another view.

If we can open our hearts and souls to try to learn and understand why this is happening… If we can be open to where the Universe or God is trying to lead us….
If we can be open to try to hear with our hearts what we are being told…
If we can find a crumb of gratitude for what we do have… here and now…
If we can rise above all the downers and show humility and forgiveness and love from a deep level..
. then we can feel whole, complete, joy, love, and at peace wherever we are. ”
Mahadevi

 

 

Old Quebec City… the romance, and the fortitude of the King’s Daughters – of all the founding women

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At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.

Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.

 

And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.

Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.

The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.

 

As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.

The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…

 

The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain

The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.

European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.

It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.

Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.

History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.

 

The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters

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As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.

Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.

Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.

 

In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.

Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.

And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.

As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.

Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.

It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?

The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”

In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”

In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.

It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United StatesPeople including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.

For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.

 

 

Slovenia, oh Slovenia… a ‘fairytale’ road trip

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive up to that furthest church,” I say, pointing with childlike enthusiasm to a steeple piercing the Slovene sky. It’s a cool, but sunny October morning and we’re not far from the outskirts of Ljubljana. The steeple is one of many that announces every small town. They’re invariably nestled in valleys or standing tall on sugar loaf mountains amongst pastoral landscapes. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy-tale,” I enthuse with genuine delight.

Slovenia may not necessarily be on your travel itinerary, but perhaps it should be. Sharing borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it is easy to travel to; for us, a pleasant three-hour train journey from Trieste in northern Italy. It’s a compact country, which at the crossroads of Europe has seen the ebb and flow of mighty empires and dynastic struggles. Its people are friendly, clearly in love with life, and how could I not admire them when they are so passionate about accordions (says this amateur player), pretty window flower boxes, and meticulous wood piles!

Barely half-an-hour out of Lubijana, where our son and his girlfriend live, it’s clear we’ll be treated to an intimate perspective of this small country. We’ve already fallen in love with ‘Lubi’ and now very unusual for us, we have no set itinerary. Yes, a rough plan of course, but not one hotel booked for our three-day excursion. It turns out to be the best thing we could have done – serendipity can find a way of rewarding you, if you let it.

We don’t make it to that church on that high promontory that I longed to see, indeed we’ll come across many more, and we soon find ourselves having morning coffee against the backdrop of the medieval stone walls of Skofja Loka. The name roughly translates to ‘the bishop’s marsh’ and in 973 the bishopric was granted by Emperor Otto II.

For the next one thousand years the town was tied to that distant ecclesiastical principality, a tower and castle constructed for defence purposes and by 1248, Skofja Loka was granted rights as a market town. Only locals were permitted to trade inside its fortressed walls and now… if only the walls could talk. Yet they do, with faded frescoes still relating its long history and interestingly, I discover that one of the town’s early commodities was frogs. We stroll the streets, locating the ‘frog trail’ winding down to the serene river where one presumes the toads were trapped. Crimson leaves are tangling their way across stone and mortar, weaving in splendid harmony in these deepening days of autumn.

It is a gorgeous setting, seemingly the backdrop of your most beloved fairy tale. Yet despite the tranquil setting, townspeople have known much grief through the centuries: attacks and burnings from marauding Dukes and from the Ottomans, plagues, fires, peasant revolts and earthquakes.

Climbing the hill to the church, we dangle our legs over the aged stone parapet and gaze over rooftops to the castle occupying the wooded hill on the north edge of town. The serrated peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy in distant violet pastels, framing the lush-green hilltops beyond Skofje Loka. The peaks mark the border with Austria and I’m reminded of even more heartache in the story of this enchanted place. I had read its war stories – citizens arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Serbia, mass graves of prisoners of war around the castle and in neighbouring sites. As is often the case when I’m in Europe, the echoes of two world wars seem never far from the surface. Their brutal and bloody secrets seem still to shadow the present. We should never forget the suffering of the past, but in this moment I allow the tranquility of this beautiful place to warm me.

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Back on the road, the scenery is coloured with snowy-white sheep, rosy crab apples and rusty-orange pumpkins – plump and offered for sale at the edge of farmers’ driveways. The narrow highway wends and climbs until we come upon Slovenia’s pride and joy. Lake Bled emerges like a mirage with the much photographed Bled Island and its late 17th century pilgrimage church. Certainly this is part of the storybook I’m creating in my mind, this enchanted setting must be where the heroine lives happily every after?!

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Lake Bled, photo credit Trixie Pacis

It is a vision of ethereal beauty and as we stroll the perimeter of the lake, we notice the pletnas, gondola-style flat bottomed boats. In 1740, twenty-two local families were granted exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims to the small church on the island. Still today the role of an oarsmen is exclusive. Most are descended from the original families and whether ferrying pilgrims, visitors for pleasure or wedding parties, the long-standing tradition is part of Lake Bled’s heritage.

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We find a lake-side restaurant for an early dinner and I happen to meet a charming modern-day rower. Jani Klemenčič is a retired Slovenian Olympic rower, now at the helm of the restaurant Špica, a local institution with a stunning backdrop of the lake, the castle and the beguiling island.

As I admire the racing scull boat fashioned into a long bar table, Jani takes the time to chat. He grew up here. “I did a lot of rowing on this lake, always rowing,” he explains. Jani mentions that Lake Bled hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1966, 79, 89 and then 2011. “I medalled in the World’s in 01 in Lucerne,” he says rather humbly. I can’t help but imagine how special it would have been had he won on these home waters.

A display nearby pays homage to many of Jani’s fellow Slovene Olympians. Surely representing your country in four consecutive summer Olympics, as he did, conveys a certain heroic status upon him. “1992 was the year I medalled,” he clarifies, but it less his victories than his fondness for Lake Bled that shines through. “It’s an amazing, safe place.”

