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Colorado Springs

After a few visits on the eastern side of the American continent I was really craving the wilderness of the west. So when last year I spotted reasonable priced tickets for direct flights to Denver I didn’t hesitate a minute and booked my holiday.

I arrived in Denver one afternoon in late May. After going through the usual arrival shenanigans I got my rental car (a nice V8 powered Camaro) and headed straight to Colorado Springs where I decided to start my adventure the following day.

And I started it early. Due to the time difference after arrival in the US I’m always up early, at least for the first few days. It was bitterly cold morning as it happened to be unusually cold spell for that time of the year, but I still got on may way promptly as I had a busy day ahead.

First I headed to Pikes Peak, a massive mountain which towers over Colorado Springs and seems to dominate the town. It is one of the most prominent of the peaks in the Rockies, rising to 4302 meters above sea level (over 14,000 feet) and around 2500 meters above Colorado Springs. It is also one if the highest points in the US where one can actually drive to the top. I went there first because the weather was changeable and I wanted to use the good weather window while it lasted.

Pikes Peak Highway is one of the most famous roads in America and one that I had wanted to drive for a long time. It is a 19 mile (31km) long toll road with well over 150 turns. Unfortunately during my visit it was impossible to reach the summit as the cold spell I mentioned made the conditions on top dangerous and the road was closed above around 4100 meters. But it was still damn fun to drive, even if “only” to that point. And the views from the top section were absolutely amazing. To the north, west and south hundreds of peaks of the Rockies still covered in snow and to the east endless prairies as far as the eye can see.

Here I would strongly recommend admiring the views while stationary as the road doesn’t have guardrails and the drops are very long in some places. At the top (I mean as far as possible to drive that day) I got out of the car for a short walk and to take a few photos but it was incredible cold and windy. After 2 or 3 minutes my fingers where basically numb. It was time to drive back stopping in a few more places for some more photos. At the end of the steepest section every car has the brakes’ temperature measured before being allowed to proceed back down towards Colorado Springs. The Pikes Peak Highway definitely didn’t disappoint me.

Next on my itinerary was the United States Air Force Academy located around 10 miles north of Colorado Springs. As much as I like aviation technology and military history (couple of years ago I even visited the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota) the reason for my visit here was actually the architecture.

Entry to the academy grounds is free but one has to pass through a quick security check at the gate, including providing an ID and answering a few questions from the guards. The main academy campus, located a few miles from the gate, was designed and build in the early 1960s in the modernist style and makes extensive use of aluminium on building exteriors, suggesting the outer skin of the aeroplanes. The architecture is so distinguished that in 2004 the Cadet Area of the Academy was actually designated a National Historic Landmark.

The buildings in the Cadet Area are set around a large, square pavilion known as the Terrazzo. They are low, with clean modernist lines and large windows. They don’t try to pretend to be “rustic” or “rural”, like many mountain developments, but yet they really fit the expansive surroundings of the academy which is set in the tranquil foothills of the Rockies and covers some 75 square kilometres. In fact it all resembles more of a headquarters of some hi-tech company in California, say in Silicon Valley, than a military establishment.

But the real masterpiece (and at the time of construction a very controversial building) is the Cadet Chapel. This was in fact the main reason for my visit in the academy as I wanted to see it since I first saw the photos online. The chapel is truly stunning but difficult to describe. Still let me try.

From the distance it might look like a very large and sophisticated tent, but come closer and its details begin to show. Suddenly “the tent” becomes a space ship. The main corpus of the building consists of 17 dramatic spires which are clad in aluminium and which tower over the nave. Apparently there should be 21 of them but the number was reduced due to budgetary constraints. The frame of the entire chapel is constructed out of 100 identical tetrahedrons, weighing five tons a piece. Each of the tetrahedrons in the chapel is coloured according to a pattern, some with clear aluminium and others with vibrant coloured glass. Oh, in case if you don’t know, tetrahedron, also known as a triangular pyramid, is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, six straight edges, and four vertex corners. Yes, I had to google it myself when I read the information panels during the visit. Basically it is a shape of the PG Tips tea bag (for the British reader).

