Saturday 17 September 2022 – As promised in my last entry, I have spared you my ramblings for a whole day, so here’s a catch-up of what we got up to yesterday. The train trip from Toronto to Ottawa the day before was almost entirely unremarkable and quite pleasant. We were on Via Rail, travelling business class, which is something I would recommend, as it saves a lot of queuing – queues to show your ticket, then queues to get on the platform are the lot of hoi polloi in the bilges. We were wafted on to a carriage with comfortable seats, free drink and lunch, power for our computers and a reliable WiFi that lent some purpose to having the computers with us. There were several stops en route, and we arrived in Ottawa some 30 minutes late, but we weren’t in a hurry. A short taxi ride then got us to our hotel, (yet) another monumental Fairmont slab of masonry
the Château Laurier.
Today’s formal content was a walking tour of Ottawa, billed as free, but with the expectation set that tips were expected. At the appointed hour we met our guide, Craig
who has a real job of teaching history, but who started doing the walking tours 17 years ago and now has a company employing about 15 guides. I’m glad we got the boss – he is knowledgeable, entertaining and very well organised; he shepherded a group of 17 people around for two and a half hours without boring or losing any of us and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Ottawa is a strange place, for a number of reasons. For a start, it’s the home of the government of Canada, and so there are numerous Parliament buildings on, unsurprisingly, Parliament Hill: centre block, with the Peace Tower;
West block, the House of Commons, home of the MPs; and East block, where the senators have their offices. Behind the centre block is the Parliamentary Library, of which more later.
In most of my photos of government buildings, I apologise for the presence of cranes and other signs of construction, but these are impossible to avoid, as The Construction (referred to by locals with implicit capital letters and normally through gritted teeth) is something that has been ongoing for a long time, in some senses for over a century. In 1916, a fire started in the central block, and some bright, erm, spark, thought to close the massive doors between it and the Library. So the library was saved, but the rest burned down and has been rebuilt. The Central Block is now being refurbished, so is unused – the Senate debates at Union Station – a mini replica of the original Penn Station in New York – down the way
and the Commons is in the West Block.
The West Block, by the way, has been completely rebuilt, brick by brick. When The Construction started refurbishing it, the mortar was so fragile that the walls started to collapse as they were being sandblasted, so it was taken apart, and all the bricks individually cleaned, numbered and then used to rebuild. So it is a modern building
with a copper roof which is still copper-coloured. Look across to the East Block
and you can see what 150 years of weathering does to a building.
The Canadian political system, with its two houses, is similar to the UK’s and is basically adversarial. In that sense, Ottawa is split. In a strictly geographical sense it is also split almost exactly in half. The Parliament buildings are in the Upper Town, which, in the early days of the city, was the Posh Bit, designed and built by largely English and Scottish Protestants. As such, streets like Spark Street, leading away from Parliament Hill, display architecture that would be familiar in London or Edinburgh
(although the buildings may state that they are “Bank of Nova Scotia” or similar, the government basically owns all of Spark Street, so all of the buildings are government buildings; any shops are leased from it). Government is way, way the most important part of Ottawa’s business, about 60% of the population work directly for the government or its agencies; high tech is second, with many of the big IT names having their Canadian HQ in the city; and tourism is third.
Crossing the Rideau Canal
takes you into Lower Town, where the buildings display a basically French architecture; many would seem at home in Paris.
The Lower Town is home to the Byward Market district, which is the entertainment centre of the city. So there are profusions of cafés and restaurants, some of which are in very French-style courtyards.
So, why the split? It was a direct consequence of the creation of the Rideau Canal, a 202km waterway connecting Ottawa to Lake Ontario, dug entirely by hand (no machinery at all) and opened in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the USA who might then assert control over the Great Lakes and their rivers. The labourers – 40,000 of them – were almost entirely French or Irish (hence Catholic), and made their homes on the Lower Town side of the canal route, hence the architectural – and indeed cultural – divide.
By the way, the relations with the USA remained cordial, so there was never a need for the Rideau Canal, which remains open these days for pleasure boating from April to October, when the locks are in operation, as seen here when a bunch of Rangers were making their way through by the hotel.
In Winter the canal freezes, of course, which creates the world’s largest skating rink – 7.8km long, and used not only for a bit of fun skating but also by people commuting to work in the winter. It, and Dow’s Lake which it leads to, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We saw a lot of other interesting things as we wandered around Ottawa, both on Craig’s tour and our independent ramblings later: protests by the Parliament;
the Centennial Flame, lit in 1967 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, with sides geographically dedicated to each of the provinces and territories;
(above imaginatively called “Bear Catching Fish)
(The above is called “Our Shepherds”. The accompanying description says “The playful blue colour and simple, symmetrical structure of the sculpture acts as an enticement to consider deeper meanings. Our Shepherds speaks of those who take power and those who are led, inviting viewers to question who are the shepherds and who are the sheep.” This is a load of pretentious bollocks in my view.)
(A representation of The Stanley Cup, the Canadian ice-hockey trophy)
(Maman, outside the Arts Museum and across the road from Notre Dame)
(a cute advert for a bicycle rental establishment)
(York Street Steps)
and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
There are nice views over the Ottawa River.
(above: The Canadian Museum of History, designed by an indigenous architect deliberately to have no right angles, as these are deemed to trap spirits)
The Lower Town has a nice vibe about it
(although not everywhere is sweetness and light).
We couldn’t get into the Notre Dame Basilica
because it’s closed at weekends. We couldn’t get into any Parliament buildings to gawp at the richness of the décor because of closure due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II – and the normal light show on the Parliament buildings had also been suspended, but there was at least a mark of respect,
and we couldn’t get into St. Brigid’s Church (spotted in the distance by Jane as having an interesting spire)
because the last rabble to occupy it have been evicted and the locks changed – see here for details.
The Library, behind Parliament, is indeed an impressive building.
Having been saved by the heroics of Michael MacCormac from the fire of 1916, the Library has been considerably refurbished and its very foundations improved by a complex (and probably expensive) underpinning operation. Walking on the path behind it gives the great views, shown above, over the Ottawa River.
In Sparks Street, the old Post Office building is another flashback to English Victorian architecture
with lions guarding the doorway which are supposed to be welcoming but actually look rather like a cross between Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd having seen something rather beneath them.
Nearby is a statue of Oscar Petersen, the virtuoso jazz pianist, who was actually from Montréal, so I’m not quite sure why Ottawa has been selected as its site, but there it is, with music playing quietly in the background.
As you can infer from some of the pictures above, we also wandered about as dark fell, and a couple of buildings looked quite good when lit: the Library;
a nearby pavilion;
the Peace Tower (you’ve seen already); and Notre Dame Basilica
which was hosting a wedding.
Our crepuscular perambulations ended another varied day. It was excellent to get such a detailed historical perspective on the development of the city on the walking tour; it was a shame that some of the highlights were not accessible, but we still got a lot of pleasure from our ramblings.
The weather outlook for the morrow was, frankly, gloomy, so we thought we’d see how the day evolved, rather than make any detailed plans. So please come back in due course to see what actually happened.