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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

Menu Guggenheim (1 of 1).jpg

So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

IMG_20171014_143036 (1).jpg

This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

27-basque

These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

BasqueDay4_184of-4686_171010-HDR

Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.


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Walking to grow

Jean got involved in a MEDA project to raise funds for women entrepreneurs in Ghana. Specifically, the funds go to assist women farmers with training and loans so they can grow more soybeans and forge market links. This approach has been found to increase food security for the whole community.

The fund-raising approach was to walk the Bruce Trail, a craggy Ontario escarpment trail that runs from Niagara to Tobermory. Two women signed up to do the whole thing (900 km), over the month of July. A larger group joined for the last 100 km of it, over a week. And a larger group still signed up to walk one or two days on the final weekend. Jean and I were part of that group.

Honestly, when Jean first asked if I wanted to join him that weekend, I pictured me lounging about on the beach while he did the walking. But no, he said, I should walk with him. Oh, I said. Guess I can do that.

Hope Bay Beach

Beach that I didn’t get to lounge at

But, Jean seemed fairly worried about the walk, which was to be 20 km on Saturday, with Sunday off. I wondered if I should also be worried about it. 20 km did seem a bit long. Also, I’d walked bits of the Bruce Trail previously, and hadn’t enjoyed the rocky segments.

But, it was so refreshing to have him worry about things, when that’s usually my job, that I thought I’d leave it to him. The weather forecast for the weekend was great: Sunny, highs in the low 20s. So, no worries there.

When we first got to the cottages we were staying at, no members of the one-week team were there, but some did show up eventually. (Not everyone was staying at the same place.) We first talked to two ladies, both in their 60s, who discussed the challenges they’d faced. How much of it wasn’t so much trail walking as rock climbing. Having to wade through water. Dealing with the bugs (hello, DEET). The elevation. How much time these distances were taking them, because it’s not the same as doing that same distance on a nice path.

If that wasn’t enough to start getting me worried, this was the clincher: Despite their success with the previous distances, they had decided there was no way they could do the Saturday hike, which was supposed to be one of the most difficult. Instead, they were going to do two alternate, shorter segments of the Bruce Trail on Saturday and Sunday.

Huh.

We then met with a MEDA representative who had joined the group for a 17 km segment that he’d found more difficult than expected. Aerobically, fine, but very tired legs by that point. And he reported that a few other people were planning alternate routes for that weekend, and we could too.

Jean was rather disappointed at the thought of all his worrying going to waste. Blame me, I said. (I really am bad at clambering over rocks. Like, worse than the average person, I think.)

So on Sunday we found ourselves doing a 12 km segment of the Hope Bay trail, which the team had found to be one of the more pleasant parts of the Bruce. It has elevation, but not a lot of rocks, and offers some nice views.

Jean, |Cathy, and Hope Bay!

Hope Bay

That took us a good six hours, leading me to think that a more challenging 20-km stretch could easily have taken us twice that long.

And instead of our Sunday off, we did an 8-km stretch of the end part trail that we would have done on Saturday.

Some Hiking Some Climbing

This part featured some rock climbing, but fortunately, not much

It was also a pretty picturesque segment.

Little Cove Harbor

The whole effort raised nearly $100,000 for the women of Ghana. Thanks to everyone who contributed.


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The Royal Tour Part 3: Exploring Canadian history in Kingston

We’d been to Kingston before, but not stayed for any length of time. This year we booked three nights at Hotel Belvedere, which dates back to 1880. This meant some awkwardness in the room design, like a tiny bathroom with no counter space, but overall the room was spacious. (It was also equipped  with modern conveniences like air conditioning and wifi.)

Our stay included a light breakfast that we ate on the front patio each morning, which was quite pleasant. And it was just a short walk from there to downtown.

Kingston - Houses with Character

Not the Belvedere Hotel, but in the same neighbourhood

The first day we just got acquainted with the downtown and the waterfront.

Arriving in Kingston!

Over the next two days, we took in a number of tours.

First up was a tour of Kingston City Hall. It was originally built with the thought that Kingston was to be Canada’s capital, and so that it would serve as Parliament. Of course, this was not to be. Queen Victoria had other ideas, and declared the hamlet of Ottawa the capital. Canada’s Parliament was built there.

That left Kingston with a bit of a dilemma over what to do with this large, ornate building. Over the years, a number of business have been housed there: banks, night clubs, dry goods. More recently it has served as City Hall. But it’s a challenge to maintain, because a city doesn’t have the same budget for this that the whole country does. So they have to do fund-raising to tackle renovations of parts of it, and when touring, you can see signs of what still needs work, like the stained carpeting.

City Hall, was almost our Parliament!

Still a pretty attractive building, though: Kingston City Hall

A market was also set up outside it on the Thursday. I purchased a couple of hand-dyed T-shirts there, to join my Queen + Adam Lambert concert T-shirt and the two shirts Jean purchased at MEC in Toronto. (We then declared a shirt moratorium.)

The next tour, in the afternoon, was of Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security facility that closed just a few years ago, as it no longer met modern standards. A young tour guide led us around and explained some aspects of the facility (the visitor’s area, the family visits housing, escape attempts), but at many points we were greeted by someone who used to work there. They explained some aspect of the institution: the history of “the cage”, the rules behind solitary confinement, the workshop protocols, the mental health institution. (Tours run every 15 minutes, and it occurs to me it must get really old for these people to repeat these lines so often during the day.)

The Cage in the PEN

The Cage at the Pen

Cell Section

For security, these barred doors are no longer used in Canadian federal prisons

Pen Art

A mural created (with permission) by one of the prisoners in one of the solitary cells

It was interesting, and while it didn’t make me want to go to prison, it was not that depressing—other than the solitary “yard”, which was really a sad, tiny, enclosed thing compared with the general yard.

There is also a penitentiary museum across the street, but we decided we’d had enough prison facts for one day.

On Friday we visited Bellevue House, where Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, lived for about a year. It’s considered a federal park, so was free to enter for Canada 150, but we decided to pay extra for a tour. I would recommend that; the guide (Harrison) was very good, and you get more out of your visit from what they tell you.

Sir John A Macdonald's Abode

Bellevue (nice view) because it does have a river view, though a bit of a tree-obstructed one these days

We definitely learned quite a bit about Sir John A. and his times. He lived here with his sickly wife and two sons, one of whom died quite young. But they also covered what happened afterward with his political career—the good (Confederation, promoting votes for women) and the bad (residential schools, the Chinese head tax)—along with his personal life. For example, he did marry again after his first wife died, and they had a daughter who was encephalitic, but still an important part of Sir John A.’s life.

Sir John A MacDonald's Boudoir

The master bedroom at Bellevue

They also have nice gardens on the grounds at Bellevue, where they grow food used at the museum, but also purchased by some local restaurants and donated to the food bank.

That left Fort Henry to explore, on Friday afternoon. We arrived in time for the cadet’s parade and firing of the cannon (which I guess is not so hard—they do this several times a day).

A Blast for the Past

I found that suprisingly interesting to watch. The military formations are so graceful and musical.

Fort Henry

And the goat is not sacrificed to the gods of war

Here we did not go for the guided tour, though, but just looked through the exhibits and the interesting little shops on-site ourselves.

Dining

For its fairly modest population of about 130,000, Kingston has a great selection of restaurants. One of favourite meals here was at the venerable Chez Piggy, established by late musician  Zal Yanovsky. The room upstairs is very nice, the service was excellent, and we quite enjoyed the food.

Shrimp n Stuff

Scallops in vanilla cream sauce

Eyes off my Duck!

Duck confit

We also liked spin-off restaurant Pan Chancho, where we had lunch twice. It’s a coffee shop and bakery that also serves food (such as an excellent gazpacho).

