07.09.2014 - 14.09.2014 24 °C
Visiting the Manitoba Museum, I learnt about the Hudson Bay Railway, and it created a great desire in me to take a ride up to Churchill. Construction started in the 1880's but the line was not actually finished until 1929 - there were plenty of engineering, financial and political challenges standing in the way of completion, as well as a diversion of energies to World War 1. Having a northern port was important, as it would provide a short route to Europe for the grains grown in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Originally it was to go to Port Nelson, but that port proved to be too difficult - shallow, riptides and bad storms combined to see the port operate for just four years and the railway diverted to Churchill (just one of a number of cul-de-sacs and false starts). Various photos made it look like quite a trip but, alas, I was committed to heading East.
When I arrived in Winnipeg, my train was a couple of hours late, so I had no real expectation that the train I was to leave on would be on time. I checked in my bags at around 8:00 and was told that my train, timetabled to leave at 22:30, would not even arrive until 1:30, and probably not leave for another 3 hours because there were problems with one of the fuel tanks, so re-fuelling would be a slow process. I hung round the Forks area in a bar having drinks and dinner as long as I could, but it was a long long wait in the Winnipeg Station, although the train did get away before 3:00 in the end.
While in Winnipeg, I'd spent a day out at the University of Manitoba, and finally found a University that had some traditional university-looking buildings. I also really liked the look of the Fort Garry hotel - it was my back-up if I'd arrived too late for Tara.
The train to Toronto was essentially the same as the one from Vancouver although with a different crew, naturally. It probably had even fewer passengers, so there was plenty of room to spread out and no problems with getting space in the dining car or up in the dome. The scenery was much the same as the scenery to the west - mile after mile of trees, although with more lakes and rivers. I just settled into my Alexandria Quartet, my nightly Breaking Bad episode and enjoyed the ride.
There was a young German couple who got on in Winnipeg with whom I had breakfast the first morning, along with a local fellow - the four of us spent most of the day in the dome car, but the local and the guy from the couple got so engrossed in discussions of hunting that the girl left them to it and I returned to my book. At one point, four guys from various parts of Canada who had flown in to do some fishing surrounded me and I got caught up in their conversation. Apart from that, there wasn't much socialising this trip.
Rumours went up and down the train as to how late we'd be getting to Toronto - at one point, people were saying we'd made up quite a lot of time but the reality was rather different. I was supposed to arrive at 9:30, but didn't actually make it in until after 18:00! Via Rail does give discount vouchers when they are more than 4 hours late, but they were no good to me. I did appreciate the fact that the guy running the snack bar just gave up charging for coffee and on the last day made us all lunch. It did mean that my day of checking out Toronto didn't happen - by the time I arrived, my two friends were already waiting for me, so we wandered over to the Mill Street Brewhouse, ate far too much and had a great time.
The train to Montreal was a different sort of train, used more by people commuting between Toronto and Montreal - just standard seats, a wee food cart trundling through the carriages, wi-fi and most importantly, on time! I think four different people sat in the seat beside me, but it was not the sort of train that people would talk to strangers.
I spent five nights in Montréal, although I didn't plan things very well. My first two nights, I stayed in a wonderful old hotel, the
Hotel Abri du Voyageur, with creaky, polished wooden floors, corridors that twisted and undulated, friendly staff and a very pleasant vibe.
Because I wanted to see the old city, I moved out into the hostel, which was at the other and, as it turned out, wrong end of town - I was MUCH closer in the hotel, and it was a better experience. The hostel was chocker, stank of weed the whole time I was there (which is really unusual for a Hostelling International property) - I was even offered "hash" at one point, and there were no potatoes involved. The hostel was quite adamant about allocating beds, so when I found someone had taken the one they allocated to me, they moved all his stuff out - didn't stop him trying to climb in with me at about 4:00 in the morning.
I visited the library at McGill one day, which turned into an unusual experience - during the afternoon it was pretty quiet, but come evening, it was pretty much totally deserted. They put a security guard on after hours to ensure only authorised people could come in - which meant once I was in, I had to stay in until I was finished for the day. Going home one evening, I got off the subway and was disgorged into the bowels of Concordia University, which looked like a cross between a hollowed out office block and a mall. Their library is open 24/7 - it occurred to me that it would have been interesting to just stay in the library and not bother with a hostel - I'm sure they have the occasional student nod off. Most of my work was done in the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec, another grand and practically brand new library.
I had three really good food experiences when I was there. Montréal is famous for two types of food - poutine (which I have no desire to eat) and smoked meats. Although it is a New York institution, the reuben sandwich is a natural fit with this, and I went to a restaurant called Reubens to have one: it was the most ridiculous sort of sandwich I have ever eaten - two thin slices of bread, as normal, but attempting to contain a mountain of smoked beef. I had to use a knife and fork on this one.
I also found the perfect cafe, Pikolo Espresso Bar, which was a tiny space, full of interesting people, great coffee and food. I would have happily set myself up to work there (several others had) but I didn't think it would be very fair on the number of people wanting to sit down.
Right next door was a very dangerous place for me, the Papeterie Nota Bene: a shop stuffed with beautiful papers, journals, pencils, pens, satchels and associated goodies. I was very good and only spent $22.50 - on pencils alone (to add to the 4 dozen I bought in Hong Kong, although here I only netted 8 pencils).
On the Friday night, I popped into a bar, thinking I'd have a drink and some food. I'm pretty good about travelling on my own, but for some reason, sitting in this bar saw my mood sink beneath the floor - I had to leave. I was still hungry and on the way back to the hostel saw what I thought was a Japanese cafe, which turned out to be mainly Korean. The two wait-staff were incredibly nice, one even warned me that the plate of Korean Fried Chicken I was ordering was "very large". Sitting in this space, chowing down on my fried chicken (I ate the lot), having a beer, watching the young Koreans having a great time restored my mood and I went home with a smile on my face. The staff had been so nice, I thought they deserved a generous tip, so told them they'd increase their business just by putting pictures of their glorious fried chicken outside.
I'm going to do a seperate post about my wander through the old city, so just have a few random photos of a few things that caught my eye as I walked between the cafe and the library