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Buffalo

Maybe I should start with an explanation why did I go to Buffalo in the first place.

When I was visiting Toronto, Ottawa and surroundings in 2018 I decided to dash across the border to visit the US as I do like visiting that country (as anyone reading this blog might have guessed by now). Buffalo was conveniently located and allowed me to make a loop between Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and back to Toronto.

But convenient location wasn’t the sole reason. I’m interested in the changes this region of the US, the famous (or rather infamous) “rust belt”, is facing. I had visited Detroit a few years earlier and I was curious how Buffalo compares with that more well-known metropolis. Especially after watching a video a few months earlier, which I randomly found on the internet, highlighting some positive changes and signs of revival in the city.

I crossed the border at the Thousands Island Border Crossing before heading via I-81, Oswego and some local roads (where I even got lost) towards Batavia where I stopped for a night.

Next morning I headed straight to Buffalo. My first stop was the disused Buffalo Central Terminal which served as the city’s main railway station between 1929 and 1979, before being abandoned. I had read about it earlier and really wanted to see it. To get there I had to drive through some rather rough looking neighbourhoods but during the day the area wasn’t feeling too unsafe. It was actually sad rather than dangerous. Lots of empty plots, once filled with houses, and Polish street names which highlighted the immigrant background of many past inhabitants of the area. The surviving housing looked rather poor and neglected.

The impressive terminal building really dominates the area. It is so big that it was in fact always too large for the city’s needs, even when 200 trains a day used it. The 17 stories tall office tower, with clocks on all four corners, resembles a tower of some Gothic cathedral more than a railway facility and dominates the rest of this vast brick-clad building. Unfortunately it is not in a great shape and it was closed during my visit. It is currently owned by the non-profit preservation group called Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They occasionally open it for special events and try to collect money for renovation and reuse of this beautiful Art Deco structure. But I could still wonder around (ignoring some “no trespassing” signs) and take some nice photographs. I do hope they will eventually find good use for this building and it will be brought to life again.

From the Central Terminal I drove towards the Broadway Market. I was curious abou the Polish connections in Buffalo and I had heard that there were some Polish oriented shops and restaurants there. On my way I stopped to photograph at least two grand churches which were built in the heyday of the area, when it was populated by a vibrant immigrant population, including many Poles. Now these churches feel way too big for this area, especially in the middle of the week when their surroundings are basically deserted.

But there was a bit of life in the market, which was a bit surreal. I’m used to the vibrant Polish community in London. The difference with Buffalo is that the “Poles” there are mostly of the second or third generation but they try to keep some traditions and tastes alive. I actually ate decent pierogi at one of the stands and had a chat with some of the folks working there. Some of them have never been to Poland and didn’t speak any Polish. But the gift shop at the market had a better selection of Poland-related gadgets (including an impressive variety of T-shirts) than I have seen in many Polish gift shops, including at the airports I use in Poland. It was bizarre to say the least.

From the market I drove to the industrial areas along the Buffalo River, where it enters Lake Erie. What I wanted to see were the numerous grain silos which tower over the locality. Some are still working facilities, most are abandoned but some are creatively reused, for example the River Works complex, with restaurants, a brewery and leisure facilities. Then there is the Silo City, a collection of three huge former silo complexes which are now kind of abandoned but used for art projects, filming locations and tours. Unfortunately the tours had to be booked in advance so I could only look from the outside before a guard (looking more like an American hobo than a security personnel) politely but firmly sent me away. Those industrial areas, with all the silos are fascinating and a photographer’s dream. I could spend more time wandering around.

Anyway, after all this it was time to head to downtown to see how the core of Buffalo really feels. I checked myself into hotel, left the car securely parked there and went for a proper photo exploration.

Downtown Buffalo is actually quite pleasant and has a lot of interesting architecture. But there is only one place where one can start a visit, the Buffalo City Hall. This fantastic Art Deco skyscraper has 32 floors and it was constructed between 1929 and 1931. It might well be one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the world. Its façade is adorned with plenty of symbolic decorations and fantastic details highlighting industry, agriculture and history, depicting workers, farmers and pioneers. And the interior looks like something straight from a Batman movie set, with even more elaborate details. I loved it. On the top floor there is a free viewing platform accessible to visitors during the building opening hours. It offers an amazing panorama of the downtown, the harbour, the silos, lake and the surrounding areas, including all the way to Canada. It is good idea to head there first to get a good spatial orientation of the city.

