Monthly Archives: August 2015

Quebec City, Thursday 27/08/15

Montréal is a city with a split personality. To the French speakers it is “mon-ray-Al” with the accent as above, whereas I was accustomed to calling it “mon-tree-all”. Classically French architecture, such as the Hotel de Ville . . .

 stands in the same neighbourhood as buildings that would not look out of place in London.

The Bank of Montreal.

Modern tower blocks, seen in this view from Mount Royal/Mont Royal,

mingle with steepled churches. In a city that has harsh winters and piles of snow, they put stairways on the outside of the buildings.

 It’s an entertaining place, with plenty to explore.

I admired the wooden interior of the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal, but also noted a statue of Jeanne d’Arc in pride of place next to the main altar.

  All of this, of course, reflects the history of the Province of Quebec, which I explored at the Musée d’archéologie et d’histoire at Pointe-à-Callière, the first area to be occupied by Europeans.

The short video which opens the visit to the museum complains early on about the attacks on the new settlement by the Iroquois and the need to build a palisade to protect the inhabitants. However, it was the Iroquois who frequented what is now Quebec, so it is hardly surprising that they would react in this way.

The French inhabitants are said to have traded with others of the First Nations and used them as guides, culminating in the Great Peace Treaty of 1701, between the French and 40 different tribes. By this, the Iroquois, who had previously sided with the British, declared themselves neutral.  This part of the world was by then known as New France.

Though the French built a wall to keep the British out, hostilities continued. Famously, during the Seven Years War, Voltaire referred to this struggle as being over “a few acres of snow” in his book Candide, a first edition of which is held in the museum.

Eventually  the British took over Montreal in 1760. So now we’re all friends.

Well, of course it is all very complicated. Queen Elizabeth 2 still appears on the money, but conceded true autonomy to Canada by the Constitution Act of 1982.  For those of you who are thinking this is of little consequence (and I hope not thinking it’s all too boring for words), this took place at the time that the British were sending troops and arms to a group of little-known Islands we call the Falklands.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Anyway, there’s a whole exhibition about snow in the museum, the clothing, types of transportation and snow clearing equipment. There’s also the history of the ski-doo, so called because of a typing error and invented by J-A Bombadier.

So now you know.

Some of the things I like about Montréal:

The Gay Village

 The swings, for children of all ages, that play tunes as you swing.

 The vegetables.

 The plant displays, (of which more in a later post).

 A fantastic art display by David Altmejd of which this is just an example.

 This is huge and totally mind-blowing.

I will be going back to Montréal, but I also wanted to see the nation’s capital, Ottawa. It is only a short bus ride away.

My first day there, my Servas hosts, Peter and Donna, two marvellous people, took me out to a friend’s rented cottage by a lake, an hour and a half drive away. Very quiet, very good company and food and a thoroughly relaxing day out of the city.
Ottawa is small and very attractive, with a canal, the river and lots of parks. There are beautiful buildings, but unfortunately there is only a brief summer in which to do repairs to them, as well as road works, so getting good photos can be difficult. Particularly pleasing though, was the lack of traffic, even at 8.30 in the morning.

I went to the Parliament.

 They have their own Changing of the Guard ceremony. I’m afraid this always seems a bit Monty Pythony to me, especially as they have to do it on grass, so there is no satisfying crunch of gravel as they stamp about.


There are beautiful views of the city from the top of the Peace Tower, at the front of the building.

 I was lucky to be there while there was a terrific fireworks display over the river and a sound and light show.

 I went to the art and history museums, took long walks and found interesting areas of the city outside of the Downtown area. I am glad that I followed up the recommendations I was given to visit.

Montréal, Sunday 16/08/15

Toronto is perhaps the most multicultural of cities I have visited in North America. On the street you can observe people from all over the world and hear many languages other than the official English and French. The city is composed of many different districts, each with their particular characteristics, but which tend to melt and meld into their surrounding neighbourhood. 

