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Niagara Falls

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For its early settlers, the sheer size of the New World was daunting. Its lakes were wider, its mountains taller, its valleys deeper than anything they had seen at home. Few images conveyed this more powerfully than the awesome vista of Niagara Falls. One seventeenth-century explorer described it as “a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it's parallel”. Today it remains one of Ontario’s must-see sites, so with my family visiting Toronto and assisted by a hapless tour company, we made our way to one of Canada’s most famous spectacles.



First, a stop at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is situated exactly where Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. A picturesque town with a cultivated charm and colonial style buildings, it was briefly the capital of Upper Canada (Ontario’s predecessor) at the end of the eighteenth century, before witnessing multiple battles in 1812 when the Americans raz…

Paris in the provinces

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Québec is, in a word, charmant. One of the oldest cities in North America and the capital of Canada’s francophone province, it effortlessly embodies grace, elegance and Parisian style. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 on a promontory overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, the city is named from the Algonquin ‘Kebec’, meaning ‘where the river narrows’. As one walks on the cobbled streets up from the waterfront, past the bistros and boutiques of the Rue Sainte-Anne, with the Fleurdelisé flying alongside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it’s not hard to imagine that one has crossed the Atlantic, travelled back in time, and retreated to a European idyll.


Canada, rather touchingly, offers a national holiday to commemorate Queen Victoria’s birthday on the Monday nearest 24 May, so with cheap flights from Air Canada there seemed no better place than Québec for our second foray out of Toronto. But even this offers an insight into the city’s complex history: Victoria Day is considered too roya…

Church

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Going to church in Canada is challenging not just because the sermons are far too long (though often they make English homilies seem pithy). It’s because nowhere better exemplifies the tension at the heart of our Canadian experience: how we’ve travelled thousands of miles to be here and find it – almost – an exact replica of home. The buildings are very familiar: except for the ferocious central heating, they could have been taken from the Victorian streets of London. The liturgy too is recognisable, and has been faithfully handed down from the Book of Common Prayer. Even the quintessentially Anglican atmosphere – a genial befuddlement that largely avoids controversy – has somehow made its way across the Atlantic.


Take, for instance, a recent Evensong at Trinity, the Anglican College at the University of Toronto, where canticles by Herbert Howells and organ voluntaries by Marcel Dupré were performed confidently by the college choir. The music was originally written for King’s College C…

Spring

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Be careful what you wish for. Within two days a long winter turned into summer, bringing humidity, gale-force winds and hordes of tourists. The change happened so quickly that there was still ice on the streets as Toronto’s restaurants opened their outdoor patios and scantily-clad drinkers supped their lagers in the sunshine. So, in an effort to reclaim the spring that never was, we’ve enjoyed our trips back to the Islands – now busier with families and cyclists, even if it’s not yet warm enough to swim – and to the beautiful cherry blossoms at High Park. A gift from the citizens of Tokyo in 1959, their ten-day bloom is eagerly anticipated by large crowds every year.


For the last few weeks it’s been difficult to walk around Toronto without seeing polka dots, on everything from subway billboards to the sides of streetcars. Their source is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is hosting an exhibition by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama entitled ‘Infinity Mirrors’. The campaign has been so s…

Canadian coffee culture

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Let’s take a trip across Toronto through six flat whites! Of all the coffee places we’ve explored so far, these six seem to epitomise Canadian coffee culture, illustrating the variety in price, style and taste.


1. Second Cup Coffee Co. – $3.65 I’d be lying if I said I always managed to hunt down an independent coffeehouse for my daily caffeine fix, so for a true survey of Canadian coffee culture, we have to begin with chain coffee stores.  In Toronto Tim Horton’s and Starbucks compete for most popular, but my favourite of the chains is Second Cup. Established in 1975, they offer a flat white with a mellow espresso and tonnes of creamy milk. This is my go-to comforting afternoon pick-me-up that can be found on almost every corner of downtown Toronto, for a moderate $3.65. And if it’s been a really long day I love to pair my creamy coffee with a traditional Canadian delight – maybe a butter tart or a Nanaimo bar. Whatever gets you through the long winter, ey?!

2. Sorry Coffee – Bloor Stree…

Partying and puppets

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Another birthday and another week of fine dining: Canadian on Monday, Spanish on Wednesday, Mexican on Friday, and Italian on Saturday. The diet starts next week! Highlights included Barcelona-inspired cocktails, fresh guacamole (smashed right in front of our eyes with an Aztec pestle and mortar) and caramel-covered churros. Plus, my colleagues treated me to a delicious chocolate cake. Clearly it didn’t take them long to discover the way to my heart!


For our cultural feast, we headed to The Nightingale and Other Short Fables with the Canadian Opera Company. What an experience! The brainchild of Quebecois director Robert Lepage, it blends an array of song cycles and instrumental works by the twentieth-century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The orchestra sit on stage, their pit now a pool of water. First, mesmerising shadow hand puppets depict folktales and nonsense songs: kittens catching mice, peasants gathering riches, a dove in flight. Then, acrobats and their silhouettes illustra…

Escaping

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With the skyscrapers, crowds and government-mandated ignorance of red lights, Toronto can be exhausting. The city’s boundaries are non-existent – it doesn’t seem to stop before it merges into other towns to the north, east and west – so unless we have a cottage far north of the city (more on that another time), escaping for the weekend isn’t really an option. But there are several small islands of calm – hidden beauty spots dotted around the city where we can flee the busyness of urban life and rediscover a sense of perspective!


Perhaps the most famous of these tranquil retreats is the Toronto Islands (formerly the Island of Hiawatha), a short ferry ride from the waterfront downtown. A five-mile sandbar that stretches from Woodbine Beach in the east to Billy Bishop Airport in the west, it’s home to just over 600 hardy residents and provides a natural shelter for Toronto Harbour from Lake Ontario. In the depths of winter the ice can be too thick for ferries to cross, but on Easter Monda…

Family and feasting

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The mother-in-law has arrived, bringing with her sufficient quantities of tea and crumpets to start a small business – not to mention the Malteasers and extremely chocolatey Marks & Spencer biscuits that we had begun to crave after over two months here. She’s joined us in particular for Harriet’s birthday, which we celebrated on (Good) Friday with a trip to Vegetarian Haven on Baldwin Street. From an all-vegan menu of delicious Asian cuisine, we sampled crunchy garden rolls, spicy eggplant, purple rice and even tofu ice-cream, topped with chocolate sauce and a birthday candle.

The whole Easter weekend has a strong family ethos in Canada, with many of our colleagues hosting or visiting relatives. We were invited to a delicious brunch on Easter Day by the mother-in-law of Harriet’s second cousin once removed (or something like that), who by chance lives only a few streets away. Plates overflowing with salmon, ham – my colleagues tell me that turkey and ham are the meats of choice for…

Ballet, bands and beaches

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With friends and family asking about the cultural life of Toronto, it’s easy to argue that the city deserves its international reputation as a metropolis for the arts. Sure, it lacks the tradition of London or the opulence of Milan, but artists from around the world are attracted to Toronto for its ambitious aspirations and sizeable budgets. With several leading venues in walking distance, and tickets often heavily discounted or even free, we’ve stumbled across Canadian sculpture, Russian ballet and Caribbean jazz in the last week alone – and we’re just getting started!

On Saturday we headed to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, where the National Ballet of Canada offered Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Hailed as “a signature work”, this was the piece that made the company’s name in the 1970s – with the first tour culminating in acclaimed appearances at the Met – and it remains a staple of the repertoire. A cheap tickets scheme for the under 30s and a large stroke of l…

Downtown drawing

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Street murals, six-floor galleries, vintage clothes and stylised tattoos – Toronto and its residents are covered in artwork! Arriving in Toronto has given us the chance to get involved in this creative community – perhaps not with tattoos – but the Toronto School of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario and even St James’ Cathedral have given us opportunities to see and be part of this expressive city.

My first opportunity to get involved arose from an evening drawing class held at the Toronto School of Art (the TSA). With the title `Perspective Drawing`, this ten-week series uses graphite and charcoal to explore one-, two- and three-point perspective, taking inspiration from the surrounding city, subway stations and even a life model.


But before class can begin, students need to gather a shopping list of creative supplies. Set-square, check. Cartridge paper, check. Col-erase pencils, check. Ruler, sketchbook, protractor, charcoal pencil, putty rubber and bulldog clips, check! To pick up thes…

Westminster in the wilderness

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Ottawa – Toronto’s sedate cousin, Canada’s Canberra, the coldest capital in the western world. It was Queen Victoria’s decision to establish the nation’s parliament among this “ramshackle lumber town in the middle of nowhere”, as Tourist Information puts it. Her reason? Invading Americans would likely lose themselves in the surrounding forests. More romantically, Ottawa marks a confluence of communities and ideas: as an important trading route for thousands of years, the first European maps identified the river Ottawa after the Algonquin adawe (‘to trade’), and the city stands at the gateway between English- and French-speaking Canada. Today Ottawa remains understated as the capital of the world’s second largest country, but it has a charm and attractiveness that belie its unglamorous origins, and it’s consistently ranked as the best place to live in Canada.

Mid-February sees Family Day, a statutory (bank) holiday in Ontario so that families can spend time together – but since several …

A month in

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Amazingly 31 days have passed since Air Canada delivered us to our new home, so here are 31 things we’ve discovered since then:
1.  We needn’t have worried about finding Nutella or Marmite: they’re everywhere. 2.  The US never feels far away, whether it’s the American names for food (eggplant makes aubergine less exotic, but beets is definitely cooler than beetroot), crazy sports (hockey involves a lot less grass over here), or the breathless pace of news bulletins. 3.At the same time, Canadians are as British as you can be without developing a tea addiction: they’re ever so fond of anything royal, and always apologising. 4.  Talking of tea, if you ask for a cup here, you’re more likely to be served something fruity than English Breakfast. The idea of a builder’s brew hasn’t really made its way across the Atlantic. 5.The political system is very similar to Westminster, with two main political parties – Liberals and Conservatives – sporting red and blue rosettes respectively. 6.Gender-…