Small but Mighty Towns, Part 2

Not long ago, I dedicated one issue of my authentic travel blog to small but mighty towns within a two to six hour radius of larger Metropolitan centres (click hereto see this earlier post).  I resume this theme with three more small but mighty towns worthy of the authentic traveller’s attention: Port Townsend (Washington, USA); Orvieto in Italy; and Ganges on Saltspring Island (British Columbia, Canada).

1. Port Townsend

If you like towns with well-restored 100+ year old homes filled with B & B’s, then Port Townsend is your kind of place.  It’s a two-hour drive from Seattle, 3.5 hour drive from Vancouver (not including border traffic), or a 3.5 hour trip involving a ferry from Victoria.

Port Townsend began as an Indigenous village millennia ago; but not long after first European contact, its Native American population came close to decimation by illness, including smallpox.  Descendants today include the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (to learn more about this Tribe, click here) and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe (for more info click here).   European settlers soon earned their living from the town’s new seaport.  Tacoma eventually stole its thunder, though; and Port Townsend declined until the 1920s when logging and sawmill activity revived the economy.  Then, starting with the early 1970s, Port Townsend became popular as a counter-culture haven with less expensive housing and a mix of old and newer homes, with the older ones dating back over a century.

Port Townsend today is one of those funky small towns many people would love to live in (especially if they’re retired).  There is also a lot going on in Spring, Summer, and Fall (  So is it authentic?  Its dependence on tourism might increase the risk of Disneyesque qualities.  But the strong counterculture tradition, small town kindness, and genuine love for the heritage of their city gives Port Townsend and its people a real warmth.  I also just have a soft spot for small West Coast towns (on either side of the border), because their inhabitants (even strangers) seem familiar to me.

2. Orvieto, Italy

In comparison, the buildings in Orvieto are much older.  Orvieto is a hill town in a wine region of Italy, with roots in the ancient Etruscan civilization.  You can take a 1.5-hour train ride from there to Rome, or drive.  Either way, your arrival point will be in the newer part of town (not attractive) where you will take either an elevator or an older funicular (which I love) to get up to the stunning older town.  Many of its buildings date back to the Middle Ages, including its stunning cathedral.

Orvieto building detail. Author photo.

We visited Orvieto one Autumn, just at the end of tourist season.  We had  wanted an alternative to the overpriced and over- touristed region of Tuscany.  Even in October, we could stroll around during the day without jackets, under gorgeous blue skies.

While there, we also took a bus trip to nearby Civita di Bagnoreggio, reached only by climbing stairs and a rather long pedestrian bridge.

Civita di bagno reggio_src_Bama tour italia
Civita di BagnoReggio, Umbria Source: Bama Tour Italia website

With only four permanent households (at that time) still living there year round, Civita has become a vacation spot (an alternative cottage country) for city dwellers from Rome and elsewhere.  Still, there is something humbling and impressive about being around this quasi-ghost town that continues to have some amazing Italian cuisine (at least during the tourist season).

3. Ganges, Saltspring Island BC

Rustic buildings on Saltspring Island. Author photo, June 2016

The third town, Ganges, is within reach of both Vancouver or Victoria through a combination of car and ferry travel (as little as an hour if traffic is light and you time things right, or up to 4 if you haven’t).  Harbour Air and Saltspring Air now fly small float planes between both cities and Saltspring, making access a lot faster (a 25-minute flight from downtown to Saltspring) but not cheaper.  For more than one of you, renting a car and going by ferry is definitely the better price, but will take longer. An insider trick for those accessing Ganges from the Victoria side: you can also go via the Crofton ferry which runs as frequently but with far less traffic.  It is a longer drive this way   -1.5 hours north of Victoria to the Crofton ferry-  but the route along the Malahat is breathtaking.  You can also combine your journey with other scenic stops.

Why go? The entire island is beautifully green and gives you a lovely mix of forested /coastal /agrarian landscapes.  You can visit beaches and working farms that produce wine, cheese, fresh herbs and apples.  In summers you can take in the Saturday market, where there are some truly wonderful craft products and produce items sold.

Author photo, June 2016
Saltspring Market.  Author photo, June 2016

And, you can also get a dose of counterculture.  While Saltspring has its share of part-time recreational residents with cottages, it also has many full-time residents, some retired, others commuting to jobs in Victoria, and yet more folks earning their living locally through farming, commerce, or art.  These folks all love a good protest.  On one trip long ago, we noticed a march to demonstrate against the Iraq war.  We joined in -because it was Saltspring, and that felt like fitting in. Since Ganges is the heart of the island (but still so small), the marchers all had to do multiple rounds of what was basically a one-block radius).

This edition of the Small but Mighty Towns theme has focused on two towns with more of a countercultural vibe, along with a very different classical Italian hill town.  What they all have in common is their relaxed pace, and a strong sense of almost a dialogue with their local landscapes, whether set on the coast or a landlocked hillside.  Even if your time in the nearby metropolitan area is limited, each of these three is worthy of a detour.  Stay tuned for yet another edition of the Small and Mighty Towns feature in a few weeks!


Authentic and Healthy Travel: Forest Bathing

In this posting, I take the concept of authentic travel in a different direction, exploring a type of activity you can do while travelling which will put you in touch with your own health and well-being. In the first part, I discuss the Japanese notion of forest-bathing and why it’s terrific for you.  In the second part, I discuss three different ways you can have a forest-bathing experience while in a city away from home.

What is Forest-bathing and Why Do it?

Forest-bathing, or shinrinyoku in Japanese, involves time spent walking in the forest and purposefully breathing in the aromatic compounds (anti-microbial wood oils) released by the trees in it.  Not only is this a pleasant and relaxing activity -it is also good for you.

A study of Japanese men and women tested whether people would see health improvements after time spent walking in the forest, as compared with a relatively tree-free city environment.    Results found decreases in stress hormones for the forest-bathers.  They also found higher activity among clusters of cells believed to play a role in killing tumours and releasing anti-cancer proteins.  This was enough for the researchers to tentatively suggest a role for forest-bathing in cancer prevention.  And the health effects of just an hour or two in the forest setting were found to last up to one month. To see this full study (Li, 2010), click here .

