Fort York, Toronto’s birthplace

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.

The Red Rocket
The Red Rocket
Fort York has a fantastic view of Toronto's skyline
Fort York has a fantastic view of Toronto’s skyline. What would the soldiers say about the view and the city today?
Welcome. Come in and make yourselves at home
Welcome. Come in and make yourselves at home
First, I visited the 1815 Brick Barracks, which originally housed 100 people each. The soldiers’ wives and children lived here too.
First, I visited the 1815 Brick Barracks, which originally housed 100 people each. The soldiers’ wives and children lived here too.
The 1815 stone magazine stored 900 barrels of gunpowder. Its walls are 2 metre (6 feet) thick. The adjacent well provided clean water. This one is a reconstruction based on old army plans.
The 1815 stone magazine stored 900 barrels of gunpowder. Its walls are 2 metre (6 feet) thick. The adjacent well provided clean water. This one is a reconstruction based on old army plans.
I came across a handful of groups of students. These ones seem to be enjoying the guided visit.
I came across a handful of groups of schoolchildren. These ones seem to be enjoying the guided visit.
Officer's uniform and stove.
Officer’s bedroom.
Officers' mess. Nice and cozy.
Officers’ mess. Nice and cozy.
The 1815 Officers' brick barracks and mess
The 1815 Officers’ brick barracks and mess
Another view of the fort and Toronto in the background that emphasizes  the contrast between historic and modern.
Another view of the fort and Toronto in the background that emphasizes the contrast between historic and modern.

A guided history walk of Guildford

The first time I ever heard the name Guildford was in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, which I watched in Buenos Aires. The movie is about the Guildford Four, a group of people wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA’s bombing of two pubs in Guildford, England.

In a surprising turn of events, I first visited Guildford a decade later with my now husband, who grew up in the area. I’ve been back many times in the intervening years, whether for sightseeing or shopping. Only recently did I become interested in local history, which spans from Anglo Saxon times to today. After a little digging, I came across the Guildford Town Guides, a group of voluntary guides that take visitors on themed walks around the city, free of charge. They encourage visitors to donate money, which each guide gives to the charity of their choice.

High Street seen from the bottom
High Street seen from the bottom

On my recent visit to my in-laws, I chose to do the Historic Guildford walking tour. The meeting point was under the Tunsgate Arch on the High Street. The arch was built in 1818 on the site of the demolished Tun Inn to protect sacks of corn from the rain, as the corn market took place on the High Street outside the Guildhall directly across the street. Guildford had been a market town since Saxon times and a market is what distinguishes a town from a village.

Our guide, Jennifer, met us there. The tour started at 2.30 on the dot. We started with a little history of the High Street. This is one of my favorite spots and I never tire of admiring its gentle towards the River Wey.

The High Street seen from the top
The High Street seen from the top. The Tunsgate Arch is on the left, the Classical looking construction with the columns.The clock on the right hangs from the guildhall’s wall.

The village of Guildeforde, such was its Anglo Saxon name, ran along one street, the present day High St. At the time, they used ditches as boundaries between town and country. The present-day North Street was known then as Lower Backside (cue giggles) and Sydenham Street was known as Upper Backside. There are still passages between houses that run from north to south to the countryside. One such passage is known as Jeffries’ Passage, named after a chemist. Our guide said, rather cheekily, that it was an unfortunate name. Would any British reader kindly enlighten me as to why?

Jennifer told us a little about some of the buildings there. For example, the site of the local branch of Lloyd’s Bank was Guildford’s first bank. The original shop sold silk and other expensive goods. It was so secure that other merchants started to leave valuables there for safekeeping. The silk merchant then came up with the idea of starting the town’s first bank. A couple of doors down from the bank is Russell House, home of portraitist John Russell (1745-1806.)

The former silk shop
The former silk shop

In the early 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, Guildford was the centre of the stagecoach era thanks to its strategic position between London and the south coast and the west of England. There were many turnpike inns along the street, such as the Angel Hotel, a posting house and livery. The oldest part of the building dates back to the 13th century. The black and white front is beautiful.

The Angel Hotel and Posting House
The Angel Hotel and Posting House

Another historic building on the High Street is the Guildhall, where a medieval guild used to convene. Two charters, one from 1259 granted by Edward III and one from 1488 granted by Henry VII, allowed the town to be governed by a mayor and “men of good repute” (merchants.) Thus, 13 men and a mayor ran Guildford until elections became mandatory in the 1830s.

