Museums of Memphis / International Blues Challenge


It is hard to believe that even in 2015, whites in Memphis and the entire Delta area haven’t embraced the blacks for their wonderful spirit and joie de vivre.  Someone told me (I wish I could remember who) many years ago “we must embrace the differences that define us, not let them divide us.”  After attending the IBC, checking out the museums of Memphis, wandering Clarksdale and attending the First Baptist Church service, I say “vive la difference!”

International Blues Challenge

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

In December 2013, a few of Mikey’s Juke Joint groupies (including myself) decided to head to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) to support the Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams, both of who would be representing southern Alberta at the January 2014 competition.  It was a truly amazing experience, not only did Williams win the competition as the best single/solo act and best guitarist, but I developed a whole new appreciation for the history of the blues and the culture of the south that produced it.

This year’s Challenge happens January 20 – 24 with Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams again representing southern Alberta.

The Museums

One of the great things about visiting Memphis is their trio of music museums – Stax Museum, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Sun Records.

The STAX Museum blew both Brenda (not so much a blues or music keener) and I away with its campus that includes not only the museum, but a charter school and extensive collection.  For anyone interested in the history of 20th century music in North America, this is the place to go. You will learn about the evolution and connections between numerous genres of music – blues, soul, jazz, Bebop, country, gospel, hillbilly, R&B, rock and Pop music.  What I particularly loved about the museum is there is its air of authenticity as much of the history actually happened in Memphis or in the immediate area.  

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

The museum starts with a wonderful 20-minute film, after which you wander at your own pace through hundreds of displays that tell the story of the music with lots of memorabilia.  The highlight was when I complemented an elderly, distinguished-looking man on his great tie.  He thanked me and we got chatting about the museum and how he was visiting with his grandchildren who “wanted to see where their grandfather was” in the museum.  Turns out I was talking to Harold “Scotty” Scott of the Temprees, whose gold record for “Dedicated to the one I love” and other band artifacts we on exhibit.

One take away message I got from this museum was how the pain and hardship deeply penetrated the African American culture of the south and how they sought comfort and solace in their music.

I would recommend anyone visiting the museum, also take an explore a few around the museum, it will reinforced the link between poverty, sense of place and blues music.  The predominately black neighbourhood of empty lots, abandon homes, homes with what looked like religious shrines on the porches and numerous churches looked like many of the images we saw in the museum.

In chatting with Andrew Mosker, CEO, National Music Centre (NMC), who is currently construction a new museum in Calgary, I was told they would be incorporating some of the lessons learned from STAX on how to engage, entertain and educate the public about music.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the NMC could match STAX museum’s authenticity as most of NMC’s artifacts will be imported from elsewhere. Also a big shiny new museum located in a glitzy new master planned urban community seems diametrically opposed to places that are the catalyst for artistic creativity. Time will tell.

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institute and located downtown next to the arena provides an excellent overview of the history of Memphis area music from the 1930s to the city’s musical heyday of the ‘70s.  The museum’s digital audio guide offers up over 300 minutes of information including 100 songs that you can listen to while surrounded by artifacts of the time.  It is a total music immersion program not to be missed.

Sun Records, located just outside of the downtown, is easily accessible via the tram and a short walk to the historic building. Like the STAX museum, I think you get a better appreciation for the history and the environment that produced the music when you walk the streets around it.

The lobby of Sun Studio looks like a '50s diner.

What is great and unique about Sun Records is that you get a personal tour led by a local musician.  Sun Records, an American independent record label was founded in Memphis in 1952, by Sam Phillips and financed by Jim Bulliet.  It was here that Phillips discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Phillips loved the music of African-Americans and wanted to bring that genre to a mass audience, which changed the world of music, but meant Sun Records struggled to be viable. 

The museum is full of artifacts and your tour guide has amazing stories to tell.  But the highlight of the tour is to stand on in the recording studio where Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny belted out your favourite songs. The building just oozes history - I am sure I heard Roy singing.

The modest entrance to Sun Studio.

One of  the many artifacts from the early days of Sun Studio.

The recording studio is still used today. It looks like a rec room from the '50s. It is hard to imagine that this is place where the legends of '50s and '60s music created their hits here.

Beale Street

Beale Street, truly one of North America’s iconic streets, is home to the International Blues Competition (IBC). The event utilizes 17 different venues along the street for the 250+ entries from around the world.  The street is hopping with music from noon to the wee hours of the morning. 

For me, the highlight of the Challenge were the midnight jams at the Daisy Theatre (every night various musicians from the competition and past winners put on an impromptu concert, the energy was electrifying).   There are certain art experiences that stand out in my life - seeing Baryshnikov dance from the front row of the Lincoln Centre (1984) and the Hermitage Show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1977) - and the IBC jams on Beale Street.

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 


No trip to Memphis for a blues lover is complete without a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi (90 minute drive), considered by some as “ground zero” for the blues. The entire city is a living museum complete with numerous historical plaques and a self-guided map. 

Clarksdale is home to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where legend has it iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.   You can also visit the McKinley Morganfield’s (aka Muddy Waters) cabin on Stovall Road. There are lots of tiny cabins still inhabited that serve as a reminder of the poverty that begat the blues.  

When in Clarksdale check out The Delta Blues Museum, WROX radio station on Main Street and all of the other historic sites around town, it will give you a whole new appreciation of how the blues was germinated.

Ground Zero Blues Club opened in 2001 in an old warehouse building with “manufactured authenticity” complements of an old couch and other bric-a-brac on the porch and the tradition of graffiti-like visitors writing of their names anywhere they can find space. names of people who have been there on the walls.  We arrived mid day (nothing was happening), but we did manage to get on stage and pretend we were performing.

In chatting with Holger Petersen (veteran CBC and CKUA blues broadcaster), after his talk about the history of the blues at NMC a few years back he told me Ground Zero was one of his favourite places to listen to the blues. You could easily spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Clarksdale, checking out the museum, eating dinner and listening to an act Ground Zero and maybe even book yourself a room at the Riverside Hotel, established in 1944, where the the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williams and Ike Turner had been guests.

It truly is a sacred place.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Panels like these are located throughout the city, creating an informative self-guided walking tour. 

WROX radio
Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the  Tennessee Williams historic district  of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Barry (another Mikey's groupie) and I on stage at Ground Zero Blues Club. 

Gospel Revelation

No trip to Memphis is complete without attending a Sunday morning Gospel Church service. While many trek to the well-publicized Al Green church service near Graceland, we were fortunate to notice during our wanderings that at the end of Beale Street is the First Baptist Church (built in 1880, it is believed to be the first brick-constructed, multi-story church built by African Americans).  We like authenticity so this seemed like the perfect choice.

So on Sunday morning, when many IBC revellers were still recovering from their Saturday night festivities, we headed to church.   Wanting to be respectful, we tried toquietly walk in and sit at the back, but that was not to be.  We were immediately welcomed like long lost family, hands were shaken, we were given a program, and by the end hugs were shared and we were part of “the family.”  I have never experienced a more friendly welcoming. 

At the beginning of the service, all-newcomers were welcomed by name and where they were visiting from.  We were asked to stand to be recognized and invited to say a few words. Then amateur singers and preachers started to perform building to a crescendo with a large female choir and professional passionate preacher that made both your body and soul shiver. I don’t think I have ever heard so many AMENs in my life. 

Initially planning to only stay for 30 minutes or so, we were mesmerized we stayed for the entire two-hour service.  We were even invited to join them for lunch afterwards.  It was a magical experience. Amen!


A Surprise Playground Lunch

After a fun day of exploring Rome’s hipster Trastevere district, we were getting hungry. So, as good flaneurs do, we started asking shopkeepers where to go to lunch with the locals. Following the suggestion to check out the restaurants along Via G.A. Bertani, we eventually ending up at triangular Piazza San Cosimato. 

