Posts tagged ‘toronto star’

December 25, 2010

Ode to Buenos Aires

buenos-aires-travel-tips[I loved my stay in Buenos Aires so much I really do intend to look into moving there! Here is an excerpt from the article that appeared in the Star on November 27, 2010.]

BUENOS AIRES — We fall madly in love with places for the same reason we do with people: Because of an instant connection and a need to find it. After a challenging trip in another South American country, I arrived for a four-day stay in the capital of Argentina expecting a city snarled with traffic headaches, poverty amid ostentatious displays of wealth, overpriced everything and long stretches of grime. Another one of those “Paris of …” places that don’t live up to the City of Light.

Instead, I found an energetic yet easygoing city rich with character. Buenos Aires may be called the Paris of Latin America, but it’s no knock-off. If anything, it blends aspects of several great cities into a copasetic mix. There’s a touch of New York with all the pizza parlours and artsy neighbourhoods, a bit of Rome in the Colon Theatre, plenty of Barcelona with its never-ending nightlife, a hint of London in a smaller, 100-year-old replica of Big Ben that the British capital presented to Argentina on its centennial and, yes, a lot of Paris, including the 9th of July Avenue, a Champs Elysees-type thoroughfare that’s the widest street in the world.

Occupying the city are three million people mostly of European descent who’ve weathered all kinds of political and economic upheaval. In the last 60 years alone, Argentina has survived dictatorship, war, the devastation of its currency and the soiling of its reputation because of the sympathy its leaders showed to defeated Nazis.

With the Argentine peso bouncing back and the economy emerging strong from recession, the country’s capital is in a groove. The streets of Recoleta, the city’s affluent neighbourhood, are filled with opulent hotels, high fashion and outstanding restaurants. The historic Alvear Palace Hotel — the Royal York of Buenos Aires — plays host almost every day to gala events, weddings of dignitaries and meetings for ultra-powerful business leaders. One of the city’s major attractions is the Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is entombed in a mausoleum. The cemetery has nothing resembling a traditional grave. Tiny palaces to the city’s dead elite fill its walls.

At night, the streets around the cemetery teem with life as music and laughter clamour through Recoleta’s clubs, bars and cafés. Even in Buenos Aires’ less vivacious neighbourhoods, you sense the confidence of a world-class city that knows it can survive any turmoil. You also feel people’s pride in living here. While walking with map sometimes held to my face, I was approached four times within two hours by someone wishing to point me in the right direction. Of course, each Porteno (the nickname for Buenos Aires’ residents) also wanted to know where I was from. Despite a language barrier, an adios would be withheld until he or she had gone on about an experience in Montreal or a friend who’d enjoyed Toronto.

“The people are so friendly,” says Sonja Hirsch, a Minneapolis vacationer who was celebrating her birthday. “I was in a restaurant and I bumped elbows with the man beside me. I apologized and they were so nice we ended up spending the rest of dinner talking.”

Sonja and her husband, Tom, raved about SottoVoce, the restaurant they dined at that night, while another American visitor singled out a nearby Recoleta spot for its beef.

“It’s the best steak I ever had,” says Ned Mozier, a Kansas native now living in St. Louis, “and I know my steak.”

With such an endorsement, I had to visit Fervor, one of the many places that serve up large varieties of Argentina’s renowned beef that comes from cows fed with natural grass. I ordered a 350-gram serving of tenderloin that cost 68 Argentine pesos, or about $17. I paired it with a good half-bottle of Alta Vista Premium Malbec that ran 33 pesos, or $8 and change. As for the quality of the steak, it was great, but Ned should’ve wandered a few blocks along the same street toward where the 9th of July Avenue begins.

Beneath a highway underpass, diners take up chairs at fine restaurants while cars slowly pass through a brightly lit corridor that’s decorated with artwork and flowers. It’s a scene that immediately makes a Torontonian ponder what it might be like to linger at an elegant table below the Gardiner Expressway. At El Mirasol, I ordered another 350-gram tenderloin that was so soft a butter knife sliced through it. It cost 30 per cent more than the steak at Fervor, but was worth the premium.

