Travels & Traditions: Ottawa, Canada - #211

BURT WOLF: Ottawa is the capital city of Canada. Set at the point where the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers come together, it's been a trading center for hundreds of years. In the beginning it was the Native American tribes trading with each other and the French fur trappers. These days it's government trading with lobbyists and other governments.

But Ottawa is also Canada's cultural center, with some of the finest museums in North America. It has a cosmopolitan outlook, with good food, interesting architecture, and over 60 annual festivals to attract tourists.

So please join me, Burt Wolf, for Travels & Traditions in Ottawa, Canada.

A good way to start a visit to Ottawa is to a take a boat ride. Each day Paul's Boat lines runs tours along the Rideau Canal in the Ottawa River. The canal represents the heart of Ottawa, and in fact Ottawa was in part founded because of the canal. During the British-American War of 1812 the British realized that the St. Lawrence River, which was the vital link between Montreal and the Great Lakes, could easily be taken by the Americans, and that would cut off the supply lines to their western settlements.

So in 1826, Lieutenant Colonel John By and his troops carved a 125-mile canal as an alternative waterway that could be used to bring British warships to the area. It was never used by the military, but it was a great help to the lumber industry, and that brought money into the neighborhood and gave the city a shot at becoming the capital of the nation.

It is a system of natural lakes and rivers made navigable by locks and dams. And it is a popular attraction for residents and visitors. The rivers, lakes, and the canal have different water levels. Boats are brought into the lock and locked off from the rest of the canal by a series of giant doors. And the water level is either raised or lowered so the vessel can continue its journey.

The portion of the canal that runs through Ottawa takes you through some of the most beautiful parts of the city. The land along side the canal is a long narrow park used by walkers, joggers, and bikers.

There's also a second boat tour that runs along the river, more beautiful views of the city, and a brief stop at the foot at the falls.

Ottawa is one of the world's coolest capital cities. Cool because the people have a great attitude and because for much of the winter the temperature is below freezing. During the winter the canal freezes over and becomes the world's longest skating rink ... four and a half miles from one end to the other. Every day hundreds of residents and tourists turn out for a little sport, and for some people it's even the chosen mode for commuting. If you live near the canal you can just slip on your skates and slide off to town. Winter sports are very much part of Canada's history, and so are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program called Sergeant Preston Of The Mounties, who with his lead dog King (BARKING) kept me out of my mother's hair for a full half hour each week. Today Sergeant Preston's men are called The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Corporal Jerry McCarty is an equestrian instructor with the Mounties.

JERRY McCARTY ON CAMERA: Well, in 1873 on a decree by the then prime minister, Sir John A. McDonald, the Northwest Mountain Police were created to quell the whisky trade in Western Canada that was coming up from the Western United States at that time into what was then known as the Northwest Territories.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Did they quell the liquor trade?

JERRY McCARTY ON CAMERA: Yeah, they did. Yeah, they shut it right down to where we even have dry counties out there now.

INSTRUCTOR ON CAMERA: Push, take and give.

JERRY McCARTY: We're at the home of the musical ride, which might be considered the last bastion of horses within the ... the Royal Canadian Mountain Police. Since the last patrol on horseback by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police was done in 1939, the musical ride is a ceremonial troop which does cavalry maneuvers on horses and travels throughout the world doing such a job.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police Musical Ride (APPLAUSE)

JERRY McCARTY: The musical ride kind of came about as a way to entertain the people that were out there on detachment. And once they got the whiskey trade slowed down, well, there was a bunch of people standing around there and a bunch of guys that said "Well, we might as well entertain outside a little bit." And they started doing some calvary movements, and pretty soon they had some of the local settlers were watching them. And they said "Heck, we can entertain people with this. So why don't we do the odd little performance, maybe at a church picnic or a local picnic of some sort." Today we do the prime policing in eight of the ten provinces. We do all the federal policing, which takes care of customs, drugs, organized crime, intelligence, etcetera, for all of Canada. And we work very closely with a whole lot of agencies throughout the world.

BURT WOLF: A prominent element in the capital skyline is the glass turreted National Gallery of Canada, designed by Moshe Safdie and built in 1988. This is home to the world's largest collection of Canadian art, as well as important European and American collections. But it is also an extremely unusual building. Wayne Smith took me on a tour.

WAYNE SMITH: We started building this institution in 1984, and we competed it in 1988. Well, this is called the colonnade. It's 278 feet long, it's 62 feet high, and it rises at a five and a half percent incline. Safdie designed it in such a way to lift you above the city, or to the middle of the city, and to basically prepare you to be elevated by great works of art as well. Now, this is the great hall of The National Gallery. It's over 140 feet high. And, again, the great hall echoes the architecture of the city.

BURT WOLF: Just off the great hall is the great collection of Canadian art.

