Metrovino: $5 Sherry Festival (More Please)

 

Woke up Monday (Nov 7, 2016) morning came downstairs to find Brenda all excited about a Sherry Festival produced by Richard Harvey at Calgary’s Metrovino the week of November 14th.  Immediately, memories of our first trip to Europe rushed into my still sleepy head.
Calgary Sherry Festival Fun

We were young and naïve. And I was cocky. We had booked a 3-week road trip adventure in Spain and Portugal.  We landed in Lisbon at afternoon rush hour and had to get to Cascais what we thought would be a short, easy drive to our hotel.  Wrong.

It was like driving the Deerfoot with traffic circles thrown in for some fun. (Note: this was the late 80s and I had never seen a traffic circle in my life.)  It was white knuckling all the way.  Backstory: We thought we were going to die at least 3 times in the first 2 days of this trip.  I learned to drive with one foot on the gas and one on the brake.  My motto became that of a running back in football i.e. run (or in this case, driver) for daylight.

Back to Cascais. We arrived to find none of the streets had signage names at the corner and their were few street lights – it was pretty much pitch black by then.  (Note: There was no GPS, or cell phone apps to guide us, just old school paper maps.)  We had to park the car and walk around to try to find where we were i.e. the street names were in ceramic tiles on the buildings, impossible to see from the road. 

Finally, we found our hotel and room to find two twin beds.  That wasn’t going to work for us, (remember we said we were naïve) so back down to the check-in desk to see if we could get a queen bed at least. (Note: We spoke no Portuguese or Spanish).  Yes, we made the twin beds work. 

After 3 days we thought, “what the hell have we done, but after 17 days we didn’t want to go home.” 

Most Embarrassing Moment

Seville is so rich with history and rituals, everyone should visit there at least once in their life. We were so fortunate that just by chance we were there at Easter. 

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing moments of my life happened in Jerez (the sherry capital of the world) while I was filling up our rental car with gas.  As we entered the busy gas station lot I noticed that one of the gas pumps wasn’t being used so I quickly pulled up to it and as former gas jockey, I was quick to jump out and started the fill up. People started looking and waving at me and saying something but not understanding a word they said, I just kept filling it up.

Then someone came over pointed to a word and turned it off.  The light bulb came on – I was filling up the car with diesel fuel and it was not a diesel car.  What to do? Luckily, we found someone who could speak some English who took us to a pub nearby where we phoned the rental car company who towed the car away and got us a new car later that day (all they charged us for was a full tank of gas).  I spent the day feeling stupid and we wasted what was supposed to be a fun day in Jerez tasting sherry.

Backstory: When I was an undergrad at McMaster University (’72 to ’76) I was introduced to sherry by one of my biology professors Dr. Davidson who became my mentor (what one might call a “life coach” these days).  He would host an annual Sherry Party in his condo full of modern art and Persian rugs for graduate students each year. As the President of the undergraduate Biology Club, I got invited and loved the smooth sweet taste of sherry.  My sweet tooth thought I had died and gone to heaven.  I started to volunteer to work in Davidson’s lab in the summers, partly to learn more about biology and the life of a researcher, but also for those 5 o’clock glasses of sherry and lively debates he often hosted in his lab.

One of our best memories of our trip to Spain were the Easter processions. At first we thought it was the Ku Klux Klan the similarities in the costumes is scary.  

One of our best memories of our trip to Spain were the Easter processions. At first we thought it was the Ku Klux Klan the similarities in the costumes is scary.  

Metrovino

I first met Richard Harvey back in the mid 1980s when he was a partner with Janet Webb who opened one of Calgary’s first wine stores in the then brand new Glenmore Landing Shopping Centre (the Aspen Landing Shopping Centre of the ‘80s).  I used to hang out there every Friday for happy hour enjoying wine and chatting with Richard, Peggy (Peggy Perry the brains behind Willow Park Wine & Spirits), not the and Janet waiting for Brenda to return home from her job in Coaldale.

Metrovino's Sherry Corner. 

Metrovino's Sherry Corner. 

