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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.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has quite a lot of small but interesting towns which offer fascinating glimpses into early colonial history of the region. And since I read a lot about the subject it was time to visit some of them.

From Halifax we headed along the coast in a south-westerly direction. Our first stop was the community of Mahone Bay, located around 90 km from the capital. It really is a small place, with a population of only around one thousand, but it has a rich history and plenty of interesting architecture. The town was founded in 1754 and settled by German and Swiss protestants who were attracted by the British authorities which were desperate to strengthen protestant population of the region as a counterbalance to the Catholic, and French speaking, Acadians.

While approaching the town from the north and, driving along the bay, we encountered one of the classic Nova Scotia views: the famous three churches of Mahone Bay (St James’ Anglican; St John’s Evangelical Lutheran; and Trinity United). They stand majestically next to each other and reflect in still waters of the harbour. It has become an iconic image of Nova Scotia, frequently photographed and featured on postcards and in calendars. We also stopped to take photos of the churches before continuing to the village where we had a short stroll admiring many historic wooden houses. There is also an interesting plaque listing families which initially settled here, most of them with clearly German-sounding names. But it was time to move as Mahone Bay was just a teaser for the real gem of the region, the historic town of Lunenburg.

Located just over 10 km from Mahone Bay it is one of the best examples of planned British colonial settlement in Canada (if not in the whole of North America) and as such its Old Town is designated since 1995 as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Like Mahone Bay Lunenburg was settled by protestants from Germany, Switzerland (and some from France) which were brought by the British authorities dissatisfied with earlier English colonists. The town was raided during the American War of Independence and during the war of 1812 it was heavily involved in privateering activities against US shipping. After that things got calmer and fishing became the mainstay of Lunenburg. Nowadays it is tourism which dominates the town and it is full of B&Bs, shops and restaurants.

We left our car in the harbour car park and immediately went for a stroll around the historic core of the town. The streets form an orderly grid pattern which is filled with plenty of old wooden homes, many of them standing for well over 200 years. One of them, the Knaut-Rhuland House, was converted (or rather just preserved) into an interesting small museum depicting life in the early years of Lunenburg.

Another fascinating historic structure is St. John’s Anglican Church, located on a green square in the middle of the old town grid. Its oldest part dates from 1754 when it was built as a simple meeting house. It was subsequently enlarged and redeveloped over the centuries into a structure resembling a giant white wooden wedding cake which we can see nowadays. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that it was badly damaged by fire in 2001. Since then it has been beautifully restored, including its painted ceiling over the altar which resembles a star-lit night sky.

 

 

We walked around the town for quite a few hours as almost every corner opened yet another photogenic vista. I took hundreds of photos. What makes the town of Lunenburg particularly photogenic is the fact that most of the buildings are painted in many bright colours. It makes the town look bright and interesting even on a rather grey day, as during our visit.

Finally we headed back towards the waterfront when we had lunch on a terrace overlooking the harbour. The food was decent, the view was splendid, the only thing missing was a bit of sunshine. However it didn’t matter much, we still had a good relaxing time. I guess over the years of travelling to places that do not always guarantee glorious weather I have learned to appreciate places in any condition. Anyway, it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t windy. Wind is one thing I hate.

After lunch we explored the town’s harbour a bit closer. It is dominated by the imposing and brightly red building of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. We didn’t get inside, we preferred to stroll around the waterfront looking at some historic boats as well at boats entering and exiting the harbour.

Anyway, it was time to get moving as we had one more destination planned for that day.

From Lunenburg we drove 140km across the Nova Scotia land mass to the shores of the Bay of Fundy. The interior of the province is sparsely populated so the drive was fairly quick and uneventful (not to say a bit boring). Our destination was the town of Annapolis Royal which is, to be precise, located on the banks of Annapolis River but only a few miles from its outlet to the bay itself.

It is one of the oldest European settlements in Atlantic Canada. It was initially created as the French settlement of Port Royal but it was renamed by the British in honour of Queen Anne following the siege in 1710. The town was the capital of Acadia and later Nova Scotia for almost 150 years, until the founding of the City of Halifax in 1749. Well that’s only a brief basic history, the town actually changed its location by about 10km, it was settled by the Scots for a while, and it faced a total of thirteen attacks, more than any other place in North America. I guess you get the picture. One interesting fact is that it was also likely to have been the site of the introduction of apples to Canada in 1606.

Nowadays it is a rather small and sleepy community with colourful historic wooden architecture not dissimilar to what we have seen earlier in Mahone Bay or Lunenburg, just with less of it. Anyway, one can only take as much of the same so we went straight to the site of Fort Anne.

The site has been fortified since 1629, when the Scots came to colonize Nova Scotia and built Charles Fort. The region reverted to French control in the 1630s and Charles de Menou d’Aulnay began work on the first of four forts on the same site, then known as Port Royal. In 1702, the French began construction of the current Vauban earthwork that is found there today. During Queen Anne’s War, the fort fell to British and New England troops after a week-long siege in 1710 which marked the British conquest of Acadia.

Today, the fort – Canada’s first administered National Historic Site – consists of a renovated 1797 officers’ quarters (now a museum) and 1708 stone powder magazine, surrounded by a maze of defensive ditches, banks and bastions known as Vauban-style earthworks. We arrived too late for the museum so spent some time simply wandering around the ramparts and admiring the views of the river. In moments like that I try to imagine how it was to live in such remote places in the times of the first settlers. Now we can fly back and forth from Europe in a few hours and one can drive anywhere in the province also in a few hours. Back then it must have been the end of the world, something akin to a space station nowadays.

After a night in Kentville (1 hour away) the following day we stopped at Gran-Pre National Historic Site. It is a place set up to commemorate Acadian settlement which existed here from 1682 to 1755. Acadians were French speaking settlers which in this area which developed a highly productive farming by building dykes and draining the fertile tidal marshes on the shores of Bay of Fundy. They created distinctive culture but sadly were caught in the grand colonial conflict in North America, between the French and the British. They were deemed untrustworthy by the British and were brutally deported between 1755 and 1762. Many were sent all the way back to France (even if some of them have never been there as they were already born in Acadia) or to other parts of the French empire. Some ended up further south, as far as Louisiana, where they started a new culture, the Cajuns. Only a very few ever came back to their homeland, renamed later as Nova Scotia.

Nowadays there is a great interpretive center run by Parks Canada and explaining history of the region as well as techniques used by the Acadians to build the dykes and drain the marshes. There is also a statue of Evangeline (heroine of the Longfellow poem) and the Memorial Church. But the best way to appreciate the sense of history here is to just go for a walk around some of the preserved farmland and rural landscape around. We visited the place on a grey foggy morning which made the place feel even more poignant. As we strolled around we could almost feel the sadness in the air. It really makes you think about history, how it affects real people.

Grand-Pre was our last stop in Nova Scotia. From now we started the long drive back towards Quebec. Our ultimate destination before flying back home was the fascinating metropolis of Montreal.

Halifax

Nova Scotia is a province of mostly small towns. The only sizeable (to some degree) community is the capital, Halifax. And that’s where we decided to stop for a day. We booked ourself into a hotel located in a pleasant neighbourhood, full of old colourful wooden houses, and then headed into the centre of the town.

Just 10 minutes later we reached our first stop, the Halifax Citadel (located on rather unimaginatively named Citadel Hill). It was established by the British in 1749 as a counterbalance to the French stronghold of Louisbourg (which we visited previously). Halifax played a pivotal role in the following decade, in the Anglo-French rivalry in the region. But the current impressive, star-shaped, fortress was actually built much later, during the Victorian Era (it was completed in 1856).

The site is run by Parks Canada and is one of the most visited attractions in Eastern Canada. Luckily on the day of our visit it wasn’t too crowded (travelling outside the main season has many advantages).

