As I drive toward Edmonton, Alberta, all I see is open space – not something I usually associate with cities and urban areas. Then, from the open landscape of miles of valleys and rivers, the tall buildings and life of a city emerge.
Edmonton is located in the central part of Alberta, Canada, with most other major cities and attractions located at least three hours away. The city is growing by the day as more and more people are drawn to what it has to offer – it is the capital of Alberta, the Gateway to the Canadian Rockies, the Festival City and was named Canada’s Cultural Capital. Whether you are visiting as a stopover on your way to Jasper or Banff, venturing to Edmonton specifically to visit the landmark West Edmonton Mall, or coming to town for a festival, Edmonton has enough culture, history, outdoor activities and shopping to keep any RVer busy for days.
Edmonton is motorhome friendly, with mostly wide and easy-to-navigate streets. As with any metropolitan area that is home to around a million people, there can be some traffic and parking issues. And, while it feels less urban than other cities of the same size, those with larger motorhomes may want to use their dinghy vehicles to avoid any parking problems.
The city’s somewhat isolated location led locals to develop it into the cultural epicenter that it is today. Although modern transportation has made travel throughout the province and country easier, it still takes a considerable amount of time to reach Calgary, the nearest major city. As a result, Edmontonians take great pride in their city and have developed their own theaters, music venues, art galleries and, perhaps most notably, multiple festivals.
The city hosts an average of one festival per month all year long. With cultural and sporting events such as the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival and arts, family and music events like the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and the Vocal Arts Festival, the festivals cover everything. They range in size from the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, which draws more than 500,000 people per year, to the smaller Creative Age Festival, which drew some 1,000 visitors in 2008, its inaugural year.
I came to Edmonton to experience the beginnings of the Creative Age Festival. The goal of the festival is to “recognize the vital contributions of the arts to lifelong learning, creative expression, health and well-being in later life” and the enthusiasm and passion everyone had for the cause was infectious. For the first week of June, venues throughout the city filled with festival-goers attending classes, workshops, film screenings, parties, events, lectures and more. (This year’s festival will be held June 9-16.)
The first night began with a film screening at the Edmonton Public Library. The Courage to Dream, a film about a group of actors who discover and rediscover their passion for the theater later in life, embodied the theme of the festival, as many in attendance were coming back to the arts after years of raising families and working. Do Not Go Gently was a powerful film about a quilter, a dancer and a composer who worked into their 80s, 90s and 100s. After the films, a panel of experts on aging and the arts led a discussion.
By far, one of the most interesting workshops was “Act Your Age – Improvisation and Play Building” with a group called the GeriActors. While most of the participants were members of the company and seasoned veterans at improv, everyone was eager to include newbies in the exercises. We partnered up, acting out instructions of our partners’ favorite activities, and creating a “family portrait.” Participants were anywhere from 60 to 90 years old, from all over North America. The mayor of Edmonton, Stephen Mandel, even stopped by to visit with festival participants.
Another interesting class was music composition, where everyone sang the “Creative Age Blues” and learned how sounds and words become music. The watercolor workshop was intimate and informative.
Edmonton has more to offer than just festivals, however. The city is home to numerous theater and music venues. There are 20 theater companies and dozens of acting co-ops that perform throughout the city at places such as Whyte Avenue – an area that is becoming known for its independent theater scene – or at the Citadel, the premiere venue for stage shows in Western Canada.
Twice a year the 12-block Gallery Walk, the first of its kind in Canada, takes art lovers on tours of eight member galleries. These galleries, just a few of more than 60 galleries and exhibits scattered throughout the city, display local, national and international art. I particularly enjoyed the West End Gallery, which has been family owned for more than three decades. More than 65 glass artists and 40 painters, including Canadian painter Gerald Sevier, have displayed their work here. Another excellent gallery is the Douglas Udell Gallery, which focuses on contemporary art and had amazing paintings of native North Americans by Nicholas de Grandmaison.
The Royal Alberta Museum displays the history of the province and nation. Their First Nations exhibit, Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture, is one of the best, with more than 3,000 artifacts on display. The exhibit includes the Manitou Stone, an ancient meteorite that is sacred to the Cree tribe. The museum, especially the Syncrude Gallery, is known for its lifelike murals, and throughout the museum the muralists left their mark on their work. One artist painted his grandfather’s “spirit” into the trees of a mural in the Aboriginal gallery; another worked his initials into the yellow leaves of a beaver display in the Wild Alberta gallery.
Although Edmonton is known for culture, it is still a very casual city. Edmontonians love being outdoors and many head to the North Saskatchewan River Valley for a jog or hike on their lunch breaks. The River Valley gives Edmonton its lush, green landscape. With 18,348 acres, the River Valley is 22 times larger than New York’s Central Park. Beyond the approximately 93 miles of trails for biking, hiking and jogging, there are opportunities for kayaking, picnicking and more. And, best of all, you can enjoy any of these activities and still go out to dinner with minimal effort, since most restaurants don’t have strict dress codes.
Edmonton may have the size-able population and tall buildings of a typical urban city, but being the Festival City, Canada’s Cultural Capital and Gateway to the Rockies make it so much more than just another North American metropolis.