subway entranceOn our second day in Toronto, my son and I hopped on the Yonge Street subway line to head down to the Harbourfront area. The subway system has been expanded since I lived in Toronto, and now reaches further in all directions. A good deal simpler than the London Underground system, the Toronto subway has two main lines: the yellow one goes North-South in a big U, and the green one goes East-West along Bloor Street.

Toronto Subway map showing the three lines. Map ©TTC.

The Bloor/Danforth line has been extended north at the eastern end. It ended at Kennedy when I lived there. So I see a new blue line and also a little purple one that wasn’t there before! These go out into the suburbs. Downtown Toronto is the area served by that lower part of the U.

The subway trains have also changed a great deal since I was last in Toronto. Now they are sleek and open with no divisions between carriages. They were revamped in 2010 and now look similar to New York subway trains.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The platforms are clean and modern, and signposting is pretty clear. You can get a transfer to travel on a bus or streetcar once you come out of the subway, but remember to get it at the station where you start! Look for the red transfer machines.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Inside, the trains look great but the seats are a bit hard. Plenty of room for standing though, and you can walk down the full length of the train.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

There are regular announcements at each station and a set of arrows on the overhead display shows which side to exit on. There is also a clever illuminated map of the subway network with a green light indicating the train’s current location. Red lights show the route you are on and where you will go next.

So, all this to say we took a subway train down to Union Station, where we took a short walkway south to the Harbourfront. I hardly recognised the place, as so many new hotels and highrise condominiums had been built in the past 20 years! We were meeting a friend at the Queen’s Quay building, but I had some trouble finding it in a forest of glass and concrete towers.

queens quay condoThe Queen’s Quay Terminal building was originally a warehouse on the waterfront, but was converted to luxury condominiums in 1983. Back then it was virtually the only one of its kind, with lovely terrace restaurants on the quayside and a landscaped walkway behind. A nearby powerhouse was converted into an art gallery in those early days of cultural transformation.

Now there are a huge number of attractions, including a dog and cat centre, the Purina PawsWay, where pets are welcome to take in exhibits (such as the Animal Hall of Fame) and events like obedience training and obstacle races. Not being pet owners, we didn’t venture in.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Instead we had a lovely walk along the waterfront and a great meal with our friend on a sunny terrace. The next stop was the CN Tower, but when we arrived it was so crowded that we would have had to wait two hours to go up, so we decided against it. My son had forgotten his glasses anyway, so Toronto from the air would have been a blur!

We decided to stroll up Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada at 58 km. We had only travelled a few blocks when we came past the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a handsome Edwardian double theatre built in 1913 by Marcus Loew and designed by Thomas W. Lamb.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Originally designed for vaudeville, the lower Elgin Theatre was a sumptuous gilt and red velvet hall where silent films were introduced, and later it was adapted as a mainstream movie house.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The separate Winter Garden Theatre is located seven stories above the Elgin, and is a whimsical creation with its hanging beech branches and twinkling lanterns.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

This theatre was aimed at a more discriminating audience but it also featured vaudeville shows. When these declined in popularity the Winter Garden Theatre closed, and lay unused for 65 years. In the 1980s both theatres were restored by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. In the upper theatre, volunteers spent many months rolling the painted walls and boxes with raw bread dough to remove the soot. This was the only way to clean them as they were painted with simple water-based paints.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

We had intended only to pop in and look at the lobby with its lovely stained glass doors, but we ended up going on a 90-minute tour! A very lucky discovery, and much more interesting than the CN Tower, as it turned out.

The entrance to the Elgin, with beautiful stained glass doors. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

There is so much more to see in Toronto that we must try to get back very soon. I’m going to make a list and be a bit more organised next time!

Toronto skylineMy son and I spent a couple of days in Toronto recently. It was a first visit for him, and I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. So much has changed in that time that I hardly recognised the place!

We arrived by bus, and that brought us into the city along University Avenue, where a striking new sculpture caught my eye. It’s a shiny, silver, twisted tree root covered in silver birds, and it stands in front of the Shangri-La Hotel. The sculptor is Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who does impressive large-scale sculptures with a dream-like quality. This one is called ‘Rising.’

Detail of 'Rising' by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Detail of ‘Rising’ by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Our first stop in Toronto was the Royal Ontario Museum, where by chance we found some more sculptures from China in the William Charles White Gallery. These were ancient gold Buddhas and life-size statues of Buddhist scholars and teachers.

Painted wooden statues from Shanxi province in China. Photo @Royal Ontario Museum.

