Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec by Train! Car-free Holiday Number 4!

My husband has family back east, so every once in a while we go back there to visit. Since the kids are in French immersion, we thought we'd take them to Quebec to get a feel for the unique culture and history there, this time out.

VIA rail has excellent and regular connections between Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec (City). Montreal's in the middle with the two others being about 2-3 hour train rides in opposite directions. There's WiFi on the train and it is comfortable, and staff is friendly. The stations are very centrally located. Montreal's is on the subway, Ottawa's is on an express bus-route, and Quebec's beautiful station is within walking distance of the old city.

VIA shares the track with freight trains, however, so sometimes there is trouble and you get delayed....this happened to us when we got stuck behind a broken-down freight train and ended up 1.5 hours delayed (thereby missing other connections, which VIA tried to put right). 

Ottawa and Montreal have car-sharing companies (Virtucar and Communauto, respectively), and Modo has a cross-sharing agreement with them, so there are good mobility options if you do want a car. There is apparently also some connection with VIA, as per the prominent advertising in the Ottawa station:

[train/carshare combo!]

Maybe our Modo could do something similar? Although in BC, the train isn't a big transportation draw...would be more sensible to have some deal with the ferries...

Anyways, on to the sights...

Ottawa: of course the main attractions here are the museums. I can highly recommend the "passport" which allows a family to see lots of museums for a flat rate. Two museums and you've already paid for the thing. Our kids are interested enough in museums and history that we were able to see the Museum of Civilization, the Mint, the Museum of Fine Arts (you know, the one with Voice Of Fire...discuss that with your offspring!), the War Museum (admittedly I bailed after the WWII room on this one. Enough of death!), and the Museum of Aviation.

Then of course we had to "do" the Parliament buildings. Lots and lots of Canadians of every stripe out to see these, which was nice to see. Many of the folks on the tour were quite knowledgeable about how Parliament works, which was also quite gratifying.

Every night, there is a free light&sound show "Mosaika", projected onto the front of the main block of the Parliament buildings. You sit on the lawn in front to enjoy. It is meant to stir your little patriotic heart, and trots out all the founding myths of our collective Canadian soul: the native people, the land, the climate, that damned train, the diversity, etc. The show is very impressive (beats fireworks!) and quite enjoyable, even to those partial to over-intellectualization, like myself.

[obligatory Mountie on Parliament Hill. Beautiful horse. How'd they get than maple leaf thingy in the hair on its butt, though?]
[the locks in the Rideau Canal, sister to Neptune's Staircase of the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. Now on my "bucket list" : boating the entire Rideau canal.]

Montreal: well, let's start with the poutine for the kids, and the beer for the adults...we discovered Unibroue's Blanc de Chambly, a lovely wheat beer.
[the kids' favourite meal. Pictured here with bacon! A real heart-stopper...]

I found vieux Montreal to be a bit disappointing. It's quite small and totally loaded with art galleries and kitschy t-shirt shops. Granville Island actually beats this place for nice things hand-made...But Montreal is not all about the cobblestone streets. It's a big city with lots of buzz, a fantastic food culture (I've never seen so many restaurants!) and it is truly bilingual. Youngest Son was totally enamored, and has decided this is where he wants to go to university. OK by me!! I was checking out the real estate...quite cheap by Vancouver standards!

[Check out the length of the subway train! SkyTrain capacity pales in comparison...]

One of the higlights of our stay was a Segway tour in Parc Jean-Drapeau (located on the man-made island from Expo 1967). I wasn't expecting a lot from this, but we "did it for the kids", and it was actually a blast. We got a tour from a young man who pitched his talk at the kids, giving them all kinds of info on the purpose of life, on how to get the right girlfriend, on Quebec separatism. Mostly in French, with some English thrown in. Good fun.
[I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures while driving...]

Quebec: we stayed right in the old part of the city. Like its counterpart in Montreal, vieux Quebec is in danger of becoming "Disneyfied"; it's unclear how people could actually live here amidst the endless souvenir boutiques and restaurants. We were staying in an apartment hotel, attempting to cook at least some of our own meals, and it was not at all obvious where to get basic groceries. There is a fantastic market right near the port (Marche du Vieux Port) that sports a fine selection of cheeses, produce, bread, and sausages, but shopping for milk, cornflakes and spaghetti is not easy.
[streetscape of vieux Quebec]

It reminded me of Gastown here in Vancouver...although Gastown is changing as more condos appear, and more people move in with real-life demands. 

The old town is really beautiful for walking, and for history, though. The Museum of Civilization here is worth a visit. Again the real estate is cheap by our inflated standards...beautifully renovated 2 bedroom condos in historic buildings for $300k. Too bad about the weather 6 months of the year!!

Of course a visit here is not complete without checking out the Plains of Abraham. There's a good museum, but the highlight is the bus tour, hosted by Mr. Abraham himself. We did this in French - alone on the bus with a Quebec couple - and the interaction was really fun, right down to the hockey jokes.

[view from the Martello tower on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the St. Lawrence]

One thing not to be missed is the free Cirque du Soleil performance under the viaduct. This is an amazing 1-hour show, complete with live music! Another great free show is the light&sound show projected nightly onto the mills in the old the one on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, it's about patriotism...Quebec style. It's called "Image Mill". A lot more subtle and with hints of separatism thrown in. And, it's in 3-D. You get a pair of paper glasses before the show. Very cool.

I've spent most of my life in western Canada. After months of watching Canada: A People's History over the last months (highly recommended, by the way! Sign out the DVDs from the library here in New West!), I have a new appreciation for the French contribution to Canada, as well as a new view of Ontario's story. It really is quite a bit different from my own childhood experiences in Alberta. It's nice to know that there are actually cultural differences across Canada, and that yes, different parts of the country do "feel" different.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew on a Segway. He shall be mocked mercilessly. Mostly be me.