We will definitely be heading to Metrovino for their Sherry Festival that also included tapas from Ox and Angela, Char-Cut, bar C and the Bar Von Der Fels.  One of my fondest memories was enjoying a tapas dinner in Seville watching the sunset from a patio on the Guadalquivir River and wondering what was Christopher Columbus thinking when he said off from here to find the new world. 

Would going every night and see if we can taste all 27 Sherries that Harvey stocks be too boorish? We did after all, we miss out on a lot of sherry tasting in Jerez. 

I wonder if Harvey has Harvey’s Shooting Sherry, it was one of my favourites.  I think they stopped making it several years ago, maybe he has a bottle in the back. 

Richard Harvey is a urban flanuer who loves to where a beret. 

Richard Harvey is a urban flanuer who loves to where a beret. 

Last Word

Imagine $5 for sherry tasting, tapas and listening to Harvey’s storytelling.  Too good to be true; maybe I am still asleep and this is a dream. 

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Austin & Calgary: Sister Cities?

By the numbers, there are some amazing similarities between Austin and Calgary.  Both are young highly educated cities – Austin’s average age is 31 with 46% of Austinites having a postsecondary degree.  Calgary’s average age is 36, with 60% having postsecondary education.

Austin’s is a rapidly growing city. Its current population of 912,791 is growing by 150+ people a day.  Calgary with a population of 1,200,000 was the fastest growing city in Canada according to Stats Canada – growing 13% (from 2006 to 2011).

Like Calgary, Austin is young and active.  This is the pedestrian bridge over the Lady Bird Lake, aka Colorado River with Austin's 2nd Avenue condos in the background that look very much like Calgary's East Village. 

Like Calgary, Austin has a downtown skatepark, not as large as Calgary's but it definitely attracts some talented athletes. 

Calgary's Peace Bridge, designed by world famous bridge architect Santiago Calatrava is a popular playground for Calgary's young and restless. 

Love Their Rivers

Both Austinites and Calgarians love their rivers - the Colorado River and Barton Creek in Austin and the Bow and Elbow Rivers in Calgary.  Both cities have very busy river pathway systems packed with walkers, cyclists and runners when weather permits (not too cold in Calgary and not too hot in Austin). 

Austin's river pathways are very popular on weekends. 

It is very common in Austin to see boats of all types in Lady Bird Lake...in the distance is a fishing boat. 

Calgarians love their green beaches like this one in Stanley Park. 

Fishing on the Bow River in Calgary.  

River surfing on the Bow River. 

In the summer, thousands of Calgarians raft on the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary. 

Party Towns

Austin’s infamous SXSW, a huge 10-day film, music, interactive media technology festival / trade show / conference generates $411 CDN million into the city’s economy in 2015 and attracted 140,000 participants.

By comparison, the 10-day Calgary Stampede annually attracts over 1 million (350,000 being out-of-town visitors) for concerts, rodeo, chuckwagon races, grandstand show, midway rides and agricultural exhibition.  Its annual economic impact is estimated at $350 CDN million.

Austin's Kite festival is an amazing site and a fun family party. 

Look carefully and you will see that most of the people are dressed up as they have just participated in Calgary's POW - Parade of Wonder as part of Calgary Expo aka Comic-Con. 

Music Cities

Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” with 100+ live music venues and its world famous Austin City Lights music program.  Everybody gets into hosting live music in Austin from grocery stores to the airport.

The City’s historic music district is downtown along East 6th St. a grungy street resembles Calgary’s Electric Avenue (11th Ave) back in the ‘80s.  Home to numerous loud and seedy bars, as well as the 1929 Ritz theatre, it is more a tacky tourist street than a serious music district.  Today, the best music venues are in neighbourhoods outside of downtown.

Calgary is in its infancy as an emerging international music city boasting an International Folk Festival, SLED Island as well as numerous smaller emerging music festivals. Calgary has only a handful of live music venues and only a few that offer live music 7 days a week.  (Some of Austin’s venues offer 3 acts a day - happy hour, headliner and midnight band.)  The opening of the National Music Centre will definitely enhance our city’s reputation internationally.

Stephen Avenue is Calgary’s equivalent to Austin’s East 6th Avenue as downtown’s primary pedestrian oriented street.  However, Stephen Avenue is a more attractive and diverse street with its mix of shops, restaurants, concert and performance theatres, art house cinema and restored historical buildings. 