When travelling, especially in a major metropolitan or historic centre, you might find yourself overwhelmed with all of the new sights and experiences you are having.  As a North American who loves the historic centres of Europe, usually about ten days in to any trip I often find myself overwhelmed by all the heritage and art, and craving a day of respite.  If you’re like me, a trip to the forest can be a wonderful palate-cleanser (so to speak)- a way to recharge that can be health-boosting as well.  Finally, in the spirit of authentic travel, your trip to the forest will bring you in contact with an experience enjoyed by many locals.

Forest bathing3
Author photo, Spring 2016

How to Forest-bathe in a New City

I suggest three ways to do this, starting with the ideal -true forest immersion as well as two potentially more accessible alternatives if you’re without a car and transit access to a forest is difficult.

1. Full-on Forest Immersion

This approach is the ideal, and involves spending time in a preserved forest area with little or no human intervention – i.e., a non-manicured space where nature is pretty much left to do its thing, aside from trail maintenance and perhaps washroom facilities.  These spaces are often found at the outskirts of cities, although sometimes you can find them within the limits of newer/ smaller cities.  In Vancouver, places like Pacific Spirit Park within the University Endowment Lands are a special example of this type of non-manicured facility that is even accessible by transit (for more info, click here).  In other areas, though, accessing these spaces is more likely to require a car or at least special tour bus.  Knowing that you might want this type of experience on your trip, it pays to either research beforehand or ensure you have good Wi Fi access while on holiday so that you can look up access options.

Forest bathing2
Author photo, Fall 2015

2. Expansive 19th / Early 20th Century Parks- Landscaped, but Lots of Trees

New York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calbert Vaux, in the mid-19th C is a great place for forest-bathing.  I love how diverse this park is- allowing you to combine restorative greenspace exposure with more formal gardens, trails, and even proximity to the Museum mile.  Several subway stops will put you within easy reach of this park.  According to one researcher, Olmstead was an early advocate of forest bathing for its medicinal and restorative benefits, even though he didn’t use that term.  To read more, click here here.

In Europe, you might want to access this type of space at Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, designed in the mid-1800s as a royal hunting ground (for more info click here: ).  And in Rome, be sure to check out Villa Ada- located in an appealing northern suburb, and accessible through a 30-40 minute walk or by tram.  This park is wonderfully restorative- particularly in the areas filled with umbrella pines, like the one in this photo shown below.  I spent over a month in Rome several years ago, and this was a favourite hang-out spot, where I felt quite safe.

Villa Ada_Rome

For a map and very short description about  Villa Ada, click here.  For a greater range of photos of the park, click here.  And as a bonus, if you time things right, you might be able to attend the Roma Incontra Il Mondo music festival or the Roma Folk Fest (happening July 30, 2016).

3. Tree-lined streets and small parks.

Often streets can provide us with an amazing sense of respite if they are shaded with trees.  In urban planning circles, efforts to strengthen the presence of trees in cities has led to many initiatives making streets greener and cooler in summer.  London is quite green as world cities go, and has recently launched initiatives to make its streets and parks even more tree-friendly.  For a map of green streets in London, click  here .  Closer to home, in Portland, Oregon there have also been significant efforts to inventory, preserve and enhance urban trees.  To see where the greenest spots downtown are, click here for a map.  Sometimes the best way to find a green street is to travel to a residential part of the city and walk towards the greenery.  You might discover many other delightful things while having an abbreviated forest bathing experience.

So forest bathing is a great activity for your health generally, and to press the reset button on your psyche when you are travelling in a more urban environment.  Even the largest cities can provide you with opportunities to get this benefit, either by travelling to their outskirts, searching for a large, mid 19th/ early 20th century-designed park, or gravitating towards tree-lined streets.  And who knows – the experience might bring you some ideas you’ll want to suggest to your city or town council when you get home for greening the streets where you live.

Exploring Authenticity -Part 1

So far my posts have covered small things to help travellers access more authentic experiences.  These have been relatively undemanding, small ideas, as I truly believe that small things, when taken together, make a difference.

Today I explore authenticity at a broader level –because reflecting is an equally important part of authentic travel.  So heads up: I’m about to get geeky again. In this post I summarize the first of several different approaches to understanding authenticity, as it affects travel.  And I fully recognize there is seldom full agreement on what the term “authenticity” means.  In Part 1 I discuss the debate about whether travel commodifies culture.

1. Cultural Commodification and Travel

Some critics of tourism in general, and of tourist attractions and entertainment specifically, claim travellers are commodifying local culture.  This means that locals will cheapen their own culture to ensure it appeals to tourists.  (Perhaps locals do this to redress poverty; sometimes they do this just out of a desire to get ahead.) They will present only the most simple, superficial aspects of it so that it can be marketed to outsiders.  And in the process, they will spend less energy keeping alive those aspects of their culture that are less marketable, but give it meaning and enable it to have a positive influence on local lives (beyond the financial).  So this type of critique argues that the very process of tourism kills authenticity.

Sounds harsh, right?  And doesn’t it take a lot of the fun out of travelling to worry about that kind of thing?

Well, this might resonate with you more if you reflect for a moment on the Christian holiday of Christmas –because something comparable has been going on there.  For any of us with a spiritual tradition that celebrates this holiday, the emphasis on buying, buying, buying, and the stress of ensuring everything is perfect for our family Christmas dinners (particularly in terms of the things we have to buy in order to make them so) makes the whole thing start to leave a bad taste for us.  The commercial aspect of this holiday wasn’t always so pronounced.  In fact, it wasn’t originally meant to be part of it.  But –like it or not—the commercial aspect is part of Christmas at the moment.   And as more and more of us resent this, we find ourselves investing less energy in even the positive aspects of the tradition, while complaining more about the tradition generally.  We also try to reduce the impact of the negatives of the holiday, by avoiding its more commercialized symbols and reducing their presence in our lives.


