Stops: Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Toronto, Gatineau, Ottawa, Montreal
I. Niagara Falls
Memories of fog and rainy wetness from about two decades ago, with my grandmother aboard the Maid of the Mist on the other side of Niagara. I remember I couldn’t see through the downpour on my glasses and shivered under my poncho. We stand now on the Canadian side, blue yawning below and above us, the hum of water as it eternally pours into the giant basin which catches the plunge, as it did twenty years ago.
Long after the last cruise on the Hornblower noses its way into the white and foaming spray, after the Clifton Hill ferris wheel powers down its lights and the drab haunted houses and wax museums, arcade alleys, casinos, and Chinese restaurants with washed-out lettering close their doors for the night — after that and many years the falls will continue their downward drag, their restless wake, and even in the cloudless dark, without anyone marveling, will soar into familiar and treacherous depths.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town of strawberry summers, brunchy Sundays, yellow skirts, melodies sung by a theater troupe. Out on the lake look-out, geese glide from one end of vastness to another. The peaceful trees throw shade over our city consciousness, and the vineyards float under the long, thin horizon bearing up gracefully its last daylight hours. We overlook the spindly, straight green rows which spend their seasons growing.
In the wintertime, intrepid pickers dig into a thick layer of snow to pluck the frozen, shriveled grapes out of their unforgotten misery, to be made into ice wine — tart, saturated, deserving of slow savoring. In the town, shop windows draw the eye toward all of the usual trinkets of fare and food characteristic of a familiarly far off place.
An old building which was once an apothecary lures our curious eyes into its airy and high-ceilinged space, now a small museum. Old-timey glass jars formerly used for 19th century cures for ailments line the shelves towards the ceiling. An ancient black typewriter sits on the counter, contemplating its life of word-smithing — oh how the times have changed! A white porcelain jar declares itself a container of LEECHES. Pamphlets on bloodletting, pills, new medicines. Artifacts and old words alive on preserved pages — we find ourselves fascinated by such moments of the past in the present.
All cities strive for the same great heights. Unity in diversity. Plentifulness in population, and parking. A distinguished and echoing skyline that can be silhouetted against a t-shirt. Boom of businesses, attraction of many things happening at once, pace of locals and tourists striding side by side across a tree-lined avenue, towards the nearest florist or cake shop or hair salon.
Toronto accomplishes great things in the line-up of world cities. Its sheer size, felt in the 20,000 wandering footsteps we took across the downtown area and around and back, seems to rival that of New York City, but in its better-smelling sidewalks and intersections, there is more space to stroll, stop, look above and beside. Cleaner air, more freedom, more opportunity to pause and peer down graffiti-art-laden alleyways.
Everywhere there is something happening. Alongside the plethora of curious shops in Kensington Market and its T-shaped cross streets, musicians with banjos caterwaul for coins. Army surplus stores offer discounts on old war bags, gas masks, coats. Dogs meet other dogs while their owners sip on tea and sample boiled bagels characteristic of the region.
Cafes, taco shops, jerk chicken, empanadas. The cultural divides are broken down, demolished in an earnest stroll across the block. Perhaps that sounds a bit idealistic, but there is something to be said for a place where so many different kinds of food become the norm. Where you fit in. Where ethnicity carves out a space for itself and thrives in celebration.
The food, by the way, is splendid — best tacos I’ve had in a while! (I am always reluctant to say “ever” — does one remember delectable tastes well? Where are these senses stored?) Under the June sunlight, the afternoon feels perfect as we hop from shop to shop and appease our appetites for pretty things and tasty morsels.
IV. City of so many colors. Multitudes of public space, parks, harbor front, places where one can commune with the city. Shows, concert rehearsals, festivals, shopping malls. St. Lawrence Market is a hotbed of attractive products under colorful signs, lying enticingly behind displays — we try their famous “peameal bacon” on a soft roll, which tastes oddly like spam. We venture into a Japanese snack bar featuring maids as waitresses, who interact strangely with their customers. We stand in line for a free t-shirt championing women in sports. We even make friends with a charming iguana named Iggy. All in a day’s work!
V. Sprawl of public and repurposed spaces breathe life into different ventricles of the city — the life blood is its people. A farm with cows, sheep, chicken, and wooded trails for walking. A historic brick mill factory that had fallen into disuse, revived into a communal space for garden markets, classes, community events, landscaping, and a marshland for native plants and animals.
To stand in places like these is to use one’s imagination as a time capsule, superimpose the tools, machinery, and structures of the past onto where one is stepping, attempt to draw together the parallel worlds which the fourth dimension has divided while no one was looking.