Inside there are two levels. The spectacular upper level is the protestant chapel while on the lower level there is a catholic chapel, a synagogue, a Buddhist sangha and an all-faiths room. The protestant chapel is absolutely fantastic, one of the best interiors I have ever seen. So different from the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and yet somehow having the same soaring effect. The geometry of the space alone could blow your mind away but then you have to add the magical light due to stained glass windows. They are narrow but running through the whole height of the interior and give the place of worship a spectacular palette of deep blues and pastels when light shines against the roof. It really looked more like a Star Trek interior than a church. And I absolutely loved every minute inside. But after checking the academy gift shop it was eventually time to move on.

Before leaving Colorado Springs area I wanted to have a stroll around Garden of the Gods. This over-the-top name applies to the red rock formations located a few minutes drive from downtown Colorado Springs. It is in fact a municipal park after it was donated to the city at the beginning of 20th century by the previous owners. The main features of the park are the rock pinnacles formed of red, pink and white sandstones. Originally the sediments were deposited horizontally but subsequently the layers where flipped on the side, tilted, and then they eroded heavily giving us the current narrow but elongated rocky “fins”. There are multiple trails snaking around the area, some circle around the rocks, some lead through the narrow passages, it all creates kind of monumental labyrinth. It is all fun and photogenic. The only problem were the crowds. I was there on Sunday afternoon and the place was full of people. It took me a while to actually find a parking space at one of the multiple car parks along the one way road system. So after a brief stroll a decided to move on.

Now it was time to start the proper adventure. As much as I enjoyed Colorado Springs (which I definitely recommend as destination for a short visit) I came to Colorado to explore the wilderness of the west. For that I had to leave the populated foothills of the Front Range and head further west.

As soon as I left Colorado Springs and took Colorado Hwy 115 things got calmer again as traffic dwindled to a trickle. This is the American west the way I like it. Open road, big sky, breathtaking landscapes and low hum of the V8 engine. Especially the stretch of US Hwy 50 alongside Arkansas River that offered some amazing vistas and fun driving. I could go on like that for hours but as the evening was approaching I decided to stop for the night in the town of Salida. The following day western Colorado was awaiting me. More about it soon.

Buffalo

Maybe I should start with an explanation why did I go to Buffalo in the first place.

When I was visiting Toronto, Ottawa and surroundings in 2018 I decided to dash across the border to visit the US as I do like visiting that country (as anyone reading this blog might have guessed by now). Buffalo was conveniently located and allowed me to make a loop between Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and back to Toronto.

But convenient location wasn’t the sole reason. I’m interested in the changes this region of the US, the famous (or rather infamous) “rust belt”, is facing. I had visited Detroit a few years earlier and I was curious how Buffalo compares with that more well-known metropolis. Especially after watching a video a few months earlier, which I randomly found on the internet, highlighting some positive changes and signs of revival in the city.

I crossed the border at the Thousands Island Border Crossing before heading via I-81, Oswego and some local roads (where I even got lost) towards Batavia where I stopped for a night.

Next morning I headed straight to Buffalo. My first stop was the disused Buffalo Central Terminal which served as the city’s main railway station between 1929 and 1979, before being abandoned. I had read about it earlier and really wanted to see it. To get there I had to drive through some rather rough looking neighbourhoods but during the day the area wasn’t feeling too unsafe. It was actually sad rather than dangerous. Lots of empty plots, once filled with houses, and Polish street names which highlighted the immigrant background of many past inhabitants of the area. The surviving housing looked rather poor and neglected.

The impressive terminal building really dominates the area. It is so big that it was in fact always too large for the city’s needs, even when 200 trains a day used it. The 17 stories tall office tower, with clocks on all four corners, resembles a tower of some Gothic cathedral more than a railway facility and dominates the rest of this vast brick-clad building. Unfortunately it is not in a great shape and it was closed during my visit. It is currently owned by the non-profit preservation group called Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They occasionally open it for special events and try to collect money for renovation and reuse of this beautiful Art Deco structure. But I could still wonder around (ignoring some “no trespassing” signs) and take some nice photographs. I do hope they will eventually find good use for this building and it will be brought to life again.

