Ontario

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Ottawa

Founded in the early 19th century in a dominant Victorian style, it first surprised us, and then hooked us. Indeed, we thought - maybe naively - that the capital of the second largest country in the world would be sprawling and noisy. We discovered a human-sized city: certainly, it spreads out administratively on 2790 m², but its purely urban part has a relatively modest size and its population is just under one million. Its green areas are numerous and wide. Its historic buildings give it additional character and value. We were also pleasantly surprised by its very special sweetness of living, and we felt perfectly fine there from the first moments.
 
We stayed in Centretown district, in a two-story red brick Victorian house full of character. Besides, we admired many houses in that style as we took a walk in the residential area of the district to the Rideau Canal, with a different size, with a different decoration, but each one with its personality. The peace and quiet made that place relaxing. We made a stop to admire the extraordinary façade of the Canadian Museum of Nature (photo). The much refined architecture displays carved animal faces. The whole was magnified by the late afternoon sun that brought out the cream color walls. It is notably home to an amazing whale skeleton and various dinosaur skeletons. The central hall is topped with a colossal glass cage that houses a giant sculpture of a jellyfish.
Then we went ahead with our walk in residential streets with some nice urban parks. We reached the constructed banks of the Rideau Canal, with a promenade, a cycle lane and green areas. We sat for a while to take the time to immerse ourselves in that sweet atmosphere. We felt good there and prolonged the pleasure before we carried on. The canal formed a bend and then a long straight line with a perspective to the famous Parliament Hill, idealized image of the city. We admired it for long minutes from the Corktown footbridge. Then, we returned to the streets of the district, in a more lively area that included shops, bars and restaurants. The night atmosphere was enchanting, sometimes festive. We had dinner at one of the numerous restaurant terraces while watching a baseball game, just to become familiar with that sport before we attend a Blue Jays game in Toronto three days later. Food was high quality, as well as local beer and above all cocktails, which were even very original. We spent an excellent night, punctuated with contagious laughter, as well between us all as with some locals.
 
