Did you know that American troops invaded Canada once?
Yes – well done, you history buff you!
No – don’t feel bad, I didn’t know it either.
In 1812, the United States and Great Britain went to war. In April 1813, the US Army and Navy attacked York, as Toronto was called then. The outnumbered defenders retreated to Fort York from the beachhead on Lake Ontario. The Battle of York lasted six hours. The Americans occupied the town of York for six days, looting homes, destroying supplies and burning public buildings.
The Canadians retaliated in 1814 by burning the Capitol and the White House, among other buildings, in Washington.
War ended in December 1814 but news reached the Dominion in February 1815. Both sides claim victory to this day.
Fort York’s history
Fort York started as a garrison built by Lieutenant-Governor John S. Simcoe in 1793 to enable the British to control Lake Ontario.
As is usually the case, civilians settled nearby and gave the community the name of York. Years later, in 1834, the town was renamed Toronto.
The original log buildings deteriorated and were replaced by new barracks by Simcoe’s successors. The British Army continued to sue the fort until 1870, when the Canadian government took on the responsibility for the country’s defense. The army used Fort York until the 1930s.
The city of Toronto restores the fort in the early 1930s and opened it as a museum.
Fort York today – a visit in pictures
Fort York is located near downtown Toronto on 100 Garrison Road. I took the Red Rocket (TTC’s trolley) to the fort. I had to leg it for a bit to the entrance.
“What do you mean a medieval castle in Toronto?”- You’re entitled to think someone’s pulling your leg. But no, they are not. In fact, there is such a thing in the Annex North neighbourhood: Casa Loma, a medieval inspired castle built in 1911.
The owner, industrialist and financier Sir Henry Pellatt, had his dream home built on a hill overlooking Toronto. It took 300 men almost three years to complete. The house has fantastic views of Toronto skyline. If you go down Spadina (which I recommend so you can enjoy the peace and quiet of the Annex North), you’ll walk into the Baldwin steps surrounded by a beautiful garden. Go up to find Casa Loma.
I loved the idea of visiting such a lovely house; however, it didn’t feel like a home. To make matters worse, it was rather warm that day and there were lots of school children visiting. As there is no air conditioning, they placed huge fans everywhere, which recirculated the warm air. Despite all that, I did enjoy the visit.
Sir Henry and Lady Mary, his wife, lived in Casa Loma for about ten years until financial troubles caused by ill-advised investments and the First World War caused them to give it up and move to their farm. The City of Toronto owns the property.
The main floor comprises the medieval-looking Great Hall, the library, the dining room, the conservatory, Sir Henry’s study and the billiards and smoking rooms. The second floor contains guest rooms; and Sir Henry’s and Lady Mary’s suites (hers was my favourite). The servants’ quarters (for 40 people!) are on the third floor.
Go to Dupont station (located two stops north of St. George station on the Spadina- University line) and walk north two blocks on Spadina Ave. At this point, visitors have the option of climbing the Baldwin Steps (110 steps) at Spadina Ave. and Davenport Road or walking up the hill on the west side of the castle.
Go to Spadina station and take the Davenport 127 bus to Davenport & Spadina. Get off the bus and climb the Baldwin steps (110 steps ), or take the bus one stop further to Davenport and Walmer and walk up the hill on the west side of the castle.
Go to St. Clair West station on the Spadina-University line, walk east on St. Clair to Spadina, turn right (south) and keep walking (approximately 15 minutes) to the castle.
Go to St. Clair station on the Yonge line. Take the St. Clair streetcar (going West) to Spadina Road, get off and walk south on Spadina Road (approximate 10 minute walk) to Casa Loma.
I visited Casa Loma when we were still living in Toronto back in 20101 (when I had short hair!). I didn’t have a blog then so I’m making up for it now!
Vieux Montreal is a safe and lively neighbourhood tucked away between the St. Lawrence River and the center of town. It dates back more than 350 years and is the city’s birthplace. The area has a long and interesting history and it helped shape the Montreal of today.
Since the best way to know a place is on foot, here is a walking tour that will take you along quaint streets and show the highlights of Old Montreal.
What better than a hearty breakfast to start the day? Head to Olive + Gourmando (351 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest) It opens at 8 and by 11 it’s already jam-packed. It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays, so plan accordingly. Their delicious cafe au lait and moist chocolate and banana brioche will fortify you for this walk and leave you begging for more. If you must inevitably take this tour on a Monday, start at the museum and then have your cafe au lait at Creme de la Creme (21 rue de la Commune, it has another entrance on the corner of Rue St-Paul and Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste), a more traditional local cafe.