Just one of hundreds of live music venues in Austin offering a plethora of genres of music. 

Calgary's Tim Williams at the Blues Can. Williams won the International Blues Competition in 2014. 

Urban Living

Urban living in Austin is booming.  Although the current downtown population is only 12,000 it has been growing rapidly with 6,832 condos and apartments built since 2000 and another 2,000 currently under construction.  

However, this pales in comparison to Calgary’s 36,000 urban dwellers.  Urban living is also booming in Calgary with almost 15,000 new residential units since 2000 and 2,200 under construction.

Austin’s budding 2nd Street urban village, looks amazingly similar to Calgary’s East Village with several shinny new high-rise white condo towers, a new library and City Hall and sprinkling of shops, Whole Foods and Trader Joes grocery stores and a signature pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Austin’s 82,000 downtown employees work in 9 million square feet of office space (1.3 million square ft. under construction), 7,800 hotel rooms (2,140 under construction) and hundreds of restaurants, retailers and bars in 1.9 million square feet of commercial space.

By comparison, Calgary City Centre (downtown and Beltline) roughly the same size as Austin’s downtown) has 150,000+ employees occupying over 40 million square feet of offices, 4,000 hotel rooms (500 under construction) and 1,000+ retailers and restaurants in whopping 6.4 million square feet.

Downtown Austin has no department store, indoor mall or shopping street; shopping is scattered all over the place.  Austin has nothing to match Calgary’s historic Bay Store, Holt Renfrew or the stunning The CORE shopping centre. 

Austin also lacks a contiguous historic district like Stephen Avenue or Inglewood. However, Austin does a much better job of animating its downtown corners with outdoor patios, rather than the banks and office lobbies dominating Calgary’s corners.

A view of downtown Austin from South Congress aka SoCo.  SoCo is a an eclectic pedestrian street (despite being a major road) with shops, restaurants, music venues, great patios and numerous permanent food trucks on empty lots. 

Austin's 2nd Avenue District is blooming as an urban village with new condos, two grocery stores and shops. 

Austin's condo skyline. 

The Core in downtown Calgary is a three block long indoor shopping mall with 1 hectare indoor garden.  

Stephen Avenue is Calgary's downtown Main Street and a National Historic District linking the Olympic Plaza Cultural District with the Financial District.  Austin has nothing like Calgary's iconic Hudson Bay department store. 

Urban Street Life

Austin’s hip street is SoCo (South Congress Avenue), which, like Calgary’s Kensington Village, is on the other side of the river from downtown.  Even with South Congress Avenue’s six lanes of traffic, it supports a vibrant street life with a great mix of shops, restaurants, bars and live music venues.

What makes SoCo outstanding is its outdoor culture.  Austin’s climate allows Austinites to play outdoors year-round – there are patios everywhere, live music is played on the front lawns and empty lots and food trailers occupy what would be surface parking lots in Calgary.   Every weekend SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere!

Kensington’s container bar and a few outdoor patios pales in comparison. On the other hand, Kensington boasts a better café culture and more infill residential development.

While, SoCo provides Austinites with a vibrant street culture, it is the only game in town, with nothing to match Calgary’s 17th Ave, 11th Avenue or Inglewood.

On weekends Austin's SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere. 

Gueros on SoCo is famous for its free live entertainment. 

SoCo has numerous quirky shops. 

Austinites love their Tacos. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue is popular urban playground even in the winter; this photo was taken in February. 

Cafe Beano on 17th Avenue is perhaps where Calgary's cafe culture began back in the '80s. It is popular with both artists and CEOs. 

Analog Coffee on 17th Avenue the new kid on the block. 

Calgary's Kensington Village offers lots of urban surprises given its proximity to the Alberta College of Art and Design and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. 

One of the best surprises in Kensington Village is the Container Bar. 

Kensington Village is also home to Calgary's year-round flea market and summer farmers' market. 

Big Differences

The biggest difference between Austin and Calgary is in transit use.  We never saw Austin’s LRT and bus service is limited.   Thank God for car2go, which allowed us to explore Austin’s outlying business revitalization zones by day and music venues by night.

