Wise Woman Travel

Exploring the world from a female perspective

In more ways than one, it’s been the summer that never was.

In Edmonton, we’ve had very few days when we could enjoy eating on outdoor patios, lounging outside with a good book, or heading out to a favorite lake for a weekend camping trip. When it wasn’t wet, cold, and windy, brooding clouds hid the blue, blue Alberta skies, shortening our traditionally long summer evenings and forcing us to turn on our dining room lights to see our dinner plates.

My own summer had the added disappointment of a cancelled trip to the UK after my husband was injured in a cycling crash. While he convalesced, I tried to staycation, but ended up going back to work a week early to save my vacation time for something more exciting than watching the rain flood my flower pots.

So, today, when the skies stayed blue through the entire day, and the temperature reached a balmy 24C, I was determined to get home from work in time to enjoy an evening on my back deck. But I had to stay late at the office for a Skype call that never came and my bus took off without me in a huff of diesel just as I reached its back door. Muttering under my breath, I thought my precious summer evening on the deck had disappeared. But then, I looked across the street to the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald– and got an idea.

In one blink of a traffic light, I was climbing the Macdonald’s front stone steps and basking in the smile of its doorman. I was headed for some me- time and dinner on one of Edmonton’s most elegant patios.

I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of our one-in-a-row summer evening. Only a table for 5 was vacant, but the server told me to go ahead and take it, not batting an eye at my solo dining status. Classy. He then brought me their summer BBQ menu (all dishes concocted at an outdoor cooking station) and asked if I’d like a newspaper to read while my white wine spritzer was being prepared. Why, yes, of course.

I didn’t have to look long at the menu to know what I needed to eat on this precious summer night- a burger and sweet potato fries. The brioche bun, crispy onions and Gouda aioli added a touch of gourmet while preserving the good old BBQ burger taste.

After a pause to appreciate the panoramic view of the river valley and to read an article on an innovative guide service for vacationing introverts called Introvertravel (really- this is a thing), I was ready for dessert. My server suggested the Mac honey ice cream, the honey courtesy of the hotel’s own bees and topped with pieces of honeycomb.

When I’d finished my meal, I wandered the gardens at the back of the hotel. The evening perfume of petunias, the still-sunny rudbeckias and the lulling splash of a fountain provided the finishing touches to my impromptu mini-vacation.

Whenever I travel, I’m always delighted to find out that there’s a market scheduled for wherever I’m staying.

Small town markets are the best, like the one I ran across last Wednesday in Banff. Unlike so many of the highly commercialized and cookie cutter businesses along Banff Avenue, the Banff market captures its grassroots culture. Locals meet each other and greet visitors like old friends. The aroma of roasting peanuts mingles with the wails of a guitar from a nearby park. Vendors of gin, beer, and hand cream offer samples. A fortune teller and a concerned-looking woman hunch over a table of tarot cards. And suddenly, I want to buy every locally produced bunch of carrots, bar of soap, and knitted cap, whether I need them or not.

The Banff market is held every Wednesday, May to October, from 10 am to 6 pm, right beside Banff Central Park, 110 Bear Street, on the beautiful Bow River.

I realized with a shock this week that the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has been part of my life for almost 45 years.

I was 17 when I first came here to a United Church Young People’s conference, although my boyfriend and I spent more time exploring each other than we did learning to be upright Christian teens.Years later, a friend invited me to visit her at the Centre during her music residency. She then made me wait two hours to go to dinner with her while she fought over the phone with her boyfriend in Montreal. I’ve downed many glasses of wine with educational colleagues at conferences here, heard funky spoken word poets perform, and been charmed by Christopher Plummer reading Shakespeare excerpts, accompanied by a string quartet.

So, when I had the chance during a recent conference to go on a behind the scenes tour of the Centre, I jumped at the opportunity to see and hear about its inner workings.

