Remembering Christchurch Before the Earthquakes

I visited Christchurch, New Zealand before the recent earthquakes, back in 2009, on my way north to Auckland.  I had a two day stop there on my way north and was very charmed by Christchurch. It was a relaxed city, with lots of pretty older buildings, free tourist activities, great second-hand bookstores and a great local sense of humour.

Example…

This was posted as a sign on a storefront window:

“Attention customers… we would like to inform you that our business will not be participating in the recession.”

-Barbershop, Manchester St.

This post was originally going to highlight five free things to do in Christchurch, but unfortunately the earthquakes have caused significant damage in town and many of these attractions have since been closed. I remember how surprised and pleased I was at the end of the day to realize all of these activities had been free or pay by donation.

1) The Arts Centre

This complex of 23 heritage buildings has sadly been closed due to damage from the earthquakes and will remain so for a few years until they can be safely restored. This was a really interesting place to wander, as the community of artists at work here was a beehive of creative energy and activity. The winding halls of rooms with everything from carpentry to glass-blowing to painting to ballet were really impressive.

2) Christchurch Art Gallery

This art gallery is home to the works of a number of prominent artists from New Zealand, including Rita Angus, a pacifist painter who protested WWII, and a really interesting contemporary art section. Unfortunately, the gallery has also been closed due to earthquake damage.

3) Botanic Gardens

Every city in New Zealand boasts its own Botanic Gardens. The ones in Christchurch were a great place to spend an afternoon strolling the grounds or reading under a tree. Their website indicates that although the gardens are open, many of the buildings and attractions on the grounds need repairs.

4) Canterbury Museum

I stumbled upon this place late in the afternoon and it was exactly the kind of nooks and cranny-filled museum I absolutely love. This museum was full of intriguing exhibits and I learned about so many things I had never heard of before: the extinct moa (wingless giant ostrich), the existence of a shark-toothed dolphin, and 2m wide prehistoric clams, as well as reading up on the discovery of Antarctica. You have to sympathize with Mr. Scott, who died on a southern polar expedition, one month behind the Norwegian who got the credit for finding the South Pole.

5) Cathedral Square

Before the earthquakes

The Christchurch Cathedral was a pretty bit of architecture. It merged different Maori, Polynesian and European influences into its design, and the public was welcome to wander inside or sit and listen to the choir practicing for evensong. Cathedral Square also was home to several craft market stalls in the afternoons. There was also a giant outdoor chess board, as I recall.

For a limited time, Lonely Planet is offering a free download of its new chapter on Christchurch with updated information here.

My time in Christchurch was also my first experience solo traveling and it was such a positive experience, which gave me a real boost of self-confidence that I could strike out on my own without it ending in disaster. My hostel was excellent – with a pool and a community herb garden. Everything was in walking distance.

I still appreciate how easy and friendly Christchurch was for me to navigate and enjoy at that sensitive time.  I encourage anyone to visit this place or consider donating to the rebuilding efforts.

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