The day after, we visited Upper Town. We were impressed by the colossal Confederation Building in Gothic Revival style. It gave us a foretaste of Parliament Hill, which visit was planned at the end of day. We lingered in the St-Andrew Presbyterian Church, from the 19th century, which is characterized by its rather high spire. Just opposite stands the Supreme Court of Canada, built in 1938 in Art Deco style. Then, we went to admire some nice red brick Victorian houses in Queen Anne style from the early 20th century in a section of Queen Street, beautiful well preserved remains of a colonial era. We took the opportunity to pass in front of another imposing Gothic Revival Building: the Christ Church Cathedral, which interior is dotted with white marble columns and nice stained glass windows. Not far stands the St-Peter’s Lutherian Church, built in the mid 20th century with Nepean sandstone in English Gothic style.
Then, we spend a short time in Library and Archives Canada, and then we took the Portage Bridge across the Ottawa River, from which we were able to admire Parliament Hill in the distance. So, we found ourselves on the Quebec side in Gatineau, which forms with Ottawa the region of the national capital. We passed in front of the amazing Canadian Museum of History, the most visited in the country, famous for its remarkable collection of Amerindian totems. We came back to Ontario and Ottawa taking the colossal Alexandra Bridge. Parliament Hill got closer and we had the feeling we could touch it with our fingertips. It was the third time we admired it from a bridge since our arrival in that beautiful city. But we did resist the temptation, for we were keen on saving the best for the end of day as we had planned. It was some kind of game between it and us.
We moved away from the city center to the East, taking Sussex Drive along the Ottawa River. As we went over the other side of the Rideau River, we took the time to admire its falls. In the Vanier and Rideau-Rockcliffe districts, the city takes a totally different aspect: it is a residential area where colossal and wealthy houses are surrounded by wide properties. There stands the French Embassy, the Residence of the British High Commissioner – where a London phone booth was put up on the grass – and the Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada, huge stone house from the 19th century. We went ahead to the Rideau Hall and its splendid 40 hectares garden that we visited: that sumptuous residence belongs to the Governor General of Canada. We were lucky to attend the changing of the guard of soldiers with red uniforms and bear skin headdresses, like the Royal Guards in London. Obviously, it is nothing compared to the one that takes place in Parliament Hill, but it was nevertheless a great time.
Then, we retraced our steps to reach the city center, more specifically Lower Town. As we passed in front of the National Gallery of Canada, we stopped intrigued in front of the bronze sculpture of a giant spider called… Mama!!! It stands on the square that separates the museum from the Basilica Cathedral Our-Lady of Ottawa. The latter enjoys a sumptuous interior decoration, with its worked wood altar and its beautiful statues. Then, we crossed Major’s Hill Park, admiring the Connaught Building, built in the early 20th century in Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival styles, and the Fairmont Château Laurier, splendid luxury hotel from the same period. We stopped a few minutes to admire the amazing locks station. It is 500 meters long and 100 meters wide; it includes eight successive locks, which total height is 24 meters. It was a real feat of construction technologies, an innovative and cutting-edge system at its design stage.
Finally, we went to the famous Parliament Hill, where three buildings in Gothic Revival style from the 19th century on a wide garden proudly overlook the city and the Ottawa River. The Center Block houses the House of Commons and the Senate. It is perfectly symmetric and on its center, the 93 meters high Peace Tower includes a carillon with 53 bells. It is home to the Memorial Chamber. Nearby, the beautiful Library of Parliament is a jewel of architecture. Made of sandstone blocks, it has 16 sides and its three-level copper roof forms a vault. Its arched windows, its flying buttresses and its turrets give it an additional character. Its interior is decorated with white pine paneling and it houses a marble statue of Queen Victoria. The asymmetric Eastern Block is made of cut stones of various colors. It also includes arched windows, as well as gargoyles and statues. It is home to offices of senators and members of the House of Common. As for the Western Block, it was extended significantly since it was built: a wing was notably added, as well as the colossal Mackenzie Tower. Unfortunately, it was under renovation works during our visit.
Then we came back down to Lower Town to have dinner in the very lively ByWard Market district, well known for its good restaurants and its atmosphere. The covered market enjoys an excellent reputation thanks to its stalls of fruits and vegetables, its worldwide food outlets and its local craftsmen. In the surroundings, shops, bars and restaurants abound.
Later, we returned to Parliament Hill to admire the breathtaking light and sound show on the façade of the Center Block on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Canada. Thus, we completed on a highly positive note our stay in that extraordinary city, real surprise and revelation of that trip, that we already carry in our hearts.

Toronto

It is the biggest city in Canada with 2.6 million of inhabitants, or more than 15% of the country’s population. Cultural, economic and financial multi-faced metropolis, it is very lively and dynamic. The areas of skyscrapers that proudly rise to impose in the middle of that urban landscape are next to peaceful residential districts with wealthy houses full of character surrounded by gardens. Its painted walls are remarkable and its lush gardens bring greenery to disconnect from the urban activity that is sometimes noisy. Its night life is both relaxed and hectic and offers many possibilities to go out. Resolutely open to Lake Ontario since a few decades, its Harbourfront district, its beaches and its islands complete the picture. It is well known for its safety and its cleanliness, but we can deplore the presence in some areas of homeless whose misery is a sad sight.
It got quickly populated with immigrants in the aftermath of the Second World War, thus becoming one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. That gives it a great ethnic, cultural and culinary diversity. A little more than half of its inhabitants was not born in Canada!
 