Mounted on two walls of the gallery were enormous murals taken from a Buddhist monastery from the Yuan Dynasty (over 700 years old). They were very impressive, and remarkably well preserved. It’s hard to imagine how they managed to move such large and delicate wall paintings into the gallery.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

After all this ancient history it was time to get back out into the 21st-century city! We walked through Queen’s Park past the Ontario Legislature (where we had just missed all the Canada Day celebrations) and found Dundas Square where a street performer was juggling flaming torches on top of a very tall unicycle! We stayed to watch but kept well back, just in case!

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

When I lived in Toronto, Dundas Square didn’t exist. It’s similar in feel to Times Square in New York, though on a smaller scale. The bright billboards look best at night, and we were there to have dinner at the local Hard Rock Café. I thought my teenage son would enjoy a truly North American experience, but later I found out there are lots of them in the UK! We sat next to a wall mounted with backlit boxes displaying Stevie Nicks’ boots, a hat worn by Tom Petty, and a guitar played by a member of Kiss, among other things. The boxes went right up to the ceiling and we were craning our necks trying to read all the labels. Perhaps the restaurant should issue telescopes to all their customers!

Toronto is a great place to take photographs, and I found an excellent page on the Tourism Toronto website called Top Picks for Pics. We got to a few of these places but sadly only had two days in the city which wasn’t enough time!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about our visit to Toronto’s Harbourfront and a brilliant tour we took of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres on Yonge Street.

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Spring is a good time to visit China. The searing heat of the summer has not yet arrived, and the parks and markets are full of life. China is a place of striking contrasts. Beijing and Shanghai are huge, modern cities, but there are also peaceful open spaces and amazing historic buildings.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China.

No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall (which they say is visible from space!) and of course Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Beijing is the capital of China and has a population of over 20 million people.

The school run in Beijing.

The school run in Beijing.

The traffic is very busy and never stops, so it’s tricky to be a pedestrian. Lots of children go to school on the back of a scooter!

Selling shoes in a street market.

Selling shoes in a street market.

There are lots of open-air markets where you can buy all sorts of things. The most impressive displays are in the food markets where a huge variety of fruit and vegetables are sold. With 20 million people to feed, it’s not surprising!

Fruit and vegetable stall in a Beijing market.

Fruit and vegetable stall in a Beijing market.

The city is full of life at night, with lots of people out shopping or going to restaurants.

Lanterns light up the streets in Beijing.

Lanterns light up the streets in Beijing.

In Shanghai there are boat trips at night on the Huangpu River to see the Pudong district which is beautifully lit.

The Shanghai skyline looks dramatic at night.

The Shanghai skyline looks dramatic at night.

Shanghai at night looks pretty impressive! The big purple tower is called the Oriental Pearl Tower and is a television transmission tower.

The view from the tour boat.

The view from the tour boat.

There are some amazing buildings in the historic district of Shanghai as well. They are made of wood, and provide a huge contrast to all the modern glass and steel.

Traditional buildings on stilts.

Traditional buildings on stilts.

To escape the big city there are lovely open spaces to enjoy. Parks are very popular and people meet to play music and do a little impromptu dancing.

A musical gathering in the park.

A musical gathering in the park.

This park has a boardwalk along a pretty lake. It’s clearly a place for taking special photos and just enjoying a stroll in the fresh air.

I think this is a fashion shoot rather than a real wedding.

I think this is a fashion shoot rather than a real wedding.

There were some surprising boats moored on this lake. Would you like a dragon boat? What a perfect houseboat!

It would be scary seeing this coming in the dark!

It would be scary seeing this coming in the dark!

This one is very elegant. I'd love to hop aboard!

This one is very elegant. I’d love to hop aboard!

If you want to escape the city altogether then a trip to the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan is in order. The scenery is incredible, even if you arrive in fog and rain. A cable car takes you close to the top, where there are pathways and viewpoints.

Climbing in the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan.

Climbing in the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan.

These trees and cliffs look just like the classic Chinese paintings we sometimes see on calendars and posters. They seem very mysterious in the fog!

Beautiful in any weather!

Beautiful in any weather!

The paths are steep and quite close to the cliff-edge at times. The barriers are strong but not all that high…

Best to watch your step, especially when wet...

Best to watch your step, especially when wet…

It’s a great place to visit if you are a nature photographer. Close to two million tourists visit these mountains every year.

A magical forest on the mountain.

A magical forest on the mountain.

What an inspiring place for storytellers! This must be the source of many ancient myths and legends. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit China some day.

