Florence: People & Places (a photo essay)

This photo blog focuses on the offbeat people and places we encountered over 12 wonderful days of flaneuring in Florence in the Fall of 2014. It was an enchanting experience, from my favourite gelato shop waitress, to the husband and wife seamstress half a block down the street from our apartment who spoke no English, yet managed to help me find a new handmade belt. In between are photos from thrift stores to boutiques, galleries to street art, markets to churches, parking to cycling, fashion to food.

In reviewing, my photos I noticed there were two major differences from our Dublin experience.  One being the number of seniors in the streets of Florence and the second being the centuries of urban design that create a wonderful array of textures and light in its City Centre. 

We hope you will enjoy the photos and would love to hear which ones are your favourites.

If you want to see more photos and stories about our Florence adventures, click on the links below:

Window licking along Florence’s Via Tornabuoni

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

One Night in Florence

The ugliest pedestrian bridge in the world?

Flaneuring Florence’s Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

Public Art: Calgary / Florence / Rome


Busking with style.

Salvador Dali's Bike?

No wonder Picasso painted faces as he did!

Just one of many very stylish parking garages.

A Florence office building?

Lots of open doors...

I wish I could read Italian.

A work of art and very tasty! 

Magritte would have loved this photo.

Ghost busker....

Sisters sharing donuts?

Instead of tree lined streets, Florence has motorcycle lined ones. 

Would you drink out of this street fountain? Supposedly you can.

Obviously I am not the only one taking a photo of this intriguing reflection. 

My fashionista advisor. 

Florence comes alive at night. 

What was he thinking/feeling to create this drawing? 

Art is everywhere in Florence, yet there is very contemporary little public art. 

Market madness...

There is no lack of empty shoe boxes in Florence. 

Florence's finest were there to greet us when we arrived.

These ladies were moving quickly. 

Fountain of youth?

Window licking anyone?

No line up at the Marino Marini Museum...we liked that!

Once you get to the edge of the City Centre, the streets are much less crowded.

Cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians share the road.

It was hard to go to sleep after discovering this church was open on one of our nightly walkabouts. 

Blue Man Group?

Does it get any better than this? Taken from a balcony restaurant at lunch.

Small space, narrow places...smaller is better?

People watching fun!


Climbing the wall fun.


Fashionistas heading to the thrift store. 

Who needs wide sidewalks? enhanced streetscapes? 

My other fashionista advisor.

Who needs a car to carry a lamp home? 

Iceberg soup!

Everyone is out for their evening stroll.

That is a mighty big steak?

No dedicated bike lane? No problem? 

Fashionista at the world's most amazing thrift store. 

Now that is a tight parking spot.

This photo is not upside down.

Self serve wine - how good is that!

+15 walkway: Love vs Hate!

Calgarians have a love-hate relationship with downtown’s +15 system – the public loves them, the planners and politicians hate them. The public (downtown workers) loves them as it means on poor weather days, they don’t have to put on a coat to attend a business meeting, meet a friend for coffee, lunch or a happy hour drink, or find a quiet place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the office.

The +15 is also a popular route for those who work in one building but workout in another, be that in the morning, noon or after work.  Another thing downtown workers love about the +15 is you are almost always guaranteed to run into someone you haven’t seen for years and have been meaning to catch up with.  It is a great place for impromptu networking.

The +15 walkway creates a unique urban design experience especially in the cathedral-like lobbies of the office buildings. 

The +15 walkway creates a unique urban design experience especially in the cathedral-like lobbies of the office buildings. 

Photo credit: City of Calgary, online +15 brochure 

Photo credit: City of Calgary, online +15 brochure 

Planners and politicians generally hate them because they think they destroy downtown street life.  Funny thing, both Toronto and Montreal have underground pathway systems and nobody talks about how they have destroyed the street life in those cities. The unique reality is Calgary’s downtown is almost exclusively made up of office buildings, which simply don’t generate street life, be that Calgary or New York City’s Wall St. district or Bay St. in Toronto.

The City of Calgary conducted +15 pedestrian counts in January 2011 and again July 2011. They found use of the +15 drops about 70% in the summer. This proves that when the weather is nice, downtown workers love to walk outside but when it isn’t, they are happy to use the +15 as their indoor sidewalk. We have the best of both worlds.

Pedestrian Counts July 2001. The City of Calgary website

Pedestrian Counts January 2012. The City of Calgary website 


Wandering the +15 walkway is bit like negotiating your way through a maze.  However there is an elaborate map and signage program to help new explorers.  At each bridge is an illuminated map with the details of the immediate area are highlighted.  You can also look for a man in “white hat and stairs” to direct you to a staircase that will get you to the street. 

Above the bridges, horizontal signage gives you the name of the building and tells you if you are headed North, South, East or West.

  • North signs have a fish background which means you are heading to the Bow River, which runs along the northern edge of the downtown on its way from the Bow Glacier to Hudson’s Bay. 

  • South signs have a train that represents the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, which form the southern boundary of downtown. 

  • East signs have a fort motif paying tribute to the 1875 Northwest Mounted Police’s Fort Calgary on the eastern edge of downtown.

  • West signs have a mountain motif in the background reflecting the majestic Canadian Rockies dominate the downtown skyline to the west. 