On my way down, while checking my phone, I realized one can also visit the Common Council Chamber. I asked at the reception and they told me the relevant floor and recommended just trying if the doors were open. They were, and there was absolutely nobody inside. The chamber is as splendid as the rest of the building, full of symbols and decorations and with the impressive decorative stain glass skylight in the ceiling. It looks better than many state capitols or even some countries’ parliament buildings. But I felt it was enough of interiors. As the weather was glorious, it was time to head back outside.

In front of the City Hall there is the circular Niagara Square which is surrounded by some other important buildings, like the brutalist Buffalo City Court or the Art Deco United States Courthouse. In the middle of the square stands a monument commemorating president William McKinley who was assassinated on the steps of the city hall in 1901. A short distance away is yet another square, the Lafayette Squre. This one is dominated by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorating “those who laid down their lives in the war to maintain the union for the cause of their country and of mankind“, as the plaque says. Many cities and towns in the North of the US have similiar monuments remembering soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War.

There are quite a lot of interesting buildings from the beginning of 20th century all over the downtown. Banks, departments stores, offices etc. It is all quite nice. It definitely felt better than one could expect reading stories about the decline of the rust belt. One of the most interesting buildings located on the Main Street is the neoclassical, Beaux–Arts style, branch of Buffalo Savings Bank. With its dome covered in gold it looks more like a temple than a bank. Not far away is located yet another historic skyscraper, the Electric Tower, a striking octagonal 14-storey structure clad in white terracotta and topped by a large lantern. I could list many more architectural wonders but it would make this little piece way too long. If you are interested in architecture from the golden period of growth in America, Buffalo is a great place to see many examples.

I continued my walk north. Eventually I left downtown and entered Allentown, a district located around a mile from the City Hall. It is a nice neighbourhood with a little bit of bohemian or even hipster vibe. Don’t worry it is not London, NYC or San Fran, it is all still unpretentious and actually quite pleasant, a place offering independent restaurants and a few galleries. All mixed with nice residential properties and leafy streets. I had a very late lunch there before heading back towards downtown and the lake.

Let’s not forget that Buffalo is located on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The last part of the day I spent exploring the partially regenerated waterfront. Now, this being America, one hast to navigate areas under unsightly elevated roads from the 60s (here the Buffalo Skyway) but once on the lake the area is actually very nice. The glorious weather definitely helped the perception too. A popular attraction in this part of town is the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park where you can see ships (including a cruiser, USS Little Rock) and other military equipment. However tempting such things normally are for me, it was getting late so I skipped the military park and just had a stroll along the waterfront. I also spotted two small but intriguing memorials. One was the Irish Famine Memorial and the other highlighted Polish contribution in the WWII. This reminds you that America truly is nation of immigrants and Buffalo was hub for many of them.

In the early evening the area is a perfect place to admire the sunset and relax. There are restaurants and bars but I decided to call it a day and went back to my hotel. The following day it was time to head back to Canada and continue my trip. Toronto was awaiting for my first visit in well over 10 years.

Stay tuned.

Ottawa

Ottawa felt like the last significant city in Canada which I hadn’t visited. Here I have to apologize to folks in Winnipeg or Saskatoon. I’m sure those places are interesting in their own right but they are not in the same league. Sorry. Anyway, I had some time last spring so I decided to visit the capital of Canada, which is, after all, one of my favourite countries.

I flew to Toronto and slowly made my way towards Ottawa. After a night in Kingston I stopped in a few small historic towns along the way, places like Perth, Smith Falls and Merrickville. The last two are located on Rideau Canal which the British built to bypass a border stretch of St Lawrence River as it wasn’t seen as safe after the war of 1812. The canal is over 200 km long and it was a major feat of engineering when it opened in 1832.

And here we come to Ottawa. It was actually established as Bytown (named after John By) during construction of the canal and it is located where the canal joins Ottawa River. It then developed as a place of timber and lumber trade. It might have stayed as small as the other communities in the region if not for the decision by Queen Victoria in 1857 selecting it as the capital of the newly formed nation of Canada.

Nowadays Ottawa’s metropolitan area has a population of around a million and it is an entertaining place full of museums and attractions. I booked myself for two nights into a motel not far from Parliament Hill, parked the car, and began exploring the city on foot.

