Sunday, October 19, 2014

Second City stars

It seems a service too far, but sometimes hotels include a set of scales in their bathrooms. This trip, however, the irresistible temptation to step on them and ruin the holiday hasn’t been a penance, simply because I’ve done so much walking, and despite all the freely-available (literally, often) delicious food I haven’t gained any weight at all. Today was a case in point, the entire afternoon being spent on the move.

The day began with a hike, back into Lincoln Park to make the most of a sunny morning, to re-take some photos, check up on those hideaway rhinos again (nup) and absorb a bit of the local vibe. Mostly it involved people walking, running, cycling, exercising dogs, playing soccer and gazing out to what it is still really hard not to call the sea. There were waves, a sandy beach, a distant horizon… There were also geese and squirrels, both in large numbers, almost distracting from the classic skyscraper skyline.
Dutiful tourists – and also in possession of complimentary CityPass booklets – we duly ascended the Hancock Tower to gaze over the city and lake; and then did the same thing at the Willis (Sears) Tower, which was very much more crowded. The plebs had a (gasp!) two-hour wait to get to the top but our passes allowed us to bypass most of that, though there was still queuing involved. I suppose the view is a bit better, being higher, and you can see the impressive motorway junction – though not Lincoln Park so well; but it’s marginal, and the queues at the Hancock Tower were noticeably less.

The Cloud Gate was also heaving, so much so that I can hardly believe that in April I got a photo with no-one in it – though that was early morning.
Then I returned to Lincoln Park to prowl the streets, admiring the pretty 3-storey wooden, brick and stone houses, lining streets that are carpeted yellow right now with fallen robinia frisia leaves. I checked up on the rhinos again (nup) then detoured into the Chicago Museum of History for a dose of museum guilt – really, it’s very well done and tells some riveting stories extremely well, especially the current temporary exhibition focused on 1968 – and then I went to explore the Old Town.

More lovely houses, trees, interesting shops, restaurants, people in bars noisily following the Chicago Bears v. Miami Dolphins football game, disconsolate young Anatha sitting behind her footpath table not selling her cupcakes, more dogs, and a surprising number of comedy theatres. Second City was one of them, and their ‘Apes of Wrath’ show tonight was excellent – clever, funny and lively. I have to say that *cough* the audience member selected to go on stage to take part in the Wolverine cosplay sketch was a highlight. I mean that literally – I had noticed I was sitting under a particularly bright light earlier on: that’s a warning sign, take it from me.

So, it was a busy day, and full of enjoyment - although, sadly, completely empty of rhinos.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chicago! So good I've come here twice!

So, au revoir à Montréal ce matin, thanks to Mike, a very chatty taxi driver who took us to the airport, playing blues on his harmonica (“but not when the police can see me”). Two hours later we were in Chicago where, the last time I was here – in April, that’s how I roll, people – the trees were bare. Well, some of them are again, but most still have their leaves and the colours are making a very decent show, especially when seen from the twelfth floor of the Hotel Lincoln with the lake behind.

Yes, Lincoln again: he’s become a bit of a recurrent theme this trip. We’re in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood for a couple of nights, which is meant to be a funky, villagey sort of place. That remains to be seen: this afternoon we got sidetracked by the actual Park across the road, with its barn and farm animals – excellent idea, in a big city – and its zoo. It’s all free, which means we can’t complain that the polar bear was MIA, as were most of the other large mammals including, especially hurtfully, the 3 eastern black rhino with their new calf, which were skulking inside their stable out of the cold wind.

It was a novelty, though, and fun, to watch a young red kangaroo chase a grey squirrel around in circles before it finally shot up a tree trunk to escape; and even though the aardvark insisted on napping, it was good to see him.
The last time I was here, I photographed a man fishing near the McCormick Place Convention Centre, who proudly showed off a fine big trout (that, it turned out, his friend had caught) and I was impressed. Today I was even more astonished that the several dozen fishermen ranged along the edge of the lagoon in the park were looking forward to catching salmon. In the middle of a big city, with cars roaring past continuously just metres from their backs!

There was a red sunset with silhouetted skyscrapers, a drink at a rooftop bar, and then a short, though cold, walk to R J Grunt’s, a fine local eatery with a splendid mastery of chips and home-made crisps and a friendly, warm ambience. The burger was masterly; but the ribs were hopelessly OTT. I could have done with 2/3 fewer, and though they were tender and delicious, I left feeling sorry that the poor pig had died in vain. But thanks to the hotel’s front man Isaiah for the recommendation: good choice.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Au revoir à Canada

I would say that we skimmed over the surface of Montreal today, except that we also spent some time underground. Most of the day though passed as we sat upstairs on open double-decker buses, cruising the streets, detouring around the many road and building repairs, sneaking through stop-signs (possibly the most common illegal thing that Canadians do) and getting three different versions of the official commentary. These hop-on, hop-off tours (HoHo to those of us in the know) are a great way to get the lie of the land, but you are at the mercy of weather, traffic and the guide’s level of enthusiasm/boredom.