Still, it is easy to get lost in the +15 system, but that is half of the fun. Newbies should not be afraid to admit they are lost and ask for directions - Calgarians are more than willing to point you in the right direction.

Photo credit: City of Calgary, +15 online brochure

Photo credit: City of Calgary, +15 online brochure


Most of the bridges are designed to connect buildings mid-block, but that is not always possible when you are connecting an older building to new building.  Older buildings have to be retrofitted on the 2nd floor to create a pedestrian walk through building and sometime two or three smaller buildings have to connect to one large new building; this is what results in the maze-like routes, rather than a linear grid like the streets below.

The idea of creating an elevated walkway system was not only based on climate but also on public health and safety.  The thinking was that by removing pedestrians from the street, the City would reduce the number of pedestrian/vehicle interactions, resulting in fewer accidents.   From a health perspective, the enclosed walkway also meant downtown workers and visitors not only wouldn’t have to breathe in the pollution of cars, but can also enjoy a healthy brisk 10-km walk at lunch even when it is -30C, snowing or raining.

The early bridges were simple rectangles without much thought into creating an urban design statement. However, that began to change with the Bankers Hall double decker bridges over Stephen Avenue, which makes its own architectural design statement. 

Since then, many bridges make their own unique design statement. For example, the +15 bridge connecting Eighth Avenue Place and Centennial Parkade and looking out to the CPR’s main rail line uses a traditional trestle bridge design popular for early prairie railway bridges.  

+15 bridge in the winter over Barclay Mall.  

+15 bridge in the winter over Barclay Mall. 

Bankers Hall double decker +15 bridge over Stephen Avenue at the 300 block.

Bankers Hall double decker +15 bridge over Stephen Avenue at the 300 block.

+15 bridge connecting Centennial Parkade and Eight Avenue Place.

+15 bridge connecting Centennial Parkade and Eight Avenue Place.

Interior of the +15 bridge connecting Municipal Building and Arts Commons.  Kids love looking out at the urban landscape from the +15 vantage point. 

Walking the +15 system early in the morning as downtown workers arrive is a surreal experience. 

Walking the +15 system early in the morning as downtown workers arrive is a surreal experience. 

+15 Highlights 

The +15 level of the Centennial Parkade is home to the Udderly Art Pasture, a celebration of the very popular Colourful Cows for Calgary art project that saw over 100 fun cow created by artists installed around the downtown in 2000.  Today, over 10 cows have found a permanent pasture in the +15.

Devonian Gardens, a 2.5-acre indoor park/garden created in 1977 and underwent a $37 million renovation in 2012, is integrated with The Core shopping center.  It is an ideal place to meet a friend, have some alone time or take young children to run and play in the playground area.

The Core Shopping Center is perhaps the epicenter of the +15, especially for shoppers.  It links the historic Hudson Bay’s department store with the contemporary Holt Renfrew store with four floors of shops. Its claim to fame is the German-engineered skylight the size of three football fields, making it the largest in the world.

 The Jamieson Place Winter Garden wins hands down as the most tranquil spot in downtown, with its infinity ponds, living plant walls and its spectacular hanging David Chihuly glass sculptures, each weighing 500 pounds.

The Suncor Place’s +15 lobby is home to an authentic Noorduyn Norseman Plane hanging from the ceiling. Used extensively in early oil and gas exploration as it could land on snow, water or land - very fitting given downtown Calgary is home to most of Canada’s oil & gas companies.

DAYDREAM Derek Besant’s public artwork in the +15 connecting West Alberta Place with Petro Fina is a hidden gem.  It consists of 24 etchings on the +15 windows accompanied by thought-provoking text like “WHERE DOES HE FIT INTO MY LIFE?“

If travelling along the +15 walkway in the Arts Commons building (formerly the EPCOR Centre) be sure to look in the window where, down below, you can watch the designers working on the next set design for a Theatre Calgary or Alberta Theatre Projects play.

Udderly Art Pasture in the Centennial Parkade. 

Udderly Art Pasture in the Centennial Parkade. 

Bush plane suspended from the ceiling of Suncor Centre. 

Bush plane suspended from the ceiling of Suncor Centre. 

Devonian Gardens early morning. 

Devonian Gardens early morning. 

Jamieson Place Winter Garden with infinity pools and living wall. 

Jamieson Place Winter Garden with infinity pools and living wall. 

The Core retail complex connects directly with three office towers, +15 walkways on two levels and Devonian Gardens.

The Core retail complex connects directly with three office towers, +15 walkways on two levels and Devonian Gardens.

The +15 walkway functions like outdoor pedestrian street with buskers, patios, cafes, shops and services. 

The +15 walkway functions like outdoor pedestrian street with buskers, patios, cafes, shops and services. 


Exploring Calgary’s +15 system is our city’s most unique urban experience.  While New York City is famous for its High Line (an elevated linear park on abandoned railway line that meanders through Manhattan), Calgary’s +15 walkway preceded it by 40 years. Calgarians should be proud of their +15 walkway.

In fact I am so proud of our +15 I will be wearing my  Frontier Metropolis.com  +15 shirt when I host a Jane's Walk through the +15 at 10am on May 2, 2015.  If you want to join us we are meeting on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade. 