My first afternoon in Ottawa I spent walking around downtown for hours, admiring and photographing its varied architecture. There are some impressive federal buildings from the late 19th century, many commercial Art Deco structures from the early 20th century (especially the Bank of Montreal and Bank of Canada buildings) and more modern stuff. I also visited the locks where Rideau canal meets the Ottawa River, the place where modern Ottawa was born.
Later I ended the day exploring ByWard Market area. It is one of the oldest parts of Ottawa, which traditionally has been a focal point for Ottawa’s French and Irish communities. Nowadays the neighbourhood is full of shops, restaurants and bars and feels quite similar to Covent Garden in London (it even has its own covered market). It was a good place to have supper and some beer in one of the Irish pubs with a terrace overlooking all the hustle and bustle. I had a lot planned for the following day.

My first stop the next morning was Parliament Hill where I picked up a timed ticket for the guided tour of the parliament building. It is good to do that early in the day as the free tickets run out fast. Mine was for the late afternoon (even if I got it less than an hour after opening of the ticket office). So in the meantime I explored and photographed spectacular Neo-Gothic buildings of Parliament Hill from the outside. I love such architecture, with plenty of detail, here full of Canadian symbolism. But we’ll come back to that later.

In the meantime I headed towards the Supreme Court of Canada. In contrast to the parliament it was built in 1939 in Art Deco style, but like the parliament it is located on the high escarpment of Ottawa River. The main entrance is flanked by two great looking statues of Veritas (Truth) and Justitia (Justice). I joined a short but informative tour highlighting the architectural details and explaining how the Canadian judiciary works.

I still had plenty of time before the parliament tour so from the court I headed towards the Portage Bridge, crossed the Ottawa River and entered the city of Gatineu which is actually located in the province of Quebec. What you notice first is that on the street signs French comes first and English second (if at all), in contrast with Ottawa. The main reason for my visit there was to admire the views of Parliament Building dominating the opposite high bank of the river. In fact the best views on the Parliament Hill are from Gatineau, especially from outside of the Canadian Museum of History which is located in spectacular modern building and which is highly regarded and recommended. Sadly I didn’t have time for a visit. From this spot the parliament campus on the other side of the river looks truly spectacular, like some fairy tale medieval castle on a hill.

I stopped for a quick lunch (Quebec has a better culinary tradition after all) before returning to Ottawa proper via Alexandra Bridge which opened in 1901 as a railway bridge before being converted for use by cars and pedestrians. Its walkway offers a great panorama of both Ottawa and Gatineau.

Finally it was time to enter the parliament building. As the parliament was in session we couldn’t enter the debating chambers but we were taken to the library which is the only surviving part of the original building constructed between 1859 and 1876. Because of that it has the most elaborate decorations, not unlike Westminster Palace in London. The stonework contains carved mouldings, sculpted foliage, real and mythical animals, grotesques, and emblems of France, England, Ireland, and Scotland, spread across and over pointed windows in various groupings, turrets and towers. The rest of the parliament burned down in 1916 and was almost immediately rebuilt. The newer bit is also Neo-Gothic and full of Canadian-themed details like sculptures of native fauna but expanded in size and pared down in ornament, more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts ethos of the time.

The tour started in the Confederation Hall. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the octagonal hall has a massive central column supporting a magnificent fan vault ornamented with carved bosses which recalls the interior of a medieval English chapter house. The pointed arches are crowned with richly sculpted gables celebrating the confederated nature of Canada. Then the guide took us to the Hall of Honour (looking not unlike a medieval church) which is part of the central axis of the Centre Block, joining Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament. After that we visited the library (absolutely splendid place which I mentioned above) before heading via various corridors (where our guide pointed out some more interesting architectural details) and finally reaching the base of the Peace Tower.

At its base is located the Memorial Chamber, a national shrine. Initially it was a tribute to the Canadians who had given their lives during the Great War in France and Flanders but since then it has become a place to commemorate those who have died in conflicts from the Nile Expedition to the Korean War, and in the service of Canada to this day.