From the time we arrived, we were able to get a glimpse of Little Italy, district well known for its trendy bars and restaurants, for its terraces filling up in summer, which makes it one of the most prized places for night life during the warm seasons. People cross the city to taste its excellent cappuccino or an espresso, a rich bowl of pasta or an authentic Sicilia pizza. So we were glad to know we were staying in a residential area in that district: indeed, our apartment was located in a peaceful and tree-lined street dotted with nice Victorian houses surrounded by verdant gardens. Moreover, it was close to a main street in the district and it was easy for us to enjoy the various facilities and the liveliness. Unfortunately, we were in the event of an overbooking and we had to find a hotel hastily in a different district, which made us lose half a day.
 
The day after, we went to Harbourfront district in order to take a ferry to Toronto Islands. Unfortunately, because of recent heavy rainfall, they were partially immersed and the access was limited to residents and people going to their workplace. Then, we visited the neighborhood: after we had a good time in Harbour Square Park, we walked along the boardwalk, admiring Queen’s Quay Terminal, an old warehouse that now houses shops, restaurants and a theater dedicated to Inuit art. Nearby, The Power Plant is an old power station converted into a place of exhibitions of contemporary art. We enjoyed a meal at the excellent Amsterdam Brewhouse. Then we headed up Entertainment District, where we passed in front of the must-see CN Tower, symbol of the city, that we had planned to visit the following day. At its foot, the Rogers Centre is a stadium with a retractable roof that is home to the Argonauts football team, and above all the Blue Jays baseball team, which game we had planned to attend the very evening. We passed in front of the Canadian Walk of Fame, the equivalent of the very famous Walk of Fame in Hollywood, relatively speaking, of course.
The baseball game was memorable, essentially because of the magic of the first time. We were like amazed children and the show was as well as in the stands as in the outskirts of the stadium and the field. Besides, we came early in order to immerse ourselves in that atmosphere. In the same way, we lingered in front of the stadium after the end of the game, where some street performances were taking place. As an anecdote, Blue Jays won against Oakland!
 