We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the upscale Clarksville community, which we thought would be convenient for walking. We quickly discovered sidewalks in poor condition (or non-existent), and very few streetlights making walking at night treacherous.

While there were some lovely homes, Austinites’ pride of home ownership seems much lower than in Calgary’s inner-city communities – even desirable neighbourhoods have lots of unkept properties, weed-infested lawns and gardens and crumbling sidewalks.

Calgary has one of the busiest Light Rapid Transit systems in North America. 

Austinites love to dance - as soon as the music starts people get up and dance. 

Austin condos have above ground parkades like this one, whereas Calgary condos and office buildings have their parking underground. 

Downtown Calgary has 40 million square feet of office space, making it one of the top 10 in North America, compared to Austin's 10 million square feet. 

Last Word

In my humble opinion, after visits to Austin and Portland (considered by many urbanists as two of the best emerging urban cities) Calgary offers as many - or more - urban amenities.

Unfortunately, Calgary continues to fly under the radar with planners and tourists as an emerging urban playground. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "City Scenes: Austin vs Calgary," June 11, 2018

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Hamilton's Art Crawl is indeed super!

For the past 20+ years art galleries across North America have been creating annual art walks, First (or Last or Second) Thursday (or Friday) events as a means of encouraging the public to come out and experience the local visual art scene.  I have experienced dozens of them across North America, but nothing had prepared me for what I would experience on Friday May 13.

May 13, 2016 was a lucky day for me - I got to experience Hamilton’s Art Crawl and event that takes place the second Friday of every month along James Street North (JSN).  I have visited JSN for several years, watching it evolve from a street stuck in the ‘40s and’50s to a quirky street of quirky, cool street of eclectic galleries, restaurants and boutiques, void of the usual revitalization gentrification. 

It is indeed a crawl along the James Street South's sidewalks during Art Crawl. 

James Street North's Art Crawl Maker's Market is located in front yard of Christ's Church Cathedral.  I was surprised that there was a service going on during the Art Crawl.  

Jane Jacobs would love James Street North with all of its tiny shops offering a diversity of things to see and do. 

No Gentrification 

There is no Starbucks, no Tim Hortons, no Shoppers Drug Mart, no boutique hotel or new condos. Instead, the former “Little Portugal” is being repopulated by new “mom and pop” businesses.

The tipping point for JSN’s comeback was in 2005 or 2006 (nobody is quite sure the exact date), when a couple of the new art galleries that had opened up decided to stay open late on the second Friday of every month.  The experiment was popular and it has just built from there.

Facebook: James Street South Art Crawl

Hamilton Jewellers has been on James Street South for over 70 years.

Colourful storefronts and street adornment create a funky hip pedestrian experience along James Street North. 

Morgenstern's department store is a walk back in time to the '40s and '50s. 

Mulberry's Coffeehouse is JSS's signature cafe and patio. 

Ghost town to Extravaganza

Earlier that day, my Mom and I wandered JSN, which was pretty much deserted, but as we left late in the afternoon, we could saw people starting to arrive with tables and artwork.  My Mom said, “Oh, I forgot. Tonight is Art Crawl.”  Lucky my Mom lives just a few blocks away so later that evening (9 pm to be exact), I headed down to check it out. 

As soon as I crossed Main Street (two blocks away) I heard the urban buzz of people chattering and street music. Quickly, I was engulfed in one of the best sidewalk ballets I have experienced anywhere.  I estimate 15,000+ people were wandering up and down the sidewalks, checking out the street vendors, going in and out of shops and stopping to listen to some of the busker music and dancing. It was like I was back on the streets of Mexico City. There was a fun festival spirit that isn’t usually associated with art walks which usually attracts the reserved, wine-sipping sophisticates.

I couldn’t believe how the sleepy street had been transformed from an afternoon ghost town to evening extravaganza.

This fun chair created a fun urban playground during Art Crawl. 

One of the many art galleries along James Street South. 

Art Crawl offers a wonderful diversity of art. 

The art ranges from contemporary to decorative. 

