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Friday, November 30, 2007

Portugal - An Introduction

Having trouble getting Internet access with enough time to upload pictures. So for now here is a brief introduction to Portugal.

Roger studied and taught history in university for two decades. As an undergraduate he took the normal introductory courses in European, Ancient, U.S.A. and World history, but in graduate school and in his teaching and studies he focused on Canada. With a 45 year interlude since studying Europe, we have found that brief overviews of the history and political systems of the countries we visit have helped our depth of understanding of places, people and culture.

Before we begin our posts on Portugal we’ll therefore give an overview which should be helpful to anyone following the Blog.

Political System

The modern constitution of 2 April 1976, (amended in 1982, 1989, 1992 and 1997) was created after the Revolution of 1974 which ended 50 years of military dictatorships. Portugal now has a republican system of government with a President elected every five years for a maximum of two consecutive terms. The President appoints the Prime Minister from the majority party, or the party that can command majority support of the 240-250 deputies elected every 4 years to the single chamber legislature (i.e there is no upper house or Senate as in Canada).

The two island groups, Azores and Madeira, are autonomous regions of Portugal. The President of Portugal appoints a Minister of the Republic who represents Portuguese sovereignty over these two regions, and this Minister in turn appoints the President of the Regional Government.

Mainland Portugal is divided into 10 provinces, which constitute the natural geographic regions of the country. There are 18 administrative districts within mainland Portugal; 3 in the Azores and 1 in Madeira. They oversee functions such as health, education, and public finance.

The 305 “concelhos” are Portugal’s version of urban regional government. Each has an executive council, the president of which is the mayor. Along with the municipal council each member of these bodies is elected for a 4 year term.

Mainland Portugal covers 88,944 square km. Rural migration into the cities means that of the total national population of 10,576,000 two-thirds now live in the urban areas. Portugal has more or less the same total population as the much smaller Belgium. Portugal saw two major and one smaller exodus. During its Age of “Discovery” (see below), the population was cut almost in ½, falling from 2 to 1 million inhabitants; Brazil being the principal destination. The beginning of the 20th century saw a smaller emigration to the Portuguese colonies in Africa; especially Mozambique and Angola. The 1950’s to the 1980’s witnessed a large economic emigration to industrialized Western Europe; especially France, Germany and the UK each of which was looking for cheap labour. The areas most affected during these years were the Azores, Madeira and the interior provinces of mainland Portugal. (It is said that in the 1960’s and 1970’s the people of the interior province Alentejo were starving.) In the 1960’s this was aggravated by the financially disastrous wars of liberation in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea and the consequent emigration of young people avoiding the military service draft. In total from 1960 to 1972, the final years of the dictatorships, 1.5 million Portuguese left the country. Today, some 4 million Portuguese live abroad (equivalent to 40% of the Portuguese living in Portugal); Brazil being the principal destination followed by France (550,000), North America, Venezuela, and South Africa.

In terms of immigrants, with 400,000 foreign born, Portugal is a small player compared to the rest of Europe. The plan is to triple this figure over the next 20 years.

Historical Overview

The briefest overview would include the Roman Invasion (149-139 B.C.), the beginning of the Moorish invasion and control in 711 A.D., the intertwining of Spain and Portugal until 1143 when Portugal becomes an independent Monarchy and the end of the last remnants of Moorish rule in 1249 with the recapture of Faro in the Algarve. From then Portugal begins to forge a separate identity and by the beginning of the 15th century it becomes one of the most powerful countries in the world. Its maritime Expansion during the Age of Great “Discoveries” brings it significant commercial wealth through the resulting trade. From the late 1700’s this period of glory is followed by 2 centuries of economic decline and political stagnation. Change would await the 1974 Carnation Revolution (so named because of the red carnations stuck in the end of rifles and worn by women in their hair), which effectively ended 50 years of dictatorships, and the entry of Portugal in the European Union in 1986.


