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.

Vancouver Vanity

I’d heard so much of this city prior to arriving there! In this modern world it’s hard to ignore the information and opinions that are so readily available. Sadly, with access to all that knowledge and information at the tips of my fingers, I wish I hadn’t read or believed what I read! Sadly, preparation can lead, transmogrify even, into expectations. It is my sad experience that expectation all too often leads to disappointment. They tell me that Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world in which to live. So, I arrived in the city full of hope only for those expectations to dissipate on sight of the place. I left underwhelmed. Let me elaborate and give another take on Vancouver.

Vancouver’s is set at the bottom of the mountains that almost rise from the sea and this means that land is at a premium resulting, predictably for these parts, in heavily populated skyscrapers. Vancouver is similar to New York in this respect with both places dominated by ugly skyscrapers. NYC may be a concrete jungle, but Vancouver is like a solar farm of glass. I struggled to find Vancouver’s heart and soul and had real issues trying to identify with the city. I realise that I am starting to sound a bit like our Prince Charles and his famous use of the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ in relation to what was then modern architecture. I am amazed to discover that it is 35 years since he made his speech. The city lacked any form of cultural identity, yet another of these modern cities around the world. Was this characterless jungle due to the city’s relatively young age? Was it its multicultural population (surely this should give rise to diversity in design?)? Was it its modernity? Did I react to its drug smelling community? Was it the dirt and smell that got to me? I’m searching for the answers as to why I was disappointed.

 

Its location is prime for exporting Canadian products to Asia. This results in a busy and productive port and many photographic opportunities of dirty great boats waiting in the harbour. The recurring theme from this trip has surely to be about how we are damaging the world. As photogenic as these colourful behemoths were, the sight of them was a massive reminder the damages being caused.

The bays represent the mouth of Vancouver. The boats sail past the lungs of the city – Stanley Park. The green space there perhaps provides the heart, Downtown, its much-needed oxygen to breathe. Although the trees lined along the roads in parts of Downtown provide tiny air-sacks they are trapped by the glass monstrosities above.

South from Stanley Park, following the edge of the bay, leads to my favourite area of the city. As English Bay leads to False Creek, there are a number of sheltered harbours, lovely walks, idyllic “bars” and views aplenty. This really is the best of Vancouver. Why everyone isn’t at Sunset Beach in the evening I will never know as the sun paints the sky a crimson orange and it provides the perfect spot to relax and reflect.

As for the rest of main Vancouver – the suburbs of Gastown, Yaletown and Downtown in particular – which I had hoped to deliver so much, all failed spectacularly. Dirt, smell, homelessness, litter – it was far from the spectacular impression that had been created in my mind. At times I thought, ‘Am I actually walking around in a Canadian city?’ The city boasts one of the largest Chinatowns in North America, an area of no personal interest, but adds to the common lack of English being spoken. What is becoming noticeable in cities these days is the alarming number of homeless people and Vancouver was no exception but the scale of it here is greater than that seen in any other city visited recently. Are drugs the cause? The addicts’ erratic behaviour and way of survival wasn’t pleasant to see and was there for all to see. Is this now a global problem that is spiralling upwards in terms of quantity of addicts and spiralling downwards in terms of ambiance quality? Or are such people victims of a society that places so much store by work and wealth creation leading to the polarisation of its members. Perhaps a lot of the misery is self-inflicted but the juxtaposition of clinical, pristine, shiny, corporation buildings and the filthy conditions in downtown Vancouver is horrendous.

North of the city the Seabus (not a ferry) operates across to Lynn Quay. An up and coming area with a charming market, restaurants and a lovely view of the cityscape. It was from here I was recommended to get the bus to Lynn Canyon. Well worth it with free entry an added bonus.

South of the city water taxis work around the heavily populated harbour. I didn’t take advantage but rather stretched my legs and walked both sides. There are three main bridges providing both pedestrians and vehicles a way across the water. At the far end is the BC place stadium, a truly soulless place. Home to the Whitecaps, it seems an expensive place for just “football”. I hope other sports use and fill it to capacity to generate the atmosphere it warrants for its considerable investment.

So as my time in Vancouver comes to end, I head back to Sunset Beach to watch the sun set yet again. The train ride across Canada awaits. Vancouver, I’m sorry, I still can’t work out what all the fuss is about.

