Immaculate perfection….an inspiration to live in harmony with nature. Elbow Falls in winter splendour.
‘You’ve got to be kidding…a perpetually ‘cold’ person like you planning of spending winter in Calgary’…’Awesome’….’An actual snowman’…There are more questions, innuendoes, negatives and a few positives.
So here I am in the thick of snow set to enjoy my first ‘Christmas Card’ Christmas of twinkling lights, snowmen and snow fairies against a backdrop of white fluffy snow….leaving my footprints and a fallen glove. I later picked it up after taking the picture’
Our timing was slightly skewed, a few days ahead of Canada elections, a lost opportunity to watch Justin Trudeau stride into Rideau Hall as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister. The imposing Parliament buildings, the East, West and Central wings straddling the Autumnal landscape compensate for lost opportunities.
We are in Ottawa, a city demarcated into two categories: the Capital and the Downtown. Ours was a selective tour so we saw the ‘official’ face of the ‘Capital’ situated on south bank of Ottawa River and in center of connections…Toronto and Kingston to the West and Montreal and Quebec City on the East. The genealogy of the city, a mix of Anglo-French and First Nation histories, lend it authenticity as a history buff’s delight. But nature is not shadowed by antiquity as during winter months the Rideau Canal, connects Ottawa with Kingston and Lake Ontario, turns into a four-mile long natural skating rink and Ottawa into a winter carnival city.
Our first stop, Canadian Museum of History (100 Rue Laurier, Gatineau)*, explores Canada’s 20,000 years of cultural and civilization history. The entrance to the museum, resembling ‘turtle heads’, is set in a wind-landscaped sweepness including Ottawa River and a fabulous view of Parliament Hill. Nature is incorporated in every aspect of presentation of the Public and the Curatorial wings, the surrounding plazas connected by rounded impressive staircase leading down towards Ottawa River, the Zen Garden and other buildings.
I preferred the early morning surroundings to a history tour of the museum, wanting to cross the waters like the ‘Wolf in the Boat’ (To Travel in a Boat Together) sculpture by Mary Anne Barkhhouse, of the Kwagiulth First Nation. The sculpture reflects the story recounted by the artist’s grandfather of how he helped a wolf cross ‘a treacherous piece of water on a boat on the West coast of Canada’ and how she relates the tale ‘to help negotiate cooperation with the ‘other’ and inclusion of the wild.’ The copper and bronze sculpture explores human relationships with the natural world.
The Grand Hall, on first level of the main building, is an extension of the exterior with six-storey ‘Wall of Windows’ framing Ottawa River and Parliament Hill. In continuation, on the opposite wall, is a large colour ‘forest scene’ providing an ideal background to the world’s largest collection of Totem poles and to the First Peoples Hall highlighting the historic, cultural and artistic achievements of Canada’s First Nation. The Museum, home to Canadian Children’s Museum, a 295-seat IMAX 3 D movie theatre along with permanent and virtual exhibitions, was a beehive of activity on this Sunday morning.
Back on the bus and we drive past the National Gallery of Canada with its spindly spider sculpture, ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois (1999), outside the main entrance; the official residences of the Governor General and that of the Prime Minister, Harper was still in saddle, towards Parliament Hill and the majestic Gothic architectural symbols, the Central, Eastern and Western wings of the seat of power, the Parliament of Canada. Time constraints restricted our entry inside the Central Hall, the East and West wings were under renovation, and we were given time to walk around the massive lawns, for selfies in front of Centennial Flame with the buildings as backdrops. The Centennial Flame, enhanced with shields of 12 provinces and territories, commemorates Canada’s 100 years as a Confederation.
The lawns are a tourist hangout, some with tickets to walk inside, and probably thinking about the same thing, the election results. Used to the high decibel levels of Indian elections this was a ‘sleepover’ of elections, unless I watched news channels and followed newsprint stories.
