The City of Versailles

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Thank you all for providing such great comments on Monday's post.  It's been awhile since I've tackled more serious topics on this blog and it's always a little nerve-wracking pressing 'Publish' but your support and discussion was completely worth it!  

Versailles is the well-known home of Château de Versailles but not many realise that it's actually a city all in it's own.  Well before the famous château came to be, the area was hosted a small medieval village while today, Versailles boasts a population of over 86 000 residents and is a fully functioning city in itself.

I'd venture to say that of the 4 million visitors Versailles receives each year, the majority of them visit the palace grounds and return to Paris, missing the rest of the city which really is a pity.  Where Paris is a busy metropolis often feeling like it's busting at the seams with tourists, Versailles (away from the château) feels like a normal, French city with cafés, quiet streets and plenty of green space.

Choosing to spend a few nights in Versailles was one of the best decisions I've made.  Not only did we get to stay at that fabulous hotel, we really were able to take our time touring the palace and it's grounds.  We weren't rushing to get an early train from Paris in the morning nor were we commuting back to the city with the rest of the tourists after a long day exploring.  We could wander back and forth between our hotel and the château as we saw fit and returning the next day just to spend time in the gardens at a much more relaxed pace was certainly worth it.

On top of that, the city was quite endearing.  Both nights we dined in town amongst the locals at small restaurants and took long, leisurely walks back through the quiet streets.  While Versailles wasn't brimming with activity, we enjoyed the time away from the crowds at a slow and relaxed pace.

Thoughts on Ethical Travel

Monday 29 July 2013

Recently, the story of a Norwegian woman who reported being raped while on a business trip in Dubai and was subsequently charged and convicted with sex outside of marriage and consumption of alcohol exploded onto the international news outlets.  After condemnation by Human Rights groups, the international community and months of discussions between Norway and the UAE, the Norwegian woman was pardoned (as was the perpetrator) and she was free to leave the country.  (You can read about it here.)

Despite being known for luxury hotels, shopping and tax free wages, United Arab Emirates has been harshly criticized for its strict compliance with Islamic laws, particularly against women.  In fact, this wasn't the first case of foreign victims of rape being convicted of subsequent charges.

As I watched the story unfold here in Norway I debated whether it had changed my perspectives on the country.  Would I still visit the UAE, given the opportunity, knowing my rights were largely minimized?

Of course, the United Arab Emirates isn't the only country with a blemished history of injustice.  In fact, I think if we dug hard enough, we could find things we didn't like about every nation.  Unsafe working conditions for locals, dictatorship, child trafficking, racial segregation, religious differences, legalized prostitution, marriage inequality, corrupt government all to varying degrees in varying locations but when do we draw the line?  When do we strike a country from a travel list due to our own moral objections?

It's not cut and dry is it?  Each of us have our own hierarchy of ethics - some we can tolerate, others we can't.  Many of us make small choices daily in accord of our beliefs - buying locally grown, organic produce to curb a carbon footprint and minimize chemical use, reading labels on clothing to avoid brands and locations known to use sweatshops, adopting rescued animals in hopes to quell the puppy mill industry.  Just last week I read an article about bars in Western Canada boycotting Russian vodka due to their anti-gay laws.  Our choices might be drops in the ocean but we take the stance and hope that collectively, our voices make a difference.

Do these choices flood into travel?  Of course, in the exhibits we visit and the organizations we choose to avoid.  But, when our ethical stakes are higher, do we take a stronger standpoint?  Is it when it jeopardizes our own personal safety?  Do we set a boundary - 'when x, y & z change, I'll support the country?'  Do we risk missing out on valuable cultural experiences, as different and sometimes frightening as they may be, to be a drop in the ocean?

What do you think?

My Photography Essentials

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Lately, I've been getting quite a few remarks on my photographs which both flatter me and make me laugh.  I'm not a photographer.  Up until last July, all of the photographs on my blog were shot with my Canon Elph Point & Shoot.  When I finally invested in an SLR camera, the quality of my photos increased partially due to me and partially due to the camera itself.

I always admired those who had beautiful photographs yet I didn't put a lot of time into taking photographs myself.  My small point & shoot camera was almost always in my purse yet I rarely took it out and used it.  Most of the time I forgot it was even there.  If we were doing something I deemed 'special,' I'd make more of an effort to take photos but it certainly wasn't a priority.

The thing about an SLR camera is that you never forget it's there.  It is bulky and heavy so whether it's on my shoulder or in my purse, I remember that I have it and if I'm going to be lugging it around, I'm going to use it.  The more I used it, the better I became at framing photos and using different angles.  I started to learn what worked well and what didn't and for the first half of the year, I didn't edit any photos which I think really helped me work on my actual photo taking ability.