Baronial Banff

There is an undoubted link between the railways and the settlements in Canada. Banff is no exception. It’s a shame that arrival to Banff wasn’t by way of rail but by car. That is not to denigrate in any way an arrival by car. Perhaps we saw more of the amazing views than we would have done from the train as it makes it way down from Vancouver. The journey into Banff was certainly an arduous one, the drive from Vancouver being a monster of a drive. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes! Would I do it again? A resounding no.

Everyone has surely heard of Banff. If you haven’t where have you been hiding? Pictures of the lakes have dominated travellers’ social media feeds for a long time and are always featured in the travel section of newspapers. It was the desire of my dear friend to visit the place. Knowing the time of the year I wasn’t as keen as those dreamy pictures probably weren’t going to be captured. The snow from wintry weather still affected the landscape. April is a bit too early for the thaw.

Perhaps it was due to the weather that I didn’t love this place as much as others. That said, I had heard another refer to the town as ‘nice but pretentious’. I had dreamed of canoeing those turquoise waters and hiking for a view of those snow topped mountains. Sadly, this will have to remain a distant dream and provide inspiration to return to this wonderful part of the world one day provided that is that the tacky tourist or global destruction or a combination of both doesn’t ruin it.

I was interested to find out that Banff became one of Canada’s first national parks in 1885. Although the area had been discovered centuries before by the native people, it was the railway workers who discovered the hot springs in 1883 and therefore set off to create the tourist town of Banff. The town is a combination of shops and eateries, whose survival relies on the tourists that visit the area. Sadly, this aspect was not at all appealing to me. I feel beauty isn’t in those artificial creations but the natural formation of the land on which they are built.

Step away from the touristy town centre and become one with nature. This is surely a memory and experience far greater than mindless entertainment provided by technology. A gentle walk up Tunnel Mountain provided some much-needed outdoor time after being cooped up in transport for so many days. A new friend was adopted as we made our way to the top stopping many times for pictures of the views. Pictures can never do it justice and I always end up taking too many. Does this perhaps mean that the view diminishes slightly as picture after picture is taken to share with the world? As social media, particularly Instagram, changes the way in which we visit these places, I am as guilty of that as the next person but am challenging the thought process and wondering whether I should have left the camera behind.

Dragging myself away from the top of the mountain, with a spring in my step, and fresh air in my lungs and a new sense of general wellbeing, I set off in search of other such delights. I stumbled upon a view point of the famous Banff Springs Hotel that was built by the railway. Such a beautiful monstrosity (a tad oxymoronic but hey ho) sat so peacefully surrounded by nature. Someone down there is surely capitalising on nature’s beauty. Perhaps inspiration was taken from Baronial castles in Scotland and a trip to visit similar landscapes closer to home is a must in the near future. I was dismayed on arrival at the river Bow to find bus loads of people arrive for the inevitable picture before hopping back on the bus. They, like me, were tourists with theirs being a hop on, hop off, conveyor belt type tourism. The industry has put in the aids to access and embellished the viewing points to encourage instant tourism devoid of any sense of adventure. We were there in April. What must it be like in July? I had tiny hopes of finding some water activities and I had to settle for climbing and walking around to find an idyllic spot.

There were parts of Banff that I didn’t see due to the wintry weather that would have perhaps appealed to my enthusiasm. Rather than trying to view these places by modern means, it will perhaps be more rewarding to put in the effort to use the greatest technology of them all, the human body. As I sit down to look at those mountain views, two things amaze me – the creation of what’s in front of me and secondly the mechanisms of the body. Two incredible things that I probably haven’t valued enough in my lifetime as there are distractions and a manic lifestyle that mean that they get ignored in the case of nature or abused in the case of the body. Perhaps it is as I leave that this place, with its mixture of unchanging beauty and its snapshot tourists trampling over it all, that it has caused me to further crystallise my thoughts and even inspired me more than I considered possible on first sight.

Maybe another time Banff…..

Whistle stop Winnipeg

This great Canadian railway odyssey has thrown up many delightful charms and none more so than the City of Winnipeg. There is more to come.

Situated in the heart of Canada, you can begin to see why it’s such a strategic location. It’s remarkable to think I never really knew of its existence! It’s perhaps the combination of the lack of expectation and knowledge that give these delightful discoveries such unbridled joy.

