Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Road trip: Ottawa

My first visit to Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, was in May 1979 -- 38 (!!) years ago now. I was 18 years old, in Grade 12 (senior year of high school), and I had been selected by the local Rotary Club to go to Ottawa for Adventure in Citizenship, a four-day program sponsored by the Rotary Club of Ottawa. It began in 1951 and is still running today.   

It was the first time I had ever flown (aside from a couple of rides in a small private plane), so I was a little nervous -- but when I got on board, I found the plane was crammed with other Adventurers who had boarded in points further west -- including my seatmate, who was from British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province. We talked all the way to Ottawa, wrote long, fat, detailed letters to each other after we returned home, and we are still in touch today, nearly 40 years later. 

The winter of 1978-79 had been particularly cold & snowy. My mother & I even ran into a blizzard on our way home from shopping in the city for clothes for my trip -- it was the first week of May, for crying out loud...!  By the time I left for Ottawa, floods were beginning to threaten the small towns along the river.  

And then I stepped off the plane in Ottawa:  it was just a little too soon for the city's famous tulips to be in bloom, but the sky was blue, the grass was green, and it was warm enough that I hardly needed a coat. No wonder I fell in love with the place instantly.  :) 

(Perhaps there was one other reason why I felt so drawn to Ottawa.  Around the same time or a few years after my trip, one of my great-aunts made contact with a distant relative on her mother's (my great-grandmother's) side, and we learned the family had originally come west from the Ottawa area in the early 1880s. Upon further research, I learned that my roots in the Ottawa Valley date back to at least the 1820s, when my great-great-great-great grandfather, a sergeant in the British army who was born in Ireland, settled there.)   

Adventurers were billeted with local Rotary Club members and anyone else they could enlist to host us. My hosts were a prominent family in local politics;  their home was full of prints and sculptures by indigenous artists and photos of the father/husband with recognizable figures such as Prince Charles and Pierre Trudeau.  He had a local park named after him, for crying out loud. I was picked up every morning by his chauffeured car (!). The chauffeur used to drive for the U.S. Embassy, and he was the best tour guide I had on my trip, drawing my attention to various points of interest along the way. (I specifically remember him pointing and saying "That's the spot where they shot D'Arcy McGee."  I had only a hazy idea of who D'Arcy McGee was, but it sounded intriguing and prompted me to look him up when I returned home.) 

Our time in Ottawa was jam packed with activities. Normally, we would have done & seen even more -- toured the Parliament buildings, met our local members of Parliament and some of the top political leaders of the day. Unfortunately, it was just a few weeks before a federal election (the first one I ever voted in) -- just about everyone we normally would have met was out of town campaigning, and the House of Commons was taking advantage of the break to do some renovations, and was closed to visitors.  

Even so, we saw and did a lot: we had photos taken in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill;  we debated each other at the University of Ottawa;  we split into small groups and each toured an embassy.  (My group visited the embassy of the Soviet Union. Remember, this was 1979 -- almost the peak of the Cold War. Pretty amazing.)(And a wee bit scary.)  We dined at the Chateau Laurier several times (& I represented my province by delivering a speech at the closing banquet), we toured the RCMP stables, we posed for photos among the ruins scattered around the grounds of Kingsmere, the country home across the river in Quebec that had belonged to former prime minister Mackenzie King.  We wandered around the grounds of Rideau Hall (the Governor-General's residence -- the grounds are open to the public, and there are scheduled tours inside) and while we didn't meet the GG himself (a recent premier of my home province), we did meet his homesick wife and kids, who came out to greet us and asked specifically to be introduced to the Adventurers from "home." Before we left, we formed a huge circle on the lawn, linked arms and sang "O Canada" together. I had never felt more patriotic. On our last morning before we returned home, we gathered in the West Block of the Parliament buildings before a citizenship judge who administered the oath of citizenship to all of us (even though all of us were already Canadian citizens) and presented us with citizenship certificates.  

