Friday, December 31, 2021

Steve McLean’s favourite music of 2021

I try not to live in the past too much so, as always, I kept searching out new music throughout this past year.

While I don’t know if music will ever excite me as much as it did in my youth, one way of trying to maintain a semblance of that youth despite another year turning over and my body reflecting that, is through discovering new music.

I wouldn’t call 2021 a great year for music, but a decent one that’s probably about on par with last year.

Below you’ll see my favourite 30 albums (from the hundreds I listened to) in order. I’ve also included: my favourite EPs; and my favourite compilations, live albums and reissues.

Just like many artists who performed frequent live streams through 2020 got a bit burnt out on them this year, I did too. So my viewing decreased significantly and you’ll see a lot of names repeated in the favourite concert list since I’d return to people I knew I could rely on during those times I found myself without other things to do and a live stream happened to be on.

Live music in Toronto was basically shut down through the first seven months of the year and even when it returned there were often restrictions placed on shows and I lost my enthusiasm for attending concerts and only caught three that genuinely entertained me.

Hopefully live performances in my hometown will return unfettered at some point in the not too distant future and my appetite for them will also reappear, like I’m sure it would have at the Jon Langford, Sally Timms and The Sadies show I was supposed to see tonight at the Horseshoe Tavern for New Year’s Eve before Omicron threw a wrench that caused it to be cancelled.

Thanks to everyone who continues to make music or is involved with bringing it to people either in recorded or live formats. Your work is appreciated and hopefully I’ll be able to convey that in person to some of you this year.

With that, here are the recordings and performances that did the most for me in 2021.



My favourite 10 albums

1. Legendary Shack Shakers - Cockadoodledeux
2. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - When God Was Great
3. Charley Crockett - Music City USA
4. Together Pangea - Dye
5. Skegss - Rehearsal
6. Catbite - Nice One
7. Dropkick Murphys - Turn Up That Dial
8. Goodbye Honolulu - Goodbye Honolulu
9. Jr. Gone Wild - Still Got The Jacket
10. The Rumjacks - Hestia

 


The next 10 albums

11. Ike Reilly - Because The Angels
12. Bobby Ramone - Rocket to Kingston
13. Gramps Morgan - Positive Vibration
14. The Deathray Davies - Time Well Wasted
15. The Fleshtones - Face of the Screaming Werewolf
16. Southern Culture On The Skids - At Home With Southern Culture On The Skids
17. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band - Dance Songs for Hard Times
18. The Human Rights - Reggae Strong
19. Wavves - Hideaway
20. Nine Pound Hammer - When the Shit Goes Down

 


The next 10 albums after that

21. Dany Laj and The Looks - Ten Easy Pieces

22. Dinosaur Jr. - Sweep It Into Space
23. U-Roy - Solid Gold U-Roy
24. Half Past Two - Half Past Two
25. Whitehorse - Strike Me Down
26. The Blips - The Blips
27. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux - Bloodstains and Teardrops
28. Jakob Mind - The One Who Got Away
29. Dean Wareham - I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor of L.A.
30. The Weeks - Inside The Covers

 


My favourite EPs

1. Blacklist Royals - Doomsday Girl

2. Teenage Joans - Taste Of Me
3, The Tragically Hip - Saskadelphia
4, Mento Buru - Skalloween
5, Billy Bragg - Mid-Century Modern

 


My favourite compilations, live albums and reissues

1. Lowest of the Low - Taverns and Palaces
2. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts
3. Joe Strummer - Assembly
4. Neil Young - Young Shakespeare
5. The Palace Guard - All Night Long: An Anthology 1965-1966
6. Various artists - I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground and Nico
7. Various artists - Heroes of the Night
8. Bob Marley and The Wailers - The Capitol Session ’73
9. Pixies - Live from Coachella, Indio, CA. May 1st, 2004
10. Scott B. Sympathy - Drinking with the Poet

 

                                                          Chixdiggit


My favourite concerts (chronological order)

