Travel Flashback: Northern Italy 2012

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about skiing in St. Moritz.  However, on that same trip, I was also fortunate enough to visit a couple of very different places in Northern Italy: Varenna and Milan.

Varenna (see photo above) is a beautifully situated small town on the mountainous shores of the Lago di Como (Lake Como). Even in March, the climate is comfortable, despite being so close to the snowy ski slopes of the Alps.  Varenna is quite hectic in the summer months  but in March I was able to enjoy all of the benefits without any of the crowds.  I walked along the lake, shaded from the sun by palm trees, and enjoyed some locally made gelato.

The south side of Varenna, seen from a distance
The south side of Varenna, seen from a distance

Alas, I was only able to spend one night in Varenna.  I look forward to visiting again someday…hopefully, in the pleasant Italian spring.

From Varenna, I took an Italian train to the border town of Tirano and then a Swiss train across the legendary Bernina Pass to St. Moritz.   After 6 days of skiing in St. Moritz and 3 more days of skiing in the relatively unknown Swiss resort of Andermatt, it was time to spend a few days in Milan (Milano, in Italian) before flying back to Canada.

The northern harbour of Varenna - I stayed in the narrow golden hotel at the left.
The northern harbour of Varenna – I stayed in the narrow golden hotel at the left.

Milan is a prosperous, hard-working city in one of the richest parts of Italy.   Much of the city is functional rather than beautiful, but it is still home to a couple of very special sights.

Duomo di Milano
Duomo di Milano

The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) is massive.  It totally dominates the Piazza del Duomo in downtown Milan.  While the cathedral is still very much an active place of worship, visitors are also permitted to climb up to the roof.  It is a very strange sensation to climb up to and around the roof of such a large building, let alone such a large cathedral.

Almost at the top of the Duomo di Milano
Almost at the top of the Duomo di Milano

Although we had to pass through some relatively heavy security at the Cathedral, it was possible to just show up and visit.  Our other major destination in Milan required much more planning.

On the top of the Duomo di Milano. Very cheesy.
On the top of the Duomo di Milano. A very cheesy photo.

We purchased our tickets to the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie several months in advance, committing to a very specific date and time.  It was not possible to just show up, as the site was unable to accommodate all of the people who wanted to see it.   Why?  The refectory is the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”,  one of the most famous works of art in the world.

Designed in 1861, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is one of the world's oldest shopping malls. Prada on the left, Louis Vuitton on the right.
Designed in 1861, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. Today, Prada is on the left and Louis Vuitton on the right.

By passing through a complicated series of doors and climate-controlled rooms, we were suddenly looking at “The Last Supper”.  There were only about 12 of us and we were permitted to stay for 15 minutes.  While photographs are absolutely forbidden, I can say that “The Last Supper” is very big, as it occupies an entire wall of the chapel.  After seeing so many images of it in miniature, the size and scope was quite a surprise.

Porta Sempione ("Arch of Peace"), near our hotel in Milan
Arco della Pace (“Arch of Peace”), near our hotel in Milan

Even though it has been deteriorating almost since the day it was completed in 1498 (due in part to the materials used by da Vinci), “The Last Supper” is still an extremely impressive sight.  As with Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is a religious work of art that can also be enjoyed simply as a great artistic achievement.  It was very special to see this mural in the exact spot that it was created more than 500 years ago.

Jumping back to the present:  it’s time to travel again!  I’ll be spending the next week in another one of those places that I really should have visited before…but somehow never got around to it.  Stay tuned!

Travel Flashback: Iqaluit, Nunavut (August 2013)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

This was quite different from our usual summer holiday destinations.  After picking us up from Iqaluit’s airport, the hotel’s shuttle bus driver refused to believe that we were just there for fun. It seems that everybody from the south who visits Iqaluit is there for business or government reasons.  The few tourists who fly here usually continue onward to more remote Nunavut communities.

