The End of our Gap Year 14 July 2017 – 30 August 2018

Our World Trip 2017 – 2018

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Transport

412 days – 49,324 miles (79376km) – equates to circling the earth twice.

Boat 120 miles/193 km

Train 5,317 miles/8,556 km

Car 3,693 miles/5,943 km

Bus 261 miles/420 km

Aeroplane 39,933 miles/64,264 km

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Leaving Vancouver and the year away…

 

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….and arriving in London……

 

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…met by Dawn and Colin at our own Terminal.

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Home Sweet (overgrown) Home. Maybe there is an enchanted Princess hidden inside….

Final Thoughts

We have now been home for a while and are digesting and reminiscing about what we experienced and learned during our 13.5 months away from the U.K (July 2017 to Sept 2018).

The most important thing is that we recognise and acknowledge how very much we owe to everyone at home who made this trip possible. Sam looked after all our extra furniture and personal possessions (200+ boxes) and kept them safe around the edge of his swimming pool; Colin and Dawn fielded all our mail, processed and filed it, helped us pare down our luggage (“No Balu, you do not need four pairs of shoes”), waved us off at Heathrow and in due course waved us back home again; Helen and Simon acted as foster parents to our two elderly tortoises and, from the lack of enthusiasm shown by the latter when we were reunited, we suspect that they spoiled them rotten; Faith and Andrew took on all our pots of hostas and brought them through what was evidently quite a challenging quartet of seasons; Audrey and John gave a home to all our ballet DVDs; Toby – who better than a professional forester? – looked after various potted trees that have returned from Cumbria looking refreshed and reinvigorated.

Next we feel we must sincerely thank the good friends en route who gave enormous help in the practicalities of negotiating a route through the cultural life of various cities, particularly Naomi Mori in Tokyo, Mary Jane Warner in Toronto (and elsewhere in Canada) and Colleen Smith in Vancouver.

Throughout the journey we made new friends seemingly in every city and country, in Perm, Seoul, and Tokyo; in Borobudur, Geraldton and Sydney; in Montevideo, San Luis Potosí and Montreal. We were very generously hosted by Balu’s aunt Jenny in Melbourne; in New South Wales not only by Simon’s cousin Trish in Orange but also by friends Sam and Lisette in Terrigal; by Mary Jane and also by Toby’s godmother Heather in Toronto; by Anne Katrine in Lake County and by Adele and Jamie in Haida Gwaii; and finally by Colleen in Vancouver. We were thrilled to be able to meet so many of Simon’s ex-students en route, and were touched by the efforts they made to catch us – thank you Paul and Luke, Sam, Alex, Matthew… Similarly thanks to Nigel who flew from Brisbane to catch up with Balu, his ex-colleague, in Sydney.

A lot of ice cream was eaten, a lot of different food sampled, a 13.5-month-long summer with some very extreme temperatures was enjoyed. We travelled by boat, car, coach, plane, taxi and train, (and did a retrospectively astonishing amount of exploring on foot); we never felt threatened, unsafe or even ill-at-ease; and we did not, amazingly, have any stomach problems. The oh-so-expensive insurance we had taken out was not used – and in fact we risked the last six weeks in Saskatchewan and British Columbia without any insurance at all. 

People have asked us what our favourite place was. Impossible question! Comparing Khabarovsk with Kochi or Goolwa with Guadalajara is not meaningful . Every stop had something of real interest for us, be it a gallery or a garden, a ballet company or a beach, a museum or a mountain, or just a park with people to watch and every stop has left its own layer of impressions and memories. 

One friend asked which place had most surprised us – the answer had to be Australia. We had approached it out of a desire to visit relations and friends but feeling a bit wary of what the wider country would be like – we were delighted to be bowled over by the sense of space, the light, the cultural offering, the beautiful flora, the friendliness and lack of stuffiness with which we were met throughout. For young people there seems to be a feeling of opportunity and optimism, in the cities there was no evidence of anything but a relaxed multiculturalism, and the ‘can do’ feeling we came away with was quite inspiring.

It was, to be honest, a relief not to be in the U.K. during what we found (and, on returning, still find) to be a terribly dispiriting period politically. The Guardian was available online but we could and did stick our heads in the sand, we are afraid to say, watched no television or online news at all, and have only now become re-acquainted with the shabbiness of the world in and around Westminster. We have given serious thought to whether we want to stay here: the shortlist of places we would return to, long term, would be Japan (but the language!), Canada (but the winters!) or Australia (but… well, but nothing, really). We shall see.

The internet made the planning and much of the execution possible, it also facilitated  easy on-going contact with friends and family that was unheard of when Simon did his first “gap year” in Stuttgart in 1970 – Balu for instance was able now to show his sister Pratibha in Mumbai every stop we made, whereas Simon in those days wrote and received weekly letters from home and was full of trepidation about, for instance, whether the Morris 1000 would make it across to Strasbourg – never mind planning an excursion across the South Pacific via Tahiti and Easter Island.

We are now great fans of Airbnb. Although there were some hotel stays, the majority of our accommodation came through that site, and it was on the whole a very positive experience. Some of our hosts were truly delightful to meet, and it was great to have, through them, local knowledge and tips. Often we were able to find somewhere with its own kitchen and this removed the need to eat in a restaurant every day, which is in the long term neither cheap nor healthy. And often, although there was welcome contact with a host, we had our own front door and privacy. We were lucky in the non-separate accommodation that we found, too – Brian and Monica for example, whose flat we shared in Seoul, became good friends.

We are aware that we have been very privileged to undertake such a trip, when so many cannot. It was humbling to see as we travelled so many fellow humans who have such difficulty making life good for themselves and their children, and to be able to step into and then leave so many countries where there are real difficulties for citizens who are gay, and to be offered hospitality and friendship by seemingly everyone we met. Sometimes it felt wrong, in a way, to dip in and out as we did. 

As great ballet lovers, one of the true highlights of these last months was the opportunity to see so much in the way of dance, from the stylisation of the Kabuki in Japan to the exuberance of the Rapanui on Easter Island, via a great deal of folk dance and classical ballet. To be in the Bolshoi Theatre, the Teatro Colón …. to see the SODRE in Uruguay, the Korean National Ballet …. to meet in Mexico the Cubans we had seen on stage in Havana, to bump into Elizabeth McGorian and Vadim Muntagirov in Tokyo … to spot the British trained dancer in Montevideo or the Buenos Aires stars in Morón… so much to remember. 

Finally, we want to thank each other, if this does not sound too precious, for the splendid time we have had together. Hardly ever more than 6 feet away from each other for all those months, here we are, still devoted and still planning more travel. The 26th International Ballet Festival in Havana, for example….

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Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 7

Victoria  20 – 29 Aug 2018

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Honeymoon Bay, Vancouver Island. 42 years too late….

The 90 minute ferry trip on the Spirit of Vancouver Island from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay was delightful, despite the haze which made the islands we passed in the Salish Sea emerge and gently fade away again as they drew astern. We sat in (almost) solitary state at the prow and caught a brief glimpse of a school of porpoises, took far too many “moody” photographs, and were first off the boat. 

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Threading our way across the Salish Sea.

Arriving in Victoria we took possession of the final Airbnb apartment, a sparkling clean set of rooms which despite being in the semi basement was light and had access to its own patio. We also made the acquaintance of Sophia, Max and Jedediah – assorted very large and exuberantly friendly dogs whose shoulder-level kisses almost overwhelmed Balu, and whose percussive antics above our heads each early morning were almost enough to turn Simon into a cat lover. Almost, note.

We were only 10 minutes away from downtown Victoria, the area called James Bay. It is small, easy to navigate and despite the bushfire haze it was very attractive. The inner harbour with its rotund ferries, its fleet of seaplanes coming and going and its selection of yachts – some swish, some simple – was lovely. High temperatures and cheerful punters gave the place a real seaside resort feel. 

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James Bay, Victoria.

Its grown-up job, of course, is to be the capital of the Province of British Columbia, and as ever we found ourselves on a guided tour of the Legislative Assembly. Aidan was a lively host, with a nice line in sardonic humour, and he shared the honours with Amor de Cosmos – or an actor playing him at least. This chap with the self-chosen name was actually the second Premier of the Province in the C19th, and his story was quite captivating: a chancer made good after many an adventure. Again as usual, we managed to have a great lunch in the Members Restaurant. We shall maybe try wandering into the Palace of Westminster for some fish and chips on our return….

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The Legislative Buildings of British Columbia, Victoria.

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Amor de Cosmos. We think Aidan might have heard it before…..

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Another Parliamentary luncheon. With ketchup.

The other main attraction in Victoria is the splendid Royal British Columbia Museum. It was open until 10 pm so for once we did not run out of time – and had a pause for brain-food (well, plates of pasta from the Old Spaghetti Factory next door) halfway through. The Museum is currently hosting a fabulous exhibition about ancient Egypt, and it managed to be fresh and appealing, striking just the right balance between erudition and entertainment.

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Despite this poor publicity, the exhibition was magnificent.

There is also a super section devoted to First Nations languages, their orthography and history and, wonderfully, many opportunities to listen to spoken Squamish, Haida or Cree amongst many others. The natural history of BC gets great treatment as does a doom laden exposition of the future results of the climate change so evident already. Finally, there is a really thorough reconstruction of Victoria in the early C20th, with shops to browse in, a cinema to watch Chaplin in, and even a whole ship to explore. A truly great Museum, and one which, as the evening drew on, we had nearly all to ourselves.

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First Nations Gallery, the Royal British Columbia Museum.

Trans-Canada Highway number 1, which we had patronised  quite often during our journey across the country finishes in a very modest way as a residential street by the sea at the bottom of Beacon Hill. Here is the statue of Terry Fox, always a draw, and right next to it stood a one-legged Canada goose. Balu played with ideas of reincarnation for a minute or two.

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Terry Fox…

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…and sympathetic goose.

Beacon Hill itself is part of an extensive park along the Juan de Fuca strait, with ponds, a glorious rose garden, a small zoo, a huge flag and more besides. It hosts  an enormous pole which when erected by Kwakwaka’wakw craftsmen in 1956 was the tallest in the world.

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The Kwakwaka’wakw pole by Beacon Hill.

Families of peacocks roam the hill and Balu befriended some of them. Imagine his delight when a somewhat dishevelled passing Victorian, hearing that for Hindus they are something special, presented him with a small but beautifully detailed tail feather. We offered her a lift out of the park (to be honest, it looked as if she were a little, er, challenged) and wonderfully, she said “Thanks – I know I look homeless, but my car is just over there…”

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Sitting firmly on his tail feathers – Balu was about.

We explored the suburbs of Victoria as well, and found several places along the shores that took our fancy. Our favourites were probably Clover Point – within not-getting-cold range of a very good chippy – and Fleming Beach Park in Esquimalt, where the sunsets were glorious, especially after a wind blew away both the haze and the warm temperatures. It was there that we were able to watch a Harbour Seal practising not falling off a log, keep an eye on a blue heron beside him, and listen to a very accomplished accordion player providing a charming background accompaniment to the reddening skies. 

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There were some longer excursions as well. One day we followed the coast westwards as far as tiny, isolated Port Renfrew with its fjord-like setting and nearby hidden coves reached by a sedate hike through the forest. A notable feature of this coastline was the enormous amount of beautiful, bleached driftwood in all sizes and shapes, and the complete absence of any detritus, plastic or otherwise. 

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Balu can sleep absolutely anywhere.

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A typically pristine cove, this one in the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.

On the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria we found the local Hindu Temple in a small white clapboard converted church – it was closed but instead we had a small domestic ceremony on the Festival of Raksha Bandan.

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Balu wearing his new Rakhis from his sisters Hansaben and Pratibha.

We found more pretty beaches, all with picture postcard views of the neighbouring islands, and twice we used the highway in the direction of Nanaimo to get us further up the island. Thus we were able to visit the small community of Cowichan Bay with its wealthy-hippy air and floating houses, to go east to Cowichan Lake and to find the best picnic spot at Honeymoon Bay. So pretty. And such good ice cream, even in the depths of the forests. Sadly, that was to be our last indulgence of the entire trip….

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Vancouver Island, then, had proved a good choice. It was relaxing, there wasn’t too much pressure to ”do the sights” simply because there are not many of them, the weather had improved and sparkling seas were back, and best of all the people that we encountered seemed to portray the very best of Canadian-ness. They were kind, funny, helpful, considerate; like everywhere else in Canada they do not drop litter nor spread graffiti; they drive considerately and always give way to pedestrians (and the cyclists NEVER jump a red light); they were open to discussion about the Southern Neighbours and genuinely perplexed about the future. Although we were not under anybody’s wing in the way that we had been in other places across Canada we felt, in a strange way, that we were safely under EVERYBODY’S wing. Thank you for a wonderful final stop.

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Sunset in Esquimalt.

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Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 6

Vancouver 5 – 20 Aug 2018

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Vancouver –  a bit different from the waterfront at Skidegate.

So after a wonderful week away from it all on Haida Gwaii we found ourselves back in the city – Vancouver, Colleen’s home – and settled in her apartment while she decamped to flatsit for her brother. Looking around her beautiful, minimalist rooms perched high above the city we had views from the windows and the balcony across downtown to the ocean, the north shore and the mountains beyond.

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Downtown Vancouver, a 20 minute walk from from Colleen’s apartment.

We counted ourselves so lucky to have her friendship – quite apart from her generous hospitality. We had met five years ago in the scrum of groupies at the Royal Opera House Stage Door while the Bolshoi Ballet was guesting and we quickly became friends. Standing in her light-flooded, uncluttered apartment we wondered what on earth she must have made of Laundry Cottage on her first visit there!

Vancouver is relaxed, young and young-feeling, good humoured, easy to navigate around and never far from hills and water. As befits a Crown Counsel, Colleen is meticulously organised and helped us try to be so as well, so that we managed both to relax and to see and do a lot. The city is also something of a foodie paradise, and Colleen’s guidance came in very handy when we were looking to eat well. We really do have so much to thank her for.

We met up with several other people in Vancouver. The first was Johannah Pilot whom we had last seen in May striding off into the distance in Mexico City, clutching the handbag that was, sadly, to be stolen the next day. She was now visiting old haunts from her current home in Regina, Saskatchewan, and took us on a fascinating “insider” tour of East Vancouver, characterful and lively with its low-rise buildings, artists’ galleries, vegan restaurants and vintage shops. This led to an introductory stroll around Granville Island, touristy but with some beautiful craft outlets and workshops (and excellent ice cream) and a trip on the tubby little boats criss-crossing the inner city waterways that gave us a splendid view of some pretty unorthodox new buildings.

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And why not…?

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Deliberate, we assume.

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With Johannah by False Creek.

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Eat your heart out, Lafarge Cement!

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Poor Johannah – so easily led astray.

Another day we were invited to lunch with Letitia Sears, Colleen’s American friend whom we had last seen over lunch in Crookham Common. She lives by the University of British Columbia, and after a catch up in her wonderful (and slightly English feeling) garden she took us on a tour of the campus, which is perched at the end of a promontory about 20 minutes by bus from downtown and is spacious, calm and gifted with some beautiful buildings. The rose garden alone was spectacular! 

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With Letitia on campus.

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The Rose Garden overlooking the Pacific.

It was lovely to renew acquaintance with both these ladies in a very different place to our last meetings, and we are so grateful that they gave up time to do the tourist trails and answer so many questions! 

One of Simon’s ex-students from Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Alex Potter, is now a renowned professional singer, and it was truly delightful to meet up with him so far from London and to be able to hear his magical counter-tenor voice in two concerts as part of the Vancouver Bach Festival. The first was in the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, Britten’s Opus 40 songs and his Opus 51  ‘Abraham and Isaac’. This had involved Alex’s tenor colleague Thomas Hobbs (Abraham) growing a beard while Alex (Isaac) shaved his off, in a joint gesture towards verisimilitude. The second was with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and the  soloists of Gli Angeli Genève in a performance of Bach’s Trauerode in the acoustically perfect Chan Centre back on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

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The Pacific Baroque Orchestra preparing in the Chan Centre.

We also managed a splendid Japanese lunch followed by a coffee in a particularly hip establishment that Alex felt would be just right for his hip old teacher….

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With Alex after the best Japanese meal since Tokyo. Goodness that shirt has shrunk.

At one point there were actually two old Askeans with us, for Matthew U’Ren (last taught in 1980!) took time away from his law practice and drove up from his home in Portland, Oregon, to spend several days with us. It was such a pleasure to see them together, although they had never met at school, and for Balu to get to know these interesting folk from Simon’s professional past.

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Matthew (left) and Alex (right) backstage at the Chan Centre, carrying Askean values to the New World.

One trip that we undertook courtesy of Matthew and his car was up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler. By the time that happened, the air was becoming, after a beautifully clear week, very hazy from the many bush fires in the interior of British Columbia. This got steadily worse later on, but on our Whistler trip we could at least see enough to marvel at the three very different waterfalls we visited and some of the spectacular views from the Highway. It was great to have caught up with Matthew’s news, and to be reassured that he is still as sharp and as tricksy a linguist as Simon had remembered. It was so good of him to come and visit and we hope we shall remain in closer contact over the next 40-odd years!

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At the Alexander Falls, just south of Whistler, BC.

We did a fair amount of walking around Vancouver, exploring  Kitsilano with its great beaches and protected houses; Gastown which was edgy and arty; Chinatown for Balu’s haircut, the Dr Sun Yat Sen garden, and a very authentic Chinese meal; Downtown with its towers and expensive malls…. but somehow we never got to Stanley Park. That will be for another time (sorry, Colleen).

There is a lot to be said for aimlessly wandering sometimes, and we did feel we had got the flavour of various neighbourhoods. One thing which surprised us, as it had in Toronto, was how suddenly the ambiance can change from one block to another, the lively pavement cafes and shops transforming within 10 paces into corners of sadness and of derelict lives being lived out in public. The contrasts exist in every city, of course, but here noticeably cheek by jowl.

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The entrance to Chinatown.

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The entrance to the Dr Sun Yet Sen Garden, an oasis of calm and of snoozing tourists…

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Some of the wonderful old houses near City Hall.

Some of our walking was more targeted. We found and visited three times (for no fewer than five wonderful films noirs) the arty but welcoming Cinematheque, and also the Queer Film Festival venue where we watched two works, Al Berto and A Moment In The Reeds, Portuguese and Finnish respectively, which were in turn incoherent and simplistic. Never mind, it was a chance to sharpen our critical tongues on the bus home.

We also attended a piano concert given by Francis He and Dr Anna Levy, his teacher, who between them tackled two-piano transcriptions of Brahms’ 2nd and Liszt’s 1st Concerti. The audience was almost all East Asian and partly very young,  reflecting – or so we were told – the importance of the piano in the cultural life of Chinese-Canadians. An interesting insight.

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Dr Levy and Francis He, with his proud mother in the middle.

Colleen had spotted on the web and seized for us two sought-after tickets for a tour of the Rennie Gallery, a private collection devoted to the work of Kerry James Marshall, an African-American artist from Chicago. The young guide, Troy, certainly knew her stuff and we were gradually more and more convinced, by looking through her eyes, of the real value of these works in their various media. An artist of whom we shall not lose sight.

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The Garden Party, by Kerry James Marshall.

The Art Gallery of Vancouver – another coup of Colleen’s was to get us in free – took up a whole day. It was hosting an exhaustive chronological exhibition of the works of David Milne, a Canadian artist in many media who was new to us and whose work we found sometimes enchanting, sometimes terrifying and sometimes very sad. There was also a thoroughly engrossing gallery devoted to “Cabin Fever’ – a study of the history, sociology and culture associated with the concept and the reality of the cabin – wood or not – in the life of Canada. Marvellous, if unexpected.

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David Milne : One Small Maple, 1930.

We went twice to the tremendous Museum of Anthropology – twice because as usual we ran out of time on our first visit. The emphasis is on First Nations culture and history, and indeed there are some great displays of poles and other artefacts from various local Nations, including the reconstruction in the grounds of the essence of a Haida fishing village. We had a guided tour of this display and in the light of our own experiences on Haida Gwaii it was even more engrossing.

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The influences are clear on….

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….the exterior of the Museum of Anthropology, architect Arthur Ericson, which opened in 1976.

 In addition, this museum has an astonishing amount to offer that is not First Nation based, even apart from the Barred Owl that watched us as we left – there was a harrowing display of Latin-American political protest art, a large gallery of European ceramics and a general anthropology section of astonishing breadth and depth. This was our undoing : we had seriously underestimated the time we would want to spend exploring this! Actually, this could be said of nearly every city, region and country that we had visited since setting out 13 months ago. Maybe we shall need to do it all again…

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The Barred Owl seeing us balefully off the premises.

But back in the real world, our last cultural experience in Vancouver was to watch the cinema broadcast of Liam Scarlett’s new Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet. This was the first time we had seen the company since the end of the 16/17 season, so it was fascinating to see not only a very important new Ballet but also the development of the company in our absence. Bennet Gartside was a tremendous Rothbart, and Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov predictably gripping as Odette/Odile and Siegfried. They seem to have rubbed along alright in our absence … albeit apparently without a large following in Vancouver.

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Balu fought off stiff competition to get our seats for the ballet broadcast.

We took our leave of Colleen knowing that we shall meet again when she next comes to the U.K. and knowing too that we shall be forever in her debt for the loan of her beautiful apartment and the gift of her knowledge and experience in all things Vancouverite. 

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Colleen …. thank you!

At the airport we collected our final rental car and set off through what was now a pretty thick haze of smoke from the bushfires to catch the ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island, about 90 minutes away, and the entry point for our 10 days in and around Victoria, the Provincial Capital of British Columbia and allegedly the most “British” city in Canada. The ferry threads its way between islands and on a clear day the views and perspectives would have been so different. But as it was, we were enthralled by the hazy play of light on the Salish Sea from the low and subdued sun – a different and slightly sobering experience – intimations of the Apocalypse.

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Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 5

Haida Gwaii  28 July – 5 Aug 2018

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The Haida Heritage Centre, Skidegate.

After a brief turn around and intensive laundry session in Colleen’s amazing apartment – of which more in the next chapter – we set off next morning back to Vancouver airport; Colleen’s friend Sylvia Fong accompanied by a lanky Weed Whacker as tall as she is, and a squat coffee machine as well. Both were immaculately wrapped, which made them look somewhat like C-3PO and R2-D2, and led to the Airport Authorities insisting that they be unwrapped to prove that they were not, in fact, higher artificial intelligences but merely guest gifts.

The flight in another tiny DeHavilland took just two hours and soon we were landing at Sandspit, one of two very small airports that service the archipelago off the north west coast of British Columbia previously known as the Queen Charlottes Islands and now by their Aboriginal name of Haida Gwaii. We were met by Adele Weder, a friend of Colleen and Sylvia, who with her husband Jamie Chrones was offering us their hospitality, so we had a lovely ferry ride to Skidegate on Graham Island, across wonderfully sunlit waters, and on the other side we made a respectful pause at the only traffic light on the entire archipelago.

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De-planing in Haida Gwaii.

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With Sylvia and Colleen on the ferry to Skidegate.

Adele’s and Jamie’s large wooden house is perched on a hillside above the islands’ hospital in Queen Charlotte, where he is one of the GP team, and from its verandahs it looks over a breathtaking view of the harbour, the inlets, the islands and mountains and the seaplane taking off each morning. In fact, it has been gradually getting nearer to the view as it has settled, and is currently having one corner jacked up by several inches to return it to the horizontal. Fascinating!

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The view from the verandah.

With a local friend of our hosts, Alexander MacDonald, we had a day’s wonderful introduction to the spirit of the islands. In his truck he drove us along unmade roads through the spruce, hemlock and cedar forests, up over the spine of the island and down to Bonanza Beach, where we lounged in the hot sun on a beautiful sandy beach lined with bleached driftwood and had a picnic – there was no-one else there!

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Bonanza Beach.

Later we hiked through the forest to hidden Lake Yakoun, warm enough for some amongst us to skinny-dip (though Sylvia and Simon developed a sudden intense interest in the photos on their phones).

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Lake Yakoun – skinny paddling, anyone?

We learned a lot from Alexander on that day about the islands, their people  – the Haida – and their ecology. We also learned about, and sampled, many new berries – salal berries, salmon berries, thimble berries, huckleberries – and we are grateful to a gentle, knowledgeable man for all he did for us that day.

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Alexander MacDonald.

We had rented a car for our week on the island, a large and unwieldy Chrysler that had the soul of Stephen King’s Christine – as well as projectile-vomiting ancient cigarette smoke from her air vents, she made several attempts to pick us off one by one, her boot lid falling heavily on the heads of Sylvia, Colleen and Simon (twice). Balu stayed well clear! She did, however, take us, in various combinations, on several trips up and down the island without abandoning us to the forests and their (sadly invisible) bears.

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Christine, looking threatening.

One journey with Adele was through the villages of Tlell and Port Clements to Masset in the far north. It was good of her to come and show us the sights on the way, and she was very patient with our touristic shrieks when we spotted a deer or (yet another) bald  eagle.

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Black-tailed sitka.

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Bald eagle – Balu’s camera giving him his money’s worth!

On the way we visited the Balancing Rock which is just what it sounds like, dominating a beach strewn with fascinating rocks and stones being eroded in quite spooky shapes, and later met an artist friend of Adele’s, Noel Wotten, who showed us some of his own fine work and the fairytale retreat in his garden built into the bole of an enormous cedar. Oh, and a sandhill crane that was stalking slowly around just beyond his garden! There was also a visit to the studio of Barb Lawrence, a potter whose chunky blue wares we had been using chez Adele.

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Heave…

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Not a hobbit – wrong hemisphere.

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Sandhill crane.

Masset itself is a community that abuts the Haida town of Old Masset, (“Gaw” in Haida), which boasts many poles and traditional craftspeople, as well as a truly mysterious abandoned museum containing odd collections of matching pebbles.

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Spooky…

This, with Skidegate, was one of the two villages where the Haida Nation regrouped when they, a strong, independent seafaring people, were brought low in the late 1800s by tuberculosis, influenza and, most fearfully, the smallpox that was inadvertently introduced by the Europeans aiming to trade with them. Their population was reduced in a matter of months to less than 400. There was a desolate air about the village even in the bright sunshine that graced almost our whole week on Haida Gwaii. 

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With Adele and Sylvia – coffee stop in Massett.

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Colleen “Higher! Higher!”

Colleen is a great hiker. She hid her disappointment with our modest walking ability very well – the Sleeping Beauty (so called because of its distinctive silhouette) was on her list to climb, but it didn’t happen this time – we balked at the descriptions of its height, steepness and general heartiness. We did, however, hike around Spirit Lake together, discovering a Jurassic Park-like landscape of fallen and naturally expiring trees around the still waters of the lakes.

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Jurassic Park – aka Spirit Lake.

And with Sylvia and Colleen we hiked up Tow Hill, a sort of half-volcano on the northern coast, whence there is a distant view of Alaska along the tremendous beach of Rose Spit. The extremely well-maintained path up the mountain made this easier than we had feared and it was certainly worth the effort to stand seemingly on the edge of the world. Indeed, from here we could see the centre of the Haida universe – the very beach where Raven, following the great flood, had coaxed humans out of the clam shell that was their refuge and so given new life to the world.

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Rose Spit in the Naikoon Provincial Park, centre of the Haida universe.

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Raven populating the world – a wonderful composition by the Haida artist Bill Reid, in the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology.

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After Tow Hill : a stroll for Colleen, a hike for Sylvia, Simon and Balu.

We visited the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary in Masset and were privileged to meet its founder and driving force, Margo Hearne, an expatriate Irishwoman who, in the face of considerable local opposition, had opened a dyke by replacing it with a bridge to enable the tidal waters to flow naturally again and feed the acres of marshland where so many birds gather on their migrations. Although peace reigns once again between her and the local council there is still a blank plaque on the bridge – the Ministry of Roads had wanted to acknowledge her as the bridge’s progenitrix, but the local council offered C$2,000 for her name not to be inscribed. Local politics…

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Margot Hearne in the Visitors’ Centre at Delkatla.

Margo took us from the splendid Visitors’ Centre on a tour of the marshes, ending up on a terrifically windswept beach alive with low-profile flowering plants, where we watched a family of loons just off shore.

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The strange Beach Carrot – Glehnia littoralis ssp leiocarpa.

The Haida Heritage Centre and Museum is world-class. There is so much to learn about this sturdy people’s history, and this institution presents it so well, through poles, canoes, carvings, photographs and recorded oral histories. There is an astonishing diorama of the village of Skidegate pre-contact, which was apparently someone’s doctoral thesis.

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A small part of Skidegate pre-contact – this diorama was about 8 feet long…

The mostly young staff all speak Haida, an isolate language that was only given a written form recently, and are proud to explain that they belong to Raven or to Eagle clan, that their family may be Bear or Wolf or Beaver amongst others… a young woman spent an hour telling us about the poles (“totem” poles is a misnomer as they have nothing to do with a divinity but rather tell the story of a family) and helping us “read” them, but telling us also that the stories each pole relates are owned by the family concerned, and only that family has the right to tell its story … a young man told us in a mixture of Haida and English about Haida food and cooking and gave us seaweed with dried herring eggs adhering to it … tastier than it sounds. A really impressive place and a matter of justifiable pride.

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An enthusiastic young Haida interpreter of the poles at Skidegate.

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Bill Reid’s canoe, made from one western cedar tree.

We fared well from the culinary point of view on Haida Gwaii, quite apart from the titbits at the Heritage Centre. Adele is a wonderful cook and provided many a muffin as well as several meals; we had a typically Haida meal cooked by Roberta Olson (Haida name Keenawaii) in her dining room overlooking the bay; we patronised “Dave’s Takeaway” near which we dined with a very tall friend; we found very good Chinese food at the Oceana, with its characterful waiter who was moonlighting from his Beijing dentistry practice and was amusingly taken aback by the women drinking beer while the men drank water.

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Keenawaii after our super Haida meal.

 

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Al fresco dining with a tall friend.

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Service with a quip or two at the Oceana.

Finally, after a week’s searching (restaurants on the island do run out of food, dependant as they are on the fishing and on deliveries from the mainland) we tracked down halibut and chips – at Sandspit Airport just before we crammed ourselves into the plane back to Vancouver! 

It had been one of the most memorable weeks of our trip. Although we had not gone to the south of the archipelago – the Gwaii Hanas National Park Reserve, which is accessible only by sea or air – we experienced such beauty in the north for it not to have mattered. The clear waters, the tall trees in the untouched forests, the carpets of moss, the banks of berrying bushes, the ravens and eagles and the incredible luck we had, in this wettest of places, with the glorious weather – it all adds up to a truly unique experience made extra special by our friends – see below.

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Dusk on Haida Gwaii – Colleen, Balu, Adele, Simon, Jamie and Sylvia.

Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 4

The Rockies – Edmonton to Vancouver 17 – 27 July 2018

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Arriving at Edmonton Airport, we collected our latest hire car, an elegant Hyundai Sonata – lovely to drive and be driven in but, due to its low slung body, difficult to enter and exit with dignity. A wonderfully friendly but very garrulous lady from the rental company described in excruciating detail how we would get to the highway, despite Simon’s ostentatious programming of the Satnav, but eventually we got away and started our drive across Alberta (we had decided not to stop in Edmonton itself, the better to maximise our Rocky time).

A few hours later, having traversed more flat prairie and gasped at more wide skies, and for the first time having picked up a hitch-hiker, a Basque on his way to pick cherries near Vancouver, we arrived in Edson, little more than an extended truck stop on Highway 16, and our motel for the night. We stood out a tad in the car park (partly because we should have said parking lot) but the receptionist was very pleasant, and so was our room.

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Maxi, our first hitchhiker.

Breakfast next morning was uneventful apart from the fact that we fused the motel electrics whilst trying to make toast, and before long we were driving towards the astonishing mass of the Rockies which dominated the horizon before us to the west. 

The next days were perhaps the most dramatic of our entire journey as far as the landscape was concerned, and we were so very glad that we had decided not to fly over the mountains, as we had their southern cousins in Chile and Argentina, but to take our time and be amazed. No pictures, certainly not ours, can do justice to the sheer size, height, majesty of these mountains – any appended here will be travesties, so our apologies! 

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A travesty.

We drove along the Yellowhead Highway and into Jasper National Park, buying at the entrance a year’s membership of the National Parks of Canada. We were due to enter and re-enter the Parks so often in the next days that this made good financial sense, and we would be able to carry on using the passes when we reached coastal British Columbia later on. Bypassing Jasper itself we continued to Valemount, a pleasant small town which was, that day, threatened by a fire caused by the previous evening’s lightning strikes – all was unseasonably dry, and fire was a constant fear. 

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Fire over Valemount.

Twenty kilometres further on we found the Summit River Lodge, our home for the next three days. Lisa and Terry, whose property it is, were very welcoming, creating a relaxed and relaxing atmosphere around the log cabins, the camp sites and the central lodge with its handful of cozy stencilled wood bedrooms and comfortable communal area (coffee always on the go, squishy sofas, great breakfasts and fellow guests who were quiet and considerate of each other). Despite the fact that the railway line was close by – the site has its own private crossing – we had tranquil nights and peaceful mornings admiring the mountains, the river, and the humming birds (in British Columbia! We live and learn.)

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Lisa and Terry at Summit River.

Valemount has few restaurants – we opted twice for the Canadian-Chinese Lucky House which had a wall of glowing A4 testimonials from previous diners from all over the world, to which we added our own along the lines of “fresh food, excellent service, we’ll be back”. The proprietress was fast, funny and efficient. A great place.

Excursions from Valemount … we headed west on one day towards McBride, but never arrived because we dawdled along the Fraser River – one of the world’s great salmon rivers – via North Croydon with its phlegmatic cattle, and Dunster with its very spooky abandoned festival site.

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Facilities at music festival at Dunster,

We watched a very dim witted grouse (known locally as a chicken, apparently) trying and failing to scare us away from her offspring, and a supercilious pair of white-tailed Sitka playing King of the Castle.

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Mount Robson is, at just under 4,000 metres, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and it made a splendid backdrop for picnic and selfie. Apologies for trivialising this magnificent corner of the earth…l

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Mount Robson.

On another day we headed east towards but not into Jasper town, opting instead for a picnic lunch by Moose Lake and a trip up Whistlers Mountain by way of the Skytram – expensive but completely worth it for the experience of being so very high up amongst the peaks. The gondola left the tree line way below, and the summit was bare rock – actually not quite bare, for there were colonies of beautiful little “alpine” plants, many of which were in flower.

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Balu was determined to walk up to the very top and proudly did so – Simon was content to look down on the clouds and the neighbouring peaks from a perch nearer the gondola station.

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Made it! On top of the world.

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Spot the tiny Simon sitting on a bench with his back to the camera.

Leaving Valemount, we looped up past Jasper again – we never did actually visit the town – and slowly drove south down the Icefields Parkway and into Banff National Park. 

Midway down this high and exposed road is the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, which we duly approached on foot. It was bitterly cold : having cunningly followed the sun for the last 12 months we were travelling without warm clothes and had not experienced winter weather at all, so we were now wearing many layers of summer garb… We were reminded though, from the information boards at the (present) foot of the glacier, that all is relative. Current temperatures are too warm, the planet is indisputably heating up, and the glaciers are retreating. This one feeds, amongst others, the Saskatchewan River, a vital source of water for much of the  central Canadian prairies – without it the landscape and its ability to support humanity will alter beyond restitution. It was quite revelatory to see geological evidence of how fast this particular glacier, and similarly its neighbours, is retreating – within the lifetime of the next generation it will probably cease to exist. More than anything else we saw, this brought home to us the terrifying reality of global warming. It is not Fake News.

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The Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield.

At the southern end of the Parkway we headed west again, crossing the continental divide through the Yoho National Park towards the course of the Kicking Horse River, on whose banks is the little town of Golden with its pleasant riverside walks, its historic centre and its truly beautiful covered pedestrian bridge over the river. High on the slopes above the town is the Kicking Horse Resort complex, (“ski in, ski out”), where we had booked four nights. The view from the balcony was fabulous, and we spent quite some time quietly enjoying it.

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The wooden bridge at Golden.

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View from our balcony at the Kicking Horse Resort, Golden.

Near to Golden, in Yoho National Park, are the Wapta Falls on the Kicking Horse River – a pleasant walk away through the forest. We should really call this and other walks “hikes” but feel that implies more energy than we actually expended. Certainly, although the National Parks were apparently full, this being the height of the Canadian holiday season, we only needed to get 15 minutes off the roads and into the trees to have the place to ourselves.

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Wapta Falls on the Kicking Horse River

Lake Louise and Banff town, fairly close together, were on the list …. After an early picnic in the company of some very personable ground squirrels we got to Lake Louise village to find that the road up to the lake itself had been turned into a circular drive up and then down the mountainside as all the car parking was full! There was a shuttle bus running from further down the highway, but we preferred to try again later. 

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Wotchoolookinat??

Plan B – visit Banff. Alas, as we left the highway at the Banff exit we could see stationary queues to get into town, so after a quick u-turn we headed away again and took a series of small roads along Baker Creek, where we found a Skunk Cabbage trail … the flowering season was long past but as so often there was an inviting pair of Muskoka chairs… probably much more enjoyable than looking at the tourist shops of Banff!

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It’s behind you….

Our second attempt at reaching Lake Louise was more successful; by late afternoon the crowds had gone and the lake was magnificent – a mysterious blue colour as promised and in an almost too-perfect setting. The Chateau Frontenac Hotel looms at one end but does not impede the view. We sat and admired. 

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Lake Louise, named Lake of the Little Fishes by the Stoney Nakota First Nations people – a glacial lake within Banff National Park in Alberta,

From Golden we set off again through Glacier National Park into Mount Revelstoke National Park (our passes were proving useful) and promptly lost track again of which time zone we were in – we had been going backwards and forwards between Alberta and British Columbia and their two zones all week. Even the TomTom and iPhone could no longer agree. Another picnic, this time below Mount Revelstoke itself at the top of the pass, and we started our long, long descent out of the mountains along roads of such great beauty it seemed a shame not to stop every five minutes. The Pacific Range is more open than the interior of the Rockies with wider vistas and the journey was spectacular.

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The cannon used for triggering avalanches.

 Pausing only for an ice cream – voted by Balu the best of the trip so far (hmm) – we were heading southwest for the town of Lake Country, where we had an introduction to Anne Katrine Saettler, a friend of Colleen Smith, to whom we were heading in Vancouver.

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Dutchmen Dairy – so far the best ice cream we have had (allegedly).

Anne Katrine is a lawyer with a small farm as a (pretty demanding) hobby, idyllically situated on the hillside above Loon Lake. As well as orchards – thank goodness we had decided against local peaches as a guest gift! – she has pigs, sheep, horses, and dogs and was kind enough to add us to her menagerie for the night. It was another example of great Canadian hospitality – a meal on the balcony with Anne Katrine and Leah, her Austrian volunteer helper from the organisation “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms”, a comfortable bed, a great breakfast, and the feeling that we had known each other for a long time. We are very grateful for this new friendship and hope we shall be able to reciprocate the hospitality one day.

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With Anne Katrine and Leah….

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…. and Zeus.

Our final drive the next day, back to the Pacific Ocean which we had last seen in Costa Rica in April, took us through flatter and obviously very productive agricultural land. Houses, strip malls, secondhand car dealerships specialising in RVs for the Rockies – it was all much more densely populated than anywhere we had seen for a while. Cruise control off; attention paid! 

Just before getting to the coast at White Rock we passed through mile upon mile of blueberry farms. This is Simon’s favourite fruit, and Waitrose had always had a faithful customer for its small and expensive punnets. Here, though, the bushes stretched as far as the eye could see! After a couple of abortive attempts to buy something smaller than a 10lb box we happened upon a Sikh farmworker. Balu’s charm worked in Punjabi as well, and we drove away with a free bag of huge and juicy berries. Bliss! 

Our Airbnb suite in White Rock was in a large house clinging to the hillside above the beach, along which ran the railway line heading for the US border, a couple of miles away. It was very comfortable and Gerrie was a super hostess and a very interesting woman. She and her husband had spent years exploring the globe on a small boat and now, recently widowed, she was exploring other ways of living. It would have been good to have had more time to talk.

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Gerrie – our airbnb hostess.

There was coffee and tea on tap and breakfast next day promised fresh fruit and homemade muffins. We spent the evening exploring the beach and the pier, surrounded by Sikhs from the community in Surrey just up the road and watching vintage cars cruise along the seafront. Sadly, the Indian meal we ate was a disappointment, despite the waiter’s strange insistence that Simon must be a doctor. Perhaps he was pre-empting the need for food poisoning treatment….

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Sunset at White Rock.

So all we needed to do now was head up the road to Vancouver, where we were due to meet up with Colleen and her childhood friend Sylvia before flying to Haida Gwaii. 

Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 3

Thunder Bay  5th – 9th July 2018

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The Terry Fox Memorial, Thunder Bay.

After some wonderful views from the air of the Great Lakes, some very friendly fellow-passengers, and our first experience of Westjet’s hospitality (free coffee? free pop? free Crawford Shortbread? Wow!) we landed in Thunder Bay. 

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We headed for our fully booked motel and realised that the reason it had been so difficult to get accommodation was that it was the weekend of the Thunder Bay Folkfest (“we get up to 3000 visitors!”) –  there were many Harley Davidsons, many mean looking, but totally charming, dudes and dudettes in leather, and a medium sized marquee monopolising the town’s medium-sized Waterside Park. We toyed with the idea of leavening our diet of Ballet with some real Folk, but sadly tickets had sold out long ago, and the only alternative would have been to join the many locals over the railway tracks who had a super view of the stage …. until one of Canadian Pacific’s 100+ wagon behemoths rolled very slowly past – and past – and past. 

The motel was fine, the staff were helpful, the breakfast, with most other guests still in their jimjams and furry slippers, and with some spectacular bed-heads, was both nourishing and entertaining. The city itself is not pretty, but has some fine streets of old houses, some very lovely parks and some good restaurants. One Indian restaurant in particular came highly recommended by local people and was indeed good, except for a strange reluctance – nay, refusal – to give Balu a slice of raw onion without his ordering a whole mixed salad to go with his meal. The manageress, when consulted, remained unruffled, but the customer service on our second visit was noticeably warmer!

Thunder Bay is a relatively young city, being formed in 1970 from an amalgamation of Canada’s second largest port, Port Arthur, with the older trading town of Fort William, and it was to Fort William itself that we drove next day. It is a reproduction/reconstruction of the original fur trading post of the North West Company, and is staffed by professional historical re-enacters – all without exception excellent at what they do, which is to welcome people to their house/shop/farm/workshop, and remaining in character as, say, the doctor’s wife or the blacksmith, to explain and illustrate life as it was in 1816. It was quite fascinating, and we ended up staying there all day. Sadly, there was no early nineteenth-century ice cream, but there was a spirited display of dancing and singing at the end of the day – reels and rounds of the time and lovely to see.

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A Ojibwe welcome outside Fort William.

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Apprentice blacksmith.

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With a hey and a ho, and a nonny nonny no….

Kakabeka Falls was another out-of-town visit. Not on the same scale as Niagara, it was nonetheless beautiful and the paths through the woods along the River Kaministiquia were charming.

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Kakabeka Falls upstream from Thunder Bay.

 Ouimet Canyon, a couple of hours away along the banks of Lake Superior, was well worth a visit; a sort of smaller (but certainly not small) Grand Canyon with flourishing arctic flora at the bottom, where the climate is that of the regions 1,000 miles to the north.

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Indian head, a pinnacle standing proud at Ouimet Canyon

Our route there took us “accidentally” onto private Lambert Island, mossy and peaceful and very expensive indeed, judging by the waterside mansions we passed, and later to a family-run amethyst mine where we had the opportunity of finding a fortune among the gravel … we didn’t, but it was interesting nonetheless, and the fact that a bridge was closed took us on a fabulous detour through wild-flower meadows the like of which we had never seen.

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On that day we saw our first deer and our first black bear, wandering along insouciantly in the shrubby verge. Balu got out of the car, the better to take photographs, which Simon found rather alarming. To befriend a Siamese cat is one thing – a rather tubby bear quite another.

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A white tail deer.

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Our Winter’s Tale moment…..

We had a couple of picnics in the town’s largest park, which is centred on a lake and kept immaculate – no litter, no graffiti, no damage to the many picnic tables along the water’s edge.

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Sunset picnic at Boulevard Lake, Thunder Bay.

On our last evening there we were joined by a middle aged lady who was interested in our travels and who made several helpful suggestions. Only when she mentioned, in a matter of fact way, that the angels had suggested Israel as her own last holiday destination and had promised her life eternal if she visited the river Jordan, did we start to wonder….It was when two of her friends arrived, equally pleasant but equally keen to share what the angels had told them, that we decided to curtail our picnic.

Following a strong recommendation by a local resident we sought out the memorial and look-out over Lake Superior dedicated to Terry Fox – he was an athlete who lost a leg to cancer and decided to raise money for cancer research by running east to west across Canada. In Thunder Bay the cancer returned and he died soon after, but he remains a hero and his fund continues to be well- supported. The spot overlooking the lake was beautifully kept, the flowerbeds and paths immaculate, and the story of this amazing man carved in stone panels was quite moving. 

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Terry Fox.

On our last morning we took the car through the local First Nations township and up Mount McKay, where there is a tribal meeting place with superb views over Thunder Bay town, the Lake and the islands, American as well as Canadian, in the distance. From there to the little airport was a drive of only a few minutes, and soon we were checking in for our flight out of Ontario to the neighbouring Province of Manitoba and its capital, Winnipeg. 

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Mount McKay.

Winnipeg  9th – 13th July 2018

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The best yet.

Our Airbnb accommodation in Winnipeg, a “penthouse suite” turned out to be small converted attic, and a bit cramped for the two of us. Luckily, though, it was in a lovely tree-lined street – as we had to wait on the doorstep for over an hour for our hostess to arrive. A problem with grandchild-sitting, or some such … but she was very apologetic and went out of her way to be helpful during the rest of our stay! 