The wind was pretty vigorous today, and was ripping the leaves off the trees and swirling them about the streets; but there were still plenty enough left for more leaf-peeping ecstasy. It’s true what guide André said, that they show up better on a dull day than in the sunshine, contrary to what you’d think. They seem to glow.
They were eclipsed by the glass sculpture outside the Musée des Beaux-Arts, though: Dale Chihuly again, he does keep cropping up. This one is very big, called something like The Sun, and – here’s Canada for you in a nutshell – sitting outside on the steps with only a flimsy nylon guard rail around it. Fancy, delicate glass! Amazing.

Also amazing, in a less inspiring way, was the notice on the central, painted wood section of stairs on the hill up to the Oratory: reserved for pilgrims on their knees, it said. On their knees! It’s a beautiful, sparely-decorated building, but that’s irrelevant: they come in their droves hoping for miracles and occasionally apparently getting one, if the stacks of abandoned crutches in one of the chapels is proof. It’s the human brain that’s the real marvel here, I reckon.

After the trees, the buildings modern and classical, the shops above and underground, the crisply delicate mille-feuilles and the sticky réligieuse au café, there was finally an unpretentious dinner at Dunn’s Famous (no further noun evidently required). The specialty was Montreal’s smoked meat, which turned out to be a moist, tender and slightly spicy corned beef, served with excellent chips, coleslaw and a dill pickle. You get to decide how much fat it comes with – so, obviously not a diet option, and therefore pretty much guaranteed to be tasty. And so it was. Recommended, especially with a Rickard’s White, orange slice included: a fine way to finish our Canadian sector.
Final random note: It's a curious, but noticeably distinctive feature of French Canadians speaking English, that their accent sounds remarkably like the voice of Stephen Hawking. Yes? No? Just me, then?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Silver then gold

After ten days of our having been the sole focus of the Silversea staff, cossetted and pandered to, welcomed and pampered, this morning their attention shifted to clearing us off the ship and preparing it for this afternoon’s intake, another eager and excited consignment of passengers who are at this very moment luxuriating in our suite, listing their preferences to our butler Janice, making friends with our cruise director Moss. It was hurtful, make no mistake, and sitting in the lounge, evicted from our suites, waiting for the call to go ashore for the final time, was a melancholy experience.

But here we are now in Montreal on a warm, wet day. It is – on the strength of a single wander around this afternoon – a very different place from Quebec: messier, busier, edgier (insofar as Canada can be edgy), with more skyscrapers, more churches and cathedrals, more smokers, more beggars, more traffic. Doubly rejected, by both Silversea and by Fairmont, who weren’t ready for us, we were pleased to find, eventually, and after much trailing through the underground city, the Basilica of Notre Dame, which is a gloriously beautiful place. Painted, gilded, carved and decorated on every surface, it still manages to be elegant and dignified, rising above the rabble of tourists weaving through the pews, ineffectually flashing away with their cameras.

Tomorrow may bring a different take on the city. Let’s see.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Not trivial at all

Oh yes, it may seem all very relaxed and friendly on board a cruise ship, everyone on holiday and chilled-out – but bring in an element of competition and beneath all that bonhomie there’s viciousness and backbiting, male chauvinism and grudge-bearing, and none of it is edifying. I’m speaking of course of Trivial Pursuit, though I’m sure this could as easily apply to the afternoon putting competition through an obstacle course of chair legs in one of the lobbies, or the daily crossword contest, or the general knowledge quiz or, obviously, the bridge tournament.

Every afternoon when shore duties allowed, we turned up in the bar and dragged the chairs into larger and larger circles as new people joined our team – eight, we had, at the end – and waited for Moss, the personable, English-accented Zimbabwean cruise director, to trot out his 20 questions about song lyrics, history, literature, computer anagrams, geography and the Falkland Islands. There was, initially, politeness and deference, which gave way to obduracy and resentment. Some of us will never forget, and rue, misplaced stubbornness over the source of the Amazon (Peru, not Ecuador) that led to suspicion and mistrust in subsequent rounds. The dermatologist from Florida is clearly never going to forgive me for that one (“Make sure she wrote that down,” he muttered this afternoon, about the least-used letter in English) (z); though I did hope that I redeemed myself with Dick Francis, which no-one else knew. (Thank you, Jillian, from way back.)