"Welcome to Iqaluit", in the 4 languages of Nunavut
“Welcome to Iqaluit”, in the 4 languages of Nunavut

But maybe I should back up a little bit. What is Nunavut? It is a massive territory of about 2 million square kilometers occupying the coldest and most remote part of Canada.  If it were a country,  Nunavut would be the 15th largest country in the world.  Despite its massive size, only about 32,000 people live in the entire territory…and, unless you happen to be on a very large cargo ship during the one ice-free month of the year, the only way in is to fly.   You cannot drive to Nunavut.

Overlooking Iqaluit's harbour
Overlooking Iqaluit’s harbour

Even to many Canadians, Nunavut remains a mystery. It doesn’t show up on any old maps because it was part of the Northwest Territories until 1999. Of the 32,000 people, approximately 84% are Inuit. Inuktitut is the language most commonly spoken.  Iqaluit is the capital and largest city, although it has fewer than 7,000 inhabitants.

Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, at the edge of Iqaluit
Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, at the edge of Iqaluit

Our shuttle bus driver was correct:  we didn’t see many other tourists in Nunavut.   It is very expensive to get there:  unless you buy your tickets on the annual “seat sale” day in February (which we did, irrevocably committing to our trip 6 months in advance), it will cost you more to take the 3 hour domestic  flight from Ottawa than it would to fly 8 hours to Europe.   Because almost everything has to be flown in, the costs get worse once you are there.  Would you believe $12 for a 2L soft drink at the grocery store?   In general, prices are double to triple what you would expect to pay in southern Canada.

Looking away from Iqaluit's harbour
Looking away from Iqaluit’s harbour

Despite all that, visiting Iqaluit was a remarkable experience.  20 years ago, it was only a small village.  It has at least doubled in size since then.   Even so, the land around the city is so…endless.   And empty.  It only took a 15-minute walk in any direction to be  utterly alone.   Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park (just past the airport – see photo at the top of this post) was typical: desolate, beautiful, and vast in every sense of the word.

We gained a profound appreciation for the power of nature: we came across lots of animal skeletons during our walks.   With temperatures plummeting to near 0’C on summer nights, heat was rarely a problem.

Cemetery near the edge of Iqaluit, at the start of the coastal trail to Apex
Cemetery near the edge of Iqaluit, at the start of the coastal trail to Apex

Rather than craving heat, however, we found ourselves craving wind.  When the winds blow, which is often, the insect threat is neutralized.  However, when the wind lets up and the sun shines, the voracious mosquitoes and blackflies become oppressive.  Not only were these insects huge and hungry, they roamed in massive packs and were only mildly deterred by industrial strength insect repellent.  We went through an entire bottle of “Deep Woods Off!” in a single two hour walk along the coast.

Abandoned buildings of the Hudson's Bay Company, in front of the hamlet of Apex
Abandoned buildings of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in front of the hamlet of Apex

We really enjoyed our walks to the Territorial Park and the “suburb” of Apex (about 5 km from Iqaluit).   While there weren’t a lot of touristy things to do in Iqaluit, visiting Nunavut is more about experiencing the land than about seeing urban sights.  Although we did visit the craft stores and the museum, we found everyday tasks such as buying stamps and grocery shopping to be just as interesting.

Even though they are in the same country, the differences between Kingston and Iqaluit are far greater than the differences between Kingston and a similarly-sized town in, for example, Sweden.  Great travel can really make you think – here, we found ourselves asking what being “Canadian” really means.

A high school in Iqaluit - possibly from the 1970s!
Night view of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit – possibly built in the 1970s!

If you ever get the chance to go to Nunavut, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.  Even better would be to also visit a community outside of Iqaluit, to see what a more traditional Inuit community is like.   We’d like to see Pangnirtung someday:  apparently, its setting in the mountains and on Pangnirtung Fjord is spectacular.   However, even if you only visit Iqaluit, a trip to Nunavut will still leave a vivid impression on you.  And you can even get a decent shawarma while you’re there:  you’ll find a Lebanese take-out place just outside the airport.

