Michael and Dan Tour Canada (aka, Michael and Dan Eat Canada)
Michael and I just returned from a two-week driving tour of Canada. From D.C., this is a big triangle, up the Hudson River Valley to Montreal, east to Quebec City, west along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to Ottawa and Toronto, crossing Niagara Falls and meandering through the Appalachians in New York and Pennsylvania. We had a great time, ate great meals, and highly recommend it to anyone. Details follow, read or trash. Summary of Canadian culture and issues at end of message.
Saturday, 9/27, Hudson River Valley
D.C.-to-Montreal was too long a run, so we broke the first day at the Tappanzee Bridge north of New York City to the Kykuit. It is the home of the Rockefeller family, with continuous residence from John D. through Vice-President Nelson. The National Trust opens it for tours. House is odd, a Second-Empire cottage that was renovated into a Louis XV palace before anyone actually moved in. It’s a well-lived in house: you can feel the family’s presence in the accumulations in the rooms. Nelson’s collection of modern art is placed throughout the house and gardens, and looks great. After the tour we zoomed up Interstate 87, and stopped for the night just north of Albany.
Sunday, 9/28, Plattsburgh, Montreal
A driving rain obscured our run through the Adirondacks, but the skies cleared for lunch in Plattsburgh, on the shores of Lake Champlain. Little Debbie’s Diner gave us our first tasting of poutine, French-Canadian French fries with cheese and gravy, and homemade apple pie baked the night before. It was delicious. This part of New York started acting more like Canada than the U.S., with Tim Horton’s Donut Shops replacing Dunkin’ Donuts. Did you know there was a Battle of Plattsburgh? The Yanks seem to have whooped the Brits on the Lake; a lovely memorial commemorates the battle downtown. We crossed the border uneventfully at what looked like a truck stop. A wave of the passports, description of our vacation, and we were on highways marked in kilometers, with no tolls, and gas prices magically doubled.
We got into Montreal too early to check in, so stopped at Phyllis Lambert’s Centre for Canadian Architecture. This was a disappointment. The Center is Canada’s version of the National Building Museum; Ms Lambert is the liquor heiress who convinced her dad to build the Seagrams’ Building in New York. They’ve put together several brilliant shows that we’ve seen when they traveled. Unfortunately, the galleries were mainly empty. I was discouraged to learn that there is no Canadian equivalent to the American Institute of Architecture’s guides to buildings in different cities.
But, the CCA is in a nice part of Montreal, near Concordia University and an English section of St. Catherine Street, the main shopping boulevard. We tried wrapping our French-ignorant lips around some simple purchases (coffee, a drug store), and figured we were ready to check in to our hotel.
Auberge l’Un et l’Autre is on Amherst Street in the Gay Village. Small, well run, kitchen privileges. Montreal was about to throw the Black and Blue Ball, their event on the circuit of gay parties that rotates around North America. So, lots of eye candy, which, given that we don’t take Crystal, don’t drink to excess, and get to bed by midnight, is about all we desired. The Village is a less-pricey version of Dupont Circle, with more useful retail and better food. We took a walk north on St. Denis, a trendy north-south avenue, through the Latin Quarter (University of Quebec at Montreal), and the Plateau. The Plateau is very chic, great shopping, excellent food. I might have come back with tons of books, if only I read French.
Amazing meal at l’Academie, our first attempt at gourmet Quebec: felton (sole), cresson (watercress soup), coquille St. Jacques, mussels and fries, crème caramel. Four star quality food and service, two star price. Sometimes the exchange rate is your friend. If you go, they can uncork and serve wine that you bring, but not sell it, so pick up a bottle or two at the liquor store downstairs.
Explored more of the Plateau on Blvd. Mont Royal, through Parc LaFontaine, and along St. Catherine Street back in the Village. Great chance to review stereotypical Montreal row houses (tall windows, exterior stairs, balconies, 3-5 stories each).
Monday, 9/29, Montreal
Started off with a walk through Chinatown (more substantial than we’d given it credit for), skirting the Convention Center and into the old city. Montreal had the opportunity to destroy their 1700’s center along the St. Lawrence in Canada’s version of 1960’s urban renewal. They did manage to divide the old city from the rest by a major sunken cross-town freeway, but lost very little of the original fabric. Instead, they ignored it as they built a new downtown around Place Dorchester and Place Ville Marie. Benign neglect preserved the old city, christened Vieux Montreal as it got renovated in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. The freeway air-rights were an opportunity to build very large, very contemporary buildings in the downtown. So, within a short walk you have slightly ratty but cool Chinatown, dramatic modern steel and glass atrium office buildings, and the original antique village of Vieux Montreal. A magic combination. Subway rights-of-way along the freeway provide access to the old city without disturbing foundations.
