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Ottawa: Where -30°C is Normal

Psst – I updated my Life List page. Check it out and tell me anything else I should add to it. Not that I’m anywhere near close to accomplishing them, but you know, motivation is always good! 

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It was around the end of May 2005, when most of us finally knew where we were going for our post-secondary studies. We sat at our usual lunch table, at the very last row on the right hand side of the cafeteria, imagining what the next year is going to be like. Rue was the only one out of our group of friends who was going out of town for university. In an attempt to preserve our friendship, we all made a promise to visit her in Ottawa. Years passed, everyone has come and gone to visit Rue, except me. Then, the one time I decided to go, she was on the other side of the world in Kenya doing an internship with UNHabitat (you go, girl!). Finally, in early January, ViaRail had their awesome Escape fare sale and (also  because I was going through a travel withdrawal), I managed to plan a quick weekend trip to Ottawa.

The Obama cookies

The Obama cookies

I’ve been warned that Ottawa’s winter can be extremely-cold and harsh, I just never expect it to materialize when I was there. I figured, Toronto was sitting at -5°C when I left, so Ottawa shouldn’t be that bad. Yea right! I kid you not, the average temperature for that weekend was probably -25°C. It was COLD, people!

The Parliament Hill on a VERY cold winter afternoon

The Parliament Hill on a VERY cold winter afternoon

This didn’t seem to bother the locals though; the sun was shining and Winterlude was in full-swing! I had never seen so many happy people out and about in such a dreary weather.

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Now in its 36th year, the Winterlude has been running annually since 1979 and, quoting verbatim from the official website, “It was created to celebrate Canada’s unique northern climate and culture”. Put plainly, Winterlude provides a joyful distraction to an otherwise dull (not to mention incredibly-freezing) winter in Canada’s capital city.

Lanterns at Confederation Park during Winterlude

Lanterns at Confederation Park during Winterlude

Aside from visiting Rue, I had another pretty strong reason to go to Ottawa – to cross off an item from my Life List, specifically to skate on Rideau Canal Skateway, deemed to be the largest skating rink in the world.

Rideau Canal

Skaters on Rideau Canal

And that’s exactly what we did! Rue and I went down to the canal on Monday morning, rented our skates (plus a sleigh for Rue; “for stability”, she said, yet I ended up pushing it as she sat in it), and we cruised down the canal. The frigid temperature turns out to be a blessing in disguise as the river needed the cold snap to freeze thoroughly in order to be declared safe to skate on.

Rue with her sleigh

Rue with her sleigh

Teehee!

I can’t believe it took me almost 8-years to finally visit, but hey – I did it! Plus, Rue is still in school to finish her degree, so technically speaking, no promise has been broken. Thank you, Rue and Vanessa, for your amazing hospitality and all the delicious food you fed me! Until next time!

Has anyone else been to the Winterlude? Have you skated on the Canal before? If not, would you do it? Skating on the canal, I mean. On another note, have you been on the Via train? It’s awesome! I don’t think I’ve been SO EXCITED to be on a train before!    

When you go: 

– Make sure you dress warmly. A hat and a pair of gloves are essential when you visit Ottawa in the winter.
– Skate rental is $16 for 2 hours (+a $50 security deposit, which will be returned to you when you return your skates). The sleigh is $20, also for 2 hours. Credit cards are accepted.
– There are lots of vendors scattered along the canal, so you can have your Beavertails (or 3!) while you skate.

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Getting to Know the Man Behind the Green Beers

In the midst of my Northern Ireland re- cap, I completely forgot to tell you about our trip to Downpatrick, the burial site of the world-famous St. Patrick. No worries – all for the better now as I get to tell you about it on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. So, green beers, kiss-me-i’m-Irish shirts, and shamrocks aside, I present to you, quite literally, the man behind the celebrations.

