Mr Smith goes to Ottawa

Ottawa; the capital of Canada.  Ottawa has an interesting history… look it up yourself, I’m not your teacher.  Use Google for Christ’s sake.

To be perfectly honest, we were kind of looking forward to arriving back into an English speaking city, even if it were officially bi-lingual.  Whilst being able to mostly understand French enough to read beer labels, my spoken French is very poor; “Bunjurr, parlez Franchais mercy?”

Also, I can say “Poutine” pretty well.

When arriving in a new city, I try to stick to a rule that we walk to our hotel from the train station unless it’s not possible – I feel that it’s conducive to gaining a sense of general direction in an unfamiliar place and also helps impart a good feel for the “first impression” of a city.  Ottawa’s train station is not really central to the city core, which is good as the walk in takes us through the suburbs, past the University and University residences/frat houses and then onto downtown.

The other benefit of lugging a fully-loaded backpack from the train station to the hotel on first arrival is that it instantly bestows some level of backpacker cred – people generally move aside on footpaths, beggars tend not to ask for money, and on this occasion, we got a free upgrade to a much nicer and larger room by the clerk.  Was it pity, or the backpacks, or the sweat, or that we were mistaken for people who really backpacked rather than used a backpack to move their shit from hotel to hotel?  I don’t care, but that makes it the second time we’ve been comped a free upgrade on this trip and a worthwhile excuse to continue abstaining from shaving.

On transitioning from French-speaking back to English-speaking Canada, the changes were subtle but distinct.  Maybe the bustling crowds of young sidewalk people have always been talking loudly about the banalities of drunk college life, but it’s only now that it’s in English and not French that we can fully comprehend the slight obnoxiousness of it all.

Things in general, seem cleaner than Montreal; there’s no absence of the culture and diversity that a large city breeds, but Ottawa with its compact downtown core, busy central market and swarth of government buildings, seems to lack that unkempt and untamed indifference.

We head out and explore, and eat, and then see the awesome free nightly Mosaika light show at (on?) Parliament.  We head back to the hotel and from our vantage point watch with some amazement, the nightlife and crowds of people on the streets below.  Surprisingly, Ottawa’s nightlife seems to be far busier than expected.  Very early the next morning when grabbing a drink of water, I look out the window to still find a healthy amount of foot traffic and drunken revelry passing by.  It’s Friday morning.  Ottawa seems like a nice place.

Here’s the pictures.

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Parliament Hill pre-gaming during the day and getting ready to…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…go out at night and get absolutely…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFABULOUS!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking towards downtown Ottawa from the Parliament clock tower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite looking much like a church or chappel attached to the rear of Parliament, this is actually the Parliament library.  It’s interior decorated in an ornate, multi-tiered, Harry Potteresque style inside, photos are prohibited inside (lest the plebians discover the secret of the written word).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOttawa Fairmont Hotel and Rideau Canal from Gatineau.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADelicious beaver tail; deep-fried dough topped with maple butter and chocolate.  We ate this to begin acclimatising our palletes and conditioning our teeth in preparation for travel to the USA.

Montreal

From Quebec City we travelled to Montreal – the second largest city in Canada, the fifteenth largest in North America, and the second largest French speaking city in the world after Paris.

Once again, our skills in booking accommodation in foreign countries online proved to be satisfactory, but not outstanding.  Despite booking months in advance we were given a decent enough room, but on the basement level of the hotel.  This offered new insight to the often overlooked functionality of curtains and the street floor level windows, when combined with our location on a busy street corner, a healthy amount of pedestrian traffic, and my unabashed comfort with the natural state of the human body, led to several mildly amusing incidents.

It is hard to tell if it is the area in which we stayed or if it is the status quo of larger cities in North America in general, but Montreal, like other cities we have visited so far, has an odd mix of old-world charm, modern development, and a quasi-liberal attitude that gives one a simultaneous admiration of the individual freedoms enjoyed, and a slight disgust at the apparent disparity in quality of life enjoyed by her people.

That’s an odd sentence, but to put it plainly; it seems that people are largely free to do what they want within reasonable bounds and free from persecution as long as their behaviour does not impact others – this extends to people openly flouting any number of minor laws that might otherwise be prosecuted harshly in Australia and broadcast on prime-time television.  However, homelessness and general poverty (possibly just because of the area in which we stayed?) are rife.  I’m not implying that the former is somehow a cause or effect of the latter, but the apparent effects of the latter on lifestyle (that is; businesses geared towards affordability, low cost food, economic diversity, semi-legimate goods) do appear to promote a much more Bohemian culture in general.

I digress.

Montreal is diverse; architecturally, culturally, ethnically and economically.  One could spend paragraphs attempting to explain the intangible, but screw it, here’s some pictures instead.

Montreal from the Mont Royal Chalet
Montreal from the Mont Royal Chalet
Montreal streetscape
Montreal streetscape
Montreal Urban Jam - just down the street from our hotel
Montreal Urban Jam – just down the street from our hotel.
Also, a pride festival was on in The Village a few streets over
Also, a pride festival was on in The Village a few streets over.  
The old downtown
An old building in the old downtown center – this is Superman’s Fortress of Solitude from the 30’s or something.
Habitat 67
Habitat 67
Knoxville Wigsphere (a.k.a  The Biodome)
Knoxville Wigsphere (a.k.a The Biosphere)
The Biodome
The Biodome – a glorified zoo.

French but not French

I’ve always held a fascination with the history and legacy of French colonialism in North America, so where Daniella had her Rockies experience on the west coast, I was to have my Francophile indulgence towards the west.

