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Feel the Beat

Canada #35 Québec

The beating of drums drowned out the sounds of early morning commuters as we entered Old Québec through Porte St Jean. Next to Artillery Park, a sergeant of the Compagnies Franche gave a stirring speech encouraging us to join the Governor’s guard. As an added incentive, an artillery man fired his musket, the blast disturbing birds resting in nearby trees.

We weren’t tempted to enlist. Instead, we joined Canada Parks guide Pierre-Olivier for a walk along the ramparts of Québec City.

The fortified walls surrounding Old Québec are the only remaining city walls in North America north of Mexico. Recognised as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site of Canada, the defensive system of walls dates from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Beginning at Porte St Jean, we climbed to the top of the ramparts. While we enjoyed views of the old city and the newer areas beyond the ramparts, we learned how the walls were constructed, looked inside a soldier’s casemate, fortified to protect the guns inside, and learned how ammunition was stored in the powder magazine.

When our walk with Pierre-Olivier ended at Porte St Louis, we continued along the ramparts to La Promenades des Gouverneurs, a walkway built in 1958 to commemorate Québec’s 350th anniversary.

The 655 metre path clings to the side of Cap Diamant, where the fortifications of the old city are still visible. We stopped many times to admire the broad expanse of the mighty St Lawrence River.

After descending 310 steps we arrived at Terrasse Dufferin, named for Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada from 1872 to 1878. It was due to his intervention that Québec’s famous city walls were saved from demolition, before being repaired and restored. In his final act as Governor General, Lord Dufferin laid the foundation stone for the terrace that bears his name.

The 671 metre boardwalk, high above the river, leads from the promenade to the base of Château Frontenac, Québec’s famous luxury hotel, opened in 1893.

At the end of the terrace, we boarded the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec for an ride down the steep hill to Petit-Champlain and Place Royale, site of the first French settlement in North America in 1608. It was easy to imagine we’d been transported to 17th century France as we wandered along cobblestoned streets past beautiful French styled buildings.

Before parting ways with Pierre-Olivier earlier in the day, we’d asked him what he would suggest we do in Québec. His recommendation – a 12 minute ferry ride across the St Lawrence River to Lévis. After several hours of walking, it made a nice change to sit on the outside deck enjoying the cool breeze. From the ferry terminal, we walked along Quai Paquet, where children played among 160 jets of a fountain set into the pavement.

A red wooden staircase zigzagging up the cliff beckoned and, with no idea what was at the top, we climbed up. All we found was a quiet suburban street, but when we turned around the view over the river to Québec City, with Château Frontenac towering above the old town, was stunning.

After returning on the ferry, we joined the crowds in front of the Fresque des Québécois mural, painted on the side of Maison Soumande. The beautifully detailed mural depicts fifteen of Québec’s most important historical people, including the city’s founder Samuel de Champlain and its protector, Lord Dufferin.

Instead of ascending on the funiculaire, we climbed our third set of stairs for the day. The Escalier Casse-Cou, also known as the Breakneck Stairs because of their steep incline, are the city’s oldest steps, built in 1635. When we reached the top, we had one last Québecois destination in mind – Chocolato. This chocolate themed café on Rue Saint-Jean has an incredible range of ice creams, sorbets and sundaes and the most difficult decision of the whole day was what to choose. After much deliberation, we ordered sundaes; mine was a Forêt Noir, Glen’s a Caramel Royal.

Our day ended where it had begun, at Porte St Jean, but this time the beating we could hear was not the drums calling us to action, but our hearts as we savoured every delicious mouthful of our afternoon treats.

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Island Life

Canada #31 Toronto Island Park

In the summer months, crowded ferries travel back and forth all day long from their terminal in downtown Toronto to Toronto Island Park. The curving beaches, wide flat cycle paths and walking tracks on the islands are busy, and the amusement park and children’s farm are popular attractions.

Even though the 15 islands which make up the park cover an area of just 330 hectares, it’s not difficult to leave the crowds behind and spend time in more peaceful surroundings. There are 262 private homes and more than 600 permanent residents on the islands, and a guided walking tour is the perfect way to learn about their relaxed island lifestyle.

On a warm summer’s day we join long term residents Susan and Linda for a 90 minute exploration of the residential communities on Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island. We learn that the islands were not always islands; they were once joined to the shore of Lake Ontario by a sandbank. Wild storms in 1852 and 1858 washed away the sand, creating a wide channel linking Toronto’s inner harbour and Lake Ontario.

No cars are allowed on the islands and most people travel on foot or by bicycle. Six bridges connect the islands and shaded footpaths meander through the quiet neighbourhoods.

With warm humid weather in summer, most homes are surrounded by lush green gardens overflowing with flowers. We pause often to admire the  beautiful gardens and the wildlife they attract. Houses on the city side of the island also have enviable views across the water to Toronto’s CBD.

When our walk with Susan and Linda is finished, we say farewell and continue along a broad timber boardwalk. Beginning at Ward’s Island Beach, it follows the curves of the shoreline to the pier at Centreville.

On this sunny day the calm water of Lake Ontario gently laps the sandy shores of the island beaches. Watersports enthusiasts as well as the local wildlife take advantage of the glorious conditions.

As we come closer to Centreville, we hear once more the sounds of daytrippers enjoying themselves. It might only be a 13 minute ferry ride from the city, but they must all feel like they’re on an island holiday.

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To Market, To Market

Canada #30 St Lawrence Market, Toronto

On Front Street the façade of St Lawrence Market has an almost stately appearance. The red of the bricks is enhanced by overflowing tubs of begonias, shady market umbrellas and a line of Canadian flags flapping in the breeze.

Step through the wide timber doors and the feeling of calm elegance disappears, as the bustle of vendors selling their wares is matched by the urgency of shoppers in search of the freshest produce and best bargains.

There has been a public market on this site since 1803, first in the north building and, since 1845, in the south. Today more than 120 specialty stores sell fresh foods – fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, bakery and dairy products.

As well as filling their baskets with fresh food to take home, hungry shoppers flock to the restaurants and cafés to fill up on local delicacies and traditional treats.

In April 2012, St Lawrence Market was declared by National Geographic as the world’s best food market.

After devouring our lunch of freshly made crêpes filled with fruit and cream, we could understand why!

Edge Walking

Canada #27 CN Tower, Toronto

If the thought of walking around the outside of a concrete tower 356 metres above the ground leaves you feeling uneasy, it might be best to look away now. But if you’re comfortable seeing others do it please read on.

At a height of 553.33 metres, CN Tower dominates the skyline of downtown Toronto. With a 102 metre broadcasting antenna atop the concrete tower, the structure is visible from anywhere in the city.

Up closer, look again and you may see intrepid tourists braving the EdgeWalk, the world’s highest full circle hands-free walk. Balanced on a ledge just 1.5 metres wide and attached by safety harnesses, EdgeWalkers go right around the main pod, testing their daring along the way by leaning out over the edge.

I’ve said in the past I’m not bothered by heights, with the proviso that I know I am safe. Even though I had no reservations about the safety of EdgeWalk, I knew this was literally a step too far for me. So while Glen and our daughter took up the challenge, I rode up in the elevator to the SkyPod. From a further 91 metres above, I watched their father-daughter adventure unfold.

After half an hour outside, they re-entered the pod and I could see them no more. It was my turn go wandering.

As I waited for them on the Lookout Level I enjoyed spectacular 360° views of the city.

I gazed out over the Toronto Islands to the vast expanse of Lake Ontario.

I stood on the glass floor and looked down to the pavement 342 metres below.

I ventured onto the Outdoor Sky Terrace, where a chilly breeze blowing through the safety netting was proof that I did actually go outside the tower.

So if like me you draw the line at walking around the outside, make sure you still go to the top of CN Tower. The views are amazing and you can always look down on those who do go walking.

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One Room

Canada #25 Casa Loma

On a hill overlooking the city of Toronto stands a Gothic Revival mansion, once home to the fabulously wealthy Pellatt family. Casa Loma, Spanish for Hill House, was built between 1911 and 1914. Now owned by the City of Toronto, the house and gardens are visited each year by more than half a million people.

There are 98 rooms in the house, some sumptuously decorated while others have remained unfinished since work stopped at the start of the First World War. From the grandeur of the Great Hall to the opulent private suites of Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife Lady Mary Pellatt, there’s an exaggerated sense of luxury.

But the most beautiful room in this enormous house is also the least adorned.

The conservatory, designed in the style of a Mediterranean courtyard, is tiled with Italian marble. Garden beds lined with local marble from Bancroft, Ontario overflow with orchids, lilies and lush greenery.

Water plays over an ornamental fountain at one end of the conservatory; it sparkles in the sunlight shining through high arched windows.

The gaze of every visitor is drawn upwards to a central dome of elaborate stained glass. Decorated with trailing grapevines, the dome glows in the sunshine while at night 600 lightbulbs illuminate the delicate designs.

With a room as charming as this in their house, it’s a wonder Henry and Mary ever used the rest.

Sensing the Past

Canada #23 Fort York

When we first saw the historic buildings of Fort York surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto, the early 19th century defenses seemed out of place. It made more sense when we discovered that the city, originally named York, was founded here.

The first garrison was built on this site in 1793 by the British Army, in response to border hostilities with American forces. In 1811 it was fortified with the addition of the defensive wall and circular gun battery.