On a personal note, I fell madly in love with the charismatic guy who sat on the plane behind me on our way to Ottawa. (We wrote to each other for a little while after we returned home, but the correspondence eventually petered out.)  I also flirted shamelessly at one of the other dances that was held for us with a guy from Toronto, whose byline I recognized in one of the city's newspapers a few years later.  

It was a magical experience that changed the way I thought about myself and my future. I became enthralled with politics, and for a while I entertained notions of working on Parliament Hill someday (in a behind-the-scenes role -- I never had any desire to run for political office myself).  My mother had always promised me that there was life after high school, that better days were ahead -- and I caught a glimpse of the life that waited for me during my stay in Ottawa.  

I returned to Ottawa in August 1986 with dh & my parents.  I don't remember a lot about that trip, except that we strolled through the Sparks Street pedestrian mall, watched the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill and toured the Centre Block. "No wonder they all get swelled heads when they come here,"  my dad observed as we gazed up at the amazing arched ceilings. 

I returned one more time, for just one day in February in the early 1990s, on business. The bank I worked for was testing newfangled debit card technology in the Ottawa area; I met with the project manager and his team, visited one of the branches involved in the initiative, and one of its commercial clients, a supermarket that was using the new debit card terminals. It was like an ordinary work day, except that instead of travelling to & from work on a commuter train, I flew from Toronto to Ottawa in the morning, and made the return trip in the afternoon. I felt very cosmopolitan.  

I don't know why it took me/us so long to return, but BIL & SIL had never been to Ottawa, recently expressed an interest in visiting there, and suggested we go together. 

*** *** *** 

After all the planning & anticipation, there was a last-minute issue that almost derailed the trip:  the death of stepMIL's 96-year-old father. No direct relation to us, of course, but still... Our trip was planning for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday;  visitation was scheduled for Thursday, Friday & the funeral mass on Saturday. Whew!  We were able to get to the evening visitation after we returned home on Friday night, and to the mass on Saturday morning -- very tiring, but do-able. So we were able to head out on Wednesday morning, just before 9 a.m., with a clear conscience. 

There are two main routes to take from here to Ottawa, which take almost exactly the same amount of time (about 4.5 hours, not including stops).  One route is shorter/more direct in terms of mileage, but just two lanes most of the way (one lane in either direction), going directly through some small towns along the way. The other is longer in terms of mileage -- pulls you further south, but double-laned most of the way and bypassing the communities en route. We chose the more direct/northerly route -- more isolated, but also more scenic, although the fall colours were not really showing yet. We stopped at a McDonalds for lunch along the way, the trip took us about five hours total.  

Once we got to Ottawa, we found our hotel -- only drove past it and had to circle back once, lol. It was around 1:30-2, and even though the official check-in time is not until 3, our rooms were ready & they let us check in early.  I had been nervous, trying to pick a hotel based on online reviews and location -- and there wasn't a lot available, nevermind at a decent price.  Fortunately, it turned out to be a good place to stay -- quite new & clean, and quite reasonably priced. The decor was very modernist/minimalist, and the design of the rooms (how they made use of the space) was really quite interesting. The area is a bit run down -- lots of construction & roadwork all round -- but it's just a few blocks away from Sparks Street pedestrian mall (shops & restaurants), Parliament Hill & lots of other attractions. (And a Tim Hortons doughnut/coffee shop, just a few yards away at the end of the block, lol.  ;)  )  We left the car in the parking garage across the street the whole time we were there, & just walked almost everywhere. 

After we got settled in, we headed for Parliament Hill -- and almost ran right into Joe Clark, who was briefly prime minister (1979-80) & a cabinet minister for several years after that. An auspicious beginning to our visit! :)  I suppose if you live in Ottawa, you get eventually get blase after awhile, but I got goose bumps every time we walked by Parliament & saw the Peace Tower & the flag.  When I was growing up, I'd see Parliament Hill on TV, & think the buildings were on a hill high away & apart from the city.  They ARE on a bit of a hill, overlooking the river, but they're right there on a busy street downtown, lol.  