WAYNE SMITH: And the first thing you notice when you come into the room besides the great art is the incredible light that we have. The rooms are 25 feet high, we have these beveled ceilings, and the light is carried down into this area, filtered through the screens, down the bevels, and onto the works of art. So you can have natural light on these works without destroying them.

Now, we house the largest collection of Canadian art in Canada. We have more than 3,700 works on display throughout the museum, and we have about 32,000 works in storage as well. Now, this work that we're working at now is by Tom Thompson, and he was one of the fathers of a group of artists in Canada known as the group of seven. And these artists were not interested in painting realism, but giving you a feeling for the land. So when you look at the surface of the painting, it's very thick, rough, and garish, but so is the landscape that they are depicting.

This is the garden court of The National Gallery of Canada. And Ottawa can be quite cold in the wintertime, so we like to come into this space and be reminded of spring. Now, the space is incredible because Safdie has taken his inspiration from the cloisters that one would find in Europe. And one of the beautiful things with the arcade is that you'll notice it doesn't go up the second level of the museum. So when you're standing upstairs in the galleries of the European collection and you look down, this becomes a frame for the garden itself and the garden becomes a work of art.

This is the water court of The National Gallery, and it's another area to sit down and relax and they have beautiful works of Canadian sculpture around us. And underneath this very thick glass down below we have the group tour lobby of the museum, and there's a mirrored tile on the floor. So when sun comes through the dome, it reflects through the moving water, down to the mirrors, and back up again. So it creates the illusion that anyone walking underneath this glass is like a fish moving underneath the water.

BURT WOLF: Another extraordinary museum that you should not miss is The Canadian Museum Of Civilization. Douglas Cardinal, of Alberta, a native American from the Metis Tribe, was responsible for the architectural plan. There are two buildings. One was designed to represent the Canadian shield, which is the rock formation beneath Canada, and the other represents the nation's glacial period.

The museum is dedicated to the history of Canada's cultural groups. The main hall contains the most extensive collection of totem poles in the world. Each area was developed in conjunction with a particular native tribe, and each tribe decided which objects to include in their exhibition. The museum also houses The Canadian Hall which represents 1,000 years of Canadian history.

And then there's the place where I'm going to bring my grandson, the Canadian Children's Museum. The kids get a passport and travel through exhibitions that represent various nations around the world. They see the kinds of toys children play with in other countries and the foods they eat. They learn how to count different monies and visit mini versions of the national treasures of other nations. The Children's Museum is about teaching, and it does an excellent job.

BURT WOLF: Ottawa's interest in outstanding architecture is clearly evidenced in its 20th century museums. But the city's desire to have buildings of architectural interest goes back to the 1800s. This is The Cathedral of Notre Dame, the oldest church in the city and the seat of the city's Roman Catholic archbishop. Father Kevin Beach is the rector.

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: The construction of the cathedral began in the 1830s. But as we see it's finished ... its finished appearance today. It was basically a project of 40 years. The interior construction, the interior decoration was done in the 1800s.

BURT WOLF: Now, those are not really marble.

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: No, they're not. It's very much a church that has been built with the materials of the region. What it is is the basic construction of the whole cathedral is wood, so these are the huge pines that are the basic columns of the cathedral. And then to give this false marble, the faux marble effect, what they did is put a thin coat of plaster on and then painted it to give the impression of marble. So the basic story here in the sanctuary is the ... is the history of salvation. So we go right through ... begin with Adam, and opposite is Abel. And then you get into Abraham, the father in faith, and then into the patriarchs and the prophets. So we have the Old Testament to start with. And then as we go towards what would be the representational sanctuary is that is the representation of the heavenly assembly in the context in the Christian context, obviously. That at the center of the center of the heavenly assembly would be would be Jesus Christ. And then as we get further into the sanctuary the statues on the side become the apostles and the evangelists.

BURT WOLF: All carved in wood.

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: All these ... the large statues are wood.

BURT WOLF: And they look marble. How do you decide the size of the saints?

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: (Laughs) Well, it depends if they're patrons, right? I mean, why did some get chosen and the others not? Well ...

BURT WOLF: At the same time this is quite big. And St. Francis is not doing particularly well here. And St. Dominick also.

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: You'd have to go back to the original designer of the interior decoration. But the basic thing, in terms of the large statues ... where these are the principal figures of the New Testament, the apostles and the evangelists ... on the left you have St. Patrick ...


FATHER KEVIN BEACH: And on the right you have St. the Baptist.

BURT WOLF: The Irish and the French.

FATHER KEVIN BEACH: And the French Canadians, right. So the ... the ... the two largest statues in the sanctuary are the patrons of the Irish and the French Canadians. So it's very much a cathedral that's rooted not only in heaven but on earth, and in the Ottawa reality of the time. Those are basically the two founding communities of the Catholic church in the Ottawa area.

