Thursday, 31 July 2014

A World of Flavour: A Culinary Journey of Kebabs from Dublin to Vienna

Much has been made of historic sites, beautiful monuments and urban design in my other posts, sometimes it's a little hard to digest all of that. It may seem to the untrained eye that I raced from place to place only looking at the width of sidewalks, the diversity of land use patterns and ranted about the lack of trams in North America.

I did do that. But not on an empty stomach.

Kebabs, Döners, "Viet Boxes", coffees, kaffees and cappuccinos were all consumed en masse to varying degrees of effect.

I present to you my culinary journey through Europe.

Ireland puts up a strong showing. The street kababs in the back alleys of Dublin are some of the best I have ever tasted, although the hefty amounts of Guinness may have contributed to the satisfaction a little. Kebabs here are comparable to Canadian schwarmas, full of sweet sauces, vegetables and savoury chicken in a thin pita. Perfect.

There is a small breakfast sandwich shop on Purnell Street in central Dublin, a tiny walk-in window with green paint trim. Get a breakfast sandwich on white bread. Sliced sausage, cheese and a friend egg. The best things for Guinness-fuelled hangovers ever and an affordable option at only 2.20€.

Coffee was another matter in Ireland. As many know, coffee in Europe is not the drip-style coffee as it is in Canada. Usually a small, strong expresso-type coffee is found. Ireland had something else on the trains featuring "long-life milk" of questionable quality but reassuringly labels itself as "taste like fresh milk". Helps with hangovers so it wasn't too undrinkable:

In Ennis, in western Ireland at the Queens Hotel I had a perfect Irish breakfast; complete with blood sausage, fried egg and a scoop of toast and potato cakes. Nicely done Ireland (sorry no pictures).

The reputation proceeds France. A master of the culinary experience, it is a country of artisanal bakeries and pastry chefs.

Stereotypes are often true.

Upon arriving in Rennes, we met Justine, owner of our railway hotel. When asked if we would like the hotel breakfast we waffled and said if we could decide in the morning. Aghast, Justine proceeded to explain she needed to call her baker tonight to get the bread fresh in the morning, she also needed to call the farm she gets her eggs from and her favourite pastry chef for desert. Three people to make one hotel breakfast. The focus on quality is unlike anywhere else.

Dinners were amazing, crêpes at train stations were amazing, coffee was amazing.

Kebabs? Not amazing. For some reason the meat is off and the French inexplicably put French fries in the kebab which turns a complex, savoury delicious bomb into a heavy, dry, deep fried 2,000 calorie mess.

C'est la vie.

Waffles. That is all.

Buy them on the street from a stand for 1€ and then go back and buy five more. Sweet and soft, one of the best foods I have eaten from a cart.

A welcome respite during my stay at my friend Sophie's apartment, I are like a regular human for a week. We made traditional pannekoeken - Dutch style pancakes - which are a cross between a thicker fluffier Canadian pancake and a French crêpe. Savoury and delicious.

The main event is cheese. By Canadian standards, cheese is free. Better taste, more choices and 4 to 5 times less expensive on every type of cheese; whether it be the 200 year old artisanal cheese maker shop or the Albert Heilj grocery store, it's simply better and cheaper in every way.

"Ein Döner bitte." (A Döner please) Is a phrase you should learn. Döners are a bit of a variation off of a donair or pita wrap type street food. Ask for spicy and Weiss (white) sauce.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Döner:

Perfect. Similar but different in Munich:

Look for all you would expect: frankfurters, weiss sausages and many assortments of sausages and potatoes. Leberkäse, a thick-sliced pork ham sandwich with mustard is popular in Munich. Very good.

Also look for "Viet boxes" in Germany, the saltiest version of Vietnamese food that comes in a box to walk with. I discovered this during an ill-fated seach for Vietnamese pho soup that is so common in Canada. 

Viet boxes are closer Canadian Chinese food than what we would call Vietnamese food. My suspicion is that Germany is relatively new to Vietnamese and Asian cuisine so they simplified the menu for German audiences. Disgustingly salty, but will do in a pinch. 