Similar things can happen for practitioners of other cultural traditions, including festivals, art, music, and celebrating sacred spaces.  A good example for me came with my first exposure to Hawaiian culture as a holidaying child in the 1970s.  Essentially this culture was portrayed commercially as focused on model-perfect 20-something girls in bikini tops (or worse, coconut shell bras) and grass skirts shaking their hips to the same cheesy song everywhere we went.  Often they were Caucasian, too.  Performances that emphasized this take on hula dancing were clearly catering to its commercial aspect (sex and sexiness sell).  And yet they made the hula seem tawdry -an empty husk of what it really represented to the Hawaiian people as a part of their traditional way of life.  But fortunately the story didn’t end there, and the hula did not die out.

Since that time, the Hawaiian people have taken important steps in reclaiming and strengthening their culture in ways that, first and foremost, resonate for them.  For some good reading on how this has been happening, check out some of these resources (click here).  This also includes efforts to revive the practice of men’s hula (click here ).  Hawaiians reached to find a hint of what was authentic about the hula for them, and nurtured it so that the authentic eventually overtook the commercial.

There are other things to reflect on around the commodification question. Not all aspects of commodification have to be bad.  Poverty can also be pretty awful; while the money that tourist-oriented cultural performances /art sales can generate the funds needed to support certain ways of life.  On this aspect of the debate, the argument goes like this:  people should be allowed to make a living -and as long as people from that culture remain in charge of how their local culture.  If they pick and choose how to represent the culture, they are more likely to portray it respectfully.

So what should a traveller take away from this debate on authenticity?  There are no easy answers.  But when choosing where to invest your travel dollar, you may want to reflect on the following points:

  • Who is in control of how this culture is being represented?
  • How are local practitioners of this tradition / knowledge keepers being compensated?
  • To what extent does making this festival/art/music to outsiders take away from its more traditional use/ access for local / Indigenous people to whom it belongs? And on a related note, are local / Indigenous people welcome as audience members / consumers at this same venue that I plan on attending?
  • Are there ways that attending this performance/ consuming this culture as a tourist helps give back to its Indigenous practitioners?

Just on the topic of Hawaii, on more recent trips, so many more hula performances have been given by community clubs and classes, that have sprung up to make this practice more accessible to community members- and these performances have included lots of grannies and young children, whose family members have also been cheering them on from the audience.  In my view, participating as an audience member in these circumstances does feel authentic, because it reinforces and validates a local practice that is benefiting local people.   Of course, this can be a challenging line to draw, and in some cases it’s hard to be sure whether participating as a tourist is a good or a bad thing. The key thing is to be mindful, and to try to appreciate the local perspectives.

Next time I post on this angle, I will look at the very notion of authenticity as a commodity.  That won’t be for a few weeks- don’t want to bog you down with too much geekiness all at once.)

Live Like a Local When Travelling- Five More Ways

I started this blog with a post on how to live like a local when travelling, and since then the ideas have continued to percolate.  So -one idea would be to join the locals running in a marathon in another city dressed as a superhero (shown in the photo behind this headline -and if you guessed that this was Los Angeles, you would be right).  That’s not for everyone.  Here are five more (easier) ways to live like a local:

1. Bring your dog

If you’re travelling by car with your dog, you’ll automatically gravitate to dog-friendly sites (shady in summer, off-leash trails and parks, accessible water).  Ask locals for directions to these while you are with your dog.  Just about everyone -in North America at least- will be friendlier to you if you have a canine escort.  Be sure to check out corresponding regulations for bringing dogs if you’re travelling to a country where you and your dog don’t live.  You may just need a doggie passport aka vaccination certificate. But some countries are more prohibitive than others, and require a quarantine.

Miss_G_at Thetis
The Divine Miss G (Author’s Dog) on the Trail. Spring 2016.

If you’re arriving by air and Fido hates flying, check out the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and see if they’ll let you borrow one and give a homeless dog some exercise.  (Pre-plan by making inquiries before you leave home.)  If that doesn’t work, visit an off-leash park with a juicy sandwich and you’ll have instant friends!  As a last resort, look up an independent pet store and buy your dog a souvenir of the trip she didn’t come on.  Chances are, it will be in a fun neighbourhood filled with all sorts of interesting creatures (2- and 4-legged).  One of my favourites, recommended by  a friend living in the neighbourhood: Woofgang in Vancouver’s Cambie Village.  For basic phone, hours and address, click  here.

2. Bring your picnic basket for proper picnicking.

It doesn’t have to be big -it can even be a picnic back-back, just as long as you have utensils, a tablecloth, and plastic wineglasses to show the world you’re really classy.  (In some places, wine and parks are a legal combination.)  You’ll fit right in with all the other locals dining al fresco in the square or at the beach.  Having the right equipment also makes it more likely that you actually picnic, which is also a great way to reduce dining out costs.

3. Sign up for a language course

As noted in Post#1, even just knowing a handful of words in the local language can open doors for you.  Why not expand on the benefits by taking a language Immersion course in a holiday destination?  Some of the best courses may be a bit long for a typical holiday.  But several schools have developed shorter courses for this very reason. Many decades ago I learned French this way.  While I haven’t taken any of the following, (so please do your own research into the most effective ones) examples of short-term (i.e. two-week) courses include: French immersion in Provence through Crea langues (French for languages), shown  here; or Spanish immersion on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula through The Open School of Ethnography and Anthropology (shown here ).

4. Sign up for an art course that locals take.

While a two-week artist’s tour of Tuscany sounds ideal, in practice these packages can be costly -and you’re stuck for many hours a day for weeks with the same people.  In most cities locals also like to stretch their creative abilities.  This includes short-term classes (e.g. short courses with a specialist focus), although here again, plan/book ahead.  In my home province (British Columbia), most community recreation (leisure) centres advertise course listings on their websites.  Just google a city name and the words “community centre” or “recreation centre”, then look for that centre’s list of classes.