A masterpiece of modern-antique accommodation is the Pointe a Caliere Museum of the archaeology of Montreal. It is built close to where Cartier landed to found the city, and by carefully excavating they have incorporated a Victorian office building, 1830’s market, 1700’s cemetery, and 1600’s fortifications all below a modern interpretive center. An underground tunnel takes you into the 1860’s Customs House across the street from where you start. Fantastic opportunities to engage with exhibits and learn in multiple ways. Very impressive, especially in contrast to our disappointment at CCA. Best of all, the bookstore had a history of Canadian architecture, in English. Was organized chronologically, not by city, but it became my Bible as I attempted to make sense of what we were seeing on the rest of the trip.
We had lunch in Chinatown, then back to Vieux Montreal for the Basillica, the Old Port, and the Clock Tower (all that remains of the major grain elevators that once crowded the Montreal waterfront – who knew Chicago had Canadian competition?) For dinner, walked up St. Laurent, the Plateau avenue we’d missed the night before. Amazing brisket at Schwartz’s Deli, a landmark of Quebec Jewish culture. We caught the Metro back to see the evening lights in Vieux Montreal, around City Hall, Place Jacques Cartier, and the Basilica.
Tuesday, 9/30, Montreal
“Montreal” is a shorting of “Mont Royale”, a mountain climbed by French explorer Maisoneuve, who put a cross on top. The British turned it into Mount Royal Park, hiring Frederick Law Olmsted to give it the Central Park feel. Faced with the steep slopes, he created his most mountainous park. I had to climb to the top, of course, so Michael dutifully loaded up on cakes and sweets and water and we started up. Olmsted’s winding paths were too long for us; we cut across on the steeper hiking shortcuts to the top.
Thought I was gonna die. My God, Maisoneuve was a moron or a saint to hit those slopes with a cross on his back. Good thing Michael had stocked up. The view from the top was fantastic, at the base of an electric crucifix that still lights up the night. We were a little early for real autumn color, but enough leaves had changed to highlight the greens. I wanted to exit the park on a different side than we entered. Getting lost finding it, we ran into a formal refreshment stand and viewing plaza Olmsted had inserted.
Found our way off the mountain into the back yards of the Golden Square Mile. When the Scots and English built their mansions, they settled west of the French city, with the backs against the mountain in a neighborhood called the Golden Square Mile. Those luxury homes are still there, with private exits to the Park, and we ran into friendly and snobby neighbors on our way. Through the McGill University campus, along the predominantly English-speaking Rue Sherbrooke, to the Musee des Beaux Arts.
The museum’s collection is okay, about as good as Toledo’s, but not what one expects from a city of its size, age, and wealth. The buildings themselves are fabulous, with a stunning Moshe Safdie modern addition. Hate Safdie’s stairs, which are so shallow they’re almost ramps, but still have steps, so they aren’t. Most foolish use of space I’ve ever seen in an art museum, although Michael thought they provided a gracious ascent to the galleries. Maybe the collection is better than I’m crediting it with, but is less published than equivalent U.S. museums? Maybe the focus on Canadian art holds it back. Oi, Canadian abstract expressionism, like Jackson Pollock on his bad days. We shopped our way east, through top-line department store Holt-Renfrew, and a funky modern furniture store in an old bank called Cabon. Saw the William Morris stained glass in Christ Church, then descended into the Underground City.
When Montreal re-created itself after World War II, it followed a few rules. Downtown moved west, to the English neighborhood. It would follow the new subway being built for Expo ’67. Subway stations would open directly into underground shopping malls that would connect the office and apartment towers. Many cities have attempted to follow Montreal’s lead, but none have done it as brilliantly. Unlike American examples (Rosslyn, L’Enfant Plaza, and Boston’s Prudential Center all sadly come to mind), there is life above and below ground, with population densities to support it. Natural light is brought into the Underground at major building atria, and placemaking sculpture and signage make negotiating the paths reassuring enough that confusion yields to adventure. Winning Michael’s heart was the fact that each shopping arcade had multiple bakeries, all with fresh pastries, and all good. Even food court food is incredible here. Tried crepes Angie, in Mom’s honor, crepes with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Delicious.