From the Central Terminal I drove towards the Broadway Market. I was curious abou the Polish connections in Buffalo and I had heard that there were some Polish oriented shops and restaurants there. On my way I stopped to photograph at least two grand churches which were built in the heyday of the area, when it was populated by a vibrant immigrant population, including many Poles. Now these churches feel way too big for this area, especially in the middle of the week when their surroundings are basically deserted.

But there was a bit of life in the market, which was a bit surreal. I’m used to the vibrant Polish community in London. The difference with Buffalo is that the “Poles” there are mostly of the second or third generation but they try to keep some traditions and tastes alive. I actually ate decent pierogi at one of the stands and had a chat with some of the folks working there. Some of them have never been to Poland and didn’t speak any Polish. But the gift shop at the market had a better selection of Poland-related gadgets (including an impressive variety of T-shirts) than I have seen in many Polish gift shops, including at the airports I use in Poland. It was bizarre to say the least.

From the market I drove to the industrial areas along the Buffalo River, where it enters Lake Erie. What I wanted to see were the numerous grain silos which tower over the locality. Some are still working facilities, most are abandoned but some are creatively reused, for example the River Works complex, with restaurants, a brewery and leisure facilities. Then there is the Silo City, a collection of three huge former silo complexes which are now kind of abandoned but used for art projects, filming locations and tours. Unfortunately the tours had to be booked in advance so I could only look from the outside before a guard (looking more like an American hobo than a security personnel) politely but firmly sent me away. Those industrial areas, with all the silos are fascinating and a photographer’s dream. I could spend more time wandering around.

Anyway, after all this it was time to head to downtown to see how the core of Buffalo really feels. I checked myself into hotel, left the car securely parked there and went for a proper photo exploration.

Downtown Buffalo is actually quite pleasant and has a lot of interesting architecture. But there is only one place where one can start a visit, the Buffalo City Hall. This fantastic Art Deco skyscraper has 32 floors and it was constructed between 1929 and 1931. It might well be one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the world. Its façade is adorned with plenty of symbolic decorations and fantastic details highlighting industry, agriculture and history, depicting workers, farmers and pioneers. And the interior looks like something straight from a Batman movie set, with even more elaborate details. I loved it. On the top floor there is a free viewing platform accessible to visitors during the building opening hours. It offers an amazing panorama of the downtown, the harbour, the silos, lake and the surrounding areas, including all the way to Canada. It is good idea to head there first to get a good spatial orientation of the city.

On my way down, while checking my phone, I realized one can also visit the Common Council Chamber. I asked at the reception and they told me the relevant floor and recommended just trying if the doors were open. They were, and there was absolutely nobody inside. The chamber is as splendid as the rest of the building, full of symbols and decorations and with the impressive decorative stain glass skylight in the ceiling. It looks better than many state capitols or even some countries’ parliament buildings. But I felt it was enough of interiors. As the weather was glorious, it was time to head back outside.

In front of the City Hall there is the circular Niagara Square which is surrounded by some other important buildings, like the brutalist Buffalo City Court or the Art Deco United States Courthouse. In the middle of the square stands a monument commemorating president William McKinley who was assassinated on the steps of the city hall in 1901. A short distance away is yet another square, the Lafayette Squre. This one is dominated by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorating “those who laid down their lives in the war to maintain the union for the cause of their country and of mankind“, as the plaque says. Many cities and towns in the North of the US have similiar monuments remembering soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War.

There are quite a lot of interesting buildings from the beginning of 20th century all over the downtown. Banks, departments stores, offices etc. It is all quite nice. It definitely felt better than one could expect reading stories about the decline of the rust belt. One of the most interesting buildings located on the Main Street is the neoclassical, Beaux–Arts style, branch of Buffalo Savings Bank. With its dome covered in gold it looks more like a temple than a bank. Not far away is located yet another historic skyscraper, the Electric Tower, a striking octagonal 14-storey structure clad in white terracotta and topped by a large lantern. I could list many more architectural wonders but it would make this little piece way too long. If you are interested in architecture from the golden period of growth in America, Buffalo is a great place to see many examples.

I continued my walk north. Eventually I left downtown and entered Allentown, a district located around a mile from the City Hall. It is a nice neighbourhood with a little bit of bohemian or even hipster vibe. Don’t worry it is not London, NYC or San Fran, it is all still unpretentious and actually quite pleasant, a place offering independent restaurants and a few galleries. All mixed with nice residential properties and leafy streets. I had a very late lunch there before heading back towards downtown and the lake.