My home town (Victoria) is filled with artists.  And I love boosting  my creativity with  a very reasonably-priced class through Poppet Studios (click here ).  The owner is a great teacher who has a network of art instructors at her disposal.  I’ve taken both an encaustic collage course and a brass/copper jewellery-making class through Poppet, each class for less than $100 (Canadian) for 3-6 hours of instruction, although prices vary.  Short, sweet, positive, and lots of fun, even for a rank amateur!

5.Rent a bicycle instead of a car

You don’t have to be a super athlete to cycle. In North America we sometimes risk thinking that only the fit are allowed to ride.  But in Europe where more people cycle as a mode of transportation, people of all shapes  ride, wearing their street clothes rather than hardcore cycling gear.   Even if you haven’t cycled in years, use the excuse of a holiday to try something new.

Many cities have become known for their cycling infrastructure like Copenhagen, and Portland.  In summer, even more cities get into the act by ensuring not just good routes but easily rented public bikes: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, New York, and even Boulder (Colorado) to name a few.  And by renting a city bike you may even be doing more good than you know. Learn about an entrepreneur who set up a bike manufacturing and assembly shop in Detroit, boosting the local economy of a city in need of investment, and supplying his end product to cities like New York, by clicking here . (The city planner in me loves a good urban revitalization / economic redevelopment story!)

You can enhance your connection to   your destination of choice with four-legged help, on wheels, dining al fresco, or by expanding your learning horizons.  Ultimately, the most authentic travel experience is often made up of life’s simple pleasures.  Keep watching for more tips for living like a local when you travel in future posts.



Small but Mighty Towns – Part 1

This posting is dedicated to small(er) towns within the orbit (a 2- to 6-hour drive or train ride) of larger centres.  Often travelers, especially when arriving by airplane, end up in major metropolitan areas because these are the easiest / cheapest to get to.  And who wouldn’t want to spend time in many of them.  I mean –why fly into San Francisco and not see it?

Except… that’s just what we did on one trip to Northern California.

Both my husband and I have visited San Fran many times and have loved each encounter.  But lately it’s become so much less affordable- and a lot (although not all) of the things that have made it feel authentic have been eroding.  So we chose to invest our vacation dollars- and time- in the nearby town of Mendocino and its more working-class twin, Fort Bragg (see below).  Not only did we enjoy the beauty of these two small towns, we picked up on a really strong sense of community there -and art.  It was as if quietly, one by one, a lot of the cool kids had been slipping out of the big city (after being priced out) and quietly setting up camp there.

In Part 1 of my small but mighty towns series, I cover the following towns (all worthy of the authentic traveler’s notice): Mendocino/ Fort Bragg (California, USA); Framingham (Suffolk, UK); and České Budějovice (Czech Republic).

1 Mendocino / Fort Bragg

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Headquarter building for the Mendocino Film Festival.  Author photo, 2016.

If you fly into either the San Francisco or the Oakland airports, rent a car and then head north on Highway 101.  (You can often find a better airfare into the smaller Oakland airport.) The twisty, narrow road takes you past some spectacular coastal scenery as well as into some other adorable beachside towns.  Allow three hours if you don’t stop a lot to get to Mendocino.  But chances are, you will want to stop, so give yourself plenty of time.

Mendocino gave us enough distance from San Francisco, seemed adorable, small (fewer than 1,000 people), and had its annual film festival happening right in the middle of our trip (for more info click here).  There are some lovely Cape Cod style buildings there (apparently authentic because the town was first settled by many folks from New England).  Fascinating fact: the town got a new lease on life given to it in the late 1950s/ early 60s, when an artist helped revive it by bringing art and other artists to it –a historic example of the cool kids coming to town and settling in.  It was painter Bill Zacha who first appreciated Mendocino’s “good bones” as a creative hub, and created its local art center (to learn more click here ).  The Mendocino Art Center is still going strong: to learn more click here.


Mendocino Art Center. Author photo, 2016.

Fort Bragg is the larger nearby centre, and a place where we stayed (thanks AirBnB!) with a local photographer, his wife, and their Australian shepherds, in the ground floor of a converted barn that doubles as a photography studio when guests aren’t staying there.  We particularly loved the country feel (just a 2 minute drive from the city centre), and the friendly, down-to-earth people that we met in town.  One of its attractions, Glass Beach, sounds like something different than you might expect –it’s famous for shards of sea glass washing up on its shores, but these fragments are small and sometimes inconsistently present.  Still, the setting is gorgeous and it is worth a trip.


The Park at Glass Beach. Author photo, 2016.

If you go, another hidden gem in the area is the Anderson Valley.  Many small wineries have set up shop since the 1980s, but the area is far less known than the Sonoma and Napa Valleys.


Anderson Valley.  Photo by Author, 2016.

You will find a mellower atmosphere there –and the bonus is that you get to drive through Redwood forests en route.  For more information on the wineries, click  here.  And if you think you will be there in May 2017, consider booking for the Pinot Noir Festival.

2 Framingham, Suffolk, United Kingdom

And for something completely different – a small town across the Atlantic.  If livability is a factor in making a town attractive for the authentic traveler, then Framingham is definitely worth your notice.

Framingham Castle

In 2006 it was voted the top place to live in the UK by Country Life magazine.   More recently, it appeared in a Telegraph news feature on the top ten small towns in the UK (to see this article, and read about other delightful small towns in the UK, click  here ).  Beautifully preserved Victorian and Georgian buildings grace the centre of town, and it also boasts a medieval castle built roughly 900 years ago.  The local council, or municipality has produced a wonderful on-line guidebook that sums up all the things to do once you’re there.  Click here to access directly.

The downside of a trip here is access- you will either have to rent a car, or take a train to Norwich and then walk to a bus station and board the Anglian bus headed towards Bungay, Bardolph Road (you will disembark at the Poringland stop. 