Travel Flashback: Arson in Quebec 2009

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Most trips are unconditionally enjoyable. However, our ski trip to Baie-St-Paul and Quebec City, Quebec in March of 2009 was beset by a few problems.

First, it was absolutely frigid, particularly for mid-March. This took some of the thrill out of high-speed alpine skiing.  Second, the “daily” ski bus that was supposed to take me from Baie-St-Paul to Le Massif stopped running on weekdays. Third, and worst of all, an arsonist torched our B&B in Baie-St-Paul.

Even on March 16, the snowbanks are as high as a telephone booth
Even on March 16, the snowbanks were still almost as high as a telephone booth

The cold was fierce but manageable, as Le Massif’s on-hill food and beverage offerings were better than those found at other Eastern Canadian ski areas. Although it was necessary to retreat inside every hour or so, I enjoyed lots of delicious hot chocolate. The second problem (caused partly by not reading the fine print on the bus schedule) turned out to be moot, because of the third problem.

It was Monday evening. After a charming cheese fondue at a Baie-St-Paul restaurant, we retired early in preparation for a busy Tuesday. We were awakened at 10:45 p.m. by a fire alarm. We are both used to fire drills but this was a little different. We heard a couple of odd noises and lots of anxious-sounding French outside our door. Taking a quick peek down the hall, we saw flames filling the back doorway.

Baie-St-Paul really is a charming place.
Baie-St-Paul really is a charming place.

If you have never been in a burning building before, I can tell you that it is very scary. You cannot reason with fire. You also can’t tell where it is coming from or where it is going. There is only one thing on your mind: not getting caught in the fire. Quickly grabbing one or two items of clothing and hastily putting on our coats and boots, we left behind the rest of our possessions in the room and ran out. We might have had another minute to escape, but who knows?

We were soon taken to a nearby motel that had considerably less charm but, in its favour, was not on fire. We spent a substantial portion of the next day at the local police station, being interviewed in connection with an arson investigation. Not that we were accused: they just wanted to know what we saw and heard. Afterwards, under close police supervision, we were able to retrieve the rest of our belongings from the charred B&B.  Everything was rather smoky but it was nice to finally brush our teeth, put on fresh clothes, etc.

Our B&B in Baie-St-Paul, just a few hours before the arsonist struck
Our B&B in Baie-St-Paul, just a few hours before the arsonist struck

We found out later that the fire had been set by a disgruntled and unstable former employee of the B&B. While we were certainly scared and inconvenienced by the fire, we remain thankful that nobody was hurt. The outcome could have been much, much worse.:  there were about 20 guests in the B&B that night.  The arsonist was eventually convicted of arson and was sent to prison.  While I can’t find the details of the actual prison sentence, I do know that the arsonist’s lawyer was suggesting a prison term of three years…while the prosecutor was seeking a sentence of seven years.

The B&B was rebuilt soon afterwards and we continue to receive e-mail from them to this day.  Alas, we have not yet returned to Baie-St-Paul. I think a few more years need to pass before we are ready for that.  Here is a newspaper story that was written right after the incident, while here is an early account of the criminal proceedings.

Skiing through the trees at Mont-Ste-Anne
Skiing through the trees at Mont-Ste-Anne

After leaving Baie-St-Paul on Wednesday, we spent the remainder of our holiday in Quebec City.  I was able to do some intense skiing at Mont-Ste-Anne; we both enjoyed the (slightly) warmer temperatures and the city’s wonderful dining opportunities.   Our Quebec City hotel was a concrete monstrosity from the 1960s but, in the circumstances, we were willing to settle for a little less character and a little less arson.

