Big City Tales

The Magic and Magnificence of Montreal & Quebec City

August 30, 2013
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Image of Canadian and Quebec flags

To stay or not to stay…that is the question that has plagued Quebec voters for years.

While the politics of separatism may divide the people of Quebec (and Canada); one thing everyone can agree on is that when it comes to cities in Canada offering a sense of urban chic with a touch of old world charm, Montreal and Quebec City are at the top of the list.  Magic and magnificence abounds in equal measure in these two cities, and it doesn’t take long to fall under their respective spells.

Image of Notre Dame Basilica

Notre Dame Basilica across from Place d’Armes square in historic Old Montreal.

Image of Plains of Abraham

A lively re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.

MONTREAL

City of Islands – Situated along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the city of Montreal is named after Mount Royal, a prominent three-peaked hill first documented by the great French explorer Jacques Cartier. The downtown core is built upon the Island of Montreal, but the city’s borders extend to surrounding islands such as Saint Helen’s and Bizard.

Iamge of downtown Montreal skyline

The skyline of downtown Montreal as seen from a distance at Parc Jean-Drapeau on Saint Helen’s Island.

Summer Festivals – Be it comedy, jazz, fireworks or film, Montreal is known for its wide array of festivals and every summer the city is inundated with throngs of people eager to soak-up Montreal’s unique cultural flare. If you’re looking for a hearty chuckle, check out the Just for Laughs festival; or if you want to be amazed with a kaleidoscope of spectacular fireworks displays, the Montreal Fireworks Festival will be sure to dazzle.

Image of Montreal Jazz Festival

The annual Jazz Festival attracts internationally renowned performers, and standing-room only crowds.

Olympic Dreams / Sports Dynasties – When Montreal was selected to host the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, it was a major triumph for the city, province, and entire nation of Canada.  Despite soaring construction costs and ongoing maintenance issues with the primary venue, it was a point of pride for organizers that the games were a resounding success and produced some new sports heroes, notably Greg Joy who earned a silver medal in the high jump competition.

Canada may not have many elite track and field athletes, but the country does excel in other sports such as hockey and football and the city of Montreal is home to two heralded dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens are part of the National Hockey League and have won a record 24 Stanley Cups; while the Montreal Alouettes play in the Canadian Football League and have won the Grey Cup a total of seven times. During the 2000s, the Alouettes amassed an impressive win-loss-tie record, eight regular season first place finishes, and three Grey Cup wins.

Image of Olympic Stadium

Over-budget and plagued by ongoing repairs, Olympic Stadium is still a marvel of architecture!

QUEBEC CITY

Old World Charm – In the historic district of Old Quebec, cobblestone streets and quaint, colourful storefronts are reminiscent of small European towns. Everywhere you look, proprietors are happily at work and visitors share their glee in wandering around at leisure and enjoying the casual, laid back atmosphere. Be sure to sample some sucre a la crème, a traditional Québécois fudge that is especially prevalent during the Christmas season.

Image of Old Quebec City

Looking for a taste of Europe? Check out the old world charm in the historic district of Old Quebec.

Winter Carnival – Nothing makes the winter more palatable like a good old-fashioned festival, and Quebec City’s annual offering certainly does its best to chase the winter blues away! Typically held in February, the festival’s star attraction is Le Bonhomme Carnaval, a jovial over-sized snowman who spreads Québécois joy wherever he goes. In addition to a winter amusement park, other attractions include a snow sled slide, ice sculptures and various outdoor shows. When in Quebec City in the heart of winter, a rendezvous with Monsieur Bonhomme is highly recommended!

Image of Bonhomme

Bonjour, Monsieur Bonhomme! Vous etes tres beau, joyeux et plein de fun!

Chateau Frontenac – Sitting high on a hill overlooking the Saint Lawrence River below, the mighty and majestic Chateau Frontenac is a breath-taking sight at any time of day.  Designated as a national historic site in 1980, the hotel is noteworthy for being the most photographed in the world and is truly a wonder to behold!

Image of Chateau Frontenac

The regal and rustic Chateau Frontenac basks in the glow of a golden sunset.

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Taking the Tarnish Off of Toronto

August 19, 2013
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Image of Toronto skyline

One of the fringe benefits of working in downtown Toronto is the close proximity to Lake Ontario.