In fact I am so proud of our +15 I will be wearing my Frontier Metropolis.com +15 shirt when I host a Jane's Walk through the +15 at 10am on May 2, 2015.  If you want to join us we are meeting on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade. 


Fun Factoids

  • Harold Hanen a Calgary urban planner championed the +15 system in ‘60s.

  • Named +15 because the bridges are 15 feet above ground.

  • First +15 bridge connected Calgary Place to Westin Hotel in 1973.

  • 62 bridges create 18 km of walkways – the longest elevated enclosed walkway in the world.

  • 22,000 people cross the +15 bridge between Centrum Place and Energy Plaza over 6th Ave every weekday making it the busiest bridge in the system.

  • 150+ buildings are connected by +15 bridges.

  • Eighth Avenue Place is home several masterpieces of Canadian art including two Jean-Paul Riopelle paintings.

  • Calgary will never have double decker buses, as they won’t fit under the bridges.

  • Calgary’s +15 was the focus of Calgary filmmaker Gary Burns’ movie “waydowntown” in 2000.

  • The +15 is home to seven shoe shine chairs.

One of eight shoe shine stations in the +15 walkway.  

One of eight shoe shine stations in the +15 walkway. 

Everyday Tourist's road trip to the 'burbs!

In March 2014, I embarked on an 8,907 six-week road trip to the southern US visiting places like Tucson, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This March, I took a 74 km six-hour road trip to explore Calgary’s southern neighbourhoods, Evergreen, Cranston, Riverstone and Seton.

Top 10 things observed on my road trip to south Calgary:

1.     New communities are often criticized for being just a sea of residential housing without any other “uses.”  However, most of the homes I saw had an attractive office just inside the front door that would put the downtown office cubicles to shame.  And then there were also fully equipped home gyms, the wine cellars with attached wine bar, games rooms and multiple dining areas; these homes have much in common with an upscale downtown lounge or pub. Kitchens had multiple upscale appliances, coffee stations and large dinner areas that reminded me of the private dining rooms in downtown restaurants. And then there were the patios, one complete with their own wet bar, fireplace, fancy dancy BBQ and seating for a couple of dozen of your best friends. Perhaps we should stop calling them homes in favour of mixed-use villas.  

Enjoy your private wine cellar and tasting bar with friends. 

Imagine your own yoga workout studio. 

2.     The houses aren’t much different in size and space to the new inner city infills with their narrow lots sprouting up on every block of Calgary’s established communities. The biggest difference is there are no messy back alleys as garages are all in the front and the streets lined with cars.  And there wasn’t the variety of architectural designs and I did miss the large trees, but as I have said before, don’t judge a community until the trees are taller than the houses. Learn More: Don’t judge a community too soon!

3.     Large horizontal condo complexes (vs. the vertical ones in the City Centre) were prevalent along the main transit roads indicating some diversity in housing types.  I even saw some accordion buses (Calgary’s version of the double decker bus) indicating not everybody is addicted to their cars.

An example of one of the many condo complexes prevalent in new suburban communities. 

4.     There is a return to the outdoor neighbourhood mall complete with grocery store, pub, café, restaurant, liquor store, spa and other services – similar to Lakeview Mall or Stadium Shopping Centre from fifty years ago.

5.     The quality of the retail architecture seems to be improving especially in Seton.  Seton’s retail square even had painted bike paths and a futuristic-looking gateway design feature that shared some of the features as Kensington’s Poppy Plaza.

6.     Schools are bursting with kids at recess and noon hour, making it a kaleidoscope of largely pinks and blues darting about the playgrounds. There are signs everywhere about registering kids for sport teams. I was exhausted just reading them.

The suburbs are where people of all ages and backgrounds live and play.

7.     Humans obviously love homes with a view, be that in Evergreen looking out over Fish Creek Park or in Cranston living on the ridge looking out on the Bow River Valley or Riverstone with the Bow River in your back yard. The first two remind me of Crescent Heights, Houndsfield Heights, Briar Hill or St. Andrew’s Heights, while Riverstone is the 21st century equivalent of Roxboro.

8.     Traffic? What traffic? At 3 pm on a Wednesday I was able to travel from Seton to West Hillhurst through downtown via Memorial Drive in 30 minutes.

9.     While the inner city is all about “building up,” i.e. highrises condo towers and converting single story cottage homes into two story mansions, the ‘burbs are “building down” with their walk out basements.  Oh, and they call a side-by-side or duplex a “Villa” in new communities.

Attached townhomes are common in the new suburbs even in estate communities. These are not the suburbs of the '80s.

10.    Back to nature!  The suburbs have always been a hybrid between an urban home and country home.  For many humans wanting to be close to nature, close to the land is a primordial need.  I was reminded of this as deer crossed the backyard of a friend’s house in Evergreen as we chatted in her kitchen. I am told the night howls of the coyotes in Cranston are both moving and beautiful.  Easy access to Fish Creek Park (three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park and four times New York City’s Central Park) that stretches 19 km from east to west makes living in places like Brookfield Residential’s Cranston, Riverstone and Seton something very special.