In antiquity, this region was populated by the Lusitanians, a people engaged in rudimentary agriculture and animal herding. Some Carthaginian, Phoenician and Greek merchants and traders also settled, principally along the coast.

Roman Era to Creation of Portugal

During the 3rd and 2nd centuries Before Christ (BC), the Roman Empire invaded establishing the Roman administrative province of Lusitania. In the 5th century after Christ (AD), the Visigoths swept through to southern Europe and the Iberain Peninsula (Today’s Spain and Portugal). Beginning in 711 they are replaced as rulers by the Moors of North Africa. In 718 the Christian Re-conquest begins, essentially from the north and east. In the 9th century, the area north of the Mondego River was re-conquered but it would take until 1249 for the rest of Portugal to be progressively re-conquered from the north to the south.

Bourgogne Dynasty 1128-1383

A key player in the retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors was the King of Castile, Alphonse VI. In this he was aided by French nobles, among them Henri de Bourgogne (a descendant of the French king Hugues Capet) and his cousin Raymond de Bourgogne. After a series of victories, Alphonse VI gave his two daughters in marriage to these two princes be Bourgogne. Henri’s wife, Teresa, brought the “portucalense” county as part of her marriage dowry, thus making Henri Count of Portugal. Their son, Alphonse Henriques, took power in 1128 and in 1139 renounced his vassal-ship to the King of Castile and proclaimed himself King of Portugal as Alphonse I; Castile acquiesced to this bold move in 1143. Alphonse recaptures Ourique (1139), and Lisbon (1147) from the Moors. The recapture of Faro in the extreme south of Portugal in 1249 is the definitive end of the Moorish rule in Portugal.

The Bourgogne Dynasty continued for over 250 years, ending in 1383. During this time, Denis I declared the dialect of Porto the official language, giving rise to the eventual spread of “Portuguese” throughout the kingdom.

The Avis Dynasty 1385-1578

Increasing conflicts with Spain were solved by the marriage of the daughter of King Ferdinand I to the King of Castile, Jean I. On the death of his father-in-law, he renounced any claim on the Portuguese throne. The deceased king’s bastard brother, João d’Avis became king in 1385 launching the Avis Dynasty that would last until 1578, through the period of Portuguese expansion.

João I ensured England’s support in an alliance by marrying Philippa of Lancaster. This support would remain constant throughout Portugal’s history. Of their 4 sons, Henry the Navigator, would be the best remembered. At the end of the middle ages the real wealth was in the hands of whoever controlled the trade in spices, perfumes and silks from the Orient. The control of the overland routes and the Persian Gulf lying in the hands of the Moors, it was Henry’s dream to create an alternate route. He established at Sagres a “school” that welcomed cartographers, astronomers, mariners, and navigators. Their goal: to find a direct maritime link with the Orient.

Believing that it is probable that the Orient can be reached by rounding the African continent, Henry encouraged experienced mariners to push further south on each trip. In 1419 the island of Madeira was reached, followed by the Azores in 1427. Over 400 km of the African coast was explored (as far as Sierra Leone). The Sagres school perfected the caravelle as the ship to use, and improved navigation methods and equipment. Captains were encouraged to be traders and merchants. By 1441 black slaves were principal riches sought on the African coast.

Under the reign of Henry’s great nephew João II, the mouth of the Congo is reached in 1482; in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounds the Cape of Storms which is quickly renamed the Cape of Good Hope.

A few years earlier Columbus had appealed to João II for support to sail west to reach the Orient. But being focused on the route around Africa, Portugal lost this opportunity and Columbus’ work would result in the plunder of Mexico, Central and South America flowing instead to Spain. On 8 July 1497, Vasco da Gama left Lisbon with four ships and the intent to round Cape of Good Hope and go on to India. In March 1498 he landed at Mozambique and on 20 May at Calcutta. The route to India and the Orient was now open.

