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They're the cultural meccas


NORTH AMERICA: Cities and towns have a rich heritage

CanWest News Service (03/03/2005)
By Peter Johansen

I wanted to learn about the Basques, so of course I went to Boise.

The people of the Basque region, which is nestled in the Pyrenees along the Spanish-French border, are best known as seafarers. The first person to sail around the world was Basque.

Still, it made sense to go to landlocked Boise, the capital of Idaho. It has the highest concentration of Basques outside the Basque region itself.

That's made Boise something of a magnet for tourists, some of whom are Basques curious to see how their cousins have fared in the New World.

Boise, it turns out, is not unique. Communities scattered across North America have become ethnic tourist meccas, where immigrants and their descendants can tap deep into their own roots or learn about others.

Some of these destinations, such as Vancouver's Chinatown, are widely known. Others, such as Solvang, Calif., which styles itself the Danish capital of America, are quickly gaining fame -- in Solvang's case due to the Oscar-nominated Sideways, much of which was filmed there.

According to the Canadian Tourism Commission, heritage tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry. The Travel Industry Association of America says the number of historical and cultural travellers increased 13 per cent between 1996 and 2002.

Steve Schmader, executive director of the International Festivals and Events Association, says research proves most travellers consider it important to learn about other cultures.

That many of these meccas are in small towns is no accident.

"To visitors, a small town is almost a storybook image of what things used to be like," says geographer Steven Schnell, an expert on heritage tourist destinations. "Our image of immigrants is homesteading, not settling in the big city."

Joy Adams, of Texas State University in San Marcos, adds that more recent immigrant groups may eventually develop tourist destinations of their own but they're apt to do so in cities.

"It's hard for a new homogenous town to emerge today, to become exclusively Vietnamese or exclusively Honduran," says Adams.

"But you will see -- and do see now -- urban neighbourhoods with a long history of ethnic cohesion and distinctiveness."

Among emerging sites are Utica, N.Y., where one-tenth of the population recently hailed from Bosnia, and Paterson, N.J., dubbed the "Mecca of the East Coast" because of its large Arab community. Meanwhile, marketing local ethnic heritage helps the populace reawaken to its roots.

"Once you commodify ethnicity, that creates vehicles for people to further express their ethnicity, some form of it anyway," says Adams. "Festivals, music, foods and all that are relived more than they would have been otherwise."

Adams notes that tourist towns in Texas tend to skew their attractions towards a Bavarian theme, though only a fraction of their original German immigrants were Bavarian.

Tourists have to learn to accept that cultures aren't static, says Schnell. "There's no such thing as timeless ethnicity. Ethnicity is always invented and reinvented."

For further information on Boise, visit www.boise.org

Following are 10 North American destinations to inspire your heritage holiday:

1. Afro-American
Where: The African-Canadian Heritage Trail, between Windsor and Chatham, Ont. At Amherstburg, where the Detroit River is narrowest, thousands of black slaves slipped to freedom via the Underground Railroad and settled the area.

What you'll see: A rich motherlode of historical sites, including the North American Black Historical Museum; North Buxton, the first permanent Black settlement in Ontario; the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, an important terminus of the Underground Railroad that's now a national historic site; and the Underground Railroad Museum, still operated by descendants of slaves whose homestead houses it.

Not to miss: Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ont. It was home to Rev. Josiah Henson, a fugitive whose memoir of life as a slave inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel.

Information: www.africanhertour.org

2. Chinese
Where: Vancouver's Chinatown, a handful of blocks marked by gilded dragons and brightly painted Cantonese-style architecture. The third-largest Chinatown in North America, it is very much a working day-to-day area for the city's 293,000 Chinese.

What you'll see: A place that writer Paul Karr calls "bawling, boisterous, crowded, a little odd-smelling."

Not to miss: The tranquillity of the Ming-era garden named after a father of modern China, Sun Yat-Sen. Designed on Taoist principles, it's the only such garden in the western world.

Information: www.tourismvancouver.com

3. Greek
Where: Tarpon Springs, a town of 21,000 about 45 km north of Tampa, Fla. The city attracted Greek divers in the early 1900s to develop its sponge industry, which today provides half the world's supply.

What you'll see: Most activity takes place around the sponge docks, a National Historic District. Greek-themed gift shops line the old Sponge Exchange. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a replica of St. Sophia's in Constantinople; its marble is from the Greek pavilion at the 1939 world's fair.

