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Returning: A Second Look at Four Canadian Cities

  • Toronto
  • Ottawa
  • Montreal
  • Quebec City

    Canada…so close to the U.S., and to the outside observer, so similar. But as a frequent visitor, I find there are many differences in the Canadian and American psyches—and in how that plays out in government, commerce, attitudes.

    For instance, Canadians expect their government to provide basic services, including comprehensive medical care—and are willing to pay substantial taxes to support these common goods. Perhaps as a result, the spirit of entrepreneurship and adventure found in every small hamlet in the US seems to be harder (though far from impossible) to find.

    In the summer of 2005, our family drove through Ontario and Quebec, seeing a lot different and a lot the same in four cities we'd been to previously. I noticed some definite changes—like the influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia that can be felt even in small cities like Kingston, Ontario, and to a much lesser degree, a visible Muslim presence. Also, Canada has gotten a whole lot more caffeinated: almost every few blocks, you can find a Starbucks or Second Cup, plus dozens of independent coffee houses in each city. These changes certainly create a deeper cosmopolitanism, and—for me personally, as a long-time vegetarian—far more food choices in a land where only ten years ago, even pizza was hard to get without meat.

    The invasion by US-based multinational corporations is also much in evidence, and not just through Starbucks. I don't remember seeing a single Wal-Mart on our previous trips; now, they're all over. As are Subway, McDonald's, Burger King, and various American banks, shoe companies, gas stations, and on and on.

    Yet even in the largest cities, Canada still focuses its commerce on independent businesses with one or just a few locations. Canadians are still, on the whole, quieter than Americans, more wiling to engage in civil discourse (something those of us south of the border seem to be losing in our increasingly rancorous "with us or against us" political climate), and still possessing real journalism with substantive coverage of major news.

    At the same time, Canada remains European enough to value the Slow Food movement…beers and cheeses, for instance, that are still living, and completely different than what we can get in the US. Breads and pastries made by hand according to traditional recipes. Easy availability of fresh organic produce at farmers' markets and roadside stands.

    And then there's the oddity of Quebec. French language and culture completely overwhelm the English in this vast province. Where the rest of Canada offers signs and package labels in both French and English—and where most residents of other provinces under 40 seem to speak at least a modicum of both—in Quebec it's not unusual to see and hear only French.

    Our travels this summer took us back to four major cities that we'd been to previously: from west to east, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec.

    Toronto (previous visit: 1997)

    We stayed with friends just off Danforth Avenue, known as The Danforth: a vibrant and lengthy strip of ethnic communities. The section we're in is mixed, with more Chinese emphasis than anything else (even a Chinese piano showroom). A few blocks west toward downtown, it turns Arabic and Muslim (e.g, Pakistani), and that bleeds into a massive Greek Town, complete with Greek-alphabet streetsigns. Our hosts tell us that Little India lies between them and Lake Ontario (a mile or so away).

    Our day began with a quick, efficient subway ride to Yonge and Dundas, home of Eaton Centre, a large multilevel, modern shopping center in a skyscraper district filled with names that would be familiar to many US shoppers. Apparently, this is also a key entrance to Toronto's massive below-ground shopping network, whee you can walk for miles below the streets. We didn't tarry long there, but enjoyed the adjoining open-air market of African and Indonesian craft items, home-made jewelry, essential floral oils, and brightly patterned hip clothing.

    This co-existinece of the corporate and the funky can be found elsewhere in Toronto, such as Harbourfront Centre (along the lake shore), where corporations and government agencies have sponsored artists' garden plots—and the day we were there, a well-attended outdoor concert plus more hip vendor booths (and a wonderful international food court).

    But I digress. Back to the Eaton Centre neighborhood: Though signs informed us we were indeed in Old Town Toronto as we walked from there east as far as Jarvis, there wasn't much evidence of it. A few 19th and early-20th century buildings survived, their two- and three-storey silhouettes almost lost among the far taller and more modern buildings that surround them, But for the most part, streets like Yonge and Bay feel like a smaller, mellower Midtown Manhattan: shiny, modern, densely built, and mostly well over ten stories.