In 1500 Cabral discovered Brazil. Fortunately Brazil lies to the east of the line agreed to by the Portuguese, Spanish and the Pope by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the non-European world into two spheres of influence, one to be controlled by Spain the other by Portugal.

In 1501 Gaspar Corte Reál reached Newfoundland. Portugal did not exploit this as their interest was focused on the Orient. (Portugal would eventually engage heavily and successfully in the Grand Banks cod fishery. When Roger went around Newfoundland as a 15 year old with the Canadian navy, the Portuguese sail-powered (big wooden 3 mast vessels) cod fishery was very much in evidence on the Banks and in St. Johns harbour.)

In 1510 the Portuguese conquered Goa, which became their power center in Asia. In 1554 they began trade with Canton and in 1557 they obtained the small island, Macao, which would be their door on China for the next 450 years. They arrived in Japan in 1543 and began supplying fire-arms. The Catholic Society of Jesus (Jesuit) missionaries accompanied the traders and explorers and by 1581 there were 150,000 Christians in Japan.

But the principal objective of exploration was wealth through the exploitation of the territories they discovered and in some cases conquered. From the beginning of the 16th century the Orient trade previously controlled by the Moors on the overland route was now controlled by the Portuguese on their maritime route. Much of the trade of the Mediterranean and the Baltic now moved through Lisbon. Northern Europeans come to trade arms, cereals, silver and copper for the gold and ivory of Africa; pepper, cinnamon, ginger and cloves from India; silks and porcelain from China; carpets from Persia; and precious metals from Sumatra. This wealth would fund many public and religious buildings, the arts and culture.

Unfortunately for Portugal the wealth proved to be illusory in many ways. As mentioned, the population of Portugal was halved as 1 million Portuguese emigrated to these new territories. With insufficient farm labourers it became necessary to import grains and cereals. Craftsmen and artisans were reduced in numbers and in skills. Life became more and more expensive with inflation. Gold was used to buy the produce and other products of Holland and France. Thus the wealth, instead of being used internally to grow the Portuguese economy, fed and nourished the economies of other European countries. The death knoll to this period was struck on 4 August 1578 when King Sebastian I was killed in a battle in Morocco. Portugal passed under the control of the Spanish monarchy.

The Braganza Dynasty 1640-1853

In 1640, under the dukes of Braganza, the Portuguese began the War of Restoration, resulting in the crowning of João, Duke of Braganza as João IV of Portugal and in 1688 Spain recognized the independence of Portugal. The Braganza Dynasty reigned until 1853.

The 18th century is noted for the renewing of the alliance with England and the export of Port to England. The wealth of Brazil (gold and diamonds) was now the mainstay of the Portuguese economy. Following a devastating earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, the Prime Minister took the reigns of power, and under an “enlightened despotism”, rebuilt Lisbon. He was responsible for the 1759 expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal.

Napoleonic Era

The Anglo-Portuguese alliance dragged Portugal into the Napoleonic Wars by joining in 1793 the first coalition against revolutionary France. In 1796 Spain withdrew from this coalition and allied itself with France. To assure his blockade, Napoleon sent 3 military expeditions to attack Portugal between 1807 and 1810. The Anglo-Portuguese alliance resulted in Britain dispatching troops under Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, to protect Portugal. Later Wellesley will defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (see blog for June 2007).

The End of the Monarchy

The 19th century saw Portugal engaged in internal conflicts including a civil war over the power and role of the monarchy. In this era the role of monarchs varied significantly throughout the western world, from the absolute power of the Czar of Russia to the parliamentary controlled monarchy of Britain. Portugal wrestled unsatisfactorily with this question from 1820 to 1910.

In 1822 Brazil proclaimed its independence and took as its emperor the eldest son of João IV, the Portuguese king. Pedro I of Brazil, on the death of his father, retained the throne of Brazil and installed his daughter Maria II as Queen of Portugal, with his brother Miguelo as Regent until she reached adulthood. At the same time he instituted a new Portuguese constitution making the monarchy subservient to parliamentary power. But Miguelo saw his opportunity, declared himself King in 1828 and threw out the constitution, reinstituting the absolute power of the monarchy.

