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.

New York, New York

Normally I take myself away at Christmas. This year, due to the financial climate and it being a tough year, I’m staying at home. The family is delighted. My intention is to use these unusual circumstances to catch up on some blog writing although I can be easily distracted. The first one on my ‘to do list’ was from a trip made two years ago to New York at Christmas time!!! Normally, I love to get away to the sun, but, due to an action packed 2016, I had left it too late to organise a trip to some exotic location. So, after some quick research, I got a good flight deal and booked an AirBnB and I was sorted.

Often referred to as the greatest city in the world, I had to see if there was any truth in this. After spending a week in between Christmas and New Year in this iconic destination, I left soul searching and reflecting at the failure, on some levels, of a failed Christmas getaway. A lover of all genres of music, sadly the one that sticks in my mind is Jay-Z’s rap ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’. To my mind there is no better way to describe the place. Its bright lights were wasted on me; the main island was devoid of any natural beauty and was a fitting illustration of the faceless, globalisation and destruction of the modern world. People and cars fight like animals for their ownership of the jungle; the famous yellow taxis swarm about like bees, advertisements crawl like weeds over the towering, tree like skyscrapers but shorn of any branches. As animals (and some humans) worry about their habit becoming extinct, perhaps the never-ending building works crystallises those concerns.

My arrival in America via New York was not at all friendly or very warm which, considering this is one of the most visited places on earth, was incredibly surprising. Are tourists so excited to be here that they are blinded and unable to see this unwelcoming sight? Police, guns, dogs etc.  – as cold and unwelcoming as the airport was (in particular the passport control) the complete opposite could have been said of my AirBnB hosts whose warm and friendly kindness will never be forgotten. They patiently waited for my arrival and duly welcomed me into their family home and made me a part of it as they celebrated Christmas. This is the one extremely positive side to my time in New York and must offset my lack of enthusiasm for the city itself. Maybe teenagers and wannabees can hack it, but I couldn’t.

It is sometimes described as the financial capital of the world and this is reflected in the lifestyle of the city’s inhabitants/commuters.  Comparisons could easily be made to parts of London but somehow, despite the similar, relentless, pursuit of money and the ‘benefits’ that it brings, there is a charm about London that doesn’t exist in NYC. The financial sector of any city seems a million miles from the reality of which I am accustomed. A city where money talks, everything seemed overpriced and so far-fetched. Stumbling upon the financial district after a long and beautiful stroll along the river, I had completely forgotten the tragic events that stopped, captivated and changed the world forever in 2001. Perhaps because it is relatively modern history it seems to attract more interest especially from the younger element. It was a tragic day – there is no denying that. I can recall that fateful day as an adolescent 15 year old, coming in from school and hearing the sad news beating over the radio. I was blissfully unaware at that time of the seriousness of that event; surprisingly, I found that I had little interest in the ‘ground zero’ memorial. The very title seems to demean the catastrophe. Perhaps all this is a selfish coping mechanism for the sad state of affairs that exists in this world and I care to forget about it to concentrate on the good things to enjoy.

The city is alive with hustle and bustle. This is not an attractive atmosphere as its over-crowded sidewalks is but one of its many problems. There are too many cars are on the roads and a failed pedestrian crossing system exacerbated the feeling that not enough care had been taken for those who wanted to get around the jungle by foot. The dirt and smell just adds rancour for a place that is too congested and far too big for itself.

I’m sure that people will rave about the Christmas decorations and, while I wouldn’t disagree that they were often spectacular, their appeal didn’t stretch as far as me and sadly are a confirming sign of the commercialisation and forgetting of yet another religious festival. Frankly, what have nutcracker figurines to do with Christmas?

My love for a pint is probably well known by all and the local brew is always sampled on my travels. As pubs seem to be closing at an alarming rate back home, it also seemed a real struggle to find a proper bar in NYC. Drinking on the other side of the ocean was a complete eye opener for me, waitressing/tipping etc. and one that I still can’t get my head around.

I think we can all agree that my passion for sport is second to none. I felt it was only right that I got to enjoy some of the sport the city has to offer. I was desperate to see a NFL game. I wanted to witness and work out what the fascination with this sport was. I mean they call it football but predominantly use their hands!! Instead I had to settle for a ticket to the famous Madison Square Gardens to watch the NY Rangers host an ice hockey game. Their opposition was the Ottawa Senators, the only hockey team I had really heard about, and I was a proud owner of their jersey. Sadly, my jersey stayed hidden in my bag as I was unsure whether opposing supporters mixed in.

