Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Sunday, March 31, 2019

madeira...an island of fish, flowers and fado

Napoleon's last stop...the flower island


Well-known, not only for being the birthplace of the world's best footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island Madeira, has been an important historical stopover for explorers and revolutionists.


Located in the Atlantic Ocean off of the northwest coast of Africa, Madeira is a cluster of four little islands known for its wine, its blooms, sugar cane production, and family-oriented, hard-working fishing culture.

Funchal's amazing colours...in the market and on the streets


Mercado dos Lavradores
The Mercado dos Lavradores will entice you into its art-deco, 1930's-designed structure. Over two stories, including a huge fish hall, this market is so beautiful and interesting you will stay awhile.

Black Scabbard Fish


Along with all sorts of exotic fruit and vegetables, fish and food, there are also booths with clothing, music, and leather accessories. A little village unto itself, where locals also come to get shoes repaired, blades sharpened, or to buy lottery tickets...the mercado is full of local flair.


As often is in a cool city, the areas which were once the dangerous, poor neighbourhoods are now the 'it' places to live and visit. In Funchal, these oldest streets are now vibrant, colourful lanes filled with lively restaurants and bars...


With painted doors and murals everywhere you look.


Wandering through Funchal's oldest street, Rua de Santa Maria, which runs parallel to the ocean, there are plenty of options to experience authentic Portuguese Fado. This melancholic music, which translated means 'fate' or 'destiny' is a moody and emotional combination of voice and guitar.


Madeira is also known for its immaculate network of hiking trails. These levadas are the irrigation canals built in the 16th century to supply water to the sugar cane producers. The over 2000 kms of levadas zig-zag and serpentine through the valleys up and down the island, making a hiking holiday here just perfect.

Levadas
Some levadas are cut into hillsides or tunnelled through cliffs, but most of them offer a fairly consistent view of the wide blue ocean beyond.

Fortaleza de Sao Tiago

Camara de Lobos - A proud fishing tradition


A short bus or taxi ride away from Funchal is the gorgeous little fishing village of Camara de Lobos. Made famous by Winston Churchill who stopped at this spot (see photo below) to set up his easel, needing to paint this cove immediately, Camara de Lobos enchanted me.



In amongst the small lanes spreading out from the port there is a tiny chapel which if you're not looking for it you will most likely miss. This is where traditionally the fishermen have come to pray before heading out into the wild unknown of the sea. It is quite possibly the most beautiful chapel, next to Francis of Assisi's own, that I have ever seen.

Nossa Senhora da Conceição
 Said fishermen you will find out on the boardwalk playing cards or in the dark taverns watching TV.


I loved watching the fishermen work on their boats, or hanging out playing cards together. This craft of building and repairing these fisher boats has barely changed over the centuries. It is pure tradition...but unfortunately more and more difficult to make a living at.


Monte - Traditional Wicker Toboggan Rides


A gondola or taxi ride up from Funchal is the quaint village of Monte. Here, the villas are nestled into the  steep volcanic hillside, surrounded by banana plantations. After visiting the Monte Palace, with its late 1800's exotic gardens and waterfalls, and the cathedral, the most exciting way back down (according to Ernest Hemingway anyways) is by Carreiro-driven wicker toboggan.


These super-cool Carreiros, dressed in regulated white with wicker hat, expertly guide the sleds down  the steep 4 km roads with an average speed of 12 km/h.



The tradition began in the 1850's as an easy way for locals to get down the hill to Funchal. Now, it is a strictly-regulated tourist attraction, taking about 20 minutes...on the ride of your life.




But, before heading down to Funchal we made sure to see the exquisite pilgrimage cathedral of Our Lady of the Mountain (what a name!). Not only a visit worth because of its painted ceiling, it is also the final resting place of the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Charles I of Austria, who died in Monte in exile.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte
Built in 1741, this church has survived earthquakes and wild fires. It is a colourful, moving experience spending moments here. The painted wooden ceiling depicts religious scenes and artistic elements making you want to look up as much as towards the altar...and Mary.




If you go:

-flying is tricky...go with Godspeed because the runway is one of the world's most, let's just say, interesting.

-take time on the island to walk the many trails, to hang out close to the fishermen and banana-growing locals

-no need to rent a car: walk or take a taxi...it is not expensive

-make sure to eat the black scabbard fish...delicious and unique...and drink wine :)
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Sunday, February 24, 2019

stockholm's incredible underground

Stockholm lies on the eastern side of Sweden, on the Baltic Sea facing Finland and Estonia. Home to a beloved royal family, excellent baked goods, an obsession with coffee, incredible design and innovation, and a sea-faring heart, Stockholm obviously has lots to see above ground.

But, if you have a minute, let me show you Stockholm's awe-inspiring underground...an art and sculpture gallery like you've probably never seen before. At least I hadn't.

