London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenges 9,10 and 11.

Our ‘staycation’ is over and I was surprised by how many experiences/challenges we were able to closely replicate here in Calgary. For a city a fraction of the size of London, Calgary has a lot going for it. Still, there were two things in particular that I wasn’t able to replace, so they will have to wait until we manage the ‘real thing’.

Challenge 9 – A visit to the Herge Museum (Tintin) in Brussels. I searched around for some collectible shops which might specialise in Tintin ephermera but was unsuccessful. An option was to buy my husband some Tintin books (which I did) and watch the Tintin movie again (which we didn’t), but hopefully we’ll manage to get to Brussels next year.

Challenge 10 – We’d also hoped to visit The Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. As it turns out, there is a visiting Harry Potter Exhibition in Edmonton at the moment which would have fulfilled that particular challenge perfectly. Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of snow and bad weather here over the past few weeks and I didn’t fancy driving on the highway just for that. However, the exhibition is running until March 9th, so we might still manage to get up there.

Challenge 11 – It’s hard to visit Belgium or Northern France without taking in war museums or military graveyards. I discovered there is a cemetery here – Burnsland – which has many veterans graves from both World Wars. I had hoped to visit it this morning, but weather and events conspired again me, so it will have to wait for another day.  But I did wonder why we have so many veterans graves in a country that never experienced war on its soil?  The WW1 veterans were, I think, those who died back home in Canada of their injuries or from the Spanish flu. As for the WW2 veterans?  Sadly many of them were pilots and air crew, killed while training in the British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme.

In general, I would say our stay-cation was a great success. We saw many things which we didn’t know existed in the city and have a long list of things still to see and do. But the biggest lesson? No matter where one lives in the world, it’s easy to forget just how much your home town has to offer. No, we didn’t get to see the canals in Bruges this year, but when I’m out driving on Calgary’s roads, I just have to look to the west and an amazing vista of the Rockies – that thousands of tourists, some probably from Bruges and London, flock to see –  fills the horizon.

bow fallsmountins

As for Calgary’s downtown… walking along the river, watching it steam as it ices up has to be a truly beautiful sight.

river picturecity halldowntown

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 8

I’m not a religious person, but I love listening to church music. Not hymns or Christmas carols – the chart toppers, as my husband calls them – but more the plainsong and Gregorian chant of the early Christian church or sacred music of Mozart and Bach. That’s what draws me to churches like Notre Dame in Paris or St Martin-in-the Fields and St Paul’s Cathedral in London when I travel. To sit in such beautiful places and have those wondrous voices wash over me…

Would it be possible to find such music in Calgary? At this time of year there are plenty of carol services to be had, but that’s not what I wanted.

And then I discovered that The Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, in Calgary’s downtown, offers Vespers by Candlelight every Thursday evening at 6pm from October to March.

candle church

What is vespers? In monasteries, convents and churches, it’s the sunset evening prayer service which is usually sung.

On entering the church we were offered a candle and service sheet. The choir entered silently and sang –  without accompaniment – for twenty-five minutes before silently exiting. There was no sermon, no joining in from the audience, no need to read along with the service sheet, just the sound of beautiful voices singing in harmony and a wonderful sense of peace at the end of a busy day.

(Oh, and managing not to set fire to a prayer-book with my candle!)

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 7

This is going to be a short post.  Challenge #7 – eating Belgian food –  was an epic fail!

The plan… go to a Belgian pastry shop for lunch, then cook a Belgian meal for dinner. Sounds easy enough, right?

If you’re not from Calgary, you might not know the city suffered a dreadful flood back in June. It turns out the Belgian pastry shop was one of its victims and still hasn’t reopened. (Not sure if it will, which is a shame as it was a great place.)

As for dinner – Carbonade Flamande – I lost track of time and burned it.

Horribly. (I’m not renowned for my cooking at the best of times, but this was really bad!)

Thank goodness the dog enjoyed it.

Let’s hope Challenge #8 goes better!