After that we parted with our guide but the final highlight of the tour was access to the viewing platform on top of the 55 m tall Peace Tower which dominates the parliament building and offers a fantastic panorama of Ottawa, Gatineau and even further afield. The weather wasn’t perfect but I could still see quite a lot. What helps is the lack of any real skyscrapers obstructing the views as Ottawa is rather low rise, especially if one compares it with Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

After coming down from the tower and exiting the parliament I decided to walk more around downtown and its vicinity. Ottawa downtown might not be as spectacular as the Parliament Hill and neighbouring federal buildings but it is pleasant enough. The only problem was that I had to dodge some intermittent rain showers. Walking a little bit aimlessly south of downtown I explored some very nice residential districts. There were some blocks of flats as well as many large historic houses (but not ostentatious) all this creating an appealing mix. These areas have plenty of lush trees lining the streets which are aligned in a perfect grid as well as a few small concentrations of bars and restaurants (for example along Elgin Street in Golden Triangle). This part of town wasn’t maybe spectacular but I could see myself living in place like that.

The second night in Ottawa I spent watching some basketball in my motel room and “sampling” local beers which I bought in the nearby branch of LCBO. Now, what the hell is LCBO you might ask. Well, Ontario (like most of Canada) has peculiar rules related to the sale of alcohol. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is a Crown corporation which has quasi-monopoly on the sale of alcohol beverages in Ontario (there are some exceptions). So if you travel there look for the LCBO to get your booze. Anyway, the local brews were quite tasty.

The following day it was time to head towards the US. But as there were hours of driving ahead of me I went for a walk first, to stretch my legs. It allowed me to explore more splendid residential areas of central Ottawa, with all its greenery and nice homes. Damn, I could really live there.

But it was definitely time to go. On my way out of of town I drove the scenic Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway which follows Ottawa River and offers stunning views towards Quebec on the other bank (here the river forms the boundary between the provinces). It is quite amazing how quickly things get very rural as you drive out of town in this direction.

Eventually I turned south, took Hwy 416 and headed towards the St Lawrance river. It was time to visit Uncle Sam. More about it soon(ish).

Montreal

In September 2017 we visited the great city of Montreal. By coincidence it was exactly 10 years since my first visit. Here I have to admit I had an awful experience during that first visit. We only had a few hours in the city and on top of that the weather was dreadful. It was raining heavily. Despite that we tried to be positive and see as much as we could but it didn’t really work. We were wet, cold and annoyed by the time we got back to our car completely soaked. We drove off west towards Toronto and didn’t think much about the whole Montreal experience.

This time things looked much more promising. Montreal was the last point of our Canadian itinerary, we could spend two nights in the city and the weather was glorious.

Before heading to Montreal we actually spent some time exploring the vicinity of the metropolitan area. One of the more interesting sites was Fort Chambly located around 30 km from central Montreal. It was built in 1665 by the French in order to protect travellers on the river from the Iroquois. But the impressive stone structure visible today dates mostly from around 50 years later. It is good place to spend an hour or two, wandering around and learning interesting history of French colonization of the area and the subsequent conflicts with Britain.

In Montreal we based ourselves in a motel on the outskirts but conveniently located a short walk from the metro station. Montreal has an efficient and quite impressive (if rather brutalist) metro system built mostly in 1960s and 70s (with some later extensions). Our first full day in Montreal started from taking the metro straight from our hotel to Île Sainte-Hélène located in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The island is dominated by green spaces and recreational facilities but we went there to check out the views. Across the river channel there is great panorama towards Old Montreal and modern downtown behind it. The views where especially glorious in the early morning sunshine. The sun behind us meant it also a very good time and location for photography. Well worth an excursion.

From the island we returned straight to mainland Montreal. Well, it is actually a bit more complicated. Most of Montreal is located on the Island of Montreal. At around 500 square kilometres it is almost 10 times the size of Manhattan, so I guess we can colloquially call it “the mainland”. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that we went to explore central Montreal.

We started from strolling around Old Montreal. While not as old as Quebec City it was founded in 1642 which still makes it one of the oldest European settlements in North America. For a better overview we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (which is actually a church, not a chapel) where we climbed the tower. From the top one can see fantastic contrasts between the old stone buildings of Vieux-Montréal and the concrete, steel and glass of the modern city. Since we knew we are going to meet a friend here later we decided to venture to other parts of town, away from the river. First we headed north and took Rue Saint-Denis which is the main street of Quartier Latin. It is an area full of restaurants, atmospheric cafes and boutiques, in other words a quite funky and trendy neighbourhood. To be honest most modern big cities have one of those nowadays. Which didn’t make it any less fun, but we actually just strolled through while on our way to a map shop located in the vicinity. Yes, I am a map geek, can’t skip any of those.