Turns out the Banff Centre has been open a whole lot longer than 45 years. As an offshoot of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension, it first opened a drama program in the town of Banff in 1933. By the mid-1940s, it had added other fine arts programs, and then moved to its present location above the Banff town site when one of its Directors talked the federal government out of 44 acres of national park land. The leadership program came next, and then the conference division. About 350 conferences are held here annually, with most of the revenue generated going directly back to fund the 3000 artists who come here from across Canada and around the globe with aspirations of stepping onto the world stage.

Our tour took us inside several of the shops that support drama and music productions at the Centre and other venues across Canada. The costume shop was one of my favorites.

We watched summer practicum students hard at work creating paper models of costumes for two operas that will be held at the Centre this summer. Unfortunately, I can’t share those pictures with you, because the Centre wants to keep them under wraps to preserve the element of audience surprise.

We then visited the Eric Harvie Theater, where crews were using the huge stage to assemble parts of the scaffolding for the operas’ outdoor amphitheatre. This too was part of the Centre’s educational mandate. The safety training the crews were receiving would help to ensure that some of the accidents that have occurred at other outdoor venues in Canada don’t happen here.

Our next stop was the carpentry shop, where crews build backdrops and large props. We carefully stepped around equipment we couldn’t identify and the wooden skeletons of who-knows-what laid out on the floor.

Smaller items for onstage use are manufactured in the prop shop. It was fun to speculate on what the prototypes might eventually look like and how they’d be used by the actors during a performance.

We finished up the tour with a visit to the Leighton Artists’ Studio, where musicians, writers, and other artists find space to create and practice, by themselves or collaboratively. It wasn’t hard to see how innovation could happen within the small cluster of cabins, surrounded by the solitude of the sun-dappled forest.

And if you needed a bit of whimsy to feed your creative muse, you could find that too, among the deer herd that grazed in the forest or inside the decommissioned fishing boat that now serves as a writer’s studio.

On the way back to our rooms, my educational colleagues and I remarked on how happy and engaged with their work everyone we’d met had seemed to be. In an era where politicians are slashing funding for the arts, I’m glad the Banff Centre is providing a small refuge for the type of creative practice that enriches our lives in so many ways.

BTW, if you want to stay at the Banff Centre but aren’t an artist or a conference participant, give them a call anyway. Although their primary mandate is educational, if they have space, they’ll be happy to provide you with room and board, often for less than you’ll find it elsewhere in Banff, and for sure in more inspiring surroundings.

In all the years I’ve been visiting Banff, how could I have missed touring one of Canada’s most important historic sites, the Banff Cave and Basin? But I had, so on an afternoon break from a conference at the Banff Centre, I headed off to go exploring.

From downtown Banff, the Cave and Basin site is only a 15-20 minute walk along a pleasant forest path that parallels the road. Along the way, you might catch sight of a few woodland inhabitants and fellow visitors enjoying their days.

If you were really ambitious and well-prepared, you could go a long, long way on this path. The trail is part of the National Hiking System, a cross- Canada network that provides links between national parks.

But, today, I leave the path, pay my $3.90 admission to Parks Canada, and begin my exploration of what’s known as the birthplace of Canada’s national park system.

Not surprisingly, the Stoney people, Banff’s original inhabitants, were well-acquainted with the hot springs located at this site. They held spiritual ceremonies here and bathed in the waters, which they believed to be sacred.

In 1883, during the building of the Canadian Pacific railway, three European railway workers “discovered” the hot springs, smelled financial opportunity, and petitioned the Canadian government for rights to develop the land. A hot springs reserve was granted and Canada’s national park system was established. The Stoney people, who had not been consulted about the development of their land, were pushed aside as wealthy spa visitors from around the world poured into Banff. Thankfully, after the springs were eventually closed to public use, the Stoney people resumed accessing the springs for traditional ceremonies.

Although you can’t bathe in the hotsprings anymore, you can follow a dimly lit hallway off the Interpretive Centre, which opens out into the Cave. As you breathe in the aroma of minerals and listen to the splash of a small waterfall, it’s not hard to imagine what it might have been like to visit this place thousands of years ago.

When you’ve finished absorbing the Cave atmosphere, head outside to the Basin for another perspective on this site. Even if you’re not an artist, you might be tempted to invest in a box of paints to capture the rich blues and greens.