 To our surprise, the piazza was animated with a pop-up farmers’ market and a few permanent food vendors.  We quickly spotted a butcher making some great looking fresh sandwiches.  We stood in line to get one.  When our turn arrived, we non-Italian speakers pointed and said “two.” A few minutes of charades later, we found out we needed to go to the bakery on the street behind the butcher to purchase the buns and then return to the butcher who would make us our sandwiches.

 Buns in hand, we were back at the butcher’s in a flash. While he was making our sandwiches, I realized I really wanted a beer, so in another round of charades, I asked if he had one.  At first he pointed back to the bakery/grocery store, but then he nodded, smiled, grabbed a beer out of the fridge (I expect it was his personal beer fridge) and handed it to me.

 After paying up, we went to find a place to sit and enjoy our big fat, paper-wrapped sandwiches.  The only obvious spot was the benches along the inside perimeter of the tiny playground at the tip of the piazza. 


Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

Big brother helping sister.

Big brother helping sister.

Playground Fun 

It turned out to be the perfect spot, with dappled sunlight and a front row seat for the Cirque du Soleil-like performance by young children and their parents. As we ate, we were treated to a series of children hopping from one orange stationary, stool-like structure to another, spaced just far enough apart to make the jump difficult for younger children.  It was too much fun to watch as dads helped their kids and older siblings helped the younger ones.  We even had a couple of amazing performances by the dad – interesting to note that none of the moms gave it a try. It was amazing to watch how long the families jumped back and forth on this simple, low-tech playground equipment.

 The playground was also a great people-watching place. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came and went – it was a cast of characters.  I was even befriended by a little guy with a soccer ball who wanted somebody to kick it back and forth, which we did for few minutes until his Mom said they had to leave (or at least I think that is what she said as she smiled and said “thank you.”) As we left, I discovered what must be one of the largest blackboards in the world. Somebody had cleverly turned the concrete retaining wall along the edge of the piazza into a huge blackboard, probably close to 100 feet long.  I wish I had brought my sidewalk chalk.


The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The spectators bench. 

The spectators bench. 

The world's longest blackboard?

The world's longest blackboard?

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Last Word

This was definitely a far cry from the $250,000+ mass-produced, mega colourful playgrounds being constructed in parks in communities throughout Calgary.  This playground was integrated into the community’s everyday pursuits with shops and restaurants surrounding it on all sides.  Yes, there was a fence around the park, but there were no Playground Zone signs and no isolating the playground in a park far away from pedestrian, bike, motorcycle and car traffic. Rather, it was an integrated part of the everyday activities of a community that embraced outdoor urban living.  It truly was a community meeting / hangout place.  

 We love urban surprises and the Piazza San Cosimato ranks high as one of the best surprise of our 7 days in Rome.

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Dublin: St. Stephen's Green vs St Patrick's Cathedral Park

I have always believed that great cities have great parks.  A recent visit to Dublin and its two urban parks reminded me or the importance of parks in creating attractive urban places for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

St. Stephen's Green 

Until 1663 St. Stephen's Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. In that year Dublin Corporation, seeing an opportunity to raise much needed revenue, decided to enclose the centre of the common and to sell land around the perimeter for building. The park was enclosed with a wall in 1664. The houses built around the Green were rapidly replaced by new buildings in the Georgian style and by the end of the eighteenth century the Green was the urban playground for the city's rich and famous. Much of the present day streetscape around the Green comprises modern buildings (some in a replica Georgian style) with very little from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today St. Stephen's Green is a green oasis for people of all ages and backgrounds  in Dublin's bustling city centre. The current park was designed by William Sheppard in 1880.  The park is adjacent to one of Dublin's main shopping streets, Grafton Street, and to a shopping centre named for it, while on its surrounding streets are the offices of a number of government office and the city terminus of one of Dublin's LUAS tram lines.  At 22 acres, it is the largest of Dublin's Georgian garden squares, others include nearby Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square.

Map of St. Stephen's Green

Map of St. Stephen's Green

There is a wonderful calmness in the park that invites you to sit and relax. 

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch.  

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Fusilier's Arch is located at the entrance/exit to the park from Grafton Street. Built in 1907, it is dedicated to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought and died in the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902).

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The Park is full of monuments, mostly formal statues, but this contemporary piece titled "Famine,"  by Edward Delaney caught our imagination.  Parks make great spaces for public art, as they allow people to contemplate the artwork and move around it.

St. Patrick's Cathedral Park 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Every park needs a playground. 

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world.  Click here for more info.

At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world. Click here for more info.

Parade of Writers

Another fun element of the park an area set aside to recognize the tremendous contribution made by writers who have lived in Dublin. It is truly amazing that one city could be the home for so many influential writers over such a long period of time.

famous writers

Last Word 

I am not sure if anyone has done the study, but I expect there is a direct correlation between the quality and quantity of urban parks and the vibrancy of the City's City Center. Think New York's  Central Park, Vancouver's Stanley Park or Montreal's Mount Royal Park.  

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Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

Florence with its 10+ million visitors annually is full of touristy places to shop, eat and people watch. You really have to dig deep to find the “real” Florence.  As avid flaneurs, we are always on the lookout for locals who have a hipster, modern, funky or designer look about them, as they are good bets for having the best insights into the city’s true culture. 

Once you have sussed out such people, good questions to ask them beyond the usual “Where is a good place to eat or shop? “are:

  •  Is there a design or galley district in your city.
  • Are there any retro, second-hand, antique or used bookstores nearby?
  • Where do the locals like to hang out?” 

After 10 days of flaneuring in Florence, we found three streets that offer a more authentic Florence experience – Niccolo, Pinti and Macci.  Yes, there are still lots of tourist traps on these streets, but there are also great local hot spots.

Borgo Pinti District (from Via Egidio to Via dei Pilastri)

Even though this street was just a block away from where we were living, it took us a couple of days to find it.  As there are no cars, it is a popular pedestrian and cyclist route into the core from the edge of the City Centre.

Here you will find several upscale shops (from kids to high fashion), bakery and restaurants catering to locals and off-the-beaten path tourists.  We loved the three vintage/retro boutiques – Mrs. Macis (#38), SOqquadro (#13), Abiti Usati & Vintage (#24) and a funky hat and jewelry shop, Jesei che Volano (#33).  Note the numbers in brackets are the street numbers, but Florence has a strange way of numbering homes and shops with different coloured numbers; even by the end we were not sure we had figured it out.  

The big flaneur find on Pinti was FLY (Fashion Loves You), which looks like a high-end fashion store, but is in fact a boutique run by students from the fashion department of the Florence University of the Arts. FLY has very trendy, well-made designer purses, jewelry and clothing created by the students.  It also has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable staff we have ever encountered.  We were immediately given information about other places to check out including their cooking school/restaurant on Via de Macci (more below).


This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Jesei che Volano is dominated by wall of hats on fish head hooks.

Niccolo District

On the other side of the Arno River, away from the main tourist traps, is an up and coming area anchored by Via di Niccolo, at the base of the hill to the Plazzale Michelangelo.  Already home to several good restaurants and artisan studios, and lots of construction, it might be too late to call this a hidden gem, but it is definitely worth checking out.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri (Via dei Renai, 15r) has a “North American meets Florence” atmosphere. The high-ceiling back room salon with an eclectic assortment of big comfy antique chairs and couches and classic music oozes relaxation. I had perhaps one of the best chocolate desserts I have had here - an unbaked chocolate torte, garnished with thin chocolate leaves.  Though we didn’t taste the gelato, it sure looked good!  And, while sitting enjoying your coffee and dessert, you can also enjoy some voyeuristic fun as the pastry chef’s kitchen is in the loft space above the salon.