3 České Budějovice, Czech Republic

Ceske Bud_view fm tower

View of Ceske Budejovice from the Black Tower. Author photo, 2016

If you’re visiting either Prague or Vienna, do visit the lovely small town of České Budějovice. It is both a university town and a river town.  It is a short two hour direct train ride (in theory) from Prague.  When we went, we started our journey in a reasonably priced, first-class train car.  The scenery en route was quite lovely.  And then we were diverted to a town 20 minutes from our destination due to “track maintenance”, finally arriving by bus to České Budějovice.  Still, it was pretty easy getting there, and car rental not needed.

Six things impressed me about the town. First, its attractively-designed 21st century mid-rise apartment buildings along the riverfront at the edge of town (here again we stayed at someone’s home, thanks to AirBnB –in one of these apartments, which was extremely comfortable).  We could walk into the historic centre all along the riverbank, which was quite pleasant, even in the heat.  Second, the historic centre is quaint and lovely.  Third, for my motorbike-enthusiast husband, there was a terrific motorcycle museum, albeit mostly in Czech (he says it was still worthwhile).

Ceske Bud_motorbike_museum

Jihoceske Motocyklove Museum. Author photo 2015.

Fourth, the local synagogue is a humbling and sober reminder of the legacy of the WW II on this part of the world.  Filled today with the art of Czech children, its emptiness and the loss of every family who once worshipped there was extremely moving.  Fifth, who doesn’t love climbing a tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city?  The Black Tower will give you a great vantage point.  Sixth, and finally – pencil crayons!  This town is the home of well-known pencil crayon manufacturer Koh-i-noor stationary.  The company was founded in 18th c. Vienna, but its pencil crayon business moved to České Budějovice in the mid-19th c. and remains in production.  As a child in the 1970s (still during the Cold War), I remember colouring with Koh-i-noor pencil crayons.  Must have been one of the few things that made its way out of the country as an export in those days.

While you are in the region, take another train, bus, or rent a car and visit the town’s even prettier and more popular sister, Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO world heritage site, also built around the Vltava river (for more detail and tourist info, click  here. ).



Day view of Cesky Krumlov. Author photo 2015

You will love having your lunch or evening meal in a riverfront cafe where you can watch inner tubes and rafts filled with people of all ages who shriek with delight as they roll past you on the gently rushing river.  If you’re an art afficionado, there is a connection to well-known artist Gustav Klimt, who was a contemporary and friend of local painter Egon Schiele.  (In fact, Schiele looked after Klimt’s artistic estate after he died, ensuring that his art was catalogued appropriately.)  Schiele’s paintings are darker than Klimt’s, but they are still worth viewing (click here for more information).

From California, to Suffolk, to the meandering Vltava river, small but mighty towns across the globe make a great addition to your travel itinerary.  I’ll take a break from this theme in my next blog, but watch for more small and mighty towns in future postings.  And any suggestions readers have for more of these towns would be more than welcome.


Urban murals and authentic travel

I’m not the first human being to be struck by the impact of murals on neighbourhood vitality.  Murals are wonderful because they come from a genuine desire to express something unique to that artist and/ or community.  Lately outdoor murals have become more formalized, but I don’t see this as a bad thing, or as diminishing their authenticity.

Chickens and Citizen Participation

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Source: Author photo, 2015

In my own neighbourhood in Victoria, the local residents’ association got fed up with a rock wall constantly being defaced by random graffiti (not even remotely resembling the artistic kind).  Graffiti is seldom random – it is a form of expression, and responds to blankness.  The resident’s association got that -and knew that the only way to stop it was to put up a mural as an antidote.  The winning concept was then converted to a grid-based plan so that local volunteers could each participate in transferring it to the wall.   The end result you can see in the photo beneath the headline for this blog post.  The story behind it?  Mundane, but locally significant.  People in my neighbourhood are crazy for chickens.  For example, some of our friends who live nearby are even part of a chicken co-operative, where five families share one chicken coop -along with the maintenance duties.  And the orange Volkswagen belongs to a very well-liked longstanding resident who happens to be surrounded by neighbours with chickens.  So the mural has meaning –while everyone can enjoy it, you need to be (or at least talk to) a local to fully appreciate its symbols.

Here are three other mural clusters and individual murals with meaning just waiting for travellers to discover them:

 1. San Francisco’s Mission District

These gorgeous creations started popping up in a neighbourhood many Latino Americans and newcomers chose to live in.  While the area has experienced a lot of gentrification in the past two decades, the murals continue to be created, and to embrace both the local and locally-significant global events.  For a traveler-focused overview on these murals, click here for highlights and tips on the best streets to visit.

2. Belfast’s Murals

Political murals have been a tradition in Belfast since the early 20th century, but during the intense political unrest from the 1960s through 1980s, they grew exponentially.  On a trip to the city three years ago, we took a black cab tour through some of the divided neighbourhoods, given by Catholic driver who had grown up in the area and had married a Protestant woman.  (They have since moved out of the district, to more neutral ground.)  We were struck by the murals –and the fact that even today Belfast remains a city divided, where walls remain, and gates are shut at certain times of day –and year.  There is also a lot of hope in the city too, and many neighbourhoods where walls have come down.

For a powerful, and commentary-free tour through some of these murals, as well as a map showing where they are clustered, click here.

3. Prague’s John Lennon Wall

This is such a hopeful mural, which has had various lifespans over a thirty-year period.  Communism in the Czech Republic created repressive conditions for many in that society.  This was all the more disappointing to its citizens, as many of them (or their parents or grandparents) had initially seen it as a solution to the devastating aftermath of World War II and had democratically elected the first communist government.  By 1980 this frustration, combined with genuine sadness at the killing of musician and peace advocate John Lennon, sparked a desire by Czech students and free speech advocates to honour his life and ideas.  At the time this amounted to a great risk, as this type of activity would have been seen as subversive by the authorities.  The first paintings were whitewashed very quickly- but new ones were added to replace them time and time again.  The wall is on a building owned today by the Knights of the Maltese Cross, who are committed to maintaining it as an important local symbol.  What moves me about this wall story is the persistence the citizens of Prague in doing what they felt was right for their society.  These paintings were themselves a form of free speech, and the larger goal to which the Czech people were aspiring.  For more information on the mural, and directions on getting there, visit this website:

Lennon Wall1_blog

John Lennon Wall, Prague, Summer 2015- Author photo

As you’ll note from these stories, murals need more than just artists to create them.  They need a connection to the local people.  They need champions – either to bring them about in the first place, or else to ensure that they are not just painted over.

