A day trip to Niagara Falls from Toronto.
Toronto – Ottawa – Toronto 9 June – 5 July 2018
How nice it was to arrive at 1 Market Street, walkable from the station (but not with our luggage, modest though it is), and there to find Mary Jane Warner waiting for us in the lobby. This was to prove typical of how she looked after us while we were in Toronto – a wonderful hostess.
Once we were installed in the guest suite of the apartment block and had boggled a bit at the view of the CN Tower and the other skyscrapers of downtown we were introduced to Catherine Limbertie and Freda Crisp, friends of Mary Jane’s and now, we hope, of ours as well.
View from the bed in Toronto – a good start to the day!
With Mary Jane and Freda…….
… and Catherine.
Together we set off, via the first of many restaurant visits together, to see the Irish company Teac Damsa in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version of Swan Lake, a torrid affair of delusion, illusion, confusion, and many many feathers.
Toronto provided a great deal of dance for us during the next weeks. The National Ballet of Canada is based here, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and we watched the world premiere of their new production, Frame by Frame. This is based on the life of Norman McLaren, a Canadian animator, and was an impressive multi-media show – one again that required a long synopsis. The dancing was exciting, but for us there was not quite enough of it amongst the other effects and effective tricks.
However, the National Ballet’s Triple Bill of Paz de la Jolla, The Man in Black – a very moving piece danced to five Leonard Cohen songs – and the well-known send-up of modern dance Cacti, was much more to our taste and we went three times….
The Mad Hot Ballet Disco (and gala presentation), again with the National Ballet, gave us a chance to see Toronto’s glitterati assembled to support their Ballet company – we had not packed much that was glittery for our world tour, so felt quite drab in the foyers, but Balu wore a jacket for the first time since Tokyo last September, and Simon found an ironed shirt… We hope that the very elegant Mary Jane did not feel too ashamed!
The danced pieces – which were, obviously, the reason for our presence – were outstanding, perhaps especially Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in the beautiful Sospiri, which we had seen the previous week premiered in Montreal; and Piotr Stanczyk, so mesmerising in The Man in Black, with Sonia Rodriguez in Por Ti.
Balu with Jeannnine Haller and Soo Ah Kang of the National Ballet of Canada
Other dance that we were able to see included the Cuban Malpaso Dance Company with three thought-provoking pieces of modern dance; the National Ballet School of Canada’s end-of-year gala which presented each year group in turn leading up to the very polished students from Year 11; as guests of Mary Jane, a new piece at the Heliconian Club, an organisation supporting women in the arts, by the Dancer-in-Residence, Emily Law; and a fascinating class and improvisation session by Kashe Dance on the concourse of Union Station.
So much of our dance programme was facilitated by Mary Jane, who as Dr Warner is Professor Emerita at York University and a constant fund of information and advice about all things dance-related and very much more besides. To go to the theatre with Mary Jane was to learn a LOT as well as thoroughly to enjoy her company. We are so glad that we had found ourselves sitting next to her and her lovely late husband Fred one evening in Havana in 2012.
Later on in our stay we moved “upstairs” to Mary Jane’s apartment on the 16th floor, where we had wonderful new views in the opposite direction, over Lake Ontario, the nearby islands, and the eastern suburbs with far below us the freeway and the rail tracks, the former always busy and sometimes clogged up to London standards. The two Siamese cats took to Balu, and much to Simon’s surprise, Balu to them – even to the point of cleaning out the litter trays!
As well as haunting the theatres, we did our duty as tourists as well, walking a lot – and it was very hot – and visiting the best of the galleries. The Royal Ontario Museum, enormous and school-group-filled, reminded us a lot of the British Museum (though there one only sees dinosaurs in the members’ reading room) in its obviously very successful attempt to make history and culture in the widest sense accessible. The Art Gallery of Ontario is, again, very large and very successful in what it does – its First Nations collection is outstanding and the exhibition of servicemen’s personal photographs from World War One completely gripping. The astonishing staircase itself made the visit worthwhile!
The wonderful extension of the Royal Ontario Museum.
…. and its staircase!
A more surprisingly successful visit was to the Bata Shoe Museum. We had not realised that shoes and shoemaking could be so fascinating and we are so glad that we took the advice of previous visitors and overcame our scepticism.
and more shoes.
Near the apartment was the Distillery District, a very attractively renovated and re-purposed area of industrial buildings now housing boutiques, galleries, bars and restaurants. Like similar areas in the U.K. it made us wonder where the actual production of wealth was now happening – so many opportunities to spend but no evidence of the labour that somewhere must underpin the spending. And right next-door was the St Lawrence Market, a venerable institution where every imaginable sort of food and drink can be bought – and frequently was.