At the distillery, too, the brickwork shines under the afternoon angle of sun. The manufacturing of so much whisky through these walls — grains, malt, beer, distillation, fermentation, storage. Everything a somber workman’s brown. Chutes and ducts, machines with gears and pulleys, creatures alive and spitting during the height of the industrial age.
Walking is a wonder in this city, where there is no hurry for the past to catch up doggedly alongside the present. One can sit and have a beer in the heart of all this history, and the lukewarm June wind will blow between buildings to remind you of the here and now, how far we’ve come.
VI. Ganonoque — Gatineau
The small wonders of small towns. Coffeeshops and restaurants are decorated in the most interesting ways, providing a very specific and unique sense of place. The European aesthetic and its particularity for the perfect accents. In Gananoque, the boats pile up beside stretches of piers and docks. A small beach spends its lovely days across from an embankment of mother geese and their geeslings. Its waters are a pure, dark blue, like stormy eyes. It is hard to imagine life here in the wintertime, an isolated port town with suburban houses and pretty scenery of the river.
When I am away it is hard not to feel the tug of home sometimes, although it gets easier to find those still places in your mind, to take a rest and marvel at the exact spot you are in now. To be thankful for everything you have seen and have been given. For the sunshine and the cloud formations, good food and comfortable beds. For the whole promise of traveling — being far away from home and seeking out those things which bring joy to people in other places — sunsets, parks, waterfalls, streets lined with beauty, art aspiring to brave heights.
My first imaginary encounter with Copenhagen was in the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, a young-adult novel we read in the 5th grade which is set in Denmark during the Nazi occupation. The main character, Annemarie, who is a young Danish girl, helps her Jewish friend and her family to hide and escape to Sweden. I remember a scene in which Annemarie and Ellen talk with nostalgia and longing about Tivoli, the famed amusement park in Copenhagen which was no longer open because of the occupation. They recall the splendor of the fireworks that used to go off before the Germans forbade entrance to the park.
And here it was in the middle of downtown Copenhagen, the entrance looming with Christmas trees and lights, a grand euphoria for tourists with children as well as locals who want to delight in an afternoon gluhwein in a fantastical setting. Chinese temples, sultan’s palaces, swans skimming on lakes, sculpted gardens under rollercoasters — all worlds exist together at Tivoli.
Copenhagen is gorgeous, with an Old World and small town feel, sprawling yet walkable. The Danish ride by on their multitudes of upright bicycles, wearing dark clothing and boots and carrying their shopping in baskets. There is bustle on the big avenues but not too much, and everybody seems to be holding their breath for the arrival of Christmas.
The government buildings in the city center look like castles, and the Danish take their Christmas trees quite seriously.
One of the many downtown streets lined with shops on either side, reminding me a bit of Madrid’s city center.
The Hotel d’Angleterre has “The Nutcracker” staged on its facade.
At the Nationalmuseet, exhibitions on the cultural history of Scandinavia display the skeletons of pre-historic aurochs, a type of wild cattle. We learn about the hunter-gatherers, the settlement of Scandinavia, and of course, about the Vikings, their ships, warriors, and their mythology.
A chilly walk through the area of the Christianborg castle. Quiet snow lays on cobblestoned streets within the castle complex. It is Christmas Eve and the late sun is making its way down below the slanted roofs of the buildings and between the colorful canals.
The area of Nyhavn (“New Harbor”), with 17th century canals and waterfront.
It’s been confirmed: all postboxes in Europe are cute.
Copenhagen’s Central Station.
The Rosenborg Castle. Its moat was frozen and waddled upon cutely by dozens of ducks.
In the northeastern town of Helsingor, on our way to the Kronborg Castle, a giant fish made out of plastic beach items sits gazing at the harbor.
The best part of the trip — getting to explore Kronborg Slot, the famed castle in which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is set. One of the most important Renaissance castles in Europe, Kronborg was built over a medieval fortress by King Frederick II in the late 1500s and reached the height of fame under his rule, due to its magnificent architecture, the lush banquets thrown there, and the “Sound Dues” that had to be paid to the Danish king by any ship crossing the Oresund.
Canons look out at Oresund, the sound between Denmark and Sweden which leads to the Baltic Sea. It was a strategic point for the Danish king, who controlled all of the traffic traveling through the sound.
After a day of hunting, the Danish king would come into the castle’s courtyard on his horse, hang his meat up on these hooks, and ring the bell so that a servant could come and collect the meat and prepare it for dinner.
That’s the knight and horse that I colored and placed into the mini-castle 😀
Sandstone, multitudes of windows, and beautiful architecture — a magnificent display of power and wealth.
