Tag Archives: unesco

Regensburg

One might only think to sweep through Regensburg while en route to Munich or Vienna but it’s most certainly a stop worth making. Situated on the Danube in Bavaria, the small city with its almost entirely pedestrian centre has a density of medieval charms unrivalled in Germany.

I arrived the day of the Ironman competition, just as thousands of competitors were sprinting through the historic town, rounding the corners of Gothic and Romanesque buildings, and racing along the banks of the river. (To the best of my knowledge, the fellow in the photo below was not a contender in this past summer’s triathlon).

Regensburg is the only intact medieval city in Germany, for one, because it had been spared extensive damage in the bombing campaign during WWII. Its roots can be traced to a Roman military fortress and its well-preserved antique architectural monuments represent its former role as a trading centre. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it safeguards some 1000 structures, including its best-known ones like the Stone Bridge (Steinerne Brücke) and the impressive St. Peter’s Cathedral (Regensburger Dom).

It may not have quite the same prestige as a monastery or a Praetorian Gate but do make a point to check out the sausage kitchen ‘Historische Wurtsküche. The lively tavern is a place of tradition, serving up its specialty bratwursts for the past 500 years. When ordering, just say the three magic words: “six with sauerkraut.”

The rolling countryside outside of Regensburg is also lovely to live in: sunflowers abound and it seems that every second home is kitted-out with solar panels.

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Þingvellir National Park

Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park is an enormous geological rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates – one of the few spots in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes above water. The two plates are diverging, causing fissures, gullies, and dramatic cliffs throughout the region. In addition to its spectacular scenery, Þingvellir (“Parliament Plains”) is also central to the nation’s history, having been home to the first parliament in the world, and headed by none other than Icelandic Vikings.

West of Þingvellir, the coastal village of Stokkseyri is known for its black sandy beach but the lobster dishes alone from seashore restaurant Vid Fjöruborðið are worth the trip. Significantly smaller and more savoury than the North American variety, lobsters are baked in butter and garlic and paired with small potatoes and dense bread, ideal for dipping in garlicky sweet or tarragon sauces.

Kærar kveðjur (kind regards) from an Icelander and her dog.

The Life of a ‘bon vivant’ à Bordeaux

Watching the riders cresting over the Pyrenees and cameras panning over pristine châteaux grounds, I forgot momentarily how gruelling is le Tour de France. This past weekend, while they zipped through Bordeaux, I caught glimpses of familiar sights of the city. Rising crosswinds picked up, as did the riders’ tempos, and with gaps closing in between them, the battle continued! All this drama played out against the backdrop of classical and neoclassical architecture and triggered memories of my trip there last winter.

I had been so impressed with this majestic city and was surprised to learn that it hadn’t always shown itself in this light. In fact, residents claim that until recently, it was soot-covered, lifeless, and long past its prime. (I roll my eyes in disbelief) However, in the last 10+years, thanks to the leadership and visionary efforts of mayor Alain Juppé, the city has undergone an urban project yielding tremendous improvements: cleaning and restoration of building façades; rezoning of urban areas; development of the quays along the Garonne river; and the commissioning of a new light rail system that now weaves through the city, its tracks seamlessly integrated with plaza and pavement. It’s so quiet; you have to be careful that it doesn’t sneak up behind you. Goes to show what effective collaboration of interested parties does: architects, town planners, historians, researchers worked together and jointly with Monsieur Le Maire to renovate the waterfront and beautify the splendid buildings, some of them from medieval times.

Bordeaux is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and, as I’ve read “has more protected buildings/historic monuments than any other French city except Paris.” No doubt being featured on ‘The List’ has had a highly beneficial impact on tourism. The draw for me, however, was the cultural appeal of this stony French city and I loved the promenades, parks, tree-lined squares, and the grass-filled tram tracks along the waterfront (they’re lucky they don’t have to deal with salt).