Döner obviously, with a unique Austrian flair. Note the lack of a spicy sauce replaced by chilli flakes and the Weiss sauce on the outer edge of the bun instead of deep inside. Whoever said Austria and Germany are practically the same place? The diversity is outstanding:

Austria redefines coffee and desserts. At Café Mozart at Hotel Sacher in central Vienna I enjoyed a Melanche - a Viennese-style coffee with foamed milk served with a glass of water - and a Sachertorte à la Sacher - the delicious chocolate cake style invented in the Sacher Hotel in the 1800s. Along with he scenic background of marble landmarks and beautiful museums it was a tasty highlight. And by highlight I mean the best dessert I have ever eaten:

Another thing that Vienna offered, begrudgingly I might add, was my Pho soup. After 30 or so days on the road, I finally have a taste of home:

Austria wasn't finished there.

Veal Wiener Schnitzel. Expensive, but a must eat after a 25 kilometre walking day. Filling and savoury ( a trend in Austrian/German cooking I find):

Best of all was a dish called Kalbsbutter schnitzel mit Erdäpfelpüree or veal meatballs with mashed potatoes. Off the charts tasty, so much flavour and spice in the meat. Easily the best dish so far:

In Innsbruck, I enjoyed speckknödel mit ein knödel ( bacon potato dumpling soup with one dumpling) . A fortifying but somewhat bland soup with a giant dumpling in it. Luckily it was served at the top of a mountain I had hiked up so the meal was still memorable:

Even for myself, eventually even the tastiest of kebabs and Döners gets tiring and I was forced to cook for myself a few days; no easy task in sketchy hostel kitchens where there is a bizarre assortment of equipment and utensils to make a dish with. I did manage a little penne with a homemade garlic and basil red wine tomato sauce complete with sautéed onions and browned green pepper. The whole meal cost 4€, including the bottle of wine. 

Not too bad for the hungry urban explorer of Europe. I wish I could cook that cheaply at home!

Innsbruck, Austria - Sophistication in the Alps

After Vienna, I travelled three hours by train to the smaller city of Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. I enjoyed two melanges on the train, the traditional Viennese coffee that is the regular cup of expresso with a milk foam of sorts poured on top. I had been warned that this was a specifically Viennese drink and would be cut off from it in most other places even within Austria. I went for the second cup and arrived in Innsbruck a bit more jittery and sweaty than normal.

Train-travel sophistication. A cup of melange at 240km/h:

A city of some 120,000 people, Innsbruck is the smallest city since Arras, France I have stayed in - a pleasant change from the big cities of the past few weeks.

The city sits in a very low valley at an altitude of some 500m. The mountain ranges on all sides aren't particularly tall by Canadian Rocky standards, however they have almost twice the prominence (look bigger) than the mountains around Canmore, Alberta because the valley is so much lower. They are quite striking - but often shrouded by cloud.

Think of Innsbruck as much like Canmore, but with no pick-up trucks, no million dollar McMansions and a public transit system that rivals Vancouver:

A problem soon emerges: due to the size of the city, I vastly underestimated the ease of finding a hostel without a reservation. A few tries at ones near the central station were greeted with laughter, not a good sign for the wayward  traveller. I walked nearly 30 minutes to the edge of the city to find a hostel that was full as well. I met two Spainards in the same situation and between the the three of us we convinced the staff to allow us to convert the luggage room into a temporary dorm for a paltry (or expensive depending on how you look at it) 12€ / night. Problem solved!

The view from the hostel makes it all worth it:

After a good nights rest - a debatable fact due to being forced to eat dinner with my new Spanish friends at the "regular" 11pm followed by a lengthy argument about which type of bears are the best with some Koreans (hint stop what you are doing and google Korean Bears, they are the best) - I was ready to tackle the mountains the following morning.

This being the Alps, most of my choices allowed easy cable car access to aid my decent. Again, Europe doesn't know how to do anything without sophistication.

I chose to tackle the Hafelekarspitze, a 2,300m mountain to the north highly visible from Innbruck.