A veritable civil war broke out between the “absolutists” and the “liberals”. The latter, with the help of England, were the winners and in 1834 reinstalled Maria as Queen, subservient to parliamentary power. In 1834 Portugal abolished slavery and Maria was married to Ferdinand de Saxe-Couborg-Gotha. One sees the hand of England in this.

From 1851 the ongoing debate about parliamentary authority continues unabated. Despite this unrest Portugal is able to create a third overseas empire in its exploitation of Mozambique and Angola.

With the ongoing political strife, the government and legislature are dissolved in 1906 and Portugal has a dictator in 1907-08. On 1 February, 1908 King Charles I and his son were assassinated in Lisbon. The Queen ensured the crowning of her younger son, but he abdicated on 5 October 1910 and the Republic of Portugal became the 3rd European state with a republican form of government.

The republic was unable to restore order and the country stumbled along. By 1926 the republic had gone through 8 presidents and a military coup overthrew the republic. By 1928 the economy was in shambles and the military rulers called on a professor of the University of Coimbra, António de Oliveira Salazar, to serve as finance minister. Salazar created monetary and political stability. In 1932 he was named President and in 1933 promulgated the constitution of the Estado Novo (the new state) and instituted a dictatorship with a secret police, censorship and other trappings of the dictatorships arising in Europe. Portugal remained neutral throughout World War II.

The Republic Takes Root

The 1960’s saw the financially ruinous wars of independence in Portugal’s African colonies and the annexation of Goa by India in 1961. With Salazar’s death the country moved toward liberalization and the Carnation Revolution was launched during the night of 24 April 1974. The following year Mozambique, Angola, St. Thomas, Portuguese Guinea, and Cap Vert gained independence.

A socialist constitution was proclaimed in 1976 and Macao and the Islands of Madeira and the Azores gained autonomy. The first free elections in half a century took place on 25 April 1975, with a 92% voter turnout giving the majority of seats to the Socialist party. But political stability is not instantaneous. The Socialists were divided between those who favoured European style socialism and those who favoured the socialism of eastern Europe. The country would experience 13 governments in 12 years.

As the constitution went through 4 new iterations between 1982 and 1997, each one was less “revolutionary” and less socialist in its philosophical underpinnings.

In 1999 Macao was ceded to China and the Age of Empire officially ended. The future will bring new developments, many of them unforeseen as Portugal creates its place in the EU (which it joined over 30 years ago).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Biarritz - Revisited

7-10 November 2007

We posted a long blog on Biarritz last March. But with different weather this autumn we thought a couple of other pictures were merited. From last year’s post you will remember the little old port with waves breaking right over the breakwaters and roiling the small harbour with whirlpools. The port on a quiet day is quite a contrast.

We still love the dramatic location of this villa. What looks like a bridge leading to the villa, actually leads to the “Virgin’s Rock” in the background –so named because of the statue on top, not because of any medieval “droits de seigneur”.

Biarritz has to be one of the jewels of France – a city with the amenities of one but without the crowding, noise and mass of many cities – and a seaside location.


5 November 2007

Last year when we were heading north in March we couldn’t find Arcachon’s parking for “camping cars” which was, according to our book, located at the entrance to the city across from the Citroën garage. We didn’t find the camping cars or the garage so we continued on to Andernos-les-Bains. This year, being a hop away from Arcachon, we decided to try again. We still didn’t find the garage or the camping cars, so we continued into the downtown to the Tourist Information Center. The women there gave Marie-Claire a map showing where the only campsite was located and informed her that the camping car parking site did not exist. When M-C asked how we could get to the campsite, the women said in French, “we’re here, and there’s the campsite”, pointing deftly to two points on the city map. With a couple of exceptions we have had excellent rapport with and help from the staff of the Tourism Offices. Perhaps this lady was constipated or maybe M-C should have given her spiel about being from Canada.

