When I told my children I was spending January in Canada, they shot nervous glances at each other. When I said on the national railways, they sighed resignedly—the old man was really losing his judgment.
They gave me thermal underwear and woolen socks for Christmas and hoped I’d chicken out. Well, having survived “my experiment in hypothermia,” I’m prepared to tell the world there is no greater travel buy in North America than the Canadian Rail Pass. It cost me $420 Canadian for 30 days unlimited travel on their VIA system.
By using the Greyhound $59 anywhere fare, I could leave Philadelphia, review art shows in Chicago and Milwaukee, visit my granddaughter in St. Paul and trek overland to the last port-of-exit to Vancouver (Blaine, Washington, a $9 add-on fare). I even saw a great exhibition on the history of Montana underground mines at the Yellowstone Heritage Center, while my bus was refreshing itself in Billings, Montana.
It wasn’t even raining in Vancouver when I hopped off Greyhound and found, next to the B.C. tourist information center, a YWCA that has just begun renting rooms to men. I schmoozed with girls from Taipei, Stuttgart and Tokyo and a matron from Victoria while watching the CBC evening news.
The next morning I checked out the Skytrain subway across the street for how to get to Union Station on time, then I took a good look at the Vancouver Art Gallery, watched a self-styled “bubbleologist’ mesmerize a swatch of moppets at the new Science and Technology Centre in downtown V, and ate a lousy cafeteria meal of pork chops and roof-of-the-mouth clabbering mashed potatoes at Union Station.
That crummy dinner forecast the only fly in the peripatetic ointment. Solve the eating problem on Canadian Rail, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a travel buy. My only other real reservation: Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for space or to change plans—unlike the Eurail or Brit Rail passes, you can’t just wander onto even an empty train—they check your reservation at the gate.
After covering Calgary, I got back on VIA for my next ambition—to see Ottawa, a capital that has never been sexy enough to detour me from a Toronto or a Montreal trip. That’s when you begin to get the sense of Canada’s size—29 hours to traverse Ontario, For Mulrooney’s sake, along the northern edge of Lake Superior, stark and ????? in its winter beauty. And I also discovered Constantine’s general store across the street from the Thunder Bay station. It sells bananas and bags of peanuts in shucks and reasonably recent newspapers and quarts of real orange juice.
Ottawa is a great city in spite of all the canards—the Safdie National Gallery is idiosyncratically sited on a river bluff between a cathedral and the Parliament buildings, and it proudly but humbly places itself in this context.
And where else can you hostel in a converted jail? Soaking serenely in its Victorian bath tub, I’m startled by the sight of a peep hole in the middle of its thick security door—until I see that the no-longer-necessary hole has been taped over.
See a great Yosef Karsh photography retrospective at the National Archives. I like Ottawa. Decide I will definitely come back for the Degas retrospective next fall.
Actually I didn’t get off in Ottawa the first pass by it. The train was five hours late—so instead of getting into Montreal at a reasonable 10 p.m. to look for a hotel, we were dumped into the station at 3:00 a.m. and told to scram! Any civilized train service would have let us bunk out in our sleeping car until daybreak. Instead, I parried street people’s cigarette entreaties all night.
How different from the treatment three weeks later, when 45 below Celsius weather broke a rail east of Edmonton, making us five hours later and therefore unable to let us link up with the Continental in Winnipeg.
They took five of us out at Saskatoon and flew us to Thunder Bay to catch up with our train to Toronto. Now that’s class, VIA.
By now, I was getting the hang of it. I took a day trip up to Gaspe, where the regional museum is as sweet as it could be, and the wooden cedar cathedral of Christ the King rivals Ronchamps in its beauty. On the way back, I got off at Levis to take the ferry across the Saint Lawrence to Quebec City.
I fantasized having breakfast in style at the Chateau Frontenac. I did, buy only after climbing the wooden stairway, step by frozen step—the closest I came to freezing to death. As I gasped in the 60-below cold at the top, I saw the man opening the funicular. Rats!
The old chateau, nonetheless, was worth the frost, and I fueled up for a hard day of savoring old buildings in Quebec City and Montreal.
The main train station in Quebec City is a marvel of urbane rehabbing, the old structure having been spruced up whilst the train shed parts have been high-teched. It’s an exemplary blending of old and new, a compulsory visit to which would humanize our Post-Mod-architecture school students South of the Border, down Venturi’s way.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large
Robert O’Hara’s ‘Bootycandy’ at the Wilma
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