BEHIND DOORS IN OTTAWA
I felt right at home in Ottawa. It rained almost the entire week that I was there-typical B.C. Fall weather with a scrim of fine mist veiling the city in the mornings and a thin drizzle all day.
The late September scene outside my window of the Lord Elgin Hotel wasn't inviting-sodden trees shedding their scarlet and gold leaves onto sidewalks peopled by grey pedestrians huddled under umbrellas and bent against the wind. Very different from my earlier visits to the Capital, when the waters of the Ottawa River were sun-flecked and people sat chatting and sipping their drinks on restaurant patios in the ByWard Market area, while tour boats, their Canadian flags rippling in the summer breeze, took their guests cruising along the Rideau Canal.
The rain, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as driven off the street by blustery winds and monotonous drizzle, I discovered that, like prying open an oyster shell, there were pearls to be discovered in Ottawa's indoor attractions: museums with a richness of treasures, art galleries, bookshops, antique stores and restaurants.
And…where better to start an indoor exploration than walking this country's corridors of power on "The Hill". The Houses of Parliament buildings boast High Victorian Gothic architecture, with decorative embellishments of weird creatures ("grotesques") and are constructed of what was once beige sandstone. Some walls are now blackened with time and, as I discovered, they are oddly spongy to the touch.
The vaulted ceilings in the Great Hall soar overhead with arches, pinned by "brooches" of keystone coils. Solemn portraits of former Prime Ministers and House Speakers line the corridors, and the view from the Peace Tower is spectacular- the Ottawa River on one side, the Rideau Canal on the other and the twin cities of Ottawa and Gatineau sprawling to the horizon.
The 302.5 ft. Tower itself is something of a curiosity as its elevator is inclined at a nine degree angle (which you wouldn't notice except that the operator makes a point of mentioning it!) and the building contains a time capsule from 1919 buried in a cornerstone. On the hour, the Tower's carillon burst into life, and chimed eleven times.
I'd only allowed for a scant 30 minutes to tour the vast buildings and grounds of Parliament Hill, and apart from the obligatory peek into the House of Commons chamber and the Senate (resplendent in red - emblematic of royalty), the one building that is an absolute must for any visitor is the Library of Parliament. The exterior design is Gothic Revival architecture, with its conical roof and stone flying buttresses, but impressive as that may be, it is the elegant interior that evokes hushed exclamations of awe: deep blue interior walls soar upwards to the dome, and intricately carved pale pine wood bookcases containing half a million reference books, encircle the central reading area. The coats of arms for the seven provinces that existed in 1876, and one for the Dominion of Canada adorn the façade of the bookshelves, and a large marble statue of the young Queen Victoria stands at the entrance.
By the time I exited the Centre Block, the drizzle had stopped and a weak tea-coloured light pervaded the grounds. Strolling by statutes of eminences such as John A. MacDonald and Wilfred Laurier I came to a halt in front of a group of bronze sculptures depicting several women with determined chins and formidable countenances; these were the movers and shakers who obtained recognition for women as "persons" and earned them the right to vote. A popular photo-op-stop for visitors.
If Ottawa's contemporary political scene is exemplified by Parliament Hill, it's historical beginnings are enshrined in a museum just around the corner-the Bytown Museum, appropriately situated by the side of the Rideau Canal locks. Although housed in a small, almost nondescript building, it encapsulates the life of Colonel John By.
By's mission was to construct a 202 km waterway to facilitate military manoeuvres between Upper and Lower Canada in the event of blockade along the St. Lawrence Seaway should hostilities break out between Canada and the USA. That he did so within the space of six years is a measure of By's tenacity against formidable odds-his construction crew of 4000 Irish and French Canadian workers toiled under appalling conditions, as the area was thickly forested and swampy, many of them dying of malaria and dysentery due to unsanitary conditions.
Worst of all was a budget over-run which resulted in the Colonel's recall to Britain, and a censorious hearing in Westminster's Houses of Parliament, accusing him of financial mis-management. By died four years later battered in mind and spirit, and the bitter fact that his remarkable engineering feat was never accorded the recognition it deserved. Little did he know that his name would endure in the annals of Canadian history, not only as the builder of the Rideau Canal, but also as the founding father of the brawling little settlement of Bytown that would be re-named Ottawa in 1855, and eventually become the nation's capital city in 1867.