M-C brought the map to our camping car and repeated all this. Looking at the map and trying to orient ourselves to the necessary route with 5 streets running off in various directions, in a busy downtown, and no street name signs, it seemed an impossible task. Roger wandered around the intersection a bit, spotted a directional sign for a camp site and we then wondered whether this was the correct one. In the past we have found that these directional signs to campsites sometimes disappear after 2 or 3 roundabouts and then we’re lost once again. So back we both march into the Tourism Office, get the same woman again. This time maybe it’s Roger’s foreign accent, maybe she’s had a potty break. Whatever, she now seems more helpful. We ask whether the directional sign, WHICH CAN BE CLEARLY SEEN FROM WHERE WE ARE STANDING in the office, is the correct one to follow. “Mais, certainement monsieur, madame. Et toujours tout droit.” When French speaking Europeans say “always straight ahead” you know it really isn’t straight. And this case was no exception. But this time the directional signs to the only Arcachon campsite are indeed all in place and we follow a winding circuitous route for several km and get installed. We are definitely surprised to find that from the campsite it is only a 1 km walk or bike ride to the downtown because we can take a direct route through L’Hiver (Winter), the area we are staying in, its forest, through the Moorish Park to L’Eté, the area where the downtown and the beachfront promenades are located.

Ah, the joys of travel.

So off we go on our bikes to discover Winter, Summer, Fall and Spring aka Arcachon.

This elevator and its tower are the reminder of the Casino Mauresque (Moorish Casino) which sat at the top of the elevator. Built in the early 20th century, it burned down in the late 1970’s and is commemorated by the Parc Mauresque on the original site.

A pedestrian outdoor “mall” leads through Summer to the beach promenades.

Note the famous French (actually ½ Belgian) rock star Johnny Halliday who has been able to recreate himself innumerable times. His most recent release is a blues album recorded a few months ago in Los Angeles.

This is a beautiful waterfront on the sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon. Further into the basin the tidal flats are very extensive. But here there is considerable deep water and flat sailing with decent winds.

The yacht basin boasts a lot of vessels up to about 40 feet in length and nicely frames a steeple top statue of Christ with outstretched arms welcoming sailors and fishermen back from the storms of the Atlantic.

Roger loves the Citroën “deux chevaux” – which translates literally as 2 horses – or 2 horsepower. And they sound and drive like 2 horsepower.

They look like they’re all brawn and muscle, but they’re really quite meek. Out of production for at least 4 decades, they are now primarily collectors’ cars although we have seen a few in need of some TLC.

In 1841 a railway linked Bordeaux and Teste, a nearby town. In 1845 a deep water port was established 5 km north of Teste. In 1852 the railway was extended to this port by 2 brothers who had bought up the bankrupt Bordeaux-Teste railway, a few villas were built on their land and Arcachon was born as a summer retreat. By 1866 it had also become a winter retreat.

These grand villas in “Winter” are representative of Arcachon.


La Dune de Playa

5 November 2007

Leaving Belgium (31 October) we used autoroutes and nationals to get to and around Amiens. From there we followed an autoroute and over 100 km of local roads (départementals) to avoid Rouen since last year it had taken an hour and a half to go through Rouen because it has no circle route around it. From there we followed nationals to Alençon where we joined another autoroute leading us past the racing mecca, Le Mans, then Nantes and on to Ile de Noirmoutier (see March 2007). Following this two day trip covering about 1100 km we decompressed in the pastoral surroundings and small towns of the island (2-5 November).

Revitalized by the bracing Atlantic breezes and the joie de vivre of small towns, we set out for Arcachon via départementals until we picked up the autoroute around Niort. Last spring we meandered through the wine growing region on the southwest side of La Gironde. (March 2007) This time we were going down the other side of La Gironde towards Bordeaux (wine drinkers will know this name). The weather was not cooperating so we continued past Bordeaux and back to the Atlantic to see a major and well known sand dune that was declared a French national heritage site in 1978.