Blessed in glorious spring sunshine but with rumours of -2°C outside the train, I disembarked and went off in search of new found discoveries. My time was limited as after all we were on a railway adventure. A quick dash soon led me to the river. The river provides the backdrop for most of the history associated with the city. In fact there is a confluence of two rivers (Red and Assiniboine) which is referred to locally as ‘The Forks’. It was here that I was able to capture the skyline of the city and found some prose about freedom based on gulls seen as a youngster with her mother at Provencher Bridge in a work entitled Street of Riches by Gabrielle Roy.

“Toward the middle of the Provencher Bridge,
Maman and I found ourselves surrounded by sea gulls;
they flew low over the Red River.
Maman took my hand and clasped it tight,
as though to convey to me a movement of her soul.
A hundred times a day Maman got a lift of joy from the world around us;
sometimes it was nothing more than the wind or the flight of a bird that delighted her.
Leaning on the parapet we watched the gulls for a long while.
And all of a sudden, on that bridge, Maman told me that she would like to be able to go whenever and wherever she might choose.”

Over on the other side I was immediately drawn to a graveyard housing a good number of grave stones and which led you along a path to a ruined church/cathedral! I was fascinated to see these ruins, the result of a fire that destroyed the building in the 1970s. A more modern church has been built behind the ruins which have remained as part of the architect’s new vision of the church, a phoenix from the ashes if you like.

To the right of this is a charming house, which is now a museum. Sat in front of it is a statue to Louis Riel. Louis led the Red Rebellion for the local provisional government against the growing number of newcomers from Eastern Canada. Garnet Wolseley was sent to crush the rebellion – there was no evidence of him here!! This rebellion resulted in Manitoba then becoming the fifth province of Canada.

As time was short, a quick dash along the river and back to the station was made. Around the concert area which led back to the train station there were some old Canadian Pacific carriages resting in the car park. Other parts of the city’s history which are relevant is Bloody Saturday (100th anniversary this year). After the First World War, the city had many men return form the war and looking for work. It was felt that opportunities had been taken by immigrants and this, coupled with a feeling that there had been profiteering from the war by many companies without passing on some of the benefits to the workforce leading to low wages led to the strike of 1919. This ended in tragedy when two people with non-Canadian sounding names were killed by the mounted Canadian police. So this beautiful stop provided some memorable moments and some information for my further interest. It shall be that inquisitive nature that shall lead me to explore this place further upon coming back – apparently the market is a must!!

Niagara Galls

The next stop on my railway odyssey took me back to Niagara Falls. I shouldn’t have put myself through the pain and expense of travelling there again for once you have seen them, you have seen them. I mean they haven’t changed in the 3 years since I was last here. It is true to say that they are powerful falls, but they seemed slightly debilitated, perhaps by the freezing ice and snow (still around at the end of April). The falls seemed crestfallen as though their aura and might had been negated. A sense of slumber hung around the area. We had heard and read from fellow travellers that the sound of the mighty power of the falls may be heard from miles away and we listened out as we walked from the train station. Was the expected noise missing due to the snow and ice on the falls? Did the ice in effect reduce the distance that the water had to fall or dampen or deaden its impact? Was the noise lost to the hubbub of the town coming to life after a winter of hibernation? Other people had come to see the iconic falls – I wonder if they shared the sense of anti-climax views that I felt.

On a bitterly cold day, we should have made for Niagara-by-the-lake for some poetic distractions to kill the time. Rumours of its beauty make me inclined to think that a visit there should outweigh one to its famous neighbour, but, sadly, this is only a whisper known by few and isn’t to be found all over the net. Instead, and foolishly, we made do with entertaining ourselves in Canada’s Las Vegas.

A trip up the skylon tower does provide a panoramic view of both falls and is a rather pleasantly to see the panorama without getting too cold. Of course, it has gimmicks – our Japanese and Chinese friends must be entertained! There is the inevitable and, these days, ubiquitous revolving restaurant to enjoy. Clearly not of those who wanted to spin while eating but who perhaps could have been tempted, we were ushered into a corner to enjoy a beer (I guess our lack of appetite and the fact that we were no more than potential business candidates meant that we were not deemed worthy of the environment). We enjoyed our Canadian beers, but their assumptions cost them dear as our bill could have been so much more.