One of the visit’s highlights, as with all French experiences, encompassed food and drink while pique-nique-ing on the boardwalk one sunny February day. We strolled along the quay on the Left Bank of the Garonne River where the famous Bordeaux Fête le Vin, France’s top wine tourism event, takes place in the summer. Though windy, people were out en masse. At a long line of outdoor market stalls, we got a few glasses for 1euro apiece and to accompany, a baguette, some Camembert and sausage. The intention wasn’t to get liquored up in the company of my parents, but they too appreciate ‘la bonne vie.’ I wish the same informal outdoor sipping could be done here in North America…

Since we were in the hood, we made a quick jaunt over to St. Emilion, a picturesque village just 35 km northeast. On a very grey day, we explored its fascinating underground catacombs, Romanesque churches and ruins stretching all along steep and narrow streets. Not to harp but, this being mid-February, it wasn’t particularly animated and the cold travelled right through us. Instead of trying one of the specialty fine wines from this historic vineyard landscape, we shockingly stopped for hot chocolate.

Back in Bordeaux, I insisted on making one last stop – La Maison Calvet – a winery with my same name.  I cannot claim to have any direct family heritage per se but proudly showed my i.d. and they were more than happy to give me a tour of the cellar and a visit of an authentic wine merchant house.

Having gotten a taste of the life of a ‘bon vivant’, I think I was more than sufficiently inspired to make a return trip to visit the bountiful wine regions of France, to study more closely the Aquitaine region in the southwest. But why stop there? Why limit myself? I might just have to follow it up with the Loire valley, Burgundy, etc…

Semana Santa in Mexico

Now that winter is fast approaching, I find myself dreamily backtracking to a special trip I took earlier this year.  With eyes having scrolled over the ad/write-up and spotting these key words – Mexico, Semana Santa, photography workshop, group trip, one remaining spot – I decided in mere seconds to sign up.  Stars were in alignment for me.  Designed for intermediate/advanced levels, the photographic mission involved shooting the religious processionals and festivities of Easter Holy week in three very beautiful cities: Puebla, Taxco, and Queretaro.

Logistics were elaborately organized by our instructor, who was familiar with the sites.  Seeing as we’d be lugging around camera & digital equipment, the motto took on a ‘Pack less, not more’ motif.   A member of the group unfortunately opened a can of worms by mentioning she was cutting her stay short due to the supposed heightened risk factor of Mexico.  True, there had been an increase of crime there, especially in the US-Mexico border area, resorts and the state of Chiapas, although nowhere near the towns we planned to visit.  In any case, we would be taking precautions to avert pickpockets, credit card skimming and wandering alone, yet little did we know of the swine flu epidemic looming on the horizon…

I met my travel companions at the concrete benches outside the customs’ exit in the international arrival area of Mexico City airport’s Terminal 2.  It was not difficult to spot the group:  gringos with cameras.  After exchanging pleasantries, we piled into a private van and a designated driver took us two hours southeast to Puebla, a town with so many mansions, colonial streets and buildings, churches, and convents that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  That evening, already warmed up to each other and one’s quirks, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at the restaurant where the movie ‘Frida’ was filmed.

We marvelled at the abundance of freshly squeezed juice and how cheap it and everything else was compared to the ‘same’ in the US.  A plate laden with fruit, granola/nuts, honey and yogurt became my staple breakfast for the week.  Our lovely hotel was authentic to the area and located close to the charming ‘zocalo’ (town square).  Over the next few days, we aimed for early morning shoots, and explored and photographed the artistic and historic districts, stopping to behold people young and old who were faithfully crafting intricate palm weavings for the processions.  We ventured to the nearby town of Cholula where several Palm Sunday events occur and visited the Great Pyramid which, frankly, looks like a huge hill crowned with a church but is in fact, believe it or not, larger in volume than those in Egypt.

