A Taste of Edmonton

It is my last day in Edmonton before I head out on a one month trip from Vancouver, cross the US, to Toronto. But before I leave the capital of Alberta, I will write one last blog about some of the many things that Edmonton has to offer.

Edmonton is not a beautiful city. It is way too spread out and unless you have a car, living here would be a hell. However, in between the more or less disastrous skyscrapers and thousands of dog-trucks, Edmonton has a certain charm. Most of this comes from the people living here. As I have said before, people in Edmonton, Alberta and Canada seem so welcoming, chit-chatting and easy-going. Half the experience of Canada, I would argue would be in meeting the hospitality of the Canadians.

But there are other things that make Edmonton worth a visit.

Farmer’s Market

Every Saturday in Old Strathcona, near Whyte Avenue, Edmontonians gather at the Farmer’s Market. Now I have been to many markets around Europe and enjoyed the good food and specialities from France to Turkey, and from Sweden to Spain. I have also grown up as most Europeans knowing that I should stay clear of American produced food since you never know what pesticides, genetic manipulations and flying saucers have been involved in their production. Therefore, I was very (emphasising very) pleasantly surprised by the Farmer’s Market in Old Strathcona. Not only is the Market full of shopping Edmontonians in all ages, sizes and colours. It is also a central hub for some of the most amazing things that the surrounding Alberta and BC can provide. Here are tasty cherries, blood red tomatoes, home-made cakes and salsas. There are pottery, patchworks, sugary popcorn and several variations of honey. There are tastings and good humour, and all the products are organic and grown and produced with love. – My favourite stand was the Lebanese The Happy Camel where we bought some great salsa’s and cream cheeses for our lunch.

This Saturday, while shopping around Farmer’s Market a major festival was happening all over Edmonton. The city is known throughout Canada for its multitude of festivals and events, and this week it happened to be a festival celebrating street art and street performance. Hundreds of local artists were showing off their paintings on Whyte Avenue, cascading a huge variety of semi-professional artwork.

Another festival running its curse in July is Taste of Edmonton down at Churchill Square where local restaurants and food vendors make little tastes for the public. The 27 year old tasting tradition is hugely popular and filled with live music and lots and lots of different food.

Close to Churchill Square and the 50 or so food vendors is the bus stop for the Historical Tours of Old Edmonton. Though the city doesn’t have much history to boast with and the tour quickly becomes directed at Edmontians with information such as: ‘at the 9th hole of the golf course to your left you can see the remnants of an old brickyard’ it is still an excellent way to get to know the city. The old 1950th bus adds to the attraction of the tours.

West Edmonton Mall

An endless haze of shops and build in attractions, West Edmonton Mall was for almost two decades until 2004 known as the worlds largest enclosed shopping mall. With 570.000 m2 and more than 800 shops the mall can still boast to be the biggest in North America and the fifth largest in the world. Except from the endless shops, the mall also houses an amusement, a waterpark, a large cinema and a year-round ice rink.

It is consumer heaven. It is far from charming and to a large extent disturbing. However, due to its enormity it is worth a visit.

Bifrost

But what has left the biggest impression on me during my time in Edmonton? Rainbows

Never in my life have I seen such beautiful rainbows as in Edmonton, Alberta. Though the province is named Wild Rose Country, I would argue that at least the capital should be known as Rainbow Edmonton. Often rain-clouds encircle the city while the surrounding area is still clear. This means that one of natures most stunning phenomenons, rainbows, show up on the sky. And not just any rainbow, but complete and strongly visible rainbows which seem to encapsulate the entire Downtown.

Good-bye for now Edmonton. I hope to enjoy your hospitality again some day!

Zofka

Howdy Folks! and Welcome to the Calgary Stampede

Thanks to long running soaps such as Dynasty and Dallas, I hold quite strong prejudices against the idea of a Western ‘getting-rich-quickly’ oil city. I never thought that I would take a liking to a place which is all about cattle and oil and intimidating skyscrapers. In my imagination, all that happens in such places are continuous dialogues between rich people who like to cheat and scam each other while they fumble around in intrigues about their weird family relations and discussing who-is-betraying-who.

