Canada’s Capital Ottawa, Hosts the World in Style
Come with Maxine on a walking trip in the heart of OttawaVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
You don’t have to wait until Canada Day to visit Ottawa. As Canada’s Capital city, Ottawa is geared to receive visitors year round. I wanted to be there in May, and this year I had that opportunity. The magnet that drew me to the city was their annual Tulip Festival. A previous visit made me aware that this city has a wonderful assortment of fascinating things to do and places to see. Canadians want their visitors to be aware of our culture and history. I had four days there and it was not enough to see all that I would have liked to have seen! However, Ottawa was full of surprises.
I arrived by plane, about nine a.m. on a Sunday morning after an early morning flight. Even the airport provided an amusing incident before I got out the door. As I walked along the corridor, heading out of the building to get a taxi, a fine looking German Shepherd dog and his uniformed handler came towards me. I admired the dog and asked if I could take his picture. As I took the pictures a man came rushing in through the outside door, obviously in a hurry. I recognized him as one of Canada’s prominent Members of Parliament. The dog handler called out to him, asking if he was “?” using only his first name. Which he verified. The handler then said, “We have your luggage.” He explained that he had received an important call and rushed off without it. As a result of this unclaimed luggage, security had been called, and with the help of the sniffer dog, the luggage had been inspected. I’m sure the MLA was a rather embarrassed gentleman. I won’t add to his embarrassment by identifying him. He got his luggage and all was well.
As my taxi approached the heart of the city, it was driving through narrow residential streets. Not being familiar with the route to the city, I wondered if I was being taken on the so-called “scenic tour.” At one point the taxi started through a tunnel, which was blocked off, and had to turn around and chose a different route. Soon I became aware of an unusual number of cyclists. Were we being diverted by a bicycle race? As we were approaching the heart of the city, traffic again came to a standstill. Sunday morning rush hour? No. Looking ahead I noticed a number of uniformed individuals congregating on the street further along the block. As they marched off, in formation, we were able to reach my destination, the impressive Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
As I alighted from the taxi, I asked the bellman what had been happening in front of the hotel. He informed me that the cenotaph was just across the street and there was a special ceremony commemorating the Battle of the North Atlantic during WWII. Dropping my luggage off in my room, I hurried out again , walked to the corner of the block and across the street to the cordoned off area around the Cenotaph, to witness the ceremony. My husband has often told me the stories of his experiences as a very young man who sailed on the ships that braved the fierce North Atlantic seas in convoys, hoping to avoid the German Wolf Packs (submarines), that lurked beneath the waters trying to pick off the ships that were taking supplies to Great Britain. I felt honoured to be amongst those who witnessed the solemn ceremony. Smartly uniformed servicemen, young sea cadets and air cadets; paid tribute to those Canadians who served their country, so gallantly, so many years ago. Most of those taking part were not old enough to have their own memories of those days, as my husband has. Many Canadians lost their lives as their ships were sunk in that wild and wintery sea. At the conclusion of the service, there was a fly past, with two vintage aircraft, from WWII, flying through the cloudless, blue sky, over the cenotaph. This was Ottawa on a “quiet” Sunday morning.
A few minute’s walk along the street took me to Parliament Hill, where I could see the Gothic Revival stone buildings, with their green, copper-clad roofs and towers, that are home to Canada’s Government. (People who are visiting the city can arrange to take a tour of the Parliament buildings. I had the opportunity to tour them during my last visit to Ottawa, so did not arrange to visit them again this time.) Queen Victoria chose Bytowne as the site of the new capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, soon known as Ottawa. On July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was formed by the confederation of the Province of Canada and two British Colonies into the four original provinces of the newly minted country. The first construction began on the permanent home for their federal government that same year. The site, now called Parliament Hill, on the south banks of the Ottawa River, was chosen because of its prominence over the surrounding town and river. In 1916 the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings was destroyed by fire, leaving only the striking Parliamentary Library, with its 16 flying buttresses and unique dome intact.
After the fire the Centre Block was rebuilt, The Peace Tower, with its carillon bells and clock, was added, giving it the distinctive appearance we see today. The Library, is still an outstanding showpiece on the hill. Restoration work has been done on it in this century.