If you are into luxury and love shoes, a visit to the Stefano Bemer studio is a must.  Here they make custom shoes from scratch and promise a perfect fit for both of your feet (few people have both feet the same size or shape). The front of the shop is both a showroom and workshop where you can see young artisans at work and view some of their samples (mostly men’s shoes, but some women’s flats). Don’t expect to walk away with new shoes; there is a six-month waiting list. Rumor has it Salvatore Ferragamo’s son buys his shoes here. Note: Be prepared to shell out 3,000 euros of a new pair of shoes, but this also includes the one time molds.

We were amazed at how friendly all the artists in this district are. Don’t hesitate to go in and chat. They all speak some English, were happy to talk about their art and often had interesting tips on what to see and do in the area. 

Stefano Bemer's wall of foot moulds each with the names of the owner created a visual delight.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri's cozy back room oasis. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

Collage of CLET signs.

Collage of CLET signs.

Via de Macci District

We found this street after checking out the area’s Ghilberti Market. Here you will find interesting artisan shops like Ad’a’s Studio (#46) with a great selection of knitted and crocheted handbags, hats, mitts and scarfs made right on site.

Brenda loved the L’Aurora Onlus charity (thrift) shop (#11) located in the decommissioned San Francesco al Tempio hospital, church and convent complex built in 1335 (open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Part of the church space has been converted into the most amazing thrift store space we have ever encountered, with its intact cathedral ceilings with their religious paintings on them.  Unfortunately, the lighting is poor so you might have to use the flashlight on your phone to look at things. And the fitting room is a tiny, back storage room with poor light and no mirror. Brenda says, “it is like shopping in the twilight zone!”

At the I Mosaici di Lastrucci (#9) workshop and gallery, you can watch amazing artisans painstakingly create amazing realistic mosaic artworks from very thin slices of different coloured rocks.  The art of natural stone inlaid work dates back to 15th century Florence. This is truly is a walk back in time, when everything was handmade by local artisans.

Danda Necioni’s (#27) is an etching and map shop that is literally jam packed with historic works – a great source for a unique souvenir from Italy. All of the works come with documented authentication, making them real collector items.

Based on the hot tip from the staff at FLY, we lunched at GANZO (#85), the restaurant owned by the Florence University of the Arts and run by students.  If you are looking for a break from dark spaces and ancient architecture, its bright white walls, contemporary furnishings and large black and white student photography provides respite from the dark and decaying places outside.

The food is “stellar,” says Brenda.  Her tuna steak on polenta cake with autumn pesto had us both wanting more. I loved my pumpkin puree soup with floating candied pumpkin; mint scented ricotta and an olive powder. The desserts were a work of art; mine a pumpkin tartlet and Brenda’s Sorrento lemon, Sicilian orange and tangerine scent mousse on a chocolate cookie base.  Our sweet teeth were happy!

GANZO: pumpkin dessert combined with salted caramel and balanced by the creaminess of goat cheese. Served in a cinnamon-flavoured pastry tartlet. Looks like a work of art to me!

Ad’a’s Studio is a fun place to explore.  Check out the surprise at the back?

Can you believe this is charity/thrift store? 

Other Finds:

We found Trattoria Ciacco after a morning of strolling one of the world’s longest flea market (3+ kilometers) in Le Cascine Park on the far west side of the City Centre. We were hungry. So we crossed the river, as that is where most of the people seemed to be headed and were willing to take more or less the first place we found. Lucky us, it was Ciacco!  The place was full of locals but we were welcomed and took the only table available.  (Note: if you are looking for a good restaurant, we always find the busier they are the better.) Noticing what the couple (our age) next to us ordered, we thought it might be a good idea to do the same (the only Italian menu board wasn’t helpful to two non-Italian speaking tourists).  Again, lucky us, as it was pasta with fresh truffles and it was delectable.

When our lunch arrived, the couple smiled and said “good choice” and we continued chatting getting lots of hot tips, including the name of another good restaurant popular with locals near the Piazza Della Passera called il Magazzino.

The Florence University of the Arts also has a photography school which we visited thinking they would have a public gallery of student works. Wrong! But the staff was extremely friendly and we learned the university offers cooking classes for small groups. There we got two hot tips for restaurants – IL Santo Bevitore and Dilladarno.

 BFF (Best Flaneur Find)

One of the great things about Florence is the vibe of its thousands of young university students.  One of the first things you notice about Florence restaurants is that they cater to the students – many offering discounts.  Every night while roaming the streets and alleys for on our daily gelato fix, we would run into a street where there were dozens of students all eating sandwiches and drinking beer or wine on the street.  After a few nights we realized (yes, sometimes we are slow learners) this must be the place for sandwiches and indeed it was.  If you are ever in Florence you have to check out All’ antico Vinaio located at 65/R Via De’ Neri.

All' antico Vinaio

 Last Word

The golden rule of an everyday flaneur is “Look for a local and when you find one, don’t be afraid to ask.”

By Richard White, November 9, 2014

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Flaneuring Florence's Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

By Richard White, November 5, 2014

Like most European cities, Florence's city centre has several markets, some are more focused on food, others on fashion and some even have a weekly or monthly flea market.  For example, when visiting Frankfurt, we always try to make sure we are there for their Saturday flea market along the Main River, as it is a great place to shop and people watch. In Florence, you have your choice of several different markets depending on the day of the week. 

Everyday Markets

Mercato Centrale is both and open air and indoor market. The open air area is full of vendors selling everything from socks to trinkets and like most Florence markets a plethora of leather goods.  The ornate two-story Mercato Centrale building was built in 1874, after the Mercato Vecchio was demolished to make way for the Piazza della Repubblicaa few blocks away.  Here you find lots of permanent vendors as well as upscale touristy restaurants and shops.  For those of you familar with Vancouver's Granville Island Market, or Seattle's Pike market there are many similarities.

Piazza Ghilberti Market (food and clothing) is also open everyday and given its location on the east side of the City Centre you get to mix a bit more with the locals than the Mercanto Centrale. It too has an outside stall area that is very animated and an indoor space.  Best to get there early, as it can get quite crowded later in the morning and most of the action is pretty much over by noon or 1 pm.

Specialty Markets

On your way to the Ghilberti Market you might want to stop by the small antique market on the Piazza del Ciompi which operates from Monday to Saturday opening about 10 am the best we can tell.  Seems like the vendors open whenever they like.  The entire piazza looks a bit ramshackled, but there is a good selection of second-hand stores to explore.  

The Flower Market takes place on Thursday morning under the colonnade of the Palace at the Piazza della Republic.  It is not a very large market, probably only a 15 to 20 minute "look see" for most people so combine it with some other activities that day.  It is very colourful and refreshing as Florence's City Centre has very little vegetation. 

On the third sunday of the month at the Piazza Santo Spirito is a craft and food market.  The crafts are very limited, but there are a few things you won't see at other markets, like the lady hand-weaving baskets or the hippy guy making hand-made shoes.  We were told this is where the local foodies shop.   

The third weekend of the month there is also an antique market at the Fortezza de Basso / garden.  Unfortunately, we didn't get there so can't comment on the quality of the experience.

World's Longest Flea Market

Every Tuesday from 7 am to 2 pm you will find the mother of all flea markets in Florence's Le Cascine Park along the Arno River. It is a linear market that goes for over 3 kilometres with vendors on both sides.  It took us almost two hours to do one side and we weren't looking at everything. While some vendors might stay there until 2 pm, we saw some beginning to pack up just after noon. There are a few food vendors, but it is most clothing vendors - not designer knockoffs, but rather mostly new cheap clothing, shoes, accessories, and kitchen products. This is not a "made in Italy" fashionista experience and not a place for vintage treasure hunters.  

That being said there were some treasures to be had if you were prepared to dig in the pile of scarfs. Brenda did manage to find two vintage scarves for 1 euro each and a modern Italian made sweater/coat for 40 euros.  

It was a great walk in the park, a chance to mingle with the locals and people watching. What more could you ask for? 