But our next most-favourite was probably Tango Nuevo, a tapas wine bar that we tried out because it looked as though it would be good. (It’s not in Where to Eat in Canada.) Appearances were not deceiving: it’s a nice-looking place, service was great, and all six tapas we ordered were delightful.

Gnochi Knockout ... it was that good!

The gnocchi may have been the highlight

They also had an interesting (in a good way) Turkish dessert.

Aqua Terra aspires to be casual fine dining. It’s a lovely space, and gracious service (although the wine arrival timing is just a bit off), but the food isn’t quite up to “fine dining” standards. Not bad by any means, but not outstanding.

Aqua Terra

This seafood ravioli did not blow me away

And then there was Le Chien Noir. Lordy.

It’s billed as French bistro, but was a bit more raucous bar-y than we were expecting. What can you do. We were seated, given menus, and with some debate, we figured out what we wanted.

And then we waited. And waited. Like half an hour, and no one even took our drink order.

The waiter did apologize for the delay, but then seem completely flummoxed when Jean asked for wine suggestions for his food. “We don’t really do that,” said the waiter. What?

Jean just ordered the wines he’d been considering. Shortly after putting that in, the waiter came back and said they were out of the special Jean had ordered as his main. So Jean picked another, then said he’d reconsider his original wine choice after the appetizer.

We did get the wines we’d ordered for the appetizer of tuna tartar we planned to share. Then we waited. The waiter said the bread was just coming out of the oven. Then we waited. We eventually did get some bread, which was warm, but also noticed that the table next to us, which had arrived later, already had their appetizers. Hmm.

Finally some food arrived. It was our main courses! “We never got our appetizers,” I pointed out. The waiter apologized. “My fault,” he said. (Duh.) “Wines are on the house.”

Will say that the mains… Were really very good. And not only because we’d waited an hour and half for them. The duck cassoulet I had was very well prepared and with creative flavours. But man, the experience!

It wasn’t quite done. The next day I got an Open Table email asking me why I hadn’t shown up for my reservation at Le Chien Noir. They hadn’t properly checked us in on arrival. (This, too, was later sorted out.)

 


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The Royal Tour Part 2: Queen for a day in Toronto

We took a week off in July in lieu of the one originally planned in June, when Jean’s work commitments meant he couldn’t get away. We had to go to Toronto on Tuesday, July 18 anyway, because we had tickets to a Queen + Adam Lambert concert. We built the rest of the vacation around that.

City Hall

The city can look purty

We’d first thought of going to Québec City after Toronto, but that’s a really popular destination this time of year. Finding a hotel was a challenge, and we started to think it would just be unpleasant with so many people crowded into the Old Town there. We switched over to Kingston, which is much less of a drive, so thought of adding a day in Toronto.

But Toronto is also a very popular destination this time of year. And while we could have stayed at our hotel an extra night, the price for that extra night jumped dramatically. (And this was for a hotel room that was probably the smallest we’ve ever had in Canada. Mind, the hotel itself—the Strathcona—was very conveniently located downtown, though something of a nightmare to drive to and expensive to park at.) So, we decided to stick with just two days in “The 6”.

City Hall

At night also

We took some time while there to visit my sister and brother-in-law in their lovely new apartment. That didn’t leave much time for doing Toronto “stuff”. Mainly, during the day, we walked around various neighbourhoods: The Harbourfront area, the Distillery District (highlight: visiting the Soma chocolate store), Kensington Market.

The main event

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Unofficial poster. Seems to be one of these for each stop.

You see this warning sign? This show has strobe lights, it has lasers, it has smoke, it has explosions. You name it, this show has it. You’re allergic to any of these things? I suggest you go home now.

It was the first time I’d had to go through a metal detector at an Air Canada Centre concert, but all the ACC staff (like the one quoted above) were really very cheery and nice, helping everyone out to ensure we all got through quickly and safely. This was a relief to Jean, who’d been worried on seeing the lineup when arrived. As was the fact that we had no problem getting his camera in (only “professional” cameras were banned, but what is that?).