The bottom part of the building dates from 1588 (the year of the Armada) and was used for committee meetings and trials. The original coats of arms on the windows are those of Elizabeth I, Anne of Denmark and Guildford. In the right hand corner is a set of original Elizabethan official measures. The other extant set is in Winchester.

The meetings room of the guildhall. The judge sat with his back to the window, the witnesses to his left and the accused to his right.
The meetings room of the guildhall. The judge sat with his back to the window, the witnesses to his left and the accused to his right.

The top part of the Guildhall was built in 1683 and housed the council chambers. It has the only source of heat in the building, a 1633 fireplace salvaged from a demolished house. The insert (metal bit) is Regency. The floor is askew because of old age.

The photographer was not tipsy, the floors are slanted.
The photographer was not tipsy, the floors are slanted.

The landing was added in the 1900s and was –I believe it still is- used as changing area for councilors and judges. This is where the robes are kept: red for aldermen, black for councilors and blue for honorary freemen. Each robe has a tag with the name of its wearer.

Red robes for the aldermen

At the top of the High Street is Abbott’s Hospital (1619-1622.) George Abbott, a Guildford native, attended the Royal Grammar School and went on to become an Oxford don, bishop of London and Coventry and archbishop of Canterbury. He was grateful to his hometown for the education he received and founded this hospice for the poor. It was modelled after Oxford colleges with a quadrangle (yard) in the centre, a warden and a porter.

The quadrangle at Abbott's Hospital, which is not an actual hospital but a home.
The quadrangle at Abbott’s Hospital, which is not an actual hospital but a home.

Although men and women slept separately, there were common rooms for meals and a chapel. The place was financed by rents coming in from farms owned by the hospice. The building still functions as a hospice; an extension was built on the original garden in the 1980s. Prospective residents have to meet one or more of these conditions nowadays: having lived 20 years in Guildford, having served the country or have nowhere else to go.

Abbott's Hospital at the top of High St.
Abbott’s Hospital at the top of High St., opposite Holy Trinity church

We ended the visit in the Undercroft. This one dates from the 1290s and is located under a croft (Scots for house) near the bottom of the High Street. In the Middle Ages, undercrofts were used for storage: dairy in the north end because it was cooler and animals at the opposite end. This undercroft was thought to have been used as a shop, possibly selling wine from France. The borough rents the undercroft from the shop above and is open to visitors on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon from May to September.

 View of the undercroft.
View of the undercroft. Robert is wearing 13th century clothing. Guildford was a wool town and has a blue dye named after it. Guildfrod blue was made with local yellow flowers and urine.

There were people from all walks of life and ages in my group: locals who were interested in the town’s history, as were a couple of pensioners, tourists and university students (I was the only non-European, though.) I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and I sincerely recommend it.

Church and convent of San Francisco – Córdoba series 1

A potted history of Córdoba first

What happens when a subordinate disobeys the Viceroy’s orders?

A new city is founded. Or, at any rate, that’s what happened with Córdoba. In 1673, the Viceroy of Perú, the head of one of the administrative units of the Spanish colonies in South America, commanded Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera to travel south from Potosí (modern-day Bolivia) and found a settlement in the Salta valley (northern Argentina) to stop the threat of the Calchaquí Indians.

Cabrera had other ideas and pushed on south towards the Atlantic. He did found a town, however. Roughly halfway between Salta and the ocean, he founded Córdoba de la Nueva Andalucía on the banks of the Suquía River.

With Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera came the first religious order to settle in the area, the Franciscan friars. Under Cabrera’s patronage, the Franciscans founded a convent in 1575, a humble adobe and thatch structure. Years later, a more permanent construction was built to house the growing community. The convent of San Francisco still stands in the city centre, on the corner of Buenos Aires and Entre Rios streets.

Church of San Francisco
Church of San Francisco

The convent of San Francisco

I had the chance to visit Córdoba a while ago. I did not have a list of must-see places or even a map. I simply strolled around, occasionally asking passers-by for directions. This is how I came across the convent and church of San Francisco, almost by chance. Granted, I knew about a few historic churches and buildings that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and kept an eye out for them.