Postcards: Le Cascine Flea Market

The east entrance to the Le Cascine Park Flea Market is marked by this tear drop road marking. It was a drizzly day when we arrived, but the rain soon stopped and it was a very pleasant walk along the tree-lined market.  The linear market was easy to negotiate as you just go up one side and dow the other. 

Brenda checking out the racks of clothing.

I am looking for something for my sweet tooth.

I am looking for something for my sweet tooth.

Brenda had her eye on this cool dude for awhile. Yes that is his bike.

Brenda had her eye on this cool dude for awhile. Yes that is his bike.

Everyone loves a flea market

Everyone loves a flea market

Brenda spotted with pile of scarves and she was on it like a dog on a bone.

What's a flea market without The roasted chestnuts to enjoy.

What's a flea market without The roasted chestnuts to enjoy.

Postcards from Ghilberti Market 

The Bead Lady was doing a brisk business.

Inside the butcher was fun to watch. 

We loved the fact that people of all ages were enjoying the market.

Postcards from Piazza Ciompi Market 

Don't be put off by the appearance of the shops there are some treasures to be had.  

Postcards from Piazza Santo Spirito

This piazza dates back to 1252 when Augustinian monks built a monastery and church. Today it is a bohemian hang-out with restaurants, cafes and a market. 

We awarded this vendor the top prize for visual presentation. 

Shoe maker. 

Basket weaving. 

These bronze fragments are a war memorial.  German soldiers at the end of WWII conducting public killing of freedom fighters and political opponents in the piazza and streets surrounding it. 

Postcards from Mercanto Centrale


The indoor market is more like a food court in a mall or office building than a farmers' market. 

Looking down from the second floor restaurant you get a better sense that this isn't your quaint local farmer's market.  

Postcards from the Flower Market


The flower market has one of the prettiest spaces of any market I have ever seen.

Florence's flower market adds a burst of colour and plant life that is absent from most of the City Centre. 

Herb vendor

Last Word

One of the things all of Florence's markets have in common is that they are enjoyed by everyone from young children to seniors.  More and more urban planners and designers are cognizant of the 8/80 rule that states; if a place or space is attractive to kids 8 and younger, as well as 80 and older, it will be attractive to everyone in between.  While exploring the markets and streets of Florence, I have seen more seniors hobbling with canes along the busy and bumpy streets, sidewalks and piazzas than I have seen anywhere else in the world.  Kudos to them...I don't know how they do it.  

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Dublin: Iconic barracks makes for great museum

The National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts and History is located in the massive Collins Barracks built in 1702.  Architect Tomas Burgh, who also built the world famous library at Trinity College, designed this early neo-classical building. 

It makes for a perfect museum.  The four floors wrapping around a huge central parade square (the number of paces associated with the marching soldiers still exist on the walls above the colonnade arches) are easily divided up into over 30-flexible gallery spaces that accommodate exhibitions of silver, ceramics, glassware, weaponry, furniture, folklife, clothing, jewelry, coins and medals.  There is also a museum shop and quaint café with some very tempting pastries.

One of the many fascinating fashion exhibits. 

One of the many fascinating fashion exhibits. 

This hurdy-gurdy instrument is just one of the many exhibits of historical decorative arts and crafts in the museum.

This hurdy-gurdy instrument is just one of the many exhibits of historical decorative arts and crafts in the museum.

hurdy gurdy panel

Eileen Gray

For us, the highlight of the museum's numerous exhibitions was the Eileen Gray retrospective. It encompassed everything we love about mid-century modern design – its furniture, architecture and art.

Born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1878, Gray moved to Paris in 1906 where she spent most of her working life. In Paris, inspired to explore new ideas by the likes of Picasso and Modigliani, she was one of the first artists and furniture designers to employ lacquer techniques as part of her work.  She was interested in all aspects of design from furniture to architecture to interior design.

Gray loved to combine the opulence of Art Deco with the minimalism and clean lines of modernism as well as integrate the use of pure line and colour of the De Stijl artists.

Gray's iconic end table named E1027.

Gray's iconic end table named E1027.

An example of Gray's use of lacquer in her furniture.

Model of contemporary architectural designed by Gray.


I was also fascinated by the “Beyond Pebbledash” installation, a celebration of domestic architecture and design.  The installation consisted of a single pebbledash house (a common small Dublin home with exterior walls made of pebbles mixed with stucco).  In the mid 20th century, this façade covered up poor construction and kept costs down for affordable homes in both Europe and North America. Back story: The early 1950s home I grew up in had pebbledash walls.  We just called it by it less glamorous term "stucco."

This life-size house sitting in the middle of the huge parade square has a real façade but only a steel skeleton frame of the walls, interior doors, chimney and roof.  The curatorial notes say the installation is intended to provoke questions like:

  • What have we built?
  • Why have we built it here?
  • What is the nature of house vs. home?
  • What makes a great liveable city?

More information at:

My personal fascination was mostly around how the pebbledash house was rendered almost insignificant in the massive parade square  (the size of about two football fields) and the equally massive barracks building.  To me, the “pebbledash home” installation spoke of the insignificance and temporary nature of most houses versus the timelessness of iconic structures. I also don’t get the link to the liveable city movement as the home is situated in what I would consider the most desolate and inhospitable urban environment one could imagine.

While in the past, a house became a home as most people lived in them all their lives. Often too multiple generations would live in the same house. Today, for most people a house is just a commodity to be bought and sold as part of their evolving lifestyle – they never really become a home.

The pebbledash house located at the far corner from the entrance to the museum is dwarfed in the stark parade square.

While wandering the museum, you get several different perspectives of the house. 

A view of the back of the house and the cafe spilling out onto the plaza gives some life to the parade square.

Close up view of the house. I found the ropes around the installation very distracting. 

Side-view of the pebbledash house.

Side-view of the pebbledash house.

Last Word

Of all the National Museums we visited in Dublin, the Decorative Arts and History Museum was our favourite.  You could easily spend a few hours here.

The National Gallery unfortunately was under restoration and so the building and art did not meet expectations. The National Museum of Modern Art was also a bit of a disappointment as half of the gallery was closed for the installation of new exhibitions. 

On the good side, all of the Ireland’s national museums are FREE!  


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Window licking along Florence's Via Tornabuoni

One of the things I love to do when flanuering any downtown is take pictures of the reflections of buildings and people in the windows of the fashion boutique.  This works particularly well in cities where there is a strong fashion culture as the fashion boutique window are often like mini art exhibitions. In Florence, the Via de' Tornabuoni is the high street for fashions with the likes of Gucci, Salvatore Ferrogamo, Tiffany's, Enrico Coveri, Damiani, Bulgari and Buccalllati calling it home.

When Brenda said she wanted to go to the Salvatore Ferrogamo Museum, I secretly said "Yahoo" as it meant I would have some time to do some window licking on Via de' Tornabuoni.

Back story

The literal English translation of the french term for window shopping is "window licking," which I have adopted for my practice of window photography as I am often so close to the window that it looks like I could be licking it.

Window licking on Tornabuoni 

I have chosen these images as I feel they convey the diversity of visual imagery along Tornabuoni.  I have also chosen not to provide captions as I would prefer the reader to study each image without my influence.  I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did taking them and studying them afterwards. 


I have tried window licking in my hometown Calgary many times, but I never seem to get the same quality of images. I don't know if it is the light, the lack of quality fashion windows or just my poor luck. 

Almost everyday, I like to take some time to look at and reflect on my travel photos. The ones I seem to gravitate to the most art the "window licking" ones. I'd love to hear from you which one was your favourite and why?

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Window licking in Paris

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Lyon sidewalk ballet

Postcard Willie

It all started at age 12 when his parents took him on a vacation from Calgary to Austria -  the family’s homeland. Without any encouragement from his parents, wee Willie decided to send postcards back to his family and friends in Calgary. That was 43 years ago. Today Postcard Willie sends photos to over 300 family and friends from around the world, sometimes as many as 25 in one day.  To date, he estimates he has sent several thousands of postcards from over 50 different countries. Yes Postcard Willie is well travelled.