Monte Warden - Jan. 1, online concert
Frank Turner - Jan. 14, online concert
Frank Turner - Jan. 21, online concert
Frank Turner - Jan. 28, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Jan. 30, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - Jan. 31, online concert
Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon - Jan. 31, online concert
Bruce Smith - Feb. 3, online concert
Monte Warden - Feb. 12, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Feb. 13, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - Feb. 15, online concert
Frank Turner - Feb. 18, online concert
Monte Warden - Feb. 19, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Feb. 20, online concert
Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon - Feb. 28, online concert
Ron Hawkins - March 2, online concert
Monte Warden - March 5, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 6, online concert
Jeff Tweedy, John Stiratt and Glenn Kotche - March 8, online concert
Monte Warden - March 12, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band and guests - March 13, online concert
Hayes Carll - March 16, online concert
Dropkick Murphys - March 17, online concert
Micah Schnabel, Frank Turner - March 18, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - March 18, online concert
Waco Brothers - March 19, online concert
Lucky Ron - March 27, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 27, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family and Liam Kazar - March 30, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - June 27, online concert
The ARC Sound - Aug. 7, Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto
Danny Laj and The Looks, UIC - Sept. 18, online concert
Luau Or Die, The Ichi-Bons, Mark Malibu and The Wasagas - Oct. 30, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
Chixdiggit - Nov. 4, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
Monte Warden - Nov. 5, online concert
Frank Turner - Dec. 21, online concert
Lucky Ron - Dec. 26, online concert

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Steve McLean’s favourite music of 2020

This year was typical in that I listened to hundreds of new albums. I don’t have to tell you why it was atypical, as COVID-19 impacted all of our lives to some extent.

I don’t know if the coronavirus changed how I listened to music or affected my enjoyment of it, or if it played a role in the creation of the music itself, but there was less of it that stuck in a positive way with me. I don’t want to take anything away from any of the artists who released music this year, but there wasn’t as much of it that I enjoyed. Even a lot of what you’ll find on my favourite albums lists probably wouldn’t have ranked as high in past years.

Like many others, I insulated myself and very rarely saw friends over the past 10 months. And though it wasn’t conscious, when compiling these lists of my favourite music of 2020 it became apparent that a theme of familiarity ran through them. If I couldn’t see people in person, I seem to have gravitated to music that often provided a bit of that bond.

So while I always want to expose myself to new music by new artists, my favourite album was from a rock and roll band that I started buying music from in 1985 — maybe earlier if I check the dates of my What Wave compilation cassettes that UIC contributed to. I’ve seen UIC (and its spinoff band The Chickens) dozens of times over the years, and its members have become friends. And while I’ve always enjoyed the band more live than on record, its first newly recorded album in 27 years struck an immediate chord and I enjoyed it more than any LP that came out this year.

Two of the albums in my top 10 are completely comprised of covers, so again I was already familiar with and liked the songs — even if they were different interpretations. I’ve seen four of the top 10 artists live, five of the next 14, and four of the six on the EP list.

I keep live albums and compilations separate from newly recorded works but, had I amalgamated them, eight would have cracked the top 10 and knocked others down accordingly. All of the live albums were from groups I’ve seen before, five of them (or variations thereof, as The Minus 5 and The Baseball Project share members that perform together in different incarnations) late last year. I’ve had friendly conversations with all of them after shows, which enhances the concert experience and establishes a stronger connection.

And though live streams on my computer replaced live shows in clubs for me in March and through the rest of the year, again I seem to have been drawn to watching artists who I’ve seen several times, and many of whom I consider friends.

Going through my favourite online concerts, the only artist I watched more than once and haven’t yet seen in person is Ike Reilly. I hope to remedy that situation as soon as possible.

So while 2020 caused largely forced separations from people, music, as always, provided a comfortable fallback during isolation.

While I expect my group activities to remain curtailed through much of 2021, I look forward to a better year of personal music appreciation and being able to show my appreciation to musicians in person. Fingers are crossed.