A short lunch break and we were on our way to Kingston, on the confluence of St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and Cataraqui River (south of Rideau Canal), 120 miles from Ottawa and midway between Montreal and Toronto. The Limestone heritage buildings and houses dotting the city are a reminder of its short-lived status as Canada’s first capital in 1841. The city lost out to Ottawa as Queen Victoria felt that its closeness to the border made it vulnerable to American attacks. A major fire in 1840 had destroyed most heritage landmarks, the Victorian mansions and the City Hall and to prevent a repeat scenario, limestone and brick were designated construction materials leading to a ‘Limestone revolution’ and the city being named the “The Limestone City“.
Present Kingston lives up to its ‘elevated status’ preserving its historical sites, its many museums, the Royal Military College, the Queen’s University founded in 1841, the expansive waterfront with its marina and bobbing boats and luxuriant gardens. On face value the city comes across as a sleeping old English town with its educational institutes and hospitals and was surprised to read that the city was voted one of the best cities to live and retire in.( moneysense.ca)
The accolades along with 21 National Historic sites of Canada, the excellent cruising and boating facilities, easy access to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and Thousand Islands makes it a city worth visiting for an extended stay.
We bid adieu to Kingston and move on to our starting city, Toronto, and a closure to our Four Cities and an Island bus tour.
Truck-show, Distillery District, Toronto Ottawa
Pots and Pans and an old telephone at local flea market, Kingston, Ottawa
‘You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water’…..I did, stand and stare, and so did the sea-gull, contemplative and restless as the waters with no thought of crossing. Lake Okanagan, Kelowna, British Columbia
Waterfalls are magic, shimmering, glistening, cascading down rocks to a peaceful flow downwards. In the words of Mikhail Lermontov, Russian poet,painter and writer,” many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea”.
Natural Bridge: An impressive natural rock formation spanning Kicking Horse River, west of village Field, is a reminder of influence of water in shaping landscape. The erosive, gushing waters descent through a canyon to join Amiskwi River on way to Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
The frozen Angel Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta
Water is also peaceful as in my hometown…the River Ganga, Allahabad, India
Continued..Day 2… The monotony of the bus ride and three-language monologue is broken by emotive swathes of autumnal hues out of a Van Gogh canvas, bold, vibrant tree-strokes against a dull sky as we speed towards Montreal, another flip-flop between antiquity and modernity.
Montreal, located at confluence of Petite River and St. Lawrence, is the second city on our itinerary and we take AutoRoute, 20 or 40 (too busy admiring the scenic view) to shorten travel time by 3/4 hours. The Route follows the original King’s Highway or Chemin du Roy, south of St. Lawrence River, and if traveling independently then an ideal way to savour the picturesque historical sites and villages along St. Lawrence River. Our Guide compensated for the detour by giving us a brief history of the route and how it connected the major cities of New France along the charismatic river.
Vistas of cultivated land, once home to Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, greet us on both sides of the route. The Iroquoians lived in fortified villages on the foothills of Mount Royal, nearly 4000 years ago, till arrival of Europeans, via St. Lawrence River, forced them to move on or were decimated due to inter tribal wars and European diseases. This was an all too familiar ‘conquering’ pattern… setting up trading posts and then slowly gaining control of the entire land. The Frenchi-zation of the Island began with a settlement, a chapel, hospital and a fort, as protection against Iroquoian raids. The settlement was named Ville-Marie or ‘City of Mary’ after Mount Royal, the triple peaked hill in the heart of the city.
The British soon followed and in 1689 Britain-allied Iroquois committed the worst massacre in the history of New France. From then on it was a tussle between the two European powers with the English gaining upper hand. Montreal or La Place Royale, was the capital of the Province of Canada from 1844 to 1849 till the burning down of the parliament building. Ottawa, across the River, piped it to the post and has remained the capital city to the present.
The in-motion history lesson was synced to our arrival in the city and we are in Olympic Park, in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, where the doughnut-shaped Montreal Stadium is located. The ‘Big O’, the site of the 1976 summer Olympics, is refered to as the ‘The Big Owe’ for the wastefulness and huge debt it incurred. The tour included a climb up to the leaning Montreal Tower, along the north base of the stadium, and visit to the Biodome, and 5 families, including us, preferred to explore the surroundings. It was windy and cold but entertaining, watched a football game and our flag toting Guide trying to herd the listless members through the complex.
Lunchtime and Downtown Montreal: A flip-flop between antiquity and modernity as glinting green church spires, originally copper and oxidized, reflect the unique dynamism of the city. I would have loved a flânerie through the cobbled streets of Old or Vieux- Montreal with its Anglo-French artistic and culinary flavours, imbibing the joie de vivre of Jean-Talon Market (opened in 1933) one of the oldest public markets in the city or be in the centre of activity of Place d’Armes, the heritage city square bordered by a mélange of ancient, the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice dating 1684 and Basilique Notre Dame (1824), and the modern… the 20th century skyscrapers looming over the statue of Montreal’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve.
The 30-minute stop at Basilique Notre Dame was insufficient to fully explore the Gothic splendoir constructed in 1824. Since photography is supposedly disallowed inside, one could only memorize the stunning medieval architecture accentuated with intricate walnut wood carvings, the exquisite stained glass windows depicting Montreal’s religious history, the blue ceiling with 24 carat gold stars, highlighted by the largest Casavant organs and the impressive Chapelle du Sacre-Coeur behind the altar. A national historical site and an important landmark of Montreal, the Basilique has it’s fame tagged to two events; The eulogy by Justin Trudeau, present Prime Minster of Canada, from the steps of the High Alter during the state funeral of his father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th Prime Minister of Canada and the more newsworthy, according to our Guide, the wedding of Canadian singer Celine Dion in 1994.
Another must visit church is St. Joseph’s Oratory on Westmont Summit, one of the three peaks of Mount Royal. It is an impressive monument and in the words of Bernard Avishai in the NEW YORKER …‘Towering over both our neighbourhoods, impressing itself on our senses, was the dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Quebec’s great basilica, the dream palace of ( now canonized) Brother André Bessette, who healed the body and spirit of pilgrims—the place we simply called the Shrine’.
The impressive entrance, if one can climb up the stairs from street level, the devout do on their knees, and the view of the city is enough to make you want to stay in the environs as long as you can. Even on a hazy day, we could see McGill University tower, busloads, carloads of tourists, some walked up, were streaming to the Oratory to worship or admire the buildings and its surroundings, the famous Mt. Royal Park.
Certain places are for exploring and Montreal is one such city, but our tour itinerary was a killjoy with its back-to-back stops. One plus point was the frequent washroom breaks, much-needed on the long bus drive. There was a cubby-hole toilet on bus but then no one wanted to contribute to a foul-smelling bus.
Dinner was in another Chinatown restaurant and again we decided to be on our own. Chinatown, on La Gauchetiere Street, Saint Urban Street and St. Lawrence Boulevard, is a pedestrian thoroughfare and popular tourist destination for its Asian ambiance of street merchants selling everything under the sun; gift shops and mom-and-pop stores selling kimonos, lingerie, crafts and china; fortune readers for the gullible or adventurous…. a scene straight out of China, Hong Kong or surrounding countries. The alleys are lined with restaurants, Vietnamese and Chinese, as over the years Hong Kong Chinese and ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam settled here opening Cantonese and Dimsum restaurants and Vietnamese Pho eateries. It was crowded, Saturday evening, and after a 30 minute wait we managed two seats in a Vietnamese eatery. The fast turnout ensured that you gulped down your food before the dishes are whisked from the table.
Back on bus and to our hotel, across St. Lawrence River, for an early morning journey to Ottawa, Kingston and return to Toronto.