SuperCrawl 

In September, JSN is closed to traffic for the annual SuperCrawl which attracts over 100,000 people to a weekend festival of visual art and music that is a smash-up of local and international artists.

The transformation of JSS from Little Portugal to a hip arts district has not gone unnoticed. It has captured the attention of New York City-based Projects For Public Spaces (founded in 1975 by William Whyte, author of the seminal public spaces book “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”) as one of best examples of how artists and art can transform a neglected space into something special. 

These ladies just had to dance to the music. 

The proud owner of a new painting just had to have his picture taken with his new acquisition. 

Last Word

If you are in the Hamilton area on a second Friday, I strongly encourage you to take in JSN Art Crawl.  And if you are into the visual arts, music and fun festivals, mark your calendar to be in Hamilton September 9 to 11, 2016. 

Indeed, Hamilton is more than Tim Hortons and the Ti-cats!

Street art adds another dimension to JSS's reputation as one of Canada's best art districts. 

Everyday Tourist Visits Calgary Expo 2016

While I am not into comics, action heroes, video games or fantasy, I was an early fan of the Big Bang Theory TV show.  As a result, by osmosis I have become very curious about cosplay and the comic-con culture.  

Calgary Expo (our comic-con convention and trade show) has grown exponentially since its inception in 2006.  Today it is the second largest in Canada with attendance exceeding 100,000 people.  

As an everyday tourist, how could I not go this year and see for myself what our Calgary Expo is all about.

Day 1

I was in "people watching" heaven with all of the costumes and displays. There were smiles everywhere and everyone loved to get their picture taken.  The Calgary Expo has many interesting elements - a mini film festival, educational workshops, autograph and photo opportunities with your favourite fantasy character.

After people watching for an hour or so, I headed to the lecture halls and found a Special Effects Cosplay Photography with Vancosplay workshop. This was way out the universe I operate in, but I did get a couple of good tips on some software that I might play with.  Always learn something! 

Next I checked out the short film "Downtime" about a frustrated husband desperate for some downtime, who heads out on an impromptu fishing trip.  It probably won't win any awards but it was interesting to watch.

I missed the "How to Nerd-provise! An Improve Workshop" which would have been fun, I have always enjoyed improv and have been curious about giving it a try. This would have been the perfect opportunity. 

I did attend the "Conversational Klingon: Express Yourself in a ConLand" class by Joseph Windsor  a University of Calgary PHD student.  I had no clue what he was talking about, but the audience loved it.  

The big surprise of the day was having Canada Post at the end of the Klingon lecture unveil two new Star Trek posters.  I am a sucker for surprises. 

It is all about the kids!

The highlight of day one were the children who seemed to be in awe at what they were seeing. 

Day 2 POW: Parade of Wonder 

Day 2 began with everyone gathering at the Eau Claire Plaza starting at 9 am to register, make final costume adjustments and to take lots of pictures.

Again, everyone was keen to have their picture taken, it was an urban photographer's heaven. 

The route went from Eau Claire Plaza, north on 3rd Street SW to Stephen Avenue Walk, where it proceeded east to Olympic Plaza for the Calgary Expo Official Opening by the Mayor. 

The parade lasted about 20 minutes and everyone seemed very pleased - those who watched and those who walked. I think the photos speak for themselves. 

The downtown air was electric with excitement!

The Parade on Stephen Ave.

Olympic Plaza Calgary Expo Opening 

Last Word

Day 3 and 4 were were amazing with thousands of colourful characters of all ages, shapes and sizes animating Stampede Park like I have never seen it before.  

The lectures and panel discussions were very interesting with talks about everything from the Zombie Apocalypse by two University of Calgary professors, to a discussion of Cosplay and body image.  The panel discussion with Jackie Cruz and Lea Delaria of Orange is the New Black to a standing room only audience at the Boyce Theatre, was one of the best improv comedy shows I have seen in years. 

For an urban guy who loves colour, street animation and people the Calgary Expo is now near the top of my list of my favourite Calgary festivals. I love that it attracts people of all ages and from all walks of life. 

I also love how it animated Stampede Park and demonstrated to me how the Park is truly a community park and not just about the 10 days of Stampede.   

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