Depending on the length of the trip, Postcard Willie can send as many as 300 postcards on single trip costing him $500+ in cards and postage. One day while on our Ireland golf trip, Willie found time to find, write and send 12 cards in the hour between the end of the day’s round and getting on the bus back to the hotel.

“Everyone loves to get postcards; some love the images, some the stamps he says. They call it ‘happy mail. People often tell me they keep them for many years.” Needless-to-say, many of the postcards end up on fridges and he estimates that half of the recipients have several shoeboxes full of Willie’s postcards.

Willie doesn’t just buy any postcard either. He looks specifically for cards with lots of information about the place (city, province, country), maybe with some history. He also looks for postcards that relate to each person’s specific interests (for example, if a buddy likes beer he will look for a postcard of a local pub or brew; for another person who likes churches, he will send them a church postcard.

In one case, he knew a person really liked tea so he found a postcard about tea and put it in an envelope with a few local tea bags and mailed to his friend. He also makes a point of sending postcards to people he knows whose homeland he is visiting.  And he likes to use postcards as a thank you to people who have travelled with him and his wife.  Willie prides himself on being creative with his postcard selections.

Over the years, many of his family and friends have also taken up the habit of also sending postcards when travelling. Some, in fun, even send cards to Willie from exotic tourist places like Canmore and Banff, just a few kilometers from Calgary his hometown.

A beer and some postcards at the Bunratty Castle in Ireland.

A beer and some postcards at the Bunratty Castle in Ireland.

Over the years, Postcard Willie has some interesting observations and recommendations:

  • The most expensive stamps are in Austria, where it takes 1.75 euros to send a postcard (over $2.25 CDN).
  • The slowest postal service is in India where it can take a couple of months for a postcard to get to Canada.
  • He recommends to always dating your postcard so recipients can tell how long it has taken to get to them.

He also likes to research the stamps that are available and if possible make sure people get new stamps or stamps that have some significant meaning, as many of his recipients have become stamp collectors.

He also buys postcards for himself as they often have images the average photographer could never capture. His personal collection is well over two thousand postcards.

Postcard Willie writing postcards on the Dunbar Golf Tour bus between rounds. 

Flying out of Frankfurt Airport so often (it is his jumping off point for European adventures), Postcard Willie is on a first name basis with Reinhard the shopkeeper at his favourite postcard kiosk that he has been frequenting for over 20 years. He is often greeted with “Back again? Why don’t you move here?”  The same is true at the Munich Train Station where he is also a  frequent buyer.

In 2007 and 2008, Willie was working in India and so was sending lots of postcards home to his wife in Calgary.  One day when he was picking up his mail at the supermail box in the community of Panorama Hills he noticed a guy loitering around the boxes.  When he opened his mailbox the man he approached him asking “are you the guy who sends all the postcards from India?” Turns out he was the postal carrier for the area and his family was from India.  Long story short, he and Willie became friends, with Postcard Willie taking things to his family in India and bringing back things from India to Calgary - including a bolt of fabric, which was used to make a shirt and pants for Postcard Willie.

Postcard Willie writing some postcards in Casablanca, Morocco. And, yes Postcard Willie is always smiling, maybe there is something to sending people postcards and being happy, or perhaps it is because he is on vacation! 

Postcard Willie writing some postcards in Casablanca, Morocco. And, yes Postcard Willie is always smiling, maybe there is something to sending people postcards and being happy, or perhaps it is because he is on vacation! 

Last Word

Over the years, Postcard Willie estimates he has mailed over 10,000 cards to family and friends. His motto is “if they have a postcard, I will find it.”

While exploring the streets and alleys of Florence happened upon these girls writing a bunch of postcards. Thought Willie would be happy. 

While exploring the streets and alleys of Florence happened upon these girls writing a bunch of postcards. Thought Willie would be happy. 

Mass postcard writing by students in Florence. 

Mass postcard writing by students in Florence. 

Calgary: Military Museums

By Richard White, September 4, 2014

Why is it that we wait until we have visiting family and friends to check out our local museums? I have been hearing great things about Calgary’s Military Museums for years. I drive by often and worked for five years almost across the street from it, yet I have never been in.  A few years ago when a history-loving nephew was visiting, I dropped him off and went to work, rather than joining him to tour the museum. Shame on me!

With my Mom visiting, we thought it would be an interesting activity for a Sunday afternoon. In fact last Sunday, we checked out the exhibitions at the Glenbow Museum, another place that I don’t make time to visit often enough.

The Military Museums lived up to it billing as a first class museum. It is actually seven small museums or exhibition spaces in one:

  1. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Museum and Archives
  2. The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum and Archives
  3. The King’s Own Calgary Regiment Museum
  4. Lord Strathcona’s Horse Museum
  5. Army Museum of Alberta
  6. Air Force Museum of Alberta
  7. Naval Museum of Alberta

In addition, there is also the Founder’s Gallery and a theatre space, all located in a decommissioned school with major addition.  Though not a signature building designed by a famous architect the building is more than adequate as a museum space. And quite refreshing to see how modestly repurposed building can become a major public attraction without spending 100s of millions of dollars.


The entrance to The Military Museums is subtle in design and statement.  

Once inside the museum your attention is immediately captured by a large mural that consists of 240 separate images.  Each image tells a story that you can read at the video terminal. 

I enjoyed the many personal quotes that captured the various wartime experiences.

I enjoyed the many personal quotes that captured the various wartime experiences.

It is good to be reminded that only 100 years ago Canada was a much different place psychologically. 

It is good to be reminded that only 100 years ago Canada was a much different place psychologically. 


The exhibitions are very text-based, well researched with lots of very interesting stories and factoids. There are excellent supporting artifacts, visuals and displays.  If you read all of the text and watch all of the videos, I expect you could be there all day.  There is a mind-boggling amount of information to read and absorb.

The one thing that seemed to be lacking were “hands-on” experiences for kids. Where was the opportunity to dress up like a soldier? Perhaps a chance to walk in a military trench with loud noises of simulated gunfire, bombs etc. What kid wouldn’t want to climb up onto one of the planes or amoured vehicles in the Naval Museum of Alberta? A lesson could be taken from the Calgary Stampede where kids climbing on the Canadian Armed Forces vehicles on display is a very popular activity.

There are numerous displays depicting life on the battlefield. 

There are numerous displays depicting life on the battlefield. 

The collection of medals is impressive.

The collection of medals is impressive.


The Naval Museum space is impressive.

Lessons Learned

One key lesson learned from the visit was the incredible role Canada and Calgarians played in WWI and WWII.  In many ways, Canada seemed to be a bigger player on the world stage 100 years ago than it is today. I had a similar aha moment at the Glenbow last week reading about the accomplishments of Lord Beaverbrook and his influence on the economy and politics of England in the early 20th century.

Another aha moment came to me when I read a telegraph and realized it was not unlike a tweet in that the text was abbreviated to just the essential words.  While we always talk about how the world has changed, in some ways it is not that different. The abbreviations of a tweeter are similar to “shorthand” that was all the rage in offices in the mid 20th century.

You can look through a submarine periscope and see for miles....downtown looks like it is just a few waves away.

Another display that documents the hardships of life in the trenches. 

The science of shell making.

Outside there are several tanks and amoured vehicles, unfortunately you can't climb them.

Last Word

The Military Museums’ visit also reminded me that Calgary should have a Museum/Attractions Pass if it truly wants to be a tourist city. Why there is not a pass that allows a tourist to pay one fee to visit not only the Military Museums and the Glenbow, but Fort Calgary, Heritage Park, Calgary Tower, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, TELUS Spark and the Calgary Zoo is beyond me!  