Travel Flashback: Ultimate Soccer Experience in Stockholm, 2012

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Sweden doesn’t enjoy a high profile among Canadians considering a trip to Europe.  It may be perceived as being somewhat similar to Canada, both geographically and culturally…and therefore perhaps not quite “exotic” enough as a destination.  However, we loved it there and hope to return someday.

While I hope to report more on Sweden in a later post, I’ll cut to the chase in this one: even if we had done nothing else in Stockholm, the evening of August 15, 2012 completely justified our three day visit to that vibrant, beautiful and multicultural city.  The final international soccer game to ever be played in historic Råsunda Stadium was scheduled for that evening.

Fun at halftime. This is how close we were to the field!
Fun at halftime. Every attendee was given a Swedish flag!

While it has hosted the Swedish national team for many decades, Råsunda is best known as the stadium that hosted the 1958 World Cup.  In turn, the 1958 tournament was notable because it was Brazil’s first ever World Cup victory and also marked the emergence of a brilliant new 17 year-old superstar named Edson Arantes do Nascimento…better known as Pelé.  Pelé is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest soccer player of all time.  In the final, Brazil defeated Sweden by a score of 5-2.  And now, 54 years later, the stadium was being retired with a match between the current national soccer teams of Brazil and Sweden.

Neymar prepares to humiliate a Swedish defender
Neymar prepares to humiliate a Swedish defender

I found out about this match in a most unusual way.  Earlier that year, I had been asked at the last minute to play in a hockey tournament in Kingston.   A team from Sweden had arrived without 3 of their players and were looking for some local replacement players.   One of the tournament organizers heard that I was “Swedish” and I was contacted to play.  While my background is actually Swiss and Dutch, it is not uncommon for people to confuse Sweden and Switzerland.  In any case, I brought along a couple of (equally non-Swedish) friends from my local team and we all had a great time playing for the Swedish squad.  We even made it to one of the tournament finals.

Neymar takes a first-half free kick against Sweden
Neymar takes a first-half free kick against Sweden

I stayed in touch with a couple of the Swedish hockey players and I asked one of them about going to a pro soccer game when visiting Sweden that summer.  He told me that the timing was not right for a regular league game…but that an international match between Sweden and Brazil would be played while we were there.    Although he couldn’t make it to that match, he gave me the contact information for the tickets and I embarked on a complicated journey to purchase them from Kingston.  It was a crazy roller-coaster of very long-distance phone calls, credit card follies and international money orders.  I persevered, however, and we were able to get tickets only a few rows from the field!

Somebody must have cancelled their purchase right before I bought those tickets, as the game was completely sold out.  We arrived to a scene of sheer madness:  there even was a samba band playing at the entrance, complete with outrageous Carnival costumes.  It was a little bit of Rio in Scandinavia.

A little bit of Rio in Stockholm, Sweden.
A little bit of Rio in Stockholm, Sweden.

Just a few minutes after we settled into our seats, the ceremonies began.  First, we saw some of the Swedish players who played in that 1958 final.  Then we saw some of the Brazilian players who played…including Pelé himself!  Wow!  He said a few words about the 1958 World Cup and even performed the ceremonial opening kickoff (see photo at the top of this post).  For a soccer player and fan like me, it is truly amazing to be able to say that I saw Pelé kick a soccer ball.   He was 71 at the time and still looked like he could control a game.

Pelé runs off the field after performing the ceremonial opening kickoff
Pelé runs off the field after performing the ceremonial opening kickoff

The game was equally thrilling.  Led by Neymar (the “next Pelé”), and having just finished playing at the Olympics in London, the Brazilians made the Swedes look like amateurs.  The final score was 3-0 but it could have been much worse.   Their ball control was particularly amazing:  we could not believe how Neymar (and many of his teammates) could do such magical things with the ball while also running at full speed.    It is far more impressive in person than on television.   Even the partisan Swedish crowd had to applaud the impressive display by the Brazilians.