So the Entertainment and Financial districts are both characterised by glass buildings which stand out across the harbour. 


 Along the waterfront, however, there are open areas, parks, art and concert venues and restaurants and cafés. A bit further back is Roundhouse Park, where you find the Railway Museum and the Steam Whistle Brewery in a plot containing a fully-restored locomotive turntable. 

Further North I passed through Chinatown to get to Kensington Market, an older district and home to alternative culture.   

 It is designated a “National Historic Site of Canada” and as well as the shops and restaurants the houses and gardens have an unrestrained atmosphere.  

 
In the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario there was an exhibition of work by Emily Carr, a Canadian artist and writer. She experimented with styles and techniques, while focusing on native culture and nature, as she cared passionately about conserving both. Here are two examples, (unrelated), of her work in both spheres.  

   I also admired pieces by a First Nation artist, Manasie Akpaliapik. This is one side of a multifaceted sculpture in whalebone.  

 Thanks to a recommendation from my Servas host, Dorothy, I took the ferry to Ward’s Island, one of the Toronto Islands a half-hour trip from the Waterfront. It is considerably quieter than the Centre  Island, which caters largely to families and children, and is free of cars, though there are plenty of bicycles and quadracycles. The weather was perfect and I’d taken a little picnic. Once again I was struck by the styles of houses and the flourishing gardens.  

   
Niagara Falls is best seen from the Canadian side, it’s said. It was certainly worth a day trip, but actually was not as accessible as the other great falls I have visited, unless you pay extra. So I took the boat, which means being herded around and clothed in pink.  

 The view of the “American Falls” and the “Bridal Veil Falls” from the boat are impressive.  

 The amount of mist, though, means that I took better photos of these and the larger “Horseshoe Falls” from the riverside.  

   Though not as high as Victoria Falls, nor as long or beautiful as Iguazu, the sheer volume of water is tremendous, and apparently they divert 30% for hydroelectric power. 

I had been warned, but as for the town itself, “tacky” hardly describes the alternative attractions on offer.  

 Perhaps I am a little hard on Niagara. 

On the way back to Toronto the bus stopped at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which, though full of tourists, was more like a Canadian version of Burford, (“Gateway to the Cotswolds”), with antiques and specialist food and clothes shops. 

For something completely different, on the recommendation of Dorothy, I met up with a group of people to hike part of the Bruce Trail.  This is a footpath running along the Niagara Escarpment. It was a guided hike of 17 kilometres, through forest and fields, with good company and charming scenery. Sometimes we would be walking through head-high grasses and flowers.  

 Other times we wandered shaded paths under the forest trees.  

 We even passed through The Hole in the Wall, which is not a now defunct restaurant in Bath, nor a gang of outlaws, but a crevice in the escarpment.  

Finally, on Sunday I checked out the Old Town and the “Krinos Taste of the Danforth” Greek festival on the street of that name, where I ate spanakopita, or spinach pie. I had a quiet evening before boarding the train the following day, bound for Montreal. 

Toronto, Sunday 09/08/15

To cut a long story short, I’ve taken the train from Jasper to Edmonton, from Edmonton to Winnipeg and from Winnipeg to Toronto. 

The first trip was only a few hours but both the others were over twenty hours and two nights. In economy you only get a seat but I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me. Even so, it’s not very comfortable and I didn’t get much sleep. When I woke, it was usually with a stiff neck and/or bad back. 

The passenger trains are frequently late, as the freight trains take precedence on the busy lines. Due to the summer heat, there were also concerns about the rails buckling, so the trains slowed to speeds between 10 and 25 mph. 

It was all worth it, however. As long as you wrap up warm against the air con, you can sit in the observation car. The landscape is superb. 

Coming down from the Rockies, there are rolling plains before you reach the true Prairies. Though the land is vast, it is far from boring. The assortment of rushes, reeds, vetches and grasses mean the scenery is multicoloured and moving, waves of diverse grass heads, of different heights, sweeping across the landscape. 