The convent sits between the church and a private Catholic school. It consists of a two-story building with an unprepossessing façade. The year of its foundation is written above the door. That is what caught my attention and drew me in.

Convent's facade
Convent’s façade

“I’m sorry but the convent is not open to the public because it’s the friars’ private residence,” said the girl at reception with a pleasant smile.

“Oh. OK then. I’d thought I’d ask. Thanks, anyway.” I was disappointed and it showed. I really wanted to see the convent. My country, Argentina, is relatively young so any construction that dates from the 16th century is considered ancient by our standards. I‘m always excited to visit those historic buildings, especially because there are precious few of them.

“I can show you the domestic chapel if you want. It’s not open to the public either, mind.” My spirits rose with her words. She led me through a massive wooden door into the cloisters. The domestic chapel was a few feet to the right.

The chapel dates back to the early 1600s. Its thick walls (3 feet deep) still show traces of the original frescoes that adorned them. Most of the floor tiles are original as well and show damage in some areas. The chapel is slowly being restored.

The most important feature of the chapel is the image of Our Lady of Copacabana sent from Alto Perú (modern-day Bolivia) in the 17th century and which rests on a piece of wood. Legend has it that this is a slice of the carob tree under whose shade the convent was founded. The thought that I was standing where local history was made four centuries earlier gave me goose bumps.

Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet
Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet

The church of San Francisco

I wanted to see the church next. I had to hurry because it was about to close. Although Córdoba is a big, modern city, it still retains some traits of a small town and observing the siesta is one of them.
The church of San Francisco was built between 1796 and 1813 to replace the crumbling earlier construction. It was designed in an Italianate Post colonial style. The building and the Franciscan community saw the change from Spanish colony to independent republic. Interestingly, the church gave sanctuary to the vanquished during the Independence and civil wars.

The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He's killing the dragon above the altar.
The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He’s the one killing the dragon above the altar.

My Córdoba

Córdoba is rife with history, both ancient and modern. It has played an important role in the history and economy of Argentina. But it has also an important place in my personal history. My paternal grandmother was Cordobesa and although she lived elsewhere for over 60 years, she never lost the cadence and sounds of her place of birth. She used to tell us stories of her childhood in Córdoba and cook traditional local dishes.

Her native land held a kind of fascination for me as a child but for reasons I don’t know we never visited it. I only did when my brother and his family moved there last year. My grandmother passed away two years ago and I deeply regret having taking her for granted and not having appreciated her stories and her culture more.

Let this series of posts about Córdoba be a long overdue tribute to my grandmother, Maria Elvira Altamirano de Astri (1918-2012.)

My grandmother and I in the early 70s
My grandmother and I in the early 70s

A short guide to historical sites of interest in Dallas

The history of Dallas may not be long, but it certainly is interesting.

It all began when, in the mid-1800s, John Neely Bryan purchased some land from the Caddo Indians and opened a trading post along the Trinity River. He later founded a permanent settlement in the area now known as the West End Historic District. A replica of his one-room cabin can be found at the Dallas County Historical Plaza (junction of Main, Market, Elm, and Record Streets).

Replica Of John Neely Brian's cabin at Founders' Plaza
Replica Of John Neely Brian’s cabin at Founders’ Plaza

Nowadays a premier entertainment district, the West End is located in northwest downtown Dallas, north of Commerce, east of I-35E, west of Lamar and south of Woodall Rodgers Freeway. After the Texas Pacific Railroad intersected with the Texas Central Railroad in the areas, Dallas became a major distribution center. The historically preserved redbrick buildings in the West End were used as warehouses.

A short walk from the West End is the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture. It is housed in the Old Red Courthouse built in 1892 and it is a symbol of the city’s heritage. The Museum is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm. General admission is $8, children 3-16 are $5 and seniors, age 65+, and students with a valid student ID, are $6. It is located on 100 S. Houston St. and is close to the Union DART Station.

The Old Red

Uptown is one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods. It boasts the best preserved collection of Victorian houses in Dallas, all built in the late nineteenth century. These elegant mansions were commissioned by wealthy businessmen and built along Maple, McKinney, Routh and Fairmont streets. The McKinney Avenue Trolley (M line) operates around Uptown and the Arts District. Some of its stops include Uptown’s four historical cemeteries.

