Authentic urban festivals- a tale of one city

We all love a festival, right?  We do–except when it feels as though the same event gets trotted out year after year, with the same displays and activities, just reinvented for a different theme.  My shorthand for this type of festival has become the grocery store tent festival- where the same small group of corporate sponsors has their flimsy set of tents and single staff person on hand to buoy up the proceedings.  And because the rest of the event is so thin, the grocery store tents seem all the more prominent (hence my label).

Of course, even when a festival is slicker, and has more going on, it doesn’t always make the event any more authentic.  I was reminded of this dilemma last weekend when we had a chance to experience two festival events: The Victoria Busker’s Festival and the Moss Street Paint-In, sponsored by the Art Gallery of Victoria.  Both events had been held in prior years, and both acted as a magnet for large crowds.  We left the car at home, and cycled to both.  While neither felt “perfectly” authentic, I felt that the Moss-Street Paint-In had far more of the right ingredients than the Busker’s Festival.  Why was that?  Especially since there were ways for people with little or no income to participate in both (buskers and the gallery asked for, but did not require, donations).

Pets were invited to get into the act of making art (fortunately a kiddie pool was around for clean-up). Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

In sum, the paint-in felt more real because it was:

  • in a residential area, further aware from the city’s more overtly touristy district, and thus felt more like an event attended by, and catering to, locals (even though there still may have been a number of tourists there too);
  • quite varied, and yet far more laid-back, allowing people to drift in and out of displays, without being on a schedule, and without being urged to clap and cheer every five minutes to buoy up the buskers’ spirits;
  • trying hard to be participatory (full of happy volunteers, and complete with events for kids and dogs);
  • a place where people with a range of art budgets could find something to take home (lots of art cards from $2-$5 were on sale at most of the booths- a nice way to take home a memento of the larger art work if you couldn’t afford it);
  • directly linked to raising awareness of the gallery as a civic resource; and
  • physically linked to a weekly farmer’s market, that brought some of the same people, but also a few others who might not have otherwise attended the art event.
Some artists took advantage of the festival’s residential setting.  Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Where I was disappointed with the paint-in related mainly to the mainstream nature of the art displayed (and the fact that fewer than 10% of the artists seemed to be under age 50).  While I felt that all of the art was beautiful and took talent to produce, I didn’t feel particularly challenged by most of the art, even though the gallery itself is not shy about pushing the envelope.  Still, this event has been a staple of Victoria’s art calendar for several decades, and I hope it continues.  I have gone in past years, and this year’s felt like the most fun and diverse yet.  Click  here  for more detail.

One of several participatory features of the Paint-in. Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Interestingly, the Buskers festival was also anchored by another event – the market at Ship’s Point which sells arts and crafts, but of the variety one sees in a tourist attraction gift shop.  This market overtly caters to Cruise Ship passengers who typically get to spend no more than 24 or 32 hours in the city, tops.

While I’m glad that Victoria hosts both events, I would love to see more emphasis on the types of event that interest locals and more discerning tourists.  In fact, had cruise ship visitors been aware of the paint-in, they might have enjoyed it as much as the rest of us.



Reposting from a favourite blogsite- Quirky Japanese Playground equipment

Ideally if you’re someone reading one blog, you have several that you follow.  Again, this is summer laziness on my part, but I am a big fan of the blog site Moss and Fog.  Here is one of their latest (and highly enjoyable) photo posts:

Fascinating Japanese Playgrounds Photographed at Night

Indigenous cultures and museums

As someone of Celtic, German and French ancestry, I am not truly in touch with my own Indigenous roots.  Visiting Mexico City’s Anthropological Museum, I was struck by the richness and diversity of the Indigenous cultures there that pre-dated the Spanish.  It was  also wonderful to see many Mexican people (perhaps also tourists from other regions) spending time and engaging with their heritage. 

In our forthcoming book, my co-editor and I have done our best to invite other contributors who are able to bring in some Indigenous perspectives on planning for authentic communities.  Without this knowledge personally, I hesitate to say more at this point in my blog.  But it is an important perspective.  Instead, I offer a few photos that illustrate the beauty and importance of Indigenous Mexican heritage.  All come from the Museo Antropologico in Mexico City.

Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017

Authenticity and Enchantment – Part 1

Living in the modern world can sometimes feel too real.  Many of us long for simpler times in our own lives when we believed in magic, fairy tales, and other enchanted things.   In this post, we discuss the link between enchantment and authenticity, and where you might find some enchanting and ultimately renewing- experiences while travelling.

Children aren’t the only ones who need enchantment. Photo by Author

In an earlier post, I talked about the  philosophical aspect of authenticity.  One philosopher cited (Charles Taylor) has spoken at length of the value of enchantment in an authentic life.  To support all those seeking enchantment in their travel experiences, read on for five enchanting places and events that authentic travelers may wish to experience.

Five Enchanting Places and Events -Winter to Early Spring

1. Northern Lights

Who wouldn’t feel a sense of awe and wonder when gazing at this eerie natural display.  Places to view the Northern Lights include Norway,

Photo from Visit Norway website

Finland (just outside of Inari seems to be the most reliable), and of course, in Canada:  Yukon Territory  and  the Northwest Territories .

Northern lights in the Yukon. Photo from Tourism Yukon website

2. Outdoor Evening Events in Winter

Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you have to spend your nights indoors.  Many cities program their public parks to make them friendly and inviting for citizens to spend evenings there in Fall and Winter as well.  New York City’s Bryant Park, with its  Winter Village  is one of these destinations.  Vancouver hosts an annual Christmas Market, and for 2016 the market included a lighted outdoor maze . Selected other cities offering outdoor evening events include: London, England, which just opened up a new outdoor ice rink that is lit in the dark,  Luminosity ; and the  Christmas Market on the Champs Elysees in Paris .  While these are commercial events, you can still enjoy the friendly crowd ambience in most of these by walking around, without actually spending money.

3. Spooky, but spiritual music in the dark

On Sunday nights from January through November, if you are in Vancouver at 9:30pm and like your enchantment to have a musical dimension, check out the Compline Service at the downtown Christ Church Cathedral (see photos of the service ).  Full disclosure- I used to sing with this Choir many years ago when I still lived in Vancouver.  I still love the stillness and peace of this service as a visitor.  You don’t have to be religious to get something out of the peaceful, undemanding meditation it offers.

4. Spectacular Seacoast vistas

There are a range of beautiful seacoast vistas that can make us feel enchanted- especially when the surf is pounding and the wind is making you feel super-charged with kinetic energy. Some of my favourite seacoast destinations include: the Oregon Coast; Tofino, British Columbia; the stretch of Highway 101 that runs north from San Francisco; and Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, California
Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, California

5. A Daytime walk in the forest

There is something wonderful about walking in a beautiful forest, even when the weather is bad.  As someone with a dog in my life, I am often compelled to seek out these places in the rain, and am almost always the better for it.  To learn more about why forests make people feel so much better, see this previous post on forest bathing.

Finding enchantment in a new place opens up a realm of possibilities for travellers seeking authentic experiences, as well as a sense of personal renewal. This blog post has covered five that are accessible and powerful during winter time.  A future post will also explore spring and summer opportunities for enchantment.  I’m also eager to hear others’ experiences with enchanting places and events.


Urban Murals Update

In an earlier post, I spoke of the link between urban murals and authentic community expression (to read, click here ).  Since then, Vancouver has had its first ever public mural festival.  For more information on the festival generally, click here.  To see some of these gorgeous works of art, click here.  And watch for a new posting from me very soon.

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!

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.