So imagine my surprise when we arrived at Calgary, Alberta in the midst of the most important event of the year; the Calgary Stampede. Though the city is full of intimidating skyscrapers and cowboys and oil-dynasties, it has a friendly feel to it with lots of different areas to explore. Unlike Edmonton, Downtown Calgary is very compact and the buildings stand close to each other. Chinatown is just a stone throw away from the newest skyscraper and in the smack middle stands the Calgary Tower. Build in 1967, it was a dominating feature of the Calgary skyline, but today it is hidden away between major corporate buildings. From across the bridge on Centre St N there is a wonderful view of the entire Calgary Skyline.

But enough about Calgary. I didn’t come to marvel over the city structure. I came to experience the Calgary Stampede. So say ‘howdy boys!’

Calgary Stampede

I doubt many people back home would know what a stampede is, so for those who did not grow up in the Wild West, here is a small definition or two from online resources.

Stampede (stæmˈpiːd)
noun

  • an impulsive headlong rush of startled cattle or horses
  • headlong rush of a crowd: a stampede of shoppers
  • any sudden large-scale movement or other action, such as a rush of people to support a candidate
  • ( Western US ), ( Canadian ) a rodeo event featuring fairground and social elements
    verb
  • to run away or cause to run away in a stampede

from Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009

Stampede
1828, from Mex.Sp. estampida, from Sp., “an uproar”, from estamper “to stamp, press, pound”, from Gmc. root of Eng. stamp (v.). The verb is from 1823. The political sense is first recorded 1846. As the name of an annual exhibition of cowboy skilld in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, it is attested from 1912.

from Online Etymology Dictionary, 2010

Though events relating to the life of the Alberta farmer has been taken place on the Victoria Park area since 1889, the first actual Calgary Stampede went off in 1912, after trick roper Guy Weadick convinced the Big Four to sponsor a competition that would celebrate the life of the Wild West. Though a huge success, the Stampede only performed that one year and didn’t return until 1919 when Calgary celebrated its returning WW1 soldiers at a Victory Stampede. Since then the Stampede grew in attendance as it merged with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition and became used as a background setting in several movies.

Today it is a mixture of a huge and busy amusement park, a shopping area, concert arenas, agricultural and industrial exhibitions and off course the central nerve; the Stampede Grandstand.

Excitement

For days I have worried about buying tickets for the Rodeo. All through Banff and Bar U Ranch, my boyfriend has had to lay ears to my concern that I might miss this event. And here we are – at the entrance to the park. Finally, I am about to experience my first ever rodeo.

Unknown to the Stampede grounds, we end up at the shopping area where we walk through the wonders of bathing equipment, juice-makers and real cow rugs. It seems a Mecca for excess items. However, it is also a great place to look for cowboy hats, and having promised myself to get one, I excitedly drag my boyfriend in the direction of a shop which sells them. Now, at the Stampede it seems fashion to buy cheap cowboy hats made from straw, and you see them in the thousands; on the heads of people and in the shops and stands of the Stampede area as well as beyond. They are to the Stampede, what green is to St. Patrick’s Day. But dreaming of a real cowboy hat and secretly hoping to look like a 50’s movie star, I have no plan to get hooked on a souvenir hat. Instead I end up with a beautiful black woollen cowboy hat with a thin leather string. Oh my, I could step right in to a 50’s Western!

I felt a bit silly as I first took on my newly acquired cowboy hat, since I never before wore one. In fact, the only ones who do wear them where I come from are dancers or girls out on a stag night – and on such occasions, the cowboy hat is most often pink or with gold pallets. But after a little while and as I start feeling more and more a part of the Stampede crowd, I start appreciating the shadow on what has become a hot July day.

With tickets to the rodeo we head towards the Stampede Grandstand, eating a bit of amusement park fast food on the way. At the ground we are led in to the standing area. Though amazed by the Grandstand, the standing area is far from cleverly constructed. The area is placed behind, a fence, a scene, a clown and a long line of newspaper photographers. It seems more important that the poor standing spectator view entertainment at the stage than the actual events on the ground.