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 6

Having lived in, and visited, London often, I tend to seek out lesser known places to visit when I go there on holiday. One place I was really keen to see this year was The Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields, particularly as in the month of December it is ‘dressed’ for Christmas.

As you can see from the video, it’s not a true historical home, but is there a house in Calgary that might offer something of a similar experience? An individual home ‘dressed’ for a previous time?

Built in 1891, by  Senator James Lougheed, and originally named Beaulieu, The Lougheed House fit the bill.


When The Lougheed House was first built, Calgary’s population was only 4,000, and the house sat on bald prairie in its own 2.8 acres. Now, situated on 14th Ave SW, it is in the heart of downtown.

During its early years, the house played host to the great and the good, with one of the daughters dancing with Edward, Prince of Wales, on his visit to Western Canada in 1919.


After Lougheed died, the house had to be sold. For a while it acted as a school, then housed female personnel of the Canadian Army during the Second World War. Post-war it became the headquarters for the Red Cross in Calgary, the drawing room where Senator Lougheed had worked on his government papers and entertained politicians now becoming the waiting room for blood donors.


Finally, in 2000, it was restored to its former glory and is now a museum and restaurant, open daily from Wednesday through Sunday. I can’t believe I’ve lived in this city for almost 30 years and have never visited it.  It’s truly a wee gem.

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 5

There has been an amazing series of plays on at the Noel Coward theatre in London this year. I was fortunate to see Private Lives there this summer, so when I heard Jude Law was going to be performing Henry V this December, I was sooo excited. Of all the things we’ve missed in having to cancel our trip, this was my one real regret.

So, how easy would it be to replicate the experience in Calgary? Going to the theatre would be easy enough, but what were the chances of seeing Henry V? Nil, as it turns out, so I decided to rent the 1989 movie from the library.

I saw Kenneth Branagh’s film when it was first released and loved it.  I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan – I can struggle with the language – but this version captured my imagination.  It’s dark and gritty, yet has some really funny moments – dialogue so witty and contemporary that I couldn’t believe Shakespeare had written it 400 years ago, and had to pull out my copy of Henry V to make sure he had. The cast is none too shabby either and includes Judi Dench, Paul Schofield, Robert Stephens, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, Emma Thompson, Christian Bale and Derek Jacobi.

And the lines – so many that have become part of our culture or titles for books; The Game’s Afoot.  We Happy Few. Band of Brothers. Chimes at Midnight. (Admittedly Branagh borrowed that last one from Henry IV!)

Set around the Battle of Agincourt, we experience the event mostly from Henry’s POV, but also from that of ordinary soldiers and their families.  We see Henry faced with choices between duty and friendship. The slaughter of innocents when a wagon of young boys are brutally cut down. A wife left at home in England who dies unexpectedly rather while her soldier husband survives the conflict. A king, disguising himself, to move amongst his troops and learn what they really think of him. A princess, a pawn in the fight between two kings. And much more

This excerpt below depicts the aftermath of the battle as an exhausted Henry trudges through the battlefield, carrying one of those slaughtered children (a very young Christian Bale).  It’s a sobering scene, one long single camera shot, accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s glorious music.

If, like me, you don’t have the opportunity of seeing Jude Law in London this December, consider checking out Kenneth Branagh’s version in the warmth of your own home.

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 4

When I was a wee girl, and my Dad went down to London on business, he’d return bearing a pair of glittering dressing-up shoes from Hamleys toy shop for me.  I’d totter around the house as pleased as punch in those shoes which, to my mind, were every bit as magical as Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

The first time I visited Hamleys in person was with my Mum when I was about seven or eight. It truly was a shop of wonders and I remember standing entranced, watching the toy train engine rattling its way around a track above my head. But the fondest memory of that visit was buying my doll, Victoria.  She looks rather sad, battered and a little demonic now – my daughter painted her face with indelible neon pink makers when she was wee – but on the day I bought Victoria, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, long eyelashes and delicate white dress and bonnet edged with pink ribbon, she was the most beautiful doll in the world.