    Our goal, at the corner of Front and Jarvis, was St. Lawrence Hall, described as one of the most diverse ethnic food markets in North America. Unfortunately, it's closed Mondays. So we continued down to the lake front, hitting it in an industrial section dominated by the Redpath Sugar plant. There's a small museum attached to the plant, but on this holiday Monday, it wasn't an option.

    Going west along the harbor front, we visited a museum-quality gallery specializing in Inuit carvings (Queen's Quay at Lower Simcoe), and then west again to Harbourfront Centre, which I've already described.

    Next, we took the streetcar to Kensington Market, one area that hasn't changed much since our last visit. Colorful Victorian houses, closely crowded like Haight-Ashbury in its glory—and the first floors filled with an assortment of funky food and clothing shops. Around the corner, centered on Dundas and Spadina, is the sprawling Downtown Chinatown (Toronto has several Chinatowns)—where you can get anything you could find in New York's Chinatown, but in a much more relaxed atmosphere, relatively speaking (still one of the busiest and most intense neighborhoods in Toronto, however). The street signs are bilingual here as well, but the neighborhood itself is as much Vietnamese as Chinese.

    The following morning, we returned to Saint Lawrence. The market is indeed diverse, though quite a bit smaller than I'd expected. It's an indoor market with perhaps 60 or 80 stalls, offering a range of cheese shops, butchers, fast-food restaurants of a dozen or so cultures (we chose, for our lunch, a mix of Greek, Polish, and fancy European cheese), bulk foods organic groceries, and craft shops.

    Ottawa (previous visit: 2002)

    The last time we were here, approaching from the west and leaving to the east, I had been amazed most of all at Ottawa's compactness. It seemed to take only a few minutes from the time we hit the city limit until we parked within sight of the Parliament buildings.

    This time, entering along Route 7 from the southwest, we traversed the huge sprawling metropolis of 750,000, and felt it.

    Our last visit was extremely brief, just a few hours, and most of it concentrated in Byward Market, a downtown neighborhood of pedestrian malls lined with fruit vendors, cheese shops, and sellers of cheap Balinese.

    This time, we've seen the downtown Ottawa of the locals, with its bagel shops, pizza joints, and so forth. We're staying at a B&B across from the central bus station with its 18 gates, and we walked from Parliament Hill—where there's an excellent information centre with nice long hours, and self-service computer kiosks along with knowledgeable staff and a big computer-assisted diorama of the metropolitan area—all the way to Somerset and Elgin. Although it's many blocks, this was only about a ten-minute walk. Reason: to attend a concert at the Church of St John the Evangelical. (The concert, one of the best classical performances I've ever seen, was part of the 12th annual Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, which claims to be the largest in the world.

    Along Elgin there are numerous quick and cheap food choices, which was convenient since we had to eat while waiting in line for the house to open. I chose an excellent falafel from the Iraqi-owned Shwarma Spot, two blocks toward the government area.

    The following day, we went through the National Gallery and the Mint. The art museum is a beautiful new building with lots of glass and light in the main halls. There was a special exhibit on the Italian Renaissance, which was quite thorough and well-done. But other exhibits were disappointing. The Asian art collection was one gallery of stone carvings form India, and a dozen or so pieces in a side gallery. And shockingly, the Inuit exhibit was the work of one artist who used felt-tip markers to draw cartoons of scenes from her 1950s childhood in an isolated village of the far north; as far as we could tell, the museum only had one of the beautiful carvings that fill private galleries throughout Canada.

    The Mint was a nice tour, although very little was actually going on that day (most of the workers were off on vacation). And it turns out the Ottawa branch makes mostly commemorative and collectible coins and medals, while the high-volume daily production is at Winnipeg. And the bills are farmed out by the Bank of Canada to various private printing companies.

    Still, it was quite fascinating to learn how the Canadian two-dollar coin, with its two different alloys, is made, and to learn quite a bit about coin production generally.

    Montreal (previous visits: 1984, 2002)

    On our last, very brief, visit to Montreal, we had stumbled on a wonderful Italian restaurant in one of the quieter sections of the Vieux Carre (Old Quarter). We set out to find it without success, but were extremely pleased with our replacement choice: Stash Cafe, a Polish restaurant on Rue Saint Paul with moderate prices, pleasant decor, and excellent food. Our pierogis, cold beet soup, nalesniki (cheese-filled crepe with a berry sauce), and krokiety (mushroom-filled pastry) were all perfectly prepared.

    The last time we were here was a slow night, a Monday or a Tuesday. Saturday night in the summer is a completely different experience. Much of the Old City—especially the several blocks nearest the corner of Saint Paul and Saint Denis—is simply mobbed, the cafes and bars are all busy, and live music filters through the open windows of many of them. Some of the performers were quite good.

    It gets quieter heading toward Place You'ville, but still a lot more activity than we'd remembered—and parking is tight. However, the Metro goes within a few blocks of various points in the Vieux Carre.

    We'd stayed the previous time in a low-quality but fairly central cheap hotel that we'd called at the last minute. This time, we were staying in a private home in Longeuil. Longeuil has its own street of cafes and restaurants, and a busy nightlife on a Saturday night. The Metro goes within a few blocks of one end of the strip, but we're staying on the other end, a good 20 or 30 minutes walk.

    This visit was brief, but we did meet a friend at Au Pain Doré, a wonderful bakery across the street from the Atwater market (and with several other locations around town), with superb croissants and robust cafe au lait.

    Quebec City (previous visit 1984)

    Just seven hours by car from our Massachusetts home, a trip to Quebec City is a bit like driving to Europe. The western part, just off the freeway has been built up substantially since our last visit 21 years ago, with high-rise hotels along the highway and congested traffic along the main arteries. Approaching the touristy areas, the Grand Alee, for several blocks outside the Old City, has become a lot busier. It's been Restaurant Row for a long time, but now hucksters stand in front of many establishments, trying to woo the passing tourists. We did eat in one that looked promising, and were disappointed.

    We're staying in a rustic 200-year-old B&B on Ile d'Orleans, a charming and peaceful agricultural and artisan area across a long bridge from the mainland, about ten minutes outside the city to the bridge. The island is comprised of several distinct villages, all of which offer views of the wide Saint Lawrence River.

    Until the long, narrow bridge was built in the 1930s, the island was quite isolated, and as a result, its ways of life are well preserved. Farming still dominates, and has a strong agritourism component. Fishing and maritime industries were present, but not in the numbers I'd expect. And there are quite a few crafters and artists as well.

    We stayed in Saint-Pierre, another 10 minutes beyond the bridge. This is a lovely, relatively rural spot that feels quite distant from all the city craziness—which our host described as the least charming village on the island. Driving around, we were especially charmed by Saint Jean, with its seaside church, stunning views, odd rock formation—like someone had broken off a hill, leaving a bumpy series of lightly ridged rock in mixtures of brownish-red and gray, all around the same low height. Very nice bakery across from the church.

    No visit to Quebec is complete without seeing at least one of the massive waterfalls. We started the day with a drive out to the Saint-Anne Canyon. This was one attraction that was worth the admission fee. It's a beautiful park, with numerous overlooks above, below, and alongside the mighty falls—taller than, but not nearly as wide as, Niagara. For serious adventures, you can cross the chasm on a zipline; we saw one brave soul do a handstand in the middle of his cable run. We chose the swaying suspension bridges as more than enough adventure. A self-guided tour, with signs in six languages, takes about 45 minutes. Thoreau actually walked here from Quebec City, which must have taken most of a day.

    On the way back, we stopped at a museum of bees, smelling wonderfully of honey. A surprisingly extensive exhibit told us about the history of honey and mead, the culture and lifestyle of bees, and the range of products that depend on what the bees produce—even violin varnish from propolys. Admission is free, and of course, there's a gift shop.

    We also stopped at a cheese maker and watched huge vats of whey being stirred by machine, but there wasn't much of interest there.

    Quebec's other waterfall attraction, across from the Isle d'Orleans, is a very different sort of place: you're much more in touch with the sheer power of the falls, a roaring torrent also as tall as Niagara, and about as broad as the smallest of the main falls there. We took the gondola up and walked across the bridge that goes right over the precipice, and then walked down through a sun-exposed set of stairs running down the side of a barren hill. Halfway down, there's a choice between wet and dry alternatives. We chose the wet one (raincoats strongly advised—we had ours and still got pretty wet), and were amazed not only by the force of the spray but by the wind currents the waterfall kicks up.