We left in search of a pub (or sportsbar as they are called this side of the ocean) hoping to watch the football. We were sent to the playground of far too many. In hope more than anticipation we tried to find something that might show the footie. No success, we ended up in a casino bar. Here we received a warm welcome, from people thinking that they had found another couple of deluded humans hoping to win their fortune. I mean the odds really are stacked against you, aren’t they? Who did they think we were? A few drinks and, by now, some much-needed food were consumed while the staff tried to work out how to display the football on the TV!! It never materialised – something about TV rights issues. This was all very hard to believe when it’s the international community that pays so heavily for our football rights. Thankfully the time had come for our train out of there – a buddy in Toronto awaited before the main event was due to commence. Hastily we made tracks in the pouring rain for the station.

Niagara, never again.

Québec City Qualité

The first stop on our Canadian train odyssey from east to west starting at Toronto is the stunning city of Quebec City. This is one of the oldest cities in North America, and it has unequivocally seduced me with its awesome architecture. Shivers down the spine and all that, it was that good. It was difficult for me to believe that I was actually in Canada as Quebec City has its own linguistic and cultural identity. I may have been forgiven in thinking that I had made the small journey across the English Chanel and not the 5000km across the Atlantic. Quebec City certainly feels like a country within a country, as the people stand tall and proud as Quebecers. It’s the history and charm of these older cities fascinate me and sensitise my inquisitive nature.

Quebec stands for ‘where the river narrows’ which is somewhat hard to believe, when you look at the vast size of it from viewpoints in the old city. I mean it’s so wide that not even a bridge connects the two banks of the St. Lawrence. The only bridge across to the other side is where the river narrows.

Like some of the cities I’ve recently visited Quebec City is small and compact and most certainly should be explored on foot! Leaving the digs, I soon discovered the Plains of Abraham. What was once a battlefield during the battles between the British and French forces, it is now a green space within the city. The battlefield now has monuments, towers and statues dotted around. A centrepiece in a little park pays tribute to some of France’s famous people notably Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle. The park runs adjacent to the river and was covered in a white blanket of snow. This was a truly remarkable sight, but one that doesn’t appear to effect the people of the city as they just carry on with life completely unperturbed.

After navigating the snow, we stumbled upon the Citadel. This has an ideal location strategically as it looks down on the river and with the city beneath it. Only having a day in the city meant that a visit couldn’t be made inside to learn and explore more of its fascinating history.

Instead steps were made into the heart of the city, that is the ‘old city’. It was wonderful to see the signs of former fortifications as the city gates (of which 3 remain) act as grand entrances to the old quarter. This means that this is the only city north of Mexico boasting fortifications.

The view of this part of city is almost reminiscent of a postcard view of a city in France as cobblestone streets, colourful buildings create such a picture. Embracing this enchanting scene made the meanderings through the streets a pleasure with the only problem being to dodge the ever-present puddles as the snow was melting. The route taken was leading me to Quebec’s prestigious emblem – the iconic Chateau Le Frontenac!! It contradicts its name, for it has never been a castle, but was one of the Chateau style hotels the Canadian Pacific Railways company built throughout the country. It was built as an ideal stopover for railway users. Where they got the inspiration/design to build such types of hotel I’m not sure, but we can only stand in amazement at what stands. The hotel has been used by a number of famous people, including the former leaders of America, Canada and UK who met here for the Quebec conferences of WWII. The hotel dominates the city skyline and you can appreciate why it is claimed to be the most photographed hotel in the world.

It’s views out over the river can be enjoyed by those lucky enough to afford a room. Those who are not so rich like me can take a walk along the 200 year old wooden promenade which connects the battlefield with the old city. The square can lay claim to one of the most wonderful tourist information buildings I’ve witnessed – grand and colourful in appearance. What a contrast with back home as one is hard pushed to find one anywhere these days.

Eventually and reluctantly I drag myself away via the funicular designed railway to Petit-Champlin. What was once a tiny hamlet is now a thriving area with shops, pubs and restaurants. This colourful area adds to the riverside view of Quebec and encapsulates the identity of the city.

A trip must be taken across the river for the views! Sadly, I missed the boat view in the glorious sunshine but made up for it as the city lights up at night quite brilliantly. A local brewery provides ample refreshments whilst I wait for nightfall. What a display of light reflecting on the river. It all made for a perfect end to our visit here.

Quebec City – très bien!