I wrapped her up in a blanket and carried her home to the people we were staying with. (My  Mum’s cousin, I believe.) But when I pulled back the blanket to show them her beautiful face… horror of horrors! Her head was missing! I was inconsolable. However, it turns out that my Mum’s cousin was a ‘dolly doctor’!  He pulled on his jacket, retraced our steps to the tube station… then about half-an-hour later presented Victoria to me, her head reattached to her body.  And she’s never lost it since!

Every trip back to London, I try to visit Hamleys in Regent Street, especially at Christmastime to see their stunning window displays. It might not be the biggest toy store in the world, but it’s the oldest. William Hamley opened his original shop – Noah’s Ark – in 1760  in High Holborn. The shop was relocated to Regent Street in the 1880s and bombed 5 times in World War Two.

It’s impossible to recreate a 250 year-old toy shop in a city that was only settled in 1875, but I think any toy shop is magical to a wide-eyed child. Toy R Us certainly matches Hamleys for sheer size, but to find something just that little bit extra, we visited Castle Toys, just off Macleod Trail.  Established 30 years ago, it’s old in Calgary years!  Another Calgary toy shop we’ve visited in the past and which is worth checking out is Livingstone and Cavell in Kensington.

Castle toys

Do you still have a favourite toy from your past? If so, I would to hear its story.

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 3

Lesson learned. Today I was going to upload some photos of The Geffreye Museum I’d taken a few years ago.  I’d stored them ‘safely’ onto an external hard-drive on my return from London in 2011, but when I went to retrieve them this afternoon for this blog posting…? Wouldn’t load. Looks like the cable’s wrecked.  Moral of the story – store digital photos on both CDs AND external drive!

So you’ll just have to trust me that The Geffreye Museum is a fascinating and beautiful place to visit if London. A former almshouse built in 1714, it is dedicated to the history of the home, specifically the living rooms of the English middle class, over a four hundred year period. One room follows on from the other, each depicting a different era, and the same is true of the gardens.

The reason I’d wanted to revisit it this trip back to London is because in December the rooms are decorated for Christmas. So could I find a comparison in Calgary?

Heritage Park, which celebrates prairie history from the 1860s to 1913, comes very close.

STREET1STREET2I visit the park every summer, but come Christmastime, like The Geffreye Museum, many of the homes are decorated in a time appropriate fashion.


The first house we visited belonged to Peter Prince, a wealthy lumber merchant from Calgary’s late 19th Century. It’s a beautiful, well appointed home, and its formal decor reflects his affluence.


Then there’s the Thorpe House.  Home to a family of Norwegian immigrants, it is warm, welcoming and cosy. Apparently it’s traditional for Norwegians to drape their tree garlands from top to bottom rather than side to side as we do in North America.


The Ranch House is my favourite home in the whole park.  I worked there many years ago, baking cookies for visitors to enjoy as they toured the house, and trust me, when it’s +30C outside and you have an old wood oven going, it’s hot work. Today, stepping into the warmth and smelling the freshly baked gingerbread was sheer heaven. And although the tree was rather spindly and all its decorations home made, I thought it was the most beautiful of all the trees we saw.


As well as being able to view the decorated homes, there are shops enticing you with holiday goodies, a bakery selling delicious breads and gingerbread men, and carollers singing in the church.  There’s even a special shop just for kids (adults forbidden) where they can buy that special something for their parents.

Heritage Park is open on weekends for the Christmas season until December 22nd.

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 2

Anyone who knows me knows I have a fascination with stories of women’s experiences in the wars of the 20th Century. My husband has an interest in naval history, so this means that most trips back to London involve a visit to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth or the National Army Museum in Chelsea to see their latest exhibitions. And having planned to visit Belgium this December, we’d also looked forward to visiting Vimy (France) and some private military museums en route.


So, can we replicate that in Calgary?

Damn straight we can!