We were a short walk away from downtown, so did not need to take our extremely large rental car (an unasked-for upgrade) into the city. Just over the river was the imposing Provincial Legislative Assembly, topped by the Golden Boy – 24 carat no less – and surrounded by trees and gardens.

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The Legislative Assembly Building of Manitoba.

It was very hot indeed, and we were glad to go inside in search of our customary tour. Our guide, with two other tourists, cowboy hat wearers from upstate, was waiting by two enormous bison which guard the main staircase, and we were shown with pride the paintings, the stained glass and the many symbolic carvings that adorn the huge spaces. Unlike many others, the legislative chamber itself is relatively simple and business-like. 

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Pretending to be old hands, we made for the in-house restaurant after the tour and had another excellent (and cheap) parliamentary lunch in the company of Winnipeg’s legislators and administrators. One day we shall be rumbled…! 

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From The Forks, where the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers meet, and which is an ancient meeting place for First Nations People now developed into a pleasant park area, we took a boat tour along the Assiniboine, passing again the Parliament; the abandoned wharves dating from when the city was a hub of the timber and fur trade, goods being brought here for shipment downriver towards the Great Lakes and thence the seaports to the east; and the astonishing bulk of the Museum of Human Rights, which we visited later. It was a small boat, and the commentary by Captain Mike, a man passionate about the importance of this, his city, was really excellent.

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With Captain Mike.

The Museum of Human Rights, like several others during our travels, defeated us by its sheer size, interest and amount of information. The building itself is beautiful, and the galleries are laid out along several kilometres of gentle ramps, rising as it is hoped that humanity will, to the airy and light filled observation tower at the top with its views out across the city to the nearby prairies extending as far as the eye can see, a patchwork of green, yellow and pale blue. 

Human Rights – quite a subject for an exhibition space. There are galleries devoted to explaining where the concept originated, how it is interpreted, how avoided; galleries devoted to specific historic events and eras; video presentations specific to Canada’s grappling with the problematic and others specific to other cultures’ interpretations. All in all it was probably the most engaging museum we have visited to date. We did not do it justice, but came away having learned a lot and with a lot to consider.

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The stupendous Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg.

We undertook two day-excursions outside Winnipeg, on each occasion fascinated by the flat landscape, the arrow-straight roads (deliciously under-used), and the astonishing skyscapes of cloud formations. Breathtaking. I think we shall miss such wide horizons when we return to the more constricted views in the U.K.

The Mint in Winnipeg – as distinct from the Royal Mint in Ottawa – produces the current coinage of Canada and of many other countries as well. The tour here was much better organised than in Ottawa, and we formed a clear idea of how rolled bands of steel become the coins in our pockets. Very well-explained, and very engrossing views of the factory floor. Interestingly, had we wanted a commemorative disc struck for us it would have cost CAD3.00 – in Ottawa it had been free, so of course we had succumbed like dutiful tourists!

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The Royal Mint avenue with flags of customer countries.

The first trip out of town was to Lower Fort Garry, north of the city on the banks of the Red River. As in Thunder Bay, buildings had been relocated and rebuilt here, and there were very convincing re-enacters to take us back in history, this time to the 1870s. We watched a blacksmith at work and listened to his explanations of his craft and visited the fur store, a rather nightmarishly large collection of animal pelts – wolves, silver foxes, bears, raccoons and of course beavers, for it was beaver skins, with their ability to be made into top notch hats, that had originally driven most of the opening up of North America. Finally we had a detailed tour of the governor’s house, standing proudly in the middle of the fort, and furnished with a recreation of its occupants’ own wistful recreation of what life would have been like had they been posted to somewhere more civilised than the middle of Manitoba – isolated enough now, but heaven knows how depressingly so for quality folk 150 years ago.

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The blacksmith at work at Fort York.

From there we drove further north to Winnipeg Beach, a small resort on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, the 11th largest lake in the world. The proprietress of the superb fish and chip shop regaled us with her international travels – summers in Winnipeg Beach battling the mosquitoes, and winters anywhere warm or cultured – preferably both. A kindred spirit.

Our second day-trip, again along perfectly straight highways, was to Brandon, a pretty town and the second city of Manitoba. Here we walked around the nature reserve which had not yet recovered from the previous year’s floods but where we saw deer and plenty of unidentifiable reed-dwelling birds. We very much missed our friend Sally with her binoculars and wealth of knowledge. The young lady in the visitor centre volunteered to make us a cup of coffee – how sweet! – and recommended a visit to a place on the edge of town that we should never have found on our own. It was a mélange of antique shop, ice cream parlour, car cemetery and old fashioned drug store, full of witty touches and astonishing juxtapositions, run by the charismatic Tony. His ice cream and his stories were worth the long distance from Winnipeg.

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With Tony in his drug store.

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Three of a kind.

The last day in Winnipeg was very special. Our friend the choreographer Peter Quantz had arranged for us to visit the headquarters of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Canada’s oldest, to watch class. This we did with great pleasure as guests of Tara Birtwhistle, ex-Principal dancer and now Assistant Director. It was fascinating to watch this company, whom we had never seen on stage, at its daily class, and we were even more thrilled when Tara invited us to stay on and watch two dress rehearsals of upcoming pas-de-deux. A privilege, and we were and are very grateful.

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The headquarters of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

So we prepared to leave Manitoba for the next westward step, another Dehavilland Dash – what super little planes they are – taking us to Saskatoon in the Province of Saskatchewan. We left Winnipeg still not understanding why people had said that if we found ourselves there we should just keep on driving, for we had had a good stay and met some good people. 

Saskatoon  13th – 17th July 2018

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Arriving at another low-key, relaxed airport (how we shall miss these when Heathrow next claims us!) we emerged into a beautifully warm evening, collected our rental car and set off to meet our Airbnb host, Greg, at his parents’ fastidiously decorated, spacious and beautifully furnished new apartment in the up-and-coming Riversdale quarter. He was most helpful with advice and made us feel quite at home. The kitchen was as well equipped as any we had come across, and Balu was emboldened to produce a couple of excellent home-cooked meals while we were there. 

Saskatoon stretches along the banks of the Saskatchewan River, previously one of the main trade highways of Canada, and still vitally important as a bringer of water from its source in the glacial Rockies through the plains of the midwest to its mouth in Lake Winnipeg. For such an important river, it is shy, hiding in the ravine that divides the city, but once located it is beautiful, tree-lined and calm beneath the many and varied bridges that span its banks. There are well-maintained walkers’ and  cyclists’ paths along both sides, through and beyond the city. 

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The Saskatchewan River.

The city itself is low-rise and easy to navigate, broad highways interspersed with streets of charming old houses, each different from its neighbour and each with a well-tended garden. Like everywhere in Canada there was a noticeable – to English eyes – lack of litter and disfiguring graffiti. Such street painting as there is looks decorative rather than offensive. What is their secret?

Next to our apartment building was the Farmers’ Market, in a large hall and at weekends – which this was – surrounded by a large number of stalls in the neighbouring streets. Wonderfully fresh and organic produce. The tomatoes were especially glowing, and we bought Saskatoon berries from a Mennonite family in their modest, 19th century attire. We had heard of these berries – they turned out to resemble blueberries but are softer and less flavoursome. Good on yoghurt though! 

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Saskatoon berries.

We had as usual looked forward to visiting the local Contemporary Art Gallery, the very new Remai Modern. This is housed in a large set of cubes impressively overhanging the river and has some wonderfully airy gallery spaces, but sadly the exhibitions on offer did not speak to us at all – even the Picassos were unattractive. Our fault I am sure, but a disappointment nonetheless.

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Not having enjoyed the gallery.

“Shakespeare on the Saskatoon” – as the Festival is called – was, however, a different matter. On successive nights we saw, in a marquee on the river bank, really good productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet. The company of about 20 perform throughout the short summer season, and they are extremely talented. Few props, a simple production in the round and an impressive grasp of the rhythms and cadences. What is more, the Canadian accent seems to fit the sounds of the Elizabethan language pretty well. The marquee was completely full for both performances, and the audience – apart from ourselves everyone seemed like a ‘Tooner’ – completely engrossed, in fits of laughter at Falstaff and the Gravedigger, and nearly in tears by the end of Hamlet. It was a privilege to share in this and to witness Shakespeare’s magic in such a distant and unlikely setting and we are grateful to our host Greg for drawing it to our attention.

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The marquee filling up pre-Hamlet.

Our day-trip from Saskatoon was to the Battlefords, a pair of towns about 3 hours away to the west. Again we were fascinated by the straightness of the roads, the squareness of the fields and the sheer size of the sky! We were a little disillusioned when there came a slight bend in the road about half way, but nothing is perfect….

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Battleford hosts another fortress staffed by re-enacters – but we had been diverted en route, though, into the delightful little town of Radisson and a lengthy conversation with its farmer/postmistress.

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Main Street, Radisson.

We decided to miss the fortress and make straight for North Battleford, where there is one of the four regional branches of the Western Development Museum. This aims to present a small settler town in the interwar years, and consists of a complete street open to explore. It was all extremely interesting – the Schoolroom; the Dentist’s, the Optician’s and the Doctor’s; the Post Office and the three churches… The gentry were represented as were the simpler folk, and there was also a Ukrainian Cottage, recognising the large numbers who left that troubled part of the world to start afresh in the Prairies. 

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The optometrist’s office. 

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A perm for Modom?

Attached to the outdoor exhibits are large halls of vintage transport, and most interestingly a detailed time-line of the history of the Province of Saskatchewan. Not a sentence we might ever have imagined writing!

Thus ended our time in the Midwest of Canada, and next day we set off to hand over our car at the airport and take flight for Edmonton in Alberta, and the start of our Rocky Mountain adventures. 

Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 2

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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.

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View from the bed in Toronto – a good start to the day!

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With Mary Jane and Freda…….

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… 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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Kashe Dance.

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! 

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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!

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The wonderful extension of the Royal Ontario Museum.

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…. 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. 

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Shoes,

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shoes,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Casa Loma.

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Interior of Casa Loma.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Canada’s finest.

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.

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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.

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New Premier Doug Ford.

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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.

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Barbecue at Catherine’s.

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Ta-ra!

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! 

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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.

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Niagara Falls.

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.

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Typical of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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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.

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Heather at home.

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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… 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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With Heather, Philip and Becky.

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With Heather, Ali, Nora, Caroline, George and Mark.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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“Mine, all mine!”

 

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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.

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Heather.

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.

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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.

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Billy Bishop City Airport, Toronto.

 

 

Canada 28 May – 29 August 2018 Part 1

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Montréal   28 May – 3 June 2018

As usual, we were very lucky with our taxi driver – an Indian Canadian with plenty of restaurant recommendations up his sleeve. He took us from the airport in Montréal to our oh-so-French-sounding hotel, the Hotel Labelle, where we had a large top floor room with a kitchenette – not much of a view of the ripe-for-development quartier but nobody walking on our ceiling either. The staff were laconic but friendly and the laundry room a pleasure to use; the breakfast though was limited : no fresh fruit, rolls well on their way to being oversized croutons, grey scrambled eggs. We were not too put off and in the end quite relished starting each day with a pleasant feeling of disgruntlement….

We began to relax and to take in the fact that from being in a statistically pretty dangerous country we were now in one of the safest. Balu’s large Nikon camera came out of hiding, rings and watches were brazenly displayed, and walking home at night was accomplished without gradually accelerating as the distance lengthened! 

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Balu showing off his Raybans and flaunting the gold chain (a present from Ramesh and Hasmita) after it was in hiding all through Central America.

Task 1 was to find the local Apple store for a replacement screen on the MacBook: the Sydney store had agreed to do this under guarantee back in February but we had run out of time and Balu had been operating with an increasingly crazed view of his work ever since. Excellent customer service as usual – within four days the work was done and the world sparkled again. 

