Sunday, May 07, 2006

Seen from a tall building: train 1

While drinking and rotating, I noticed the other 'Canadian', train 1, which arrived in Winnipeg a little late at about 1645. It hung around for about forty-five minutes before heading west. It would be in Edmonton by the next morning.

Winnipeg: Royal Crown Tower

As I leave the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the humid air that had accompanied me all morning is beginning to break. A shop front thermometer had told me that it touched 26 degrees today, and the humidity suggested a thunderstorm would be brewing. Sure enough, as I walk towards the Manitoba Legislative Building, rumbles of thunder start to be heard. I begin to be able to perceive the light sky flashing to a strike of lightning. Looking around for shelter, my eyes fix on a target - not exactly close, but a good place to shelter from the approaching storm.

As I walk down York Avenue, a roll of thunder shook the street, and sets off a car alarm. I quicken my pace, and head straight for my destination - the recognisable silhouette of that compulsory feature of every major Canadian cityscape: a revolving restaurant.

Thirty storeys above Winnipeg, you can find the Royal Crown Rotating Restaurant and Lounge on top of the Royal Crown tower. It's just behind the Fort Garry Hotel, off Broadway Avenue. I find the entrance and take the elevator straight up. The lounge is quiet, with just an eldery couple taking afternoon tea. For such a modern building, the decor was somewhat.... er.... confusing. Fake embroidered tapestry fabric on chairs that I used to see brought in in bulk for weddings back home; cheap looking chandeliers hanging above the tables; and to set it all off, a strip of lace curtain lining the top of the panoramic windows.

Someone shoot the interior designer...

But that's not what I'm here for. I take a seat, ordered a beer, and begin to rotate. The storm's heart passes to the south and east of the city centre. I do two full rotations, watching the grey clouds thicken and then disperse, watching clouds of rain fall onto the city's suburbs. I'm drinking a bottle of local ale - Fort Garry Dark Ale to be precise. It's always a pleasure to drink a local brew when visiting a new city.

The waitress tries to interest me in the menu, but I'm not hungry. I stay for an hour or so, waiting for the weather to calm. It's on my second rotation that I notice the west bound 'Canadian' has arrived at the station below me. I take a few fuzzy photographs of it below me, and imagine a couple of well to do retired holiday makers looking up, and making some witty remark about how every Canadian city seems to have a revolving restaurant.

When the rain clears, I pay the small bill and head downstairs. $4.75 is a bit steep, but then you I did get a pretty decent view with it.

Winnipeg: traffic control

Winnipeg: WAG

It pains me to report that Winnipeg Art Gallery has gone the way of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (ROM) and the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and picked up the moniker WAG. I think that along with striking architecture, all museums in Canada feel the need to make their identity felt with a single syllable three letter nickname.

However, having been unable to get into DAM, and been disappointed with the direction of the new extension of ROM, I'm pleased to find myself in Winnipeg when the WAG is open. It opened in it's current form in 1971, in an attractive modern stone building designed by Gustavo da Roza. The skin of the building is more or less entirely sheethed in stone, but's a beautifully patterned skin of Manitoba Tyndell stone, which features a wafting patten that is a joy to get lost in.

$4 gets you student admission, and it was worth every penny. There was a forgetable exhibition of contemporary art by the young radicals of Winnipeg's art scene, but the main collection of principally Canadian art was impressive. There's also a stunning collection of Inuit art, including dozens of beautiful soapstone and ivory carvings. The collection here is one of the largest of it's kind, and is well worth exploring.

A temporary show of prints by the Aboriginal/Manitoban artists Daphne Oajig also caught my eye, with beautifully bright and flowing images representing Inuit scenes and family groupings. The 'love' sequence was particularly touching.

I find that even if I limit myself to one gallery a day, there comes a mid-point when I need to rest. This was amply catered for by the attractive side rooms that are furnished with comfy chairs facing large picture windows onto the street. This gallery is well worth an afternoon of your time, and on this peaceful Sunday I thoroughly enjoyed the collection that was display.

Winnipeg: James is impressed

Shock of the month, folks, James quite likes Winnipeg. I'd known for some time that an eight hour layover would be in the itinerary to connect from the 'Canadian' to the 'Hudson Bay'. I'd no idea, however, that I'd be left feeling I wanted more time in the Manitoban city.

From the centrally located and rather attractive old railway station (see photo above) to the compact downtown core, I was rather taken aback. Since I didn't have any preconceptions of what the city would be like, I was happy to explore on foot and just sniff out whatever looked interesting.

Unsurprisingly for a Sunday morning, the city was pretty quiet. I strode west from the railway station's imposing facade, down the treelined Broadway Avenue. A small and mostly-in-step sea cadet parade was approaching, and turned down a side street as I neared. I can't imagine what it must be like being a naval cadet so far from the ocean. I turned and headed north, criss-crossing Portage Avenue, which is where the Trans-Canada highway enters the city and turns into a major shopping street. North of Portage things begin to get interesting. This part of town is called the Exchange District, and it's responsible for Winnipeg's affectionate nickname as the 'Chicago of the North'. Sturdy and attractive old warehouses are crammed along the narrow streets, and if it were just a little busier, it could easily be mistaken for the Windy City. I'm told that a number of American films are being shot on location here, because these streets can be dressed very easily to look like a turn of the century city.