Part of the ‘rules’ we created for ourselves with this challenge was that we could only visit a museum we’d previously visited if there was a new exhibition… or if we hadn’t been there in the past decade!


This afternoon found us at the The Military Museums in Calgary  –  we hadn’t been there since they’d opened their Air Force display, so it met the rules  – and I learned a whole load of things. For example, why is the RAF uniform blue?  Because it reflects the blue of the sky, right?  Wrong! When the RAF was formed on April 1st 1918 they needed uniforms, but after four years of war, cloth supply in the UK was in short supply.  So they turned to Russia and bought material which had been earmarked for the Russian Cavalry until the Tsar was deposed and Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1917.  And what colour was that material?  You guessed it.  Blue!  And blue it has remained ever since.

Having visited the Air Force Museum I have to confess that we wandered into the Naval Museum. As a former QA, I’m always curious about the nursing uniforms of other services, and I have to say that I think the Canadian Navy Nurses of WW2 had the most beautiful of them all.  You can’t see it properly in the photograph, but the dress is a deep burgundy with a navy blue cloak lined with gold satin.  Stunning!  (The blue uniform to the side is the WRCNS summer dress.) Needless to say, I picked up a few books at the museum’s gift shop!)

Nurse's uniformBooks

(Oh, and it turns out the museum has the most amazing archives. The librarian was extremely helpful and I made a huge leap forward in my History Mystery with my aboriginal soldier in Glasgow – but I’ll save that for a later post.)

But a holiday isn’t a holiday without different food, is it? I’ve struggled to find many Belgian restaurants in Calgary, but there is a Dutch Pancake House close to the museum, so we went there and had the-most-delicious potato/cheese/bacon pancake!


Bon appetit!

London in Calgary, Alberta – Challenge 1

This time last year my husband and I were in Berlin visiting the Christmas markets. As I sit here writing this on a bitterly cold Calgary afternoon, we were supposed to be on holiday in London with a side trip to Belgium thrown in.


A few weeks ago, we had to cancel our trip, so my challenge is to replicate 10 days of activities we’d planned in London/Belgium in Alberta. Can it be done?

Challenge #1 – CHRISTMAS MARKET.   There’s something very special about European Christmas markets. For me, it’s do with the fact that most of them are held outdoors, the glittering twinkle lights, warm gluhwein, hot roast chestnuts, Christmas music playing, fire pits to warm yourself up, and, of course, all the goodies for sale. Could I find all that in Calgary?


Over three weekends, Spruce Meadows hosts an International Christmas Market. We visited on Friday afternoon and it provided everything – and more – that you’ll find in a European market. Outdoor (and indoor) vendors? Check. Gluhwein? Check. Hot roast chestnuts? Check. Fire pits to sit by and savour the warmth and scent of burning logs while sipping on a hot chocolate? Check. Christmas music? Check. Plenty of goodies for sale? Check.


In addition, there were 12 of Santa’s reindeer in attendance, as well as a petting zoo for the children. Did you know a reindeer’s nose warms the cold outdoor air before it gets to its lungs, and that both male and female reindeer have antlers?

So did Calgary meet the Day 1 Europe/Alberta challenge?  Absolutely!

(Many thanks to Laura MacU2 for taking pictures when my battery died!)

The Great Canadian Bucket List.

My daughter has travelled the world and one of her favourite travel writers is Robin Esrock.  He was here in town a few weeks ago promoting his new book The Great Canadian Bucket List so I went along to hear his talk.

We all know Canada has the most amazing scenery and fabulous history.  Living here in Calgary, I’m fortunate enough to have the Rockies in my backyard. But I didn’t know Canada has its own Dead Sea.  Or its own Da Vinci Code? Did you?

I’ve always fancied a cycling holiday in France – all that great scenery, food and wine  – but it turns out I don’t have to cross the ocean to savour the experience. Quebec has its own 230 km bike trail Le P’tit Train Du Nord (ski trail in winter) that sweeps through forests and villages, past rivers and golf courses and – best of all – is mostly FLAT!