We find a simple hotel for that evening and bid farewell to the serene setting the next morning. Driving north west, we aim our sights for the winter resort town of Kranjska Gora in the Julian Alps. I’m immediately smitten by its quaint townscape that harkens back to the 11th century. The town’s Gothic church dominates its ‘skyline’, competing with the mountains and the Alps.

We’re recommended to have lunch, ‘for the famous Kranjska Gora mushroom soup’ at Gostilna Pri Martinu. The traditional restaurant is near the end of what seems to be main street and it is quintessentially Slovene; profuse window boxes, a traditional fireplace with old skis propped nearby and artfully stacked wood piles. Yes, I do have a slight obsession about wood piles and the Sloevenes have mastered the art of stacking. Throughout the town, the wood piles are so perfect, so uniform, even creative, that I send a few pics to our son who happens to be at our home in Canada chopping wood for the coming winter months. “Can you try this one? Or this?” I’m sure he thought I was slightly mad!

But I digress. The soup? The mushroom soup lives up to its reputation and after lunch I happen to chat with the owner, Daria. As well as hotelier, she is also a busy ski-mom. “My daughter has been on the podium for Slovenia,” she tells me proudly. As with Jani, living in an area that hosts sporting events, fosters champions. In this area, its the Alpine Ski World Cup and events at Planica, the ski-jumping hill.

When I comment on the beauty of her country, Daria confesses that years ago, she and her husband had almost immigrated to Canada. “I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “We have it all here. Close to so many countries. We like a simple life and there’s beauty. We’re a country of only two million. We’re a little good at things.”

She and her family’s three businesses, along with notable sports acumen attest to just that. I mention that we’re ‘on the road,’ yet suddenly have a visceral notion to spend some time here. I’ve noticed in Slovenia that restaurants often have small inns above their establishment and Daria takes me upstairs to entice me to where we might stay for the evening. The chalet-style windows are flung open to old wooden farmhouses and I feel that I can almost reach out and touch the Julian Alps beyond. Although it’s only early afternoon, I decide we’re calling it a day!

“We’ve found our place for tonight,” I tell the others back downstairs who are slightly bemused with my decision to not drive any further today. Daria hands me the keys. “No worries, you can register and pay later.”

There are times when travelling that you know when you need to… stay, spend some time in a place that you didn’t expect to, get to the essence of it…

And so we did and while the others jaunted off for a hike in the direction of the Alps, here I was in Slovenia! Having seen much of Europe, I was still pinching myself that I was exploring a new country. First stop… the museum.

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Sylvester Mirtic greets me warmly in the old farm house. Kransjka Gora still has many of these large farm/barn settlements where animals, hay and equipment share the space below the living quarters. Upstairs is expansive. A wooden bench wraps around the main room’s handcrafted table, the all-important ceramic stove warms the room and I’m shown lovingly and creatively painted beds and dowry chests.

“Notice the carnations that have such special meaning to us,” Sylvester points out. I deduce that this is one of the reasons for the prolific flower boxes in Slovene windows.  He also ensures that I see the Black Kitchen where cooking, baking and meat smoking occurred. It’s a separate room not of wood, but of tiny cobble stones to prevent fire. Generation after generation lived together in these rambling buildings and Sylvester adds interestingly that the language can change from valley to valley, often a reflection of people’s roots.

“I have Bavarian, Austrian and Italian roots,” he mentions and when I tell Sylvester that I was able to use a little Italian over at Daria’s establishment, he’s not surprised. “We feel like a nation, but we’re diverse.”

In fact, what you must know in a nutshell about Slovenia is this. It was once part of the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian Empire. Then came the Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the provinces under Napoleon, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A lot of empires, before exercising self-determination by co-founding the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1918, they merged with the Kingdom of Serbia, later named Yugoslavia in 1929.

Then came occupation in WW II, annex by Germany, Italy and Hungary and eventually independence in 1991 when Slovenia split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. With such a turbulent past, it isn’t surprising that as with Jani, Dari and Sylvester, I sense an acute sense of pride that people have for their country’s eclectic story.

After thanking Sylvester for the tour, I wander the quiet, picturesque streets. Yet more blooming carnations, interesting wood piles and the heavenly scent of wood fires now drift in the chilled air. The chiseled alps take on an alpenglow. And then I happily meet Ivanka.

She is just about to close up her small shop. It’s stuffed with wooden ‘this and that’, curios, wicker and brooms. Her effervescent personality bubbles through despite the language barrier and when I mention ‘Canada’ she breaks out in smile. I hear ‘bambino’ often and know she’s speaking of her grandchildren. Ivanka cradles my chin in her hand and says something with affection. Then she is entirely delighted when I ask to take her photograph. When I show her the result, she is pleased.

“Bella, bella, beautiful, beautiful,” she affirms with a laugh and again grabs my chin and cradles it gently. Like Slovenia itself, I’m immediately drawn to this warm, lovely woman. My gut reaction to spend time in this small town has given me an intimate insight into the Slovene culture and its people. It’s been a day of perfection.

Yet there’s one more stop this road trip is pointing us to – the Slovenian wine region. The next morning we drive through the majestic mountain pass and we’re rewarded with more stunning scenery and pretty small towns. When we reach our destination, the sprawling vineyards strike me as perhaps just as lovely as those of Tuscany.

In Brda, the westernmost wine region, we taste at the grand Vipolze Villa. We stroll amongst roadside vines just before sunset. We make our way to Smartno and finish the day in its walled medieval village. More excellent Slovene wine, the chatter of locals and yes, surely this is how this most excellent, fairytale road trip should finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.