Now, I still don't deem myself a photographer mostly because these days, I'm rarely moving it off Automatic.  Learning how to use a camera in Manual mode is a lot of work and can be frustrating (I equate it to golf.  You might take 60 terrible shots for every great one.)  It's a goal of mine to redo my Photography Tutorial (as seen below) and to get out and practice.  Even so, I'm particularly pleased with how far my photographs have come in the last year.

My first foray into SLR photography warranted a beginner SLR camera and the Rebel series is perfect. I've been really happy with the quality of photos I've been getting and while the kit lens is not particularly impressive, it does the trick.
A birthday gift from Joe, this lens has been fantastic for scenery pictures which is what I've been doing a lot of lately in Norway.  Having already picked out a more expensive Canon version, the technician in store talked us into the less expensive Sigma lens instead and I have no complaints thus far.
Upon purchasing Lightroom, I needed some help.  I had already whittled away one free trial because it was difficult to learn on my own and I wasn't going to waste any more time with it sitting on my desktop not in use.  This tutorial is fantastic!  It has given me the basics as well as a lot of tips and tricks that I might never have figured out on my own.  I find myself going back to certain videos for refreshers or if I want to try something new.  Best. Purchase. Ever.
Also new to me, the Bowery bag is gorgeous.  Pre-second lens, my camera was slung on my shoulder or in my regular purse and that wasn't going to work when I acquired the wide angle lens.  This bag is pretty small when my camera & second lens are inside but it's be perfect for easy traveling and it looks nothing like a camera bag which, in my opinion, is a good thing.
When I bought my SLR last summer, I immediately purchased this tutorial.  It was really great to work through yet I didn't follow through with the practising.  My goal is to re-do it and get back on Manual.
Up until March of this year, the vast majority of my photos were unedited or through PicMonkey but I wanted to step it up and have a few more options at my disposal.  Lightroom has been perfect for my photo editing needs.  It's really well priced for semi-professional software and after learning how to use it, I feel like I can quickly enhance my photos either for the blog or for my own personal use.
{7} PicMonkey (not pictured)
While Lightroom is great for editing photos, I use the free version of PicMonkey for adding text or making collages.  Sometimes, I buy a month of the premium version if I'm working on something specific and need the extra options but, once I've finished, I cancel the payments and save the monthly fee.

There you have it - my photography essentials.  I still have so much to learn but I think that's what makes it a great hobby.

Do you have any go-to photography products to recommend?

Arrival & Departure

Monday 22 July 2013

This morning, after two weeks of exploring Norway, my parents boarded their flight to return to Canada.  We had such a great time and I think it's safe to say, my guests were smitten with our adopted country.

It's obvious that we love having family and friends near but there's also something to be said for seeing our home through fresh eyes.  We explored new parts of the region that we hadn't yet seen and we revisited favourite spots with renewed energy and a sense of pride in our home.  My Mom and Dad were able to see us thriving in this location and we watched their wide eyes as they took in the beauty of Norway.

It was an honour to welcome them on their first transcontinental trip and I hope this opens the door for more visits down the road!  

Thanks for coming Mom & Dad - you're welcome to visit anytime!

Marie Antoinette's Hamlet

Monday 15 July 2013

In 1783 Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, commissioned the construction of a Hamlet in Versailles as a sort of retreat from Château Versailles.  Cottages, gardens and animals provided a very different and rustic feel as opposed to the grandeur of the castle and it was there that she could get away from the prying eyes of the courts.

L'Hameau de la Reine is thick with whimsy.  The quaint cottages surrounded by greenery feel like they're miles and miles away from the formality of palace.  I could have whittled away hours there taking naps under the sun in a quiet corner of a garden, wandering between the cottages and laying out a blanket, enjoying a picnic and watching the animals move throughout their pastures.  The entire area looked just as if it came off the pages of a fairytale.

We were lucky enough to arrive during a lull when it was quiet enough to still feel like the country which was a welcome reprieve from the busy-ness of the other sites.  Perhaps that contributed to the experience for me but it was far and away my favourite part of the entire Versailles property.

Excuse me while in inundate you with photos - I just couldn't narrow them down!

Have you been to Versailles? What was your favourite part of the experience?

Château de Versailles

Friday 12 July 2013

Château de Versailles is a major attraction for tourists in the Paris region and it should be; The palatial property is quite magnificent with it's sprawling estates and opulent furnishings.  While the interior itself might feel ostentatious, it's a sight to behold.
We visited on the shoulder of the busy travel season and despite arriving early with tickets in hand hardly after opening hour, it was packed!  I was prepared for it - in fact, I've found the same of most tourist sites in Paris - so despite being shoulder to shoulder with school groups and travellers, we remained relatively patient.  (Minor grumbling ensued when I continually found myself behind a woman who insisted on recording her visit with her iPad held high above her head, ruining any opportunity for photos.)  But, we followed our audio guide, revelled at the sheer volume of gold and elaborate paintings covering every surface of the massive palace and we breathed a sigh of relief when we finally exited the doors, thankful for fresh air and personal space.
It's clear - the taste for luxury runs deep in the history of France's monarchy and while they may not have survived the revolution, Château de Versailles certainly did.