Here it is from the bottom. You may just be able to make out a small white chalet three-quarters of the way up the mountain, that is a cable car stop:

Access to the base of the climb is granted from the centre of the city by an underground funicular railway - specially designed to handle steep slopes - that is an impressive work of engineering and architecture for a city the size of Red Deer. Red Deer barely knows what a bike-lane is, let alone a tram and funicular- filled rapid transit utopia like Innsbruck. Perhaps I'll finish slamming Red Deer in a future post.

A brisk four hour walk led me to the top just as the clouds and mists parted:


To the north:

An excellent coffee at the summit cafe (see sophistication) and I was down by a very expensive cable car ride of 19€. No discount for the 1,400m I climbed to get here unfortunately:

Innsbruck is quite sleepy as one would expect. I used the tram to get around, a brilliant idea in every city. I have seen few that are better setup than Innsbruck's due to it's simplicity.

Take the stations for starters. Simple, effective and cheap. Nothing more than a next stop time display, seats and a ticket machine. The design shares the stop with buses and is the only part of the network that prohibits cars from driving on the tracks:

It's the small details that set it apart. One thing is the off-board ticket machines. 1.60€ for a 90-minute ticket while 2€ if you buy from the driver on-board. It encourages efficiency and makes all but the most clueless tourists buy from the machine instead of the driver, allowing her to continue driving, speeding the journey up dramatically. Think how much faster taking the bus in Calgary would be if everyone could board at any door, and the ticket prices encourage you to buy off the vehicle allowing the driver to proceed to the next stop very quickly instead of hand out transfers. Currently there is no discount of buying off vehicle in Calgary, nor is all door boarding allowed, creating unnecessary long queues to jam into the single door on front and each pay the driver individually. 

The trams are about half the size of a three-car LRT in Calgary, but hold substantially more people than even an articulated bus. The have next stop information displays, live maps and notifications on which side the tram's doors will open at the next station. A view inside the tram:

The 30 minute walk from the central station to the hostel takes 7 minutes on the tram - and the vehicle never exceeds 30 - 40 km/h. It is able to achieve this by using these low cost, efficiency improvements everywhere it can, rather than the traditional and expensive way of separating the transit line from everything else. It is also quiet enough that it runs down narrow residential streets and navigates tight turns of the inner city as easy as any bus, giving it much better access to where people actually live than a station built in a freeway median like many in Calgary.

The tram arrived every 5-10 minutes throughout the day and evening, providing rapid transit to this tiny city. As if that wasn't enough night service is provided. Here is a excerpt from the transit company's website:

"Round-the-clock operations for you:

For all those who are on the move through the night or who have late work shifts, there is an IVB night service. The Nightliner, the ASTI telephone group taxi and the Women’s Nighttime Taxi bring you home quickly, safely and inexpensively, no matter what the hour."

Imagine any transit organization that puts that much effort and focus on individuals of all demographics and needs; not just the regular 9-5 crowd.

Sophistication. In a city the size of Red Deer. Amazing.

Now I won't have to slam Red Deer in a future post. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Vienna - A City that Wants You

Vienna - Wien if you're In the German-speaking part of the world - is a spectacular city. It has more monuments, marble and more landmarks than most new countries have combined. Until the Berlin reunification, Vienna was the largest German speaking city in the world of nearly 2 million inhabitants. While it currently has nowhere near the level geo-political prominence in world affairs the city enjoyed in the 17th to 19th centuries, Vienna still impresses with an attitude of greatness; both past and present.

Coming from Munich is around three and a half hours by train, reaching up to 240km/h. Austrian trains are some of the best I have seen so far: clear English and German announcements, a digital map that shows where you are travelling in real-time, and a live speedometer (which is why I can provide the extra tid-bit of information). Smooth and spectacular all the way into Wien Westbahnhof, followed by a 20 minute walk to the old city.

10€ ($15 CAD) and five minutes after walking off the train I had 10GBs of data for my phone. The irony really hits that I am currently paying $75 CAD this past month for 1 GB of data in Canada that I have no way of using. The day of reckoning will come for the Canadian telecom companies and I would love to be there to see it through. Alas, I will not be leading the charge on that fight; I have urban planning and design to rant about.