“The city’s overwhelmingly impressive,” says Brian Gabor, a Torontonian who was enjoying an afternoon snack at La Poesia, a café in San Telmo. “There’s architectural grandeur that a lot of other cities have, but there are other things that are unique to it. People here don’t go to dinner until 10 at night, they don’t go to the bar until 1 a.m., and that’s just not Toronto.”

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December 3, 2010

Adoration for the Magnificent Hermitage

[Got a chance to visit St. Petersburg for a second time and just like my first time, the Hermitage mesmerized me. It one most awe-inspiring building. Here’s a story from the Toronto Star’s Grand Tour series on the museum and city.]

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — Even if the Hermitage didn’t possess any paintings or sculptures, its walls alone would make it a place you have to see. The halls of the Winter Palace, the largest part of the complex, are laden with gold, malachite, silver, bronze, marble and ornate mouldings framing vaulted ceilings in this one-time dwelling of Catherine the Great. To stand in the airy armoury, surrounded by gilded pillars and hardly anyone is to be amazed by grandeur on an audacious scale.

Then, once you’ve taken in the walls, you can be mesmerized anew by what’s on them: Rembrandts, Da Vincis, Raphaels, Titians, Tiepolos, Monets, Picassos. The icons of art, whose names we all know and whose works we have seen in high school and university textbooks, are gathered on the banks of the Neva River in this museum founded in 1764. The Hermitage owns the largest collection of paintings in the world and has a total of more than 3 million pieces, only a small percentage of which are on display.

“Forget about what’s on the walls, look up and sometimes the rooms themselves are more amazing than the artwork,” says Eric Weiner, a student at Vassar University in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is spending this semester in St. Petersburg studying art history and Russian culture.

Read more in the Toronto Star.

August 7, 2010

Graham Elliot a Delight in Chicago

[From “This Chicago Chef Rocks” in the Toronto Star, August 7, 2010]

CHICAGO—Chef Graham Elliot Bowles believes you should be entertained when you dine out, not just satisfied. Pretty early on in a visit to his Chicago restaurant, it becomes clear the 33-year-old aspiring rock star with a physique Pillsbury would endorse has a bit of Spielberg in him.

Popcorn is the first indication you’re in for a show. At Graham Elliot, it arrives in a basket where bread would go at just about any other place; it’s drizzled with truffle oil, parmesan cheese and chives. Bowles could scoop loads of the stuff into brown bags and sell it on the down low to those he’s addicted.

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July 14, 2010

Visiting Brady’s Beach in Bamfield, B.C.

[From “Beauty and the Beach” in the Toronto Star, July 3, 2010]

BAMFIELD, B.C.—The perfect beach — far, far from crowds and close to heaven — is a traveller’s Holy Grail or Fountain of Youth, a thing of myth that sets us jetting over oceans to rummage around dots of rock and sand that belong to Thailand, or sailing about the Caribbean for the lone island that has escaped commerce.

Such extravagant explorations may not be necessary for Canadians, though. Brady’s Beach in Bamfield, a funny little place that Garrison Keillor or Richard Russo could go to town with, is a British Columbian beauty with many of the hallmarks of the legendary beach-to-end-all-beaches: It’s hard to reach and nearly unheard of; has not one café, chain hotel, Starbucks or McDonald’s near it; and possesses the ability to put your mind in a place you might only be able to reach with hard drugs.

To make it to the beach you first have to find your way to Bamfield. It has a population of not many and seems made for a fable.

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July 18, 2009

Glory Days and the Blue Jays

[First draft was written in May, when the Jays were in first place! This version was published on July 18, 2009 in the Toronto Star – and the Jays are almost in last.]

When I was a child, a summer day rarely went by without the radio voices of Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth mingling with the sizzle of a barbecue or a lawn mower’s buzz. The broadcasters delivered news of each pitch as the Blue Jays’ annual six-month fight for the pennant kept me riveted and tense.

blue-jays-logoFrom 1985 to ’93, I attended 10 to 40 games a year, filling out a scorecard, wearing my Dave Stieb-autographed Wilson glove, hopeful of a foul ball, even in the second deck. On Oct. 20, 1992, I stood in line for nine hours to get into the SkyDome’s Hard Rock Cafe (which charged only $15 and a two-drink minimum, perfect for a university student) to see the first World Series game played in Canada.

