Today is International Literacy Day so I am going to make a plug for reading while also posting about the last island I hopped to this summer.
That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.
Maybe all of Canada.
One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.
Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.
The store has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.
I remember being inexplicably excited the night before my first-ever visit to Delft. I was 13 years old and we had been told we would be seeing beautifully stained glass windows in two very old, very large churches — that may have been the reason — or it may have been the promise of an afternoon on the beach that would follow. (Delft is only 15 kilometres from the North Sea.) Whatever the reason, this small medieval town has stood out in my mind ever since as one of the prettiest I have ever seen.
When I made a return visit many years later, I was disappointed by the torrents of rain that spoiled my day. Wanting to redeem that rainy day ever since, I finally got the chance last week. The weather was spectacular, and Delft was as beautiful and charming as I remembered.
Here, take a look.
One curious sight I definitely did not see on either of my previous visits was the stairway where Willem the Silent, Prince of Orange and founder of the House of Orange-Nassau, was assassinated in 1584. It happened here, in the Prinsenhof (Prince’s Court) — originally a convent, then Willem’s home, and now a museum.
And here are the bullet holes on the wall beside where he was shot.
Willem of Orange was buried in this magnificent mausoleum in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), beneath which members of the Dutch Royal Family have been laid to rest ever since.
Besides its association with the Dutch Royal Family, another of Delft’s claim to fame is its Delfts Blauw (Delft Blue) pottery. Dutch potters adopted the blue patterns from the China porcelain brought back to the Netherlands by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century. Only one factory, the Royal Delft, remains from the many in existence during the peak of production, but it has been in continuous operation since 1653. You can tour the factory and, if you have money burning a hole in your wallet, the many shops that surround the Grote Markt (Great Market) will be happy to take it off your hands in return for some exquisite pottery.
And here’s a tip from me: if you only have time for one day trip outside of Amsterdam, make it Delft.
There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.
That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.
In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.
Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:
We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.
But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).
Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.
A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.
Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.
But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.
Back to my journal:
January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.
I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.
The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.
So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.
That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.
No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.
Which is every day.
Les Fenêtres de Printemps
One thing the spectacular Parisian department stores do spectacularly well are its Christmas windows. They are so popular that the crowds in front of them extend from window to curb.
Which means it takes a great deal of patience to see them properly. After rather a lot of waiting and a little bit of clever maneuvering, I was able to get in close enough to take these photos of the Printemps department store windows on Boulevard Haussmann during the 2010 Christmas season.
Often the Parisian department store windows have holiday themes related to Broadway musicals or animated films. (Yes, Disney has taken hold of Paris, too. I hear the windows of Galeries Lafayette are filled with, um, monsters this year.)
But these Printemps windows, not so much. I liked them especially because they were so quintessentially French. Created in collaboration with the Lanvin fashion house, the theme was Noël au Château (Christmas at the castle). Each window represented a different room in the château, lavishly decorated in that way the French do best and transporting me back to another century.
Which century? Why, the eighteenth, of course. When fashion was at its most opulent and France’s Ancien Régime was in its dying days.
Un noël XVIIIe siècle. Now there’s a theme I can get into.
I hate shopping.
I especially hate shopping this time of year. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
But … there’s one place on this planet where I love to go shopping.
Do I need to say it?
Paris has some spectacular department stores. This one, Galeries Lafayette, opened its doors in 1912. When you get there (because, really, everyone should go shopping in Paris at least once in a lifetime), be sure to check out the atrium with its glass dome.
And the food hall. Don’t forget to visit the food hall.
West Edmonton Mall
Yup. I’m writing about a mall. Not just any mall. The mall.
I’ve been debating whether to write this post. What is there to say about West Edmonton Mall? It’s big. It’s huge. It’s there.
But then I looked online to see what the Lonely Planet website had to say about Edmonton and laughed when I read, “Edmonton? Is that the place with the big mall?” After I stopped laughing, I realized that the mall does have a world-wide reputation. So, here’s a quick summary for you.
West Edmonton Mall gets 28 million visitors a year. (If you consider that the population of Edmonton is less than a million, that’s means either Edmonton is a city of shoppers or it gets a lot of out-of-town visitors. I suspect the latter.) Last weekend, my niece and I were two of those 28 million visitors. The mall’s claim to fame is not only that it’s the largest mall in North America, but that for 23 years (from its opening in 1981 until 2004) it was the largest mall in the world. That’s no mean feat for Edmonton, considering how many malls there are on this planet.
There’s an amusement park, a water park, an NHL-sized ice rink, a hotel, and, oh yeah, a few stores. Over 800 of them. For those of us urbanites who make it an art form to disparage West Edmonton Mall, we have to remember that Edmonton is a service centre for a vast chunk of rural Alberta. I’m quite sure there are a lot of Albertans who find a one-stop shop most convenient, especially if you have a handful of kids in tow. And a weekend of shopping and water-parking is a nice break from the cold icy winters northern Alberta is known for.
I won’t recommend you go to Edmonton just to see the mall. But if you happen to be in the vicinity, and have never seen the place, check it out. Just so you can say you’ve been in the largest mall in North America.
And then check out what else Edmonton has to offer. For more on that, stay tuned.