Back on point: Vienna is spectacular. Here are a few sights you will see in a matter of  minutes from one of the many central plazas and public spaces:

~900 year old St. Stephens Cathedral in central Wien:


Hofburg Palace and the adjoining complex of incredible halls and government buildings:


This 10-metre tall Maria Theresia Statue:

Streets that look like this in every direction:

The kooky, mid-1980s designed Hundertwasser Haus:

The list goes on and on. Connecting all of this the Vienna U-Bahn, the subway system. Trains come all day and 24 hours on weekend nights at a frequency of every five or eight minutes on five lines. Nowhere in the city is more than five minute walk from a metro station and no place is really more than 20 - 30 minutes apart in total travel time using the metro. Signage is perfect, there are system maps on every conceivable surface in the trains, and lines are colour-coded and numbered to avoid any chance of confusion. I could not think of anything that would make the system easier to use. Believe me, I tried!

The train system was also unique in that it attempted to run schedules around what people actually do, as opposed to what would be easier for the transit operator to provide. For example, every Friday and Saturday night is 24-hour rapid transit service because it is the night that most people go out to the thousands of restaurants, clubs and venues crowding the streets of the inner city. There is no nightly transit service in most Canadian cities and many actually reduce the level of service of their transit system on the weekend, even though the demand from revellers and employees of the "night-economy" is at it's highest.

This same approach is used on public holidays where Vienna runs more trains not less. Again the assumption here is that lots of people are going out on the town to celebrate with family and friends and therefore they need a ride home. Vienna is happy to oblige. 

This is indicative of a broader trend in many European cities compared to Canada. There is an assumption that public services like transit and infrastructure are for everyone, not just some idealized version of what people are "supposed" to do. Back in Calgary, Calgary Transit has been successful at catering to the downtown workforce, but have been less successful at catering to the wider community that is not always business hours focused. Quality of transit service is also allowed to be worse for the general public in areas like reliability, wait-times and frequency. Vienna there is no such assumption. The idea is that everyone, in any part of the city, has the right to efficient mobility on public transit. It is not treated as a second-class service to car traffic. 

One more thing on transit: an express train from the airport is billed at taking 16 minutes from there to a central U-Bahn stop. 16 minutes. Ridiculous.

My favourite part of Vienna:
Museum Quarter is a spectacular chain of plazas and walkways that link between a few dozen - I know, only a few dozen? It's like they aren't even trying - museums and cultural institutions from art to dance to music to architecture and more.

A view of in the daytime looking at MUMOK, Vienna's grey, ultra-modern shrine to contemporary art:

The Museum Quarter is billed as one of the largest cultural facilities in the world. It is tied together with thousand of open seats and irregular blue-block street furniture - in the foreground of the picture above. Unlike Calgary, Amsterdam, Berlin and many others places, there is an incredible focus on creating public seating. It is everywhere you look and Wieners use it at all times of the day. Imagine seats lining the CPR underpasses between downtown Calgary and the Beltline neighbourhood. There are countless seats lining every park and path as well as on nearly all sidewalks and side streets. If there is ever a city that wants to encourage people to slow down and linger in it's public spaces, Vienna is it.

Calgary is certainly emulating designing public spaces in this way. The much-beloved Prince's Island Park is covered in benches and picnic sites, grassy knolls for Shakespeare in the Park performances, and rocks to sit and contemplate with the babble of the Bow in your ears. The newest edition to the city centre pathway network, the East Village River Walk builds on these ideas that Vienna does so well, offering benches and lookouts frequently with the high-quality level of design any great city deserves.

Most amazingly about Vienna's Museum Quarter is the shift in the atmosphere at night-time. It becomes one of the strangest and most interesting public spaces places I have ever seen. Starting around sunset, young and old Wieners come to the plazas to hang out. Many bring 24-packs (!) of beer and lounge all over the square. The lounging takes the form of  a lean on the wall, benches, street furniture, on the ground. Thousands of more people are hanging out in the cafés and bars of the museums even though the museums actually closed hours before.

The view of a reflecting pool in front of one of the museum-cafés:

MUMOK has free contemporary art films playing on a giant screen in one corner of the plaza. They give out wireless headphones to listen over the noise of the crowd: 

The most amazing thing about the Museum Quarter's night-life is this is for nothing. There are no festivals or youthful party bars nearby. People literally come here just to sit, chat, drink and have a good time. You'll never see the fences of beer gardens or patios, everyone simply walks around with their drink and their 24-pack (!) of beer and sit anywhere they want. You'll also see no alcohol-related problems and no police presence. It doesn't clear out until the early morning, approaching 3AM. 