Calgary has an impressive line-up of museums and attractions that are under appreciated locally, provincially, nationally and internationally. We really need market Calgary as a museum/attractions destination if we want to be more than just the gateway to the Rockies in the minds of tourists.

Stop and smell the flowers in Silver Springs!

By Richard White, August 19, 2014

In 2002, one of nine BirthPlace Forests was initiated along the Silver Springs Boulevard off Crowchild Trail, as the gateway into the community.  This joint initiative of BP Energy, Calgary Parks, Calgary Health Region and Golden Acres saw 7,000 trees planted to create a unique urban forest. The BP BirthPlace Forests program was launched to celebrate every newborn baby in Calgary by planting a tree in its honour - the program ended in 2010.

 However, for Silver Springs’ residents, the forest was the catalyst to create the Botanical Gardens of Silver Springs.  In 2006, a small 400 square foot space (size of double car garage) within the forest was the humble beginnings of what is now a 15,000 square foot (the equivalent of 10+ Silver Springs bungalows) garden full of annuals and perennials. 

In 2009, the community also established its Community Edible Garden, in addition to the regular vegetables boxes as part of a fun “Kids Grow” program. Today the Silver Springs Botanical Garden includes the Oval Garden, Rose Garden, Old Post Garden Shakespeare Garden, a the Wall Garden and an labyrinth. 

Map of the various gardens the combine to create the Silver Springs Botanical Garden 

Trail through the Birth Place Forest that gets you to the gardens. 

Enjoying the labyrinth.

One of the many colourful flower gardens. 

A section of the Rose Garden. 

The Shakespeare Garden mixes quotation, flowers and plants to create a unique experience. 


Community Spirit

The 1,300-foot Wall Garden is the showpiece of the gardens with its spectacular mix of colours and textures.  William Morf, a Silver Springs resident, initiated the garden by starting a 100-foot garden along the ugly noise barrier at the back of his property. Soon others joined in. Today, a merry and dedicated band of 30 or so green-thumbed volunteers contribute over 6,000 hours of sweat labour annually to maintain and enhance the various gardens. 

Who knows how much money and plant material they have also contributed? The Silver Springs Botanical Gardens is just another example of Calgary’s amazing community spirit and “can do” attitude.

The botanical gardens area has become a popular place for locals to “stop and smell the flowers.” This hidden gem should be on every Calgarian’s calendar as a must- walk; Tourism Calgary and Travel Alberta should add it to their websites as a fun and free tourist attraction.  

Given the gardens are just minutes off Crowchild Trail, there should be a tourist attraction sign informing visitors of the Silver Springs Botanical Garden.  For dog owners, the bonus is that the gardens are also an off leash area. And for those with a budding interest in gardening; this would be a great place to find out what grows in Calgary, and you might even be lucky enough to get some free gardening advice. 


The 1300 foot Wall Garden. 

The Sunflower garden. 

Smell The Flowers 

flower pistal
purple flowers

Yes, the Silver Springs Botanical Garden is literally just off Crowchild Trail. 


Calgary’s Silver Springs community extends from the north bluff of the Bow River north to Crowchild Trail and from Silver Springs Gate west to Nose Hill Drive. Construction of the community started in 1972 and was completed in 1980, and since then this community of 9,000 people has aged gracefully.

 And, yes there really are “silver springs” in the community.  A series of springs cascades from the northern bank of the Bow River, which forms the southern boundary of the community. While the area was closed due to the flood in 2013, plans are in place to make upgrades to all of the large natural areas of Bowmont Park – including access to the silver springs. Hopefully it will open again in 2015.

Desert Botanical Garden: Right Place, Right Time

Brenda White, April 3, 2014

It all started when I hopped off the Red Lion (Tempe's) shuttle bus at Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) entrance at 9:15 am.  

Dollar off coupon in hand, I was expecting to get in for $19 and had my money ready.  Except, I was intercepted by a ticket scalper of sorts, who turned out to be a mid-50s, university women's group member who had an extra ticket as one member couldn't make it. She was willing to sell me the extra ticket for $12. I was a bit hesitant so I asked if I could go in with the group and pay her once inside - she agreed.  All went smoothly, so I paid her $12 and pocketed the other $7. Right place; right time. I was invited to join the group for their tour, but chose to say "goodbye" to my new university friends and went off on my merry way. 

It was quiet even though the garden opened at 8 am and I was quickly (and nicely) intercepted by a DBG volunteer who graciously offered to advise me on how to best make use of my two hours (I had arranged for a shuttle to pick-up at 11:30). She told me what loops to take and to make sure I went to all of the sculpture icons on the map as they indicated the location of the Chihuly glass sculptures. Again, right place; right time.

Dale Chihuly is one of the world's best known glass artists. He has one permanent artwork in the garden from his previous exhibition at DBG but I was fortunate to arrive while his second exhibition of 20 new works was on (it closes May 18, 2014).  Chihuly's large scale, neon-like abstract sculptures are definitely inspired by the colour and shape of the many different cacti and wild flowers in the gardens.  The synergy between art and nature was amazing. Once again, I was in the right place, at the right time. 

For one who has suffered from a lifelong case of being navigationally challenged, I impressed myself with not getting lost amongst the many loops and trails in the 140-acre garden site, luckily only 55-acres are in use for the trails. The reason - great signage and an insider tip from a stranger to always look for the paved path.  She said, "the paved path is the main one, so always default to if you lose your way."  The gravel paths are not long and are circular so just keep going and you "hit" pavement again. For a fourth time, right place; right time. 

I was also told by another local that early April is probably the best time to come as many of the wild flowers and cacti are in bloom.  Early morning is also the best time to visit, as it is cooler, less windy and fewer people. I also lucked out that the weather the day I chose was warm and sunny with almost no wind (that is not always the case I was told). Right place; right time.

I felt a little silly taking 150+ photos but it just seemed everywhere I turned, I was in the right place at the right time to capture the interplay of the intense colour, the early morning light, and shadows that make the garden so special.  I have never taken 150 pictures in one month let alone one day in my life.  

Here are a few of my favourite photos.  Now I will focus my attention on finding a funky $7 Spring Break 2014 road trip souvenir - hopefully I can be in the right place, at the right time again.    

desert red flower.jpg

Chihuly: Abstracting from nature

desert yellow flower close up.jpg

The importance of the public realm

By Richard White, Community Strategist, Ground3 Landscape Architects, January 6, 2014

Cities are often judged by the quality of the public realm in their downtown or city center to attract people to live, work and visit.  Great cities have great public realm!

An edited version of this blog appeared in my  Calgary Herald Column (January 3, 2014) which examined what initiatives are being taken in Calgary to enhance the quality of  the public realm of Calgary's City Centre. 

The Importance of the public realm...

Calgary architect Ben Barrington made a mega career change in 2010 leaving his position as senior architect with BKDI Architects to assume the role of Program Manager of Centre City Implementation for the City of Calgary.  It wasn’t made any easier when, after taking on the position and he realized that while the City had approved a Centre City plan with over 400-action items, the budget for implementing them was fragmented into the budgets of various business units and city-held development funds.

But that didn’t deter Barrington. Instead, he and his team have been quietly and diligently worked at building relationships both internally (various city business units) and externally (building owners, landowners and business revitalization zones.)  He also used the past three years to analyze the 400-action items looking for synergies between them and projects the city or private sector were planning in the Centre City. 

For the City of Calgary, the City Centre is defined as these communities on the south side of the Bow River. Unfortunately this doesn't include the urban communities on the north side of the river. In some documents all of the communities south of the Downtown are referred to as the Beltline. It is all very confusing to the public. Hopefully this will be corrected in the near future. 

Establishing Priorities

Priorities were then established based on where Calgarians are currently are walking, cycling and playing and ideas on how those activities could be expanded and enhanced with other programs.  The creation of pedestrian-friendly corridors along 8th and 1st Streets SW, as well as Centre Street were determined as the highest priorities, as they currently have the most pedestrian traffic and potential for connectivity to key destinations.