Late that afternoon, I walked a couple of blocks to the Byward Market, where I had reservations to have an early dinner in the Courtyard Restaurant. Entering the cobblestone courtyard, I found; even in early May, people were sitting at tables around the outdoor patio. It is interesting to note that the Courtyard was the site of the last military hanging when a garrison stationed here, left in 1871. The Courtyard Restaurant itself is housed in a heritage, locally quarried, limestone building that, I was surprised to learn, is now the oldest building in Ottawa. The building has a colourful history and was once home to the builders who worked on the construction of Bytowne. Inside I found an attractively restored building. The old beams in the roof of the building were polished to a gleaming bronze, with inset lights that highlight the gleaming old wood. The stone walls added an interesting character to the dining room. A very enjoyable dinner was served by the pleasant waiter. A taste treat was their cheddar, bacon, and potato soup served with truffle oil and chives. Although I was early, other guests soon were arriving to join me in that charming setting.
The next morning I set out to explore the area looking for tulips, seeing this was Tulip Festival time. I did not have far to look. The bellman suggested I look along the Rideau Canal. I found the stairway leading to the Canal began right next door to Fairmont’s Chateau Laurier. Walking down the stairs, intending to browse along the Canal, I found I was soon strolling through Major’s Hill Park. Yes, there were tulips – beautiful showy beds of colourful tulips. It was hard to believe I was in the heart of the city on a Monday morning, because the park was such a tranquil place. People strolled rather than hurried. Many took pictures, myself included, captivated by the colourful beds of many varieties of tulips.
I gazed thoughtfully at the impressive surroundings. The towers of the Parliament Buildings on the nearby Parliament Hill, with their green roofs and turrets seemed to oversee the city. The Parliamentary Library is a particularly striking building as seen from any angle. The back of the impressive Fairmont Chateau Laurier, sometimes called the Third Chamber of Government, lent it’s esteemed presence to the scene.
Amongst the massed beds of colourful bulbs in the park, one particular planting of bulbs, the dark wine coloured ones named Van Gogh, was pointed out as a new one to Ottawa this year. Looking out over that display, I noted that it was planted across the street from the National Art Gallery, which is displaying a huge sign promoting an exhibit of some of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh this summer.
Ottawa is a walking-friendly city. Leaving the park, I crossed the street to Canada’s National Art Gallery before beginning my walk back to the hotel. Standing in the forecourt of the impressive glass art gallery sits a rather strange, monstrous, spindly- legged, black spider. I must be honest and say that I think it is a rather unusual choice for this site.
Standing in that same forecourt, I looked over to the 19th century Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Ottawa’s oldest and largest church. The building, with its silver coloured, Gothic twin- spires, is rather conservative on the outside, however I understand that the interior is quite spectacular. The Basilica is now a designated National Historic Site. Time did not permit a tour of the interior on this occasion, but it is on my list of those places I hope to visit when I return to our capital city.
Crossing at the corner, I found the Peacekeeping Monument, reminding Canadians and our visitors, of Canada’s proud peace-keeping tradition.
As I progressed on up Mackenzie Street, I particularly noted two buildings. The first was the American Embassy. The US Embassy sits across the street from Major’s Hill Park. Built in 1999, it was officially opened by President Bill Clinton. It was the first embassy to have been opened by a President of the USA. Also facing Major’s Hill Park is the Connaught Building, now the home of Canada Revenue. This Tudor-Gothic style building looks a bit like an old British Castle. Built in 1913, it was named after the Duke of Connaught, a son of Queen Victoria, who was Governor General of Canada at the time. Both of these buildings back onto the Byward Market.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s 7th Prime Minister, had a vision of making Ottawa, what he called, “The Washington of the North.” His vision and foresight sparked construction of some of the impressive buildings that produced the core of Canada’s new capital. One of those is my destination, the French-style chateau that bears his name, The Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
After a lovely morning strolling though the heart of Ottawa, I arrived back at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, just in time for high tea at two. I finished off my day with dinner at the Zen Kitchen, where Caroline Ishii proved to be an outstanding chef, serving an unforgettable vegan dinner.
Ottawa really is a walkable city capable of hosting the world in style, with plenty of History, Culture, Art, and Spectacular Views.
Article and photos by M. Maxine George
Last updated December 9, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster