three Canadian cities
When we left Berlin our destination was Montreal, and our first visit to Canada. We arrived tired on a too hot afternoon [later news bulletins spoke of a highest temperature in so many years] and our first impressions of Montreal were not appealing. The city seemed scruffy and undistinguished. I guess after London and Berlin its North American tendency to sprawl and appear over-sized in every way was an unfortunate contrast with the more human-scale European cities we had just visited and so enjoyed. That, coupled with the temperature and our tiredness maybe caused us to take a less than approving initial view of the city.
We had a quite pleasant time in Montreal, however the city failed to ignite any spark of delight in us. The old quarter is very handsomely maintained; is smartly presented to appeal to visitors. Similarly parts of the business and commercial heart of the city neighbouring the quarter are also quite stylish. Yet we felt there seemed no real centre or focus to the city and mostly projected an air of shabby tiredness. This was disappointing since i think we had expected Montreal to embody a degree of pizazz and French sophistication. Maybe we just caught it in a wrong moment; maybe we were in the wrong mood, a lull in the middle of our journey.
I don’t wish to suggest Montreal wholly displeased us. We had several perfectly pleasant experiences: our hotel suite was spacious and well situated between the old quarter, the Village and downtown; we admired the stylish Gault Hotel and would have liked to stay there but satisfied ourselves instead with an evening meal in their restaurant which was fine tho’ not outstanding; we found an excellent bakery in the Village that served quite good coffee and made delicious pastries and breads; and in a vast atrium beneath the Hyatt and near the Place des Arts we found the MBCo. Boulangerie which served superb pastries and sandwiches; also in the Village an ordinary corner cafe-diner were we could get basic food, beer and ok coffee, and watch the local gay community; the contemporary art gallery had an exhibition by two memorably arresting artists, Vik Muniz and Thomas Hirschhorn, both of whom were new to us and their work well worth discovering.
From Montreal we went by train to Ottawa.
Canada’s capital quite impressed us. Ottawa is a smart, prosperous-appearing city. We much enjoyed our time here, and while this was no doubt partly due to the favourable impression the city presented us in general, the major cause of our pleasure was the presence of friends. We would most probably not have thought of stopping in Ottawa had not Martin and Clodoaldo been living there, and their hospitality and services as guides to the city certainly made our visit very enjoyable and gave us much to remember. The presence of Allen, who came up from San Jose to join the four of us, served to increase this enjoyment.
One of the city-visitor things we did was tour the houses of parliament which included going up to the viewing floor in the Peace Tower which gave an excellent view over the city. We also spent a grey, damp Sunday afternoon at the art gallery – a building with several impressive spaces [the entry ramp to an atrium beneath ‘teepee’ skylights; 2 internal courtyards with geometric plantings and pool suspended over the entry foyer] and the usual range of art works – a reasonable number of which stopped us and asked for attention.
When we travelled on to Toronto, again by train, Allen journeyed with us. He was to visit family friends in the city, but we joined up again for a day together to seek out some of the major sites-to-see in the inner city. On that day we had an enjoyable time looking at the press photo exhibition at the Brookfield Centre Lambert Galleria; City Hall and the Eaton Centre; the old distillery quarter; Casa Loma and its astonishing stables.
We much liked Toronto – again our preferred sort of city: big, bustling and prosperous, with lots of variety in even just the few districts we explored. We were impressed and amused by some of the architecture we saw, such as the addition to the design school but even more so the Daniel Libeskind extension to the Royal Ontario Museum. [If only Christchurch could overcome its timidity and boldly tell Peter Beaven to let go of the nineteenth century.] We also played tourist and took a trip to Niagara Falls – fine to do once; yes, they are impressive – especially close-up to the vast onyx curve of solid water sliding silently over the top edge of the falls on the Canadian side – but after a little while, it’s just a waterfall. The Canadian town of Niagara appalled us in its Disney tackiness – the place must be a kind of hell in the height of the summer visitor season.
On our last evening we walked around the corner from our hotel to Jamie Kennedy’s Bar and Restaurant which we had read good things about. The reviewers proved to be quite accurate – this is a very good place. Kennedy is one of Toronto’s leading chefs – had worked in numerous other restaurants – this is his first own establishment. He serves ‘small plates’ – very up-market tapas – and the five we had were exquisite. We indulged ourselves and had the recommended wine with each – fortunately in small glass sizes – these were without exception exceptional – lovely, lovely wines – many of them Canadian which we’re not likely to taste again. The atmosphere has that nice buzziness, not too loud, but a busy buzz of people enjoying themselves and a staff who are on to it but not making a fuss about that. Our waitress was one of the kind you encounter in these good places every so often and wish for always. She was affable and loved to talk about the food and the wine, and knew what she was talking about – especially the wine. She gave excellent advice without the least pushiness and was genuinely interested in our reaction to and comments on what we had just tasted. This was a fitting frame and end to what had begun at Hutong. We left the restaurant elated, just as we had in Hong Kong, and the lantern of lights of Toronto’s skyline that appeared as we walked out onto the street seemed to reflect that mood as well.
We hugely enjoyed the whole of this trip. We could have borne for it to continue a little longer. However maybe best to finish thus, and there will be others – soon!