This is an eyes only experience. Visitors are asked not to dabble their hands in the water for fear of disturbing the environment of the Rocky Mountain snails, the most at-risk species in Banff National Park. The Park rangers will happily point out these minuscule water dwellers which cling to the rocks along the water’s edge.

On the way back out, you can have a look at historical documents and photos that recall the days when the Cave and Basin were open for public swimming. But I’m happy that, after the site was rehabilitated to address various health and safety issues, the decision was made to keep the site a “look but don’t touch” experience. As Canada’s natural places and their inhabitants dwindle, they need the protection offered by this kind of foresight.

During the day, the Wakayama University professors and I sat in a classroom on their campus, discussing the pros and cons of replacing their lectures with active learning experiences. To thank me, they invited me to dinner that night, replacing the Western food I’d so far been eating at restaurants around my hotel with authentic Japanese dishes.

We ended up at a little hole-in-the-wall place where pairs of businessmen were hunkered down for the evening deep in conversation, black suit jackets off, white shirts gleaming, ties still properly in place. We slipped off our shoes and took a giant step up to our tables, settling onto cushioned seats for our meal.

The profs asked if there was anything I couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. After assuring them that I am an omnivorous and adventuresome eater, the food began to arrive, tapas-style, in chunky pottery dishes, little tastes of the regional cuisine for us to share.

First on the table was a serving of egg, fish, and Japanese purple sweet potato, all of them porous enough to absorb the delicate broth at the bottom of the dish. The longer they sat, the tastier they got.

Wakayama is located on the Pacific Ocean, so fish and seafood played a major role in this meal. We sampled pike, clams, salmon roe, red snapper, sashimi and squid.

Grilled squid

Salmon roe

Red snapper

Steamed clams

Sashimi

Our early dinner Asahi beers had long since disappeared so someone decided we needed some sake. Its smooth heat warmed my throat and I asked for a refill. “Easy to get drunk on sake,” one of the profs pointed out, so I turned my attention back to eating.

Egg cake and pike

Baked eggplant

There was one dish whose contents was a mystery even to the professors when it arrived – we could only guess at what the floured and fried shapes might contain.There was nothing else to do except take a bite and find out.

One by one, we played the identification game, finding chicken, mushroom, and fish. The woman sitting next to me took a bite of her surprise package, her puźzled expression quickly turning to disgust. ” Yuck!” she said, spitting out a pink glob into a napkin. “It’s Spam!”

At first, I thought I must have misunderstood. Spam, in a Japanese restaurant? Yes, one of the profs explained. It was introduced to Japan by the Americans after the end of WW II, and many people still eat it.

Two hours after the first dish arrived, we were absolutely stuffed, and it was time to call it a night. Which food was my favorite? someone asked. I couldn’t decide. But what I did know was that every dish had given us a reason to talk, laugh, and share a story, ending the evening a little closer to each other than when we’d arrived.

Like a lot of little girls, my sister and I went through a horsy phase when we were growing up. This involved memorizing and showing off our knowledge of horse colors, and bringing home stacks of books with horse protagonists from the library, everything from The Black Stallion to Misty of Chincoteague.

Somewhere along the way, we found out about the Royal Lipizzan Stallions. I think Walt Disney might have produced a TV special about them, because I remember thinking that their exotic-looking, uniformed riders, and their even stranger performance moves, seemed far outside the experience of two girls growing up in Western Canada.

But today, I had the chance to see these horses up close and personal.

I had checked out the Lippizan performance tickets weeks before we left Canada for Austria, and found that even the cheapest one with a limited view was more than $250 CA. But, for only 31€, I could watch the horses during their morning workout inside the winter arena at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, and take a guided tour of the stables and the tack room in the afternoon.

You’ll have to rely on my words to create the images in this part of the post because no photography of the horses and riders was allowed during the morning exercises – although apparently this rule didn’t apply to some people in the crowd who blatantly snapped away, even using their flashes with no regard for the well-being of the horses and riders.

