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Centre Street Lions Calgary

For Calgary, a Guidebook That Will Even Surprise Locals

Centre Street Lions Calgary

The Centre Street Lions, each weighing 22,000 pounds, are an enduring landmark in downtown Calgary. (Christina Ryan photo)

When people hear that travel writer Jennifer Bain has written a book called 111 Places in Calgary That You Must Not Miss, the first thing they ask is “why 111?”

It’s not because 100 is taken or because there aren’t enough contenders for 1,001. The book is part of a global series of insider guides put out by a publisher in Cologne, Germany, where the number 11 is good luck and carnival celebrations begin every November 11 at 11:11 a.m. You can’t make a book with just 11 spots, so the publisher added a “1” to make 111.

The 111 Places series launched in Europe in 2008 and has nearly 500 titles in multiple languages, but it’s still relatively new in Canada. Toronto got a book in 2018. Vancouver followed in 2019. The Calgary book came third. The Vancouver authors, Dave Doroghy and Graeme Menzies, have a Whistler book coming out soon. Unlike most guidebooks, these are actually aimed at locals — which is more needed than ever during the pandemic.

111 Places in Calgary_book

“111 Places in Calgary That You Must Not Miss” is a new title by travel writer Jennifer Bain that is meant for residents of the city. (Image supplied by Emons Publishing)

Vacay.ca: Why would a Calgarian need a travel guide for their own city?

Jennifer Bain: Ah, that’s the beauty of this guidebook series. It’s not about hotels or restaurants or what to do at the Calgary Stampede. It’s about the hidden people, places, objects, shops, neighbourhoods, and stories that make up a city. The series has always been aimed primarily at locals and then at experienced travellers who want to dig a little deeper. It’s even more relevant during the COVID-19 crisis when we’re all staycationing or travelling regionally instead of internationally. LiveWire Calgary called it “the unofficial guide to escaping your couch during a pandemic.” 

Vacay.ca: The photos really do make us want to get off our couches.

JB: Aren’t they gorgeous? Christina Ryan shot them. She’s a Calgary photojournalist who teaches at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Each chapter gets a two-page spread with a full-page, colour photo on one side and a 300-word story on the other. I love what Richard White said about our book on his Everyday Tourist blog. He noted that it’s the size of a pocket book “but the quality of the paper makes it feel more like a tiny coffee table book.”

Vacay.ca: Speaking of SAIT, did you explore campuses?

JB: SAIT has a stunning parking garage.

Vacay.ca: Come again?

JB: Revery Architecture out of Vancouver turned a three-storey parkade into a work of art “to humanize what might otherwise be just an enormous, soulless structure.” The southern and eastern façades of the structure have metal screens with thousands of holes punched into them that let light and air in while making it look from the outside like clouds and prairie skies. Over at the University of Calgary, in the Social Sciences Tower, I found an epic poem about a frog that’s written on the concrete steps of a stairwell. I climbed 13 floors to read that poem.

More Alberta: Rediscovering Lake Louise 

Vacay.ca: Is everything in this book offbeat?

JB: Have you ever been to wrestling at the Legion?

Vacay.ca: What? No.

JB: Calgary has this unique history with wrestling but it’s a story that’s in danger of disappearing. Stu Hart created Stampede Wrestling here in 1948 and ran it for decades. His sons became wrestlers. He ran a wrestling school in his basement. But there aren’t any statues, streets, or memorial buildings that speak to this legacy. Stu’s son Owen died in a tragic wrestling accident and I wound up doing a chapter on his grave. And when I was scouting for locations, I wandered into the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 1 and spotted a sign that said it hosts Real Canadian Wrestling twice a month. Christina and I went to a show — what a hoot that was. When COVID-19 restrictions lift, I think everybody should go and take their kids. 

Vacay.ca: Speaking of kids, what do you have to amuse them?

JB: There’s a vintage carousel at Spruce Meadows that used to be at the Chinook Centre but got displaced by a pedestrian walkway to the LRT station and then everybody forgot about it. But it surfaced at this horsey sports facility. Ten of the wooden horses celebrate the Canadian provinces and I’m partial to the one for Alberta that has hand-carved wild roses and a mountain lake scene. I talked to artist Arno Lukas, who was restoring some of the horses, and he confided that there’s a grey mouse secretly painted on each horse.

Vacay.ca: What’s the indoor/outdoor mix?

JB: It’s pretty even. Stargazers should go to the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, just outside of town, for Milky Way Nights and other public events. In Union Cemetery, look for the 1905 grave of John Ware, Alberta’s first Black cowboy. People swim, raft, and kayak at Harvie Passage, and surf at the 10th Street Wave right downtown. I really love the “danger” signs at Weaselhead Flats.

Vacay.ca: What’s so dangerous about Weaselhead Flats?

JB: It may seem like an idyllic natural environment park but it’s also a former National Defence Range. Just stay on the paths and you’ll be safe from UXOs — military explosives that were used but failed to function or detonate properly.

Vacay.ca: How about something safe and artsy?

JB: I was drawn to the former Centennial Planetarium because it’s a Brutalist treasure that Contemporary Calgary has transformed into a visual arts destination. Don’t miss cSpace King Edward in an arts incubator in a circa 1912-13 sandstone building. The old cast-iron doors from the coal-fired boilers were salvaged and set on bricks in pits cut into the first floor. You can walk over them on tempered glass. 

Rundle Ruins Calgary

Calgary’s Rundle Ruins are on the grounds of a former hospital. (Christina Ryan photo)

Vacay.ca: So how did you handle the Calgary Stampede, when your book celebrates places and not events?

JB: Outside of Stampede time, it’s free to explore Stampede Park and there’s an art walk with 19 sculptures and murals that tell the story of Western heritage. I have a chapter about an abandoned but not yet destroyed pioneer fireplace on the western edge of the grounds, and another on the Rundle Ruins (what’s left of Calgary’s second hospital). There’s a “Parade of Historical Posters” that’s about to be demolished and showcases almost all the Stampede posters from 1912 until now. It won’t make it into the second edition of the book unless they find a new home for it. I really hope they do.

Little Chief Calgary

Smoked salmon is one of the Indigenous menu items to savour at Grey Eagle Resort & Casino, located on the Tsuut’ina Nation territory. (Christina Ryan photo)

Vacay.ca: Did you find any Indigenous places?

JB: Moonstone Creation is a family-run art gallery and gift shop with a maker room. The owners told me the musky smell is brain-tanned moose hide. On the Tsuut’ina Nation, there’s a little-known museum but you need to call first to book a guided visit. Little Chief restaurant in the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino is doing wonderful things with its Indigenous menu.

Vacay.ca: Each chapter ends with details like addresses, websites, directions, and hours. But then there’s a tiny tip.

JB: Ah, you’ve uncovered the book’s biggest secret. Each chapter ends with a one- or two-sentence tip that tells you something to do nearby or on the same theme. This is where you’ll find out how ginger beef was invented at the Silver Inn or how you can get a shave and a drink at a bar/barbershop called Cannibale. So, if you read each chapter to the very end, you’ll actually discover 222 places in Calgary that you must not miss.