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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.

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.