After lunch in one of those atmospheric cafes we headed towards Mount Royal. But before we got there we had to cross some residential areas north and east of the hill. It happened to be quite a gem. I actually found those neighbourhoods to be some of the most charming parts of the city. Quiet leafy streets full of beautiful historic houses, for example the area around the Square Saint-Louis. Most of the houses have quite impressive (for their size) mansard roofs and external stairs to the main entrances. I find the mansard roofs probably the most distinctive feature of Quebec province architecture. It really makes cites, town and villages there different from the rest of North America. And Montreal is no exception. After taking many photographs (some would say too many) it was finally time to climb the hill of Mount Royal.

As you might have guessed the city actually takes its name from the hill which at 233m above the sea level clearly dominates over it. And that’s the whole point of getting there, it offers great panoramic views over the downtown and further afield across the river. But first you have to reach the top. It is quite a climb, especially on a hot sunny day (like during our visit). Luckily most of the hill is a heavily forested park so we could hike in shade. At the top there is Mount Royal Chalet, a pavilion built in 1932 in the French Beaux Art style which hosts a shop, cafe and toilets. It has some interesting Canadian touches such as carvings of local fauna and murals depicting history of New France. Most importantly in front of it is a terrace offering unparalleled views of Montreal. It is one of those classic views you might have seen on postcards or in promotional videos. No surprisingly as the panorama of Montreal skyline is absolutely fantastic. We spent quite some time there, just admiring the views and relaxing after the climb.

But then it was time to head back as it was already afternoon. We had such a good time so far we didn’t even realise the time. From Mount Royal we headed straight down towards McGill University campus and then towards the heart of modern Montreal downtown.

There is some interesting architecture in downtown, especially dating from the late 19th and early 20th century when Montreal was the commercial capital of Canada (and before Toronto really took over). For example the 24-storey Sun Life Building (located on Dorchester Square) was the largest building in the British Empire when it was finished in 1931. Next to it stands Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde which was consecrated in 1894. It is a massive church modelled on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On the way towards the Place d’Armes we passed more impressive commercial buildings, many of them decorated with interesting Canada-themed details.

On the north side Place d’Armes stands the beautiful, Pantheon-like, Bank of Montreal building finished in 1847. The sculptures on the pediment were added in 1867 and represent Native American and pioneer motives. But the square is really dominated by Notre-Dame Basilica, the twin towers of which really stand out on the south side. The interior of the church is among the most dramatic in the world and regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. The vaults are coloured deep blue and decorated with golden stars. Together with the previously mentioned cathedral it shows how important Catholicism once (even until fairly recently) was for Quebec culture and identity.

From the square we entered the narrow streets of Vieux-Montréal. Suddenly the feel became much more “European” than “American”. Streets are paved with cobble stones and buildings are not unlike Saint-Malo in Brittany which, coincidentally, we visited a few months later. We strolled around aimlessly and eventually met a friend for a drink in one of the bars with outdoor seating. On a warm September day it was a really pleasant evening which ended much, much later with dinner in Montreal’s Chinatown.

Following day was the last one of our two-week trip. But our flight was late in the afternoon so we decided to walk a bit more around town. Our friend took us for a stroll along Saint Laurent Boulevard which is also called “The Main”. It traditionally divided Montreal between English (west) and French (east) side and other ethnic groups often settled in between. We walked as far as Little Portugal (our friend’s parents came from there) before returning to downtown to retrieve our car and drive to the airport.

I’m glad I returned to Montreal. After my previous trip, spoiled by an awful weather, I was really not impressed. But now I can safely say that Montreal is one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited. Its location and topography is splendid and its cultural, ethnic and language mix fascinating. French language dominates but English is still fairly widely used, much more than in Quebec City. In fact together with federal Ottawa and parts of New Brunswick it is one of a few truly bilingual places in Canada, a place where waiters causally welcome customers with Bonjour-Hello.

The whole two-week road trip across Quebec and Atlantic Canada was one of my most interesting trips in recent years. The scenery might not be as spectacular as in American or Canadian West and wildlife not as exotic as in Deep South or Florida but the coast is still mostly wild, interior forested and empty, and history absolutely fascinating. Many locations on our route are must see places for anyone trying to understand the North American history and creation of modern day Canada. It was a perfect trip for year 2017, the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.