I visited Christchurch as a young teenager so when returning after the catastrophic earthquakes I didn’t want my experience or blog to focus on this. Soon after arriving I found that it was simply unavoidable. I don’t mean the city, or people of Christchurch should be defined primarily by what happened in September 2010 and again on February 2011 but those events dramatically altered daily life for all local residents and it continues to this day.
Christchurch, New Zealand
A taxi from the airport to the centre takes 20 minutes, we stayed at the Heritage Hotel which is by no means cheap but my days of hostels are well and truly over. This grandiose old Government Building, now a hotel, platforms turn of the century elegance and is one of the few remaining heritage buildings in Christchurch. Our split level suite room contained a kitchen, washing machine, elegant lounge area and mezzanine level bedroom. I booked the hotel due to its central location on Cathedral Square, which actually meant we were surrounded by rubble, abandoned and condemned buildings where the devastating effects are most evident.
I was surprised by the sheer amount of damage in central Christchurch, truly I was. I knew the magnitude of the earthquakes but to see the devastation first hand is extraordinary. Gigantic multi-story hotels and government buildings propped up by metal supports, whole sides fallen away and glassless windows boarded up. It is everywhere in the central business district and quite shocking to witness. It goes against the grain to write a negative blog about a city in my native country but the destruction is apparent for every visitor. To witness this once prosperous city in such a current state of disrepair was a huge shock.
Locals regaled stories of whole streets on the eastern side of the city wiped out and in extreme cases, leaving only one house intact. Considered structurally sound this house is not covered under insurance yet to this day the owner is forced to use a port-a-loo due to lack of plumbing, amenities and lives in what resembles a war zone. Why doesn’t he move? Well the land is reclaimed so he couldn’t sell if even if he wanted. Residents have been battling insurance companies for four years in order to move forward, with many forced to live in earthquake damaged houses until their claim is paid out. It’s upsetting to hear these stories. We arrived on a Friday and after 9pm the city feels like a ghost town.
Please note these are only my impressions based on the short time I was there. Kiwis have an enduring and triumphant attitude and it doesn’t appear to have crushed the spirit of Christchurch residents. All over the central business district, initiatives are underway to invigorate the city for locals and tourists alike. I spoke with Clare Piper from the Urban Regeneration Team who introduced Friday Night Market in Cathedral Square by the once magnificent Christchurch cathedral. Local residents serve up a variety of taste sensations from 3pm onwards until late, with chairs to lounge on and local musicians. As we chowed on freshly cooked steak sandwiches it was easy to sense a slice of old and vibrant Christchurch returning. For a sit down meal check out Fiddlesticks Restaurant and Bar but unlike us, make sure you book in advance otherwise you’ll be paying restaurant prices to sit in the bar.
During the day Re-Start pop-up shops in freight containers replace the larger department stores which crumbled or await demolition. Local crafts, various cuisines including the good old fashioned Kiwi pie, and clothing fill empty space but what is more important, is it creates a central meeting place to socialise and re-energise the city. Whilst here it’s worth stopping by Dimitris’ Souvlaki stand where you can feast on mouth-watering falafels as well as pork, chicken and beef souvlaki; you know the food is good when you have to queue so be prepared to take your ticket and wait.
A large number of cafés have been condemned however, pop-up coffee shops are dotted all over the city and for anyone who’s travelled in New Zealand you’ll know that kiwis roast some of the best coffee in the world.
Community gardens have started popping up with assortments of flowers including sunflowers. Filling these spaces is important and a credit to Christchurch. It’s easy to look at the cities damage with one sweeping glance condemning the work required to bring it back to life as monstrous, but look more closely and these small initiatives are breathing the life back into Christchurch.
My advice is to start your day buying a hop-on-hop-off tram day pass for NZ$19 to get your bearings. Sure, you can easily walk but who doesn’t like travelling by tram and it’s a great way to invest tourist dollars back into the city. The tram also operates a dinner carriage in the evening but you will need to book in advance for this. Another way to see the city is go punting on the Avon River – why not take a bottle of wine, some snacks and chat to your boat guide whilst enjoying the beautiful greenery along the Avon River.
The crumbling cathedral makes for some wonderful pictures and it’s easy to imagine it in its restored state (sign the petition to restore rather than demolish), plus make sure you visit the sombre Empty Chairs tribute to commemorate the 185 people who died in the earthquakes.
We spent only one night in Christchurch and will spend another at the end of a south island trip. Yes Christchurch is a shadow of its former self however it is truly refreshing to see the city building itself out of the rubble with the hardy kiwi spirit remaining.
Christchurch I salute you!
Happy travelling folks.