The St Lawrence Market, with Mary Jane’s apartment block behind.
Toronto does not make much of its shoreline, and indeed makes the lakeside quite difficult to access, but Sugar Beach, just a block away from 1 Market Street, was host to a couple of snooze sessions – a strip of sand imported onto some land next to the sugar refinery wharf which boasts rare ground level lake views and many comfortable muskoka chairs. Plentiful shade, too, for those who need it.
Sugar beach, with sugar-pink parasols.
Much to our Toronto friends’ surprise, we decided to visit the Casa Loma, an Edwardian era cross between stately home and baronial castle perched on a bluff just north of the University and built by the fortune of the electricity king of Toronto Henry Pellatt but then of necessity sold when what went up inevitably came down. It has astonishingly beautiful floors (does that sound grudging?) and much pseudo-European grandeur, and the views from either of the Rapunzelesque turrets of downtown Toronto were remarkable. It was, however, horribly crowded with visitors, mostly from the United States, who were seemingly allotted 20 minutes to see the entire place and did so with disconcerting speed. The far reaches of the estate, attainable via a long tunnel under a road and houses that Pellatt had been unable to make his own, was much quieter, and boasted some fine old motor cars.
Interior of Casa Loma.
The Toronto skyline from the Casa Loma.
Balu discovered that his niece Rashmi’s husband, whose wedding he had attended in Mumbai 2 years ago, was in Toronto on business, and it was great to meet Aashish and go with him on the ferry to Ward’s Island, a mere 15 minutes away but a completely different world. Aashish is a great photographer, and was thrilled by the skyline views over the Lake, and the unexpectedly rural south of the island, with its beaches and woods.
Aashish, Simon and Balu on Ward’s Island.
When it was time for him to head for the airport, we decided to linger on the island and so tasty was the (inevitable) ice cream that Simon in his excitement left his camera on the chairs that we occupied for the occasion. Of course we did not miss it until it was time to catch the ferry back … we retraced our steps, distributed visiting cards and interrogated the ice cream saleswoman and nearby canoeists. All in vain. The camera’s wanderlust, having been conquered once before in Kochi, Japan, seemed to have prevailed. But just as we were about to board the ferry, an island employee came up to us, having remembered Balu waving to him from our chairs, with the missing camera …. an enormous relief. Simon was gibberingly grateful.
Through a long-distance introduction from Naomi Mori, our dear friend in Tokyo, we were able to meet two notable citizens of Toronto. Katherine Barber, ex-Editor in Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary now runs her own company, Tours en l’Air, to conduct discerning balletomanes around the ballet companies of Europe and the USA. She was wonderfully entertaining over dinner one evening and was kind enough to use her allocation of tickets to facilitate our third visit to the National Ballet’s Triple Bill. Her comments, insights and anecdotes were a real treat!
With Katherine Barber.
Another evening we had dinner with Evan McKie, sometime star of the Stuttgart Ballet and now Principal Dancer at the National Ballet of Canada. It felt as if we had known each other for a long time, and we took real pleasure in the company of this gentle and insightful artist. We fervently hope that we shall meet both Katherine and Evan again in due course – they both have an open invitation should they come to the United Kingdom.
With Evan McKie.
Toronto Pride was quite an experience. Officially it lasts a month, and businesses all over the city fly the rainbow flag, but the main event is of course the march on the final day. We had once happened upon the tail-end of the Pride Parade in Paris, but this time we got ourselves a good spot near the end of the route and were duly hemmed in tightly for the next three hours watching a wonderful celebration of defiance and diversity – something which Toronto, and indeed the whole nation, seems to do very well indeed. When it was finally over, our ears were ringing and our clothes wet, partly from the drizzle but also from the omnipresent water pistols, which were amusing enough for the first couple of hours, but did pall eventually. It was a splendid experience all round, and we are glad we had the opportunity to be there.
Toronto’s City Hall is a beautiful concrete confection bewilderingly adjacent to the old City Hall, the former with its two towering, pale crescents embracing the council chamber in its protective mushroom, the latter a St-Pancras-like beturreted Victorian declaration of power.
City Hall, Toronto.