My favourite 10 albums

1. UIC - FM Hill
2. The Nude Party - Midnight Manor
3. Chairmen of the Boards - Surfin’ The Apocalypse
4. The Pretenders - Hate For Sale
5. The Exbats - Kicks, Hits and Fits
6. The Yum Yums - For Those About To Pop
7. Billie Joe Armstrong - No Fun Mondays
8. Wank - White Knuckle Ride
9. Dangereens - Tough Luck
10. NOFX and Frank Turner - West Coast vs. Wessex 



The next 14 albums

11. RVG - Feral

12. Cornershop - England Is A Garden
13. Dehd - Flower of Devotion
14. The Speedways - Radio Sounds
15. John Borra - Blue Wine
16. The Homeless Gospel Choir - This Land Is Your Landfill
17. Cocktails - Catastrophic Entertainment
18. MAX - Turn It Up
19. Mark Malibu and The Wasagas - Dance Party a’ Go Go
20. Kurt Baker - After Party
21. Scott The Hoople - Rock & Roll Party 66
22. Ramblin’ Deano and His Enablers - Pills, Puppies and Bacon
23. Tami Neilson - Chickaboom!
24. Green Day - Father of All Motherfuckers

 


My favourite EPs

1. Muck and the Mires - Take Me Back To Planet Earth
2. The JetScreams - Escape!
3. Nick Lowe - Lay It On Me
4. Bike Club - Find Romance
5. The Swingin’ Blackjacks - Four Hot Tracks!!
6. Jack Sledge - Notes of a Drifter

 


My favourite compilations and live albums

1. The Minus 5 - Live at Yep Roc 15

2. Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets - Live at Haw River Ballroom
3. Southern Culture On The Skids - Live at Yep Roc 15
4. Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets - Walkabout
5. The Baseball Project - Live in Space
6. The Dollyrots - Girl Groups & Punk Beats: The Covers
7. Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls - Live in Newcastle
8. Los Straitjackets - Live at Yep Roc 15
9. Stray Cats - Rocked This Town: From LA to London
10. Krayolas - Savage Young Krayolas
11. Various artists - Mark Malibu presents: Surfin’ Kitty X-mas

My favourite concerts (chronological order)

I generally try to stick to attending live performances I know I’m going to like. While some don’t live up to expectations, I came home satisfied from those listed below that I attended in January and February below.

And since I’ve included online shows this year for the first time because of tour cancellations and venue closings due to COVID-19, I had little choice but to already be at home before, during and after shows from mid-March on.

Here are those I enjoyed the most:

The Beaudelaires, The Classy Wrecks, Skaface - Jan. 10, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
Pkew Pkew Pkew - Jan. 10, Horseshoe, Toronto
Dodge Fiasco - Jan. 22, Cameron House, Toronto
Ichi-Bons, Olivia Jean - Jan. 22, Horseshoe, Toronto