T-Centralen

I only made it to 7 art-filled stations in my 1.5 days in the city, but the rest are on my list. Usually I spend very little time in museums (or indoors at all) when I'm visiting a new city because I like to get the feel of a place by how the locals live. This is why, when I'm not walking, I take the subway (also much cheaper and faster than the tourist hop-on, hop-offs).

Solna Centrum

Here I should add that in sea-faring cities (Venice, Hamburg also come to mind), travelling with a public transportation pass also gets you onto all of the commuter ferries and boats, so if you like to get on the water when exploring a new city like I do you can't beat going the way of locals.

#82 commuter line travelling to surrounding islands

One of Stockholm's oldest stations, and one of its deepest, is Östermalmstorg, featuring sketches by then 77-year-old artist, Siri Derkert. Her life's work had centred around peace, the environment and women's rights, all of which are reflected on the station's walls.

Östermalmstorg

Eight years later, in 1973, Tekniska Högskolan station opened, allowing easier access for students to the city's well-known technical university. The station celebrates scientific achievement and advancement, with my favourite aspects being the 5 regular polyhedra representing Plato's five elements. It is a truly stunning subway station.

Tekniska Högskolan

When I read about Odenplan's station I knew that I needed to see it. The artist's inspiration touched me. Opened in 2017, with  400 metres of LED lighting, David Svensson's "life line" depicts the electromagnetic waves of his son's EKG as he was being born. Needless to say, this is not a dark station.

Odenplan

The colourful rainbows and sky blues remind the busy commuter that the sky is not far above in Stockholm's first cave station, Stadion, built in 1973. If you want a photo without people you'll need to get there early as it's popular with photographers, along with quite a few of the other stations.

Stadion

Kungsträdgarden is an eyeful of everything imaginable - sculptures, mosaic, gargoyles, floral and fauna. The station lies directly underneath the former Makalös Palace which burned down in 1825, leaving just the French gardens and a very popular destination for locals: the station's namesake.

Kungsträdgarden

The station features replicas of the statues from the former palace's gardens, and bids homage to the history of life above.



The deep red of Solna Centrum's setting sun above the forests of Sweden is a sight to behold. The station was built in 1975 but much of the added artwork depicting central political themes of the area, such as deforestation and the depopulation of rural areas were added long after the reds and greens.

Solna Centrum

And my Favourite Station Award goes to T-Centralen. The first station to feature art, and the hub of Stockholm's underground system, the artwork's aim was to bring calm and a moment to pause for the busy folk traveling to and from work and school. The floral and leaf motifs in peaceful hues of blue do their trick, in my opinion.

T-Centralen

Any short or long tour in Stockholm would not be complete without one (or two) stops for fika. A beloved break involving coffee and baked goods is a must for the Nordic hygge way of life, and a practice I wholeheartedly can get behind. Try the Kardemumma-snurra when you're in town. I have no idea what it's name means but it's seriously delish.


And enjoy the candles which are lit in all cafes and restaurants during the day...just adding to the hygge feeling of cozy, comfortable and communal.



If you go:

-don't bring cash. Many places don't even accept cash. Everyone uses a debit or credit card.
-buy a 24 hour public transit pass (converts to about 13€, $15) and is much more cost-effective than a tourist bus or boat. Get on the water, to the islands with the commuter ferries included in the transit pass.
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Thursday, January 31, 2019

canmore, alberta...rocky mountains, blue skies, and oh so many dogs

We realize pretty quickly that these dogs are family. They are special. But, that doesn't mean that they're off limits. We are encouraged to get to know our sled dogs. We are cautioned to give dogs space who appear shy or unsure, and be affectionate with those pups who want some. Get to know them like you would get to know a person, we're told. That they were about to drag my ass through the mountains was not lost on me, and to tell you the truth, I was already feeling a bit guilty about all of that Christmas baking.

Cashew

Even before stepping out onto the snow-covered lakeshore, greeted by the cold, awesome mountain air, I had done quite a bit of reading into this company (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours) and their family members (the 4-leggeds). I was impressed by their attention to detail, to educating the public (me), and most of all, to making it clear how important their family members are to their business. This was the reason I was here, with these pups, now...


We were going to spend a couple of hours, first in instruction, then each pair would take turns driving the sled (yikes!),  and then at the end, debriefing around a campfire by the lake. Sound perfect? Spoiler alert: it kinda was.

Me and my lead dogs, Rebel and Bowie


Sled dogs are kind of amazing. Going back at least to 2000 BC huskies have been used to haul goods and people in the far north. But, even here in Canmore, giving visitors a ride like no other, these dogs are top winter athletes. And their care, for this exact reason, is a very precise operation.


In the winter months, the dogs are given what is essentially bison kibble soup. Yum. Basically, to ensure that the dogs are drinking their 3+ litres of water a day their food is given with warm water so that they get all of their liquids. They are fed 4 times a day, even on the trail between tours.