The next day, we visited Old Town district, crossing Saint-James Park, small green area from the 19th century, embellished by armfuls of colorful flowers and an ornamental fountain. Nearby, Saint-James Cathedral, an Anglican church, is the tallest in the city. We entered the imposing Saint-Lawrence Market, which offers a range of quality fresh products. There you can find specialties from all over the world. Nearby, the Farmer’s Market takes place every Saturday: local farmers sell their products. We carried on until the Gooderham Building, which outlines that fit a triangular crossroads remind inevitably the famous Flatiron Building in New-York. Made of red brick, it displays a nice mural on its back façade. Just behind, we stopped at Berczy Park to have fun with its ornamental fountain with basins on two levels, where statues of bulldogs spit long water jets into its center. As we entered Financial District, which gathers the largest concentration of skyscrapers in the city, we passed in front of the well known Hockey Hall of Fame dedicated to the fans of ice hockey. It traces exhaustively the history of that sport worshipped by Canadian people.
Then, we went to visit the famous CN Tower: from the top of its 533 meters, it is the 5th highest tower in the world. It was built to facilitate the transmission of TV waves and radio waves above the imposing skyscrapers of the city. However, we must admit we were a little bit disappointed: we thought it was expensive (35$), we had to wait 90 minutes to have access to the observation platform, where the crowd was huge. Besides, it was built in such a way that the angle of view is limited in places, for concrete structures restrict visibility. J.R. and I enjoyed much more the Hancock Tower in Chicago in 2013. As for our friends, they preferred the Fernsehturm in Berlin, Germany. Nevertheless, the view of the city and the islands was breathtaking. We could see at the foot of the tower the Rogers Centre that reminded us that memorable baseball game the night before. We had lunch at the 360 Restaurant, which is high quality and allows us to carry on enjoying the view. Then, we had to face the crowd again and have a long wait to go down. We went just opposite to admire the old cars and old locomotives in the outskirts of the Railway Museum, which carried us back decades ago, the same as an old railroad crossing with its booth, its gates and its period signals.
Then, we headed north. As we were passing by the Rogers Centre, we had fun seeing a street performer with its cat; the latter wore a small Blue Jays baseball uniform! We reached the picturesque Chinatown, one of the seven Chinese districts in Toronto. It is the most colored and the most authentic of all. Even though it is not the most extended in Northern America, it is one of the most exotic. Its signs, its shop fronts, its exhalations of very typical culinary specialties that invite our nose toward pleasure on every street corner tempt to travel, notably on Spadina Avenue and some adjacent streets. Restaurants are high quality; tea rooms, groceries, shops and herbalists are numerous. Its murals reflecting Asian themes are beautiful. It is a real change of scenery.
Then, I separated from J.R. and our friends. The three of them head for the northern part of Financial District, notably Queen Street West, admiring on the way Nathan Phillips Square: it is a wide water basin surmounted by thee arches. The name of the city is put up thanks to colossal 3 meters high and 20 meters wide multicolored letters. You have to go there at night when they are lightened and reflect on the water of the basin. The sight is magical. It stands in front of the new Town Hall; the Old Town Hall rises a few meters away: the latter, in Romanesque Revival and Victorian styles, is really amazing. Built in the late 19th century, it is part of the symbolic buildings in Toronto. Its clock tower – which has various bells – is more than 100 meters high.
As for me, I carried on along Spadina Avenue to the University of Toronto (photo). Beyond the visit of one of the most prestigious universities in Northern America, I was keen on pursuing my artistic pilgrimage as mentioned in the introduction. It was built around Queen’s Park, wide and pleasant green area. Modeled on English campuses, it includes about forty buildings; some of them are modern, others are historic. The oldest is University College, in Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival styles. The work in stone is remarkable, and some details of carving are much refined. Hart House is home to the Residence of Students: with Gothic inspiration, it is asymmetrical and the ivy that covers some of its walls makes it even more attractive. The Convocation Hall, with Romanesque Revival inspiration, houses the biggest amphitheater in the university. You can easily recognize it by its green dome. The Ontario Legislature was built in the late 19th century in a much innovative and eclectic Romanesque Revival style. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the campus. I was pleasantly surprised by the attendance of the place: indeed, there were visitors like me, but also students, some of whom were playing baseball in front of University College. That made it lively even if it was midsummer. I was able to enter one of the modern buildings, where photographic compositions with portraits of graduates from each promotion, wearing the traditional uniform and headdress, were framed on the wall. The pictures that left the best mark on me were the ones from the early 20th century, in black and white and dulled by the years. I told myself those people were no longer of this world. That brought me back to one of my favorite movies, «Dead poets Society», when John Keating – the teacher played by Robin Williams – makes its students leave the classroom to lead them in the corridor and asks them to watch those old pictures of former students. It was really a poignant moment.
I walked out of the building filled with emotion and I left the campus with that last impression, to go down Wellesley Street, and cross the Gay Village at the intersection with Church Street. Cafés terraces, restaurants and shops – most of which are much sophisticated – are numerous. The traditional rainbow-colored flags decorate some façades. The area is pleasant. Then, I went right down Jarvis Street, where nice Victorian houses surrounded by gardens run along. Some of them were partially hidden by colossal trees, which gave them an attractive discretion. Then, I joined the rest of the band in our hotel, which was located on a much less attractive part of that same street. We went to the Terroni Italian restaurant in Adelaide Street, built in an old Law Courts with a high ceiling, which gave it an undeniable character. The interior decoration was extraordinary and the food was high quality. We completed our stay in Toronto on a very positive note.