As you leave the cafe, walk down Rue St-Paul to your left as far as Place Royal. Turn right and head towards Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History. The museum was built on the very site where Mass was held on May 17, 1642 to celebrate the funding of Montreal. Its underground archaeological exhibition covers six centuries of history: from the time the First Nations lived there to the present. You can also see the first man-made structure associated with the founding of Montreal: the city’s first Catholic cemetery discovered as recently as 1989. In the archaeological crypt you’ll find an interactive installation that showcases scenes of daily life in 1750. There are free guided tours every Saturday, both in French and in English.
Walk back to Rue Saint-Paul. Amble past overpriced souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Soak up the European atmosphere. As you approach Rue Dizier, look out for Les Chuchoteuses, a bronze sculpture of three chubby town gossips by Quebecois artist Rose-Aimee Belanger placed right on the corner.
A few blocks further up Rue Saint-Paul you’ll see the Bonsecours Market on your right. It was built in 1847 and went through many reincarnations until the present one as headquarters of the Conseil des metiers d’art du Quebec (Quebec Crafts Council). The market houses art shops, boutiques and cafes, as well as free exhibitions of arts and crafts. Its building is considered one of Canada’s ten finest heritage buildings.
Across Rue Bonsecours is the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours. It was built in 1771 over the ruins of an earlier stone chapel. It is also known as the Sailors’ Church. Sailors have left carved wood replicas of sailing ships as tokens of thanks. Take time to visit the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum next door (closed on Mondays, opening times vary throughout the year, adult admission fee $12) dedicated to the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal and pioneer of Montreal. Through the crypt you enter an archaeological site where you can see remains of the foundations of the first stone chapel, traces of the First Nations people’s everyday life 2400 years ago, as well as artifacts that trace the history of this site. Climb to the top of the tower, the highest point on Montreal, for fantastic views of Old Montreal, the river, the Old Port and beyond.
Now walk up Rue Bonsecours as far as Rue Notre-Dame and turn left. One block over, on your left, is the Chateau Ramezay Museum (280 Rue Notre-Dame Est). A former governor’s residence built in 1706 in the French Regime style; its displays show economic and social life in the 18th and 19th century Quebec.
As you leave the museum, walk along Rue Notre-Dame to your left. You’ll see the Hotel Ville (City Hall, 1872-1878) on your right and next to it, the Vieux Palais de Justice (Old Courthouse, 1856). Almost across from the City Hall is the Place Jacques-Cartier, a pedestrian street that slopes towards the waterfront. It is lined with cafes and restaurants, park benches, artists selling sketches and paintings, and lots of flowers in the warmer months.
Return to Rue Notre-Dame. A few blocks further south west is the Notre-Dame Basilica. It was built in 1824-1829 and its interior design was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The nave is kept relatively dark so that the brightly lit altar stands out in all its grandeur. There is a $5 admission fee. It was built by an Irish Protestant architect who converted to Catholicism before the church was finished, undoubtedly moved by this powerful work of art.
Across the street from the basilica is the Place d’Armes. At its center is a monument to the founder or Montreal, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve (1612-1676). Old Montreal is a real gem well worth a visit.
Canada’s Parliament is an iconic set of buildings located on top of Parliament Hill. This limestone cliff slopes gently towards Ottawa River in the country’s capital, Ottawa.
Parliament Hill overlooking the frozen Ottawa River
When Ottawa was declared the new capital of the United Province of Canada in 1858, a parliament building was needed to house the legislature. Thus, architects were hired, plans were approved, ground was broken in 1859 and Albert Edward, prince of Wales, laid the cornerstone in the summer of 1860. The Gothic Revival building was completed in 1876. I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Centre Block when we visited Ottawa in January 2011. I have to say this: I’d never been so cold in my life! But I managed to go out and roam the city anyway, of which I’m proud.
Let me show you what I saw and learned.