Pulling out my camera and an extra long lens, I start taking pictures of the cowboys while trying to avoid the fence, the scene, the clown and the long line of newspaper photographers. My results are for you to judge (pictures are at the bottom). The crowd is roaring and the atmosphere is great while one brave/clever/fortunate cowboy after the other tries to stay the magical 8 seconds on the pissed off horse. I wonder how anyone would ever make themselves get up on such a wild horse unless it was strictly necessary, and secretly celebrate that my boyfriend’s fascination for horses hasn’t led him to pursue a carrier in the rodeo. But no more time for thinking as yet another one bites the dust.

It’s horses, it’s leather, it’s sweat, it’s the Stampede and I am addicted!

Zofka, former city girl – newborn cowgirl

Cattle Country

Ever since arriving in Alberta, I have wanted to get a feel of the wild West. I dreamed of meeting the small town prairie feeling. I found it today!

We began the day saying goodbye to our pretty little campsite at Bow Valley before heading South into cattle country. Our plan was to visit Bar-U Ranch, which is a Canadian historical site displaying the life of actual cowboys. But having a bit of a drive ahead of us, we began the day driving towards Bragg Creek.

Bragg Creek

I can’t say much about this town, since we only stopped at the shopping centre. However, I really liked what I saw. The place was build with a very Western touch and has escaped the building boom thus far. There were no warehouse buildings and no cheap fast food chains. Rather all the shops seemed local and the eatery proved to be a brilliant spot. It was simply called Mountain Bistro Pizzaria, and I allow myself to do a bit of advertising for this place. The food was great. My boyfriend and I shared a fantastic pizza (for breakfast), while the adorable lady behind the counter charged our phones and cameras, chatting freely. We were far from the only customers and as time passed the place almost filled up with families and local cowboys. A good thing that is, since construction on the parking lot apparently was taking away some business from the usual ensemble of truck drivers. The lady was such a sweetheart and laughing and running around and making everyone feel great. I really do recommend this place should you be in the Bragg Creek area. Also the local café close by was a pleasant experience. The lady here was British which it seemed was not uncommon among the locals.

Bar U Ranch

Our next stop was Bar U Ranch, which is quite appropriate as we were planning on visiting the Calgary Stampede on the following day. Two of the former owners of the Bar U Ranch, George Lane and Patrick Burns, are among The Big Four who founded the Calgary Stampede (but more on that in my next blog).

Bar U is the only preserved ranch to commemorate ranching in Canada. It does so in a very active manner, though our visit was made difficult due to heavy wind. Visitors walk through main parts of the ranch where they can see how the place was run and how people on the ranch lived.

The ranch in itself is full of history having been the home of famous cowboy John Ware as well as the Sundance Kid (not Robert Redford, but the actual Sundance Kid, Harry Longabaugh). Also it was visited by Edward, Prince of Wales, who later abdicated the throne. No wonder Kate and William stayed clear of the place.

It is a nice place to visit though I imagine it is particularly made for families with small children. However, we did get to see a saddle maker at work and chat a bit with some of the people working there. The highpoint though was my boyfriends overjoyed expression when he found the stables and had a chance to say hello to the horses. If it hadn’t been for the wind getting stronger by the minute, I am not sure I would have been able to drag him away from there.

We left Bar U Ranch and had a coffee at yet another sweet little town named Longview, known for its Jerky. Now Jerky is apparently dried Canadian meet, which real cowboys simply can’t stop chewing. However, Longview also had a sweet little café with yet another laughing lady behind the counter. So in the end we drove towards Calgary after having met so many friendly people and seen a bit of ranching history in the beautiful South Alberta.

Zofka

Going Banff!

After a few days in Edmonton and as my boyfriend got four days off work, we decided to make a trip South into cattle country and the Rockies. The planning was extremely hectic and after having stopped at several Canadian Tire stores to find a two-bed tent, I was surprised when we actually drove out of Edmonton.