Let’s not forget that Buffalo is located on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The last part of the day I spent exploring the partially regenerated waterfront. Now, this being America, one hast to navigate areas under unsightly elevated roads from the 60s (here the Buffalo Skyway) but once on the lake the area is actually very nice. The glorious weather definitely helped the perception too. A popular attraction in this part of town is the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park where you can see ships (including a cruiser, USS Little Rock) and other military equipment. However tempting such things normally are for me, it was getting late so I skipped the military park and just had a stroll along the waterfront. I also spotted two small but intriguing memorials. One was the Irish Famine Memorial and the other highlighted Polish contribution in the WWII. This reminds you that America truly is nation of immigrants and Buffalo was hub for many of them.

In the early evening the area is a perfect place to admire the sunset and relax. There are restaurants and bars but I decided to call it a day and went back to my hotel. The following day it was time to head back to Canada and continue my trip. Toronto was awaiting for my first visit in well over 10 years.

Stay tuned.

Ottawa

Ottawa felt like the last significant city in Canada which I hadn’t visited. Here I have to apologize to folks in Winnipeg or Saskatoon. I’m sure those places are interesting in their own right but they are not in the same league. Sorry. Anyway, I had some time last spring so I decided to visit the capital of Canada, which is, after all, one of my favourite countries.

I flew to Toronto and slowly made my way towards Ottawa. After a night in Kingston I stopped in a few small historic towns along the way, places like Perth, Smith Falls and Merrickville. The last two are located on Rideau Canal which the British built to bypass a border stretch of St Lawrence River as it wasn’t seen as safe after the war of 1812. The canal is over 200 km long and it was a major feat of engineering when it opened in 1832.

And here we come to Ottawa. It was actually established as Bytown (named after John By) during construction of the canal and it is located where the canal joins Ottawa River. It then developed as a place of timber and lumber trade. It might have stayed as small as the other communities in the region if not for the decision by Queen Victoria in 1857 selecting it as the capital of the newly formed nation of Canada.

Nowadays Ottawa’s metropolitan area has a population of around a million and it is an entertaining place full of museums and attractions. I booked myself for two nights into a motel not far from Parliament Hill, parked the car, and began exploring the city on foot.

My first afternoon in Ottawa I spent walking around downtown for hours, admiring and photographing its varied architecture. There are some impressive federal buildings from the late 19th century, many commercial Art Deco structures from the early 20th century (especially the Bank of Montreal and Bank of Canada buildings) and more modern stuff. I also visited the locks where Rideau canal meets the Ottawa River, the place where modern Ottawa was born.
Later I ended the day exploring ByWard Market area. It is one of the oldest parts of Ottawa, which traditionally has been a focal point for Ottawa’s French and Irish communities. Nowadays the neighbourhood is full of shops, restaurants and bars and feels quite similar to Covent Garden in London (it even has its own covered market). It was a good place to have supper and some beer in one of the Irish pubs with a terrace overlooking all the hustle and bustle. I had a lot planned for the following day.

My first stop the next morning was Parliament Hill where I picked up a timed ticket for the guided tour of the parliament building. It is good to do that early in the day as the free tickets run out fast. Mine was for the late afternoon (even if I got it less than an hour after opening of the ticket office). So in the meantime I explored and photographed spectacular Neo-Gothic buildings of Parliament Hill from the outside. I love such architecture, with plenty of detail, here full of Canadian symbolism. But we’ll come back to that later.

In the meantime I headed towards the Supreme Court of Canada. In contrast to the parliament it was built in 1939 in Art Deco style, but like the parliament it is located on the high escarpment of Ottawa River. The main entrance is flanked by two great looking statues of Veritas (Truth) and Justitia (Justice). I joined a short but informative tour highlighting the architectural details and explaining how the Canadian judiciary works.