Ichi-Bons
 
Ten Feet Tall, Mr. Pharmacist, The ARC Sound - Jan. 23, Dakota Tavern, Toronto
Frankie Foo and the Yo-Yo Smugglers - Jan. 31, Grossman’s Tavern, Toronto
Lucky Ron - Feb. 15, Chateau Lafayette, Ottawa
Dropkick Murphys - March 17, online concert
Waco Brothers - March 20, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 21, online concert
Corb Lund - March 21, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 23, online concert
Frank Turner - March 26, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 26, online concert
Jesse Malin - March 28, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - March 28, online concert
Ramblin’ Deano - March 29, online concert
Dan Bern - March 29, online concert
Frank Turner - April 2, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - April 2, online concert
Joel Plaskett - April 2, online concert
JD McPherson - April 2, online concert
Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies) - April 3, online concert
Frank Turner - April 3, online concert
Dan Bern - April 3, online concert
Jesse Malin - April 4, online concert
Jon Langford - April 4, online concert
The Rizdales - April 4, online concert
Dan Bern - April 4, online concert
The Jimbos (Reverend Horton Heat) - April 6, online concert
Frank Turner - April 8, online concert
Frank Turner - April 9, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - April 9, online concert
Jesse Malin - April 11, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - April 11, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 11, online concert
Beans On Toast - April 12, online concert
Corb Lund - April 13, online concert
Ron Hawkins - April 14, online concert
Frank Turner - April 16, online concert
Joel Plaskett - April 16, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 16, online concert
The Sounds - April 17, online concert
Monte Warden - April 17, online concert
Johnny Hickman (Cracker) - April 17, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 17, online concert
Jesse Malin - April 18, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - April 18, online concert
Pete Donnelly (The Figgs) - April 18, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 18, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 22, online concert
David Gedge (The Wedding Present) - April 23, online concert
The Discarded - April 23, online concert
Frank Turner - April 23, online concert
Rhett Miller - April 23, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - April 23, online concert
Monte Warden - April 24, online concert
Jon Langford - April 24, online concert
Dan Heptinsall and Lorna Thomas (Skinny Lister) - April 25, online concert
catl - April 25, online concert
Jesse Malin - April 25, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - April 25, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - April 25, online concert
Steve Nieve, Chris Difford, Elvis Costello and Ajuq - April 26, online concert
Carolyn Mark, Jon Langford, Kelly Hogan and Washboard Hank - April 26, online concert
Stephen Stanley - April 29, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - April 30, online concert
Jon Langford - May 1, online concert
Jesse Malin - May 2, online concert
Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom) - May 2, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 2, online concert
John Szymanski - May 3, online concert
Frank Turner - May 5, online concert
Jon Langford - May 5, online concert
Ron Hawkins - May 5, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 5, online concert
Bruce Smith - May 6, online concert
Frank Turner - May 7, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 7, online concert
John Doe - May 7, online concert
Robbie Fulks - May 7, online concert
Ali Barter - May 8, online concert
Kobo Town - May 8, online concert
Monte Warden - May 8, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 8, online concert
Jesse Malin - May 9, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 9, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - May 9, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 9, online concert
John Szymanski - May 10, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 11, online concert
Rhett Miller - May 12, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 12, online concert
Frank Turner - May 14, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 14, online concert
Frank Turner - May 15, online concert
Monte Warden - May 15, online concert
Billy Bragg - May 16, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 16, online concert
Steve Poltz - May 16, online concert
Beans On Toast - May 17, online concert
John Szymanski - May 17, online concert
Josh Kantor - May 19, online concert
Bruce Smith - May 20, online concert
Frank Turner - May 21, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 21, online concert
Jesse Malin - May 23, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 23, online concert
Jon Langford and John Szymanski - May 25, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - May 26, online concert
Jesse Dayton - May 27, online concert
Josh Kantor - May 28, online concert
Frank Turner - May 28, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 28, online concert
Stephen Stanley - May 28, online concert
Dropkick Murphys with Bruce Springsteen and Josh Kantor - May 29, online concert
Monte Warden - May 29, online concert
Josh Kantor - May 30, online concert
Jesse Malin - May 30, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - May 30, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - May 30, online concert
Sally Timms - May 31, online concert
The Rizdales - May 31, online concert
Stephen Stanley - June 3, online concert
Ron Hawkins - June 3, online concert
Frank Turner and Jess Guise - June 4, online concert
Monte Warden - June 5, online concert
The Weeks - June 5, online concert
Dean Schlabowske and Jo Walston - June 7, online concert
Bruce Smith - June 10, online concert
Paul Simon with Edie Brickell, Alejandro Escovedo, Augie Myers and Flaco Jimenez with Los Texmaniacs, Bonnie Raitt with Boz Scaggs, Britt Daniel (Spoon), Charlie Sexton with Doyle Bramhall II, Gary Clark Jr., James Taylor, Lukas Nelson, Jerry Douglas, Jimmie Vaughan & The Tiltawhirl Band, Black Pumas, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Shawn Colvin and Ryan Bingham - June 10, online concert
Frank Turner - June 11, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - June 11, online concert
Jesse Malin - June 13, online concert
Barenaked Ladies - June 13, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - June 13, online concert
The Beths - June 15, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 16, online concert
Bruce Smith - June 17, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 17, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - June 18, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 18, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 19, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - June 20, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 20, online concert
Dean Schlabowske - June 21, online concert
Hayes Carll - June 23, online concert
Whitehorse - June 24, online concert
Alfie Jackson (The Holloways), Gerry del-Guercio (SixNationState), Billy Bragg, Beans On Toast and Frank Turner - June 25, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - June 27, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - June 27, online concert
Frank Turner and Jess Guise - June 29, online concert
Junior and Tanya Rae Brown - June 29, online concert
Jeff Tweedy and his family - June 29, online concert
Hayes Carll - July 7, online concert
Bruce Smith - July 8, online concert
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard - July 10, online concert
Wussy - July 10, online concert
Monte Warden - July 10, online concert
The Weeks - July 10, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - July 11, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - July 11, online concert
John Szymanski - July 12, online concert
Bruce Smith - July 15, online concert
Monte Warden - July 17, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - July 18, online concert
John Szymanski - July 19, online concert
Monte Warden - July 19, online concert
The Sadies - Sept. 12, online concert
Monte Warden - Sept. 18, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Oct. 3, online concert
Ike Reilly - Oct. 3, online concert
Beans On Toast with Frank Turner, Jess Guise and other guests - Oct. 4, online concert
Junior and Tanya Rae Brown - Oct. 19, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Oct. 24, online concert
Amanda Palmer - Nov. 14, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Nov. 14, online concert
Frank Turner - Nov. 19, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Nov. 21, online concert
Bruce Smith - Nov. 25, online concert
Ike Reilly Assassination - Nov. 25, online concert
Monte Warden - Nov. 27, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Nov. 28, online concert
The Lowest of the Low - Nov. 28, online concert
Hayes Carll and Allison Moorer - Dec. 1, online concert
Monte Warden - Dec. 4, online concert
Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie) - Dec. 5, online concert
Jon Langford with John Szymanski - Dec. 6, online concert
Bruce Smith - Dec. 16, online concert
Ike Reilly & The Holy Family House Band - Dec. 19, online concert