There were 3 things that stuck out for me. Firstly the lack of atmosphere was sobering. Secondly, the need for a time out when there are 2 intervals seemed over the top and timewasting. Finally, the fact that the broadcaster could stop a game for an advert break beggared belief!!! Attending football matches back home I couldn’t understand how the NY experience lacked singing before/during/after the game and only a cheer when a goal was scored. Everything seemed flat. People were more worried about capturing the event on their phone and what little atmosphere there was had to be generated by a deafening music system, flashing lights and a DJ. It’s getting a bit like it over here now with the emphasis on money and money making. English football is going the same way as our increasing number of American owners influence our great game. Not understanding the rules of the sport I couldn’t work out why timeouts were/are needed full stop. When I was informed that the broadcasters had put a pause in play for adverts I was aghast. This confirmed my long-established opinion that, as great as TV coverage is, it has ruined sport. I left not really sure what I had witnessed but I am given to understand it was a 4-3 win for the Rangers.

Travelling has always provided the opportunity to meet new people and it was with great pleasure I could catch up with one here. My fellow traveling buddy suggested watching a show. How incredible and now I can tick this experience off the list. The choice of Broadway show was ‘The Colour of Purple’. It was a slight struggle to understand it but didn’t deter from an excellent spectacle played out by a superb cast giving a great performance. I was mesmerised as I had to concentrate so much on trying to understand the language/accent being used. Afterwards I was taken to Times Square – this gimmick may be for the modern fool, but I am not one. I obliged for the customary and mandatory photo and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I think that, looking back, my favourite part of New York City was pier 16! What was perhaps once the arrival dock for all boats was a fascinating take on the city’s past. New York was once the arrival destination for those who harboured thoughts of chasing the American dream and in their pursuit of this had arrived on these shores.

What was once perhaps the gateway to America, the place where all your dreams were to come true, your ship would have passed France’s gift to the New York landscape, the Statue of Liberty. Not that inspiring, but good views can be accessed from the Staten Island ferry if you don’t want to pay the fee to visit. And as for American dreams, do these even exist anymore?

So, my first visit to America didn’t make a good impression, I was very glad to leave, and let’s hope that the next time is a more positive experience.

Center map

Stunning Salisbury

If the name Salisbury doesn’t resonate with you, what bubble have you been hiding in this year? Sadly, you probably will have read/listened/watched the news about the Skripals, the policeman, the outrageous death, the consequent accusations and denials traded between London and Moscow. All this cast a dark cloud over the city and what a shame as the city is beautiful. Hopefully, those dark days are over and talk of Novichok, though it will be forever associated with Salisbury, should not deter anyone from visiting this small but stunning city. Having said that I disappoint myself in that I left it so long to revisit this beautiful, medieval, cathedral city.

I would put Salisbury in the category of small of English cities. Like neighbouring Winchester, it is easily accessible and best explored by foot. There is a mix between the ancient and modern and they live in harmony. The brilliant architecture seems to have survived and alongside it lies the modern British high street. I keep making this point but what is the high street going to look like in a couple of years or even a few months’ time. Salisbury is not immune from the problems that plague just about every town/city in the country as lots of for sale/rent signs are to be in the windows of empty shops.

Running next to the edge of the city centre is the charming river Avon. Parallel with this is a well-trodden pathway. There are various eating places providing ample opportunity to indulge in food and drink. Not hungry or thirsty then just try to keep up with the swans swimming along the river. Upon approaching the city centre the pathway takes you to Salisbury’s answer to Big Ben.

Before I reached the cathedral, I was fascinated by another church, St Thomas’s. Not a normal name for a church, it claims to have served the city for almost 800 years. It is believed that this edifice started as a wooden structure and was built for those who were building the cathedral in the city. A step inside and you are immediately drawn upwards to the chancel arch. The ‘Doom’ Painting, finished in 1593 at the end of the reformation and uncovered in 1881, it is the largest and most complete Doom painting surviving in the country.

How can you ignore the cathedral? Its spire, at 404 feet, is the tallest of any in the land. It has been the subject of wonderful paintings by artists like John Constable and prints of this work have adorned the walls of many a house in England. I judge that we as a nation are trying to find/define our identity, and perhaps we should look back to our powerful religious heritage for some inspiration. I pass a group of youngsters enjoying the gimmicky lights rather than the architectural masterpiece behind them as they work on their instagram/snap chat fame. They are more concerned about a few dangling lightbulbs than the magnificent façade of the cathedral rather than, to their considerable loss, making the effort to go inside to witness more splendour.

You will be amazed by the fact that it only took 38 years to build Salisbury Cathedral. 38 years!! I imagine that was about the expected life span of its builders. Imagine starting a job and not seeing the finished product? It wasn’t partly built then bits added throughout time. Not only is this medieval masterpiece home to Britain’s tallest spire but also its largest cloisters. Its total height is 123m, which makes getting a full picture rather challenging! Some mind-blowing facts – 60,000 tonnes of stone, 2,800 tons of oak and 420 tons of lead to build the cathedral. Inside there is a modern font with a constant stream of water that cascades over the sides. The surface is mirror like and provides unique reflections of the inside. I was slightly more taken with a map showing the diocese of Salisbury as it went as far south as Weymouth and interestingly near to my home, stopping at the impressive Sherborne Abbey. I was fascinated as my recent research is teaching me about the different types of building and hierarchy that administer the smooth running of the Church of England. My visit left me thinking about the differences between a church/abbey/cathedral and a priest/monk/dean/vicar/reverend/bishop. Then there are strange terms like suffrage bishop. I must research. The cathedral is also home to one of 4 original documents of the Magna Carta, but due to a failed robbery attempt, it, sadly, remains locked away out of sight.