Blue Jays fever gripped me again this April, after 14 seasons in remission, and has maintained its hold despite the team’s recent woes.

This year, I’ve made the walk to the dome a dozen times, attending more baseball games than I have in the past 10 years combined. I had lost interest when I lived outside Toronto – and the team resided far from a playoff spot. The baseball strike in 1994 cut off my habit and my obsession never fully revived.

From 1996 to 2005, I lived in Long Island, N.Y., and for the first couple of years I would eagerly go to games when the Jays visited the Yankees. Dressing in enemy colours in the Bronx isn’t smart, and it was downright demoralizing to do it during New York’s decade of supremacy.

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July 4, 2009

A Visit to the World Trade Center Reconstruction Site

[Not a personal essay, but it kind of goes with the other two on this site that are 9/11 related. This one was published in the travel section of the Toronto Star on July 4, 2009.]

NEW YORK – The last time I visited Ground Zero was Sept. 22, 2001. I lived in Long Island, N.Y., then and the Sept. 11 attacks consumed life for weeks.

world-trade-center-reconstruction-siteSeeing the World Trade Center in fiery rubble was Dickensian bleak and painful. The ruins smouldered, firefighters teemed, anxiety swept over every face.

Returning nearly eight years later, I expected to find Lower Manhattan solemn as it recovers from that horror and the economic crisis. Instead, I discovered New Yorkers are not only getting over 9/11, they’re turning the Financial District into a neighbourhood with more life than before the Twin Towers collapsed.

The World Trade Center stop is the last one on the southbound E subway train. Once on the surface, I noticed construction workers had replaced the army of firefighters as the massive rebuilding job unfolds.

A half-dozen cranes rise from the cavity that many will always view as a tomb to the 2,750 (including 24 Canadians) who lost their lives on that sad Tuesday. It was hard to find a smile among the visitors who watched the frame of the new skyscrapers being hammered and clanged into place. Emotions swelled there and across the street at St. Paul’s Chapel.

People walked slowly around the chapel’s grounds, occupied by centuries-old gravestones, to its doorstep. St. Paul’s, the city’s longest continuously run public building, stands on Church St. Remarkably, the 243-year-old chapel didn’t suffer any structural damage when the towers collapsed. During the recovery efforts immediately after Sept. 11, the chapel was a place of refuge for the firefighters and emergency services personnel. Inside, displays honour the heroes and the fallen.

While St. Paul’s brings back grim memories, the good news is there’s much happening in the vicinity that makes it clear this area is likely to rebound to a state better than it was in 2001. That reason makes Ground Zero a point of interest, not a morbid itinerary stop.

You can get a fantastic panoramic view of the World Trade Center reconstruction and the district’s skyline at the World Financial Center, an upscale but unheralded mall and office tower that pedestrians can access by crossing a bridge over the West Side Highway. Sixteen palm trees and an ornate staircase greet you inside the centre. On the western side of the mall, you will access one of New York’s highlights that doesn’t get nearly enough mention.

The Esplanade is secluded from the WTC construction and everything else in Manhattan. It’s a route for pedestrians and cyclists, ambling alongside the Hudson River. You can grab a coffee at Devon & Bleakley inside the World Financial Center before heading out on the 20-minute walk. If you want to bike it, there are rental shops in the area.

You’ll notice new residential towers and a number of established retailers opening stores. Most of the area was void of activity after about 8 p.m. most nights.

The population in the region has nearly tripled from 2001. Lower rents and a push for gentrification have turned it into a place to live, not just work.

Perhaps no spot exemplifies this spirit more than the restaurant-rich blocks on Stone and Pearl Sts. My favourite is Ulysses’ Folk House (95 Pearl St./58 Stone St.). The food is overpriced and mediocre, but the beer menu has few rivals in New York and the picnic tables that line Stone St. make it feel like a summer barbecue.

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