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The sights and statues of San Agustin, Colombia


San Agustin is an unassuming small town in the Andes Mountains of western Colombia, but it’s surrounded by what’s said to be the largest complex of megalithic funerary monuments, statues and structures, burial mounds and terraces in Latin America, some of which are estimated to date back to before 1,000 B.C.

They’re most concentrated in an area five kilometres outside of town which since 1931 has been the San Agustin Archaeological Park. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 64 years later. A bus or taxi can get you there easily and economically, and 50,000 pesos (approximately $17.50 Canadian) gets you a two-day entry passport and a guide to take you around and explain what you’re seeing, although little is known about the various monuments.



The guide spoke very minimal English, but we had a fully bilingual tour leader from Tucan Travel to translate what he said about the history and mystery of the relics. The guide further entertained our group by playing a pan flute and creating a finger painting of various colours derived entirely from different plants he found as we walked.

A trail through a scenic and calming cloud forest leads to the archaeological park’s four main sites, which are clustered and within easy walking distance of each other.



About 20 earthen mounds within the park boundaries, some measuring as much as 30 metres in diameter, covered large stone tombs of the upper and ruling class members of the long gone society. 



Many of these tombs feature statues of gods, supernatural beings and animals including jaguars, crocodiles and bats, all carved from volcanic rock. While much is believed to be still buried, there are approximately 200 known statues within the park. The tallest one excavated so far is about seven metres tall, and many others are more than four metres and weigh several tons.



The ancient San Agustín sites were abandoned around 1350 AD and rediscovered during the 18th and 19th centuries, which led to people looting and disturbing the monumental tombs. There was little in the way of great riches to be found, aside from an archaeological standpoint, which likely aided in the preservation of the carved and painted stones. Much of the paint has worn away, but it’s still evident on some statues. 



One of the most important and impressive sites of the park is the ceremonial Lavapatas fountain, which is comprised of a set of carved rocks on the bed of the creek that bears the same name and is believed to have been related to cults that worshipped water. The channels that carry water up to three ponds are silhouettes of snakes and lizards. 



Aside from the tombs, statues and fountain, the elevated location of part of the archaeological park also provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside and mountains. 



After walking around the park for more than three hours, I spent another 30 minutes visiting a small on-site museum to learn more about the area, its significance and the civilization that created the things in the park, as well as to see tools, urns and other objects related to past inhabitants.