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One of the beams inside the Guinness Factory & Storehouse

Although St. Patrick is associated with all things Irish, the holy man himself actually hails from Kilpatrick, Scotland. Not very much is known about his childhood, except that he is the child of Roman parents living in Britain and that he was captured in a raid when he was around 15 and was taken to Ireland as a slave to herd and tend sheep. As a shepherd, he had a lot of free time that was devoted to praying. I mean, what else do  you do when  you sit around and wait on your sheep, right? He continued this lifestyle until he was released and allowed to return to Scotland at 20. Several years upon his return and urged by a dream he had in which the Irish begged him to come back, he began his studies into the priesthood and eventually became a Bishop whose mission was to take the Gospel to Ireland, the land of Druids and pagans.

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Patrick and his disciples preached throughout Ireland for 40 years, during which time thousands were converted and many, many churches were being built, the remnants of which are seen in today’s Ireland. In all honesty, not only are there a ton of pubs, there are also countless churches in the country. Patrick spent the last days of his life in Saul, where he built the first church, and was buried in nearby Downpatrick. His simple and unassuming grave is located behind the cathedral, overlooking the city.

Photo by Man vyi, Wikipedia.

Photo by Man vyi, Wikipedia.

Downpatrick is also the location of the only St. Patrick Centre in the world, in which we spent the better part of the afternoon. The exhibition was very modern and well-done. It takes you through the life of St. Patrick, the persecution he faced during his mission, and all the Irish sites associated with him.

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Did you know over 15,000 Irish climb the Croagh Patrick, a mountain, as a pilgrimage on the last Sunday of July every year? It is also atop of this mountain where St. Patrick allegedly fasted for 40-days and was attacked by snakes. All angry and annoyed, he banished all the snakes into the sea. Hence, to this day, there are NO SNAKES in Ireland! Isn’t that wild? I did not know that! Then, of course, there is his association with the shamrocks (3-leaf clovers), which he used to explain the Doctrine of the Trinity to the pagans.

We were suppose to spend the afternoon crossing the hanging wooden bridge that is Carrick-a-Rede and visiting Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. However, the weather wasn’t cooperating and with Ireland’s ridiculously early sunset, we wouldn’t have been able to make it before dark. Eh, when you travel, sometimes the stars don’t line up and you are forced to consider the alternative. Coming home to a steaming bowl of soup and awesome dinner companions that night, I realized we had spent the day learning about Titanic and St. Patrick, both of which are quintessentially Irish. Not a bad alternative at all.

Vatican City: The Holy See

I’ve added a couple more tips as submitted by my awesome friend and chef/baker extra-ordinaire, Lisa. She cooks delicious food, bakes amazing pastries, AND she’s Italian. So, it’s probably a good idea to follow her tips! Also – check out her blog

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Unless you live under a rock, I’m sure you already know what’s going on in the Catholic church these days. We have a new Pope! HABEMUS PAPAM! He is Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina also known as Pope Francis.

To quickly recap: Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI handed in his resignation on Feb. 11, his last day as the successor of Peter was Feb. 28. The Church was under “Sede Vacante” for about a couple of weeks until earlier today, when we found out the Cardinals have elected a new Pope! As a Catholic, I find this very fascinating; I get to witness history unfolding before my eyes! Yes, the election of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also happened in my lifetime, but I was in high school then and I couldn’t care less about the outside world. So, in light of current events, I thought I’d share with you my tales of travel to the Vatican. I must apologize for the qualities of the photos in this post – I was a novice traveler then (in 2009) and had NO IDEA how to use my camera at all. Thankfully, I’m a little bit better now.

Geographically speaking, the Vatican (formally known as Vatican City State) is recognized as the smallest independent state in the world with an area of only 0.2 square miles and a population of roughly 800. For such a small “country”, it is quite surprising to find out there is SO.MUCH. to see!

When you go, be sure to visit:

The Vatican Museums

Dating back to the days of Pope Julius II in the early 1500s, the Vatican Museums carry an impressive collection of artwork, including sculptures, frescoes, as well as paintings. The Sistine Chapel – where Conclave took place against the backdrop of Michelangelo’s Judgement Day – is also housed within the museums. This means you cannot access the Sistine Chapel without gaining an entry into the Museums. When you are in the Sistine Chapel, don’t forget to look up and check out the fresco Michelangelo painstakingly created (rumor has it he almost broke his back from spending long hours in an obscure position to finish the ceiling!).