We sat next to a woman from Newfoundland, a fan of Queen but especially of Adam Lambert, who’d flown up special for the concert. (Jean shared that we’d flown all the way to Berlin for our Adam Lambert concert.) Her husband was in town with her, but not at the show, which caused Jean to give me a look. Well, he couldn’t very well abandon me on our 25th wedding anniversary night, could he?

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Our view was from here—and it actually wasn’t bad. Though Jean complained that they played more to the other half of the room.

And truly, it was a really great show. Would have been a shame if he missed it.

The staging, the lights, the effects

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen better. Before the show started, we could tell the stage was in a guitar shape, but were having trouble figuring out how things (like the projection screens) were laid out… Then the show began with this huge robot hand smashing through the screen, then looking out, then raising it with both hands to reveal the band playing “We Will Rock You.” Awesome!

Other highlights included Adam Lambert literally rising from the floor to sing the exquisite “Who Wants to Live Forever”; the stunning laser show; the effect of a simple disco ball in a stadium; the interesting, multi-level video background for Brian May’s solo (built around the Queen logo, deconstructed); and the stunning amount of confetti at the end.

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Disco inferno!

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Dynamite with a laser beam! Source: ror0roror0ro at https://www.instagram.com/p/BWthmNKDLlL/

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That’s a lotta confetti! Source: lauracjthistle at https://www.instagram.com/p/BWtkqdOFbbQ/

The music!

Of course I love all the songs. But the band also performs them so well—without vocal modulators or click tracks. And, the sound mixing at the ACC was quite good. So I could hear Adam Lambert’s impeccable, incredible vocal flourishes on songs like “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Somebody to Love,” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” And the band’s excellent harmonies on songs like “I Want It All”.

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One great band

The drum battle between Roger Taylor and new recruit (from Queen Extravaganza) Tyler Warren was fun. And the guitar solo—which I’d been dreading a bit, having found it somewhat long and dull at their last concert—was fantastic. It was shorter, for one, and all built around familiar melodies (at least to a Queen fan) from “Lost Horizon” and “Brighton Rock”. Kudos.

All the feels

The set list is designed to take you on an emotional journey. You start with the powerful adrenaline rush of a snippet of “We Will Rock You,” followed by the powerhouses “Hammer to Fall” and “Stone Cold Crazy.”

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Power!

There is then a gradual segue to the fun and frothy part of the evening, introduced by Adam Lambert singing “Killer Queen” atop the head of Frank the robot, while wearing a hot pink suit. (“Gayest suit ever!” he proclaimed.) Included at the juncture was an Adam Lambert single, “Two Fux,” along with “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Bicycle Race,” wherein Adam rode around on a pink, flower-laded tricycle.

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He gives great head,” Adam declared

Thanks to Adam’s super-tights pants, propensity for hip thrusting, and just general handsome-ness, the entire evening was somewhat lust-inducing (if you like that sort of thing).

Adam’s groiny interpretation of Fat Bottomed Girls

But they really amped up to 11 on “Get Down, Make Love,” a welcome addition on this tour. The whole backdrop for this song was red, dripping, sexy imagery, which Lambert only enhanced with his orgasmic vocal prowess.

“Was it good for you?” he asked. (Umm, excuse me, I’ll be in my bunk.)

But Adam wasn’t the only significant contributor to this portion of the evening. Roger Taylor took lead vocals on another recent set addition, “I’m in Love with My Car,” a song that really shouldn’t be sexy, but somehow is, the way he sings it.

Brian May? Well, he introduced the poignant part of the evening, moving to the front of the stage to sing “Love of My Life,” accompanying himself on accoustic guitar. The effects here were a sea of cell phone lights, which was just beautiful. And though I knew that video Freddie Mercury would make an appearance near the end, the way they did that, with Freddie seeming to stand right beside Brian, I couldn’t help tearing up.