The Legislative Building of the Ottawa Provincial Assembly, dominating the University district from Queen’s Park, was a must-see. We arrived just as the new provincial Premier, Doug Ford – brother of Toronto’s late and very divisive Mayor Rob Ford – was finishing his inauguration speech in front of the building, and while we were waiting for our guided visit we had close views of him, surrounded by bodyguards, of his unmistakable extended family, and of his many vocal supporters. He is “For The People” apparently, though probably not in a Leninist way. Not really for us to comment as guests, but we are a little surprised at his ascendancy in this tolerant, diverse, relaxed nation; and it would not have felt appropriate, either, to question our enthusiastic young guide as he showed us around the seat of power of Canada’s most powerful province and pointed out the freshly painted name on the door of the Premier’s office.
New Premier Doug Ford.
Our guide, Daniel.
We ate very well in Toronto – every day starting with a super breakfast prepared by Mary Jane. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s restaurants – highlights were the Greek cafe near Heliconia Hall where we explored the milkshake menu; Paramount Fine Foods, the rather oddly named middle-eastern restaurant on Front Street West; the Kimchi Korea on Dundas Street where the bibambaps took us straight back to Seoul; and the wonderful Spice Indian Bistro, where Mary Jane is a regular customer and where the food is genuinely Indian as well as innovative and so attractively presented. Finally, we shall not forget the barbecue hosted by Catherine in her front garden and administered by Balu – a first which he carried off with great aplomb and not a little smoke.
Barbecue at Catherine’s.
A rather magnificent present from Mary Jane was a day out in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Shakespeare Festival, and tickets to two musicals there. We had a booking on the Festival bus and arrived in good time for its departure at a seemingly deserted street corner in downtown Toronto. As soon as the bus appeared on the horizon a veritable crowd of elderly people arrived from nowhere and fought their way on, taking no prisoners, to get the best seats… it was (and remains) the only time in Canada when we saw anything even approaching aggressive behaviour.
Stratford is a pretty town on the banks of the Avon – of course – that lives mostly from the eight month long annual Festival. We were met by Mary Jane and Catherine, who were staying there for a few days, and taken for a fine al fresco lunch before seeing the matinee performance of The Rocky Horror Show, then for dinner before the evening show, in the Festival Theatre itself with its wonderful thrust stage, of The Music Man, which was new to us and was gloriously energetic and tuneful. We took the bus back to Toronto with seventy-six trombones still ringing in our ears!
Stratford City Hall…..and dessert.
Balu, especially, had always dreamed of seeing Niagara Falls, and we rented a car for a day and set off, initially through the terrible rush hour traffic (and Toronto driving is very different from most other places….), reaching the town of Niagara Falls after a couple of hours and an unintended diversion around all the terminal buildings of Toronto’s international airport. Thank you TomTom.
The slightly sleazy city of Niagara Falls is laughably unequal to nature’s extravagance at the falls themselves. These were amazingly beautiful – the noise was almost overpowering, and sight of the tiny boats of tourists far below was almost pitiful. The view of the Falls from the Canadian side is superior to that from the USA, and we felt strange looking across at the Stars and Stripes fluttering over there, having determined early on in our travels that in the present circumstances we would not be visiting the land of the free.
We lingered for most of the morning before setting off through the straggling casinos and fast-food joints of the city en route to the very different town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is where the Niagara River, forming the border between Canada and the United States, flows with slow dignity into Lake Ontario. The road ran alongside the river, and we were able to stop from time to time and admire the views of the ravine, the forests, and the beautiful estates alongside the water. Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival, is small, extremely tasteful and almost unreal in its prettiness. It was all a great contrast to Toronto, whither we returned as darkness fell.
Typical of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The Niagara River flowing quietly into Lake Ontario – quite a change from the falls a few miles upstream.
In the Toronto suburb of Etobikoke, a 40 minute tram ride away down Queen Street, lives Heather Harris. She is 86 going on 56, was a good friend of Simon’s late parents and is his brother Toby’s godmother. She insisted that we take over her beautiful 27th floor split level apartment for a week, while she moved in with her daughter Lucy. The views of Lake Ontario, of Toronto and in the other direction of the conurbations to the west were as astonishing as her generosity.
Heather at home.
The view from Heather’s apartment.
It was, for Simon, so good to see her again after probably more than 60 years (she and her husband John had emigrated to Canada in 1957) and for Balu, to make a new friend. Filling in gaps in the story of her relationship with Simon’s mother and father, and plugging some holes in his knowledge both of his parents and of Heather’s own life was something that now only she was uniquely able to do. Simon found these conversations so valuable and so moving. It was lovely, too, to look at the photo albums and written memoirs that Heather had thoughtfully left out for us to peruse…
Simon aged 5 with his mother on the left and Heather on the right.