From its boisterous and belligerent mayor to its beleaguered police force, the city of Toronto has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this summer, but don’t let these public stains tarnish your image of what is otherwise one of Canada’s safest and most vibrant urban centres. Indeed, despite the recent bad press, the city has many redeeming qualities and boasts multiple world-class amenities that are worth a look-see time and time again.

The CN Tower

Situated along the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto’s downtown core is an eclectic mix of modern and historical buildings with the iconic CN Tower being the star attraction. Rising over 1800 feet into the air, the tower remains the tallest free-standing structure in the Western hemisphere, and attracts in excess of two million visitors each year.

While many patrons prefer to take in the 360 degree view of the city from the inner observation deck, the thrill-seeking crowd were delighted when the EdgeWalk feature was added in 2011 allowing access to an exterior platform at 1168 feet. As TV personality Rick Mercer and singer/songwriter Jann Arden discovered, even being tethered to an overhead rail system and accompanied by a trained guide doesn’t put the butterflies at bay, but there’s no denying the spectacular views!

Image of CN Tower

With its sleek design and mammoth height, the CN Tower dominates the Toronto skyline.

Museum Central

Those looking for a break from the stress of a Toronto traffic jam on the 401 or mass of humanity on the crowded streets can seek refuge in one of the city’s peaceful cultural institutions. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Hockey Hall of Fame, and Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) are all found in the general vicinity of the downtown core and each has unique offerings:

  • ROM is well-known for its Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese exhibits, as well as its extensive collection of natural history artifacts numbering in the millions.
  • Fans of the National Hockey League will enjoy a stroll down hockey’s memory lane at the Hockey Hall of Fame where the exploits of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard and others greats of the game are celebrated in typical Canadian fanfare. The Hall of Fame is also the permanent exhibition site of the Stanley Cup and other significant league trophies.
  • AGO is one of the world’s largest art galleries and features an impressive array of works from Canadian artists, and a number of sculptures from Britain’s Henry Moore. AGO is also known for its many building expansions, with Frank Gehry being among the famous architects who have put their design stamp on the gallery.
Image of Royal Ontario Museum

It may have a modern exterior, but the Royal Ontario Museum interior is all about natural history and celebrating ancient cultures.

Theatre District

As the world`s third largest English-speaking theatre district there are plenty of plays, musicals and festivals to take in on a regular basis in Toronto`s Theatre District. Be it a flashy West End or Broadway touring show production, or an uncensored Fringe Festival offering there is bound to be something that appeals to live theatre buffs. Canada`s Walk of Fame is also located in this area and the annual induction ceremony is a highlight on the Toronto high society calendar.

Image of Royal Alexandria Theatre

The Royal Alexandria Theatre is the oldest continuously operating theatre in North America.

Yonge Street

As main streets go, Toronto has one of the longest in the world and one of the most culturally significant with Yonge Street playing host to street parades, performances, and demonstrations. The corner of Yonge and Dundas streets is often the site of free concerts and other public events at Yonge-Dundas Square, and is akin to the function and ambience of Times Square in New York City. Yonge Street is also a major transportation artery with the Yonge subway line running almost the full length of Toronto and connecting with most feeder routes.

For the city at the centre of the Canadian universe, Toronto often faces a lot of scrutiny from outsiders who delight in any blemishes that surface. It is a tall order to maintain a perfect complexion and it should be noted that the recent outbreak of unsavoury public activity is not a true reflection of what this city has to offer. Rather, Toronto is a dynamic and savvy metropolitan hub full of a palpable energy that fuels an air of excitement with every visit to its inner core – tarnished image or not!

Image of Yonge Street

Yonge Street a.k.a. Main Street Ontario.


Venice: Veni, vidi, vici

August 9, 2013
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Image of Grand Canal in Venice

Vessels of all shapes and sizes navigate the choppy waters of Venice’s Grand Canal.

When travelling in Italy it is hard not to harken back to the glory days of the Roman Empire and the many conquests of its illustrious leaders.  Chief among the lost list of conquerors is Julius Caesar, whose epic battles at home and abroad contributed to the demise of the former corrupt republic and the establishment of a new noble state.