Using the Underground access we walked through Place Ville Marie, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and the art deco Canadian National rail station. Took the Metro up to Mont Royal station, shopping antiques down St. Denis, through the Marche St. Jacques, and in the Gay Village.
Wednesday, 10/1, Montreal
Mosaiculture is an international organization of people who use flowers to make sculptures: like, a clock made out of geraniums. This is different from topiary: large metal forms are covered with moss, then plants, to form large sculptures. The group had taken over the Alexandra Docks and covered it with more than 60 room- and building-size displays symbolizing myths of great cities (e.g., Boston represented by Moby Dick, and Paris by Hunchback of Notre Dame). Astounding. We had planned to check it out on the fly, but spent hours winding along the paths. Back to Chinatown for lunch, at a Taiwanese place that had just opened. Didn’t have their service act together, but great noodle dishes. Traveled through an eastern section of the Underground City into International Center, the Convention Center, Place Desjardins, and Place D’Arts. Surfaced at the Contemporary Art Museum. Again, a great facility with a less than stellar collection: not a Hirshhorn, but better than what usually shows at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Sampled “beaver tails”, strips of fried dough topped with chocolate, raspberry, or other toppings. Delicious.
Over to the McCord Museum at McGill University. Montreal has three museums of its own history; this one is a good display of fairly stodgy stuff. Took the Metro to Parc Jean Drapeau, on the islands that were once Expo ’67. Got to see real live beavers by the river, Buckminster Fuller’s dome (built as the U.S. Pavilion, now a museum of water conservation), and the Montreal Casino. Casino had been built as the Quebec and French Pavilions, they were joined and modernized into a Casino. Not Vegas, but better than Atlantic City. Metro’ed back to the Plateau for a final dinner at L’Academie, veal, poulet supreme (chicken breast), crepes Florentine. On the corner of St. Denis and Duluth, go.
Thursday, 10/2, Quebec City
There is a whole garden/sports complex on the site of the Olympic Games, but we blew it off as we drove up to Quebec City. Even the highway food in Quebec is good: Roti is like Denny’s, specializing in rotisserie chicken, and was great and cheap. Rained most of the day, so we started Quebec City at the Musee de la Civilization in the Old Port. This is one of the best interactive/history museums we have ever seen. Modern facility incorporates antique structures, with current shows on the Middle Ages, Inuit life, Quebec history, how to run a symphony, dogs, and everything in their collection colored blue. I even liked the dog show, and the blue show, which sounded retarded, was a fun slice through the collection.
We had booked a room in the old walled city, at The Hermitage. Getting the car into the walls, then around the maze of one way streets, was an adventure in itself, but with our intrepid urban skills successfully negotiated. Good thing we’d reserved a smaller car, standard would never have made it through the former carriage entrance into the parking area. Room was a suite, with kitchenette, separate TV area, comfy bed. Palatial. Like New Orleans and Venice, the big deal in Quebec City is the physical city itself, the only walled city north of Mexico. We took a romantic evening walk around the older part, climbed the walls, through the Chateau Frontenac, and got the view from Terrace Dufferin. Dinner was at a tourist trap called L’Entrecote Saint-Jean, where they lined up the busses. Would have expected a horror show, but honestly, the set meal of steak, fries, soup, and dessert was great.
Friday, 10/3, Quebec City
The Citadelle is the fortress on the tip of Quebec that controls access to the St. Lawrence River. Fort as it stands is actually a British construction to French plans designed as a defense against Americans in our War of 1812. As in Lucca, the walls have been turned into a walk above and around the city, very beautiful, with the thrill that you may fall five stories down the embankment. Passed the Parliament of Quebec Province to the Grand Allee, a Victorian neighborhood where the rich moved when the walled city became too confining and the lowlands filled with industry. Classic Beaux Arts urban planning, using the Plains of Abraham as their local park. The Plains is the battlefield where General Wolfe defeated Montcalm in the French and Indian War, giving control of North America to England. The French refer to this as “The Conquest” (so much for William of Normandy). Residents have great views of the river and Citadelle, rose gardens, and former fortifications turned into history museums. Very pleasant.
Walked back into the Old City to see the post office, cathedral, and Vieux Port (Is it pretentious not to translate phrases like “Old Port”? Thing is, no one calls it the Old Port, everyone says “Vieux Port”, even in English. No snottiness intended.) Descending from the walled to lower city is an adventure; we took the stairs that make up the Rue Petit Champlain, full of tourist stops, galleries with bad art, and nice sweet shops. The Place Royale is ground zero for French culture in America, where Champlain first established the city. Church of the Victories pretty. The Place Royale Museum interprets the city using the same modern-architecture-on-archaeological-foundations approach that we loved at Pointe a Caliere, and just as well. The ground floor is set up as an immersion experience, where you change into clothes from the 1750’s and pretend to live in a house on the Place. Tres cool. Same museum (they all seem to be affiliated with Museum of Civilization, buy a combo ticket) runs the Maison Chevalier, a more velvet-rope tour of a 1750’s bourgeois home.
After a pastry stop on the docks we took the Incline (like the inclined railroads in Pittsburgh and LA) back to the upper city. We had earlier noticed and decided to skip the Musee Amerique Francais. I mean, a whole museum dedicated to French-Americans? In my childhood, these were not people whose culture was respected. However, we were there, the museum is built into the architecture school of Laval University in a converted seminary, and held out the draw of an 1840’s chapel. It was worth it! The chapel has excellent historic faux finishes on sheet metal. The seminary is a great stone pile, the passage from old to new to old buildings brilliant. Michael got involved with an exhibit on a recently recovered sunken ship from the failed American attack on Quebec during our Revolution. I was captured by exhibits that placed North American Francophone culture in a context I had never seen. The French of industrial Waltham are only one facet of a French-speaking diaspora across the continent. Intriguing, especially the story of the Metis, descendents of trappers and Native Americans on the prairies west of the Great Lakes, who developed a unique culture and take on what it is to be American. Made me look forward to seeing Metis architect Douglas Cardinal’s Museum of Civilization outside Ottawa, and his Museum of the American Indian going up now in D.C.
For our final evening in Quebec we walked around the Fauborg Jean-Baptiste, the part of the city outside the walls, north of the Grand Allee, and above the industrial port. Amazed again at the dynamism of a city that seemed to be both preserving its past and vibrantly alive. Stopped into a French grocery for provisions; we’re still eating the goods and regretting we did not buy more.
Saturday, 10/4, Montmorency Falls, Ottawa
Took a final walk up to the Citadelle, and Michael scored a winter hat at a charity sale at the local Methodist church. Very fun seeing the middle class ladies trying to explain to Michael in French not to wash the wool cap in hot water – for some experiences, tourist French is insufficient <smile>.
Snaked our car out of the city, descended to the plain, and caught the expressway to Montmorency Falls. Just outside Quebec City, these are among the most dramatic waterfalls along the St. Lawrence. Not wide, but very high. Reachable by an aerial tram, crossable on an early iron suspension bridge, insanely beautiful. Tons of Japanese tourists. Tons.
We had earlier taken the northern route from Montreal to Quebec, so decided to cross the St. Lawrence and take the southern route back. A mistake, the northern route is much more scenic. Stopped for lunch at La Belle Quebecois, a roadhouse that we almost passed by. At first glance, looked like every seedy French bar on Main Street growing up. But, their Canadian set-meal was incredibly cheap and delicious, with meatball stew, meat pie, and pork and beans. No vegetarians need apply. Driving through Montreal was annoying: the Canadian interstate-equivalents do not bypass cities, but go right through them, with often confusing interchanges not far from downtown. Hit a Tim Horton’s Donut Shop (see our Rust Belt Tour for background), and drove into late afternoon Ottawa.
Michael had been to Ottawa on a January business trip, and did not have favorable memories. We were not expecting to like it, but to hit two national museum and get out of town. In fact, it is one of the most beautiful and pleasant cities we have seen. It may be the only Canadian city that is truly French-English bilingual, with signs reading “Rue Stevens Street” and “Pont Alexandra Bridge”. Great landscape, federal architecture, food, and convenience. We took a quick overview around the National Gallery of Canada, then hiked around Byward Market, the canal locks near Parliament, Major’s Hill Park, and the monument to Canadian Peacekeepers (think Iwo Jima Memorial, but dedicated to peace). Found our hotel in Victoria Park, due south of the political/business center in a neighborhood built up between 1890-1920 and funky without being dirty or trendy. Walked to the main shopping stretch on Elgin Street for dinner at Mash, a bar that reminded us of Iota Café in Arlington. Excellent super-size ravioli, calamari, and spaghetti squash in flaky pastry. Even though it had rained off and on all day, we found ourselves enjoying the pace and scale of the city.
Sunday, 10/5, Ottawa
First stop, we got the car out of the garage and drove across the Ottawa River into Hull. The river is the border between Quebec and Ontario, French and English. There was only a logging camp here when Queen Victoria created it the capital of the unified province of Canada; it was a compromise site that really didn’t begin to grow into its skin until the last few decades. As we crossed into Hull we encountered a charity marathon/walk, but dodged the athletes, parked the car, and hit the Museum of Civilization. Douglas Cardinal designed a brilliant pair of swooping, curving beige stone buildings framing a spectacular view of Parliament and the National Gallery across the river. Inside, the exhibits are as of high a quality and involve viewers just as well as we’d been experiencing in history museums in Montreal and Quebec. Top floor tells the story of Canada, from the Lief Ericson/trapper stories we’d heard a million times, through Brit-French engagement, industrial revolution around timber and wheat in Montreal, conversion of the Prairies by Ukrainians and other Central Europeans, Asian immigration for railroads, Vancouver as a fishing/timber/industrial world of its own, integration into Dominion and nation-hood, native Canadian issues, Quebec secessionism, Toronto’s supremacy, and current achievements. Whew! Used room-sized installations and entire buildings (an Orthodox chapel from Saskatchewan, a Yukon diner) to tell the story. Fantastic, a model the Smithsonian’s American History might want to follow. A temporary exhibit on Italian contributions to Canada was great. Does anyone besides Michael remember ‘70’s singer Gino Vanelli? “I just want to stop – tell you what I feel about you baby.”
We decided to leave the car in Hull and walked over the Alexandra Bridge for lunch at Byward Market. This market may be the most successful we have ever seen. It is an authentic farmers market, with local produce at stands inside and outside. It is a permanent structure, with requisite cast iron details. It is a neighborhood, spilling onto adjacent streets in theme restaurants, bars, and food stores. Best of all, it had some of the best pastries we have ever eaten, in a decade of tasting. As Michael commented, “English language, French pastry, it’s the best of both worlds!” We supplemented with Armenian lamejun, Italian pizza, and Moroccan lamb.
Walked off lunch with a full-scale visit to the National Gallery of Canada. They have decent collections of European/American, Inuit, and Canadian art, but the tour de force is the building itself, a crystalline temple complex by Moshe Safdie. I once carded Moshe Safdie when he was teaching at Harvard and had forgotten his video rental card; I made him prove his identity by listing his most important buildings. This should have been on the list. Tea at the museum, then a walk along the river to Rideau House, home of the Royal Governor, the Queen’s representative to Canada. We’d missed tours for the day, but the gardens were great. On the walk back to downtown, the Canada and the World Pavilion is a cool tourist trap paid for by telecom companies to teach about the important contributions Canadians have made to the world. Sort of a privately funded national Pantheon, surprisingly good. Passed by City Hall, a dull 1950’s modern block with great 1990’s additions, and took a bridge over the Rideau Falls. Ottawa having started as a lumber port, they had to get inland lumber around these falls. The Rideau Canal is one of the first canals built in North America, and is a centerpiece of Ottawa recreation today.
Byward Market was so good for lunch, we went back for dinner. It’s that good. Hiked back to the car in Hull, and drove past Parliament to the hotel.
Monday, 10/6, Thousand Islands, Toronto
We cut over to the Thousand Islands Parkway during the drive from Ottawa to Toronto. This is not a long stretch of road, but is as spectacular as the Blue Ridge Parkway, with views of the shore and islands as the St. Lawrence widens into Lake Ontario. Yes, Thousand Island dressing was invented here; no, no one remembers.
First stop in Toronto was The Beaches, a series of communities east of downtown with a boardwalk and Lake frontage. The homes were not spectacular, very modest working class, but in the past decade have become very trendy and expensive. Parked and walked along the business stretch through Kew Gardens park to the beach proper. Fun, and funky. On the drive into downtown we were reminded of Chicago and Cleveland, all cities with a grid on a plain facing a Great Lake. As we got more into the groove of Toronto, it started to seem more like New York, with the drive and ambition to stay the business capital of Canada. Where Montreal was laid back, with homecoming commuters filling the subway as early at 3PM, Toronto is much more buttoned up. Interesting.
We were disappointed in our accommodations, a room in a coverted row house on a busy street north of downtown. Maybe because we already live in a nicer row house, maybe because the owners didn’t seem to care about their guests, we cannot recommend the Castlegate Inn. Too bad, but it was cheap. Caveat emptor. On the plus side, it was a block from the Dupont TTC (aka, Toronto Transit Company, or subway) station, and walking distance to many great areas.
We took a walk through our neighborhood, The Annex (think Amberson’s Addition, from “The Magnificent Ambersons”), and Kensington Market. The Market is even more of a neighborhood than Byward, larger, with more variety. While we were tempted by a Hungarian/Thai place (can’t make this stuff up), we got good Chinese noodles for dinner. Walked through Chinatown and the Theater District. Dipped into PATH, Toronto’s version of Montreal’s Underground City. Not done as well as Montreal’s, but infinitely superior to anything in the U.S. outside of Rockefeller Center. Walking south toward the Lake, found the CN Tower. Union Station is where Canadian National’s trains disembark downtown, and where two branches of the TTC hook up to form a giant U through the city. Caught the TTC back to Dupont.
Many people have asked if we got married while we were in Ontario. It would not have been hard to do; we got the forms before we left, and only needed to submit them, pay the fee, book a room, and say the words before witnesses. We didn’t. I think our reluctance has a little to do with wanting to fight for that right here in the States. Also, until our marriage is recognized legally here, we’d end up in a legal limbo where the status can be used against us where convenient (collecting debts) and ignored likewise (insurance claims). Seems safer for now to rely on our powers of attorney, wills, and medical directives.
Tuesday, 10/7, Toronto
The biggest tourist attraction in Toronto is the CN Tower, tallest structure in the world. It’s pretty impressive. We took the elevator up to the viewing deck, then further up to the Skypod, the highest point above the earth’s surface one can be in a building. Of course, from up there you’re still looking at a flat city by the Lake <smile>, but it’s worth it. Walked along the lakeside on Queens’ Quay terminal, a former dock turned design mall, and then north through the Royal York Hotel. Ducked into the PATH underground for food court lunch at a surprisingly good Thai restaurant and salad bar. Through City Hall Plaza to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
This museum has the best ensemble of art in Canada, a great world collection. The original building was a 1700’s mansion called The Grange. It is now surrounded by a modern Moshe Safdie structure, with the house restored to 1830 as a home for the decorative arts collection. Very well done. For the first time we were able to appreciate Canadian art as something deserving of study, in a first-rate hanging that shows top pieces and puts them into perspective in art history. The Group of Seven was a collective of Canadian artists around the First World War who turned away from European models and created a uniquely Canadian art. Seeing them previously in Montreal and Ottawa we’d been sort of “umm, yeah, Hudson River School goes north <yawn>”, but this time we started to get it.
Walked east to Church Street, and the intersection with Wellesley, heart of Toronto’s gay scene. Rather cool, seemingly friendlier than D.C.’s. North to Yonge and Yorkville. In the 1960’s, Yorkville was hippy-central, Georgetown and Dupont (or Cambridge, or Berkeley). Like those places, it has become an upscale boutique ghetto. The residences are incredibly small 1850’s worker’s cottages. The shopping on Yonge is Madison Avenue shopping done large, mainly U.S. and international luxury chains like Cartier and the Canadian department store Holt Renfrew. Would Joni Mitchell recognize the old neighborhood <smile>?
We caught the subway over to meet Michael’s cousin Rose. His Mom’s sister Pinky has lived in Toronto since she came to America, and Michael knew his cousin from family events. Rose is a sweetie, vivacious and generous and fun to be with. Incredibly tolerant as I insisted we walk to Little Italy, a locale any normal Torontonian would have caught the trolley to get to. Nice Italian meal, we set Rose off on the streetcar to her home near The Beaches, and walked through the Bloor Street shopping stretch to the B&B.
Wednesday, 10/8, Toronto
The Queen’s Park is an English garden at the center of the city. It is dominated by the Richardsonian Romanesque Legislature of Ontario. Surrounding it is the University of Toronto, a collection of British-fashioned colleges on Gothic quadrangles. Fun, reminded me of the University of Chicago.
The draw was the Royal Ontario Museum, modeled on the British Museum, with a collection that is outstanding. The huge complex is a red brick Victorian sprawl, so big that even though a good chunk was closed for construction of a new Daniel Liebeskind crystalline addition, it still tired us out. They are the first North American venue for a Victoria and Albert Museum show on Art Deco, fantastic in its story, pieces, and display. One entire floor of the Museum is called the “Style Gallery”: we were expecting a couple of rooms with a fashion collection. Instead, there where twenty room installations tracking interior design from the original Gothic through every decorating phase up to the 1970’s. In convenient sitting alcoves with views of the galleries were audio clips to put you into the cultural happenings of that moment. For instance, a reading from “Emma Bovary” in the section on how lighting changed life during the Industrial Revolution. Tres cool. This is also a museum of science, but we skipped the volcano and bat cave.
