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!