During his reign, Caesar was known for famously crossing the Rhine and the English Channel as part of his expansion efforts, and for coining the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” following his triumph in Britain.  Given Caesar’s connection to the water, his immortal words are a fitting reference to how it feels as a tourist coming to Venice for the first time.

Being surrounded by water and an abundance of narrow, winding channels can be unnerving, but once your bearings are straight navigating this unique terrain is a breeze, and you’ll find yourself feeling like the mighty ruler himself. Yes, when it comes to visiting Venice, it is entirely possible to say: “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

The Grand Canal

A good place to start your conquest of this ancient marine city is on the Grand Canal where traditional gondolas can be found side-by-side with modern water taxis (vaporettis) and luxury yachts. Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, you’ll definitely need your sea legs to be in shape to get around Venice. The charm of a crooning gondolier will appeal to couples out for a romantic tour of the Venice lagoon waterways; while the speed and efficiency of vaporetti operators will attract those wanting to get from point A to B in short order.

Image of gondolas in Venice

When in Venice, do as the tourists do: take a traditional gondola ride!

The Rialto Bridge

As the most photographed bridge in Venice, the Rialto Bridge has the added distinction of once being the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. As beautiful as it is functional, the bridge owes its unique design to architect Anthony da Ponte who constructed a higher than usual arch to allow passage of galley ships common in the 16th century. Other notable features include three walkways, a decorative portico, and merchant shops on both sides.

Image of Rialto Bridge

Opened in 1591, the Rialto Bridge is a busy crossing point between the San Marco and San Polo districts.

St. Mark’s Square / Bell Tower

Anchoring one end of the Venice promenade, St. Mark’s Square is home to the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace among other must-see sights. The large open square provides ample space for outdoor concerts, as well as milling about with the plethora of pigeons who happily make their home here. Stylized street lanterns highlight the master skills of local glass-blowers, who demonstrate their craft and sell their wares nearby, but the main attractions in the square are the opulently designed/decorated basilica and palace that are as equally beautiful on the inside as they are from the outside.

Image of the bell tower in St. Mark's Square

The bell tower in St. Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s most recognized and visited landmarks.

Detail of column in St. Mark's Square

One of the decorative columns in St. Mark`s Square that serve as the gateway to Venice.

The Promenade

Known as the Riva degli Schiavoni, the world-renowned promenade along the Venice waterfront starts at the Doge’s Palace and stretches to the Arsenal, Venice’s ancient shipyard area. The area is typically full of tourists eager to shop, eat, and soak up the Italian sun, which on a summer’s day may see temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius. The promenade is thus the ultimate hot-spot in Venice in more ways than one, and it’s not uncommon to see luxury yachts of the rich and famous anchored along its pier.

For those who prefer a little history and culture over a bunch of tourist traps, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument and La Pieta church will satisfy your cravings. The former pays homage to the first king of Italy; while the latter was the home parish of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, who composed and performed many of his early Baroque pieces here.

Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument located at the centre of the Venice promenade.

The Arsenal

Established in the 12th century, the Arsenal quickly rose to prominence as one of the most unique and efficient ship-building facilities in the world. At its peak in the 1500s, the facility employed up to 16,000 skilled workers who could turn out a ship’s galley in less than 24 hours, a remarkable feat that was due in part to a production line technique that was far ahead of its time.

Nowadays, the Arsenal is not accessible to the public but the main entrance gate can still be admired, and is a worth a trip to do just that!  Considered to be Venice’s first Classical Revival structure, the gate was built in 1460 and its ornate façade ultimately provided the inspiration for other buildings under construction at the time to take on similar stylistic elements.

Image of the Arsenal in Venice

The Arsenal was once the world’s largest shipyard.

With its numerous winding canals, charming gondoliers, and jaw-dropping gorgeous architecture, it’s easy to be inspired by all that Venice has to offer and it truly is a place to come, see and conquer!


All Hail to the Halifax Regional Municipality

August 2, 2013
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Image of Purdy's Wharf towers in Halifax

A tall ship sails by the iconic Purdy’s Wharf towers along Halifax Harbour.

As the largest urban centre in Atlantic Canada, Halifax has a lot of things to rave about. Not only is the city a hub for East Coast businesses and government/private enterprises; it is also a haven for students who descend from near and far to attend some of the oldest, most well-respected universities in North America. Halifax is also a hotspot for those who enjoy everything from fine dining to sailing the high seas.