There are wild flowers by the tracks and butterflies flutter up in the wake of the passing train. 

From Winnipeg to Toronto the conifers  gradually give way to deciduous forests, as ever broken up by rivers and lakes. In fact I wonder how much of Canada is actually land. It’s certainly one of the most difficult maps to draw. 

Homesteads dot the terrain and “stations” can be anything from a stop at a road crossing, to, in one case, a field, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, when one woman jumped off a quad bike and ran to board the train. 

It’s quirky and friendly and quite wonderful. 

Pictures are hard to take through train windows, even at these speeds, but here are a couple. 

   It’s not just the countryside that makes  Canada such a pleasure. I’ve stayed with Servas hosts in each of the cities and they’ve all been exceptionally kind, helpful and interesting. In Edmonton I even stayed with a woman who was a friend of my Servas host and expected no remuneration other than my company and conversation. 
If any of you are reading this, you know who you are and I hope you realise how happy I am to have met you. 

As for the cities I’ve visited, there’s always been plenty to see and do. 

My first day in Edmonton, I walked down by the “creek” to Muttart Conservatory – four glass pyramids displaying plants from differing biospheres. What was interesting to me was how many of the plants I have seen in their natural habitat and was able to recognise and identify. In the wild, however, plants are not in such pristine conditions, and there is death and decay all around, as well as insects, fungi and other organisms to process it all. 

Whyte Avenue is “the place to be” very close to where I was staying. There were health food restaurants and stores, vintage clothes shops, eclectic book stores etc. Again, the people were so friendly I usually got talking to someone to while away the time and some lovely girls in a specialist tea shop even asked for my blog address. 

During my stay, there was the “Taste of Edmonton” festival. You buy tickets at the venue and then exchange them for tasters or drinks at stalls run by local eating establishments. This took place in a square next to the art gallery, with some interesting exhibits but even more intriguing architecture.  

   The farmers’ market I went to in Edmonton was one of the best I’ve visited, in terms of quality, choice and, (guess what?),  shiny, happy people. 
So Winnipeg had a lot to live up to. Fortunately I was staying with a truly genial family and the Fringe theatre festival was in full swing, so I had a wonderful time. 

I saw several theatre pieces, mostly entertaining. The Forks is a park cum recreational area by the river, where I spent some time before visiting the Museum of Human Rights. This is another building of architectural interest.  

 Its remit is to cause people to reflect upon the past policies of Canada and to inform about human rights issues around the world and throughout history. 

It is a brave enterprise. Subjects that it deals with in an informative fashion are the history of residential schools, designed to separate First Nation children from their own culture, (echoes of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in Australia), the disappearance of indigenous women thought to be due to violence and abuse and an ongoing national scandal, and the laws governing the right to vote, or otherwise, in Canada’s past. Less impressive is the scant attention to human rights abuses in South America, Palestine and China, amongst others and the apologia for Canadian forces in Afghanistan, though they do allow for dissent on this issue. 

Nevertheless, Winnipeg is a place where debate is welcome and fresh ideas abound. It may not be perfect, but it has much to recommend it. 

While I was there, I decided to use one of my rail tickets to go to Churchill, up on the 58th parallel and a land of sub-Arctic tundra. This turned into a bit of an adventure. 

It is only accessible by train or plane. The train took over two days, as the going was slower than usual, thanks to a derailment two weeks earlier that had put everyone on alert. 

We passed grassland, forests of spruce, birch and larch, (known as Tamarack locally). Wild flowers were predominantly willow-herb, one of my favourites, due to its profusion on bomb-sites in which I used to play as a child, (here appropriately called fireweed), and golden-rod. There were beaver lodges and dams, though I didn’t see any beavers. 

Churchill has its own particular spirit. It has a permanent population of around 800. You wouldn’t go there unless you have family or, like me, are searching for wild beauty. The main attraction is supposed to be the polar bears who hang around here in the winter and in autumn waiting for the ice so they can go and catch seals. None were around while I was there. 