After perusing the goods at Puebla’s Mercado de Artesanías, which Judith* proceeded to practically clean out (she was by far the biggest shopper of the group), we travelled on to Taxco, the legendary Silver City on the road from Mexico City to Acapulco.  Cha Ching! The mining town, renowned for its picturesque hillside colonial-era charm and silver shops, boasting of white Volkswagen bug taxis and remarkably expansive views, is totally transformed by this unique celebration (see pics).  During the days, we went into churches and surrounding neighbourhoods to observe preparations for the processions and photograph the people and the beautiful folk art-inspired Christ figures that were lovingly cleaned and hoisted onto floats to be used in the evening.  Each nightly processional was poignant:  winding through the people-lined cobblestoned streets, masked and barefooted women and men, often chained at the ankles, respectively carried candles and bore crosses or 100lb bundles of thorny branches on their shoulders and ropes to flagellate themselves.

* name has been changed (to protect identity & maintain dignity). 🙂

In general, we found the Mexican people to be friendly and welcoming, their openness and kindness radiating through us creatively.  Interactions with two particularly vivacious individuals in Taxco – a spirited, drunken man and his concerned older sister who lived down the street – led to fruitful shooting opportunities for my colleague and I.  Because we could communicate easily in Spanish, they felt at ease and, eager to share, invited us into their homes, as curious about us as we were about them.  It was surreal, this glimpse into their private lives, and the two of us hungrily shooting and muttering our great luck to ourselves.

Like with all good trips, a climactic incident occurred on the last night of our stay in Taxco.  I was unwinding with a colleague in the lively ‘zocalo’, when suddenly swarms of people mobilized quickly in all directions, many fleeing the scene, tears streaming down children’s faces.  We stood up immediately and pressed our backs up against the church gates behind us, not knowing what to do, where to go, or even what we needed to protect ourselves from:  earthquake?  shooting outbreak? bulls on the loose?  Ultimately, we made it back to our hotel that had been bolted shut by the management, terrified by intruders.  Only later did we learn that the commotion had started as a result of a cross striking an electrical wire thus setting off sparks.  The reason for the mad panic was that, a few weeks earlier, armed gunmen raided the same plaza, opening fire outside the Santa Prisca church, seizing someone and wounding three bystanders in the process, and the clash was still fresh in people’s minds.

In stark contrast to the tension of the previous night, we attended the colourful and hauntingly silent Good Friday march in Queretaro, the last stop of the trip.  Having now had two lifetimes worth of processions, cameras down, we splurged on a final dinner all together in the lively historic downtown.  We’d bonded, for sure, during this unique week but soon it was time to go our own way.  In the spirit of collegiality, throughout the workshop we’d shared techniques and tips and held valuable photo critiques, encouraging each other’s individual expression, and although we shot much of the same events, it was amazing to see how different people see different things.  It was one of those magical experiences in my life.  While the other students left to the airport to return to the US, I stayed on in Mexico City figuring ‘hey, I’m already here and there’s no way I’m going to miss visiting the capital!’

(Re)naissance

Bear with me, readers.  For the time being, I’m in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada – perhaps not the most exotic of locales but highly deserving of recognition nevertheless.  My forthcoming foreign travels and thus glamorous blog posts will have to wait because, at present, I’m making a (re)connaissance mission:  spending long-overdue, ‘quality’ time with my parents and childhood friends, and by (re)visiting the old haunts and new ones, I’m (re)discovering the city of my youth.

This is uniquely precious time that I haven’t had at ‘home’ in over a decade of living and working in the United States.  Being a ‘resident alien’ with only a work-permit visa, my identity was entirely wrapped up in my job.  As I’m not currently practicing architecture, I realize it’s no longer my career that defines me and I should step back and think about what’s important – life in general.  Some close friends of mine have come to similar conclusions but from another perspective:  newly stay-at-home mothers – being somewhat domestically-focused has provoked thoughts about what they’re doing with their life, transitory as it is, and how best they want to live it.