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Task 2 was to buy for Balu a decent pair of sunglasses, which he had been promising himself on and off since our trip began. Downtown Montréal seemed a good place to do this.  So he started his stay in Canada with a pair of reliable, and equally smart, Raybans. Balu likes them, they are sturdy and look good on him. See above. Hallelujah.

Task 3 was to replace the pills liberated from our luggage in Mexico City. Our good friend Mary Jane Warner from Toronto had done a lot of research and found a solution, so we  were able to arrange, for a very modest fee, an online consultation with a Canadian doctor, the dispatch of an electronic prescription to a chemist round the corner from our hotel, and the collection, next morning, of enough tablets to last well into the autumn. All most efficient and quick, and very unlike the newly introduced and quite cumbersome procedures at home for repeat prescriptions, which always seem to involve at least three visits to Boots, and a dangerous elevation of the very blood pressure that the pills are supposed to lower.

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Montréal gradually got hotter and hotter during our stay, but we walked a lot, taking the metro only when the distances were too great. Downtown was busy, relaxed, friendly and stylish; the old town was very tourist-orientated – 2 dollars 50 for a small bottle of water?! – and the ‘entertainment quarter’ centred on the Place des Arts was indeed always entertaining with its street musicians and dancers and its glorious mix of races and sexualities. 

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Very near the hotel was the Parc Émilie-Gamelin, with food stalls, grassy slopes, tinkling rills, interesting sculptures, muskoka chairs (ubiquitous in Canada, cumbersome looking but very comfortable high backed affairs) and a constantly changing parade of passers-by and picnickers listening to music, chatting and just possibly smoking a little weed. This coincided, of course, with the Federal Goverment’s decision to become on Oct 7th the second country after Uruguay to legalise cannabis. Interesting times, and an enlightened decision.

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A family group of muskoka chairs.

We went to the Place des Arts to collect tickets we had booked for two evenings of Ballet and spotted the Beethoven season being given by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, under the wonderful Kent Nagano. Sadly all sold out. But just as we turned to leave the booking office, something pinged on the clerk’s computer to signal that two seats had just become available, so we spent a super evening, in the front row of the Choir Stalls of the new and practically perfect Symphonic Hall, in a close encounter with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. How wonderful then, and after our other evenings in the Place des Arts, to be able to stroll “home”, via an ice cream parlour, in shirtsleeves and be there in 20 minutes. 

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The Symphonic Hall.

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A post-theatre pit stop.

The Grands Ballets de Montréal were coming to the end of their season, but our timing was lucky; we were able to see them twice. First there was “Vendetta”, a study of Sicilian Mafia life (and death), created by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Many twentieth century swashes were buckled and there was much posturing and not a little swaggering, but the ensemble work was impressive even if the characterisation was not always distinctive enough to allow for empathy. Ballets which require several pages of programme synopsis are, for us, always a bit of a worry.

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The second occasion we found much more interesting – a Gala which featured the truly wonderful Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, a boys’ choir several dozen strong, who sang arrangements of the songs of that late, great Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen. The danced part of the evening included our soon-to-be-friend Evan McKie with Svetlana Lunkina, both Principals with the National Ballet of Canada, our favourite from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba Viengsay Valdés, and the world premiere of Lolapalooza from Joshua Beamish, who does not spend nearly enough time in London. It really sent us away into the warm night with our hearts singing.

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Far left, Viengsay Valdés; second and third from right, Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie.

As well as the three auditoria below and beside the Place des Arts, there is the Contemporary Art Gallery to one side as well. This was full of wonders… we spent much more time there than we had budgeted, laughing at satirical interpretations of economic gobbledygook, sitting inside a sphere which played Bach’s entire oeuvre at once, warily stalking a leather belt which in turn kept us in its field of vision… I guess you really had to be there….!

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The ‘science’ of economics.

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Bach’s complete works playing synchronously to the listener in the pod. Surreal.

“warily stalking a leather belt.”

Many other things kept us entertained in Montréal. Predictably, the Museum of Fine Arts was a hit. The more we see the more we think we understand. Probably a delusion, but one that we enjoy.

We visited the Botanical Gardens – along with several hundred schoolchildren in groups which formed and flowed like amoebae, but amoebae which had highly developed vocal chords. The gardens were big enough for us all, though, and contained a series of glasshouses built to withstand the ferocious winters, several large lakes, meadows and woods as well as the more expected display beds. The Insectarium (sic) was fascinating, too, as was the setting on a hillside next to the Olympic Stadium of 1976. We do like a nice bit of concrete, I must say.

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A happy memory of Japan in the Botanical Gardens of Montréal.

We took a harbour cruise on a particularly warm day, and were interested to see and bob around briefly on the mighty St Lawrence River. Montréal does not make much of its riverside position, but the view of the city from the water was grand, as was the chance to sail past the Colonie 67, built for the 1967 Exposition, an intriguing and quite humorous block of flats set on different planes to ensure privacy for each unit and with more than a touch of Lego about them. Built as social housing, they now command prices in the millions. Now where have we heard that before?

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Colonie 67.

We found ourselves, while looking for a shady bench one day, in the grounds of McGill University on Graduation Day. Not only did we find a bench, we also had a grandstand view of the next generation who will be prominent in their fields in Canada – all races, all colours, and on that day all happy – but we also snuck into the building itself and wandered the corridors unchallenged.

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Rehearsing for accepting an Honorary Degree at McGill University.

And opposite the McGill Campus is the McCord Museum which was hosting an exhibition about the Jewish community in Montréal – its history, its troubles, its contributions. One of the Museum’s directors was kind enough to show us around these galleries and we learned yet again that even a subject that seems far from one’s own experiences can, given the right exposition, be fascinating.

On another day we resolved to get to the top of the mountain which gives the city its name and which is visible at the end of almost every street downtown. We chickened out of hiking, and took the bus instead, but still permitted ourselves to feel that we had earned the great views of the metropolis from the wooded slopes. We sat for a while watching a raccoon (our first) tackling an apparently unconquerable garbage can with nonchalant ease, and then Balu’s ears pricked up at the sounds of a conversation in Gujarati. Pretty soon we were acquainted with the Indian couple on the next bench, well-established residents of Canada exploring from Toronto. Balu was innocently (?) talking of how he missed Gujarati food, and before we knew it the lady was rifling the back of their car which was filled with containers of home cooked Gujarati picnic food, enough to keep an army going for a week …. we parted company from those generous people clutching bags of food that brought tears from happiness to Balu’s eyes and tears from chillis to Simon’s.

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Cute but pesky.

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Generous providers of a Guajarati picnic.

Our last evening in Montréal was spent on the Island watching the sun set behind the city across the St Lawrence, with a gopher snuffling around our feet and the sounds of the Grand Prix drifting over from the race course behind us. 

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A gopher – another first.

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Sunset over the St Lawrence.

Québec City  3 – 6 June 2018

Our time in Montréal was punctuated by a few days in Québec City. We took the train. Punctual, clean, very affordable – a much better option than the short flight would have been. We left most of our luggage in hot Montréal and travelled with light clothes only. To our amazement the temperature when we got off the train was about 25 degrees lower than it had been when we got on… and it was raining! 

We had booked accommodation in Québec City through the site Mrbnb – run by gay people for LGBT travellers – and used the same site for our return to Montréal. Our Québec hosts provided the best breakfast we had seen in a long time, and Paul was kind enough to collect us from the station and lend coats, hats and umbrellas for our damp and chilly explorations of the city. The house we stayed in, full of beautiful and unusual items of Maurice’s times in Africa with various Canadian agencies, was on the banks of the St Charles river, surrounded by greenery yet only 15 minutes walk from downtown. The bus service, we discovered on other even colder days, was also very convenient!

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Our co-host in Québec City – Maurice.

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Scrumptuous and stylish breakfast produced each morning by Maurice.

Balu had been in the city before on business but had not had the time to see much outside conference rooms and his hotel – he had stayed in the dominant landmark of Old Québec, the Château Frontenac. An amazing building, but without corporate finance behind us we did no more than sit in the warmth of the lobby for a while and dream…

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The Château Frontenac – the day was much colder than it looks.

The upper part of the town is remarkably compact, and very much a place which makes its living from tourism. Old buildings, narrow streets, many many souvenir shops, and of course the ramparts overlooking the lower town and the river. This lower part, accessed by steps down the cliff or by cable car, has many excellent antique shops around the site of the first European settlement, a large market, and the port which as well as its commercial activities has a thriving business in meeting and greeting cruise ships, many from the USA. It also houses the Musée de la Civilisation – grandly titled, very large, very wide-ranging and very educative in its exploration of the history of the province from pre-european days to the quite recent debates about separation from the rest of Canada.

In the upper town we wanted to see as well the Musée des Beaux Arts, confusingly laid out in galleries linked by long tunnels and by admittedly spectacular but also very challenging staircases. Plenty of challenges from the contemporary art on display, too – just how we like it!

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The staircase – an art work in itself.

The Provincial Legislative Assembly offered free guided tours, as do so many parliamentary estates around the world, and we arrived very early for the one we wanted, so after a cursory security check the staff suggested we go and have lunch in the parliamentary dining room, a modest self-service affair for MPs, Senators, Parliamentary staff – and us. Great fish and chips, with Gallic flair.

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A Parliamentary luncheon.

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The Upper House.

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The Lower House.

The tour itself was, as ever, very interesting, and it was a shame we had to leave to inspect the Plains of Abraham, a bleak field next to the fortress overlooking the St Lawrence River, where in an astonishingly short battle in 1759 – more of a skirmish really but one which killed both Wolfe and his opposite number, Montcalm – the French troops were routed and Canada became a recognisable ancestor of the present nation.

Of course, Québec remains a majority Francophone community, and French has equal status with English throughout Canada. Simon was intrigued by the Canadian French – not nearly as easy to understand as he had hoped. There are vowel sounds and intonation patterns that are completely different from metropolitan French, often very charmingly so. Maybe they are throwbacks to an older pronunciation that has changed in Paris, maybe this is influence from the southern neighbour beyond the Lakes, maybe it is a parallel development : something to research, for sure.  But for now a chastening experience – Spanish had gradually got easier over the last three months but Simon had expected to be able to relax into a soothing bath of French. Not so, alas.

A culinary note : on the positive side we had, amongst much excellent food in the Province, an Ethiopian meal in a restaurant suggested by Mary Jane – le Nil Bleu (Montréal) can be highly recommended.

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On the negative side Simon dutifully tried the quasi national dish of Québec, poutine. This turned out to be a bowl of soggy fried potatoes and curd cheese covered with a completely tasteless vegetarian gravy. To be avoided in future.

Montréal   6 June – 9 June 2018

Leaving Québec and returning briefly to the balmier climate of Montréal we had our second taste of Mrbnb – Dominique and his partner Felipe were enormously generous and welcoming and we were sorry that we had not had more time together when it was time to move on from Québec Province completely and take the train for Toronto, four hours away on the shore of Lake Ontario and in the Province of that name. 

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Our hosts in Montréal – Felipe and Dominique.

Again the train journey was a pleasure – we were even able to check in our suitcases before departure and collect them from a miniature luggage carousel on arrival. It was a thrill to catch our first sight of the Great Lakes (well, one of them) en route, and the first sight of the congested towers of Toronto on our way into Union Station was equally thrilling.

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En route for Toronto.

 

Mexico 25 April – 28 May 2018 Part 4

Yucatán  21 – 28 May 2018

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Chichén Itzá.