We entered the fortress via a drawbridge and a massive gate, manned by staff dressed in historic uniforms. Specifically dressed as soldiers of the 78th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot with their tartan kilts, sporrans, red coats and impressive headgear. They looked splendidly “Scottish”.

Inside there is an interesting exhibition about the history of the fortress and the town of Halifax as well as some military gear displayed, but overall the site is far less interesting than the fascinating Louisbourg. In my opinion the best aspect of the citadel are the amazing views from the ramparts, especially towards the downtown, the harbour and the town of Dartmouth on the other side of the Narrows. Halifax downtown, with its few modest skyscrapers, is located directly below the citadel, with the street grid stretching all the way to the harbour. To the left we could see quite an impressive suspension bridge connecting Halifax and Dartmouth (Angus L. Macdonald Bridge) while to the right we could see the Georges Island (with some fortifications, albeit on much smaller scale than the citadel) and the harbour stretching eastwards towards the open Atlantic. After taking same photos (and listening to a lone piper) it was time to go down (literally) to the town.

As I mentioned, Halifax downtown doesn’t have impressive skyscrapers, one can clearly see that it is town of modest size (the whole metropolitan area has a population of around 400 thousands inhabitants). Still, we wandered around for a bit, admiring some historic architectures. One of the most important buildings in Halifax is St Paul’s Anglican Church which, founded in 1749, is the oldest surviving protestant church in Canada and the oldest building in Halifax. But it is just a rather small church. Architecturally speaking, far more impressive are some of the buildings from the beginning of the 20th century.

One of them is the Art Deco style Dominion Public Building which was the tallest in Halifax when it opened in 1936. Empire State Building it ain’t but in Halifax it makes quite a landmark. Next to it stands the Bank of Nova Scotia Building, also built in the early 1930s, in style which some call the “Canadian Deco”. 

It is an absolutely fascinating structure full of intricate detail depicting flora and fauna native to Nova Scotia but also ships and historical events. This connection to Canada is typical for architect John M. Lyle who designed similar buildings in Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary.

Finally we reached the Halifax harbour. Along the waterfront stretches a boardwalk build of heavy timber which offers great walking opportunities. During our visit it was by far the most lively part of town. Probably the biggest attractions on the waterfront are The Pier 21 Immigration Museum and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. However fascinating they may be, it was getting late and it was Sunday, so we decided skip the museums and to relax by simply strolling along the waterfront rather than trying to squeeze too much into our itinerary. It was a good decision and we had a great time people watching but also observing ships entering and exiting the harbour. There were some massive ocean-going vessels but also small pleasure craft as well as ferries crossing the harbour.

Like Quebec City, Halifax also has its fleet of commuter ferries, connecting it with Dartmouth on the other side of the harbour. One has to be careful with comparisons though as the ferries here are much smaller than the ones in Quebec and they don’t carry vehicles. In fact they look quite a bit like bath toys. But the service started in 1752 which makes it the oldest saltwater ferry in North America and one of the oldest in the world. Unfortunately it was getting late and we didn’t really have any reason to travel to Dartmouth so we didn’t have a chance to experience the crossing.

Instead we found a rather nice restaurant and settled for a meal outside, with a view of the harbour. We could dine while still watching ships, ferries and boats. It was great location but I have to say that food wasn’t particularly amazing, in fact it was average at best. Frustratingly the whole “experience” ended up to be rather more expensive than anticipated initially.

Here I’m going to moan a bit. If I have to pick up one thing which annoys me in North America is the pricing which exclude the taxes, and the whole tipping culture. Sure, one can calculate things in the head, at least roughly, but it really drives me mad. One always ends up spending more than expected. To make things more complicated taxes also differ between provinces in Canada or states in the US. Why they cannot include them in the prices quoted in the menus or on the shop labels? Would that be too easy for the customers? And then I never know how much to tip, I only know it must be more generous than anywhere in Europe. Luckily some local craft beer soothed me eventually so the evening ended well (and the waiter got his tip at the end).

Next day historic communities in rural Nova Scotia were awaiting us so stay tuned.