An iconic sight: Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa. 

Me, 38 years after the first time  I had a similar photo taken. Thrilled to be back! :)  
There's a building directly across from Parliament Hill on Wellington Street where you can get tickets to tour the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings. We weren't able to get any for a tour that day -- & there was only one English tour scheduled for the next day, for which we'd have to line up for tickets well before 9 a.m. -- so we decided to pass.  However, the girl at the desk told us that we could just go to the doors to the right of the Peace Tower and ask to be admitted to the visitors' gallery to watch Question Period in the House of Commons. I knew that we could do that from my initial trip research, but I didn't think the others (especially BIL) would be interested -- and they were!! -- so we did! :)  Had to go through three security checkpoints (metal detectors, bag X-rays & searches -- had my little pair of folding scissors confiscated -- oops! -- but returned to me on my way out -- and we had to leave our purses at the security desk) -- but it was a surprisingly easy process and took us less than half an hour from the time we walked up to the front door until we were seated. I can't imagine most Americans can just waltz up to the Capitol doors & get seated in the gallery within about 30 minutes flat. ;)  

There were still quite a few seats available in the visitors' gallery. Question Period was almost over, but we got to watch the last 20-30 minutes of it. The house was pretty full, and the Prime Minister  was there, answering questions, and we recognized a few of the other politicians -- the Leader of the Opposition, the outgoing leader of the New Democratic Party, and a couple of cabinet ministers. It was a bit noisy, because they tend to heckle each other :p  and we couldn't always hear clearly -- but it was still interesting, and we got to see a bit of the inside of the Centre Block, including some of the portraits of the past prime ministers on the walls, as we walked by. 

To quote my dad:  "No wonder they all get swelled heads when they come here..."  ;)  
When we got outside again, the ground was wet. It was a really hot, humid day, and we later found out there had been a HUGE storm -- trees down, power out in some parts of the city, a roof peeled off, etc.  We had no idea until we watched the news on TV later!   I guess if it's storming, inside a large stone building (with a lot of security guards all around) is a pretty safe place to be, lol. 

A rainbow after the storm... which we didn't know about until after the fact, lol. 
Taken from behind the Parliament Buildings. 
We wandered around the grounds for a while, looking at some of the statues, and the view of the Rideau Canal & Ottawa River (& Quebec across the river). Then we walked over to the National War Memorial, where the Remembrance Day services are broadcast from every year on TV.  It is just beautiful.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is there too and there are two honour guards on vigil there all the time.  You might remember a few years back, the two guards there were shot (one died) by a man who then drove over to Parliament Hill, ran up to the Centre Block, past security & inside (!!), and died in a shootout with the guards there.  There is a plaque near the memorial in memory of the soldier who died.  

The beautiful National War Memorial. 
After watching the changing of the guard ceremony at the memorial, we walked up & down the Sparks Street Mall for a while, and eventually picked one of the restaurants for dinner -- one of an Irish pub chain that we've eaten at before. It was OK, nothing special. The old building it was in was kind of cool, though. 

Looking up (down?) the Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall,
from the restaurant where we had dinner. 
By the time we finished eating, we were pretty tired, so we went back to the hotel -- took showers -- between the heat & humidity, the on & off drizzle and the exercise, we were feeling pretty grubby by then -- watched some TV & then went to bed.  

Thursday: Our one full day in the city. Got up early & headed back to Sparks Street for a little cafe that advertised a $5.99 breakfast special. The weather had changed:  it was a lot cooler/chillier.  I was still in capris & sandals but wearing my denim jacket (and very glad I ha it!).  