Part VI: O Canada, Our Home and Native Land

Wednesday 10 July 2013

When I was planning this "O Canada" series, I had envisioned it to run over a couple of posts while I was home in June yet the entries keep pouring in from my fellow countrywomen and I love sharing them on this blog.  For the non-Canadians, I hope you're finding it interesting and for the Canadians, I hope it's reminding you what a great country we get to call home!


Winnipeg Cityscape

"I mean, if friends were visiting Canada, you wouldn't tell them to go to Winnipeg." I had just finished telling someone how excited I was to be spending the next six weeks in my hometown, the capital of Manitoba, and this was her response. 

"But there's so much to do in Winnipeg!" I protested, and so went the all-too-familiar conversation with a fellow Canadian. And if most Canadians don't even consider visiting Winnipeg, how are we going to convince foreigners to come here? 

Winnipeg is one of the lesser-known cities of Canada; it doesn't have the international recognition like Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal, nor does it have the worldwide draw of the Calgary Stampede or PEI's Green Gables, for example. That doesn't mean Winnipeg isn't worth visiting, not at all. In fact, it means that when you do visit, you'll be appreciated even more for taking the time to get to know our friendly prairie city.

In the summer, the city is alive and green, with temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s and without any of that pesky humidity. There is an abundance of festivals to keep you entertained: the Jazz Festival, the Fringe Theatre Festival, Folklorama (a celebration of international cultures), and the Winnipeg Folk Festival, one of the top outdoor festivals in North America, to name a few. If you want to spend a day at the beach, Lake Winnipeg's Grand Beach is only an hour's drive away, and it's always a great time.

Winter, despite those -40 stretches, is not completely devoid of fun: there's Festival du Voyageur, and plenty of beautiful snowy days for ice-fishing, cross-country skiing, showshoeing, and snowmobiling. You haven't felt cold until you've felt a Winnipeg winter, but it's something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime (cue "Winterpeg" joke). There's a strange beauty in the ice and snow of a prairie winter. 
Festival du Voyageur

Winnipeg is also known as Canada's "cultural cradle"; it gets this name because of its flourishing arts scene. There is always a show to go to, whether it be a performance by the world-renown Winnipeg Royal Ballet, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, or a major band at the MTS Centre. A huge variety of musicians have called Winnipeg home, including The Weakerthans, The Guess Who, Propagandhi, Wailin' Jennys, Neil Young, and every Canadian child's favourite, Fred Penner. 

The city itself has a lot to offer, with areas like Osborne Village, the Exchange District, and St. Boniface filled with shops and restaurants. There is no shortage of places to eat and hang out; Winnipeg has over 1000 restaurants, with new bars and coffeeshops opening monthly. There's also the Forks, Winnipeg's most popular tourist destination. Busy all year, this market/meeting place has historical significance going back 6000 years. Personally, my favourite place to go in the city is the abandoned Trappist Monastery in St. Norbert; it's a relaxing spot on the river, and great for photo opportunities. 

At the end of the day, however, all of these things to do and places to eat and musicians to hear aren't the ultimate reasons to visit Winnipeg. Let's be honest: every city has those things (even though Winnipeg's are pretty darn awesome). The real reason to visit Winnipeg is because it will open up its arms to you, welcome you in, and make you its best friend. Of all the places I've been, it's still one of the friendliest cities in the world, and its people are some of the most fun-loving, creative, genuine, and accepting people I've ever met. It's a fairly big city, but you won't get lost in the shuffle, you'll fit right in.

And so, to those who never considered or never wanted to visit Winnipeg, I urge you to give it a chance. You'll more than likely leave with a desire to come back.

Brenna is a traveller and a writer and while she currently calls Winnipeg home, she's lived in Japan, Scotland, Denmark, Russia and will soon make the move to London, England.  She's travelled to over 80 countries and her love for travel is truly awe-inspiring.  She loves red wine, spending time in book shops, scuba diving and hot dogs.

Late Nights and Early Mornings

Monday 8 July 2013

Winter on the 59 degree North latitude was long, dark and some might argue, downright depressing. At it's lowest, we were privy to a measly 6 hours and 11 minutes of daylight.  It was pretty common for Joe to go days without seeing the light of day, leaving for work hours before the sun rose and coming home hours after it set.  It can be difficult but in the summer, we're rewarded.