Last Word

While the ‘burbs are personally not for me, if I had a family and didn’t work downtown (that’s 75% of Calgary families), they would hold great appeal. I am all for “different strokes for different folks!” Speaking of strokes, the southern communities have several golf courses just minutes away. Hmmm…. I might have to rethink this?

If you like this blog, you might like:

Suburbs are moving downtown. 

80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs

What is urban living and who really cares? 

Sydneysider loves Cowtown?

Guest Blog: Marissa Toohey

I grew up in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, well known for its surf culture and miles of coastline. A few years ago, I set my sights on North America and was fortunate enough to find my way to Calgary in October 2012. I had heard it was a city with bright job prospects, lower taxes than other Canadian cities, a welcoming community and a lovable mayor. And, of course, cowboys. I have to admit I was nervous about winter weather though, having watched the airport scene of the Cool Runnings movie too many times before my arrival.

These days, I spend my free time playing hockey and skiing the Rocky Mountains, rather than going to the beach or firing up the barbie. In chatting with Calgary’s Everyday Tourist, we thought it would be interesting for me to compare the two cities from a Sydneysider’s perspective.  

To provide some context, Sydney was founded by the British in 1788 and it attracted a significant number of immigrants. Today, Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with around 4.8 million residents spread across an area about 12,368 square kilometers. It is divided into over 30 local government areas with elected councils responsible for functions delegated by the state government.

Calgary’s history, on the other hand, as a city begins in about 1875 or one hundred years later. It is a city of 1.2 million and covers an area of 825 square kilometers for the city proper and if you add in some of the satellite cities and towns it is an additional 704 square kilometers. Calgary is famous for its rivers, parks and access to the Rocky Mountains.

Calgarians love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk. 

Sydneysiders love going to the beach.

Parks & Recreation

In Sydney, the weather is always warm and the landscape is dominated by waterways and bushland making for an incredible selection of natural attractions - some iconic ones being Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour and the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Local councils maintain a multitude of free public beaches and rock pools, while volunteer lifeguards keep swimmers safe.

The innercity offers some excellent play areas too, such as the Darling Quarter community with its climbing ropes, swings, slides, and a flying fox (zip line). It’s surrounded by hip restaurants, wine bars and often has festivals and outdoor movies, making it a great area for the entire family to enjoy day or night.

Similarly, Calgary has many natural attractions including the world famous Rocky Mountain playground.  I love the city’s great urban outdoors - Fish Creek Provincial Park, the pathways along the Bow and Elbow rivers, Canada Olympic Park, as well as the many outdoor ice rinks throughout the city in winter. I still can’t get enough skating at Prince’s Island surrounded by fairy lights and listening to friendly tunes.

In the summer, my favourite thing to do is float lazily down the Bow River. In fact, just getting outdoors any time of year is a treat because you can see the environment adapting with the change of seasons.

Sydney's botanical gardens is an urban oasis next to the City Centre.

Calgarians love their 800+ kilometres of walking, running and biking pathways.  The red pedestrian bridge in the background is the Peace Bridge designed by the world famous Santiago Calatrava. This is lunch hour downtown!

Calgary's Fish Creek Park is one of the world's largest urban parks.

Calgarians love to float down the Bow and Elbow Rivers enjoying the sandstone cliffs, Douglas Fir forest and downtown skyline. 

Urban Design

There are many examples in Sydney where art installations have transformed underused areas and attracted more people. The City of Sydney is implementing a laneway regeneration program, investing in infrastructure that turns hidden laneways into pedestrian thoroughfares, while using public art displays to create more welcoming spaces.

One of the more interesting projects is the new paving, lighting and stunning permanent birdcage art installation (it plays the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney) in downtown’s Angel Place laneway. Today, an average of 4,000 visitors pass through the laneway every day, double the number from 2007.

Calgary’s also has some great public art pieces.  I love the Chinook Arc, Promenade (next to the Drop-In Centre), and Wonderland at The Bow.  But for me,

the real standouts - from a creative city perspective - have been Calgary’s temporary installations and unique festivals. Wreck City last year transformed an entire residential block into a massive work of art before it was demolished. Exploring dramatically transformed homes was a lot of fun. Beakerhead, an event where citizens interact with a smash up of art, science and engineering over the space of a week in September feels distinctly Calgarian.

When it comes to great architecture, Sydney has its Opera House and the Coathanger Bridge (named because of its arch-shaped design).  Not to be outdone, Calgary has the Peace Bridge and The Bow. Sydney has the Opera House, Calgary has the Saddledome. Both cities have strong central business districts dominated by office tower and corporate headquarters architecture.

Forgotten Songs was created by Dave Towey, Dr. Richard Major, Michael Thomas Hill and Richard Wong.  The piece commemorate the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney, before they were gradually forced out by European settlement. The calls, change as the day shifts to night; the daytime birds' songs disappearing with the sun, and those of the nocturnal birds, which inhabited the area, sound into the evening. 

One of the signature things to do when visiting Sydney is to walk across the Coathanger bridge. 

Calgary's Saddledome arena is located in Stampede Park (the greatest outdoor show on earth) on the southeastern edge of the City Centre. 