We sat up above the action at one end of the chandeliered arena as the horses, ranging from dappled grey to snow white, were put through their paces by their uniformed riders, strutting their stuff to the waltz rhythms of Mozart and Strauss. We’d been told not to expect to see any of the more strenuous jumps the horses can perform, but we did see some of the trot-pause-trot cadence they’re known for, and one horse doing a double-footed rear kick. The horses received lots of neck pats for their efforts and even sugar cubes, slipped to them from the pocket of a workout supervisor.

In the afternoon, I returned for the guided tour. I passed by the stables on the way in and saw some of the horses curiously poking their heads out of their stalls, watching the passing crowds.

Lippizan stallions watch the crowds go by

Lippizan stallion and stable cat at Spanish Riding Schhol

The first stop on the tour was back in the winter arena, where we heard about the horses’ Spanish origins (they had to walk from Andalusia to Vienna in the 16th century at the behest of Emperor Maxillian II, which took several weeks). Also, although female riders are now seen on board, only stallions are used in the performances because the maneuvers they show off capitalize on the natural moves used by the males during mating and herd protection. And the horses don’t have to be pure white to appear in performances – the current solo star of the show is mostly grey.

One question I was curious to have answered: why didn’t the flashy arena carry any…er…horse aroma? The guide assured me that “anything left behind by the horses” was removed so quickly, it had no chance to perfume the air.

Winter arena at the Spanish Riding School

Just before we left for the stable area, the guide warned us not to hug, kiss, pat, feed or photograph the horses, a significant disappointment for all the children in the group, and the children in the adults as well. Many of the huge animals- they all stand 15 or 16 hands high and are known for their Rubenesque stature – came right up to the front of their stalls to say hello, but the most we could do was return their greetings in words, rather than pats.

The one place we were allowed to take pictures was the tack room. All the horses have their own personalized saddles and bridles, designed to custom-fit their bodies. One visitor asked if it was possible to buy any of the tack second-hand. The guide, only half jokingly, said he should inquire. Oddly, the Spanish Riding School receives no funding from the Austrian government, in spite of the Lippizaners being a national treasure.

Spanish Riding School tack room

After the tour, I saw some of the same horses I’d seen on the way in, back at their stall windows. The 8-year-old in me said goodbye to them and wished there was a way to sneak back through the now-locked gates. After all, one horse nuzzle with a Canadian kid couldn’t do either of us that much harm, could it?

Lippizan at the Spanish Riding School

One of the best parts about being in a different country for Christmas Day is celebrating in ways you never would at home.

Three years ago at Christmas, we were on Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands. December 25th involved going to a rousing church service of Maori family songs, and joining an international choir singing Silent Night.

This year, singing Silent Night happened several days before Christmas, halfway up a mountain surrounded by whirling snow in Innsbruck, Austria. By the time we arrived in Vienna on December 23, the snow had turned to rain and gusting wind, so we were looking for indoor ways to enjoy ourselves on Christmas Day.

Luckily, most of the museums here are open on December 25, so we took a tram from our hotel to the Austrian National Library. The gorgeous State Room, built in the 18th century, is one of those “look up, way up” spaces, containing 200000 books and fascinating stories of the collections and the people who’ve kept the library alive, well, and defended from those who would have brought it to its knees. State Room Austrian National Library State Room Austrian National Library State Rokm Austrian National Library We then braved the wind and rain for a few minutes to see one of the Library’s specialty museums, which featured Esperanto and globes. In some ways, the two topics seem unrelated to each other. But when you consider that the inventor of Esperanto wanted to bring the world’s people closer together through a common language, maybe Esperanto and globes belong in the same space after all.