Not only did Heather lend us her home, but also her car, and we used it to make another visit to Stratford, this time to see a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. We were by some years the youngest of the audience (yes, really) but appreciation for the performance was spirited, and it was a great production with finely detailed sets, (mostly) cut glass English accents and evident relish at the bons mots with which the text abounds.
An Ideal Husband – the set.
We drove with Heather – actually, she did most of the driving – to the McMichael Gallery just outside Toronto, where we were taught about the Group of Seven, a cabal of Canadian artists of the early 20th century who deliberately forged a new style of painting for their country, with some very striking results. We also saw many works by a favourite of Heather’s, a First Nation artist called Norval Morrisseau (aka Copper Thunderbird) whose distinctively colourful and spiritual portrayal of things natural impressed us enormously. There are many prints of his works hanging in the apartment in Etobikoke – we looked at them with fresh eyes that evening.
Loons by Norval Morrisseau.
Meeting Heather and John’s children felt like meeting cousins. Philip and his partner Becky came to dinner and we talked solidly for four hours; Caroline and her husband George showed us their wonderful old house and introduced us to their son and daughter-in-law Mark and Ali with Heather’s sixth great grandchild Nora – who was not at all impressed by visitors from abroad; Lucy hosted with apparently no effort at all a superbly vegetarian barbeque for her mother and us – and again we talked non-stop. Interestingly, Philip shares our passion for travel, and both Lucy and the newly retired Caroline are in the same line of teaching-cum-mentoring as was Simon in his later working life.
With Heather, Philip and Becky.
With Heather, Ali, Nora, Caroline, George and Mark.
With Lucy and Heather.
Ottawa was the place to be for Canada Day: we drove there with Heather, who was to stay as usual for the holiday weekend with Caroline, while we went to our Airbnb accommodation, directly on the bank of the Rideau River just outside the Federal Capital. Very splendid it was too, just trees and water around a luxurious house in which we had really lovely quarters. Hosts Maureen and Albert were most solicitous and very friendly – we were sorry not to spend more time with them than we were able to.
With Maureen and Albert.
The weekend was searingly hot. It transpired that 38 people died as a direct result of the unusual weather and it certainly slowed us down in our exploration of Ottawa, a capital city without pretensions or overweening grandeur, but with waterways and canals, a very attractive Parliament building and, on the other side of the Ottawa River, the magnificent Museum of History. It was crowded because of the holiday (and because it was air conditioned) but absorbing and unusual – as so often, we ran out of time and found ourselves ejected and wondering whether to hang around for the Canada Day fireworks – not until 10.00 at night – or to go home and sit on the terrace watching otters and fireflies. The latter seemed much more attractive, especially as the heat had not abated at all.
Ottawa on Canada Day.
Our second day in Ottawa was spent visiting the Mint, where commemorative coins and medals are struck and where one can handle a large ingot of pure gold, and in the Art Gallery, where, apart from absorbing more art, we had lunch under a spectacular web of glass roofing installed by the company owned by our Airbnb hosts.
“Mine, all mine!”
The Art Gallery, Ottawa.
After that we explored further along the river, and came to realise just how geographically small Ottawa is as the federal capital of such a vast country: only ten minutes from Parliament we were on the unspoiled banks of the river among kingfishers and chipmunks. Another picnic brought our time in Ottawa to a close, and the next day we collected Heather and drove the five or so hours back to Toronto.
Parting from her that evening, after Lucy’s generous barbecue, was difficult. We hope that we shall meet again – Heather insisted it was au revoir, not goodbye, but who knows. What is certain is that the tears we shed were of real affection as well as sadness.
After a final night at Mary Jane’s and a farewell Indian meal we summoned an Uber cab to take us to the airport. We shall see Mary Jane again in October at the Havana Ballet Festival, but it was sad parting, and we want to express again here our heartfelt thanks for all her hospitality and help.
Au revoir to Mary Jane.
We were flying next to Thunder Bay, on the far banks of the furthest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. Everyone in Canada, when we had disclosed this as our next destination, had without exception looked genuinely puzzled and asked “Why?” This had been a little disconcerting… But we arrived at Billy Bishop, Toronto’s tiny downtown airport on an island about 100 yards offshore, and boarded our little Dehavilland Dash turboprop aircraft in the expectation of seeing a less frequented city than those which we had so far visited.
Billy Bishop City Airport, Toronto.