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We headed north from Niagara Falls, following the western edge of Lake Ontario until we reached Toronto on the northern shore.
One of the distinctive features of the Toronto skyline was the spiky CN Tower:
At over 1/3 of a mile high, the Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world from 1975 to 2007. It still remains the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
Although the Tower was initially envisioned as just a telecommunications antenna, the designers added last minute features that transformed it into a tourist attraction. An exhibit at the Tower boasted that 2 million visitors come here each year. (From the crowds that were there during our visit, we believe it!)
Genevieve, Ben and Sebastian at the base of the tower:
Through the glass panels in the elevator floor, we watched the ground recede as we shot upwards at about 20 feet per second.
It took about 58 seconds to reach the main observation deck, which gave us a grand view of downtown Toronto.
The deck had an outdoor level, encased in a wire mesh, where you could feel the strength of the wind without worrying about falling over the rail.
A portion of the interior had a glass floor onto which you could walk—or I should say “creep.” Perhaps it was knowing that glass can break, or maybe it was the in-your-face realization of HOW HIGH UP we actually were, but I hesitated a few moments before stepping gingerly out and peering down:
Sebastian summoned his courage and crossed the glass floor by holding onto the wall:
Then he sat down on one of the panels, which still gave him something solid to press against and was less scary than standing:
About 33 floors above the main observation deck was another viewing area called the Skypod.
We paid extra to wait in line another half an hour and ride the Skypod elevator. It was worth every penny. The viewing area was smaller and less crowded. Here are Sebastian, Genevieve and Ben:
And the views . . . oh the views.
Looking to the west, over Lake Ontario:
To the east:
Far below was the railway station:
North, beyond the downtown area:
After soaking in our better-than-bird’s-eye view of Toronto, we spent the next two days exploring the city on foot and on bicycle.
Our hotel was in a renovated older building surrounded by offices in central downtown.
Our room was spacious, quiet, and clean, and the brick wall view didn’t bother us a bit.
Sebastian and Genevieve:
Our brick wall view:
The neighborhood around us had a beautiful blend of old and new structures.
Many of the older buildings had surprising touches, such as this sheep’s head:
Or this cattle skull:
The downtown streets also contained some fabulous public art.
On a corner of the Skydome stadium was “The Audience,” a sculpture by Canadian artist Michael Snow:
Across the street was “Mountain” by artist Anish Kapoor (whose work we had first come to know at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain two summers ago):
A bronze worker dressed in safety gear knelt near a monument dedicated to workers who had lost their lives on the job in Ontario.
(“The Anonymity of Prevention” by artists Derek Lo & Lana Winkler.)
In front of the railway station was "Monument to Multiculturalism" by artist Francesco Perilli:
Painted business people headed to and from work above the stairs near the RBC building:
A line of hockey players (“Our Game” by artist Edie Parker) were ready to join the action outside the Hockey Hall of Fame:
One of my favorites was the “Flatiron Mural” by artist Derek Besant, installed on the side of Toronto’s famous triangular Flatiron building:
One of the best ways to explore a city is via bicycles. We chose to do a bicycle tour in Toronto as a fun way to learn about our surroundings and to celebrate Sebastian’s 10th birthday.
We reached the start of our tour by taking a short ride on the city’s clean, swift, and fairly expensive metro system:
Starting out, Genevieve paused on University Avenue in front of a war monument that was topped by Nike, the goddess of Victory, holding a golden crown:
The city’s plan in the 1920’s had called for University Avenue to be lined with grand stone buildings. The Canada Life building was the first, and only, one completed before the Great Depression put an end to the project.
Nearby was Osgood Hall, built in the early 1800’s to house the high court of Upper Canada, which was then a British colony:
Toronto had long been a meeting place for the First Peoples. By the 1700’s, the Europeans had arrived, but Toronto was considered a backwater area until a flood of British were forced north after the U.S. Revolutionary War. These new residents were fiercely loyal to the British crown (King George), and a handful of powerful families formed the Family Compact to control Toronto, which they called “York.”