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Stars in the cell phone firmament. Source: a_jm_v, https://www.instagram.com/p/BWtmDWGFpq-/

Through “Somebody to Love”, and “Under Pressure,” and “Radio Ga Ga,” [aside that I’m not listing every song they played], the band managed to create a more intimate feel in this large space.

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So close you could touch them. (Not really.)

Of course, the ending was triumphant. I liked how they rejigged “Bohemian Rhapsody.” They included the usually skipped “Is this the real life?” introduction, with Adam taking lead vocals. He also sang both verses, instead of sharing those with video Freddie. Of course, the operatic part is still from the original video. Freddie just appears at the very end, trading off lines with Adam.

The finale? “We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions,” of course. Full Toronto set list

The crowd was really great (as I usually find with Toronto). I thought we’d spend most of the concert sitting, but no, they were up for standing for probably three-quarters of the show. Brian May’s birthday was the following day, when there was no concert, so we got the fun of singing “Happy birthday” to him, after he honoured us with a selfie stick photo (posted here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw6i-QMjSuY). At the end, Adam thought Brian should wear his crown (though that proved a bit of a problem, as it was sized for Adam’s bigger head).

Richmond Station and Ki

(This is turning an epic post, but why stop now.) The evening before the concert, we’d originally hoped to dine at Canoe, but it was summerlicious time in Toronto (that is, specially priced meals at certain restaurants), which meant that Canoe was fully booked for two weeks. (And that likely happened on the first day summerlicious reservations were open.)

So, we went to Richmond Station, a new restaurant for us, even though we couldn’t get in til 8:30 pm. We’d read that they offered surprise, multi-course “chef’s menus”, but that wasn’t mentioned on their printed menu. Jean asked about it, though, and they confirmed that it was on offer, and the head chef was in that day, so it should be a good one.

They also asked us if we had any special occasion, and Jean mumbled something about, no, we’re just here for a darn Queen concert, but I piped about it being our 25th wedding anniversary the next day. That was good, because it resulted in a complimentary glass of bubbly each, to go along with our half-liter of (delicious) Oregon Pinot Noir that we thought should be generally food friendly.

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The bubbly with our first course, oyster and trout tartar

What a nice meal we had there. All courses—eight of them—were prepared with care and delicious. The service was attentive. Our late start meant that we had a waiter switchover near the end, but that was handled very well. Tables were close together, so it was a bit loud, but that somehow didn’t bother us. And the whole thing was like, $200? Which seemed a great deal for a meal of this caliber in Toronto.

Beef tartar is not a thing I normally eat, but theirs was flavored very well. There was a small charcuterie plate. This amazingly light zucchini tempura. A set of two salads: one beet, one tomato, both great. [I feel like there might have been sweetbreads in here somewhere also?] Seared salmon with great vegetables. A smoky sirloin beef with potatoes (the smoke made it special).

I think it's a beet?

Two salads

Rishcmond Station Restaurant

Le saumon

It was all topped off by a very special dessert of ice cream, peanut butter, and hazelnut.

For Our Anniversary!

Before the concert on Tuesday, we went to our reliable Ki, where they once again did a really nice job of their “modern Japanese” food and excellent service.

Ki Restaurant

Maple tamari with pine nuts—so good

Ki Restaurant

I think this is dessert


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The Royal Tour, Part 1: Kingsville

“Where is Kingsville?” queried my sister, after realizing we’d arrived in Toronto from there, and not from Kingston, where we were headed next. (We’d dubbed this our Royal tour of Ontario—Kingsville, Kingston, and a stop in Toronto for a Queen concert.)

It was a fair questions, as Kingsville, population 21,000, is not exactly a tourist mecca. It doesn’t boast great museums or incredible natural wonders—only a rather charming downtown, a proximity to a number of Lake Erie wineries, and access to Point Pelee, Canada’s southernmost national park. A week there would likely be rather dull, but it’s a nice, relaxing place to spend a couple of days.