The driving rain is easily forgotten once inside the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Apart from several special exhibits, the Canadian section encompasses a fascinating journey through Canada-from the Maritimes to the West Coast-stories of people, their varied lifestyles and the inspirations, hopes and fears that have forged us together as a nation. Being a Sunday, I dropped by the cozy Café Musee to enjoy a lavish brunch buffet, one which is obviously very popular with both locals and visitors alike.
There are two sites that every Canadian deserves to visit at least once in his or her lifetime: Pier 21 in Halifax and the War Museum in Ottawa - each for very different reasons.
The War Museum focuses on the human face of war, the men who risked their all for this country; tales of heroism in the face of almost certain death, the filth and muck of the trenches, the lice infestations, the drudgery, the fatigue - the sheer plodding determination, the terror and the glory of war. Throughout the exhibit I listened to real life accounts, and watched stark black and white film footage of the many theatres of war in Europe, South Africa (the Boer War), the Korean conflict, and of course, the two Great Wars of the 20th Century. Photographs capture poignant moments-the anxious faces of women at home, a child running to say farewell to his dad as he marches off with his regiment, and also scenes of joyous homecoming. There are stories-many of them heart rending-a teddy bear carried by a soldier whose daughter had given it to him as a mascot to keep him safe. When he was killed, the teddy bear was in his pocket-along with a letter from his seven year old son, which he never got to read.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments was to stand in the stark stone cavern before the tombstone of the Unknown Soldier taken from Caberet Rouge Cemetery near Vimy Ridge in WW I. While the Soldier's remains are interred in the at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Canada's National War Memorial, this tablet at the War Museum, is positioned in such a manner as to be lit with a direct ray of sunlight on November 11th. The Hall of Remembrance is jarring-the juxtaposition of stone and slate is slanted and the angles are sharp and spare. The entrance, a dark narrow corridor with the stone walls crowding in on each side seems to bear a sense of menace…a symbolic rendering of the dark, sinister trenches, and the bleak, disturbing landscape of war.
The National Art Gallery is ultra modern, to the point of being severe - all grey stone blocks with angular, jutting walls like a 3-D cubist painting. "Maman" a monstrous hairy spider with eggs in its pouch, dominates the Plaza in front of the Gallery and probably gives arachnophobes the jitters. Acquired at a cost of about a million dollars it is intended to symbolize motherhood and fertility.
Exhibits in the contemporary section, also acquired for significant amounts of money, did little to ignite my enthusiasm. Enormous canvases with stripes and enigmatic squiggles line the walls; they could as well have been painted by a grade 7 student. And does a display of kitchen utensils and a gardener's rake - rate as high art?
The European section, however, made the visit worthwhile and it was pleasurable to linger through rooms displaying art ranging from the Medieval and Renaissance periods to the Impressionists (Monet, Corot, Degas and Van Gogh masterworks) and 20th century painters such as Dali and Klimt.
The Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica across the street from the Art Gallery, is magnificent. As I stood looking in from the entrance doors, the midnight blue vaulted ceiling soared overhead, and at the far end of the nave, the glittering high altar emblazoned in gold was flanked by marble statues of Church patriarchs, apostles and saints. Light poured through the stained glass windows settling like a benediction on the bowed heads of people kneeling in the pews.
Ottawa has several interesting restaurants, but dodging out of the rain into the Domus Café in the ByWard Market proved to be an excellent choice. A delicious lentil like soup garnished with melted cheese and herbs was followed by a superb, tender grilled perch on a bed of greens with a tangy dressing, and a criss-cross net of crisply fried finely cut potatoes. Couldn't resist the crème brulee which was thick, creamy and rich.
On my last day in Ottawa, I was invited to experience high tea at Zoe's Lounge at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. The elegant meal served on bone china, consisted of a flute of champagne, a tray of truffles, pate de fois gras, cream puffs, fruit compotes and light-as-air scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam - and "Margaret's Hope" Darjeeling tea. A fitting end to a memorable, if wet, Ottawa visit.
IF YOU GO: For more information:
Houses of Parliament www2.parl.gc.ca/Sites/LOP/Visitors/planning-e.asp
Where I stayed:
Lord Elgin Hotel offers their guests comfortable accommodation, a hearty complimentary breakfast buffet and helpful staff at their reception desk. http://www.lordelginhotel.ca/
Photographs by Margaret Deefholts
1. View over the Ottawa River from the Peace Tower, Houses of Parliament; roof of the Library in the right hand corner.
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