Vienna is exemplary of how cities should build their public spaces. It might be one of the best in the world. Policies are put in place to encourage personal freedom and choice, not limiting freedom to use public space as if sitting in a plaza is a bad thing. No pouring out your drink if a policeman walks up, no anger or hostility of any kind. It is perfect.

I have more to show, but that's all for now - I haven't even described the public showing of famous Viennese opera films in front of the city hall; complete with food of all types and beer in the glass. An actual pint glass you can walk anywhere with in an enormous plaza of architectural marvels and thousands of people.

No plastic utensils here and high-priced food nonsense. Real food like the Kalbsbutter Schnitzel mit Erdäpfelpüree below (loosely translated as veal meatballs with a mashed potato purée):

Rathausplatz, where the films, food and beer is consumed:

In some parts of the world even indoor nightclubs and bars will refuse to give out glass-ware and utensils out of fear of violence, damage and broken glass.

Treat people like animals and they will act like them!

Vienna will do no such thing. It goes above and beyond other cities to prove that you are welcome here. Come and see it. Vienna is waiting for you.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Cycling in Amsterdam

First in a series of Amsterdam-focused posts. I had the fortune to stay with a Dutch friend in central Amsterdam for an entire week. My thoughts, feelings and rants about this fascinating city and it's unusual relationship with bicycles:

One of the first things a Canadian will notice exiting Amsterdam Centraal Station is bicycles. Not just a few bicycles, but more than in even the most bike friendly areas of Canada. Many, many hundreds of times more. It is not an exaggeration to say that every wall, post andrailing is covered at least one bicycle deep for kilometres in every direction. The Dutch have gone big to solve this problem and bicycle parking garages are common at all stations for the seemingly endless volume of velos:

The Bicycles

Unlike the bikes that are appearing during the renaissance of cycling in North America, few are new. Most are weathered, best-up, rusted and held together by bits of string and tape. 

This is the beauty I was riding on during my week in Amsterdam. Note the rust, plastic-bag seat, string to hold the kick-stand up, lack of hand-brakes (back-pedal/drag feet is most common) and single-gear configuration. The bike makes all sorts of squealing, clicking and screeching as it moves; enough to send the amateur Canadian cyclist to the repair shop immediately. Not the case for the bicycle-hardened Dutch. If it has two wheels and rolls, good enough. This is a very common quality of ride and must give Amsterdam amongst the least pretentious cycling cultures in the world:

There is little appreciation for expensive bicycles here; both because cycling is seen as just a way to get around so it's not exciting and that the risk of bike theft weighs heavily on decisions to get a nice bicycle. As Amsterdam is a global-leader for cycling, so too is it a leader in bicycle thefts.

Most bikes operate on a two lock system: a giant rusty chain as the main lock and a second built in lock that requires the key to be in it to be open and allow the wheel to roll:

Curiously, it is also completely normal to not lock the bicycle to anything. Most bikes are simply leaning on a wall with their chains locked around themselves. I suspect that there aren't even close to enough racks or poles in the entire city to lock them to anyways, so people just got used to it. 

Typical Amsterdam scene. Note the bicycles in this picture. Also note that it's much harder to take a picture of this city without a bicycle in it than one with a bicycle photo-bombing it:

The Roads

Stepping onto a bike in a foreign country can be a nerve-racking experience. While more than confident at cycling itself - I use my own Calgary bike a few times per day - I was a little hesitant around the rules of the road.

Will chaos and aggression reign as in Calgary? Will cars aim to force you to speed up or aggressively follow you closely to intimidate you off the road? Both are daily experiences in Calgary and highlight the amateur attitude that the general public has towards cycling. 

Amsterdam, unsurprisingly, couldn't be more different. Every road has a hierarchy with bicycles on top. Bicycles have their own signals at every street, their own lanes or separated areas away from cars and pedestrians. Unusually, people often cycle side by side in a single lane so they can chat while riding. This is completely acceptable at any speed, a simple bell or horn is needed to alert side-by-side riders if you are passing and they will casually allow you to. No aggression, no attitude.