Uptown’s contiguous historic cemeteries are Greenwood Cemetery (Protestant) opened in 1874, Cavalry Cemetery (Catholic), Temple Emanu-El Cemetery (Jewish) and Freedmen’s Memorial. Freedmen’s, with historical ties to slavery, contains the unmarked graves of thousands of African Americans.

Uptown’s limits are US 75 (Central Expressway), Blackburn Street, Turtle Creek Boulevard, Harry Hines Boulevard and Woodall Rogers Freeway.

The Traveling Man Sculpture welcomes you to Deep Ellum

The Deep Ellum area is nowadays a hotspot for arts and entertainment near downtown Dallas. It is circumscribed by the Central Expressway, Pacific, Elm, Main, Commerce and Canton Streets. The history of the area can be traced back to 1884, when Robert S. Munger built a cotton gin factory and later others followed his example. The Grand Temple of the Black Knights of Pythias was built in Deep Ellum in 1916. It was used as as the state headquarters for the Knights and it also contained the offices of Black doctors, dentists, and lawyers. It was the first commercial building for and by African Americans in Dallas.

Located on Swiss Avenue, the Swiss Avenue Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was designated Dallas’ first historic district in 1973. It is also recognized as a Texas Historical Site. Originally developed between 1905 and the 1920s, the area has about two hundred carefully preserved and restored homes built in diverse architectural styles ranging from Prairie and Spanish to Craftsman and Georgian.

Estate sale 5 Swiss Ave

Last but not least is the site where events occurred that changed the course of US History: Dealy Plaza (with its grassy knoll), where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 as his motorcade was going past the former Texas School Book Depository on Elm Street. An X marks the spot where he was shot. The building now houses the Sixth Floor Museum, where films, photographs, artifacts and interpretive displays document the events that took place on November 22, 1963, the findings of the official investigations that followed, the historical legacy of the tragedy and the spot from which Harvey Lee Oswald allegedly fired his gun.

Dallas is a comparatively young city that honors its history and that of the nation.


Of graveyards and stories

This gray, rainy Sunday made me think of graveyards, I’m not sure why. I have this love-hate relationship with them, you see. I hate to think about the degradation of the flesh and that sort of thing, but, on the other hand, I’m drawn to the names and dates on the headstones.

Who were they? What kind of life did they live? What happened to them? Were they happy? I like to romanticize what I read about the deceased. But I can only do that with old graves; the older, the better. One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit old churches, which usually have a graveyard attached. I enjoy the peace and quiet and they are generally surrounded by beautiful gardens.

When we lived in Jersey (as in the Channel Islands, not “Joisy” in the US), I would visit each parish church and read the headstones. There were wives who outlived their husbands, beloved husbands who perished at sea, maiden aunts who died in the prime of youth, brave sons who died in battle. All this happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, which made me feel comfortable reading, I think, because it put more distance between us. I don’t think I can do it with recent graves.

St. Brelade (Jersey CI) Most headstones were too weather-beaten to read

Visiting cemeteries can also become a learning experience. A couple of years ago, my parents and I visited the town of Capilla del Señor, about one and a half hours northwest of Buenos Aires (Argentina). The oldest part of the local cemetery has graves that date back to the 1860s. Interestingly, many of the headstones were written in English or in French because of the many Irish and French settlers in the area. There were also reminders of the terrible yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the country in the early 1870s: a whole family was buried there who died in the span of one week and a mass grave of the fever’s victims.

Capilla del Señor Cemetery

Another learning experience for me was visiting the Anglican church at Millbrook (St. Helier, Jersey). This church is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. From a distance, I saw what I thought was a garden feature made with rocks. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a four thousand year old Neolithic passage grave. How fantastic is it that I was able to see something I’d only read about in books! My inner nerd was doing cartwheels.

Neolithic passage grave (Jersey CI)

So far, the most moving experience I’ve had in a cemetery (outside of funerals I’ve attended) was visiting the American War Cemetery in Omaha Beach, Normandy (France). Although I have no ties with World War II since neither my country nor my ancestors took part in it, the endless sea of white crosses was a sobering sight that brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help mourning the monumental waste of young lives (it was necessary, I know, but still). On a frivolous note, this is where the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was shot.

American War Cemetery - Omaha Beach (Normandy, France)

Do you like to visit old or historic cemeteries as well?