Sydney has one of the longest reported commute times in the western world, with residents navigating a dizzying system of highways, tolled freeways, main streets, laneways and a growing cycle network. The 3-kilometre drive across the City Centre in peak traffic can take up to an hour and driving in Sydney often costs a considerable amount of money in tolls at the Harbour Bridge, Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor and several other freeways. The alternative to driving is utilizing an extensive public transit system made up of ferries, light rail, buses and trains that extend to the outer suburbs. A free inner-city shuttle circuit connects visitors to tourist attractions.

In contrast, Calgary’s clever downtown grid of roads and the ring road that connects the outer suburbs are extremely easy to navigate. The fact that many roads are numbered rather than named makes it foolproof to find your way around.

Best of all, the roads are free too. The fare-free C-Train zone downtown is brilliant. As a young city, Calgary’s public transit system still has a lot of room to grow and City Council and administration have the opportunity to learn from other cities and to implement new infrastructure in ways that are conscious of future growth.

I believe better transportation to and from the airport as well as easier connections to more tourist attractions would help in attracting some of Banff’s visitors to stay in the city as well. My brother has visited from Australia three times in the last 15 months to ski and hike the Rockies and to eat, shop and relax in Calgary. Unfortunately, he had to drive to destinations like Canada Olympic Park, Heritage Historical Park and CrossIron Mills shopping centre because of limited transit. But he happily explores the innercity by foot and has discovered some lovely little art galleries around Inglewood that even I wasn’t aware of.

Map of Sydney's public transit system. 

Despite a comprehensive transit system, traffic jams like this are a common occurrence in Sydney.

Urban Living

Residential architecture in Sydney has evolved over many years evidenced by the variation in styles along innercity and suburban streets. A lot of Sydneysiders live in heritage housing styles such as terrace houses, workers’ cottages and federation homes. After World War II, the “Great Australian Dream” of home ownership produced a sprawl of detached homes, often with wide verandas and swimming pools in the backyard. High-rise and mid-rise buildings were erected in transit hubs during the following years to increase density.

Nowadays, it’s common for residents to buy an old home or land in a more affordable area in order to build a new oversized “McMansion” that doesn’t quite fit with its surroundings. Yet, the co-existence of conflicting styles adds to the character of many neighbourhoods.  It is very similar to what is happening in many of Calgary’s older communities.

These days, Sydney’s housing prices are among the most expensive in the world, with the median house price around $850,000 (Canadian and Australian dollars are currently at par with each other). That will get you a detached home around 1,200 square feet 30 km from the City Centre or a small two-bedroom inner-city apartment with no view and no parking. The average rent for a small one-bedroom, apartment is around $2,000 a month. With the cost of living in Sydney, it’s not surprising that many people share accommodation or are long-term renters with no plans to ever own a home.

The variety in Calgary’s housing stock both in the innercity and suburbs is impressive, with row houses, laneway housing and mid-rise condominium developments on the rise. The former Calgary suburban trend of building tidy rows of beige homes seems to be shifting as many new communities are featuring bright colours and walkable amenities. The city is also increasing density with infills, resulting in new homes being built alongside older homes in existing communities.

The relatively reasonable cost of living in Calgary was one of the things that attracted me to the city but with the average house price now approaching $500,000 and monthly rent over $1,200 for a decent sized apartment, the landscape is quickly changing. Fortunately, community leaders (private and public) seem focused on improving the mix of housing and affordability for all citizens, with several innovative home ownership programs.

Small cottage homes are being replaced my McMansions in both Calgary and Sydney. 

A parade of new infills on one inner city block in Calgary just 3 kilometres from the downtown core. 

New high-rise condos are changing the skylines of both Calgary and Sydney. 

 Last Word

While Sydney has diverse cultural, recreational and creative offerings, the commute times and cost of living detract from its many upsides.

If you’re not afraid of living with arctic temperatures for a few weeks, it is hard to beat Calgary’s lifestyle and employment opportunities even with the downturn in the energy sector.  I had no job when I landed in Calgary, but within a week I had secured a great position.

I could live anywhere.  I choose Calgary. The city is doing a good job of attracting people here for work and play. But one of the challenges I now face is staying here, as it is not easy to renew a visa.

 Calgary has the advantage of being young enough to learn from the mistakes made by cities like Sydney.  And, with its ambitious and infectious energy, I am confident Calgary will only get better and better as it grows up. I can’t wait to explore the new St. Patrick’s Park this summer.

 While the grass is greener longer in Sydney, the sky is bluer in Calgary. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary vs Paris 

Olympic Cities: Calgary vs Salt Lake 

Denver vs Calgary: A Tale of Two Thriving Downtowns 



Editor's Note: Marissa Toohey is currently the Communications Manager at Attainable Homes, in Calgary, Alberta. She has travelled extensively around Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America and her career includes a stint in Vietnam working for Habitat for Humanity International.  She loves to live, work and play in Calgary, not necessarily in that order. 

Everyday Tourist goes to gaol

One of the most moving experiences we had in 2015 (perhaps in the last few years) was our tour of the Kilmainham Gaol (KG) in Dublin, Ireland.  Not big fans of guided tours, we decided to take the tour, as it was the only way to get inside. We were glad we did. Our tour guide made the experience so “moving,” sharing real life stories of the hardships and heroics associated with the Gaol.