I still had plenty of time before the parliament tour so from the court I headed towards the Portage Bridge, crossed the Ottawa River and entered the city of Gatineu which is actually located in the province of Quebec. What you notice first is that on the street signs French comes first and English second (if at all), in contrast with Ottawa. The main reason for my visit there was to admire the views of Parliament Building dominating the opposite high bank of the river. In fact the best views on the Parliament Hill are from Gatineau, especially from outside of the Canadian Museum of History which is located in spectacular modern building and which is highly regarded and recommended. Sadly I didn’t have time for a visit. From this spot the parliament campus on the other side of the river looks truly spectacular, like some fairy tale medieval castle on a hill.

I stopped for a quick lunch (Quebec has a better culinary tradition after all) before returning to Ottawa proper via Alexandra Bridge which opened in 1901 as a railway bridge before being converted for use by cars and pedestrians. Its walkway offers a great panorama of both Ottawa and Gatineau.

Finally it was time to enter the parliament building. As the parliament was in session we couldn’t enter the debating chambers but we were taken to the library which is the only surviving part of the original building constructed between 1859 and 1876. Because of that it has the most elaborate decorations, not unlike Westminster Palace in London. The stonework contains carved mouldings, sculpted foliage, real and mythical animals, grotesques, and emblems of France, England, Ireland, and Scotland, spread across and over pointed windows in various groupings, turrets and towers. The rest of the parliament burned down in 1916 and was almost immediately rebuilt. The newer bit is also Neo-Gothic and full of Canadian-themed details like sculptures of native fauna but expanded in size and pared down in ornament, more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts ethos of the time.

The tour started in the Confederation Hall. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the octagonal hall has a massive central column supporting a magnificent fan vault ornamented with carved bosses which recalls the interior of a medieval English chapter house. The pointed arches are crowned with richly sculpted gables celebrating the confederated nature of Canada. Then the guide took us to the Hall of Honour (looking not unlike a medieval church) which is part of the central axis of the Centre Block, joining Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament. After that we visited the library (absolutely splendid place which I mentioned above) before heading via various corridors (where our guide pointed out some more interesting architectural details) and finally reaching the base of the Peace Tower.

At its base is located the Memorial Chamber, a national shrine. Initially it was a tribute to the Canadians who had given their lives during the Great War in France and Flanders but since then it has become a place to commemorate those who have died in conflicts from the Nile Expedition to the Korean War, and in the service of Canada to this day.

After that we parted with our guide but the final highlight of the tour was access to the viewing platform on top of the 55 m tall Peace Tower which dominates the parliament building and offers a fantastic panorama of Ottawa, Gatineau and even further afield. The weather wasn’t perfect but I could still see quite a lot. What helps is the lack of any real skyscrapers obstructing the views as Ottawa is rather low rise, especially if one compares it with Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

After coming down from the tower and exiting the parliament I decided to walk more around downtown and its vicinity. Ottawa downtown might not be as spectacular as the Parliament Hill and neighbouring federal buildings but it is pleasant enough. The only problem was that I had to dodge some intermittent rain showers. Walking a little bit aimlessly south of downtown I explored some very nice residential districts. There were some blocks of flats as well as many large historic houses (but not ostentatious) all this creating an appealing mix. These areas have plenty of lush trees lining the streets which are aligned in a perfect grid as well as a few small concentrations of bars and restaurants (for example along Elgin Street in Golden Triangle). This part of town wasn’t maybe spectacular but I could see myself living in place like that.

The second night in Ottawa I spent watching some basketball in my motel room and “sampling” local beers which I bought in the nearby branch of LCBO. Now, what the hell is LCBO you might ask. Well, Ontario (like most of Canada) has peculiar rules related to the sale of alcohol. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is a Crown corporation which has quasi-monopoly on the sale of alcohol beverages in Ontario (there are some exceptions). So if you travel there look for the LCBO to get your booze. Anyway, the local brews were quite tasty.

The following day it was time to head towards the US. But as there were hours of driving ahead of me I went for a walk first, to stretch my legs. It allowed me to explore more splendid residential areas of central Ottawa, with all its greenery and nice homes. Damn, I could really live there.

But it was definitely time to go. On my way out of of town I drove the scenic Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway which follows Ottawa River and offers stunning views towards Quebec on the other bank (here the river forms the boundary between the provinces). It is quite amazing how quickly things get very rural as you drive out of town in this direction.

Eventually I turned south, took Hwy 416 and headed towards the St Lawrance river. It was time to visit Uncle Sam. More about it soon(ish).