Leaving Edmonton we took hwy 2 in the direction of Calgary, enjoying how the scenery changed from flat prairie to hills and laughing about how no mountains were visible in Mountain View Country (though I expect it to be because of the weather).

On the way we stopped at Gasoline Alley south of Red Deer to get gas and an iced cap. Gasoline Alley is a lane which runs parallel to the highway for a long stretch midway between Edmonton and Calgary. It is made up of gas stations, branches of all known fast food stores as well as more local eateries and off course the mandatory truck and rv dealerships. It is far from an attractive place and is not made for the critical eye of the tourist but for the comfort of the truck drivers and others who drive Highway 2 between the two main Alberta cities. Yet even for a tourist unknown to life on the road Gasoline Alley is a fascinating stop to make.

Before hwy 2 reached Calgary we drove West towards the Rocky Mountains. After a long stretch of non-mountain view throughout Mountain View Country, I finally got a glimpse of the majestic Rockies. We reached Bow Valley Campgrounds just outside Canmore as the clock neared 11 PM and had to put up our newly acquired tent in the darkness of the pine tree forest. Fortunately I have gathered some wisdom on setting up camp from a few festivals over the years. The camp unit was great and only a few meters from the beautiful Bow River with scenic mountains showing on the opposite riverside.

Canmore

Once again I pushed my boyfriend out of bed in the early hours of the morning, impatient to start the day. We began the day by spraying ourselves with a toxic mosquito repellent before heading towards the river side, enjoying a short walk. But though the river was beautiful, I had a long list of destinations which I hoped to get crossed out throughout the day. Unable to contain myself I manoeuvred my boyfriend towards the car and while laughing he drove us in the direction of Canmore and a morning coffee.

Canmore is not a particularly charming place in my eyes. Like so many other places that I have seen in Alberta the town has disappeared in a forest of one-family houses and fake looking apartment buildings. The building boom which is based on the premises that all families should have their own obnoxiously big house has destroyed much of the charm that Canmore would otherwise have had. Most of the buildings were bad imitations of traditional Alp houses, though I don’t believe the builders have ever been to the Alps. As a stretch of road it greatly resembled Gasoline Alley except from the mountains surrounding the town, and I began to worry that this attitude of building oversized doll houses everywhere might even have reached the national park.

After coffee and gazing in the brochures laying on the counter of the coffee shop, we decided to take the long trip to Lake Louise. Here we would first take a trip in the Lake Louise gondola and then move towards the lake itself. Afterwards our plan was to check out the more remote Lake Moraine before heading back.

Lake Louise Gondola

The Lake Louise Gondola and connected wildlife interpretive centre proved out to be a really great choice. Heading up the gondola we were told by the staff that a Grizzly bear and her two cubs had been spotted at tower 12, but as we reached the tower nothing was to be seen except pine trees.

On the top we enjoyed the spectacular view of the Rockies as they hoovered over Lake Louise. This view in itself makes the trip and price worth it. Taking in the feel of the mountains I began to truly appreciate their name.

Close by the view point there is an interpretive centre for wildlife and particularly the grizzly bear. Here, a friendly guy from South Africa told us about the damages that could be made to a bear should it be exposed too much to human habitation. As we were about to end, his walkie talkie started chatting excitedly as several staff members notified each other to the movements of the tower 12 grizzly bear and her two cubs. They were apparently heading in the direction of the interpretive centre. All those present at the centre eagerly walked out to the front porch and were treated a rare sights. Far away but close enough to be viewed through binoculars, the mother grizzly and her cubs were exploring the pine forest. After a little while of bear-gazing, we returned to the gondola to descent. At the same time mother grizzly had returned to the towers and as we descented we had a great view of her and her cubs as we moved in the gondola far above her head. Though I had never imagined that the sight of a bear would thrill me this much, I must admit that I was terribly excited and for the rest of the trip down, my heart pounded and we chatted eagerly of our good fortune.