And the signs are positive. There are more low rent arts spaces (such as the imaginatively titled 'Artspace' warehouse) than there are fancy boutiques. While there are a few new condominium developments creeping, they seem to be limited to sensitive redevelopments of the existing ex-industrial buildings. It's an extremely attractive place, and I apologise to all Manitobans for underestimating how much I would like the place.

I meander, pausing to consider visiting the Maintoba Museum. I decide against it, simply because I want to visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and feel that two museums in one day is pushing it.

I skirt alongside the Red River where it's tree lined banks come close to Chinatown, and then turn back towards downtown to head to the art gallery at the other end of town. The 'Best of Winnipeg' supplement in a free newspaper catches my eye while I have a snack outside an Exchange District cafe, and I drop into a jeans store on Portage to see if it really is the 'best place to buy jeans in Winnipeg'. The choice is too wide to be helpful, and I take note that they now have a store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I shall postpone any denim related purchases until I have my fashion advisor with me...

Train 2: Winnipeg, Manitoba

Train 2: Into Manitoba

I'm awake at about 0700hr. It's a bright sunny day, and we're rolling towards the border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The scenery begins flat... completely, unadulteratedly, unblinkingly, perfectly flat. Albertans seem quick to point out that if you think their province is flat, you should go east for a while. They have a point.

We cross into Manitoba, and the train begins to follow an attractive river valley. With the sun above us, the dome car nice and quiet, and the conversation on board more developed that 'so, where are you going then?', it's a nice morning to be on the train. With the trees and bushes coming into leaf and still marshland water reflecting a blue blue sky, it's a beautiful day.

My Vancouverite travel companion sleeps solidly. She appears to have found the perfect position for sleeping on a pair of VIA Rail coach class seats, because she doesn't wake before we reach Winnipeg around midday. I scribble her a note, wishing her a good trip, and get my things together to leave the train once more.

Train 2: Saskatchewan

Train 2: the second night on board

As darkness settles over Alberta, our train maintains it's speed across the prairies. The engine horn is still sounding every few seconds, and the nocturnal rhythm is returning to the train.

I talk some more with the girl sitting in front of me who is going to Quebec. It's fun to talk with a west coast Canadian about the prairies and what she's looking forward to seeing in Quebec. Montreal seems a long way away to me right now. Not so much in terms of distance, but it terms of culture and memories. It feels like a lifetime since I was last there, even though it's only a few weeks. It will be strange to return next weekend, when I make a brief stop en route to Halifax.

My cunning headphone splitter plug (a great tool for making friends and exploring other people's iPods on train trips) allows me to enjoy some excellent reggae. I get a hot chocolate from the take out counter in the Skyline dome, and on the way say hello to Jenny and Sally, the two Yorkshirewomen I met a few days earlier (they'd got off the train in Jasper and spent a few days there).

I return to my seat, enjoy some more reggae, and then curl up to sleep.

Train 2: the Canadian (part 2)

I'm getting back on board VIA's flagship service, the 'Canadian', and it'll be carrying me overnight from Edmonton to Winnipeg. This time I don't need to do any platform exercises to bring you the elegant sounding list of cars that make up our train; there's a magnetic board in the station which lists the long make-up of our train:

Locomotive, locomotive, locomotive, baggage car, coach, coach (that's me again), Skyline dome, Cabot Manor, Bliss Manor, Oscar Manor, Skyline dome, Imperial (restaurant), Wolfe Manor, Cameron Manor, Bell Manor, Chateau Jolliet, Chateau Cadillac, Chateau Richelieu, Skyline dome, Emerald (restaurant), Craig Manor, Christie Manor, Rogers Manor and Tweedsmuir Park car.

At every major stop, the population of the coach cars changes dramatically. As I board I spot the nervous looks on the remaining passengers, hoping to get a good bunch of new companions on the train. I sit down just a row behind where I sat on the last train, and watch as others board. The coach attendant warns that it may be necessary to sit more than one person on each pair of seats, and we all reluctantly (and as slowly as possible) re-arrange our possessions to be ready to share our precious space. But it soon looks like everyone is on board, and shortly after, the train begins to pull forward. I start talking to the the girl in front of me (a Vancouverite who is going to Quebec for a five week language course) that I am not sure whether I should be pleased or offended that no-one wanted to sit next to me...

I am happy to be back on the train. I have had a very relaxing few days break in Alberta, and have met many old friends it pains me to leave behind. The Albertan hospitality that first touched me four years ago is alive and well, and I have not been able to leave without a bag of food which will make the next day or two much more cost effective. I settle down into my comfy green chair, recline the seat back and lift up the leg supports. We're beginning to pick up speed over the prairies that just yesterday, we were exploring by car. Leaving the city, the engine's horn is almost constant, as we cross dozens of paved and unpaved roads, which divide the prairies up into their neat quarter-mile section fields.

The sun descends in the west, and I am content. I still have no desire to live in this part of Canada. But the landscape sooths me as we roll past. It is understandable, and I think that is why I miss the prairies so much when I am not there. Although intensively farmed, I can see the history of the landscape in what is extant on the ground. It's a tough, modest, but very honest place.