So, while our dogs were eating lunch, we were encouraged to walk among them and pet those who wanted to be pet, and to take photos...of course.

Megan, our guide, giving instructions

Then, Megan, our very competent guide, ran us through very thorough instructions. After she was done even I was convinced that I could maybe do this. She taught us the 4 major commands (Hike! Eeeeaaasyyyy! On-by! Whoaaaaa) that the dogs respond to (and they did!) and showed us exactly how to steer the sled. What's the most important thing, you ask? Don't let go of the sled!!


After the instructions we were assigned our sleds, and the passengers for the first half were bundled into the sleds. My brother, who had gone on a tour with Snowy Owl a couple of years before, gave me a great tip: drive the dogs on the second half, when they're a bit more tired, then you won't have to run along as fast on the uphill parts. So, this is me, in the sled for the first half - bf drove first :)

Bowie

I wish I could describe accurately the noise the dogs were making, in excitement, as they knew we were getting ready to head out onto the trail. There was howling and barking and yelping...and it was awesome. They seriously sounded happy.


One important thing which Snowy Owl makes clear in the emails that come in the days before your tour: dress warmly. But, for those tourists/visitors who might not be quite prepared for winter in the Canadian Rockies, Snowy Owl has a handy rental area where you can load up on Sorels, and mitts, toques and jackets. Personally, I think this is quite the smart service on their part. But, I'm an Alberta girl so I made sure by German bf was dressed appropriately, and we were fine in the -7 C temperature. Only the dogs thought it was too warm!


The scenery as we slid through the forest was glorious. Mountains peaked through the trees as we ran the trails behind Spray Lakes, above Canmore. There was a light wind, joining blue skies and sunshine. We had totally lucked out with the weather!


Megan had prepared us for the looks of incredulity from our hounds when we didn't help them on the uphill parts. Sure enough, if the driver wasn't getting off of the runners to help the sled uphill, the dogs would shoot off a look back as a reminder. Needless to say, my bf and I aren't exactly the smallest people so our dogs were basically giving us the 'look' even when we were standing still.

Anna

Snowy Owl's pack is made up of 180 working pets, as they describe on their fascinating website. The dogs' photos are on the site, each with their names, like an online hall of fame. This family-run business is a self-described "dog first" company, and the four-legged employees seem very well cared for. They are Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and Canadian Eskimo Dogs (the oldest indigenous dog breed in North America - did you know that? I didn't).

Bear

Snowy Owl breeds most of their sled dogs, but take care only to 'produce' the number of dogs they actually need, alongwith buying or rescuing 'new' dogs when the situation arises. They also have a very careful and intense adoption program for their beloved retired sled dogs. If I lived in Alberta I would absolutely be signing up to be considered!


The sled dog pairings are thoughfully considered. Partners in the team need to actually like each other...along with being strong and healthy of course. One of our pairings, it was explained to us, had a big intact male who ran better as long as his partner was a female...it motivated him more. Dogs will be dogs, just like boys will be boys.

Photo credit: Boris - bbbphoto (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)

Somewhere around the halfway point, we switched and it was my turn to drive. My fears that the sled would be going so insanely fast that I would fly off were not founded. The team was fun to drive! I loved calling out the commands and cheering on the pups, and they were really great. The scenery was also spectacular.

Anna and her buddy taking a well-deserved break

The dogs have a detailed work and play schedule, with time off and daily free-run time so that they can socialize and just be. Once we returned to the trail head some of the pups took a load off and relaxed. As I mentioned, especially for the Malamutes, the temperatures were a bit warm for the dogs, who prefer -10.


Then the two-leggeds were guided to a bonfire beside the lake. Megan handed out steaming apple cider and homemade cookies. It was really a wonderful end to a truly fun experience.


I would highly recommend taking in a sled dog tour with Snowy Owl if you're in the Banff/Canmore/Calgary area. Afterwards, stop in at Half Hitch Brewery for super-delish mac'n cheese or burnt ends brisket...and a pint. Canmore is a cute mountain town - the perfect place to park after some good ol' outdoor activity.

Mac 'n Cheese at Half Hitch, Canmore - on Main Street

And, if you are needing to warm up, unlike a Malamute, my favourite place to steam is in Banff's Upper Hot Springs, which I've been soaking in apres ski or hike ever since I was a kid. On this sled dog day the snow fell in the evening hours as we sat in the hot pool among pines and peaks. Just bliss. I can't wait to go back...to the dogs, the Rockies, and home!



If you go:

Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours - book ahead, dress warm, have fun! www.snowyowltours.com
Travel Alberta for things to do - www.travelalberta.com
Banff Upper Hot Springs - www.hotsprings.ca

From Calgary International Airport to Canmore - 120 kms, just over an hour west on the #1
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