A few blocks west of the ROM is the Bata Shoe Museum. The Bata founder has built and curated a museum to her study of footwear through the ages. A little wacky, but surprisingly erudite and fun.
East of downtown is the oldest section of Toronto, Old York. The St. Lawrence Market there was another great food site; we stocked up on Canadian wild rice, dried fruit, and graham flour. Oh, and, um, cookies <smile>. Walked up Yonge Street to Eaton Centre. Eaton’s was a great Canadian department store chain; they built one of the first parts of the PATH system in this mall that they once anchored. Eaton’s was bought by Sears in the 1970’s, who wildly mismanaged them out of existence. The mall still thrives, though, anchored on the other end by The Bay, a mid-level department store chain that is the successor to the Hudson’s Bay Company. You know, fur trade and all that. Plaque outside says “founded 1671”, and it’s true. Higher end than J.C. Penny, lower than Nordstrom’s. Better than Hecht’s, but close.
Met up with Aunt Pinky and Rose at La Bifteq, a steak place Rose recommended for their great steaks at low prices. I think we were all a little nervous about meeting, but it went great, and we had a terrific dinner. Next time we visit, they’re first on our list to call.
Thursday, 10/9, Toronto, Niagara
North of our inn a few blocks is Casa Loma, a grand house built on a hill overlooking the city in the 1900’s by the gentleman who produced the first commercial electricity from Niagara Falls. It is sort of an exercise in how far a colonial will go for London’s approval: having made his millions and built his country house, he erased his fortune equipping a Royal regiment that served valiantly in the Boer and World Wars. Learned later that my Dad had toured the house as a teenager. House really too big, in an odd Arts-and-Crafts-castle style. Great gardens.
Took a drive through Corso Italia, the newer, more auto-centric Italian neighborhood, then Little Italy, the original heartland. Amazing lunch at a tavola calda, mortadella panini, rosemary chicken, lentil soup, beet salad with mint. Mmmm. A bakery for the mandatory pastry stop, then on the road around the Lake for Niagara.
The mills around Hamilton reminded me of Gary, Indiana and Chicago around Lake Calumet. Having been let down by our Toronto inn experience, Michael booked us into the Marriott next to the Falls. He had negotiated a view up river, since we couldn’t really afford the “Falls-view” room. We were thrilled with the luxury of the room, actually directly above the Horseshoe Falls, with an incredible view. For a surreal touch, it seemed to be ladybug-breeding season, and the bugs were drawn to the huge hotel windows. We took the inclined railway down the slope to the park alongside the Falls, and did the mandatory tourist walk. It is so spectacular, it’s one of the sights of my childhood that lives up to the magic it had when I was a kid. The park was designed by Olmsted to preserve public access to this natural wonder. For dinner we walked over to the Happy Wanderer, a German restaurant that has been serving tourists since the 1950’s, and I’m fairly confident my family ate at in the early 1970’s. Quite decent German food, excellent schnitzel and spaetzle. We checked out a Japanese-owned and focused souvenir shop on our walk back. In many years of cruising tourist traps, including multi-decade stops at South of the Border, this has to be the most over-priced I have ever experienced. Astounding, didn’t expect to make that record. The lights on the Falls were gorgeous and romantic, they lulled us to sleep.
Friday, 10/10, Niagara, Buffalo
Failing to find a pedestrian approach to the Falls, and with the Incline closed, we drove down the slope. Eventually. That wasn’t easy either, and when we saw how much we’d have to pay for parking, we gave up on taking the elevator down to behind the Falls. We crossed the Rainbow Bridge, breezed through U.S. Customs, and were thrilled to find we’d made a brilliant decision. Parked for very little on Goat Island, the island that divides the American from Canadian sides, and were able to walk between them. Even more incredible views, plus a return to cheap Diet Coke. We took Robert Moses Parkway south on the Niagara River to Buffalo, and toured the Albright-Knox Gallery. Dan knew this was the big deal art museum in Buffalo, but was expecting a second or even third-rate collection. Instead we discovered an excellent assemblage of modern and contemporary art in a well built facility that stretches oddly on its site.