On the eve of Summer Solstice, those in Stavanger were gifted 18 hours and 30 minutes of daylight with twilight on either side.  There are nights where it never feels 'dark' and the mornings beckon us early.  Locals will draw their blackout shades to aid in slumber but the difference is palpable.  The long days bring a new energy to the city and it's residents.

Currently, the sun is rising at 4:36 and setting at 10:47 and it doesn't bother me in the slightest.  Late night walks and early morning coffee are the norm in our household and with my recent return from Canada and a disturbed sleeping schedule, I've witnessed the sunrise on a couple of occasions.  While normally I'd be annoyed at my body's insistence to rise at an ungodly hour, I'm instead choosing to soak it up.  After all, the opposite is only just around the corner.

Evening Strolls {10:00}

An early morning {4:45 am}

Snapshots of Canada

Friday 5 July 2013

{L} I spent most of my month at home in Saskatchewan visiting with family & friends in my hometown and surrounding area.
{R} Remember this post? I happened to snap a photo of the World's Tallest Teepee while in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
{L} I got to witness my niece's very first dance recital and my goodness, it was cute!  It brought back so many of my dancing memories and I loved seeing her on stage!
{R} I learned that I detest Costco (and other large, busy stores) after 3 years of living outside of North America.  It all just seemed far too large and unnecessary and navigating that giant cart around on a Saturday is torture!
{L} I took a trip to Calgary to visit a dear friend who I hadn't seen since well before I left Canada.  Funny enough, my first summer trip home in 2011, she was in Africa although not anywhere near Gabon.  In 2012, she was in Europe but not Norway.  We caught up over dinner and So You Think You Can Dance and it was fabulous!
{R} I had to rent a car while in Calgary and they upgraded me to this cute little Beetle.  It took me to Chinook Centre where I indulged in a little shopping and caught up with another dear friend.
{L} From Calgary, I flew to Vancouver where I scheduled a longer layover to meet a best friend.  It was short and sweet. 
{R} My flight from Vancouver to Northern BC had me in this tiny little airplane traversing the Canadian Rockies.  The flight itself was fine - the descent, not so nice.  
{L} Joe's parents own a golf course so it isn't a visit without a stop there.  While I don't golf, I do enjoy a drink on the clubhouse terrace.
{R} Joe and I spent some time wandering around his hometown.  We did the Riverwalk Trail and he pointed out his Dad's childhood home.  We had lunch downtown and watched the tree planters descend on the city centre from the surrounding forests.
{L} The main purpose for our trip was to attend one of Joe's oldest friend's wedding which was a small town wedding at it's finest.  Joe had a blast catching up with people he hadn't seen in years and I liked putting faces to names I'd heard so many stories about.
{5} Beavers, one of our national symbols, leave evidence of their presence in the area.  We didn't see any of the creatures in the flesh but did witness a mama deer wander into the yard.
{Both} While the weather was far from perfect for most of my trip, the temperatures rose above 30 degrees Celsius near the end of our stay.  Sunshine combined with a Canada Day long weekend meant the lakes were busy.  Had we not had the wedding the night before (which resulted in a headache the next day) we would have spent more time at the lake.

My near-month in Canada was filled with visits from family and friends and far too many indulgences in food, leaving my stomach in terrible shape for an entire week.  As always, time passed quickly.
I can't  neglect to mention the devastating floods in Southern Alberta.  As I approached the end of my second week at home, my eyes were glued to the television as we watched the horrifying images coming out of Alberta in what is being called, Canada's most expensive natural disaster.  Flooding is common in Southern Alberta as the snow melts in the mountains creating rises in river levels but never have we experienced something quite so drastic and so sudden.  We watched entire homes float away near Canmore in the Rockies and the raging rivers continued to rise and rush towards other communities.  The media focused on Calgary as 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes and the downtown core turned into a soggy ghost town yet High River really suffered the most from the water.  With literally no warning, the entire town became saturated and until yesterday, some residents were still unable to return home.  Sadly enough, flood insurance is not available in Canada and as I drove through Calgary and saw the mounds of muddy belongings piled outside people's homes as they attempted to clean up, I knew it was just the beginning of a long and arduous recovery for those affected.

My sister and her family were evacuated from their home in Medicine Hat and thankfully, they and other close friends and family came away unscathed yet our hearts are still with all of those affected.

The Canadian Red Cross is accepting donations to assist those affected should you feel so inclined.

{The stories coming out of the Calgary Zoo and the staff's plight to save the animals are practically unbelievable.  In fact, it reads more like a movie script than a news story.}
Backyards and homes in Canmore engulfed by raging river waters.
A man rescuing his cat in High River, Alberta
Flood aftermath in Calgary

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