The tour started at 11.30. They advised us to go there a few minutes earlier to go through a security scanning like that of airports. Thankfully, there was no need to take shoes off. The group was comprised of a very nice lady guide, a middle-aged couple and I. I suppose that groups are larger during the summer (for enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
This is the Centre Block and Peace Tower. The Library of Parliament is at the back. I was walking towards the entrance when a Mountie politely stopped me and asked me questions like why I was there, where I was from and the like. When I said I’m from Argentina, he said “that’s along way away!” and gave me a lapel pin with the Canadian flag. I think Canadians are among the nicest and politest people on Earth!
The party met at the Hall of Honour, which divides the Centre Block into east and west sections and separates the House of Commons and the Senate. It also serves as ceremonial space.
Ceremonial entrance of the sovereign and his or her representative from the Senate foyer.
The Senators debate and revise bills passed by the House of Commons. The Queen’s representative, the Governor General, addresses the Parliament and gives assent to bills.
The Speaker presides over Senate sessions. The Leader of the Government sits to his right and the Leader of the Opposition sit sto his left. The thrones behind the Speaker are for the Governor General and his/her spouse
The gilt coffered ceiling of the Senate chamber and a massive chandelier
The House of Commons has green benches like the British House of Commons
The House of Commons wasn’t in session so we were able to see it.
The Rotunda or Federation Hall is the formal entrance to the Centre Block. Carved symbols of every province decorate the walls and columns.
The central column bears a dedication to those who fought in World War I. The swirls at its base represent Canada’s motto: From Sea to Sea.
The Peace Tower replaces the Victoria Tower that burned down in the 1916 fire and it honours the Canadian men and women who lost their lives in World War I. The clock was a present of the British government to mark the 60th anniversary of the Confederation in 1927. The Memorial Chamber has altars that hold the Books of Remembrance inscribed with the names of Canadian soldiers fallen in battle.
View from the Peace Tower
Ottawa as seen from the Peace Tower
The beautiful Library of Parliament (1859-1876) was the only part of the building to survive the fire of 1916. Even though its interior is made of pine, it didn’t burn down thanks to the presence of mind of an employee who closed to fireproof doors. Its exterior design was inspired by the Reading Room of the British Museum. Inside, it’s flooded in natural light and has a wonderful smell of books and pinewood. Unfortunately for me, photography is prohibited inside.
Attention cat lovers! There’s a cat refuge behind the Parliament buildings overlooking the river, called Stray Cats of the Hill. It’s been there since the late 1970s. Cats have been neutered and inoculated against disease. A pensioner that goes by the mysterious name of The Catman of the Hill volunteers to feed the cats and other animals, like raccoons, groundhogs or birdies daily.
An overcast summer morning in Toronto. We decided to go even though the weather forecast called for intermittent rain during the day. I assumed we were going to get wet anyway. So we drove along the QEW, Queen Elizabeth Way, which circles Lake Ontario, to Niagara Falls.
I had great expectations for these world-famous falls. And I was curious as well. I had been to Iguazu Falls between Argentina and Brazil and I wanted to compare them with Niagara. I secretly wanted Iguazu to win. Naughty, I know.
We stayed on the Canadian side. We drove into a beautiful public park, with carefully maintained flower beds. We could see the mist rising behind the trees. The Niagara River and the falls are right there! There’s a paved path and railings along the river where visitors can walk without fear of falling into the water.
We walked to the railing to watch nature in all its magnificence. The Horseshoe fall is the biggest and most powerful. Water falls with a deafening roar; I could feel its power reverberating in my chest. The American and Bride Veil falls are on the American side. They are smaller and less powerful but nice to look at.
We walked up and down the path, taking photos and enjoying the view. We decided to forgo the pleasures of sailing on the Maid of the Mist and the trek behind the falls. The fact that this natural wonder is flanked by two cities and surrounded by concrete struck me as incongruent. To me, it is a clear example of man taming nature. I would have liked to see the area in its natural, original state.
I enjoyed the experience but wasn’t awestruck. Sorry.
We moved on, driving through fruit groves and vineyards, to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is a Victorian fairytale town. The streets are strewn with colourful flowers and plants in neat planters and beds, not a blade of grass is out of place. Horse-drawn carriages ferry tourists back and forth. I absolutely loved it at first, but then the hordes of day-trippers swarming about made me feel claustrophobic.
A cenotaph on the main street honours the fallen at both world wars. I like this about Canada, that her heroes are remembered and honoured in every town.
I took this visit as a learning experience. I discovered that it is best to travel without expectations and to allow yourself to be surprised by a new place. And, most importantly, that comparisons can ruin your experience.