Explored Elmwood Avenue, the trendy stretch of Buffalo, sort of like Richmond’s Cary Street. Lunch at Louie’s Original Foot-Long Hot Dogs (“since 1951”). They insisted we try “white hots” when they heard we were from out of town. These are veal hot dogs, fantastic both Texas- and Chicago-style. A drive around Niagara Square downtown, which has top-quality buildings by Stanford White, Daniel Burnham, H.H. Richardson, and other founders of the American skyscraper. Was great to see Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, having been in his Wainwright in St. Louis earlier this year. Discovered a gay block of bars and restored homes with some good lighting and furniture stores. Out to Delaware Park, another Olmsted masterpiece, surrounded by mansions from the 1900’s, and home to three Frank Lloyd Wright homes. One of these was pointed out to us by a shop owner in the gay district and is not on the usually tours. The other two were designed in a complex for Darwin Martin, a former manager at the Larkin Soap Company. The Martin House has been an inspiration, if you’ve ever seen my Frank Lloyd Wright afghan, that is based on a Martin House window. The complex was badly damaged after being abandoned by its owners and then modified by SUNY Buffalo. A private foundation is now restoring it to its former glory. Should look amazing in 2007. Right now, unfortunately, it looks like a construction site, with excavation pits all over the grounds and most of the house under wraps. Still, any walk through a Wright is worthwhile. It was approaching evening when our tour ended, so we caught the New York Thruway to Rochester and 390 south to Corning, where we crashed at a quite decent EconoLodge.
Saturday, 10/11, Scranton, Harrisburg
We’d set this day aside for major driving back to D.C., but couldn’t resist two stops. There is really no good direct route from Buffalo to Washington, the Appalachians are mighty inconvenient, and we didn’t want to spend too much time on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Lesser highways were surprisingly efficient and pleasant.
Stopped in Scranton for lunch. The Post had reported that there were great houses here cheap. They should be. Scranton bet the farm on two of the deadest industries in America, coal and railroads. The rail yards are now a Park Service site called Steamtown, approached through a major shopping mall that was the only place open on a Saturday. Next biggest thing downtown was Rick Santorum’s office, uggh. Have heard since that the nice houses do exist, but we’d need someone to point us to them in advance. Hightailed it out of there and down to the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Michael is a member of the Pennsylvania Bar, but, having taken his oath by mail, had never actually seen the city that empowers him to be a practicing attorney. The Capitol proper is an enormous Imperial pile of additions, very beautiful in an imposing way. We took a photo of Michael swearing before the dome, and headed home.
Thoughts on Canada:
The English-French divide is hopeless. The country clings to the possibility that recognizing the rights and contributions of native peoples, Chinese, Italians, Hungarians, Tutsis, Hutus, etc. will help them move toward a single citizenry. I’m not sure it can happen. There is too much history of abuse between the two cultures for them to find peace, or even to mingle enough to intermarry. No melting pot in the North, it seems. Ontario is clearly veering U.S., and Quebec province taking its cultural cues from Paris. Such smoking you have not seen this side of the Atlantic. Historically, the French-speaking were losing ground right through the 1920’s. Then, as middle class Brits slowed their birth rates, Catholic Francophones kept popping out babies. That tipped the demographic scales back in their favor, just as democratic forces were pushing power to the people, from the 1950’s through 1980’s. Of course, as they too become middle class, French birth rates are declining also, and immigrant-rich Toronto and Vancouver have taken the lead. One thought is that the Quebecois hold power now due to their rich hydro-electric rights. As economies change that power may shift, and the French be forced to accept a lesser role in Canadian culture. For now, though, there are at least two countries up there, unhappily cohabiting and avoiding a fight.
There are tons of Canadian patriots and founders you never heard of, Maisoneuve, Jeanne Mance, Laval, Drapeau, yadda yadda yadda. Some you have, Cartier, Champlain, Marquette. It was important to remember them at the time, but they seem to be retreating into a blur. The cool thing is how amazing this culture is, how separate from the U.S. experience, and rewarding as an alternative way to run a North American civilization.
The shopping is okay. Yes, the U.S. dollar is stronger than the Canadian, but despite our shamelessly high shopping skills, we were not able to spend that much. Too bad, but good for our Visa balances.
The people are wonderful, interesting, accommodating, and pleasant. Transport is excellent.
Michael says that, overall, it is a country that we could easily live in due to the progressive social attitude. If we were forced into exile, Canada would be his pick. I suggest he needs to see a little more of their winter before we make that dire choice <smile>.
The food, c’est magnifique. Go; follow in our footsteps and eat.