A common simple road setup:

Another popular form of street design has the bicycle lanes separated into a lane on either side of the road, split off by a curb / bike parking / street furniture. These roads give priority to bicycles in most cases. So as a pedestrian you would look to cross the bike lane, wait on  a sidewalk to cross the auto/tram lanes, then wait again to cross the next bike lane. By "wait" I mean that in the loosest terms; no tickets for jaywalking, you simply wait until you want to cross the next section. It's simple, puts the onus on all road users to watch and be safe vs. try to regulate everything with signals, timers and fines. This laissez-faire approach works much better and keeps wait-times to a minimum even to cross the busiest roads.

Also unheard of in Canada: scooters in the bike lanes. All sorts of small scooters are seen everywhere taking advantage of the lanes. They hardly travel faster than bicycles and never appear to be a safety issue. They are more popular than cars, but still are overwhelmed by the amount of bicycles.

The Attitude

Cycling is seen as a very different thing in Amsterdam compared to Canada. It is not a hobby or recreation, it is simply something you do; no more unusual than driving is in any North American suburb. Everyone does it; it is common to see both the very old and the young riding around on even the busiest streets.

As it is seen as so normal people will cycle in all weather; rain, heat and the occasional snow.

The speed is slower too, there are no Lycra-wearing speeders harassing everyone going slower than then. It's more relaxed and casual.

How casual? Here are some items I saw carried while riding. there is many more but this is all I can remember from yesterday:

- Cell phones (both texting and calling)
- Bags of groceries
- children ( the record I saw was 4 on one bike, 1 on the handle bars, two sitting on the back rack. No fancy child seats either)
- yoga mats
- chairs
- a kitchen table for 4
- other bicycles (very common actually)
- ice cream
- schwarmas
- pizza boxes
- 12 packs of beer

All of this is done with no helmets or any other safety gear.

Ridiculous !

Lesson for Calgary & for Calgary cyclists trying to change the world:

Infrastructure is important. Calgary needs dedicated lanes to support cycling and alternative modes of transportation for cars. That is a reality in a world of finite space and increasing density and land use intensity in the inner city. Things like lanes , lights and places to lock up are crucial to the backbone of a cycling network.

Amsterdam taught me infrastructure isn't the only thing. Calgary needs less combative cyclists, more assertive ones. We need cyclists that aren't afraid to bicycle with a 6-pack of beer or carry a pizza or an extra person. We need cyclists who do not wear helmets and are comfortable holding their own on the streets where they have just as much right to be there as any other. We need to slow down, stop playing the race with the cars. We need to set the pace.

Next time you head to 17th Avenue for a pint, remind yourself that bicycle parking is free, you can park right out front and you look much cooler that the idiot in the F-350 truck that takes 3 tries to parallel park.

Don't wait until your next trip to Amsterdam to try cycling like you're there.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Arras & Vimy Ridge - France

After a transfer through the chaotic mega-hub also known as Paris, I boarded a TGV train to Arras, a brief 45 minute trip of 175 (!) kilometres.

Arras is a large town of ~50,000 people. One of its primary distinctions - for Canadians and others - is that both world wars (and a few other wars before that) occurred in and around the town. The horror and destruction that one area of the world has seen begins to set in; there are signs for monuments and graveyards all around the area.

A view of the Arras town square:


Around 10 kilometres from Arras lies the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, paying tribute to those lost in the World War I battle that plays a large part into Canada's historic identity. Taking a taxi up the hill into the forest the view changes. Maple trees are planted in rows all along Rue du Canada as it winds its way up to the momument above. 

Much of the site has been preserved as it was when the war ended. It is an eerie sight seeing grass covered bomb craters throughout the entire forest, every metre of space was changed. A forest - now a 90 year old one - has sprouted over much of the landscape adding to the surreal view:

The facility is a strange slice of Canada in the French countryside: government of Canada seals are all around, bilingualism is back in-effect, and Maple Leaf flags are all around.

The monument features restored trenches of both the Canadian and German lines, giving a taste of how close the two sides often found themselves in all the chaos.

