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Despite Ottawa being the capital of Canada, I really didn’t know too much about it until our family’s visit there in August. (Otta . . . what?) In fact, our decision to go there was rather last minute, and prompted primarily by the intrigue of staying in hostel rooms that were once jail cells.
As in many cases where our expectations are low, Ottawa blew us away with its grand architecture, traditional ceremonies, fascinating museums, miles of bicycle paths, the beautiful Rideau Canal, and the strong cultural pride of its people.
Upon arriving in town, we checked into our jail hostel.
Sebastian, at the front door.
Constructed in 1862, the building served as the Carleton County Jail until 1972, when it was shut down because of inhumane living conditions. With a few renovations, it was reopened the next year as a youth hostel.
We had a private room on the 9th floor (no elevator), which was once the women’s section of the jail. The layout of our room was a skinny “L” shape, with two sets of bunk beds.
Our tiny window had been graced with a small air conditioner, but we could still look out over the nearby rooftops.
We had one of the top corner windows:
I must admit that our room wasn’t exactly “inviting.” In fact, it made me feel claustrophobic. But the hostel WAS a former jail, and I had selected it for the “experience,” not because I had read about how incredibly comfortable the beds were (which I hadn’t . . . and they weren’t).
However, staying here for a couple of nights was actually quite fascinating. The jail is supposed to be haunted, so we signed up for what we thought was the nightly “Haunted Tour,” in which a guide leads people through the jail with spine-tingling tales of ghosts and spirits that allegedly still linger and spook guests. Alas, we mistakenly ended up with tickets to the “Crime and Punishment Tour”, which focuses on the history of the jail, with only a couple of not-very-scary stories thrown into the mix.
Although we were disappointed, the history tour was still interesting. We learned that the jail had been created to curb the rampant crime in Ottawa, which didn’t have police until 1860 and had been considered one of the most dangerous towns in North America. Almost from the beginning, however, the jail earned a reputation for providing inadequate shelter, clothing and food. Conditions were harsh.
Here is our guide Elise talking about the small jail cells:
Inmates could spend up to 2 years in one of these:
Genevieve and Sebastian stepped inside and closed the door:
The prisoners who weren’t in solitary confinement spent 12 hours each day locked OUT of their cells, then 12 hours locked inside their cells at night with no light and no talking allowed. The 3-person cells had curved ceilings that were designed to magnify sounds so that the guards could hear voices or other noises.
One of the cells had a display of prisoner items along the back wall:
Only three hangings took place at the jail, the last occurring in 1946. We climbed the stairs to the gallows, where a noose was dangling above a trap door.
Given the amount of tossing and turning I did at night, perhaps it was a good thing after all that we didn’t hear stories about spirits that haunted guests in the dark!
The best feature of the hostel was its location—in the heart of the city and within walking distance to many great sites. The next morning, Genevieve and I set out for Parliament Hill, about 10 minutes away. We had heard there was a “changing of the guard” every morning. As we hurried along the main street, thinking that we were late, we heard some music getting louder and louder. What great timing! It was the marching band accompanying the new guards:
Canada’s roots as a British colony were very apparent, with the fuzzy hats!
The band led the new guards to the large field on Parliament Hill:
What happened next was a convoluted charade of an inspection, done with some humor and much drama, in which an officer went down the rows of new guards checking and double-checking their uniforms and guns with great care. Just when we thought it was over, the inspector would start at the beginning again, finding something new to check.
Here is the inspector on the far left peering into the rifle end of one of the new guards:
We thought that the new guards would stay here at the end, and the old guards would leave—hence, a “changing” of the guards. But after the ceremony, the vast majority of new guards joined the old guards and they all marched away together.
A few stayed around for photo ops with the tourists.
Unlike the purportedly stern guards in England, most of these guards were smiling at people and talking. Genevieve’s guard, however, was a man of few words (or smiles):
Near Parliament Hill was a bridge that crossed over the Ottawa River and spanned the provinces of Ontario and Quebec:
Sebastian and I made the short trek to the other side to reach Canada’s national museum of social and human history—the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Looking toward the Museum from the bridge:
Looking back at Parliament Hill:
The Museum front:
Inside the Museum were grand exhibits that filled four floors. Sebastian's favorite area was the First People’s Hall on the main floor, which showcased the culture, diversity and contributions of Canada’s First Peoples.
The Grand Hall was tall enough for totem poles from western Canada:
Near the back was a marvelous plaster sculpture called “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” by artist Bill Reid:
In the dome above the spiral stairway leading to other exhibits was a mesmerizing painting called “Morning Star” by Native Canadian artist Alex Janvier and his son Dean:
My favorite area was the Canada Hall, which ran the length of the 3rd floor. There, we walked through a series of displays and interactive dioramas that depicted 1000 years of Canadian history—with scenes that included a Norse landing in Newfoundland in 1000 A.D., a whaling station from the 1500’s, a New France farmhouse from the 17th century, a recreated school room, a shipyard from the 1800’s, and more. Here is a layout of the town of Govan, Saskatchewan in the early 1900’s, when the railroad was a vital connector for communities:
Sebastian also enjoyed the Children’s Museum on the 2nd floor, which included many exhibits that were engaging and fun.
Here is Sebastian on the colorful Pakistani bus:
He also waited a long time for his turn to operate a ship crane and “unload” some cargo:
One could easily spend all day at this fantastic museum. I know a lot of travelers who love to declare (quite proudly) that they “are not museum types.” Whatever that term means, surely they might change their minds if they visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as well as other glorious treasure troves containing the word “museum” that our family has explored during our travels.