Yes, there is much to hail about the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), and one of the best places to start is along the harbour.

Halifax Harbour

With the downtown business district as a backdrop, the harbour boasts a number of large office towers, trendy restaurants, historic sites, public markets, and other shops spread out over many blocks.  Long stretches of open water views add to the charm of this part of the HRM that draws people in no matter what the weather is. OK, so it’s not busy when remnants of a tropical hurricane make landfall, but when the conditions are just right this area is teeming with people from dusk ’til dawn.

Image of Halifax Harbour

Outdoor restaurants draw large crowds along the Halifax Harbour and pier district.

Citadel Hill

Also referred to as Fort George, Citadel Hill is a defensive fortification originally built in 1749 to protect protestant settlers from enemy raids by the French, Acadians, and Wabanaki Confederacy.  Over the centuries, a series of four different citadels have been constructed on the hill`s summit that overlooks the Halifax Harbour and provided an ideal defensive position to protect the region from various enemy parties.

Today, Citadel Hill is a national historic site and has been restored to the Victorian period, which is known as the Fourth Citadel. Attractions at Citadel Hill include tours of the grounds, re-enactments of daily life in 1869, and the daily firing of the ceremonial noon hour gun.

Image of Citadel Hill

Citadel Hill is a national historic site overlooking Halifax Harbour, the perfect defensive spot!

Spring Garden Road

With a freshwater spring running beneath it, Spring Garden Road comes by its name naturally but don`t let the name fool you…this is not a nature haunt! Rather, it`s a chic, boutique type area that attracts culture-seekers, but  also caters to the pub-crawling and java-drinking crowds, so there`s a little bit of something for everyone to feast on.

One of Spring Garden Road`s most famous landmarks is the Lord Nelson Hotel, which is situated at the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street.  During the 1960s, the hotel was a popular gathering spot for hippies and artists to cultivate their causes and launch various protest efforts from the grounds. Nowadays, it`s still a hip place to be, but for a good night`s rest only!

Image of shop along Spring Garden Road

Unique shops, cafes and other amenities abound along Spring Garden Road.

Halifax Public Gardens

Established in 1876, the year of Canada`s birth as a nation, the Halifax Public Gardens is a 16-acre public park space that features a Victorian-inspired landscape. The gardens are a popular setting for wedding and graduation photos, but also draw in hordes of horticultural enthusiasts and amateur photographers alike looking to enjoy colourful vistas chock full of vibrant flower beds blooming at every turn.  But it`s not just flowers being admired, the gardens also include statues, fountains, bridges, ponds, and a large open-air bandstand area that hosts free public concerts on Sunday afternoons during the summer months. If you`re not allergic to pollen, the gardens are a heavenly place to escape and get lost in the wonder of one of Canada`s finest national historic sites.

Image of Halifax Public Gardens

During the summer, the Bandstand at Halifax Public Gardens features free concerts on Sunday afternoons.

Point Pleasant Park

Located at the southern end of the Halifax peninsula, Point Pleasant Park attracts nature lovers with its many forest walks and harbour views. The park also hosts the annual Shakespeare by the Sea summer play series where fans of the Bard can revel in his illustrious prose that seems to become even more glorious when delivered in a beautiful natural setting.

Other attractions at the park include various naval monuments and the Shilling Ceremony that takes place rain or shine every year to mark the anniversary of the 999 year lease negotiated in 1866 between the British Crown and the HRM.  The lease is now held by the Government of Canada but the terms remain unchanged, so Haligonians have many more years ahead to enjoy this treasured public space.

Image of anchor monument in Halifax's Point Pleasant Park

The HMCS Bonaventure anchor monument at Point Pleasant Park honours the lives of men and women who died in the service of the Canadian Navy during peacetime.

Beyond the HRM

When visiting Canada`s East Coast, a stop in Halifax is a definite must and the must-see sights are plentiful…but don`t stop there! Once you`ve had your fill of the HRM, the rest of Nova Scotia beckons with Peggy`s Cove to the south, Truro to the north, Digby to the west, and Cape Breton to the east.  Adventure awaits no matter the direction, and you`ll find yourself wanting to return more than once to this much heralded and much-loved region of Canada.