Lake Louise

Leaving the gondola and an arriving tour bus of Koreans we headed towards the tourist hub of Lake Louise. Arriving we were met by a huge asphalted parking area and large RVs and campers. Several others were looking for a parking space and I wondered how long we might have to drive around in circles before finding a spot. However, with a small car it proved substantially easier than it would have been with a dog-truck. As we had parked we made our way down to a very turquoise lake. Lake Louise has been touched by human “re-naturalisation” and for the comfort of the tourists the one side had been made a strolling area where people could enjoy the sun and take pictures of the steep and beautiful mountains of the opposite side. Lake Louise is a pleasant spot and really amazing, however the large Fairmont Hotel ad the human build promenade makes it seem too commercial for a mountain lake. It reminded me a bit of Lake Bled in Slovenia which because of its extreme beauty also has seen a flux of tourists and hotels at its shores.

Lake Moraine

Leaving beautiful Lake Louise, I hoped to find Lake Moraine less trafficked and without asphalt parking lots and a big monstrous hotel claiming the area. And I was pleasantly surprised. Lake Moraine is to Lake Louise what Lake Bohinj is to Lake Bled. An unspoiled and wild sister lake. Though you also find lots of people at Lake Moraine and though there are luxury lodges for renting near the lake none of it seems to obscure your sight of the lake itself. The lodges are hidden away and build in colours of the nature around them.

Should we not have encountered mother grizzly at the gondola, Lake Moraine would have been the absolute high point of our Banff trip. The drive to the lake is in itself a beautiful drive, but when arriving at the lake and taking the walk from one end to the other through a lush and green wilderness you are constantly shocked at the natural wonder that this place is. I trust that my boyfriend, patient as he is, became a bit tired of me pulling up my camera every other second. Not since Caucasus have I taken so many pictures in such a short amount of time. (Since I have been quite incapable of choosing which ones to post here, there are quite a few from Lake Moraine at the end).

After enjoying the spectacular views of Lake Moraine we drove off to walk a bit around the tourist filled central hub of the park, Banff town. However, tired as we were from all the excitement of the day we had only little energy for the overpriced main street of Banff and its bars and restaurants. So, after a quick bite we returned to our pretty little camp site at Bow River.

Zofka

First Impressions

Canada Day

I arrived on the 30th and after going to bed early, I woke up fresh early in the morning of July 1. I was jet-lagged, 8 hours ahead of Edmonton, and pulling my boyfriend out of bed I jumped around eager to jump-start my first day in Canada, and my first ever Canada Day. Unlike any other day in Canada, the 1st of July is a day of celebration and joy, cultural and family-oriented events, music and play. It is regarded as Canada’s birthday!

Starting the day, we took the bus Downtown. Placing ourselves at the secluded seats at the end of the bus, we happened upon a somewhat desperate man. Not long after we had taken our seats did he engage us in conversation, telling us of what a terrible night he had had, being attacked and having his possessions stolen. As we got off the bus, we offered the man a coffee and some coins for calling and thrilled by the prospect of a hot coffee, he started long tails of how he would repay by buying us all kind of stuff with his huge stack of money. After polite chatters and as the clock was nearing 7.30 AM, we parted ways and my boyfriend and I headed towards the legislature building, which was promising to be the main place for Canada Day events.

The first planned event was also what I had been most excited about and the reason for my boyfriends abrupt wakening the same morning. A local Muslim community was baking pancakes for the public, treating everyone to a free breakfast. Now for some reason, the image of American pancakes with lots and lots of maple syrup is central to any perception of Canada I have ever held, and the idea of being served pancakes on my very first day made me ecstatic. After an hour of pancakes, maple syrup and enjoying the chatter of the many Edmontians stopping by, I was content. With a red maple leave on my cheek, several pins on my clothes and two flags in my Fjällräven backpack, I felt as having integrated into Canadian society over night.

Everyone was so friendly and chit-chatting was heard from all corners. Unlike any place I have ever been, there is an easygoing vibe in Canada, where people on the street joke and laugh with each other. Though I have only been here for a few days it is impossible for me not to think of the Canadians as some of the most friendly people I have met. I was almost glad when I came across a bad-mannered bus driver at the end of Canada Day, thinking that it almost seemed too much that people were so friendly towards each other.

