Magnificent Montréal

Founded on an island by the French in the 17th century on the confluence of the Rivers Ottawa and St. Lawrence is the Canadian city of Montréal. An incredible amalgamation of cultures cut a new identity in this modern Canadian landscape. What was once an economic powerhouse Montréal is now associated the harmonising of English and French speaking communities despite their obvious cultural differences. You’d think that there would be rigid divisions between these communities, but they’re one proud city.

 

I won’t focus on the cultural aspects but on old and new Montréal. I will be brief on the new as it is not my cup of tea. It possesses many of the issues seen all too frequently around the world -pollution, waste, drugs, ignorance, commercialisation and globalisation. I don’t know what the problems were when the new Montréal was built, but to be digging most of it up illustrates that planning and wastefulness is not a modern phenomenon. So lets put to bed my disdain of this area and focus on the area I loved.

Old Montréal has somehow managed to retain its character. The old town was established as a catholic village along the banks of the St. Lawrence river. Missionary efforts failed to flourish meaning it needed a new way to survive. That came, as so many places in Canada, through fur-trading. The wealth and prosperity that particular boom brought meant that fine stone buildings and houses were built. Montréal also established one of the most important inland harbours in North America by the 19th Century. Booms don’t and can’t last forever – world history testifies to that. Montreal was no exception. By the 20th century the city had fallen into decline. From 1980 the city has had its own renaissance. Many of the 18th century buildings were saved and given a new lease of life for what was built back then no longer fitted in with what is needed today.

What there is now is a remarkable combination of old and new, as restaurants, bistros and boutiques merge with wonderful architecture. Yes, you still have your tourist shops, littered with ‘Canadian’ products made in China. My suggestion is to search for and buy the authentic Canadian goods that may be found on the shelves. A conversation ensued with the shop keeper, but I soon ran out of what little French I know though not before he had accepted payment from my credit card. It was then that he changed to English to say something about his wife once working for English speakers.

Canada doesn’t do the “pubs” to which I am accustomed. Invariably the establishments that exist are bar/restaurants with the main focus on food. I had some puzzled looks as I would just enter and only want a beer. One must indulge in some of Montreal’s cuisine, poutine and (a recommendation) a smoked meat sandwich.

The architecture is similar to that in Quebec City (French influence) and was a pleasure to study. The Notre Dame Basilica is worth the entrance fee. As you step into this cathedral, be amazed by the almost ocean looking sanctuary and altar piece. The cathedral probably survives on those entrance fees and not from contributions from regular and faithful attendees. It is the same the world over but aren’t we glad that these places are preserved even if they resemble museums and sometimes even mausoleums. Down the rue Notre-Dame (one could be mistaken for thinking one was in Paris) the Hôtel de Ville captures your attention before Montréal’s own Nelson’s column takes your eye. Ignore the wonderful street entertainers, (for a second you might think you were in Covent Garden in London) and question why it is that one of England’s most famous seamen has a statue there. This evidence confirms the sense of intertwined cultures that have shaped this city.

The aforementioned harbour is no longer the trading post it once was. Now it has undergone serious modernisation as the entertainment features that the youth of today crave have sprung up to ensure its sustainability. A railway line runs parallel with the river and splits the glorious old town from this modern hub of craziness. An entrance to Chapelle Notre Dame-de-Bonsecours provides a view of this divide between the harbour and old Montreal. As you stand there and look across old Montreal you could be mistaken for thinking that you are looking across a city in Europe, as spires, domes and religious buildings dominate the skyline.

Before I left this city, there were still two places that I felt must be visited. A walk to Mont Royal and Oratoire Saint Joseph. I’d been to both before, but both places should be considered on a first visit to the city. On arriving in the city in glorious sunshine I dumped my bags and hiked up “la montagne”. This urban escape provides Montrealers with some much-needed green space in the city. Standing at only 234m high, nature manages to provide the city’s best view point. Oratoire Saint Joseph is perhaps the perfect spot to watch the sunset in the city. After climbing the 283 steps to the top I sat amazed as the sun set. Witnessing behaviour that perhaps wasn’t in tone with the location, it was still a romantic end for my visit to the city.

I’d been before, but Magnificent Montréal, you were worth the second visit.

a Winchester Walk

I’m so glad I made the drive to Winchester. I had been before, but I couldn’t remember anything of this city. And oh, how I wished I had kept a blog as a kid (maybe a diary, blogging didn’t exist back then)! You could say I was spoilt as a kid; aren’t all kids these days? Not with the latest gadgets or fashionable label. I was spoilt by my parent’s passion to show me not only the world but the country which I call home. It’s with slight sadness of heart that I didn’t appreciate the efforts they made then as much as I would have now.

