Monday, November 23, 2009

Ottawa photo contest captures neighbourhoods

Looking for an inside glimpse into some of Ottawa's liveliest neighbourhoods? Check out the submissions to the Picture It Downtown photo contest, which focused (pardon the pun) on the Glebe, Wellington West and other cool neighbourhoods.

I wish I'd found out about this contest while it was still running--I would have loved to have entered!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bikes rule in the Netherlands

I just got back from a European trip that included two stops in the Netherlands. And, once again, I've found myself captivated by Dutch cycling culture.

Not only are there dedicated bike paths just about everywhere; there are also huge bike garages at many railway stations, where you can have a mechanic tune up your bike while you're at work. Public staircases include clever grooves parallel to the steps that allow cyclists to easily move their bikes up and down. And cycling accessories go far beyond the meagre selection of baskets and panniers available in North America; on my two trips to Holland, I've seen people carrying everything from a week's worth of groceries to small pieces of furniture on bikes, using a variety of trailers and racks.

It's not surprising that only 7 percent of Dutch people canvassed in a recent survey said they rarely cycle. On the other hand, 80 percent said they cycle at least once a week.

Interestingly, cycling began to decline in the Netherlands in the 1950s, as people switched increasingly to cars. However, it went through a renaissance in the 1970s, after a group of parents demanded safe cycling routes so that their kids could bike to school.

Last spring, Britain's All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group visited the Netherlands to get the inside scoop on the country's success. Check out this video about the trip.

Bike and Trains Study Tour, Netherlands from carltonreid on Vimeo.

(And just in case you think biking is only for the relentlessly unfashionable, check out Cycle Chic from Copenhagen. It's a weirdly captivating blog with lovely photographs of stylishly dressed cyclists in Denmark--another haven for two-wheeled travellers.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: Essays capture delight of travel

It's a doozy of a title: The Third Tower Up from the Road: A Compilation of Columns from McSweeney's Internet Tendency's Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go. And the cover photo of the Great Wall of China is a bit misleading. Yes, there's a funny, lovely column in the collection about Dolgin's adventures on the famous structure, but the bulk of the book covers other places, particularly in Europe (the original focus of his column, before his editors at McSweeney's gave him freer rein).

Dolgin's day job, as a professor of marketing at the University of Paris, frequently takes him to cool spots around the world. So he started writing about them: first about the French island of Corsica, where his wife's family is from, and later about spots as diverse as Moscow, Cairo and Chennai.

Like any writer, he has his favourite themes: city squares, oddball food (don't read the column on Manila if you are weak of stomach), quirky monuments (the hunt for Frank Zappa's statue in Vilnius is a hoot). If you read the book all in one go, these themes quickly become apparent. But, as Dolgin points out in the introduction, the book began as a series of columns written over several years and should be approached with that in mind: "I can't help but think that the dispatches in this book might best be read like one eats peanuts: a couple here, a couple there." He's right, and that's how I found myself reading the book, which is why it has taken me so long (I got my review copy in August) to post a review.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book. In fact, I loved it. Dolgin has a captivating voice: funny without being forced, smart without showing off, self-deprecating without being pathetic. He has a novelist's knack for capturing dialogue and a great eye for what makes each place he visits unique.

As he freely admits, this isn't a book for people who want addresses, phone numbers and prices; he points readers to guidebooks for this sort of detail. He is much more interested in capturing the essence of a place, and this he does with great skill. Falafel shops in Beirut, sandcastle builders in Rio, soccer fans in Madrid: all come to vibrant life in these pages.

However, there was one column in particular that made me bark out loud with laughter (and since I was reading it while standing in line to catch a VIA Rail train in Toronto's echoing Union Station, I attracted a bit of attention). It's called simply "Useful Phrases," and Dolgin says it's probably one of his most popular columns.

Here's his theory: when travelling somewhere where he doesn't speak the language, he learns one nonsensical phrase. As he writes:
The principal reason for the nonsensical phrase is that it's a sure conversation opener. No one will imagine that the only thing you know how to say in their language is "my hovercraft is full of eels" (to borrow someone else's nonsensical phrase) and therefore an immediate cultural exchange will ensue. Really, this works.
Among the phrases he has memorized are "My hedgehog isn't stupid" (in Swedish), "Watermelons don't bounce" (in Korean) and "There is a penguin in my closet" (in German). I laughed. A lot.

And on the other end of the spectrum, the column titled simple "Crater Lake, Oregon" was immensely touching. I sniffled. A little.

A travel book that can make you laugh and cry, and teach you how to say "Is that a kind of frog?" in Japanese, is certainly worth $18.95 Canadian ($16.95 U.S.), in my opinion. But don't just take my word for it. Publisher's Weekly raved about it, too.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Auction offers chance to save on travel

Every year, the Society of American Travel Writers runs an online auction to raise money for its programs. This year's auction is online now, and items include a two-day stay at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and a six-night Maine Windjammer cruise. Depending on the bidding, you could save a bundle off retail prices. Check out the auction website before the bidding closes on November 20. (Full disclosure: I'm an SATW member and a big fan of any initiative that raises funds for the organization!)