The Last Judgment inside the Sistine Chapel

The Last Judgment inside the Sistine Chapel

The Vatican Museums normally cost 16 Euro to enter (it’s worth every penny, trust me!), but it is free on every 4th Sunday of the month. The admission price is well-worth it and I highly recommend a visit. However, it’s a good idea not to go to the museums on Saturdays, especially during the summer (from Lisa). I imagine it would get VERY crowded and we all know crowded museums are the worst attraction you can go to. Some of my other favourite exhibitions include the Map Room and the Raphael Room with their stunning wall frescoes.

The wall frescoes inside Raphael Room

The wall frescoes inside Raphael Room

The Map Room

The Map Room

St. Peter’s Basilica

Designed by famous renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, and Maderno, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only one of the largest churches in the world, it is also one of the most stunning ones too! With intricate details on the walls of its numerous chapels and the beautiful statues adorning many of the aisles, be prepared to be blown-away by its grandeur and beauty!

What you see as soon as you step into the Basilica.

What you see as soon as you step into the Basilica.

In accordance with the Roman Catholic tradition, the Basilica is also the burial site of St. Peter, our first Pope as well as the first Bishop of Rome. His tomb is said to be located directly underneath the altar of the basilica. As soon as you enter its nave, check out Michelangelo’s famous Pieta, located behind the bulletproof glass in one of the first chapels on your right. Again, sorry for the blurry picture – definitely should’ve learned how to use the camera prior to the trip!

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The High Altar, located in the heart of the Basilica, is surrounded by 4 statues of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew, and St. Veronica.

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If you’re interested, go up to the Cupola (dome) for a stunning view of the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square. Take note though – be careful  not to turn the wrong way and unknowingly exit because they won’t let you back in (from Lisa).

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The Papal Garden

The Papal Gardens

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square and the rest of Rome stretched out into the horizon.

If you choose to go up by the elevators, make sure you walk down the stairs as the stairways are adorned with plaques commemorating saints who have also visited the Cupola.

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Visit the Grotto

When you visit St. Peter’s Basilica, don’t forget to make your way to the Grotto, the burial site for many notable Catholics as well as 91 Popes, including Blessed Pope John Paul II. The Vatican offers tours into the Necropolis (or the catacomb), but you will have to reserve your tickets in advance as you need a Vatican guide to visit. See here for more information.

People watch at St. Peter’s Square

With bernini’s columns and matching fountains as well as the four-thousand year old Egyptian obelisk as your backdrop, St. Peter’s square is a great place to sit and observe the crowds once you’re done marveling inside the Basilica. Just make sure you grab a cone of gelato from one of the gelateria nearby. Trust me, nothing beats eating authentic Italian gelato under the extremely hot Rome sun while watching the antics of tourists from all over the world.

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If you want to see the Pope…

Attend his General Audience

The Pope holds a General Audience for all the faithful on Wednesday mornings (11 AM to 1 PM or so). It is absolutely free to attend, you just have to pick up your tickets at the office, 1, 2, or 3 days in advance. You can reserve them before hand or you can just show up at the bronze doors to pick them up without any reservation. Tickets may run out especially in high-season, so I say reserve your tickets to avoid disappointment.

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On the day of the audience, security gates are usually open by 8:30 AM and crowds start to arrive at around the same time. Be sure to get there early to get a good spot (i.e. those directly behind/in front of the barriers), so you can see the Pope in his (bulletproof) Popemobile up close and personal!

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General Audience with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The actual event doesn’t start until 10:30 AM, so you should bring water and snacks with you. Rome’s temperature gets terribly high especially in the summertime! Consider bringing a book, a deck of cards, or other games as a form of entertainment. Otherwise, ogling at the Swiss Guards around you is also very entertaining.