A taxi took me into town, which like most Colombian cities has a main central square dominated by a church and important public buildings. There wasn’t a lot to see, but I walked around for an hour to check out the architecture and pick up snacks and a bottle of rum at a grocery store. 



I caught another taxi to my lovely accommodations outside of town at the rustic Hostela Anacona, which offered green vistas, bright flowers, tasty food and inexpensive cans of cold Club Colombia Dorada beer.



There are two other archaeological sites, El Tablon and La Chaquira, not far from the hotel. The former offered more statues to look at, but the longer walk to the second one was a nice, light hike that ends with great views of a Magdalena River valley and waterfalls as well as a few small carvings in large rocks.



The Magdalena, the most important river in Colombia, crosses the country along 1,500 kilometres from south to north before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. I encountered it a few times during my two weeks in the country.



The walk back to the hotel provided photo opportunities of vividly coloured plants as well as local people, animals and buildings.



The next day would present the longest and roughest bus ride of my Colombian trip, but I was prepared for it after this relaxing respite in San Agustin.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Zipaquira, Colombia’s Salt Cathedral


I’d heard of Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine cathedral and, as long as travel bans are lifted by the end of June, I plan to visit it as part of a summer trip to Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. (Editor's Note: the European trip has been cancelled due to COVID-19.) 

But until I started researching for the trip to Colombia I took this past December, I was unaware of the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira.

Zipaquira is a city of 130,000 people located just 50 kilometres northeast of the Colombian capital of Bogota, though with the heavy traffic in the metropolis of eight million people it took a couple of hours to get there by van. A tourist train also runs between the two cities.



While Zipaquira has lovely colonial architecture and has gained local notoriety for its boarding school where Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez studied during his teen years (and which is now open to visitors to showcase his time there), it’s best known for the Roman Catholic church built within its tunnels 200 metres underground.

While the Salt Cathedral isn’t officially recognized by the Catholic Church as a cathedral because it doesn’t have a bishop, it holds regular services and is a functioning church in addition to being a tourist attraction.

Salt had been mined from the site for centuries before more modern techniques were introduced in the 20th century to extract it more efficiently. Work on the original cathedral began in the early 1930s and expanded in 1950. It was officially inaugurated in 1954.

However, since the cathedral was carved out of an active mine, structural problems and safety concerns arose that led to it being closed in 1992. Work began on another cathedral by making additions to caves created by previous mining operations, and it was inaugurated in 1995.



Upon entering, after paying a U.S. $17.65 admission fee for a one-hour guided tour in English, visitors can stop at 14 small chapels representing the stations of the cross — which illustrate the events of Jesus’ final journey before he was crucified. 



After reaching the entrance ramp to The Dome, there’s a balcony offering views of a bas relief of a large cross. You then descend further to get a closer look and to see three interconnected naves.



After taking in the cathedral, the site offers other attractions to lengthen your stay. I watched a 15-minute 3D film about the mine and sat through an eight-minute sound and light show that made me think of a low-budget version of Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience. I passed on the virtual reality room and gift shops, but walked by a few small exhibits and through a simulated emerald mine since the mineral is quite prominent in Colombia.



Upon returning to the surface and bright sunlight, visitors can also walk through a small maze, take a short zipline ride or check out the Brine Museum to learn more about the extraction process on the grounds of Salt Park.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Marvelous Meteora and Delphi


I’ve been fascinated by the clifftop monasteries that balance precariously  in the Meteora region of central Greece since seeing them in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.


My previous time in Greece was spent farther south in Athens and on the islands of Ios and Corfu, so the opportunity last July to travel 230 kilometres southwest from Thessaloniki to this wondrous location next to the town of Kalabaka as part of a journey traversing eight Balkan nations was one I couldn’t pass up.


Twenty-four monasteries were built in this area to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church between the 14th and 16th centuries. Six remain functioning, four sparsely occupied by monks and two by nuns, in what was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.