By the time we’d browsed all these museums, we were ready for lunch. The Cafe Klimt came to our rescue with rib-sticking goulash soup and lebkuchen torte, named for the spicy nuttiness of the traditional cookie. Lebkuchen torte Cafe Klimt The cafe also provided some amusing people watching as the cafe’s harried hostess chased down and firmly pointed out the end of the line to
people who had sailed past others waiting for a table.
Because it was still raining by the time we finished lunch, we scrolled our phones for other indoor activities. Nearby was the Butterfly House, originally constructed to house the indoor gardens of Franz Josef I. Now, it’s a tourist delight, especially on winter days when the wind finds every gap in your scarf and tries to blow your hat off your head.Gardener at Vienna's Butterfly House
Butterfly eyes at Vienna's Butterfly House Butterfly House, Vienna
Butterfly House, Vienna As dusk fell on Vienna, we cut through the still-open Christkindl market and celebrated with a pre-dinner gluhwein, before heading to a neighborhood burger bar for dinner. The place was crazy busy with locals and tourists. Apparently, not everyone in the world stays at home with family for a turkey dinner.

1816 had been a year of great suffering for many Austrians. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars and a major crop failure that brought famine and epidemics in its wake, comfort and joy for most people seemed a long way off.

As a writer and musician, 24-year-old Joseph Mohr responded to these hardships with a poem – Stille Nacht. Perhaps its lines gave him a little personal comfort that the world might once again know peace. But he never shared it with anyone until Christmas Eve 1818, in a small church in Oberndorf, Austria.

He was an assistant priest at the church; his friend and school teacher Franz Gruber was the organist. There are many stories around how the poem came to be a song, and why its original performance was accompanied by a guitar rather than the organ. Some say a mouse had chewed the organ’s valves, others that the organ had flood damage, others that Mohr simply loved the sound of Gruber’s guitar.

No matter. When the Christmas Eve mass had finished, the two men sang Stille Nacht for the congregation, after which the song and its writers slipped into oblivion. It wasn’t until various performing families of Austrian singers brought the song to other parts of Europe and North America that Mohr and Gruber got the recognition they deserved. Now, the carol is sung around the world in more than 300 languages. Just this week, my Facebook feed featured its words in Cree, Inuktitut, and Gwi’chin, three of Canada’s Indigenous languages.

Austria is understandably proud of its native song, and this month is celebrating its 200th anniversary in towns around the country. Salzburg has a Silent Night museum exhibition. Tonight, 6000 people are expected to visit the little chapel in Oberndorf to sing in their native languages. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be part of Innsbruck’s celebration, in which the mayor, himself a singer and choir director, conducted 621 of us halfway up a mountain as the snow fell thick and fast .

Stille Nacht singers from Canada, Austria, and the UK

No matter where you are in the world as you read this, I wish you a holiday season of calm and brightness and a year ahead filled with heavenly peace.

As lifelong residents of Alberta, Canada, my husband and I were raised on family vacations to Banff and Jasper National Parks. There, we camped among the Rocky Mountains, one of Canada’s truly stunning natural wonders. As an adult, no matter how many times I visit, the alpine grandeur of both places still takes my breath away.

But our trip today to the Nordkette, the mountain range that towers above Innsbruck, was a jaw-dropping experience of a different sort, accented by the bluest skies we’ve seen since we arrived in Austria ten days ago. A ten-minute walk from our hotel took us to the funicular station in the middle of Innsbruck. There, we joined skiers, hikers, snowboarders and other tourists for the 8-minute lift up to the cable car.

Our first cable car stop was at the Seegrube, situated at an altitude of 6250 feet.We shed our hats and mitts and squinted out at the sun-dazzled view: the snow-dusted evergreens of Karwendel Nature Park, the largest nature preserve in Austria, and tranquil Innsbruck far below. Meanwhile, on another part of the mountain, daredevil skiers and snowboarders took on the steepest slope in Europe, which boasts a thrillseeker’s grade of 70%.

After we’d appreciated these views, another cable car took us up to the Hafelekar, which commands an altitude of 7401 feet. Here, the 360° view kept us snapping pictures everywhere we turned.

When we’d filled up on mountain air and photos, the cable car whisked us through the clouds and back down the mountain in under ten minutes, where we were embraced once again by Innsbruck’s Christmas bustle. Hard to believe the rapid transition between alpine and urban, just one more of Innsbruck’s charms.