But before encountering the bus driver, we enjoyed a few hours of watching Ukrainian and native dances. Edmonton was founded mainly by Ukrainians and as it seems with most diaspora the Edmontian Ukrainians are proud of their heritage. The Ukrainian folk dancing was thrilling and marvellously performed. I can not imagine that many young Ukrainians join the world of folk dancing and it pleases me to know that such traditions are kept alive in the diaspora scattered around the world.

As the major events at the grounds of the legislature building were over, we crossed the North Saskatchewan River and spent the rest of the day strolling up Whyte Avenue in the Old Strathcona district. The street is old in Canadian terms and many of the houses are build in the prairie style with fake facades showing

Zofka

Basecamp Edmonton

Welcome to the continent of chain stores, heavy trucks and endless raffles! Welcome to North America, more precisely the city of Edmonton (population 782439), capital of Alberta.

Information from YellowPages.ca:

Starbucks in Edmonton = 44
Second Cup in Edmonton = 41
Tim Hortons in Edmonton = 45

Not many people can boast that their first overseas adventure began in Edmonton. I dare say, not many tourists can boast to have visited this city, as it is not a major tourist attraction and is overshadowed by cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and even Calgary. Though I shouldn’t mention Calgary in a blog about Edmonton, seeing as they are ardent rivals.

My plan is to stay in Edmonton for an entire month, while getting to know the life in Edmonton, something which has proven a bit difficult since I don’t have a driver’s license and buses seem a rarity here. Though having a city population of near to 800000, and an area population of 1.15 million, it seems that the system of public transport is far from thoroughly developed. This is surely due to the widespread practice of owning one or more cars, or perhaps the amount of cars is a consequence of the lack of sufficient public transportation. Nonetheless, there are only a few buses and a swarm of trucks, some of them the size of buses.

The trucks look like dogs, and to me they would seem grotesque in any city centre. However, as Edmonton is a city with such open space and far distances they become less obvious in the city scenery. In Europe the owner of such trucks are frowned upon, and it is the fashion to think environment and economy when choosing what often becomes a small hybrid European or Japanese car. But this fashion has yet not reached Edmonton to any great extend, highly likely because of the long distances, lack of public transport and cold winters. But enough about my fascination with the ‘dog-trucks’.

As mentioned Edmonton spreads out on a large area covering more land than New York, or so I have been told. In the middle of the city lies a large valley of green which separates the new and ‘old’ city centres. This valley is apparently 22 times larger than Central Park, NY and is dominated by the North Saskatchewan River over which runs old rustic metal bridges for the use of crossing from one city part to the other. In this way, though Edmonton holds some long distances, it also has a welcoming green feel to it.

My neighbourhood

I am visiting my boyfriend who is currently residing on the border to the more dodgy end of Edmonton at the Avenue of Nations. Though dodgy, this place however has its charm and I am happy to get the chance of experiencing it up close. It is a neighbourhood that according to several posters around does not tolerate prostitution and encourage people to report-a-John (John being the nickname of a pimp). It is moreover a neighbourhood of many different nationalities hence the name of the central street. Around the corner from where I live lies the Hellenic Cultural Centre, A Chinese Memorial, a local mosque and across from the apartment lies Olson’s Curling and a pawnshop. This is all mingled in with the local Starbucks, Second Cup, 7-Eleven, Blockbuster and so forth – only lacking a Tim Hortons to be complete. It is not pretty, but it has a certain feeling to it of a neighbourhood that encompasses everything, – excluding the John who has to work in secret of the haunting posters.

In the local supermarket, at the customer service; three raffles are going on. According to the man behind the desk these are hugely popular. I even encountered one sneaky customer who, knowing that the raffle for the stove was on its last day, bought a ticket and with all his hand in the raffle box tried to place his ticket somewhere in the middle, so it would be well placed. Sneaky he thought – until I mentioned the possibility that they might shake the box before finding the winner.

I am really looking forward to becoming better acquainted with both the city and the neighbourhood this following month.

Zofka