Linseed factory hopperTowards the end of my first quarter in Toronto, I came across a local urban exploration group and (taking advantage of the relative freedom offered by a transit pass) headed down to a late-summer meeting. Toronto isn’t the post-industrial wasteland that certain other Great Lakes cities are, but there are a few sites that have so far escaped the exponentially-accelerating condo construction boom (an unfortunate consequence of lax planning laws, astronomical property prices and outright bribery of city officials). The general consensus was that we should check out a former rubbish processing plant (which I took to mean a compactor and/or incinerator), but it had been tramp-proofed and so, unable to get in, we moved on to an ancient linseed (flax) oil factory in the west end.

Toronto from the West End

A breezy redbrick building surrounded by grass-split tarmac, the oil factory presented much like many other former industrial buildings: long stripped of most useful machinery, covered in graffiti and thoroughly devoid of intact panes of glass. However, the labyrinthine basement with its nuclear reactor-esque furnace and the soft-tar rooftop with its giant seed hopper added an aura of grandeur and industriousness to the vast open rooms. The local explorers quickly pulled out professional photographic equipment and dispersed, leaving me feeling a little outclassed. Next trip: undetermined!

Linseed factory reactorsLinseed factory furnace

Linseed factory water tankLinseed factory wrenchLinseed factory window

Linseed factory basementLinseed factory water pipes

Linseed factory pipeworkLinseed factory pulley

Linseed factory lampLinseed factory grille

HMS Tecumseth

Second on our tour of the Georgian Bay area was Discovery Harbour, home of (replicas of) HMS Tecumseth, HM Schooner Bee and the attendant jolly-boat, skiff and gig. Neither original ship ever saw action, though both were used to transport troops and supplies following the War of 1812. The current site includes a long stretch of the shoreline and several semi-original naval buildings, one of which (the officers’ house) is deliciously air-conditioned. We wandered around until closing time, throwing occasional Patrick O’Brian quips around and carefully avoiding the golf cart-driving press-gang.

HM Schooner BeeTecumseth and Bee

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (3)When Amy’s parents came over for a visit recently, we took the opportunity to do something relatively touristy and drove a few hours north to Midland and the historic sites of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and the Martyr’s Shrine. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was established in 1639 by French Jesuits, making it the first permanent European settlement in what is now Ontario. It would last about ten years before increasing warfare with the First Peoples forced its abandonment, and the retreating inhabitants burned it down rather than see it fall into enemy hands. The site was then forgotten about for a few hundred years, excavated in the mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth centuries, and reconstructed in the 1960s as a historical site and living museum.

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons workshopSainte-Marie among the Hurons corn

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (1)

We rolled up in the late morning, having paused somewhere north of Toronto for the audaciously-named “World’s Best Butter Tarts” at a combination bakery/estate agent/souvenir store. The site was quite a lot larger than I’d pictured it, a grassy enclosure dotted with large buildings and exuding a air of general industriousness. Wandering around, we came across a settler (unsuccessfully) demonstrating how to make fire the local way with a fire bow, a smith using a wood-fired forge to make iron nails and a baker in a stupendously hot house finishing off some corn bread (wheat would have been paddled in from Québec, and hence would have been in very short supply). The whole enterprise spoke of self-sufficiency, community and hardship in what at the time would have been a near-wilderness.

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons fire bowSainte-Marie among the Hurons blacksmith

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons frogSainte-Marie among the Hurons groundhog

Martyr's Shrine

The Martyr’s Shrine next door was constructed in 1926 to commemorate the Jesuits who died at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, and enjoys spectacular views over Georgian Bay. The interior of the church is constructed to look like a birch-bark canoe, which, as the principal means of transport in the region, would have held immense significance to the settlers and native peoples alike. Statues of various saints, holy people and significant events in the life of Jesus are scattered around the grounds, including a representation of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native North American to be beatified in the Roman Catholic Church. We shared the site with hordes of tourists/pilgrims from all over the world; remarkable for a relatively small site.

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (2)Georgian Bay from the Martyr's Shrine

CN reflectionOne advantage to living in the largest city in Canada (with a population of about 2.5 million, Toronto is the fifth largest city in North America, but doesn’t even make the top 100 worldwide) is that most bands coming to the country will stop here. Amy and I took advantage of this recently when we got to see They Might Be Giants at the Luminato Festival, a multi-disciplinary celebration of the arts. TMBG have been releasing music aimed at kids over the past few years, and they described this concert as an experiment in family-accessible shows (with a mixture of songs and the set list in alphabetical order). I was too busy enjoying things to concentrate on getting spectacular shots, but there is a comprehensive list on tmbw.net.

TMBG at Luminato (1)TMBG at Luminato (2)

Notre-Dame-des-NeigesOn the warm and sunny evening following our epic tour of Montréal’s natural history attractions, I hiked up the undulating slopes of Mont-Royal to take a closer look at the imposing might of Saint Joseph’s Oratory (Oratoire Saint-Joseph). On my way, I passed the famous Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery – Canada’s largest cemetery and final home of several important figures in its history (had I know that at the time, I might have lingered there to seek out some of its luminaries).