In 1812, the United States declared war on Canada and in 1813 the American Army and Navy attacked York. Much of the fort was destroyed at this time, but it was soon rebuilt by the British. In August 1814, a second American attack was unsuccessful. The war between Canada and the United States finally ended in December 1814 but Fort York remained an active military site until the 1930s.

Today the fort is a living history museum, with displays, exhibitions and re-enactments which heightened all of our senses.

We saw both the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s barracks. In the barracks soldiers, who were often accompanied by their families, lived side by side, eating and sleeping together.

In contrast, the officers dined in luxury with fine china, silverware and crystal. Probably even more precious in this building was the luxury of space.

Like the soldiers of the Guard’s Artillery Detachment, we covered our ears with our hands as the Cohorn mortar field gun was fired at midday.

We heeded the call of the Fort York Drums as they marched onto the parade ground. Wearing the uniform of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the fifers and drummers played military tunes which would have been both familiar and comforting to 19th century soldiers.

We followed the scent of baking to the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess, where freshly baked gingerbread was cooling on the table.

While she shared the biscuits, the cook explained how these traditional treats are as popular now as they would have been in the early 1800s – there are never any left at the end of the day!

As we rested our hands on the kitchen table, we wondered about those who lived and worked here 200 years ago; who lifted the latch on the fortified gate, watched over the cooking in the open fireplace or dipped rainwater from the barrel with a bucket.

While we had time to wander in contemplation, we sensed we were surrounded by more than just those modern buildings outside the wall. The spirits of people from times long past were all around us.

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Hello Toronto!

Canada #21 Toronto

The subway journey from our suburban Airbnb to Toronto’s CBD was not long but the difference in outlook was amazing. In High Park, a few people were out walking or enjoying the summer weather on their front verandahs.

At Union Station in the city centre, we were engulfed by a bustling crowd all intent on their own agenda. Unlike most of those people, on our first day in Toronto, we had no particular destination. We spent the day exploring.

From Union Station, we headed south along Bay Street towards Lake Ontario. At Harbour Square Park, we watched the ferries coming and going, taking passengers over the water to Toronto Islands.

Our plan to walk some way along the lake shore was dashed by the horrified look on the face of the lady in the Tourist Information van. “Oh no. Don’t go there,” she said with an expression which told us it wasn’t a good idea. She directed us back along Bay Street with a right turn onto Front Street, assuring us this was a safer and more interesting route. She was right! There was a lot to see along Front Street.

We didn’t have to read the name on this building; the images on the sides gave away its purpose. The Hockey Hall of Fame, first opened in 1943, moved to Front Street in 1993. The building dates from 1885 and was originally head office for the Bank of Montreal.

At Berczy Park we came across this fanciful fountain, where 27 dogs pay homage to a golden bone. Later we found out there is also one cat and wished we’d known to look for it.

Just beyond Berczy Park is the original Flatiron building. Constructed in 1892, 10 years before its more famous cousin in New York, it was head office for the Gooderham and Worts Distillery for 60 years. Today,  commercial offices and a popular pub fill the building. The rear façade of the Flatiron is decorated with a large trompe l’oeil mural, a mirror image of the building opposite.

Further along Front Street is St Lawrence Market. Farmers have sold their fresh produce on this site since 1803 and the current building dates from 1848. Voted the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012, there are 120 speciality stores selling locally sourced fresh foods. The market is open every Tuesday to Saturday.

Our final stop in this direction was the historic Distillery District, founded by the same family who built the Flatiron building. The first building on the site was a windmill constructed in 1832. The Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery soon followed and, by the 1860s, was the largest distillery in the world. Production continued until 1990. In 2001, the abandoned buildings were repurposed as boutique shops, restaurants and residences surrounded by gardens, sculptures and artworks. The district hosts a vibrant series of cultural events and festivals throughout the year.

We retraced our steps along Front Street back to Union Station and continued on in the other direction to CN Tower. At 553.3 metres high, the communications and observation tower is visible from anywhere. Up close, its height is daunting and tourists braving the Edge Walk outside the observation deck look like tiny insects.

The Rogers Centre, a multi-purpose stadium and home of Toronto’s major league baseball team the Toronto Blue Jays, is nearby. This day the stadium was quiet but when a home game is played more than 30,000 people come to cheer on their team.

Leaving Front Street, we walked along York Street to our final destination. Nathan Philips Square, where the old and new City Halls sit side by side, is one of the most photographed parts of the city. Toronto City Council operated in the old City Hall from 1899 before moving across the forecourt to the new building in 1966.

Three Freedom Arches dedicated to Canadians who have fought for freedom for all span the reflecting pool. The TORONTO sign is flanked at one end by a maple leaf commemorating the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation and at the other by a traditional medicine wheel acknowledging First Nations peoples.

We were glad we talked to the lady in her information van at Harbour Square Park. She really did send us in the right direction!

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