Arriving at Cancún airport was quite a shock – it was extremely hot and humid : back to real tropical weather which would persist, in the form of blue skies punctuated by afternoon thunderstorms, for the whole of our week in the Yucatán peninsula. We collected our rental car, a Chevrolet which had, in the ‘flesh’, nothing at all of the romance the name has carried with it through the decades, and which suffered to boot from the world’s widest turning circle – something in the region of 100 yards, we estimated.

We were to stay in another Airbnb, this time in Puerto Juaréz, near Cancún, and our host, Stefánia, was waiting for us. We had the spacious and ferociously clean top (3rd) floor of her house, which was right on the beach, with its large balcony equipped with dining table, chairs and loungers. Simon would so much have loved to have stretched out in the sun, which was fierce, but has sadly not allowed himself this since last year’s skin scare; Balu has already deepened his tan quite sufficiently during our travels…. The flat was super-clean, very well furnished and had a very efficient air conditioner and a large fan – both very necessary!

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From the balcony.

Our plans for the week here relied heavily on the advice given us by Johanna Pilot, a friend of our Vancouver friend Colleen. She had been in Mexico City the previous week, we had met for lunch, and got on extremely well. We had shamelessly pumped her, once we discovered she knew the Yucatán well, and her words of wisdom gave us a good week.

From our balcony we could see, across the water, the line of Cancún’s hotels on the distant horizon, and we set off on the first day to find the Museum of the Mayans, at the far end of this strip. We drove for nearly 20 kilometres past almost identical, enormous hotels, mostly called the Something Resort, and a surprising number with Paradise or Flamingo or Golden in their name.

The museum turned out to be quite lovely : deserted, cool, well laid out. We were able to learn a lot about the Mayan culture that even today is prominent on the peninsula, before going out to the on-site ruined temple complex, fairly difficult to make sense of, in a band of trees directly behind, but completely ignored by, one of the larger hotel complexes. 

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Staircase to the stars …. our first Mayan ruin.

It rained, hard but briefly, as we set out to drive on to El Rey, another set of temples further on at the far end of the hotel dystopia. This compound was our first experience of a visually cohesive Mayan temple and its associated buildings, again deserted and guarded by iguanas, dozens of them. It was easy to see these creatures as sentinels through the ages since the complex had been abandoned, waiting for the gods to re-emerge and claim back their territory … and it was easy to become over-fanciful in the heat!

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Part of the complex at El Rey.

The apartment had a good kitchen: a quick visit to a supermarket gave us sufficient ingredients for several soup/salad/pasta meals, as well as the makings of a picnic for the next day’s excursion.

The pyramid at Chichén Itzá is the one on all the pictures of Mayan Yucatán, and this was our first destination, three hours away along the (expensive) toll road. By a superhuman effort, we got there at 8.30, before the bulk of the other visitors arrived…

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“The bulk of other visitors”.

…and before most of the hundreds of hawkers as well, so we had a good start to the day and were able to take our time and explore at our leisure. The Great Pyramid was just as dramatic as the pictures suggest, and deserves its place at the head of this chapter. Since a tourist fell to her death down the very steep steps a few years ago it may not be climbed, and this has the advantage of showing off its lines and angles unmuddied by day-glo T-shirts and over emphatic sunhats. It really is beautiful. The other buildings in the complex are equally interesting, perhaps especially the enormous ceremonial ball-game court, and as the temperature rose inexorably towards midday and the hawkers multiplied along the paths we were glad of our early start.

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Anyone for tennis?

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Souvenirs of many colours but limited attraction.

In the afternoon we drove another couple of hours to the site at Ek’ Balam – not as many visitors and some wonderful buildings buried in the jungle. The Great Pyramid here was climbable, and Balu made it right to the top – Simon gave up about 6 steps below that: the gradient was too steep, the steps too narrow, the lack of support on either side frankly too terrifying! But even so, the views across the jungle and the sight of the other temples of the site poking out above the trees was magical. It did take a long time to bump down on one’s bottom but it was worth it!

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From (very near) the top of the Great Pyramid at Ek’ Balam.

Still following Johanna’s advice we decided to stay the night in Mérida rather than return to Puerto Juaréz. This is an old colonial town with very long straight roads of single storied houses leading to a central square, the Plaza de Armas, that was charming, and something of a relief after the equivocal welcome we received at the Hotel Doralba – where the room was fine, but the receptionist had trouble raising his eyes from his computer screen except to tell us the restaurant was closed. “Porqué?” “No sé”. OK, fine….

This was actually a blessing, for it forced us to go in search of food and thus took us to a restaurant called Jaranda, where we sat at a table outside overlooking the central square and had a really good meal. It also meant that we discovered the museum in the Casa Montejo, with its unexpected collection of the boulle furniture that makes Balu swoon and its photography exhibition, and were able to experience the emotive sound and light exposition of the struggle between Mayan and Spaniard in the days of the conquest, and the ensuing, but oddly unrelated, display of local folk dancing. A splendid end to a very full day.

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The Plaza de Armas, Mérida.

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Boulle – no escaping it.

After a breakfast that made us even happier that the hotel’s restaurant had been closed the previous evening, we set off to find our next historic site, Uxmal, a couple of hours to the south. Despite a chaotic entry ticketing experience (and thus a complaint in our best sort-of Spanish to the wishing-he-was-somewhere-else-entirely site manager) we thoroughly enjoyed this visit. Again we had arrived early enough to have the place almost to ourselves, and it turned out to be extremely atmospheric and very beautiful, with some lovely detailing on the façades and a really astonishing and huge courtyard surrounded by still majestic buildings. The Great Pyramid, the Tortoise Temple, the views across the site – all breathtaking.

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Uxmal.

Johanna’s final recommendation had been to visit, en route back to the coast, the little town of Izamal, clustered round its enormous Franciscan monastery which had been constructed from the stones of, and on the foundation platform of, the Mayan temple destroyed by the Spaniards. In itself this is a worthy place to visit – one of the oldest Christian sites in the peninsula and wearing its age gracefully. But the really great part of the detour was that the entire town, including the monastery, is painted a vibrant mustard yellow. After the afternoon’s thunder and rainstorm this paintwork gleamed and shimmered in the watery light as the sun came out again. A wonderful sight!

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Izamal.

We had found enough confidence by now to abandon the advised security (and whopping tolls) of the main highways and we found our way home, despite the help of our excellent Satnav which has such difficulty pronouncing the Spanish road names, via some pretty and isolated villages, each of which had a dog asleep in the middle of the main road.

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Tunkás, Quintana Roo province.

Unmolested by the highwaymen of which Lonely Planet warned us, we got back to the apartment and fanned ourselves under the air conditioning – it had been a very sticky couple of days.

The following day it did rain. All day. We used the time to catch up with this blog – we always seem to be at least a country behind – and generally relax. In the late afternoon we splashed our way over the flooded road and onto the beach where despite our ponchos and hats we immediately got soaked as we watched the lightning flicker over the Gulf of México.

We knew we had to go to Tulúm, the only Mayan site directly on the coast, and the next morning, under clear skies again, we set off south past the endless resorts lining the strip between Cancún and Playa del Carmen. Even on this main road there are traffic-slowing humps : we had got used to slowing to a crawl through villages and towns on the lookout for these lethal things – often entirely unmarked and usually at least a foot high. The axle and tyre industries of Mexico are probably a very wise investment….

Tulúm was from the outside a nightmare – a lot of tacky souvenir shops and fast food outlets, very expensive parking, salespeople pretending the beach was closed so that we would sign up for a trip inland in a jeep. This is such a shame – there are many visitors to the Yucatán who emerge from their resorts solely for a visit to Tulúm before scuttling back inside, and the impression they must form of Mexico and the Mexicans is very unfortunate, for the experience at the gates of Tulúm does not represent the humorous, welcoming and energetic Mexico that we had come to like so much.

Once inside the archeological site itself, though, we relaxed again. It is superbly situated on the edge of the Gulf, protected by sturdy walls, and contains many smallish but beautiful buildings. As well as the ubiquitous iguanas there were a number of coatis wandering around, unworried by the human visitors.

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Coatis at Tulúm.

From the ramparts of Tulúm the citizens – and probably the coatis – first saw Spanish galleons sailing south down the coast as they explored from the new colony of Cuba – the ships did not stop at first and must have been such a puzzle to the Mayans. The puzzle was of course solved not long afterwards when the Europeans landed and brought their usual gifts of measles, syphilis and the firearms that met only hand-held weapons. 

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Tulúm, just before another storm.

We managed to complete our circuit of the site just as the day’s downpour began, and we set off back to Puerto Juaréz in a very wet state. It’s funny, though, how much less offensive warm rain is than the cold variety we are used to in the U.K. It is very tempting sometimes to take clothes OFF rather than put them on when the rain starts. This was a temptation that, out of respect for the indigenous peoples we moved among, we rejected. We did, though, always carry ziplock plastic bags for cameras, cash and passports.

Our final evening in Yucatán coincided with the anniversary of our partnership ceremony 12 years ago, and we celebrated with an enormous grilled sea bass in the highly regarded (despite being called Marbella) fish restaurant over the road from the apartment. There were a lot of unhappy looking fish and crustaceans in the waiting area – in tanks, of course, rather than on the sofas – and in the absence of a menu one picked one’s meal from this display. Simon edged even closer to complete vegetarianism that evening, but the bass was spectacularly tasty, it must be admitted. 

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From our anniversary table.

The next morning we packed everything into our suitcases again, hauled them downstairs and into the oven-like car (which chose the moment of its handover at the airport rental office to break down). Stefánia was there to wave us on our way, and in taking our leave of her we were also saying goodbye to her country.

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Stefánia – a super Airbnb hoat.

México had been on the wish-list right from the initial stirrings of our itinerary and it had not disappointed. We had met some lovely people, been fascinated by the ancient sites and invigorated by the dancing, the vibrant colours and the culture both ancient and modern. We are so glad we went, and will certainly return.

But now Air Canada was to take us north to a very different country, the last before the adventure was to end. Montréal, nous arrivons.

Mexico 25 April – 28 May 2018 Part 3

Mexico City  6 – 21 May 2018.

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The complex at Teotihuacán

Flying to Mexico City we had been hoping to catch a glimpse of Mount Popocatapetl, partly at least because of its great name, but we had failed to take into consideration the smog over the conurbation … and also the fact that we were coming from the north – the volcano lies to the southeast. Poor preparation there!

We did have some great views of the sheer size of the city, though. It lies in a depression surrounded by hills, hence the generally poor air quality, and it is also over 2 kilometres above sea level. Balu had some problems with this, becoming wheezy and short of energy quite quickly, and in fact this persisted until we got back to beach-level a couple of weeks later. 

Our new Airbnb was splendid – very roomy, very artistically furnished and decorated, and oh bliss there was a roof terrace and a garden filled with (to us) exotic succulents. Our host was away, but his brother Eduardo took his duties very seriously – there was a great avocado-based lunch waiting for us, and he treated us to short “how to” journeys on the local bus and on the metro. This was incredibly useful, and saved us much ignorant faffing around later on. He also took us on a walk around “our” suburb of Coyoacán, full of beautiful colonial architecture and quiet roads and parks, but boasting also a brand new shopping centre and the best supermarket yet!

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7 bis, Avenida Cerro del Agua, Coyoacán.

Coyoacán is where the nearly neighbouring Frida Kahlo and León Trotsky houses, now museums, are situated, and they made for an excellent day… The former was extremely crowded but well-enough organised for it not to be a big problem. There was much to learn about the life (of pain and struggle) that she led, about her relationship with Diego Rivera, about her political thinking and about her œuvre, although the actual work did not figure very highly. Her studio, left as it was after her final visit, and the little room where she died and where her death mask is displayed were very moving. 

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The Two Fridas, 1939, painted just after her short-lived divorce from Diego Rivera.