At the end of the tour, we even both thought she was going to break down into tears when we were standing in the desolate “stone-breakers” yard, the site where several political leaders were executed.  Afterwards, when we asked her if she had any personal association with the events or people in the Gaol she said “No” but she, like most Dubliners, have a deep respect for their history and those who suffered for their beloved Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol 101

KG opened in 1796 as a one of the most modern prisons in Ireland, yet the conditions were inhumane by today’s standards - no glass on the windows, no lighting, no heat; it was a cold, dark and damp place.  In the early years it was filled with prisoners detained for begging, stealing, assault, prostitution and drunkenness. 

The gaol doors have centuries of grime encrusted on them to create a rich patina. 

During the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1850, many women and children were charged with begging and stealing food and placed in jail.  Our tour guide told one story about a mother who stole a single loaf of bread for her starving children was thrown in the dungeon-like cells with a half a dozen drunks and murders who reeked of their own body fluids.

We were surprised to learn that women made up a significant portion of the population until 1881 when it became an all male prison. Persons convicted of violent crimes were routinely hanged in front of the gaol for everyone to see.  The last women to be hanged were in 1821.

In 1862, the spectacular east wing (large open space, high ceiling with huge skylight and grand staircase) was added based on the Victorian belief that the quality of prison architecture was crucial to the reform of the inmates.   The prison philosophy became one of silence and separation. Communication between prisoners was forbidden with most of their time spent alone in their cell so they could read the Bible, contemplate and repent their crimes.

In 1958, after years of neglect (prison was decommissioned in 1924) the KG Restortion Society was formed to preserve the Gaol as a monument to Irish Nationalism.  After years of clean up, the eventually turned it over to the state and it has become a major tourist attraction. 

Looking in the peep hole you see the open window which was too high for the prisoners to see out of and let in a only minimal amount of light. 

Political Prisoners

The hallways have a strange haunting glow that magnifies the decaying walls. 

The story of KG really begins with its link to Ireland’s violent political history of rebellions, guerilla warfare, imprisonment, hangings and executions in the mid 1800s. 

Following the failure of the Young Irelanders (inspired by the spirit of revolution in Europe) in 1848 and the Fenians in 1867 (a secret, oath-bound group sworn to overthrow British rule), the Gaol was cleared of common prisoners and security strengthened to accommodate political figures.

In 1881, the governing Irish Parliament Party rejected the British government land act and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Party and his MPs were imprisoned from October 1881 to May 1882.

Four days after Parnell’s release, two senior officials of the British government were assassinated by members of the group called “The Invincibles,” an offshoot of the Fenians. Five members of the group were hanged at the gaol in 1883 for their role in the assassinations.  

The prison closed in 1910, only to be reopened in 1916 to house hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish Republic’s Easter uprising.  Between May 3 and 12, 1916 fourteen men were executed by firing squad in the stone-breakers’ yard.  It was while standing in this yard, hearing this story that our tour guide’s voice cracked and many of us were moved close to tears.

When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, KG was used to hold captured Republican Army members, four of which were executed in the same yard.  The War of Independence differed from other rebellions with the introduction of guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army, British forces and Dail (a radical republican party who won a landslide victory in the 1918 general election but refused to take their seats in the British Parliament). This war ended with a truce in July 1921.

However, the truce didn’t last long as tensions eventually erupted in a Civil War from 1922 to 1924.  From February to September 1923 during the Civil War over 300 girls and women between 12 and 70 were housed in KG.  The War ended in 1924 and its last prisoner, Eamon de Valera was released – he later became President of Ireland.

As a mid-20th century Canadian, who has never fought in a war, never fired a gun, never had to physically fight for anything, it is hard to understand the intense passion and pain that was endured over centuries by the people of Ireland as they fought for their independence.

In the museum area there are lots of artifacts, but the most touching were the letters which tell very intimate stories. This one is about Joseph Plunkett who married his wife the night before his execution. 

The cross marks the spot where the prisoners stood in the stone breakers yard waiting to be executed by gun fire. 

Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise, Idaho

One of the highlights of our 2014 travels was the discovery of Boise, Idaho with its vibrant downtown and university campus.  We loved the markets, auctions, restaurants and the neighbouring Snake River wine district.  One of the pleasant surprises of our visit was the Old Idaho State Penitentiary (OISP), which started as a single cell house in 1872.

Like KG, the stories and the conditions the prisoners of OISP endured are almost unbelievable. It housed over 13,000 inmates, including 215 were women from 1872 to 1973. One of the most famous inmates was Lyda Southard (aka Lady Bluebeard) who killed several husbands to collect the insurance money.

The penitentiary closed in 1973 after riots in 1971 and 1973 to protest the horrible living conditions.

The penitentiary is like a campus with 18 distinctive buildings surrounded by a 17 foot sandstone wall that was quarried by the convict from the ridges of the nearby hills (today they are wonderful walking trails).   While the men were kept busy with the construction of new buildings, maintenance and/or agricultural activities (including growing the best watermelons in the state) the women were engaged in repairing clothing, taking classes and reading the bible.

While Boise was part of the Wild West of the 1800s, the violence and hardship seemed pale in comparison to what the Irish suffered to gain their Independence.

The Idaho State Penitentiary seem charming in comparison to Kilmainham Gaol. 

The sand stone wall, guard house and walkway.  

The women cells were in a separate building. While the conditions were minimal there was some colour and lots of light. 

Last Word

We are not big history buffs and gaols are not usually on our list of must see places, but sometimes you have to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone.  Both were pleasant surprises.  One of the ten commandments of an everyday tourist is “Thou shalt never over research or over plan your trip.” 

By Richard White, February 25, 2015.  

Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email Richard@ground3.com  follow @everydaytourist 

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Calgary: Preservation vs Prosperity Predicament

Though never been a big history buff, after spending almost two months in Europe, I now have a much better appreciation of the importance of preserving historical buildings and sites. They are critical to telling a city’s story and creating a unique sense of place.

Calgary is often criticized for focusing too much on the prosperity of the present and future at the expense of the preservation of the past.  For many (including me) our philosophy is “we are creating Calgary’s history today.”  But cities really are built over decades and centuries, not years. To me, Calgary is just a young teenager striving to find its own identity, its own personality.

Now with my new European adventure enlightenment, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see what buildings we have lost over the past 100 years that we might like to have today.

The Mawson Plan presented to City Council in 1914 would have dramatically changed the look of Calgary with its river centric vs railway centric orientation.  Calgary would have truly become "Paris on the prairies."  More information http://caa.ucalgary.ca/mawsonreportfull

Hull Opera House (606, Centre Street South)

Imagine it is the early 1890s. Calgary rancher, entrepreneur and philanthropist William Roper just commissioned a 1,000-seat opera house be built at 606 Centre St. South (known as McTavish Street until 1904) by architects Child and Wilson at a cost of $10,000.  One of Calgary’s first major sandstone and brick buildings, it hosted opera, theatre, school concerts, and community dances.  It is hard to believe a frontier city with a population of only 4,000 people could support such a large opera house.  But it did, for 13 years anyway.

In 1906, it was renovated to accommodate street level retail, residential on the upper floors and renamed the Albion Block. Then in 1960s, George Crystal bought the building and demolished it to create parking for his adjacent York Hotel.  The York Hotel was demolished to make way for the Bow office tower, (its façade brickwork is now safely numbered and stored so it can be integrated into a new building on the corner of Centre Street and 7th Avenue SW sometime in the future). So, we lost one icon and gained another in the Bow Tower.  If we still had the Hull Opera House, it would have made a great public market, along the same lines as the Centro Market in Florence, Italy.

Hull Opera House


CPR Train Station (115 – 9th Avenue SE)

Yes, Calgary had a downtown train station, but I have been told it wasn’t anything as grand as say Grand Central Station or Penn Station in New York City. It wasn’t even as grand as Winnipeg’s train stations given that in the late 19th century, it was Winnipeg that was going to be capital of the prairies and the rival to Chicago.  It was a time of Winnipeg’s heyday – it boasted the most millionaires per capita in North America.  Calgary on the otherhand was still a frontier town with a population 4,000 people.  My, my, how times have changed! 

Calgary’s CPR station was demolished in 1966, making way for the Palliser Square and Calgary Tower (then called the Husky Tower) as part of a Calgary’s first modern urban renewal project that included the Convention Centre, Marriott Hotel (the Four Seasons Hotel) and the Glenbow. 

I now think our historic train station would have made a great modern art gallery like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. 

Central (James Short) School (Centre Street South between 4th and 5th Ave)

James Short School was Calgary’s first large three-story square sandstone school. It proudly opened as Central School in 1905 and was noted for its impressive cupola above the entrance.  When, by the late ‘60s, the school-age population in downtown wasn’t sufficient to keep the school open, all but the cupola (now located on the NW corner of Centre Street South and 5th Ave) was demolished to make way for redevelopment.

Today, James Short (a pioneer teacher, principal of the school and later a School Board Member, he was also the lawyer for the Anti-Chinese League) is best known as a park and parkade. If it were still around today, what a great boutique hotel it would make.

Southam (Calgary Herald) Building (130 7th Avenue SW)

The Southam Building was touted as the “finest home of any newspaper in Canada” when it opened its dors in 1913.  It was well known for its terracotta gargoyles (made by Doulton Lambeth of England) that adorned the roofline and depicted various newpaper trades.

Built in 1913, this magnificent Gothic structure was occupied by the Calgary Herald until 1932, when the paper needed more space. In the 1940s, the building was sold to Greyhound who used it for 30+ years as a bus depot, gutting the main floor to allow for the buses to drive through. Eventually demolished in 1972, it made way for the Len Werry Building. All of the gargolyes were rescued when the building was demolished in 1972 and some can now be found on the second floor of the north building of the Telus Convention Centre.

Today, it would have a phenomenal character office building integrated into the new Brookfield Place glass tower currently under construction. The contrast of the old and the new would have been spectacular. 

Burns Residence (501, 13 Avenue S.W.)