I dragged myself away from Salisbury to a family outing in Winchester at the cathedral there. We attended a carol concert with 2000 others and thoughts were fresh in my mind and raised with those of the party who gave some answers. I left with some thoughts to add to my research. Forget the Novichok and the failed attempt at burglary and focus instead on the stunning delights of Salisbury.

 

Drinking Dublin

A small capital city with a huge reputation, it attracts visitors from far and wide. When the city is alive its hustle and bustle create an overwhelming sense of craziness. Certain areas of the city possess a constant, unique atmosphere. Although an incredibly touristy city, the locals are ultra-friendly and the crowds flock here to join the craik.

Sadly, my first visit here was far too short and rushed to enjoy this city to its full. Perhaps this is why I didn’t love it like everyone else appears to do. I shall return to explore further its charms and character and possibly some areas out of the main city. I only had 12hrs to explore this place, and while the city is small, trying to see everything by foot was never going to be achievable. There was a need for it to be explored by foot as my ever-increasing waist size was not being helped by the local lifestyle both north and south of the border. I was gutted not to have visited Trinity college area including the book of Kells and college library. I believe that everywhere else was at least seen, but what was missed provides me with the excuse to return.

They say that first impressions count; lets be grateful that Dublin’s didn’t. The city is ugly; it takes advantage of the tourist and, probably, the locals. The buildings look cold and dirty. The pollution and dirt make a face lift a necessity. The city attracts a lot of visitors; this clearly has its pros and cons. On the walkways this is definitely a con, due to the many drinkers/beggars and the build-up of dirt, litter from overflowing bins. The smell made for an unappealing walk. Add the fact that the sun wasn’t shining, and one can see why first impressions were poor. So much for “Dublin’s fair city”.

This the capital of Ireland sits at the head of Dublin Bay; it is a busy port, the financial and commercial hub of Ireland, backed up by its expensive lifestyle, as was pointed out to me by a local as I travelled down on the train. The first part of my walk took me along the eastern part of the river. Here one particular building catches my eye as it looks like it has a canned drink that has been misplaced and built into it. Close by it is anchored the Jeanie Johnston, whose links to the 19th century famine in these parts sheds a little light on some other parts of Ireland’s history.

My walk takes in all the areas detailed on my tourist/bus map. All the sights were very commercialised, and they were a huge disappointment, Christ church cathedral in particular. Crowds flock to them like bees to honey, and I couldn’t get out of them quick enough. I set off in search of other areas of interest, only to find bus loads of people arriving at them.

Guinness is perhaps Ireland’s biggest and most famous export. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, even after trying it again over here. On arrival at those famous black and golden gates, I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time and money queuing for a view and perhaps a pint I wasn’t going to enjoy. Instead I headed to a local pub for a drink I would and did enjoy. Not understanding the man behind the bar, I still managed to order and a buy a drink.

From here I took on more walking as I pursued the further sites on my map. I discovered a charming building with quadrants all around; it was much more appealing and photogenic than that of Dublin Castle. From here I found some peace and solitude in the war memorial gardens whilst enjoying my daily packed lunch. From here I ticked off the Wellington monument. An old school bus provided some interesting photo opportunities before I decided to head back to Templar Bar. In no rush, I decided on a pub crawl back towards Templar Bar. Any pub that looked attractive or lively was entered to savour a pint but in each one that was visited the price rose as I got closer to that illustrious place.

Just before arriving at Templar Bar I discovered Ireland’s oldest bar!! Is it true? We may never know! Crowds flocked here and not for a pint but for the “I was here photo” for which people just strolled in and quickly left. Surprisingly I took no such photo; instead I enjoyed my pint as I photobombed everyone’s shameless pictures. Support these pubs!!

I left this pub in search of a more atmospheric location and by that I mean local, musical atmosphere. More by chance than by plan I came to Templar Bar, established 1870. I was drawn in and captivated by the two guys playing their tunes to the hoards of drunkards. Not coping well with the crowds inside I took comfort with the smokers outside. Conversation was struck up with people from far and wide as we all enjoyed each other’s company.

Dublin – I shall return; Trinity college, library and the book of Kells looks like a silly missed opportunity. And perhaps I’ll return to enjoy the evening of Templar Bar once more. Apart from maybe coming across to watch the rugby, my interest in this place is sadly lacking.

Center map

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’.