It was a "friendly" match, but there were still some hard tackles (and resulting injuries)
It was a “friendly” match, but there were still some hard tackles (and resulting injuries)

We felt sad when the game ended, as it had been so entertaining, but for the Swedish fans it was especially poignant because this was the last hurrah for their fabled national stadium.  There was a great deal of emotion in the air on that beautiful northern evening:  we felt honoured to have been a part of it.

Getting back to our hotel on a ridiculously packed subway was a chaotic experience but it did not diminish the thrill of seeing both the greatest soccer player of all time and (possibly) the greatest soccer player of the near future.  We will be extremely lucky if we ever see something like that again.

Quick Visit to Toronto

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

We are on the way back from a quick trip to Toronto: before I go any further, I apologize for not meeting up with more of you while there. However, we have quite a “social backlog” with our Toronto friends and we didn’t have time to see everybody this time around!

Atrium of the CBC Broadcast Centre (Toronto, Ontario)
Atrium of the CBC Broadcast Centre (Toronto, Ontario)

Of course, there is always time to eat…and so I brought my wife to the legendary Jumbo Empanadas restaurant on Augusta Avenue in the Kensington Market district.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside (it is on the left side of the picture at the top of this blog) and it is very spartan inside.  However, their empanadas are  very good and very large, while their corn pie is magnificent.

In Chile, corn pie is served in a pie plate and consists of a top layer of shredded and cooked sweet corn over a bottom layer of ground meat, olives, raisins, onions and even a hard-boiled egg.  Words can’t do it justice…and I don’t have a picture either because I ate mine so quickly!  All I can say is that I eat a corn pie at Jumbo Empanadas every time I am in the Kensington Market area.   When I think about how much I enjoyed the Argentinean empanadas in Costa Rica last year, a trip to Chile and Argentina may well be in the cards someday!

Priceless Artifact from the CBC Museum (Toronto, Ontario)
Priceless Artifact from the CBC Museum (Toronto, Ontario)

In between meet-ups with friends, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the CBC Museum on Front Street.  While it is by no means comprehensive, it is also free and you can visit between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on weekdays.  Check out the incredible 1970s windbreaker in the photo above…I can still remember the orange suits (!) that also featured this “exploding C” logo.

Sound Effects Central at the CBC Museum (Toronto, Ontario)
The old way of generating sound effects (complete with cigarette burns on the console) at the CBC Museum (Toronto, Ontario)

We also enjoyed looking at their sounds effects displays, although it was also sobering to realize that Scully and Cartridge machines are now considered museum pieces.  We both used to work on those machines during our days at CFRC-FM and I guess they now qualify as ancient technology.

The Straight Eights live at Castro's Lounge (Toronto, Ontario)
The Straight Eights live at Castro’s Lounge (Toronto, Ontario)

That evening, we went to see a 1950s-style rockabilly band called “The Straight Eights” at a bar in the Beaches district of Toronto.  I’m not a huge rockabilly fan but I recognized almost all of these songs as ones that were played by the Beatles (“Twenty Flight Rock”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, etc.) during their formative years.  If you’re familiar with the Toronto music scene, you will recognize their lead singer as “Big Rude Jake”  of Toronto blues fame.

The Flatiron Building, at the corner of Front and Wellington Streets in downtown Toronto
The Flatiron Building, at the corner of Front and Wellington Streets in downtown Toronto

We also took advantage of the trip to see a very special movie.  “Red Army” has only a limited engagement in Toronto and I doubt that it will appear in any of Kingston’s theatres.   It is an excellent film about the hugely successful national ice hockey teams of the former Soviet Union…told by the players from those teams.  I won’t give away too much, as this documentary contains an awful lot of surprises that I don’t want to ruin.   However, you don’t need to be a hockey expert to appreciate it:  it is just as fascinating from the Cold War and human interest perspectives.   See it if you can.

Coming up in the next few weeks:  more travel flashbacks and then a week-long trip to a completely new destination for me.  Stay tuned!