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At the end of the audience, the Pope will bless all religious articles you have with you. So, make sure all your souvenir-shopping is done prior to this day! How cool would it be to give your souvenirs away with a note saying it has been blessed by the Pope?

Attend the Sunday Angelus

If the audience is not feasible for you, fear not! You can still see the Pope when he does his weekly Angelus from his apartment window on every Sunday at 12 noon.

Papal apartment

Papal apartment; the Pope’s window is on the top row, second from the right.

The Angelus is a prayer of the Church that has been recited for the past 700 years or so. It is a devotion that honours the Incarnation and is repeated three times each day (6 AM, 12 noon, and 6 PM) at the sound of the bell.  the  This one is very quick – he shows up, reads a reflection and the prayer, the faithful recite 3 Hail Marys, the Pope gives a blessing, and it’s done.

Last but not least,

When in Vatican, you must… 

Take a picture with a Swiss Guard

These guys are generally good-humored and are willing to pose for a quick picture with you. Just ask!

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Before you go, make sure you dress appropriately. The Vatican enforces a very strict dress code and you will not be allowed entry into the Basilica if you’re wearing shorts/skirts above the knees with your shoulders uncovered. Also, most of the attractions are considered to be holy sites for Catholics, so please be respectful in your actions and words.

Otherwise, enjoy the smallest “country” in the world!

Have you been to the Vatican? Would you take a picture with the Swiss Guards? 

Amsterdam: the City of…

Let’s play a guessing game! (Yes, I know it’s impossible to do so, but just humour me, please?)

Here we go.

Can you guess the one word that came to my mind when Mike told me he wanted to include Amsterdam in our itinerary?

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.

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.

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No, it wasn’t prostitution. Get your mind out of the gutter!

It was bicycles. No lie, I thought of bicycles first before anything else. I  contribute this to my traumatic childhood experience of being hit by a bike while trying to cross the typically narrow residential streets of Indonesia. I mean, how thick can I get, right? There I was, mindlessly crossing the street (alley), in my red and white polka-dot Minnie Mouse dress, complete with the Minnie Mouse ears my uncle had gotten me from Disneyland, when a bicycle came out of nowhere and collided with me. BAM! Just like that. All I remember from that evening are my bleeding knees and my ripped dress. But I digress.

As it turns out, Amsterdam is the best place to be for cyclists. As of 2012, there are approximately 1 million bikes, 100,000 of which get stolen and 25,000 of which end up in the canals every year.

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So, it was no surprise that we saw A LOT of bikes while we were there. It reminds me of the motorbikes in Hanoi. Everybody bikes everywhere, and rightly so, as the city is laced with extensive bike lanes with their own mini traffic lights. Furthermore, the local government actually discourages driving by charging exorbitant parking fees and implementing numerous street closures within the city centre. Toronto cyclists will be happy here!

As we wandered through the narrow alleys of city centre, I couldn’t help but notice the many bikes parked along the walls and on the railings of the canals.

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Some look like they’re brand new…

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… One is on sale…

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… One is upside down…

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… One is of the basket variety, making things easier if you need to do grocery shopping or take your kids somewhere…

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… One is motorized – a rare sight, this one! …

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… Some of them are abandoned by its owners and left to the elements. They’ll likely to rust on the side of the street, before eventually being removed…

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… And lastly, 3 of them were rented from Mac Bike and were used to explore the city by 3 kids from Canada…

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I was sworn at several times in Dutch and came close to being hit by one, but I managed to swerve and avoid any collision during my time there. HA!

When you go: 

Renting a bike is truly the best way to see the city. We rented ours from Mac Bike for 3 hours and that was more than enough. It’s hard to bike when you’re not used to it, yo! Mac Bike has many locations throughout the city, but we got ours near Centraal Station. If you stand facing the station, it is located a short walk to the right of the building. They’ll “fit” you to a bike and teach you how to work the locks and keys. Give them a try!