Winchester was once the capital of this land. This medieval, cathedral city has an abundance of incredible buildings and has history etched all over it. My visit wasn’t long enough, nor did it do it full justice. I did not see it all. Oh, how that disappointment of not seeing everything has already whetted my appetite for a return visit. The city is surely a must see for anyone who lives in England or wants to visit these shores. Not too far from central London or the southern coast, its development at this location can be understood. It became a Saxon capital and a powerful base for bishops. It also plays host to two of this country’s mystical characters – Alfred the great and Arthur and his knights of the round table.

On arrival, I quickly left my car and headed on foot in the direction of the cathedral. Why not, I thought, as I had done no planning or research. Why not just get lost and explore? Immediately I was captivated by the wonderful architecture that is spread all over the city. After capturing a charming pub with oak and white washed walls bathed in glorious autumn sunshine, I crossed the charming river Itchen. Rumour has this was the inspiration to John Keats ‘Ode to Autumn’. It was by chance I noticed a National Trust property on the bridge (a mill) and immediately marched in. It wasn’t my intention to visit a National Trust place today, so a quick peep before leaving in search of other sights was complete in no time.

Straight after leaving the river, the statue to Alfred the Great casts its watch over the city. A sword and not a wand is in his hand. He looks directly up the High Street, and what was described as the oldest high street of the land in a visit to a museum. His statue is as old as the building to his left. The guildhall attracts you to the brighter side of the street. A look in it its doorway distracts you for a little while. But wait! In search of more than a doorway, I stroll off in search of better things. Not much further up the street, a left turn was made through one of the 5 gateways in the walls that once guarded the city (not much left now) and towards the cathedral.

There it was, a 11th century masterpiece, one of Europe’s longest. To say I wasn’t impressed on first view is an understatement! Crowds, enticed to the local lawns for entertainment, were distracted from an interest in the building. Who could blame them, for on the outside it is unremarkable; not one of England’s finest. Taking an inquisitive step inside changes all of that and confirms that truthful saying that beauty is only skin deep. I stood in amazement first of all at the sheer size of this incredible building. I felt so small and lost in such a vast space. After picking up my jaw off the floor I spent my time taking those customary pictures. Every step seemed to discover a fresh, mind-blowing view. I feel that I could have spent all day in there.

I was sad to leave especially as the organist was enticing me to stay with the pleasant sounds he generated. Outside, the amazing autumn sunshine was waving its magical light all over the city. My meanderings took me off the beaten track – as they always do – in search of that amazing discovery. It led me to two things. Firstly, a church that had been converted to flats – an epitome of how religion is portrayed in this ever-dysfunctional modern era. The second discovery was, after getting lost around the converted barracks which have now been converted to flats, the Great Hall. References to King Arthur and knights of the round table were a thing of childhood imagination. There is a round table mounted high up on the wall of this 13th century building. Sadly, this was closed to me due to an event. My fascination with this myth will ensure that this is ticked off on my next visit.

A wander to the top of town seemed like a chore and nothing like the wonders below. A quick visit and a climb up into the Westgate museum, didn’t give the desired city views. So as the autumn chill set in and a need to leave, it was with haste that I left. A visit to “England’s oldest pub” was completed before departure. Can this be true, how will we ever know? It just seems that this statement is published to entice the people in.

Another walk in Winchester will be done. I cannot wait – castles and colleges await! Until then I shall try and remember those long-lost childhood visits.

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Deer Dyrham

On this visit to a National Trust property I wasn’t sure what was the greater attraction-the deer that reside in the ancient deer park or the exquisite 17th century house. Being told that the deer were in the furthest part of the park, I set off to find them on a long walk around the estate. I saw a group but too far off the path for a picture, so made my way to house. Near the house I was extremely surprised not only to find a huge herd, but to see how incredibly obliging they were to sit or stand and have their pictures taken. Brits being Brits meant we had the silly children who thought that it would be a good idea to pet them or get as close as possible for a picture.