Whereas in the past my typical 3-day weekend trips to the motherland would be crammed with numerous rendezvous, I now find myself with rare, relaxed, unscheduled time to seize the opportunity to make those leisurely neighbourhood strolls with my father, get cooking lessons of Spanish and Latvian family dishes from my mother, and share long talks about the state of the world and ‘whatnot’.  My parents still reside in the same abode of 27 years, so yesterday I biked the familiar route that I took for ages, the same path that diverged and led to 3 distinct places:  to elementary, to junior high, and to high school.  Ottawa is a lovely city of human scale, safe, bountiful in clean air, green space, rivers and waterfalls, and unlimited outdoor activities.  Memories of my happy childhood easily swell to the surface:  recollections of high school plays and Wednesday night ski club outings, French grammar and literature classes, snowball fights and wet woolly mittens on the radiator (that particular smell forever lodged into my psyche).

If there’s one element that any visitor recalls of Ottawa, it’s the Rideau Canal, famous in postcards as a scenic waterway which in winter magically transforms into ….wait for it…. the ‘World’s largest skating rink.’ It was recently designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, but then any tourist guide can tell you that and rattle off the city’s historical buildings and cultural highlights.  What excites me to see are good strategies taken by architects and urban planning committees to develop my native city in an innovative and meaningful way.bridge expanse

Three years ago, a pedestrian bridge was built spanning the picturesque Rideau Canal, connecting a significantly residential and commercial ‘Centertown’ with the University of Ottawa and a public transit system, previously only crossable at this point during the winter months when it was frozen.  Its value initially fiercely questioned, it is now one of the city’s most applauded public projects, allowing a few thousand pedestrians and cyclists to cross day and night, linking neighbourhoods and providing new views. There’s a proposal out for another two and I cross my fingers that the City doesn’t spend ages mulling it over nor that the approvals processes drag needlessly.  Not that it’s an equitable comparison by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever but I am reminded of the numerous bridge crossings in great cities like Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris, and the possibilities they afford.  Providing any infrastructure that encourages physical and visual connections challenges the senses and results in a more dynamic urban life.  Oh, to have more urban densification, especially in a city that endures a glacial -30˚C in the winter!  (Author’s note:  It was during those frigid days that we, as angst-ridden teenagers just shy of getting our driver’s permits, were resigned to take the L.C. or ‘Loser Cruiser’ (a.k.a. the bus), a term coined by my best friends.)bridge crossing

Since it is a more ‘formal’ city, genteel and orderly (often a problem of created capitals), Ottawa is home to a wealth of national museums, monuments and heritage structures that tell historical events that have shaped the very character of Canada.  I walked the grounds around the new Canadian War Museum, observing its raw, fragmentary structure emerging out of the earth; it emphasizes regeneration implicit as the grass greening on the building’s roof.facade

In true form, the Remembrance Day national ceremony took place here in Ottawa on November 11th, to honour those who pay the ultimate sacrifice.  To mark the solemn occasion, people gathered, on this sunny, cloudless day, at the National War Memorial dedicated to the Canadian forces that fought in the WWI&II and Korean wars, against the backdrop of Parliament Hill.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, thousands paid tribute to the fallen, the inter-generational crowds growing yearly as international peacekeeping efforts continue.war memorial

Marching in unison, resplendent in uniform and medal, were different regiments, many of British heritage.  Speaking of Brits, Prince Charles and Camilla, on an 11-day whirlwind tour of Canada, attended this and other commemorations honouring Canada’s persons, places and events.  Fortunately, no unsightly gaff happened in their presence, nor on the part of the royals themselves.  It will be interesting to see who will play the role of the next official head of state and whether or not we’ll remain the last monarchy in the Americas, with Charles (!) as king or transition to a new institution altogether.

In contrast to the neat alignment of military formation upheld during the service, throughout the remainder of the day, a sea of people randomly came from each and every direction to lay their poppies, in true Canadian tradition, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Lest we forget.sea of red

grassy knoll

ramp up

war museum overall

Fun fact:  Ottawa’s shapely coordinates:  45˚25’15”N  75˚41’24”W