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We’d previously had some challenges with the hotels we’d stayed at in these parts, but we were quite happy with the Kingswood Inn this time. For $130 a night we had use of a living room, window dining, kitchen stocked with breakfast food, and upstairs bedroom and bathroom, all in a large, attractive historic home. The wifi was good and the TV even had a Chromecast, for ease of Netlix-ing. There was even a pool we could have used (but didn’t).

The Inn was also within easy walking distance of the lake and the downtown. We noticed that the area, being that much more south, had more and different fauna (like fireflies—so many in the evening) and flora than in our parts.

Kingsville, Ontario

Mind, we do have daylillies, but this photo does show the beauty of this little town on the lake

Our big activity was on Sunday, spending a morning and early afternoon in Point Pelee Park—free this year in honour of Canada’s 150th. It was a gorgeous day, and we hiked most every trail they had. All the trails on the short side, but combined it did add up to something like 12 km. Fauna-wise, we saw a mink carrying a fox snake in its mouth; a turtle; some small frogs; many kinds of birds (we don’t know birds; couldn’t identify most), including one spot where the babies were still in the nests; and what I assume were wild turkeys.

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Free as a bird—not destined to be Thanksgiving dinner

We also sat in on a park presentation on the fox snake, featuring a specimen that was born into captivity. It’s an endangered (because it looks and sounds like a rattler, though is harmless to humans), not every well-understood species of snake that they are studying in the park.

While out walking, we also saw some more exotic-looking flowers…

Park Flora

And a very interesting-looking swamp (no bugs here, by the way)…

The Swamp

Discovered that cactus (!) grow in this part of Canada…

Cactii!

And also saw some signs of the previous inhabitants of this area, before it all became parkland.

Grave Stone

The southernmost point, past the 42nd parallel, is demarcated. Traffic is controlled into this area, to preserve it. Individual cars are not allowed; you have to walk in (as we did) or take a park shuttle. The waves are huge at the point. The Great Lakes always amaze me, as they look like an ocean, but it’s all fresh water.


Of course, we also visited a few wineries while in these parts. We had lunch at Cooper’s Hawk, but they were busy with a couple of tour groups, so we didn’t do any tasting beyond the glass we each had with lunch. Viewpoint Estates was also very busy, but we pushed ahead anyway, trying a number here. In the end, we were only really impressed with the Cabernet Franc 2008.

Viewpoint Winery

And with the view that gave the winery its name

North 42 [named after the parallel—which we realized only the next day, after visiting the park] was new one for us this time, and the one we were most impressed with. For one thing, despite a tour group arriving shortly after we did, we still got a lot of personal attention. (They had the group in a separate area.) For another, a lot of their wines were really nice. They made a sparkling out of Sauvignon Blanc, which is very unusual but very good. They had Cabernet Franc from 2013 and 2016, both of which we liked. And a well-balanced dry rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

The other new one we visited, largely due to its convenient location after our park visit (the other wineries, we visited Saturday) was Pelee Island winery. It’s a large operation, but not that busy when we were there. We focused on wines they don’t sell at LCBO, but weren’t bowled over by too many. We did get a Pinot Blanc and a Gerwurtz Reserve.

Mettawas Station Restaurant

Mettawas Station restaurant is housed in a former train station

For dining, Mettawas Station once again proved the best option in these parts (though the lunch at Cooper’s Hawk and the dinner we had at another Italian restaurant downtown were both decent—just not as good as Mettawas). We shared a lamb rib appetizer that had good texture and flavor, then I had a salad while Jean had zucchini soup, and my main was the local pickerel and perch while Jean went for the gnocchi.

Eyes NOT on the menu!

We also got into a conversation with another couple who were there for their anniversary (37 years, I think?). We told them that ours was also coming soon.