A short distance from Osgood Hall was Nathan Phillips Square, with fairly modern buildings and a large cement plaza that held a skating rink in the winter. Our guide Rick explained this area had once been “the Ward” for freed slaves and new immigrants, but the old buildings had been torn down in the 1960’s in order to modernize the city.
The old city hall with its Big Ben tower was still standing across the street from the Square:
We passed a hidden park and stopped beside the Church of Holy Trinity—famous for being one of the first outward manifestations of challenge to the authority of the Family Compact. The church founders broke completely with English traditions by being an egalitarian church that refused to impose pew taxes on worshippers. (This was a very big deal.)
Our route then ventured into the major shopping district and Dundas Square, which is sometimes referred to as Toronto’s version of Times Square.
In keeping with the spirit of commercialism, we headed to the financial district, with its stock exchange and tall banks:
In the middle of Commerce Court was an elephant sculpture called Tembo, Mother of Elephants, by artist Derrick Stephan Hudson:
Around the corner was another set of animals intended to remind Toronto of its agricultural roots—lounging cows in an artwork called “The Pasture” by artist Joe Fafard.
We pedaled into the historic district, where we saw the Flatiron Building from the front:
A block north was the old St. James Cathedral—the church that the Family Compact supported, where worshippers paid to sit in pews that reflected their status.
In the St. James Park was a bust of Robert Goulay, who was banished to the U.S. in 1819 because he had challenged the Family Compact
His writings, however, inspired a rebellion against the Family Compact in 1837. Although the British ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion, the Family Compact was crumbling. Britain was going through its own issues in the mid-1800’s, and the Family Compact lost its power source. Finally, on July 1, 1867, the country of Canada was formed.
We took a rest at St. Lawrence Market, which has been in existence in some form or another for over 200 years. This year it claimed the #1 spot in National Geographic’s list of “world’s best food markets.”
We wandered inside for a look and found a fine array of cheeses, baked items, fresh fruit, hot-from-the-oven bagels, pickled treats, and much more—including a creperie with the motto “Tastes like love without the heartache”:
We cycled further west to reach the Distillery District, where the Gooderham & Worts distillery once operated a thriving business in the late 1800’s.
After being sold to Seagram’s and undergoing many changes, the distillery finally shut down completely in 1990. The city wanted to raze the old buildings, but some developers saw potential and have now transformed it into an area full of art galleries, craft shops, cafés, boutiques, and gathering places for live music and events.
One courtyard was dominated by a large egg beater sculpture, called “Still Dancing” by artist Dennis Oppenheim:
As we looped back on our bike tour, we noticed that the skies ahead were growing dark:
Genevieve with Kristen, our bike tour assistant:
Just before the storm broke, we reached Sugar Beach—named after the adjacent sugar factory.
The storm was pretty ferocious, complete with strong wind, thunder and lightning.
We found a dry spot next to an office building with an overhang. As the lightning flashed across the sky, Genevieve glued her eyes onto the CN Tower, which gets hit by lightning about 75 times each year. The streaks came close but never made direct contact.
We ended up riding through the rain until we reached one of the entrances to the extensive underground tunnel system in Toronto, with paths and shops that connect many areas of the downtown together. After walking our bikes partway, we emerged and rode the rest of the way in the rain through the city traffic. We were drenched, but the rain merely added to the adventure of the day!
Our clothes dried off while we wandered through the Picasso exhibit at the Ontario Art Museum (Sebastian’s choice). The building was designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect who did the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bilbao, and we were fascinated to learn that Gehry grew up just a few blocks from here.
No photos were allowed inside the Museum, but here is the exterior:
Afterward, a (very) long walk through Toronto’s Chinatown brought us to Mother’s Dumplings, where we feasted on handmade dumplings, steamed red bean buns, fried green beans, and shrimp noodles. Yum.
On our way back to the subway, we stopped at a local playground:
Our time in Toronto was short, but we had covered a lot of ground and learned about Canada’s history—distinct from U.S. history, but with similar British colonial ties. Tomorrow we would be crossing the border into the Quebec province, where the people spoke French as their first language, and the culture would not only seem very different from that in U.S., but world's apart from that in Toronto.
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