Not to miss: Saturday night at Zorba's, a bouzouki club, where crowds drink ouzo, dance the syrtaki and watch bellydancers.

Information: www.floridasbeach.com

4. Swedish
Where: Bishop Hill, Ill., a utopia settled in 1846 by 400 followers of charismatic religious dissident Eric Jansson. The original colonists walked 275 km southwest of Chicago to establish their commune, only to see it dissolve 15 years later, shortly after Jansson's murder by -- you guessed it -- a dissident.

What you'll see: A national historic site of 14 original buildings, including a hotel that was once the biggest brick building west of Chicago; a museum featuring 90 paintings by Olof Krans, a folk artist who captured daily life there; and Swedish gift shops and restaurants.

Not to miss: Victorian lace eggs, made with eggs from the artist's own farm, available in the Colony Blacksmith Shop.

Information: www.visithenrycounty.com

5. Ukrainian
Where: "Kalyna Country," a swath of Alberta that runs northeast from Edmonton along the North Saskatchewan River. It's three times bigger than Prince Edward Island.

What you'll see: Besides the world's largest Easter egg, or pysanka, at Vegreville or the giant sausage of Mundare?

How about the Heritage Village Provincial Historic Site, recreating a Ukrainian community circa 1892 to 1930.

A hundred onion-domed churches dot the countryside; other attractions include the first Ukrainian settlement at Edna-Star and the Basilian Fathers Museum at Mundare.

Not to miss: Ceramic Cottage in Vegreville.

Information: www.kalynacountry.com

6. Portuguese
Where: Bristol County, Mass., about 80 km south of Boston. Half the population of two cities, New Bedford and Fall River, trace roots to Portugal and its colonies of the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde. Whaling attracted early immigrants; later arrivals worked in textile mills.

What you'll see: The Museum of Madeiran Heritage exhibits carvings, costumes and embroidery and has a garden featuring Madeiran plants.

Information: www.bristol-county.org

7. German
Where: The Texas hill country, where Fredericksburg and New Braunfels are known for their German hospitality ("guten tag y'all"). The towns were intended merely as way stations for immigrants who arrived in 1845. But when their German sponsor went bankrupt, the settlers were stranded.

What you'll see: New Braunfels' historic district includes homes, stores and a beer hall dating from before 1850 and boasts the largest collection of fachwerk (half-timber) buildings in Texas.

Not to miss: The Hummel Museum in New Braunfels, depicting the world's largest collection of work by Sister Maria Hummel.

Information: www.traveltex.com

8. Danish
Where: Solvang, Calif., inland about 70 km north of Santa Barbara, Calif. Though it may look a bit like a tourist trap, the town's ethnic bonafides are unquestioned: it was founded in 1911 by Danish educators and today descendants constitute about two-thirds of its 5,300 souls.

What you'll see: One of Sunset magazine's 10 most beautiful small towns in the western U.S. Danish architecture abounds, with windmills, wooden storks atop thatched roofs and blue and white bunting.

A museum devoted to Hans Christian Andersen features exhibits on his life and books.

Not to miss: An aebleskiver -- a pancake ball dusted with powdered sugar and raspberry jam -- at Arne's Solvang Restaurant.

Info: www.solvangusa.com

9. Icelandic
Where: Gimli, Man., on Lake Winnipeg about an hour north of Winnipeg. It's the largest Icelandic community outside Iceland, and one of the few anywhere in which the native language is still routinely spoken.

What you'll see: A museum highlights local history, zeroing in on fishing and farming. A Viking statue and a Viking boat tour around the lake are other ethnically inspired sights.

Not to miss: The iced prune-filled torte called a vinetarte at Swiss Alex Bakery.

Info: www.travelmanitoba.com

10. Swiss
Where: New Glarus, Wis., about 40 km southwest of Madison, the state capital. A hundred pioneers settled there in 1845 because the rolling farmland and forests reminded them of the the Swiss canton of Glarus. Since then, the town has become "America's Little Switzerland."

What you'll see: A picture postcard of the old country: red geraniums tumbling from chalet-style buildings and Swiss-German conversations in the street. Two museums tell the story of Swiss immigration.

Not to miss: Grandmother's Clocks, with its assortment of time pieces.

Information: www.swisstown.com