Patrick Burns, a rancher, businessman and one of the “Big Four” who founded the Calgary Stampede, built his grand mansion with ornate sandstone carvings in 1901.  Designed by the famous Victoria, BC architect Francis M. Rattenbury, the mansion and English garden rivaled the still-standing 1891 Lougheed House and garden two blocks west on 13th Avenue.  It is hard to imagine that 13th Avenue SW was Calgary’s millionaires’ row a 100 years ago.  The Burns mansion was demolished in 1956, replaced by the Colonel Belcher Hospital, which in turn got demolished to build the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre, which opened in 2008.

The Burns Manor restaurant and lounge would have a nice ring to it, a bigger version of Rouge (in the Cross House) in Inglewood.

Stephen Avenue East

Calgary historian Harry Sanders would like to have back the entire east end of 8th Avenue all the way to 4th Street SE. It was all demolished in the ‘70s and ‘80s clearing the way for the Municipal Building, Olympic Plaza and the Epcor Centre (Calgary’s second attempt at modern urban renewal).  Sanders imagines a lively pedestrian street full of small shops, cafes and restaurants all the way from Holt Renfrew (the façade of the current Holt Renfrew building is that of Calgary’s old Eaton’s department store) to East Village. 

Indeed, downtown Calgary lacks a grand boulevard or wide prairie Main Street that typical of most major cities.  For all of its charm and character, Stephen Avenue still lacks a WOW factor (expect perhaps at lunch hour in the summer).

Stephen Avenue early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue middle of the 20th Century.

Preservation of the past

While some may lament the loss of some of Calgary’s sense of the past, in many ways we have done a better job of preserving our history than most people think.   Most of the buildings along Inglewood’s Atlantic Avenue, (Calgary’s first Main Street) have been preserved. 

As well, Stephen Avenue’s 100 and 200 west blocks are designated National Historic District.  And, while the Fort Calgary was not preserved, there is a major effort today to preserve the spirit of the place and two of the original buildings.  We also have a wonderful collection of buildings from our Sandstone period including the Memorial Park Library and McDougal School. 

Lougheed House and gardens

Grain Exchange Building recalls Calgary's beginnings as an agricultural centre.

Calgary architect Jack Long's modernist Science Centre predates Frank Gehry's famous modernist Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa Spain by 30 years. 

It is ironic that Calgary's old Science Centre could become a contemporary art museum by 2020. 

McDougall School built in 1907 has been preserved and converted into the southern headquarters for the Premier of Alberta.  


Last Word

That being said, it would still be nice to have a few more historical buildings with their different façade materials and architectural styles to have more visual variety in our downtown.  In the words of poet William Cowper “Variety’s the spice of life, that gives it all its flavour”  (The Task, 1785)

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Downtown YYC: Paint it black

I have never been a big fan of black and white (B&W) photography, perhaps because I am more of a futurist than a historian. For most, B&W photos are associated with old photographs, so it is not surprising that when we see a black and white photo it looks historic.  Contrastingly, colour photography is associated with new technology, we are surrounded by vivid images everywhere we look, particularly with our high resolution computer and TV screens. 

I am not a professional photographer, but over the years I have received lots of complements about the photography that accompanies the Everyday Tourist blogs.  However, I also love to experiment, so I thought it might be fun to play with B&W photos of one of my favourite places to flaneur – downtown Calgary. 


 I was surprised at how the B&W images immediately changed the sense of place buildings, corners and streets that I am very familiar with.  It was like unearthing a whole new world.  The images were more dramatic, more sinister and more surreal. The skies in particular became more ominous. The narrative seemed to be stronger. My imagination was immediately engaged.

I couldn’t believe how the light changed the entire compositions.  The lines and shapes became more compelling.  Overall the photographs become more like drawings or etchings, rather than paintings or silk-screens or my previous photography. 

As I continued to experiment with darker and lighter images, I was hooked.  Not only did I discover a new technique for visualizing urban spaces and places, but I also developed a new appreciation for the charm of my downtown.

I hope you enjoy the results of my experimentation. As always, comments are welcomed. 

The Bow Tower takes on a whole new appearance looking up from the +15 bridge. 

Love this playground of sunlight on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour as it bounces off the glass of the buildings and surface of the prehistoric or futuristic sculptures. 

The +15 bridges create some surreal sensations that one would never see in everyday colour images. 

The +15 bridges create some surreal sensations that one would never see in everyday colour images. 

Some how the design of this trestle bridge seems enhanced in black and white. 

Some how the design of this trestle bridge seems enhanced in black and white. 

It is hard to believe this is 7th Avenue at noon hour. There is a raw beauty to 7th Avenue that I have never seen before.

It is hard to believe this is 7th Avenue at noon hour. There is a raw beauty to 7th Avenue that I have never seen before.

The juxtaposition of the Bow Tower in the pillars of the historic Public Building was barely visible in the colour images. In b&w the texture and pattern in the columns is revealed. 

The juxtaposition of the Bow Tower in the pillars of the historic Public Building was barely visible in the colour images. In b&w the texture and pattern in the columns is revealed. 

This reflection in the Hudson's Bay window of the Brookfield Place construction was only mediocre in colour but in b&w it became haunting. 

This reflection in the Hudson's Bay window of the Brookfield Place construction was only mediocre in colour but in b&w it became haunting. 

I love the narrative in this image. 

I love the narrative in this image. 

Parking Ramp
Bow Plaza