A much larger city (huge actually), Stockholm is also absolutely stunning with its ports, canals, and palaces. It’s a city with a large international population and much more bustle, similar to the frantic-ness in New York with its young, modern city-dwellers. I wish I had gotten to see it during the summer however, when everything isn’t frozen and gray.
The highlight of the Stockholm leg of the trip was getting to see the Vasa, a warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, unfortunately only 1,400 yards from its port. After over 300 years of being under water, it was salvaged in 1961 and eventually moved into the Vasa Museum. It was preserved very well due to the briny sea water under which it sat for centuries.
The museum is quite fascinating, recounting how the Vasa was salvaged and preserved, recreating the lives of the travelers who were aboard, and giving a multi-tiered 360-degree view of the giant ship. Also displayed were the materials, figureheads, wood carvings, and other examples of craftmanship that went into its construction.
Traipsing through Gamla Stan, or Old Town, which is a mini-island housing the historical district of Stockholm. Here, we also found cafés in which to eat traditional Swedish meatballs and to warm ourselves with coffee.
At the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan. “Oh, why…here’s yet another very nice room.”
I must say that palaces certainly aren’t as awesome as castles, and no castle is as awesome as Hamlet’s Kronborg!
Other interesting and cool finds from the lands of Danish cookies and IKEA…
Delicious Danish sandwich with pickled red cabbage.
Cool art at the Museum for Kunst.
Random cute kitty in the bed at the BnB.
Yummy Danish craft beer at the Taphouse.
Hmm…we weren’t quite certain what “bog” was.
This is the aisle in the supermarket to get your “black eye bonors.”
And a multitude of other kinds of “bonors.”
“Where’d you get that suit?” “Oh, you know, at Grosshandlarn.”
Med akta honung!
A Christmas gnome sighting! And no, he isn’t real unfortunately. Merry belated Christmas!
We took a weekend trip out to Prague in February, to escape the drizzle and misery of Madrid for even much more freezing weather. Javi´s friend Jose and his wife decided to join us.
I´d always heard about the beauty of Prague and how it´s a must-see for anybody traveling through Europe. And it certainly was beautiful, with the scenic views of the river, the bridges, castles and towers, the color of the old buildings, the plazas and charming side streets. However I expected it to have more of an Eastern European feel to it, and to be more breathtaking in atmosphere rather than picture perfect for tourism.
I think I feel that way because of my trip to Budapest during the winter holidays last year. Prague could be comparable to Budapest because of their similarities — the bridges, rivers, weather, transportation, language. But Budapest was gorgeous not because of any picture you can take or even anything specific I can remember. I just remember feeling a sense of awe while standing on one of those huge bridges looking down at the Danube river, between the two different sides which form the city, in the dead of winter with snow and a blanket of fog over everything — a feeling of smallness in the silence of a grand city. Also, it really improves your taste for a place when it doesn´t scream tourism.
Our hostel in Prague was in the center, so we were within walking distance to all the places of interest. It pretty much has all the main features of an old European city: a castle, a palace, bell towers, nice churches, cobble-stoned plazas, places with good views of the entire city.
It was cool when we visited the palace because we got to see the changing of the guards.
Also, the best thing about visiting new places is trying the food. Even though my Spanish friends would disagree, I enjoyed Czech food — hearty soups, goulash, lots of meat and potatoes. Jose and his wife complained about the lack of variety in the food…. I couldn´t hold my tongue any longer, and then came the inevitable argument about the quality of Spanish food. Haven´t I learned already not to criticize Spanish food in front of Spanish people?
Being on one of the bridges at night was memorable — the view of the river, the lights of the city, the old-fashioned streetlamps, the violinist playing a romantic tune. Prague is a great city for lovers.
Also, one of the best things were the marionette stores. In them you could find awesome witch and babushka marionettes, magicians, princesses, jesters, knights and ladies, and the Czech people really seemed to value their wood craftsmanship. We brought home two marionettes with us, the witch Estepanska and the magician Gambrinus (the name of their beer). More pics of them to come.
One of the best things we saw in Prague was the Jewish quarter. We did a little tour, which included five synagogues, one of them incredibly beautiful, and an old Jewish cemetery which was crowded with gravestones.
We also had a coffee in the Franz Kafka cafe, a famous place where the writer used to frequent. We had a good time, we really did.
Overall, the trip was an excellent weekend escape, even with the below zero temperatures. A bit of spiced mulled wine helped, as well as the tasty vendor sausages that warm your soul… Stay tuned for more adventures.