The team also identified several different funds within the City’s existing budgets and bank accounts that might be used as seed monies for various projects in each of the Centre City communities.  While Barrington was not a liberty to tell me the number, my guess is in the $15 million range.  He told me his goal was to leverage those dollars in partnerships with other city departments and the private sector, thus maximizing the return on investment for everyone.

One of the biggest improvements in the Downtown over the past few years has been the redesign of the LRT stations. 

What does this all mean?

Today, the Centre City team has over 25 public projects at various stages of implementation, all designed to make the public realm more attractive for residents, workers and tourists. 

It means sidewalks with more trees, bus shelters or poles in the middle of them and adequate lighting so people feel safe at all times.  It means benches placed to invite people to sit and linger, as well as more banners, planters and flower baskets to add colour to the streetscape.  Look too for more patios to animate the streets in the summer.  And yes, it also means a more cycling friendly downtown with dedicated bike lanes.  Public art and new pocket parks will also add a sense of pedestrian-friendliness.    

Look for more "pop-up" patios that use street parking spots to allow for the addition of a summer patio on a narrow sidewalk. 

Centre City  & Public Realm

The Centre City is defined by the City as the area from the Bow River on north to 17th Avenue on the south and from the Elbow River on the east to 14th Street on the west.  Basically it comprises the communities of Beltline, Chinatown, Downtown, East Village, West End and Stampede Park.  These communities are not only some of the oldest communities in the city, but they are also the most heavily used with approximately 200,000 people living, working and playing there each weekday.

It is not surprising the City Centre’s public realm (sidewalks, parks and plazas) is looking tired and dated.  The demands of 21st century urban living and employment are very different than in the early 20th century, when much of the infrastructure was built. The need to integration trains, buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians is very different today than it was even 20 years ago.  The demand for street patios, public art and pocket parks is higher.  Cars are bigger, cycling is back and have you seen the size of the contemporary baby strollers (like mini SUVs)!

It is no wonder Calgary’s 100+ year-old Centre City is in need of a major makeover.


Great sidewalks don't have artworks in the middle of them. 

Mega makeover is happening

Already some of the public realm makeovers are happening and not all are directly linked to the City’s Centre City Implementation team.  For example, Memorial Park was renovated with new fountains, pathways and the wonderful Boxwood Café, making it a more attractive place to visit and linger, was an initiative spearheaded by the Victoria Park BRZ.

7th Avenue LRT stations have been totally revamped to create contemporary, airy stations that are integrated with new wide sloping sidewalk (no stairs to an ugly concrete platform) to allow for easy accessibility for everyone.  Public art has also been added to many of the stations to enhance the urban experience.  The need for the renovations was precipitated by the need to allow for longer four-car trains as part of Calgary Transit’s long range plans to increase capacity.

The 13th Avenue Greenway is currently under construction; this project is designed to create a pedestrian and cycling-friendly east-west route through the Beltline, away from the heavy vehicle traffic along 11th and 12th Avenues connecting some of Calgary’s best historic sites like Memorial Park and Lougheed House and gardens.

The dedicated 7th Street SW bike lane has been created to allow for easier cycling into the core from the Bow River pathway.  Other bike lanes have been painted on road (10th Ave SW), to allow for better sharing of the roadway.

The Centre Street Bridge lighting has been totally upgraded to LED lighting, which accentuates our oldest bridge’s classic architecture and is more energy efficient.

Memorial Park is a great example of an urban park that has be redesigned to encourage the public to sit and linger. 

Downtown should also be a place for kids and families like this playground in the Haultain Park. There is also tennis courts and a soccer field that is well used by downtown residents. 


The Implementation team also completed the new downtown wayfinding system in 2012. There are now 135 sidewalk wayfinding signs in key locations throughout the Centre City, making it easy for people to navigate the maze of streets, towers, underpasses and +15 bridges.

An ongoing program is also in place to transform ugly utility signal boxes into community history billboards with photos from the Glenbow and original art from local artists.

A brand new park, Enoch Park, along Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues S.E. is approved for the existing parking lot over the LRT tunnel.  Yes, in Calgary we are tearing up parking lots and building parks. Hopefully, plans to move the adjacent Enoch House and convert it into a restaurant will come to fruition.

The Carl Safran Park on the west side of the historic school of the same name is nearing completion.  Soon there will be a place for those living on the Beltline’s west side to kick a ball, throw a Frisbee or catch some rays. 

This is the Enoch House that will become part of a small park.  This Queen Anne-style home was built in 1905 by businessman Enoch Samuel Sales. 

One of the many new wayfinding signs in the downtown that help people find their way to key destinations in and around the downtown. Image courtesy City of Calgary 

Upgrading of Ugly Underpasses

One of the biggest eyesores and barriers for connecting the Beltline and downtown core is the ugly underpasses that pedestrians have to negotiate.  The completion of the new 4th Street S.E. underpass linking East Village and Stampede demonstrated what an underpass can and should look like. 

Upgrading the 1st Street SW Underpass (Fairmont Palliser Hotel) should have happened this year, but because of the flood, this will be a 2014 project.  The Marc Boutin Architectural Cooperative, the same group that did the Poppy Plaza, has designed an uber cool cocktail lounge-like pedestrian experience for the underpass. 

This is part of a long range plan to create an enhance pedestrian corridor all the way from 17th Avenue’s Rouleauville Square at St. Mary’s Cathedral to the Bow River and Prince’s Island.  This corridor has some of Calgary’s best historic buildings from St. Mary’s Cathedral to the iconic Hudson Bay Store.

A plan for upgrading the 8th Street SW underpass and sidewalks is also close to being finalized, with improvements are expected to start in 2014. The design has been lead by Rene Daoust who designed the public space in the Place des Arts in Montreal with assistance from DAW architects and Calgary’s Marshall Tittemore architects.  Discussions are also taking place on how to better integrate pedestrian traffic along 8th Avenue with Century Gardens and the new LRT station. 

The Eight Street SW underpass has the highest number of pedestrians commuting from the southside into downtown. It will get a mega make-over in 2014. 

7th Street bike lane in downtown is just the beginning of a comprehensive cycling plan for the City Centre.  

7th Street bike lane in downtown is just the beginning of a comprehensive cycling plan for the City Centre. 

20-minute makeover

The smallest project the Implementation team has supported to date was to provide funding to Central United Church to install lighting in their alley as a preventative safety initiative for their congregation. Indeed, small projects are just as important as mega ones!

As for the “quirkiest project” Barrington thought it would be the “20-minute makeover” where various corporate teams volunteered 20 minutes to clean up the area around their buildings.  Over 3,800 people at 260+ locations collected tons of garbage.  “It was amazing how many cigarette butts there are on the sidewalks,” exclaimed Barrington.

The city has a comprehensive clean and safe program for the Centre City that is proactive in dealing with issues before they become a problem and responding quickly once they are identified.  

River Walk in East Village has become an attractive public programming space on what was once a seedy area that was avoided by the public. 

Public Art

Public art has been popping up throughout the City Centre over the past few years.  In addition to the highly publicized works of Jaume Plensa (Wonderland and Alberta’s Dream) at the Bow, there are Ron Moppett’s “ THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER” and Julian Opie’s “Promenade” in East Village.  

Others are Incipio Modo’s 10-foot tall insects “Ascension” in Poetic Park (4th Avenue and 9th Street SW) and two LRT station pieces - “TransitStory” by Jill Anholt (Centre Street Station) and “Luminous Crossing” by Cliff Garten (Downtown West/Kerby Station.)

Downtown is looking more and more like one giant art park and that’s a good thing! 