Verdi portrait

The other day my daughter mentioned the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, and I was reminded of a fantastic portrait of him painted by Giovanni Boldini. When I was at art school I had a poster of this image on my wall, so the splendid gentleman with his top hat and jaunty scarf would greet me often in the course of my day. The poster is long gone, but just a mention of the name Verdi instantly brings this handsome portrait back to me.

Did you know that in the World Beard and Moustache Championships there is a category of beard called the “Verdi”? Of course there is. There are quite a few people around the world who take facial hair very seriously!

world beard champs

These guys have all been competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. A good number of them come from Germany and Switzerland, where beard cultivation is a well developed art form.

Over the centuries, beards and moustaches have gone in and out of fashion. Depending on the look you choose, the effect can vary enormously. A big white beard for example, as worn by Socrates and Santa Claus, is reassuring and conveys wisdom and kindness.

Painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.

 

A carefully manicured goatee, worn by Charles Dickens, gave him an air of distinction and individuality. Apparently he was also fond of fancy waistcoats and gold jewellery. Very dapper!

Dickens

Shakespeare is thought to have been bearded too. There is some doubt as to what he really looked like, but this painting makes him look very cultured and intelligent:

Shakespeare

His neatly trimmed beard comes to a point, and brings to mind another Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days a beard was a sign of manliness, but in the next century (the 17th) it became fashionable for men to be clean-shaven with long, curly hair (often wigs).

17th century man

Fashions come and go (thank goodness) and not everyone follows the herd. In the 1960s it was in protest against social constraints and repressive government policies that young people grew their hair and beards long and called themselves “Hippies.” In the ’70s and ’80s beards became unfashionable again, as money and success were seen as what society should be striving for once more. For some men it came down to a choice between their beard and their job, as certain occupations (police, health care professionals, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) forbade facial hair.

Thankfully, today there is much more freedom in that department, and the beard is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

beard comp poster

There are clubs and associations around the world celebrating a rich variety of facial decoration. Celebrities from George Clooney to Graham Norton are sporting beards these days, and for those who have been standing out in the crowd for the last few decades it comes as a bit of a shock.

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Children’s author Philip Ardagh stands two metres tall and has always worn a prodigious beard to match his size 16 feet. Now that beards are all the rage, he may have to up his game! Maybe a little moustache wax will do the trick…

David Lindo

Unlike many countries around the world, the UK doesn’t have an official national bird. Broadcaster and bird enthusiast David Lindo, otherwise known as the Urban Birder, has launched a campaign to get people voting for the bird they think should represent Britain. He’s written a great article about choosing a national bird HERE.

The choice of bird has been whittled down to ten candidates: the mute swan, kingfisher, robin, blue tit, puffin, red kite, wren, blackbird, barn owl and hen harrier. If you want to hear what each of these birds sounds like, click HERE for a BBC Radio 4 recording of them all. You might be surprised by some of them!

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird! Photo ©Peter Trimming

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird!
Photo ©Peter Trimming

When you’re ready to vote, you can visit the official Vote for Britain’s National Bird website. So which of these lovely birds do you think deserves the title? They are all very different, ranging from the tiny blue tit to the imposing swan. Each one is beautiful in its own way, and while some are very familiar, like the robin and blackbird, others are rare and special, like the red kite and the kingfisher.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland. The photo above was taken in Wales by Tim Felce.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland.   The photo above was taken in Wales. Photo ©Tim Felce.

Some of them are birds of prey, like the owl and hen harrier, which hunt small animals or other birds. Kingfishers, of course, eat fish. Other smaller birds eat only berries and seeds, so they are vegetarian and peaceful creatures. Should this be a consideration as we choose a bird to represent our nation?

Kingfishers are very striking, but there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK. Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Kingfishers are very striking, and there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK.
Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Setting the issue of character aside, should we choose the bird that is most widely seen across the UK, or one that is distinctive and rare? Until now, the robin has held a special place in people’s hearts, and has been our unofficial national bird. Will the public make this official?

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s they were voted Britain's unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s the robin was voted Britain’s unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

 

I haven’t decided which one I’ll vote for yet. If I were choosing on the basis of looks, I would go for the sweet little blue tit, or the handsome kingfisher.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants. Photo ©Maximilian Dorsch

As you may have noticed from some of my books, I am also a big fan of the puffin. (I seem to write quite a lot about birds, including penguins and flamingos, but neither of those is very British!)

This little bird has a special place in my heart! Photo ©Richard Bartz

This little bird has a special place in my heart!
Photo ©Richard Bartz

I hope you’ll find the time to help vote for our official National Bird. You have until May 7th to decide.

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

 

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