We all agreed we wanted to see the Canadian War Museum, which opened at 9:30, so we decided to head over there. We walked, and I have to admit, it was further than it looked on the map. Poor SIL was wearing ankle boots, and developed a blister on her ankle on the way over. She did have a bandaid in her purse, and we decided to take a cab back to the hotel after we were done so she could put her sandals back on & stop the chafing. The museum is excellent (albeit perhaps a bit overwhelming...!) -- we spent almost 3 hours there, the whole morning, and I feel like there was still stuff we missed. It covers all the wars Canada has ever been involved in -- including the Indian Wars, the Seven Years War, the War of 1812, the Fenian raids, both world wars, Korea, the Cold War, Afghanistan, peacekeeping missions, etc. etc. Very, very well done. 

The Canadian War Museum. 
Once SIL got her sandals & put a fresh bandaid on her blister, we headed in the other direction, over to the area known as the ByWard Market. There is a farmer's market & building, but there are tons of little shops & restaurants for blocks all around. Lots of old buildings that have been fixed up. Just a really cool area to explore.  

ByWard Market building.
We weren't quite sure where we were going, but I'd gotten a brochure with a map of the market, with the BeaverTails booth clearly marked (lol)  so we headed there first. If you don't know what a BeaverTail is, it's basically a slab of hot fried pastry with toppings spread on it. I think it started in Ottawa, and it seemed appropriate to have our first taste here, although you can find other locations across Canada these days. I liked mine, although I think the others were underwhelmed. BIL had one with chocolate & banana, & the rest of us had the sugar & cinnamon. We also stopped at a gelato place later. 

BeaverTails!  A must-try when you're in Ottawa. :) 
Walked by the U.S. embassy on Sussex Drive, nearby (didn't realize it WAS the embassy until we got to the front door) & then kittycorner from that over to Notre Dame Cathedral. They were either just getting ready for or cleaning up after a funeral & had a sign out front asking for no visitors -- but we sneaked in for a peek anyway. Stunning interior!! We didn't take any photos, though. The National Gallery is just across the street -- I would have loved to go there, & I think SIL would have too -- but art galleries are not BIL's thing so we skipped it. 

Embassy of the United States on Sussex Drive, Ottawa. 

Notre Dame Cathedral, as viewed from Major's Hill Park. 

National Gallery of Canada. 
Went back to the hotel for a while to rest -- & then walked all the way BACK to ByWard Market to a pizza restaurant recommended by an online friend from Ottawa. It makes thin-crust pizzas in a wood-fired oven -- and it WAS really good!  You could basically order whatever you wanted on it (they did have a suggested menu) so (being allergic to tomatos) I had one without tomato sauce, just cheese & garlic & roasted broccoli on top. Yum!  

Where we had dinner on Thursday night. Delicious pizza!  

What I ate. Yum!  
After dinner, we walked over to the park across from the National Gallery/behind the U.S. embassy & the Chateau Laurier hotel, which I later learned is called Major's Hill Park. Some gorgeous views of Parliament Hill & the Rideau Canal/Ottawa River. We walked through the park, along the canal to the Chateau Laurier hotel, & over to Parliament Hill again, to admire the Canada 150 sign, all lit up and changing colours. And then back to the hotel via the Sparks Street Mall (stopped at a souvenir shop along the way). We did a LOT of walking while we were there!! which left us all stiff, sore and dead tired.  But... we had fun!  ;)   

Sunset view of the Parliamentary Library and where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River, from Major's Hill Park.
That's Quebec across the river, on the right. 

The iconic Chateau Laurier hotel. 

Parliament Hill at night, with the Canada 150 sign lit up. (It changes colours!) 
Got up early again Friday morning & headed back to the same little cafe for breakfast. Being Friday, I suppose, it was much busier and more crowded. We checked out of our hotel & were on our way home by around 9. We had passed an outlet mall on our way into the city -- right across the highway from the arena where the Ottawa Senators play -- and wound up spending about two hours there. Finally got on our way again around 11:30, stopped at the same McDonalds for lunch that we visited on our way there, and arrived home around 4:30. 