After taking a bucket load of photos in the hope that I got a decent shot it was time to get out of the stifling heat and take a visit inside the house. Its former residents were not very famous, but perhaps had one of the best looking houses around. The house, grand in appearance on the outside, seemed normal and not too extravagant on the inside. It was mostly decorated in grand paintings of its past inhabitants, and the only thing of real notice was the sign that said only 4 humans on the staircase at one time. This modern sign was in place because the building was undergoing major restoration which meant that the staircase was supported by scaffolding. It’s remarkable how these places were even built.

This was my second time visiting this place and both times have proved to be at completely different seasons. My first visit was at the back end of the snow and heavy rain at the beginning of the year. Sadly I couldn’t explore the glorious grounds that time; I had to stick to the driveway which highlighted how steep and hilly these lovely grounds are. I knew upon my first visit that I would need to come back to explore the near 300 acres of land.

My second visit came during the heat wave that has engulfed the UK and the rest of Europe. I’m not one to complain about it being a sun worshipper but the effects it is having is startling. Is this the biggest sign that global warming is really happening? And have we left it too late to do anything about it? The heat sadly had taken all the colour out of the grass and flowers and made the grounds look almost like a desert. The formal garden would have shown the beauty of the western side of the house: sadly it looked like something from the Sahara.

After walking up the final hill to get the stunning view looking down on the house I left the impressive Dyrham, and a renovated Dyrham Park is perhaps one of the best in the National Trust portfolio?

 

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City of trees!

 

My latest adventure has been across the Atlantic to the southern state of Georgia, and to its capital city, Atlanta. Atlanta was established and expanded on a railway terminus, burnt and buried during the Civil War, and raised and resurrected into one of America’s leading cities. It has played a role in both its own country’s and international history and it looks like becoming America’s largest city in the near future. Travel has been at the very forefront of its existence, although the railway barely exists anymore and in its place is the world’s biggest airport. I left this place with more interest than when I arrived. I wonder should I have spent a little longer there.

Atlanta’s layout puzzled me. I am used to cities that expand from their centres. Atlanta was so much different. It is so vast, so separated, its communities seemed to be so far apart, with trees spread in between.  Perhaps this is evidence of segregation (maybe something to do with its past history). These partings were clear from any view point as trees separated the skyline of each part of town. An initiative to help protect the trees has led to it being called ‘city within a forest’. I guess that as cities have expanded at an alarming rate they have become a cluster of cities rather than just a city on its own.

Atlanta, and perhaps the rest of America seem to be light years behind in terms of looking after the world in which live. We should all be doing, much more to look after this world. There was so much waste, and when I offered to put stuff in the recycling I was told that we don’t have that here! I was more than a little amazed. The city has finally started to embrace the cycling craze that seems to have taken over Britain as it starts to build the BeltLine, currently in its infancy, which I believe will circle the entire city at some point and offer the chance to explore on bikes; such a brilliant idea.

My trip was a combination of southern hospitality, entertainment and activity in the city and surrounding areas. I was amazed and surprised at so many things – the amount of natural wildlife living in the city, the fact that the escalator takes a trolley on its own, you can get a cup cake from an ATM and you can leave your car on the motorway when broken down for a number of days – are but a few of the surprising things I witnessed.

I participated in the local activity of ‘shoot the hooch’ on the Chattahoochee River although before my arrival I had christened it ‘Chase the goose’. I got that wrong. I prepared for my day of chasing the goose but I ended up shooting the hooch. I eventually embraced the cold water, riding my Lilo christened Penelope and fuelled by some wine. We bumped and beached our way down the Chattahoochee River. We watched the locals get stuck which made our amateurish appearance seem okay. It calmed down and I was able to fully enjoy an Atlanta tradition – Dilly Dilly (see Budweiser advert).

On reflection, perhaps the best moments of my trip weren’t those that involved paying out money for entertainment, (although it was pretty cool to experience a drive through cinema), but those adventures spent outside, hiking and exploring. Taking the less travelled path, proved to be true as our unexplored pathway was blocked by a wild tortoise. I am still bewildered at the vast amounts of nature on display everywhere I looked.

As the football craze takes over in America (I refuse to call it soccer), I was lucky enough to attend a MLS game. The standard of football was poor, but the crowd did their best to generate a lively atmosphere in what was an impressive and enormous stadium.

If you are going to spend money on one of the many attractions the city has to offer, take a trip to the Civil Rights museum. Its neighbouring giants didn’t tempt me in, and probably wouldn’t have given me the educational and powerful experience that this place did. It opened my eyes to a part of history, of which I was blissfully unaware and that still seems to crop up in the news these days. It left me wanting to know about this rather than just knowing those famous words – ‘I have a dream’.