View of the Canadian trench from a German one:

The preserved trenches:

After the trenches it was a misty walk along the maple-lined avenue to the monument itself. This is the first sign - of many - warning not to cross the fence into the woods due to risk of live ordinance being buried. Only narrow strips of the battlefield were ever cleared:

The monument rests on the highest point along the ridge in a large clearing allowing for a lengthy, pensive approach:

It was a breathtaking site. The white marble stood solemnly against the overcast skies.

Some 3,600 Canadians died the day of the battle in what was one of Canada's most important victories. It's a disgusting thought to think of what kind of sick logic calls such death a victory.

Along the bottom of the monument lies some 11,000 of Canada's unidentified dead. Names of soldiers never found circle the entire structure:

The view of the east side of the monument:

A grave rests at the bottom with a cloaked woman towering above. The woman is the largest single piece of the entire monument; a single 30-tonne, 4-metre high block carved out as a sorrowful young woman, representing a very young Canada mourning her dead:

The final site of the memorial is a graveyard for some of the Canadian and Commonwealth forces that perished that day. It was very difficult to read the names - if the tombstones had them - and the ages of those killed. Many are younger than myself at 26 years:

I think what privilege I have been given to be born firstly in an era where travel to places like Vimy is possible; but also what privilege I have personally to have the means, ability and opportunity to travel like I am. I am very fortunate.
A trip to Europe would have meant a very different thing 100 years ago for the 26-year-old Canadians buried here.
It's terrible that we need such grand and magnificent monuments to remind ourselves of why such violence and horror is inexcusable. Until war and injustice - in all its forms - are rooted out of human life altogether, I think places like Vimy are crucially important.

Hopefully a time will come where we won't need a place like this.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Rennes & Mont St. Michel - A First Taste of France

I flew direct from Dublin to Rennes, the capital of Brittany in France. A quick two-hour flight by turbo-prop again highlighted the vastness of distance that Canadians are so accustomed to but is much less common here. Ireland May as well be across the Atlantic, it seems so much farther away than the rest of Europe and is so small it seems like it doesn't get much attention from citizen on the main continent.

Departing from sunny Ireland over Dublin. Travellers Note: this is not the preferred seat on turbo-prop aircraft. Very loud and rumbly, with a constant morbid suspicion that if the propeller failed you would be the first to notice as pieces of it flew through the window. I'm not the best at flying:

Rennes is a smaller city of around 200,000 with a tiny airport and one EU passport control officer for the entire crew. Ireland is outside border-less zone so you must enter customs when arriving.

Despite being a smaller city, Rennes was incredible. A full metro system, bike share and bus rapid transit from the airport. If that wasn't enough all buses come equipped with "time to next stop" and "time to departure" clocks. Every bus stop has live next bus times and all necessary information for fares and other routes.

Time to departure screen:

It is clear that every aspect of society is designed for regular people in mind. Transport is cheap, pedestrians are protected at every intersection with "islands" between the two-direction traffic, bus lanes and bike lanes have priority at every road throughout the city. Most spectacularly - and a theme of Europe overall - the entire inner city is permanently or mostly permanently restricted to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. This allows enormously successful and welcoming public spaces and squares that attract everyone in the city.

The main square. Think Tompkins Park on 17th Ave in Calgary, but only in a city of 200,000 and add about 20 times the activity of a regular night. Why can't we emulate this in Calgary?:

Bars, cafés and restaurants pack the streets in the squares. Children play in the middle of the square until well past sunset, even on a Friday night. Safely designed streets isn't even a question; it is so obviously engrained that no one would expect otherwise. There is no conflict here between cars, transit, bicycles and pedestrians. People come first. Always.

Rennes Opera House:

Now the touristy stuff . Mont St. Michel!

Who doesn't love a mideval abbey/castle built on a lone rock outcropping in the sea hundreds of years ago?

Beautiful view from the top:

And they even had something for the urban planning / transit nerds out there. Double-sided buses(!!!):

The driver simple switches to the other end and starts driving. France is shaping up fantastically so far: with history, ridiculous buses and incredible pedestrian infrastructure what could go wrong?