Three days/two nights/one full day is nowhere near enough time to cover everything there is to see & do in Ottawa... not to mention ancestor hunting.  Guess that just means that I will have to go back again. ;)  

*** *** *** 

A sidenote:  The one thing I struggled with on the trip: I found myself biting my tongue several times, trying to shut myself up and not be too obnoxious. ;)  I told dh how I was feeling, & he said I was being silly, but I couldn't help but feeling self-conscious. There were so many memories of my first trip to Ottawa as we walked around -- and as a lover of history, with family ties to the area, I knew a fair bit about the different places we visited, the statues we saw, etc.  It was hard not to talk about what I knew and what I found fascinating.  

Now, if we had kids and were bringing them with us, I would have had absolutely NO qualms about babbling on to them with... well, some of the stories I told you here at the beginning of this post, lol.  ;)  (At least on paper/screen, you can skim or skip!)  That's what parents do, right??  ;)  -- pass along family stories, try to impart knowledge and an appreciation for things like history & architecture. Plus, it's a parental prerogative to be boring & make your kids' eyes roll, lol.  ;)  

But as I talked, I heard the long-ago echoes of my grade-school classmates, mocking me, and felt the sting of their words: "She thinks she's so smart."  I was bursting with knowledge I wanted to share, but at the same time, I didn't want to look like a know-it-all or make it all about me and my memories.  I realized that while BIL & SIL would listen out of politeness, they probably weren't REALLY interested in my reminiscences, and that if they wanted an official guided tour, we would have hopped on one of the tour buses. ;)  

Do you know what I mean?  Do you ever feel this way? (I'm especially interested in hearing from the other childless/free folks out there on this point.)  


  1. What a lovely trip! I'm so glad you got to go. The photo of the rainbow behind the Parliament Buildings is my second favorite (you in front of the buildings in my first).

  2. Gorgeous pictures - I'm not sure if I'm drawn more to the architecture or the pizza......well, probably the pizza. I'm not sure if I've felt the way you specifically do, but I do often times feel generally that I have much to share and miss passing on stuff, specifically doing things side by side with my kids - gardening, playing an instrument, yoga, cooking - things I like to do (I'm more of a doing person, much less of an academic type). Sounds like you have a real aptitude and passion for history (in other words, your grade school classmates can suck it!).

    1. The pizza WAS good!! lol And thank you for your kind words. <3

  3. As an inveterate know-it-all (I frequently know a lot of boring trivia), I until someone tells you "If I wanted a tour guide, I would have hired one!" Otherwise, you're just walking around, looking at stuff, and saying "Oh, that's pretty." But stories and anecdotes make things come alive. Maybe some would say to hold back on the "When I was here in high school, I saw so-and-so and such-and-such!" a little bit, in favor of "Did you know that (insert relevant historical event) happened right here?! Here are some details about why this adds meaning to the location!" But you should still be able to share your memories - who wouldn't find it cool to hear about your brush with greatness in high school? Chauffeured car! Historical anecdotes! Or quotes from your dad? That's awesome and hilarious.

    Thanks for taking us on your trip - lovely photos and stories!

  4. Oh, yes, I know what you mean and oh, yes, I can relate.

    I really enjoyed taking this tour of Ottawa with you <3.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing trip to Ottawa. I've never been to Eastern Canada. All my Canadian visitations have been in British Columbia and Yukon Territory while my family was driving to Fairbanks, Alaska from Seattle, Washington (and vice-versa). Between August 1957 and March1963 we made 6 round trips. I was just barely a teenager on the first trip but I remember the beautiful scenery.

    Your wonderful stories and pictures make me yearn to visit the Eastern provinces.

    You should publish this post as a Guide Book to Ottawa! It is that amazing.


  6. I enjoyed reading this a lot as I lived in Ottawa briefly as a young adult. Four months as a summer student. The job was dreary but the scene was awesome! It’s such a pleasant city to walk and bike in.