The Casa Trotsky, where León and his wife Natalia Sédova and small entourage lived after the house share with the Kahlo/Riveras became too uncomfortable, was almost deserted. Heavily fortified with bricked up windows, a guard tower and metal doors, it contains some fascinating historical photographs and records of his life, his achievements, and his shockingly violent death at the hands of a  Spanish Stalin-sympathiser, and the simple rooms – again, left as they were – where the group lived and worked. One outstanding memory for us was the bedroom containing just a 40’s style black telephone and a large radio : the media centre, where all Trotsky’s information was gathered and from where his ideas and ideals were sent out into an increasingly careless world. His descendants still live in Mexico, and are still command respect from those so inclined.

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We had booked seats for two evenings with the Compania Nacional de Danza, as well as one of modern dance and one performance by the wonderful Ballet Folclórico de México, but Ticketmaster Mexico, about whom we have already fulminated, had one final trick in store. We wanted to buy tickets for a chamber concert and thought to do so directly at a Ticketmaster Mexico office would spare us the agonies we had had online and in theatres. But no : if you book face to face you have to use cash or … American Express! You can’t win!

The contemporary dance evening, in the refurbished and delightful Teatro de la Cuidád, was given by the visiting Compagnie Marie Chouinard from Montréal and was an interpretation of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The central part – Hell – was fittingly quite an ordeal, but the outer acts were fascinating and beautiful in their careful but creative adaptation of the figures and poses seen in the painting. It was a very worth-while evening, and made up for our poor timing beforehand, which had meant that dinner was a couple of breakfast bars from a convenience store eaten on the malodorous steps of a nearby building.

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Some members of the Compagnie Marie Chouinard.

The Ballet Folklórico de Mexico … well, quite a blast! Two hours of colour, great music, brilliant dancing. It kept reaching a crescendo…and then another…and another! They are the country’s official ambassadors for folklore dancing, their repertoire spans pre-Colombian ritual dances to post-revolutionary triumphal marches, and they really were worth seeing. So professional and obviously with classical training as well. Great stuff.

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This was our first visit to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is indeed a proper palace – there is no other word for it – presiding over the Alameda Park on the edge of the Old City. It has a bright yellow roof, and in both macro and micro it is a feast for Art Deco-loving eyes. We loved it, though Serafín said the foyer was more like a bank…!

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The Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Inside, the sight-lines are splendid (it was built after the age when it was more important to be seen by other audience members, not necessarily to see the stage), it has a wonderful ceiling and best of all the most impressive “curtain” is made of glowing and glittering stained glass by Tiffany of New York.

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The Tiffany curtain at Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Happily Serafín and Luis had been able to come to Mexico City to stay with us for the weekend – we visited Chapúltepec Castle on the Saturday, overlooking a huge park and containing both a historical museum and the preserved quarters of the short-lived Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, both executed by “their” people before they could do too much damage. Lots of butterflies – mariposas – in the grounds. We raised their numbers by four… On the Sunday Balu cooked a great meal which we ate in the warm sun on our very own roof terrace. Good food, good company, good surroundings.

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On the terrace at Chapúltepec Castle

The reason for the boys’ visit from San Luis Potosí was to enable Serafín to take class with the National Ballet Company and also so that he and Luis could see, with us, the double bill at the Palacio : The Moore’s Pavane and, excitingly for us, the première of the revival of Nellie Happee’s Carmina Burana, a full stage all-singing, all-dancing spectacle that turned out on that evening to be a little uneven. The maestra herself, who is now 88 and still, after 70-odd years, attached to the National Company, took to the stage after the performance and made a long speech, despite the discreet efforts of the Director to regain the microphone, in the course of which she said, in so many words, “they can do better than that!”. Extraordinary on several counts!

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Nellie Happee and, bearing flowers, Gerardo Wyss.

We returned two evenings later to see the same programme again, and whilst the Moore’s Pavane remained its serenely shocking self – largely due to the expressive dancing of Gerardo Wyss – Carmina Burana was better; tighter, faster, and more in control of the space which was quite limited by the on-stage presence of the choir. There are some great episodes: Pan’s solo, the Third Cavalier’s variation, and the opening and closing tableaux spring to mind. We are really glad to have seen this historic production, especially as it was re-staged by and in honour of its original creator.

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The Moore’s Pavane : l to r Erik Rodríguez, Iratxe Beorlegui, Isabel García and Gerardo Wyss

Our fourth and final visit to the Palacio was to hear the Polish Radio Chamber Orchestra under Agnieszka Duczmal in a mixed programme including a transcription for strings of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which we did not like – it lacked the clarity, in the true sense, of the original – and a splendidly controlled performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. In this city where music – or “music” – is all around, usually at deafening volume, it was super to sit quietly and be soothed! No epiphanies, just relaxation (but how we wish that Classic FM had not hijacked that word!)

Apart from the performing arts we tried to do our duty by whatever else was available culturally… no mean task in an enormous city where distances really were formidable. This was the (only) downside of our lovely apartment in Coyoacán – although the metro was astonishingly cheap (5 pesos for a journey of any length – about 20 pence) and only about 10 minutes walk away, we wilted a bit from the heat and the crowds and above all the noise, both mechanical and human. We felt pity but admiration for the men, women and children who evidently make a living of sorts by hawking all manner of things to the crowds in the carriages – colouring books, chewing gum, vitamin pills, earphones, purses and much much more – while the trains thunder along and screech their way round corners. Although we had been warned of the dangers of metro travel we saw and experienced nothing negative at all, and grew to feel increasingly safe underground – and on the streets too. Maybe the years in London had de-sensitised us!

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However, it was always tempting to summon an Uber, and we did sometimes succumb to this temptation. This was fine for the outward journey, as we had good wi-fi in the flat, but not for a return trip sans wi-fi. To that end we borrowed a local phone, charged and credited it, downloaded the app and entered the payment details – but alas we never did make it work, so the metro it was! 

The centre of the Old Town was always extremely crowded and entertaining – such a very young population, and so vocal! The central square, Zócalo, surrounded by elegant colonial palaces and the giant cathedral, is truly enormous and hosts an equivalently sized national flag. We were lucky to happen one day upon the evening ceremony marking its lowering. Impressive and somehow very Latin-American!

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Zócalo – pennant envy:  the huge flag, the enormous Cathedral, the vast square.

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Attending the lowering of the flag.

On other occasions we found, variously, a vast organic market and an exuberant and certainly enthusiastic display of folk dancing (this latter making us appreciate all the more the performance at the Palacio!)

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The Old Town also boasted, of course, an Indian restaurant, the sight of which raised Balu’s hopes. Sadly, despite its great attention to detail in the decor and ambiance, the food was frustratingly disappointing, winning a prize for the World’s Blandest Aubergine Bhaji.

Next to Zócalo is the Templo Mayór, a large archeological site where the city has demolished several colonial buildings to reveal the original centre of the Aztec universe, a seven-shelled pyramid, or rather its remains: most of the missing masonry was used in the building of the cathedral and other symbols of the Spanish conquest of the indigenous empire. It is beautifully laid out, and has copious explanatory panels in English as well as Spanish. It helped us to understand the Russian-doll approach to building that was prevalent : each Emperor would encase his predecessor’s pyramid in a larger one of his own, mounting his temple ever higher up towards the gods. It was fascinating to see the layers revealed in these excavations, and the site museum, too, is excellently laid out and painlessly educational.

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Three of the seven layers of steps, each buried by the next re-building.

Outside the site are several groups of indigenous people drumming and dancing in Aztec costume – for the tourists, obviously, but not only that. Passers-by who felt moved were joining in with what were clearly well-known dances, and were being blessed or shriven afterwards with holy smoke and herbal brushes. It was all most interesting!

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A little underdressed…?

 

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Blessing a junior dancer before he is launched into the circle.

The Plaza de las Tres Culturas, on the other hand, is something of a missed opportunity. It is some distance away, and as the name suggests is a place to see the unearthed foundations of an Aztec temple complex, an early conquest-era church and a mid 20th century apartment complex rubbing shoulders in one plaza. Following earthquake damage, though, a lot is inaccessible, the custodians are unwelcoming and the explanatory panels are sparse. 

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The Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Back in the Old City, we visited an exhibition of Ballet-themed paintings by Fernanda Olivares, some of which were really beautiful, and were amazed at the architecture of the central post-office. It is wonderful how post offices, in their heyday, were a symbol of the advanced societies that they served and were glad to trumpet the virtues of literacy, easy communication and democratic access to information. Run by the state in the name of the people, of course, and placed in central buildings that rivalled in their splendour other arms of the state. How far from a small counter in the gloom at the back of W H Smith’s.

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The Central Post Office in all its glory.

The National Art Gallery had a Caravaggio exhibition – we went on Sunday (free entry day) and frustratingly, but also pleasingly, the queue for entry to those rooms stretched from the plaza through the foyer, right round the ground floor, up the stairs and right round the 1st floor… But we were very happy to spend time in the Gallery’s other rooms – many religiously themed paintings of course but much else besides. The differences in style between the Mexican artists who had, in the 19th century, had the opportunity to visit or study in Europe and those who had remained uninfluenced was startling, and not just in a negative way by any means. The Mexican idiom and approach to, for example, landscape painting is equally interesting and of course equally valid. The statue gallery was an eye-opener, too, with works in marble, wood, plaster and clay arranged chronologically and, for some reason, largely ignored by the visitors.

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The Museo Nacional des Artes.

One of our original reasons for heading for Mexico City was the British Museum’s coverage of Teotihuacan, but before visiting that site, about 40 km outside the city, we decided to go to the world-class Museum of Archeology to try and get the gist of the culture whose remains we would see. It is a quite splendid museum, with displays of artefacts and the historical explication of many pre-Colombian cultures, and fascinating evidence and films of where those cultures are still to be seen in modern Mexico. We had been warned that we should leave plenty of time, so we were pleased that we had until 7.00 closing… unfortunately, due to the previous day’s earth tremors a large mushroom structure in the central courtyard had become unstable, and we had to leave a couple of hours early, our curiosity about the Maya in gallery 9, whose culture we would later meet in the Yucatan, unsated.

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Xochipili, the sun and the moon…

We took a local bus from the Estación Autobuses del Norte to Teotihuacán and happily spent the whole day there. It is a vast place, the central avenue, the Avenue of the Dead, approaching 4 km in length. There are three large structures, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, and the Palace of Quetzalcoatl, and many many smaller temples, houses, and even apartment blocks, that line the avenue. The sheer scale of the place made photography difficult…

There is much climbing to be done as well as walking and scrambling, there is no shade, and it was punishingly hot! But absolutely worthwhile…. it is probably the most overwhelming ancient site we had ever visited, and although there were crowds of visitors, especially in the middle of the day, it was large enough to swallow them all. The views from the Temple of the Moon were stunning: although not quite as high as the Temple of the Sun, its position centrally at the end of the Avenue gave a view right down to the far end and beyond to the mountains.

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The view from halfway up the Pyramid of the Moon of the Avenue of the Dead, with the Pyramid of the Sun on the left. (And one of the by now Half-Dead in the foreground. Heavens, it was hot!)

The re-routed river, the flights of steps, the great plazas, the decorations on the buildings, the sheer bulk of the temples and palaces, the sense of wholeness and harmony – this must have been a civilisation to be reckoned with indeed. 

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The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

Our two weeks in México City had been quite an experience. There was so much that we had not visited or explored, but it would take a lot longer than we had budgeted to do the city justice, and so we left feeling that we had really only begun to get to grips with the place. Should we return, we shall aim to find accommodation nearer the centre, for while our apartment had been wonderful, it had been quite an effort to get around. Leaving for Cancun and the Mayan sites in the Yucatan, then, we were quite tired and looking forward to some slower experiences.

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“A handbag?”