Marie-Claire catches her breath on about the 50th step of some 600 steps leading to the top of the dune. Approximately 3 km long, 500 meters wide and about 110 meters high it is very steep on the inland side and you don’t just run up it. The dune contains about 60 million cubic meters of sand grains about 0.3 mm in size. That’s a lot of grains of sand. At the top we are well above the 30-40 meter tall trees in our campsite.

If you are really brave, or foolhardy, like this mountain bike trainer from the French Alps, you can ride your bike down the dune. Here he was just posing for his wife and son, before a test run on the lower 1/3rd of the dune.

After this he dragged his bike to the top and rode it down, giving me this photo op as he neared the bottom.

The views from the top are dramatic over the forest. This mountain of sand actually covers extremely old pine-wooded dunes. Today it provides a playground for kids and parents, like this German mom and her son.

Not far away two French brothers tumble in the sand while their father sits patiently waiting near the bottom. We can only imagine how many kids are rolling down this steeeep incline in the summer when the campground is full.

These sands have constantly been shifted by the powerful ocean currents, the swells and the wind. In 1708 the shoreline foot of the dune was about 2 km northeast of its present location. Currently it growing in height about 2 meters a year so you might not want to wait too long to climb it.

At present the dune continues to push into the pine forest at its inland foot, smothering and drying up the roots of the trees in the path of its inexorable march.

This is actually a beautiful campsite with spaces for motorhomes, trailers, tents, and many cottages. A lot of the better campsites are actually resorts with playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, pétoncle, restaurants, bars etc. It is a good business with several revenue streams and typically, even in the south they close for up to 4-6 months because they have already made their money. This particular campsite “Camping de la Forêt” is in the pine forest with a number of planted oaks under which we nestled for a night in our little motorhome

while others stayed in cabins and cottages.

The geographical history of the area is actually quite fascinating. The coast was historically defined by the sand, winds and ocean currents. A vast plain of 14,000 square kilometres is today largely pine forest and lakes (étangs). The lakes were formed as sands blocked the flow of rivers and streams flowing to the ocean. Otherwise it was one large beach with no trees. In this area, the Côte d’Argent, only la Leyre flows to the ocean through La Bassin d’Arcachon. Up until the late 1800’s this region was an inhospitable immense beach progressing inland at a speed of 7 to 25 meters per year. If the dunes could be controlled and if the spread of the sand could be curtailed the region could be more successfully inhabited, towns would arise and ultimately the seaside towns and resorts, the campsites resorts and the very long, flat bike and hiking trails of today would be possible. The dream of controlling the sand began in the middle ages but was only realised by the Engineer of Bridges and Roads, Monsieur Brémontier beginning with projects in 1788.

About 70 meters from the high tide line he sunk beams in the sand. As the sand piled up against the boards he raised them allowing the sand to pile higher until he had eventually created a “coastal dike” about 12 meters high. Planting “gourbet”, grasses with extensive root systems, stabilized the surface of these dikes. Behind these barriers he sowed broom and maritime pines under a protective covering of cut branches which stabilized the sand sufficiently to permit the trees to root and grow. Within 4 years the faster growing broom attained a height of 4 feet while the slower growing pines eventually overtook the broom and grasses smothering and killing them. As these rotted, they provided nourishment to the pines, enhancing their growth. By 1867 this work was completed, resulting in 3000 hectares of stabilized coastal dunes covered in gourbet and 80,000 hectares on inner dunes planted in pines.

The inner plains of les Landes (Moor) covering some 950,000 hectares from Arcachon in the north to Dax in the south were at the same period (beginning of the 19th century) inhospitable, poorly drained, sandy and of minimal agricultural usefulness. After Napoléon a definitive solution was found by an engineer named Chambrelent. He established a drainage plan, cleared the land of brush and started the creation of forests. He undertook massive plantings of maritime pines, and two types of oak trees. As a result the Département (more or less the equivalent of a U.S.A. state) de Landes becomes the richest of France. When critics questioned the dependence on a monoculture, the people of Landes replied “pine, it’s a fortune”.

In the mid- 19th century railways were constructed from Bordeaux into the region, bringing the Bordelais to the beaches for bathing. With expansion of the railways, and development of infrastructure such as towns and hotels, the tourism era was slowly launched until in the mid-20th century the mass tourism of campsites, resorts, cars, trailers and camping cars gave it additional momentum.

From here we moved about 8 km to Arcachon at the mouth of Le Bassin d’Arcachon, just around from Andernos-les-Bains which we visited last spring (see March 2007).

Whistler - Part 2

Shop till you drop heaven!!

This is certainly an improvement over the landfill that destroyed the valley floor and floodplain of history. And in all fairness a real effort has been made to insert lots of nature.

Bobsled and luge will take place at Whistler and the related facilities will be one of the legacies. For now old folks can relive their youthful dreams. (4526)

And their youthful activities – perhaps not quite so successfully as at 15 or 16. But hey not bad for 45 years later, eh? Lyn demonstrates while Roger’s brother Ian looks on with approval.

Like many others, we missed out on the Whistler real estate boom (in fact we missed out on a few others as well). At one point we had a chance to pick up a 2 year old, very large 1 bedroom apartment in the village for $90,000. A few years later we were able to buy a Christmas week timeshare (3 stories with in-suite hot tub) for $30,000 in this building (Village Gatehouse). We had a lot of fun in it with family and friends for 15 Christmas weeks and sold it for the purchase price. So as a fun investment it was worth every penny. But as real estate investment it sucked big time. Well maybe the fun was more important. At least we hope it was. Naw, we KNOW it was.

To escape the “urban” nature and perhaps the urbanity of today’s Whistler a short drive towards Pemberton, followed by a 30 minute hike along this old First Nations trading trail,

brings us to Nairn Falls. Over 150 million years ago this area was near the shore of a vast ocean. Gradually the earth’s crust moved upwards and crushed nearby volcanic islands against the shoreline. Further upheavals and other movements of the crust changed this area from seashore to mountains. The Green River over the centuries and the glaciers of this area brought many changes. The glaciers wore away rock as they ground their way down the mountains, creating silt in the river, and indeed creating the river itself. The silt of the river wears away the bedrock and when the river water moves in a circular motion it carves potholes. Sometimes the collapse of the floor of one pothole creates an underground passage between two potholes as at this site.

For the sports-minded Whistler offers many opportunities to be athletic or to watch athletes, although normally in summer you wouldn’t see skiers practising aerials.

The air induced bubbles provide a cushion for a good landing or for a crash.

Whistler has lots to offer, winter, spring, summer or fall. Go and experience it.


September 2007

Why put Whistler on this blog? Many Vancouverites, although surrounded by water and mountains rarely experience either of them. At their doorsteps are some of the best ocean cruising grounds and some of the most beautiful and dramatic mountains in the world. For other Canadians and for Europeans Whistler may be a name they will hear more of as 2010 approaches. So here’s a few insights and sights from an autumn visit.

Whistler has changed dramatically since it was originally occupied by First Nations peoples. White trappers were some of the first Europeans to settle in the area; they were followed by prospectors and in the early 20th century by the beginnings of the service industry that in the last two decades of the century would overtake the valley.

When Roger began coming here in the 1970’s – driving his son Robert from White Rock each weekend for the Nancy Greene Ski League, almost none of the townsite development seen in this picture had begun. The area now known as “Creekside” had a gas station/store, a couple of small hotels off the main road, a few restaurants, open parking at the bottom of the small gondola and a relatively new chairlift. From the main road and for the average traveller – that was Whistler. You could ski down from Whistler either to Creekside from where you started up the mountain in the early morning, or down the “Olympic” run to the site of today’s Whistler Village. At that time it was a rather rough parking lot, reputedly a former town dump. From there you would catch a modified school bus back to Creekside and you car. Whistler had private homes, a few boarding houses for employees, a couple of restaurants. Blackcomb Mountain, as a ski twin to Whistler was a dream away off in the future. Few could have imagined how it would all be transformed – some would say for the worse.

There are still good hikes in the area and mountain bike trails have proliferated providing lots of choices ranging from those for novices to scary, mind-blowing descents. The development of ski lifts on both mountains has provided excellent year-round access to the various hiking and biking trails. So Whistler is no longer the haunt of only dedicated skiing fanatics – it can also accommodate those who want a short mountain top amble, those who want a wilderness experience, those who want to shop till they drop, dedicated party animals and in the winter those who want to ski till they drop.

So let’s start with a few shots around the top of Whistler Mountain. In Whistler Village you board the speedy gondola that whisks you to the top of the mountain, well almost. For the not so faint-hearted, a short walk down about 150 feet to the Peak Chair to the real top puts you on a 4 person chair to amazing views and a choice of several hiking trails down – or you can catch the chair down.

Many of the events of the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held in Whistler so the distinctive symbol of these games is prevalent, even at the highest point on the mountain. In this instance it provides an excellent backdrop for these two intrepid hikers, Marie-Claire and her sister-in-law Lyn Elmes.

A short hike at the peak affords a variety of really outstanding views. Black Tusk , some miles distant is one of the destinations of an excellent day-long or multi-day hike leading from the valley floor – no gondolas or ski lifts – and one of Roger’s favourites that Marie-Claire has also done.

The two intrepid hikers set off across the snow that has lasted through the summer and into September.

Long days of warm sunshine melt most of the snow and even at this altitude with very little soil among the rocks, wild alpine flowers bloom, adding a different and less harsh beauty.

The view down the Peak Chair is dramatic to say the least – eye-closing for many (what you can’t see can’t hurt you).

For others, this terrain provides a minor climbing challenge.

For the less daunting the trails at the top of the gondola are more tame and provide some interesting rambles. Good walking shoes are still required, no Christian Dior high heels please.

But even at this elevation there is a lot of beauty and some interesting ascents.

Apart from the construction of Olympic facilities at Whistler, the major undertaking currently underway is a gondola that will link Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, at a height above Singing Pass of 415 meters or 1,361 feet making it the world’s highest lift of its kind and at 3.024 km or 1.88 miles the longest unsupported span for a lift of this kind; and at a total length of 4.4 km or 2.73 miles the world’s longest continuous lift system. It will carry up to 4100 passengers per hour, in 28 cabins like this (including 1 glass bottomed one), with 28 passengers per cabin (24 seated).

Does Whistler really need this? We don’t think so. It is reminiscent of a cartoon in a Calgary newspaper. Picture a scene of a lovely small lake surrounded by healthy beautiful trees and other foliage, some fauna in the background. Two developers are standing by the lake with drawings in their hands. The cut line is “How can we improve this?”

To get back to earth, in part 2 we'll return to the valley floor and the town – the former garbage dump – now shop till you drop heaven.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Note From La France

We arrived in Belgium on 21 October, spent a week getting the motorhome ready, visiting relatives and friends, arranging the annual insurance etc. We have now been on the road for about a week, staying in a few new places as we retrace some of our footsteps. We will add some pages about them once we pull a few together.

Today we are back at Mimizan (see last March), a few hours north of Biarritz (see last March), our destination tomorrow. After a few days there we will start on new explorations as we enter Spain. From the north of Spain's Atlantic coast we will continue down the coast to Portugal and eventually to southern Spain, Gibraltar and ultimately to the French Spanish border on the Med at Collioure (last March) and finally heading north to Belgium.

Once we discover the ins qnd outs of the Internet scene in Spain and Portugal we will post some more interesting pages. For now bonne journée et hasto luego.