One of the outdoor highlights in Ottawa was a family bike ride along part of the Rideau Canal, which holds the distinction of being the oldest canal in North America to operate as a waterway without interruption since it opened in 1832.
The Canal stretches 126 miles south to Lake Ontario through a series of lakes and rivers. It was originally planned by the British as a means to move troops and supplies more easily during territorial conflicts with the U.S. Most of the original structures—canal walls, lock gates, dams, and supportive buildings—are still intact, and the canal has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We rode along the side of the canal, leaving the city behind.
About 4 miles later, we reached the Hog’s Back Locks, where we stopped to watch several boats transition from a higher water level to a lower one.
The canal operators first stopped traffic on a road bridge, which was then rotated to allow boats to enter the lock area.
The road bridge, before rotation:
Here is the first boat entering:
The boats then moved forward and tied up near the front lock gate.
A man on each side of the canal then turned an old-fashioned hand-crank on a winch to close the rear lock gate behind the boats:
Water was then released through the front gate to drop the level under the boats:
The boats gradually sank beneath the canal wall:
We could see the change in water level by looking at the rear lock gate:
The two gate operators then cranked the handles next to the front lock gate to open it and allow the boats to continue down the canal toward Ottawa:
This section of the canal branched off the natural Rideau River, and solved the problem of how to navigate around the Hog's Back Falls and deal with the substantial drop in water level between this spot and the city of Ottawa.
The construction of the canal and a dam destroyed the natural shape of the falls--its width, water flow, and course were all altered. The remaining falls were not exactly impressive in size or beauty, but they were still pleasant:
In the park beside the falls, we spied some Live-Action-Role-Playing (aka “Larping”), an interactive game in which players assume roles in a fictional world with specific rules that allow players to earn points and rise in rank.
Ken Walker, who was playing the role of a “Druid,” crossed the street and introduced himself, explaining that his group, the Felfrost Club, has been meeting here every Sunday for about 5 years.
Ben and Ken:
After watching a bit more sparring, we rode back to the locks area and crossed the canal by walking our bikes over one of the lock gates:
We then zig-zagged our way through the Central Experimental Farm, which was created in 1886 as a research station for the Department of Agriculture, and still functions as a site for discovering improved varieties of barley, corn, oats, soybeans and wheat.
Slightly off-track, although never truly lost, we rode through residential neighborhoods until we reached the Ottawa River, and then looped back toward the city. Along a stretch of fast moving water known as Remic Rapids we were treated to a grand display of balanced rock sculptures:
The artist John Félice Ceprano, in the reddish shirt below, has been coming here since 1986, creating new rock art each year as many of his creations are destroyed during the winter when the river rises and then freezes:
After finishing our bike route, we walked through the nearby local market and food shops in search of lunch.
An indoor area called Moulin de Provence had a great delicatessen where we enjoyed several meals during our stay in Ottawa; the food was tasty and affordable.
The deli owners were very proud of the fact that President Obama had purchased some items here during his official visit to Ottawa in 2009:
Perhaps the President’s white bag (above) contained one of these treats:
In the market area, we happened upon some members of the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, who told us that they were performing this evening in Fortissimo—an annual military and musical event on Parliament Hill featuring bands of the Canadian Forces and invited guest countries.
Later that evening, there we were, feeling waves of patriotism as we watched the men and women of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps performing in front of Canada’s Parliament buildings.
The musicians in the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps carry on the traditions of those in the U.S. Continental Army during the American Revolution. The uniforms were modeled after those worn in 1781—black tricorn hats, white wigs, waistcoats, and red coats.
I must admit that I was surprised at the red uniforms, which we generally associate with British “Red Coats.” However, it was the custom for military musicians of that time to wear the reverse colors of their army units.
Also performing at the Fortissimo was the Colonial Williamsburg Fife & Drums, made up of high school students:
Here are the Canadian Ceremonial Guard Fifers and Drummers, in their kilts:
And all the way from Europe was the German Forces Elite Drill Team:
After performing, the U.S. Army musicians mingled with the Canadians for a photo shoot:
And they were happy to accommodate our request for a photo with Sebastian:
During the musical performance, the sky was putting on a brilliant light show:
On our last night in Ottawa, we returned to Parliament Hill for another kind of sound and light show called “Mosaika,” a production that told the story of Canada from different perspectives. After our dismal experience with the much-touted sound and light show in Montreal, we were a bit skeptical of the language such as “powerful” and “unforgettable” used in the promotional materials for Mosaika.
We shouldn’t have been, however, because the show was everything promised. The visual imagery was undeniably spectacular, with pictures and colorful lights projected onto the Parliament building in perfect alignment:
But the storytelling was even better.
We had experienced many places in Canada this summer traveling through the east, and many more places last summer while driving through Canada’s western territories. The Mosaika show managed to weave all of those places together with the voices of people from different ethnicities who spoke with pride about being Canadian—people who were born here or immigrated because they wanted to enjoy the benefits and freedoms of living in such an amazing country.
Adding to all of my personal experiences of Canada, the Mosaika show acted like a ferocious wind that blew away any remaining misperceptions. For the first time, I could clearly perceive and understand the strength and appeal of Canada as a culturally rich country that is distinctly unique from the United States.
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