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Summer vacation, abbreviated

We had planned to take a week’s vacation the first week of June, but Jean’s work obligations necessitated changing those plans on relatively short notice. Fortunately, we hadn’t made any grand travel plans—it was just going to be a driving trip to parts of Ontario and Québec. But we had to scale it back.

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We started with a weekend in Timmins, where Jean went off on fishing trip with his brothers. He expected, I think, that it would be a fairly leisurely couple of days. Instead, it was early mornings and late nights of fishing, cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packing. “I was not prepared for that!” he confessed on his return.

But, now we do have some very nice Northern Ontario pickerel.

I, on the other hand, really did have a leisurely time. I flew up and stayed with my Dad, visited with a Timmins friend, had a dinner with my brother’s family (hosted by Dad), watched some Netflix…

We traveled back on Monday and Jean had to work the rest of the week. I decided to take Thursday off to go see Guys and Dolls in Stratford. I picked it mainly because it was the matinee that day—I didn’t know anything about it, really. But it proved a good choice. Deservedly well-reviewed, it was a fun musical with beautiful costumes and some absolutely stunning dance sequences. The songs were great, and included two that I knew: “If I Were a Bell” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”.

30-second look at Guys and Dolls

I had taken the train to Stratford (thereby learning you can take a train to Stratford) on what was an absolutely gorgeous day, and after the play Jean drove in to join me for dinner. We went to Bar Fifty-One, which is a new part of the Prune restaurant, a Stratford institution we’d never eaten at. I stuck with the bar menu, and was quite happy with my grilled asparagus with Parmesan appetizer and seafood pie entree. Jean tried the restaurant menu and was very impressed with the chicken liver mousse appetizer, but somewhat less so with his smoked Muscovy duck breast main.

For the following weekend, we’d had an Ottawa hotel booked, so we decided to keep that and book some flights to get there and back. I flew up earlier, with plans to tour Parliament and meet some friends for dinner. Neither of those plans quite worked out. The tours were sold out for the day, and I messed up my communication with my friends so they had the wrong Friday in their calendar. Still, it was a nice day there, and the meal at Play Food and Wines was delicious.

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Incredible gnocchi with edamame, shiitake, sunflower seeds, and truffle oil

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Pastry with chocolate cream filling and dulce de leche. Yum.

And Jean did arrive at the expected time. We took a walk, and enjoyed our funky, European-style Alt hotel.

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Ottawa has a lot of interesting street art

I did get my Parliamentary tour the next day, and it was pretty interesting. (It’s also the last year you can do so before the place closes for renovation for 10 years!) We saw the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Library, the Senate…

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Statue of the Queen who selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital, inside Parliament’s Centre Block

Ottawa was in full prep mode for Canada 150 celebrations on July 1, meaning a lot of construction and sections of museums down for renovation. We visited the Museum of Canadian History, where they had a pretty interesting exhibit on hockey—even for people not deeply into hockey—and another small one on the Canadian immigration experience. But the main gallery was inaccessible, so it did make the whole visit seem a bit “slight”.

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A rather cool statue in the Museum of Canadian History

We thought we had reservations at Whalesbone that evening, but they have this annoying phone-only system, and our two calls to them weren’t sufficient to hold it. We would have had to have make a third. We were still able to dine at the bar, and I have to say that the food was just delicious: Really fresh seafood with lovely, tasty sauces and sides. But not sure we’ll be back, given the difficulty of making a reservation (not as if they ever answer the phone…).

Sunday we went to the Market, where they had an Ignite 150 exhibit area highlighting different parts of Canada. Buskers were also on deck that day. That was fun. I also purchased a couple tops from one of the market vendors. And we went back to Play for a late lunch. It was really good again!

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Fig and prociutto appetizer on the right, cheese selection on the left

Then we did some more walking, shopping, and (mainly Jean) photography-ing on this warm but beautiful day. And our joint flight back to Toronto and even the drive back to Waterloo all went very well.

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