It cost three Euros (approximately $4.50 Canadian) to enter the biggest building of the Monastery of Great Meteoron, the largest and highest of the six. Climbing several flights of stairs is required to get to the top, and visitors can enter a church, a small museum and reproductions of an old kitchen and carpenter shop.



But it’s the spectacular exterior views that are the main draws of Meteora. I only had a few hours to spend here and the monasteries are spaced widely enough apart that there wasn’t time to visit the others: Varlaam; Rousanou; St. Nicholas Anapausas; St. Stephen; and The Holy Trinity.



However, even if I couldn’t enter these other structures, which at some point I’d like to have the time to do in the future, there were still vistas to be cherished from a distance from the viewpoints I was able to access. 



The concept of building these beautiful places of worship and contemplation on these steep natural pedestals more than 500 years ago, when ladders and rope pulleys were the only way of accessing and transporting materials to the top, boggles my mind.



It was time to board a bus again, and while its air conditioning was more comfortable than the 40-degree Celsius heat of Meteora, perspiration would have been a small price to pay for wandering around a place that I wanted to experience more than any other on this trip for several more hours.

It was another 230 kilometres to Delphi, much of it on winding roads through mountains, and the lovely views out the window lessened the blow of leaving Meteora. 



We arrived at 7 p.m. in Delphi, and I got fine looks of the mountains from the balcony of my room at Hotel Hermes. There are only two commercial streets in the small town, and I walked them both while checking out menus and taking photos of the surrounding landscape.



I bought a craft pilsner beer from Elixi Microbrewery, which is named after the town and comes in a unique bottle, and drank it on that balcony before heading out again for dinner.

I chose to eat at a small place where I was the only customer, perhaps because it was on the other side of the street from the restaurants offering much better views from their terraces. My meal consisted of a Greek salad, homemade bread, a plate of spaghetti, a large pork souvlaki skewer with green peppers, homemade French fries and a plate of different types of melon. It was more than adequate taste-wise, very filling and a good deal at 10 Euros (approximately $15 Canadian). People-watching on my sidewalk table was free.

I took another walk to work off some of the food, had another beer, and was in bed by the relatively early hour of 12:30 a.m.



While the town is quaint, Delphi is on the radar of tourists because of its historical significance and ancient ruins on the southwestern slope of Mount Parnassus. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is best known as being home to the Oracle of Delphi — an extremely influential priestess through whom the god Apollo is said to have spoken.



The archaeological site dates back to the eighth century B.C. and includes the remains of the Temple of Apollo, other temples, treasuries, statues, monuments, a theatre, a gymnasium, a stadium, a hippodrome and other structures.



The Delphi Archaeological Museum has been built at the site to house a collection of artifacts that have been excavated over the years, beginning in earnest with digs by the French Archaeological School in 1893.



A guided 2.5-hour morning tour allowed enough time to take everything in before it was time to board the bus for the final stop on this journey: Athens. There was one more photo stop near the base of Mount Parnassus ski area, the largest in the country, before the winding mountain roads started to straighten out as the terrain flattened before Athens came into view in mid-afternoon.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

North Macedonia’s Ohrid and Skopje


I passed through Macedonia on an overnight train in July 1991, a couple of months before its referendum vote to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia. On my most recent visit this past July, five months after the country was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia after a lengthy dispute with Greece, I didn’t sleep through most of it.


After leaving the Albanian capital of Tirana and entering North Macedonia after traversing winding roads through beautiful mountain scenery for two-and-a-half hours, my bus dropped me off at the 74-room Hotel Aura on the shore of Lake Ohrid. While the country is landlocked, the lake — one of the deepest in Europe and with a surface area of 388 square kilometres — provides waterfront views that would be the envy of some nations with ocean ports.



I walked along the stony beach — which was full of bars, restaurants and hotels, though not all were open — for as far as I could go before turning around and stopping for a casual dinner at Grill and Pizza Boni. A basket of bread, a Macedonian salad (comprised of tomatoes, onions and peppers), a large bacon cheeseburger and French fries set me back 330 denars (approximately eight Canadian dollars).