If you’ve been reading our blog posts in order, you’ll know that we kind of bitched about Calgary feeling like America.  It’s always a very poor reflection on anyone to compare new experiences to something familiar, so, call us broke – Quebec feels a lot like France.

I’d like to say it’s not that people speak French (Australians speak strined English but aren’t “English”), but it is… even if a little bit.

It’s the French, and it’s the rows of stucco’ed stacked townhouses with claustrophobic, six-foot ceilings and wrought iron balconettes, and it’s the rich choice of local fresh cuisine, and churches peeking round every corner of a winding, cobble-stoned street, and the romantic feeling of being somewhere old and knowing that – for a moment – it feels like that romantic vision of Hollywood tripe you could easily digest and still have enough room for crepes afterwards.

So, what’s not like France?

I guess the wait staff are generally less like French staff off the tourist route in that most are bi-lingual and extremely accommodating of our  poor French, though in retrospect this may be due to their close proximity, regular interaction and the better neuroplasticity of youth in regard to linguistics, and proximity to their English-speaking neighbors and countrymen.

It also seems to cost a little less.  Which is nice.

Stepping outside of the popular tourist boundary of the old city wall of Old Quebec City we expect to find something closer to the real experience.  So we walk, and walk, and walk, and find (withing reasonable walking distance) nothing but what seems like European charm in old tenements, churches and mansions.

Historical charms on every corner that seem to largely go unnoticed, gardens and new growth in any and every spot of dirt anywhere, greened copper and bright zinc roofs and shady avenues.

The bad news?

Despite seeing poutine advertised across Canada so far, we’d made the decision to delay indulging until we were in its cultural birth place of Quebec.  Two large orders of poutine (chips topped with cheese curds and hot gravy) for lunch at a recommended restaurant left us a little disappointed –  good, but not great.  I’m sure the poutine was good, but I have an unfortunate habit of creating elaborate expectations of experiences via self-denial and delayed satisfaction that are rarely fulfilling when lived.

Here’s the image dump.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChateau Frontenac by night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…and by (an overcast) day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike France…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust a little bit…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd a little more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAParliament (“Quebec de las un politico de assemblianiana casa” or something)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPoutine.

 

Calgary; a place.

 

Other than spending a few hours waiting at LAX, we have yet to step foot in America.  And yet somehow, Calgary seems to tick every box on a list of cultural stereotypes that one might associate with Canada’s neighbor to the south.

Calgary “feels” like America is portrayed on TV; lots of busy freeway, lots of malls packed with lots of fast food franchises, a vague undercurrent of a frontier motif underscoring the city’s cultural identity.

Arriving via Greyhound we catch the CTrain through the city to our hotel south of the city.  I’d spent some time on the bus reading the mostly very negative reviews of our hotel on various websites, so finding that our room was clean, reasonably roomy and included both a mini-fridge and coffee making facilities (largely absent from the hotels we’d stayed at so far) was a welcome surprise.

Heading out to get acquainted with Calgary was a decidedly average experience.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the city – it’s reasonably clean, easy to navigate, is somewhat cheaper and has more shopping/food/booze options than the cities we have visited so far, but for a city that is at the heart of Canada’s oil industry, it doesn’t seem to have anything else to offer.

Walking to Fort Calgary (Calgary’s birthplace) we pass unkempt vacant blocks on the edge of the city core, and weed’s and patchy dry grass surround the unimpressive recreated fort.  This wouldn’t seem out of place in a smaller town, but my understanding is Calgary prides itself on it’s cowboy flavour and heritage and that there’s no shortage of money in North America’s fastest growing city.

We head back through the city core passing the tower and the historic sandstone heritage buildings downtown.  We see The Bow, we see the Armoury, we see the other landmarks, we finish at Princes Island Park.  It’s a hot day, it seems dusty and we’re indifferent.

Later in the evening we’ll walk along a busy highway to purchase American beer (cheaper than Canadian) at a large mall and drink it while watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TV in a hotel room.  Calgary has no soul.  Calgary feels like America.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalgary Tower next to the Fairmont Pallisades.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking west from downtown.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Bow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking north on Calgary across Princes Island.

 

Banff! Biff! Pow! Kazam!

Banff; the highest elevated town in Canada and site of the UNESCO listed Banff parklands.  Arriving in the town after spending a bit more than ten hours on an overnight bus from Vancouver we stepped off at the Banff railway station and immediately began turning in circles taking in the picturesque Canadian Rockies that encircle the town from every angle.

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As we’d arrived early in the morning, we strolled the main street, drank a coffee and then checked our bags into the place at which we’d be staying and headed out to make the most of our day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the picture above the Fairmont Hotel Banff sits nestled at the foot of Sulphur Mountain – the two peaks in the center are the end point of the mountain gondola ride up, and the weather station from left to right respectively.

Somehow I managed to talk Daniella into climbing up there – it’s a hard climb, but we made it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From this viewpoint at the weather station, Banff is visible in the bottom left of the picture below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd another view of the surrounding mountains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs shown in the picture from the weather station above, Banff wraps around the base of the smaller Tunnel Mountain – we climbed that bastard the day after and checked out Bow River Falls on the way back down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we headed out to Lake Louise renowned for it’s views of the nearby glaciers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water of the lake is a stunning blue due to the minerals scraped out of the surrounding rock by glacial movement.  In the distance you can see Queen Victoria glacier.  We walked out to the Plain of the Six Glaciers for a better view.

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Also, chipmunks are fairly common and cute little bastards.

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