    The rest of the day was in and close to the Old City, which hasn't changed much except that prices are higher. The Upper Town is where most of the massive palaces and government buildings are, somewhat newer than the Lower Town but still full of history—and tourists.

    The Lower Town is much more to my liking: small gray stone dwellings and shops around a series of squares and alleys, some dating back to the 1680s. Many of the oldest are grouped near the Place Royal, accessible by both stairs and funicular railway from the Upper Town. This is also the gateway to a very active port, with ferries, cargo barges, small passenger boats, and constant activity.

    Halfway between the Upper and Lower Towns, there's a stretch of the city wall that's been turned into a park. Back up the stairs, we turned past the most famous element of Quebec's skyline: the Chateau Frontenac with its upper floors bulging out and castle towers at the base. A boardwalk leads south with a great view of the waterfront and glimpses of the Lower Town.

    Crossing back under its arches, we made our way to Rue St. Jean, a wonderful discovery. Starting in the heart of the Upper Town, this street passes through a gate in the wall, and continues for several blocks with a delightful assortment of bookstores, music stores, reasonably priced restaurants and cafes, dessert emporiums, art and craft galleries, world heritage stores, and more. Although it certainly appears to cater to tourists, the streets are much quieter here; and Quebecers vastly outnumber visitors.

    And perhaps the numbering system is designed to keep it that way. At its base, the numbers start at zero and go up, but then about two blocks before crossing under the wall, it jumps to the 1200s and then works downward. Absolutely not to be missed: Erico Choco-Musee, at #634. In addition to a good exhibit on the history and manufacture of chocolate (wall signs in French but several copies of an English-language translation available for browsing), there's a delectable assortment of truffles, pastries, chocolate oddities (a milk chocolate rabbit in a metal case, playing a white chocolate saxophone, for example), and an exotic ice cream bar with flavors not easily found elsewhere. I sampled the raspberry-tarragon,` which tasted better than it sounds—but settled on a mixture of Aztec chocolate, with a rich mixture of cocoa, hot pepper, cinnamon, and other spices—and a dark chocolate made with 70% cocoa solids. My daughter had a full-bodied but mellow cup of hot cocoa, after spending several minutes choosing among the variety of ways they offered to prepare it. Staff is helpful and friendly, and the quality is excellent.

    We'd already eaten, or we might have returned to the Carthage, also on Saint Jean. This Tunisian restaurant is celebrating its 26th year, and the couscous we had there in 1984 was a highlight of that trip.

    Even more of a Quebecer secret is a neighborhood several blocks north, starting along the busy thoroughfare of Boulevard Chareste, lined with department stores, fancy jewelers, boutiques— but the heart is along Saint Joseph, with its artisenal bakeries, antique stores, and galleries—and not another tourist to be seen in our 90 minutes exploring. We lunched at La BoÎte à Pain, 289 Saint-Joesph, where $15 amply fed four people with quiche, filo-pizza, a wonderful camembert-filled bread, and a big bowl of cafe au lait.

    Our trip happened to coincide with the start of a ten-day music festival, offering top-name performers in many genres: from rockers ZZ Top to British folk pioneer John Renbourn, as well as dozens of less familiar acts. A $20 button covered the whole thing; had we known, we might have planned to be around for more of it. As it was, we only made it to one event: an orchestra-and-opera-star performance of the French hit musical Starmania. The large outdoor amphitheater on the Plains of Abraham was jammed; we had to stand even to see the giant screens alongside the stage, and the concert was fabulous. We felt we got our money's worth just from this single event.

    The one "real" museum we went to was the Museum of Civilization, currently featuring special exhibits on the role of money throughout history, on the interplay of the Russian Orthodox Church and the czarist empire, and on salt. The museum is spacious, well-laid out, and well-curated, although some of the galleries are a bit too dark for my taste.

    There are three principal routes between Quebec and the Vermont border. On the way home, we chose scenic 116, and were rewarded with farms, small villages, and an occasional mountain view. The highway also goes through pretty territory, but shunpiking was more intimate with the landscape, and we were glad of our choice, which added somewhere around half an hour to the trip.

    Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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