After drinking a couple of beers while catching up with emails and social media in my hotel room, I went for another beach walk. I had one end of it all to myself so I was able to listen to the waves lap up against the shore and admire a very clear night sky full of stars. If I can’t be with someone special, I cherish moments like that by myself where I can appreciate the moment and the environment and how lucky I am to be experiencing them.

After a nightcap on the hotel terrace with some newfound friends, I went to bed at 1:30 a.m., anticipating getting up in five hours to experience more of the lake and the city that bears its name.



The first stop the next morning was the Monastery of Saint Naum, which is located on the lake and has a river running behind it. After 45 minutes of walking around the scenic grounds and admiring the architecture of a site that was first established as a monastery in 905, it was time to board the bus again for the drive into Ohrid.



The city of more than 40,000 people once was home to 365 churches — one for every day of the year — and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s also said to be where the Cyrillic alphabet has its origins. 



A local guide, who’s also a professor of tourism management and the environment at the local university, was entertaining and informative as he conducted a walking tour of Ohrid’s hilly old town. Stops included St. Sophia Church and the 13th century Church of St. Jovan at Kaneo, which sits on a point overlooking the lake.



I continued on my own from there up a trail that partially went through a forest to the hilltop Tsar Samuels Fortress. I climbed on top of its walls to get great views of the lake, the city, the mountains and what remains of the of the fortress that acted as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 10th century.



I walked back down into the old town via a different route and explored churches, an ancient theatre that originally dated back to 200 B.C., and several homes and other buildings that are hundreds of years old. 



I ended up on a lengthy all-pedestrian street in the newer part of the city and then turned back to walk along a lakefront promenade before it was time to board a bus to continue my journey.

There was more exquisite mountain scenery on the drive to Skopje, which included passing through an Albanian-dominated area where ethnic skirmishes early this century resulted in many deaths and almost led to a war between the two countries. 



We stopped at Matka Canyon and had three-and-a-half hours to spend in one of North Macedonia’s most popular outdoor destinations. A 20-minute boat ride up the Treska River passed by sheer cliffs that rose on both sides as well as more gradually inclined tree-covered areas.



We disembarked at Vrelo Cave, which some have speculated may be the deepest underwater cave in the world. The public is allowed to visit the most easily accessible parts of the cave, which is full of stalactites and interesting formations, and I spent 15 minutes taking it in before having to return to the boat to cruise back to the starting point.



Having seen things from the water, I hiked a trail along the river, the canyon walls and forested areas for 30 minutes before returning along the same route. That still gave me time for a pint at the riverside restaurant before boarding the bus for a 30-minute ride to the modern, four-star Panoramika Design Hotel in Skopje, the capital and largest city of North Macedonia with about one-quarter of the country’s 2.1 million people.



A group of people took taxis to the city centre for dinner and drinks at St. Patrick’s Irish Pub (not my choice). A chicken Caesar salad, calf’s liver and boiled potatoes set me back 400 denars (approximately $10 Canadian), while several half-litre mugs of beer cost 120 dinars (approximately three dollars Canadian) each. Four shots of rakia, a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans, also appeared in front of me and were quickly downed.



The pub was part of a vibrant night-time scene on one side of the Vardar River, which featured impressive government buildings on the other side reachable by bridges adorned with statues. They look more impressive while illuminated at night though, as I found out on a walking tour the next morning, Skopje’s architecture has a lot to offer.



The tour began at the former train station that was largely destroyed by a 1963 earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people. The earthquake happened at 5:17 a.m. and the clock on the wall of the station, which is now home to the Museum of the City of Skopje, still shows that time to memorialize those who perished in the quake.



A major rebuilding program began early in the last decade and is still ongoing, although fiscal restraint has stalled or cancelled some projects. There are several statues around the city centre, including one of Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje. A fortress overlooks the city, as does a large cross on a hill farther out.



An inclined area in one of the oldest parts of Skopje features its bazaar, a cobblestoned street area of shops, restaurants, bars and a microbrewery that was unfortunately closed that morning.

It was time to continue my journey and move on to Greece, but I enjoyed the few days I spent in North Macedonia and recommend it to those looking for a relatively untouristed destination in eastern Europe.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.