BURT WOLF: While I was in Ottawa I stayed at the Chateau Laurier, which is a Canadian Pacific Hotel, and part of the Fairmont Hotel and Resort Group. Located between Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, it was built in 1912 in the chateau style by Charles Hays, the president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Hays’ passion for detail sent him to London to purchase furniture for the hotel. Unfortunately, his travel agent booked his return trip on the Titanic. Nevertheless, the hotel opened and quickly became a social center for the capital. Elegant public rooms with high ceilings and spacious accommodations ... this is the way they built grand hotels at the beginning of the 20th century. Just to the right of the lobby as you come in is a beautiful lounge called Zoe's, where they make a perfect dry martini. But if dry isn't your thing, you can get wet in the hotel's Art Deco swimming pool.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hotels are always giving me lists of famous people who stayed there. And I never understand that. What difference could it make to me if the king of Lower Volta stayed in the Captain Spalding Suite. Usually the only thing they left behind was an unpaid bill. Not so at the Chateau Laurier. They had a famous guest that stayed here for 18 years and left stuff behind that we can all enjoy.

BURT WOLF: His name is Yousef Karsh, and he is one of the world's most famous portrait photographers. A number of his photographs hang here in the chateau. He was born of Armenian parents in 1908 in Turkey. At the age of 16 he emigrated to Canada and apprenticed to his uncle who was a photographer in Quebec. In 1935 he was appointed the official portrait photographer of the Canadian Government.

His most famous portrait is probably the one he took of Sir Winston Churchill in 1941. It became the symbol of Britain's wartime determination. Karsh went on to photograph many of the world's most famous people ... Georgia O'Keefe, Albert Einstein, Pablo Casals, and hundreds of others. Karsh's style as a portraitist was very structured. He used subtle lighting to shape his subjects in ways that idealized their image.

And now it's time to get a picture of what's cooking in Ottawa. Not all of the art at the National Arts Center is on stage. The cafe that's set on the banks of the Rideau Canal and has a great view to dine by. The cafe specializes in the use of Canadian raw materials, and the food is considered to be some of the best in Canada. We started with the chilled soup made from a blend of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and fresh basil. The main course was sea farmed Atlantic salmon, lightly smoked and baked on a plank. And for dessert, maple sugar pecan pie with ice cream.

We also had an excellent meal at the Cafe Henry Berger. It's one of the region's oldest and most respected restaurants. The owner, Robert Bourassa, presents a traditional French approach, with excellent ambience, food, and service. I started with smoked black Pacific cod on a bed of crisp ratatouille. The main course was a duck confit with roasted potatoes. And for dessert, a cornucopia with seasonal berries and chantilly cream.

A 15-minute drive into the countryside from downtown Ottawa will bring you to the beautiful Gatineau Park and the restaurant L’Orée du Bois, which means at the edge of the woods. And that is a perfect description of this restaurant, which has been built into a 100-year-old farmhouse. The restaurant features the regional dishes of the area, with ingredients that are grown or produced locally. To start with we had a mixed salad with goat cheese and purpose basil vinaigrette. The main course was medallions of caribou with berries. And for dessert, strawberries in puff pastry with Grand Marnier.

BURT WOLF: Our favorite pub was D’Arcy McGee's. Jeff O'Reilly has been the manager of this place since it opened, and he explained the story behind the name.

JEFF O’REILLY ON CAMERA: Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a founding father of Canadian Confederation. He was an Irish politician who was exiled, eventually ending up in Canada, became the minister of agriculture in Montreal. He was a famous author, poet, drinker, and renowned for speaking his mind.

JEFF O’REILLY: This pub was designed and hand-crafted in Wexford in the south of Ireland, where it was brought over in a ship and ... and suited to the pub. We've maintained the ... the integrity of the building. And we've got some really unique features. We've got handcrafted wood, we've got etched and stained glass, a mosaic tile floor. Beautiful, beautiful pub. We sell an awful lot of Guinness, which is a stout from Ireland. And what we'll do is we'll put shamrock on the top before we release it. It's a beautiful presentation.

BURT WOLF: On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights they have live music. Truly a wee bit of Ireland come over to Ottawa.

Tonight's band is the Searsons.

But the most popular band in town plays a very different tune.

Every morning between late June and the end of August, at ten a.m., soldiers in full dress march through the town to Parliament Hill and change places with the previous guard. Military music, royal ritual, echo of the empire.

BURT WOLF: Well, that's a brief look at Ottawa, one of Canada's best kept secrets. It has a small-town heart, but a sophisticated spirit. Beautiful scenery, excellent museums, interesting architecture, good food, and lots of tradition. I hope you've enjoyed this visit and that you will visit with us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I'm Burt Wolf.