Kind Jerry from Georgia (is it uncharitable to note that he looked like Voldemort?) gave me his share of the prize tickets, and we fronted up to the reception desk at the end of the competition with what we thought was a grand tally of 40 points, only to find ourselves behind a Yorkshireman with 150, enough for a cap and a wine knife, which made our two key-ring torches seem so much less of an achievement. But we won’t remember that, or the thinly-veiled disparagement of suggested answers, or the outright refusal to accept a different opinion, no matter how well documented – I will remember instead that it was lots of fun, and a highlight of the cruise. And that Josephine, from Ascot, usurped my role as answer-writer on the second-to-last round? No lingering resentment whatsoever. Really.

Oh, and today? Trois Rivieres: a pulp mill town with lots of disconcertingly European twin-spired churches, yellow trees, a very jolly shuttle-bus guide and an eager tourism organisation. Also, salted maple caramel!

Plus, finally, the usual Silversea last-night whole-crew farewell to the passengers, which blew them all away, even those of us who’ve seen it before – and hope to again, one day. Under Tower Bridge?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Oh, and they have black squirrels here!

Again with the autumn leaves. Apparently, we’re very lucky to be seeing them in such glorious colour, because the weather’s been dodgy lately and sometimes the season can be just days long. Certainly, the morning started dull and grey, though not cold, which slightly took the shine off Quebec’s old town as I prowled around before the shops were even open. The lower level looks very newly restored, although it’s not really, and felt a bit artificial, even if quite outrageously pretty, neat and photogenic. It seemed mostly centred on the tourist trade – but apparently the locals get amongst it too, like yesterday for Thanksgiving.
I tramped energetically around the cobbled lanes, up the Breakneck Stairs that weren’t at all, really, and around the Haute Ville, Citadel and Plains of Abraham that I’d always thought were Biblically named, but actually just reference the man who first farmed the land. Somehow I learned at school about Wolfe and the battle here – how that was, I have no idea, since it seems a random sort of thing to teach in New Zealand. I also triumphantly located, finally, a supplier of maple butter in the Marché du Vieux-Port – it’s maple syrup boiled for hours and hours until it’s the consistency of butter, and is apparently sinfully delicious spread on waffles and such.
Sadly, the sun didn’t come out until I’d taken all my photos, and was on a bus in the afternoon doing a tour that included the nearby Montmorency Falls – “higher than Niagara” – which were certainly very impressive; though the guide spoke so vividly of how spectacular and beautiful they are in the winter, frozen over, that she left me hankering to see them then rather than under a golden autumn sun.

I don’t feel that I’ve seen the real Quebec, the part where the locals actually hang out – but there’s no doubt that what lies within the city walls is beautiful and well worth exploring, a very happy mix of French and English architecture and landscaping, gorgeous at this time of year, and well supplied with what I hope this evening will prove to be a wide selection of enticing restaurants. There is also here, incidentally, another of Fairmont’s distinctive Canadian Pacific properties: the Chateau Frontenac where we might have stayed, had the cruise ended here instead of in Montreal. I’m not dwelling on that, at all.

Monday, October 13, 2014


What a lovely day today! To begin with, it was a calm, brilliantly sunny morning, and we woke to cliffs and hills of gold and green both sides as we sailed up the Saguenay River. There was some mild excitement when we reached a 10m statue of Notre Dame de Saguenay on a 100m cliff above the water, erected in gratitude for someone’s miraculous survival in the river; but the real thrill was to come in the town of Saguenay at the head of the fjord.
It was a slow approach with plenty of time for lazing in the sun on a lounger by the pool under a pretty unnecessary rug; and the docking was such a masterly and low-key affair that even hanging over the bridge watching the captain ease the Silver Whisper alongside the pier was almost dull, once we’d got over how miniscule his joystick was. Ahem.

So it was just as well that, despite its being Thanksgiving today, the town was there to watch and welcome our arrival (even though we’d been pipped into the harbour by Celebrity’s Summit) and the pier was busy with unicyclists, jugglers and costumed stilt artists. Saguenay is, unsurprisingly, famous for its welcome.

More than that though, and despite its being a particularly pretty town of cute little mansard-roofed houses, neat gardens and sandy beach, it’s famous for the show it puts on telling the history of the town and of Quebec province. It’s called ‘La Fabuleuse’, it runs for 90 minutes, stars upwards of 100 of the townspeople on stage in 1000 roles from little children to old people, and is quite the most extraordinary stage performance I’ve ever seen.
Here are some of its elements, on the indoor stage of what must surely be a purpose-built arena: Indians, French aristocrats, colonists, cantering horses, a pig, a flock of geese, a cow and a goat, cannon fire, bombs, abseiling soldiers, two cars and a jeep, a tank, a boat, flames and a man on fire, fighting, dancing, tumbling and singing. Oh, and a flood. I’ve never seen anything like it. Hugely entertaining and impressive, particularly since it’s performed by volunteers, and has been going for 27 years.

All this, plus scenery and poutine! Completely worth the day’s detour along the river.


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