Niagara Peninsula

We left Toronto very early to reach the must-see Niagara Falls (photo). Given that it was midsummer, we did not want to face crowds of tourists in the most popular sites in the world. We found a parking at $10 per day on Stanley Avenue (in front of the Best Western Fallsview hotel), cheaper than the ones on site. We walked hundreds of meters to end up in front of the famous «horseshoe» formed by the falls. We were immediately impressed by the power they gave off. However, we were kind of frustrated because we had a flat view, which did not allow us to realize the scale of that wonder of nature. It is true that most of the pictures of Niagara Falls are taken from planes or helicopters, which enables us to capture all the beauty and the vastness of it. That is the reason why you should not content yourselves with an observation of the site from the promenade along Niagara River at the risk of being disappointed, the more as it is disfigured at that specific place by tourist infrastructure that reminds of an amusement park. Various possibilities are offered to enjoy it in an optimal manner, among others boats cruises to be in the middle of things, or helicopter flights. The latter were all the more tempting as J.R. and I were still on the emotion of that unforgettable flight over Grand Canyon the year before. However, it is expensive and above all, the mist caused by the falls may partially hide the view according to the direction of wind. Given that we have to book well in advance, we thought it was too uncertain.
So, we opted for a boat cruise with Maid of the Mist on the American side. Indeed, given that the Canadian side of the falls is the most impressive with that famous «horseshoe», visitors rush into it, whereas it is a little more expensive and the crowd in the boats is denser. Yet, the tour is almost the same: the Maid of the Mist cruise allows us to get close to the Canadian falls after we admired the American falls, less amazing but that are worth lingering, nevertheless. Moreover, the ticket provides access to a belvedere you reach with an elevator, and to the Goat Island wide park, where are some remarkable viewpoints, the last of which overlooks… the «horseshoe» on the Canadian side!!! Certainly, that is a lateral view angle, but we are close to the falls and we can admire rainbows appearing within the mist.
So, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge, which links both countries. Naturally, we had to complete registration for entry into the U.S.A. at the border crossing, before we reach the pier. There, we have been given nice blue ponchos with the «Maid of the Mist» logo, and then we embarked for an unforgettable experience. As we were getting close to the American falls, we caught a spray. But that was nothing compared to the huge and powerful Canadian falls, where we got splashed. Real force of nature, close to which we felt very small, they came crashing down in the heart of Niagara River in a deafening noise that sounded like a relentless tearing. A thick foam formed in front of us. Fortunately, the slight breeze was favorable for it blew from the side and carried the mist away. We came back from that boat ride in that picturesque place full of happiness, aware that we had the privilege to visit one of the most remarkable sites in the world.
Then, we headed for the Wine Route, which allowed me to pursue my artistic pilgrimage mentioned in the introduction. It runs through scenic vineyards and picturesque villages. There is produced the famous ice wine with grape picked when frozen in winter. Farms and nice orchards extend there. We stopped in Niagara-on-the-Lake, rightly considered as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It was the first capital of Ontario in the end of the 18th century under the name of Newark. Small town on a human scale, it managed to remain authentic.  You can easily visit it on foot or by bike. The walk along the superb Queen Street is a real enchantment: buildings compete in beauty. Inns, bars and restaurants are filled with charm. The beautiful Memorial Clock Tower stands proudly in the middle of the street, paying tribute to the Canadian soldiers fallen during World War One. The superb Queen’s Royal Park, haven of greenery, opens on Lake Ontario and offers a privileged view on Fort Niagara on the American side, just opposite. A garden house with an old-fashioned charm makes it even more attractive.
The town also enjoys sites with a great historical value, notably Fort George National Historic Site. Like most of the town, it was destroyed by a fire during the war between the English and the Americans in the early 19th century. It was rebuilt exactly as it was before some years later. Niagara Historical Society Museum, founded in the late 19th century, deals with the country’s history through nice collections of relics, period tools and military uniforms and weapons. Located 3 kilometers from the city center, McFarland House, built in 1800 in Georgian style, was originally a hospital that provided health care to English and American soldiers injured during war. It is part of the rare buildings that were spared from destruction. You can visit and admire among others its beautiful period furniture.
We lingered there for a long time, seduced by that very charming town, and then we left it as well as Ontario with a twinge of sorrow, to reach the American border and pursue our exciting adventure for eleven days in the North-East of the U.S.A.


Published on December, 15th 2018