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Behind the Walls

Canada #38 Montréal

What was behind those high white walls on Rue Saint-Catherine? With no signs to indicate what was inside and more people entering than leaving, we were curious to find out what the walls were hiding.

A few steps inside revealed a diverse display of art works in a unique minimalist setting. Galerie Blanc is an outdoor exhibition space, free and accessible all year round and open both day and night. The exhibition we saw included traditional paintings and sculpture, pop art and intriguing digital designs.

By day, the collection was wonderful. When we returned after dark the illuminated artwork glowed with an added vibrancy.

The characters in the old masters looked ready to walk out of their settings and the modern geometric patterns had an almost kaleidoscopic feel.

The detail in some works demanded close attention while others were better viewed from a distance.

On a warm summer evening and with the gallery open to the night sky we lingered inside the walls. Like the other visitors, we wanted to take our time at this wonderful exhibition.

Seeing Double

Canada #37 Montréal

As we walked through the centre of Montréal on our first afternoon, we met a small green creature with a very broad smile. He was everywhere, on flags and banners, street corners and pedestals. Who was this cute little guy?

We’d arrived in Montréal in time for the last weekend of the annual Just for laughs Festival and our new green friend was Victor, the festival mascot.

We wandered through the Quartier des spectacles where comedians, acrobats, magicians and musicians, surrounded by appreciative audiences, caught our attention.

Later we joined the crowd on Rue St Catherine for the 21st annual Twin Parade. The theme of the parade was A Voyage through Space and we were soon seeing double, with pairs of aliens, astronauts and outer space creatures filling the street.

The parade wasn’t limited to twins. Triplets and even quadruplets were there, and age was no barrier as little ones joined much older participants, all wearing elaborate space age costumes.

With this as our introduction to Montréal, we knew we were going to have a lot of fun.

More Than a Battlefield

Canada #36 Québec

On 13 September 1759, two opposing armies met on the grassy plains above the St Lawrence River in a battle which lasted less than an hour. The area known as the Plains of Abraham was named after Abraham Martin, a fisherman and river pilot who had farmed the land a century before. French troops, under the command of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, were overwhelmed by British Army and Royal Navy forces, led by General James Wolfe. Five days later, the city of Québec surrendered to Britain.

More than 250 years later, the Plains of Abraham National Battlefields Park is a place of peace, remembrance and contemplation. Markers commemorating the battle are placed throughout the gardens, detailing important moments and the people who took part.

After overnight showers the morning air is cool and damp and raindrops hang heavy on flowers in the gardens.

It’s a quiet weekday morning and the only creatures we meet are hungry squirrels foraging for breakfast…

and these quirky musical penguins.

Water plays in the centennial fountain, constructed in 1967 to celebrate 100 years since the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick united to form one independent nation.

Beyond the manicured lawns and neatly kept gardens, the grass is longer and the path, now just a narrow dirt track, leads to the top of Cap Diamant. We come to a Martello tower, strategically placed high above the St Lawrence River. Once a defensive fort housing a garrison of soldiers, the tower is now a small museum.

Following the path along the edge of the ridge, we arrive at Terrasse Pierre Dugua-De Mons. From this elevated vantage point, we admire again the wide expanse of Dufferin Terrace, the elegance of Château Frontenac and the St Lawrence River, silvery under the overcast sky.

Later, on our way home, we come across memorials to the two leaders of that long ago battle on the Plains of Abraham. Both died after being wounded by musket balls; General Wolfe not long after the battle began and the Marquis de Montcalm the following day.

They may have been on opposing sides in 1759 but today they are equally remembered for the roles they played in Québec’s colourful history.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

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.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

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.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

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.

Join Jo for Monday Walks and Becky for March Squares