I saw plenty of Beluga whales, however, from a zodiac I took out on the estuary. They are very fast, so it’s hard to get good pictures, but they were happy to come up to the boat and poke their heads out of the water to take a look at us. 

What I really wanted was to see the tundra in summer. I took “Tundra Buggy”, a huge, Polar Bear-proof truck, into the Wapusk National Park.  

 They keep to certain rough tracks established by the navy a while ago, for now the area is given over to conservation and research. 

The plant life is necessarily adapted to the winds, snow and ice. The black spruce trees only have branches on the side facing away from the sea. There are clumps of shrub willow. Our guide told us that flowers would last no longer than a week, while others would take their place until the brief summer is over.  

 The tide was going out while we were there, but this was the view out to Hudson Bay.  

I realise that after some of the astounding places I have been to, this may not seem so impressive. However, for me this remote and deeply complex environment was quite thrilling. Well, I could get excited by seeing Canada geese in Canada and not just in Hyde Park, but this land is precious and under high risk from climate change and other phenomena. For example, we saw many Snow Geese, which was delightful, but apparently there are now too many of them as they destroy the roots of the trees. They are hoping the predators, including foxes, wolves and bears, may be more inclined to reduce the numbers as their opportunities to catch more traditional prey decline. 

The day after my inspiring day  in the subarctic wilderness I went to check out of my hostel, to be told that the train had been cancelled as parts of the track had been washed out. Now, there are no roads out of Churchill to the rest of Canada, so I was starting to think I might be staying there longer than I anticipated. Instead, VIA rail was planning to fly the rail passengers to Thompson, where the train had been forced to halt.

 At that stage there were no further details as to when we would go, so the hostel let me keep my key and said they would keep me informed. I took the opportunity to visit the small museum. Here I came across tiny figures carved by the Thule people, the first recorded inhabitants.  

 Once again I discovered myths about mermaids and mermen and was particularly taken by this carving.   

 I visited the Tourist Information Centre, where we learned about the Hudson Bay Company and the trappers. There were skins from all the animals taken in Canada, and though I would not want any animals to be killed, it was an opportunity to feel the fur of a wolf or a beaver. 

The previous day I had been in a little shop in town and met an Inuit man who wanted to give his side of the story. He believes that much of what is considered to be the culture of the Inuit is erroneous, including the interpretation of the “Inukshut” or man-like stone figures, said to be a kind of signpost.  

 I was unable to go to his presentation as my flight was arranged for that afternoon, but for anyone who may find themselves in Churchill in the future, look up Thomas and Joy Kutluk, 431 229 3315, and learn what he has to say. 

So, a small group of travellers, some of whom I knew from the train trip up, were taken to the tiny airport. I was in the first of two prop planes, each holding fifteen passengers, to set off to Thompson.  

   It was really a piece of luck, because there were great views of the landscape, a couple of rainbows seen from above and the setting sun as we were landing.  
    
 When we arrived at Thompson airport, a group of young men from the flight went off in their own bus. That left seven of us to get into the Greyhound bus laid on to take us to the station. We had to explain to the driver that there would be another plane arriving later, as he had been expecting the whole group. 

At the station it was another story. The three couples with me all had their own transport, so I was all alone when I walked up to the train. There were all the staff and a totally empty train of several coaches, including sleepers, and only one passenger! I felt like a celebrity. It was a source of merriment and obviously I had to inform them that the others would be along later. Anyway, I got chatting to the staff and they gave me a free drink. By eleven that night we were all installed and settled down for the night, as we were not due to leave until the following afternoon. This train was also very late getting into Winnipeg, so we were all treated to a free dinner. Well done VIA rail!

With just one day in Winnipeg before setting off to Toronto, I went to the Living Prairie Museum. This was my opportunity to wander among the tall grasses, listen to the wind, identify tumbleweed and encounter many species of dragonfly as well as a few of my old acquaintances, the Monarch butterfly.  

   Just a little green.