This is Poetic Park Plaza on the southwest corner of 4th Ave and 9th Street SW next to the Avatamsaka Buddhist monastery.  The two artworks are titled "Ascension" and were created by the Calgary based public art team INCIOP MODO. 

Last Word

Barrington says all of the improvements – both current and future - are about connecting the different activity nodes in the Centre City with attractive pedestrian corridors.  The vision is to create delightful 24/7 pedestrian experience for those who work, live and visit our Centre City. 


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The Flicks: Best little art house cinema in the west!

By Richard White, January 8, 2014

We stumbled upon The Flicks while flaneuring the Julia Davis Park Cultural District after checking out BAM (Boise Art Museum) – can’t believe we didn’t know about this place given all of our research.  It is tucked away off the beaten path in a bit of a park-like setting at 646 Fulton Street.

Next to the Main Auction (every Saturday), The Flicks has to be the biggest surprise of our Boise adventure.  It has an inviting canopy entrance with a small ticket wicket at the end.  We were immediately welcomed and asked, “How can I help you?” As it wasn’t yet show time, we were welcomed to go inside and explore. 

The Flicks is located off the beaten path with the entrance even more hidden from the average downtown pedestrian. 

The lobby is awash in the red glow of the huge Rick's Cafe American sign, creating a sense of nostalgia. 

Electric & Eclectic

The immediate response was “electric and eclectic” as we were washed in the neon glow of the “Rick’s Café American’ sign.  Still a bit in shock from the glow and the fact the lobby is a coffeehouse meets bistro meets lounge.  The baked goods looked yummy and the selection of beer and wine was very civilized.

We were also taken aback by the dabbling sun on the interior courtyard patio that would be a great place for lunch, meet-up for a coffee anytime of the day, perhaps a happy hour drink or two. And yes, it is a great spot for dinner before or after the movie.  It is a place that invites you to linger and ponder on life’s little details.   

It’s all about the art!

The Flicks established in 1984 was once a single cinema, but over time it has evolved into four cinemas – 192, 96, 55 and 45 seats respectively.  While The Flicks doesn’t have stadium seating, who cares every seat is a good seat.

The audience is knowledgeable and respectful - no chatter, no phones, no texting and no annoying ads. Just a few movie trailers and then get on with the show. 

Wine by the glass, bottles of beer and note there is also draft beer. 

Fireside chats are common place.

Fireside chats are common place.

The Food

When was the last time you were in a cinema complex that offered crème brulee, or the best burgers in town (some consider The Flick’s burgers the best in Boise).  Of course, the best benchmark for a movie house is the popcorn – The Flicks offers three toppings, real butter or tamari or brewers’ yeast.

But there’s more

The Flicks is not just a fun place to watch foreign, independent and art films, nor is it just a coffeehouse, bistro and lounge.  It is also a movie rental store.  Tucked away along the walls as you go to one of the small theatres is one of the best selections of foreign language movies I’ve ever seen. You could spend hours hunting through the titles – it would be like taking a trip around the world without leaving Boise.   

When was the last time you were in a movie rental store that had a good selection of foreign language films.

The interior patio enhances the sense of place. It is like walking into a work of art.

Last Word

We liked it so much that we went back that night to see a movie and liked it so much we went back the next night too!  While many cities have art house cinemas, few are as fun, funky and quirky as The Flicks.

If you are in Boise, it is a must see, must do place.

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ON the beaten path with Yaktrax

By Richard White, January 4, 2014

What started off as a snowshoeing adventure turned into a Yaktrax walk.  Plans for a four-hour mountain snowshoeing expedition for three virgin snowshoers began to fall apart when everyone warned us that “maybe it isn’t a good idea to go for a four- hour walk your first time out.” Then one of our group had a bit of a health issue and we quickly decided maybe a regular walk in the mountains would be a better idea.

However, not wanting to be “expedition escapees” we opted to take a hike in the mountains without snowshoes.   Our fourth member, who is the hiker and beginner snowshoe guide for our group, suggested we all get Yaktrax and then find a “beaten path” somewhat “off the beaten” path so we could at least experience some of that “Rocky Mountain” high we had been hoping for.

A quick trip into lovely downtown Canmore and we were all equipped with our Yaktraxs.

Canmore is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies and a mountain playground for international tourists, Albertans and especially Calgarians. 

Illustration of Yaktrax and how they work. 

Yaktrax yak!

Yaktrax, named after the sure-footed “Tibetan yak” are light-weight ice grips worn over your regular walking shoes, winter boots or running shoes when walking on packed snow and ice in the winter.  Or as our witty teammate said: “These are kinda like the old rubbers my Dad use to wear!”  Not quite – yes they do pull over any shoes - but they have coils on the bottom that provide hundreds of biting edges that sink into the snow or ice to give you traction. 

Yaktraxs were originally conceptualized when an outdoor adventurer, exploring the Himalayas, encountered a seasoned Sherpa striding confidently across the slick, icy surface using metal ice grips attached to his boots.  

Our companions got the PRO model with the Velcro straps…nothing but the best for our big spender friends. We opted for the cheaper Yaktrax Walkers model being the frugal flaneurs we are.

One option was to ditch the snowshoeing or walking and go skating as Canmore has a great skating pond.  However, we were looking for some adventure - we did go skating the next day.

The Canmore Nordic Centre was a winter wonderland for cross country skiers but we were just looking for a place to go for a walk. 

Let the Flaneuring Begin

We then headed to the Canmore Nordic Centre to see what suggestions they might have for a walk “ON” a beaten path in mountains. We quickly realized we could walk the service road around the nearby TransAlta hydro reservoir to the base of the Grassi Lakes Trail, a walk we had done this past summer.  The info guy at the Nordic Centre confirmed that we could walk around the reservoir in about 2 hours – perfect for us.

We really didn’t need the Yaktrax for the first 10 or 15 minutes, but soon we were in the snow and ice and yes, they do work.  It was almost as if we had been transformed into Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep, i.e. the Canadian version of the Tibetan Yak, as we trekked into the base of the mountain trail.

The flaneuring took us to the TransAlta Hydro plant with the cascading waterfall and icefalls.  We saw some ice climbers that we would have liked to check out more closely but the path was “unbeaten,” and we weren’t up for testing the Yaktrax’s vertical climbing coefficient - horizontal and hilly traction was good enough for us. 


Near the end, two members of our expedition ventured “off the beaten path” (feeling confident the Yaktraxs would work even in powder snow) to check out a dead Simca.  How did a European vehicle end up in the bush in the Rockies?  Guess we will never know. After some oohing and aahing over the still shiny chrome bumpers and door handles it was time to move on.

Just minutes later they were off the beaten track again, this time to check out the tree house in the woods… a lovely two-story home, with wall-to-wall carpeting, a nice ladder, great views of the forest and no neighbours. A little further on, we encountered up close and personal two deer crossing right in front of us.

The walk was a photographer's dream with lots of material to work with, from realism to abstraction.  I wish I had a good camera. 


The service road almost looked too easy, but the vista was calling us. 

Soon we were scrambling in the mountain forest with babbling brooks.  

Soon we were scrambling in the mountain forest with babbling brooks.  

The ice formations were like abstract sculptures.  

The ice formations were like abstract sculptures. 

The man-made Simca seemed totally out of place in the park. It definitely needed to be inspected. 

The shiny door handles looked brand could that be given the shape the rest of the vehicle was in. 

The trunk lock was in perfect condition. It was very surreal!

Definitely a handyman's fixer-upper!

The trail has some great photo ops! 

It doesn't get any better than this.

Stay on Trax

The two hours went by quickly and the Yaktrax passed their test walk with flying colours.  We are all now keen to test them out on urban walks.

As for the Everyday Tourists, we are now ready for our two-week dog sitting assignment in early January that will include two - sometimes three walks - a day along the icy promenade at River Park. 

Yes, sometimes it is perfectly OK to stay “on the beaten path.” 

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