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.