St. Joseph's Oratory (3)

The Oratory rises up out of the surrounding hills like a spacecraft, and therefore boasts excellent views of the city and surrounding countryside (which is of critical importance to all Assassin’s Creed II players). I approached the enormous main doors, passing a few pilgrims, and was immediately directed into the side door – the front doors are presumably only used for special occasions. In the dimly-lit basement, I encountered a small grotto with spring-water (every good site of religious significance needs one), and thousands of crutches and canes case aside by people who’d been healed. The healer in question, Brother (now Saint) André Bessette, refused to take any credit for his work and directed all enquiries up to Saint Joseph (hence the Oratory). On one of the upper floors is a small memorial to Brother André, including his tomb, hospital bed and preserved heart (somehow stolen in 1973, but recovered the following year) – the smell of formaldehyde was a little overpowering, and I beat a respectful retreat into the surprisingly Spartan main hall.

St. Joseph's Oratory (1)St. Joseph's Oratory (5)

St. Joseph's Oratory (2)St. Joseph's Oratory (7)

St. Joseph's Oratory (4)St. Joseph's Oratory (6)McGill blossoms

The Hockey Sweater

The following morning, we walked over to McGill University and the charming McCord Museum of Canadian History (Musée McCord), as the name suggests an enormous collection of artifacts and documents relating to the long and tumultuous history of Canada. Since I knew next to nothing about Canadian history, we opted for the self-guided tour and were lent an iPod with an excellent museum guide app. Among the ingenious First Nations clothing, indecipherable political cartoons and paintings of colonial unrest we came across something that Amy described as “le hockey sweater”. Inspired by my blank look, she collected a couple of museum wardens and had them give us a quick summary of francophone-anglophone tensions in modern Québec. The sweater in question was Maurice Richard‘s Montréal Canadiens ice hockey uniform, and the subject of a well-known book. We headed out for dinner significantly more knowledgeable.

Raw restaurantMcCord statue

Montréal botanical gardens (2)

On our first full day in Montréal, Amy and I stayed true to form and made a beeline for the natural history attractions. The Insectarium was closed, but we did manage to tour the Biodôme (housed in the velodrome / Judo dojo from the 1976 Olympic Games) and the Botanical Gardens (founded in 1931 after years of campaigning by Québec botanist Brother Marie-Victorin).

Olympic ParkBiodôme trumpeter

Top left: A flower in the Botanical Gardens. Above left: Olympic Park. Above right: Grey-winged trumpeters (Psophia crepitans). Below left: Ibis, probably scarlet. Below right: An otter, probably river.

Biodôme ibisBiodôme otter

Biodôme turtleBiodôme bird (1)

Above left: A small turtle. Above right: A seabird, probably a tern or kittiwake. Below: Unidentified seabirds.

Biodôme bird (2)Biodôme bird (3)

Montréal botanical gardens (11)Biodôme capybara

Above left: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens. Above right: A capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Below: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens.

Montréal botanical gardens (1)Montréal botanical gardens (3)

Montréal botanical gardens (5)Montréal botanical gardens (6)

Montréal botanical gardens (7)Montréal botanical gardens (8)

Montréal botanical gardens (9)Montréal botanical gardens (10)

Montréal botanical gardens (4)Montréal botanical gardens (12)

Montreal by night (2)

A few weeks ago (yes, it’s been that long since I had sufficient idle time to update), Amy and I took a mini-break in the cosmopolitan heart of colonial Canada, Montréal. Our touristy adventures at various sights will be chronicled in later posts, but I wanted to mention first and foremost what will certainly prove to be the stand-out highlight of our trip.

On our first evening in the city, we sought out dinner at a busy Italian-flavoured place and were rewarded with fresh pesto and bread (things almost undreamed-of with our single-income food budget and my lacklustre cooking skills), along with excellent pizza and salads. We took the scenic route back to our hotel, and Amy almost immediately spotted a “Hey! Join us!” sign attached to an ice hockey stick being waved from the roof of a four-storey building. Never ones to turn down a blog post hook, we yelled up at the waver and were invited up toutesuite (note: for the record, I was mildly incredulous that we would associate with strangers on rooftops but things worked out for the best, as you will read).

Rooftop party (2)

A runner was sent down to fetch us, and we climbed to the upper storey of the building, through a hole in the kitchen’s upper wall and then through a trapdoor onto the rooftop proper. We were greeted enthusiastically by a small group of students who were drinking cocktails out of small bowls and trying to entice more people up onto the roof to enjoy the evening. With music streaming from an internet radio station and another round of drinks forthcoming, we settled down to chat the night away above one of downtown Montréal’s busiest nightlife areas. We had so much fun, we went back the following evening with cider and snacks.

Join usRooftop party (1)

Montreal by night (1)Montreal by night (3)

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