Murals are such a powerful addition to the urban streetscape, and I highly encourage people to dig into these further for themselves.  For a more in-depth look at many other great urban murals, check out this fabulous posting from the weburbanist’s blog here.  And don’t miss this posting from Mural Routes, a Toronto-based nonprofit whose mission is all about celebrating, promoting, and enabling public mural creation and maintenance.  Click here to access.


Eco-friendly Districts

Did I mention that I’m a planning geek?  I may have hinted at this in my first post, when I mentioned a special trip to Vesterbro in Copenhagen, just because of its eco-friendly, pro-social justice reputation.  It’s not the first time when eco-friendly features have drawn me to a community- and it won’t be the last.  Be forewarned – this posting is a bit longer than some of my others.

Eco-friendliness is, of course highly subjective.  Even when people create objective criteria, technology and politics often prompt others to question or adjust them.  In this post, I use the term broadly, to describe purposefully-designed developments reflecting the highest local standards at the time.

While most of us think of as eco-friendly design as a good thing, getting to that point is far from easy in the face of entrenched practice, standards, and liability issues.  Professor Yvonne Rydin of the University College of London has written extensively about some of the process-based challenges and intricacies in getting there.  For extra planning geek credit, check out some of her research here.

In light of these implementation challenges, individual eco-friendly districts and the people behind them (developers and bureaucrats) deserve a lot of credit.  And they can also be truly interesting and inspiring places to visit.  Here are three worth including in your itinerary if your travels take you nearby (not including Vesterbro, which is also great):

1. London’s Beddington Zero (BedZed)


Why it’s eco-friendly:

  • Built in 2002, it was the United Kingdom (UK)’s first effort at comprehensive, carbon-neutral community planning. The development sought to eliminate fossil fuel needs on-site.
  • Key features included energy savings through materials that soak in heat during summer and release heat to buildings in winter, combined with passive solar design so people benefit more from natural heat and light and a limited number of solar panels.
  • Heating for the complex comes from its own small-scale heat and power plant. Not all the initial hopes for these plants were realized (technical glitches), but the system was still quite efficient because of the district-wide approach to heating and cooling.
  • Sewage treatment happens through a reed-water bio-filtration system, and the end product is used as graywater for irrigation or toilet flushing.
  • Built on reclaimed land owned by the local government, and sold to a charity at below market prices. The charity, in turn, ensured that half of the homes went to low income families.

How buildings are heated and cooled efficiently:


Why you should visit:

While the site is in the exurbs (outer suburbs) of London, it is on a rail line with good service, and the journey there lets you see more of London’s less built-up, less touristy areas.  The buildings and larger complex are unique in a quirky way.  If you time things right, you can also take a guided tour by accessing the website  here.  I was thrilled to tour six years ago (they ran tours more often then).  It was a marvel to see something result from a lot of wonderful goals.  I enjoyed the scenery (natural and urban) to and from the complex.

Other fun facts:

One of the more interesting and challenging aspects of the development was its desire to use reclaimed materials whenever possible, including reclaimed steel.  People were initially skeptical about the potential for reclaimed steel to work effectively on this project; but in the end 90% of all steel was reclaimed and passed critical construction standards.  For more detail, visit this case study here.

2. Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad

Linked to an unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics in Stockholm, the Hammarby Sjostad neighbourhood was planned in 2004 to redevelop a former industrial site on the edge of town, in response to significant growth and pressing housing needs.  While the entire area was master-planned at once, it was actually built by many separate organizations, requiring much more coordination than under the BedZed model.


Why it’s eco-friendly:

  • It was designed to cut heating costs in half and make more efficient use of electricity, in part through integrated infrastructure planning (challenging to do in a historic city like Stockholm). Renewable energy also helped with these goals.
  • As in BedZed and Dockside Green, a district-wide heating and cooling system is achieving major energy savings.
  • Heat energy from sewage collected from apartment units is part of this heating system.
  • Other sewage byproducts were either converted to biogas for further heating and transit use, or else composted and applied to timber forests.
  • It has a super-advanced waste collection and sorting utility (think vacuum-based pipes).
  • The site is also well-linked to the rest of the city, through transit, cycling paths, and a direct ferry to the downtown core.

Why you should visit:

  • Taking an urban ferry (one of the ways you might access the district) gives you a wonderful chance to see the city from new angles
  • Attractive, thoughtful urban and landscape design mean that the site will be pleasant for walking around.
  • As with the other two districts, it’s always wonderful to be inspired by new approaches to making communities livable.

3. Victoria’s Dockside Green

My home town of Victoria has also planned and (partially) built its own eco-friendly district, on a redeveloped industrial site in the midst of a struggling, but still existent inner city ship-building and repair precinct.  It’s an attractively designed community, and a great example of vision by the city as well as the more senior provincial government, and the private developer who started the project.  It is also an easy (20-minute) walk or cycle from downtown, so within reach for the average tourist, linked into a much longer trail system.  Confession- my dog and I love walking here together, although off-leash is not an option.

Dockside green_corrected

Why it’s eco-friendly:

  • High efficiency energy use planning for a district heating system, including a biomass heating and energy plant (although the latter has had mixed actual results, as also in BedZed).
  • Bio-filtration approach to sewage treatment, whose effluent is then re-used for toilets, irrigation, and in ornamental ponds on the site.
  • High efficiency and water-saving
  • Highly walkable and accessible to the downtown core
  • Focus on encouraging local businesses.


Photo of inner harbout walkway en route to Dockside Green

Why you should visit:

  • Great chance to walk along the waterfront and see shipbuilding activities still happening close to the downtown, while avoiding some of the seedier aspects of older industrial precincts.
  • Wonderful bakery café (Fol Epi) is en route, with attractive outdoor seating that’s sheltered from the wind and pretty comfortable eight months of the year.
  • Small privately operated ferries will also connect you between this district and other tourist destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf, giving you a chance to see Victoria’s beautiful Inner Harbour from another angle.

As you’ll note from these examples, there are many interesting aspects to these developments, which point the way forward for each of the cities accommodating them.  The connections between these areas and the broader city fabric through transit linkages is also important – and something makes them very pleasant for tourists.

Five Cities and Books that Love Them

Visiting a major city and wanting to see it with fresh eyes?  Sometimes a film or a book can present it from a different angle, and a deeper perspective on a city’s special attributes,  unique people, or even historical explanations of how the city has evolved the ways it has.  In this positing, I discuss five cities and five+ books guaranteed to help you appreciate those cities in new ways

1. New York

High Line. The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond.

New York’s High Line is an elevated railway that fell into disuse in the 1980s and, after roughly two decades of abandonment, was resurrected through the work of passionate advocates and converted into a park for residents and tourists alike to enjoy.  Chances are by now that you have heard of the High Line and are planning on visiting it on your next trip to New York.  What makes it especially unique is its origin story.

This book recounts the battle to preserve this once desolate symbol of urban decay, from the perspective of some of those key advocates.  Their savvy approach, including some brilliant PR tactics and shrewd alliance- building, helps you better appreciate the achievement behind this park and the complexity of New York’s contemporary civic politics.  You can find this book directly on the HighLine website at Highline book.  (Some of the proceeds will raise money for ongoing upkeep.)  And if you love these insights, for yet another take on civic life in New York, check out Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.  You can find it on the Oxford Press website at

2. Rome 

Saving Rome by Megan Williams.

Williams is a free-lance journalist who has divided her time between Rome and Canada for over fifteen years, frequently heard on CBC and ABC Radio.  She raised two bi-cultural and bilingual children with her Italian husband, and speaks beautiful Italian herself.  Her book of short stories, all told from the vantage point of ex-pat women who find themselves in Rome, convey a deeper sense of what life is really like as a foreigner in the eternal city.  While reading her book, you can smell the traffic fumes addling the brain of the frustrated housewife who dares to flip off an Italian traffic cop, taste the gelato consumed by beautiful women who refuse to diet, and marvel at the adolescent antics of middle-aged Italian philanderers trysting with their lovers in parks in broad daylight.  Her observations of the little things, such as the subtleties of Italian fruit arrangements, and the politics of Roman family businesses, truly help you appreciate the cultural differences.  Find this book on Amazon at Amazon_Williams

3. Paris

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik.

Gopnik is another North American ex-pat journalist, and current writer for the New Yorker.  His book, Paris to the Moon, is a series of delightful essays about life as an American ex pat in Paris.  Gopnik is also one of those ex-pats well-suited for a sojourn abroad: an inquiring, open mind, blessed with good French, and prior cross-cultural experience thanks to a childhood spent with university professor parents in another francophone city -Montréal.  Gopnik delves explicitly into the Parisian world view of things, always conscious of being a respectful outsider, but with the cultural and linguistic competence to skim beneath the surface.  His topics span everything from labour disputes, to haute couture, restaurant allegiances, and the impact of the cultural differences on raising a young toddler.   While it was written in 2001, and some of the references are now dated, I have read this book at least three times, and with each reading have been struck by a new observation.  Also easily sourced at Amazon: Amazon_Gopnik

4. Prague

Under a Cruel Star. Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovaly

While you may not want to read about the dark side of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, you cannot truly appreciate contemporary Prague without understanding how WW II impacted average citizens, and sowed the seeds for a communist system subservient to the dictates of Josef Stalin.

What is today the Czech Republic, was once part of a democratic Czechoslovakian republic before the war.  It was a highly industrialized, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan country.  Under German occupation, the country and its citizens – particularly Jewish Czechs—suffered terrible persecution.  Kovaly was born and raised in Prague, and took its democratic benefits for granted -until she was sent to Auschwitz, which she ultimately survived by escaping.  After escaping, she returned to the city where she later built a life with her husband.  Sadly, she then recounts how Czech hopes for greater social justice under communism were also dashed- and again with particularly harsh experiences for Jews, including both her and her husband.  Despite her tragic life course, Kovaly is both thoughtful and hopeful in describing the events of a pivotal 25 year period in Prague’s history, and her prose avoids a more maudlin turn.  Nonetheless, you may want a counterbalance to this heavy subject matter.  For escapist relief, consider some fantastical fiction by Magnus Flyte called City of Dark Magic.  The novel recounts the experiences of a doctoral student in musicology, who is mysteriously summoned (and paid) to do extensive research at Prague Castle for a wealthy patron.  It has not yet been made into a movie (it should be), but a wonderful trailer for the book itself might tempt you to read it:

5. Vancouver

Fred Herzog, Vancouver Photographs, curated by Grant Arnold and Michael Turner

Unlike the other books in this collection, Fred Herzog, Vancouver photographs is a book of gorgeous and revealing photographs of a by-gone Vancouver.  Confession time: I am a born and bred West Coaster who lived in Vancouver for several decades as an adult, and visited frequently during my childhood in Victoria across the Strait of Georgia during the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s — some of the later years he documented.  His images touch something deep in my soul.  They reveal more about the city’s origins and development than any words could describe.  His 1967 photo Kuo Kong Silk beautifully illustrates how Vancouver has long been a place where East meets West, and wonderfully so (profiled here to advertise a travelling exhibit: ).


While so much has changed – housing prices have skyrocketed, and the many of the industries that were the city’s bread and butter have given way to tony condo developments along the waterfront, the years Herzog documented had an indelible impact on Vancouver’s psyche.  To truly understand Vancouver, you need to see this street-life history.  For bonus reading on the city and its urban evolution, also check out Lance Berelowitz’s Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination.

So from historic re-imagining, ex-pat joy and alienation in the eternal city and city of love, to transitions both devastating and insightful, these books provide yet another window on some of the world’s most beloved travel destinations.  Would love to hear more book suggestions on these and other cities (anything but conventional travel guides) from people via comments.

Five Tips for Living Like a Local

More of us want authentic experiences when traveling.  Often this is summed up as “living like a local”.  But what does this involve?  Is it shopping at a local farmer’s market? Deliberately thumbing your nose at the most popular tourist destinations?  Taking a walking tour?  Sometimes these things make a difference, but doing them might still not bring you a truly authentic encounter with the local.  The five tips that follow will enrich your holiday and show you aspects of cities that average tourists miss.

 1. Book your accommodation in a more residential location, near transit.

It might take an extra 20 minutes to reach the sights (and you will want to see at least a few typical tourist destinations).  But by staying in a neighbourhood you may save money, and definitely will experience more of the local daily rhythms of life.  These encounters can be very pleasant- especially when you’re not the one commuting to work.   For example, in Rome, the bars and cafés set up to handle a local client base, while less chatty, are often more relaxed, more competitively priced, and even atmospheric.  To choose an interesting neighbourhood, do your homework.  Search the web for up and coming neighbourhoods in that city, and read at least five different postings discussing the most interesting neighbourhoods before making your decision.  A hint: areas where university students live can make great choices in Summer.  And peruse a transit map before making your final choice, to ensure that your accommodation is on a good route.  Subways are particularly easy for travelers to navigate, even lacking local language skills, with routes visually displayed in each station.

2. On at least one day, navigate to a specific destination in another inner suburb (choose a different part of town from the neighbourhood where you are staying), and enjoy the journey.

Choose a key destination filled with locals –a library, a park, a theatre, restaurant, or even a used clothing store (London is great for these).  Often the journey there will reveal quaint homes with lovingly tended gardens, parents pushing strollers or leading their kids to school, and interesting posters. I will never forget one shop-keeper’s sign in Rome using a photo of Osama bin Laden and cut-out letters (of the sort kidnappers in bad ‘70s and ‘80s movies used to write ransom notes) to warn of dire consequences to those who dared park illegally in front of his store.

Try also finding a place linked with one of your hobbies.  As a quilting enthusiast, find a local quilting supply store.  Model train shops will also lead you off the tourist track.  A few years ago, my interest in city planning prompted a visit to Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighbourhood.  Its claim to urbanist fame? Combining eco-friendly redevelopment with affordable multi-age housing –while still accommodating the red-light district and sex trade workers that have been there for decades.  Some of the retail window displays were in keeping with the red light theme when we visited – and just half a block away from a beautiful, safe park with people from all walks of life strolling in the sun.

If the town you’re visiting has a subway or light rail, consider buying a day pass and riding for an entire line.  Then get off at each stop and photograph at least one interesting thing within a 500m or half-mile radius of each transit station.    Keri Smith’s The Wander Society recommends focused ramblings where you concentrate on finding items of a particular shape or colour on a given day.  This jars you out of familiar thinking, while still giving purpose to your stroll.  You may even take more innovative photos than usual.  Often random discoveries (from rambling with a method) yield the most memorable landscapes and episodes of your trip.

3. Pick a local coffee shop, and have your morning coffee there every day (or at least most days) of your trip

A regular hangout builds connection with a neighbourhood (the relaxed vibe will show too); and soon the staff will also recognize your face and treat you more like a local, or at least an ex-pat.  You may even meet and have conversations with regulars after they have gotten used to seeing you there for a few days.

4. Learn more about the things that locals care about today.

If it’s an English-speaking city, read the local newspaper- during, and even before your trip. (Also read blogs / online media.)  You’ll learn more about the debates and projects impacting daily life.  Is a new development proposal getting citizens up in arms?  Could a new regulation put a particular retailer at risk?  Has a local philanthropist donated a new park?  These things give you a better feel for local life on your holiday –the events, and, perhaps more importantly, how they are interpreted by the locals.  You will gain more insights than the average tourist and have things to talk about with the locals you encounter.  This is not to suggest that you take a polarizing stance in these conversations.  But it’s a great jumping off point to ask people (in that local coffee shop you’ll be frequenting) for their views on the items you’ve read about.

What if the city isn’t English-speaking?  If you have access to another language besides English, this is less of a problem.  But even if you are a unilingual Anglo heading to a city in Eastern Europe or Mexico, sometimes the city you’re heading to may have at least one major publication written in English, or some great local commentators who write in English for the Internet.  I was pleasantly surprised when researching the Czech Republic, to find an array of great resources.

Finally, although it should be obvious, Tip #5 is one that cannot be stressed enough.

5. If you’re planning on visiting a place where you don’t know the language, learn at least four, and ideally eight, words in that language.

Before visiting Prague, I was nervous about my complete ignorance of the Czech language.  Fortunately, my husband and I stumbled on a wonderful little app for our smart phones called Nemo Czech that helps English speakers learn a few basics, flash-card style.   (Of course, lower tech versions are also available in the form of books.)  We learned to say “hello”, “good-bye”, “thank-you”, “please”, “excuse me”, “yes”, “no”, and “delicious!” to people in Czech.  And people would beam when they heard us try.  It may be a cliché that people like it when you make the effort to speak their language- still, clichés exist for a reason.  I think of it as basic respect.  One may not always be able to converse effectively in a local language, but by learning (and using) at least a few words, as travelers we send the message to the people we encounter that we honour their culture and community.   And even a small vocabulary will help you relax and feel more at home in the city.

These are just a few of the tips that might help you to have a more authentic experience in your next holiday destination.  For more thoughts on how to deepen your travel experiences, my next posting discusses five books, each about a major world city, that shed fascinating light on these destinations.