As my husband plunked himself down on his seat on Via Rail, he had the broadest smile I’ve seen in years. He loves trains equal to his dislike with the line ups at airports. Besides, as he quickly mentioned, he also can take the tucked away table, place his books and papers on it and get down to finishing up work he would have done this weekend had I not convinced him (no big arm twisting here) to visit Ottawa.
For him not only is the passing scenery from ‘uber’ urban to Scarborough than the more traditional Trenton and rural Ontario areas with stops at iconic historic cities like Belleville Kingston and Brockville, this is the type of getaway he adores. But then so do I.
I am a self proclaimed train aficionado. I’ve taken every sort of train..the snail paced Toy Train up the Himalayas in India, the always on time, rapid rail in Switzerland, another in Peru where as we ate, a trio played typical Peruvian music, the exquisite hand carved wood paneled cars of the Eastern and Oriental Express from Bangkok and the Rovos Rail in South Africa when the trip ended with a red carpet welcome and a glass of champagne. So rails also fascinate me.
Although from Toronto, Via Rail’s first train is very early with no time for even a cup of coffee, when on board, breakfast was served by a most competent and friendly staff and the food was surprisingly good -a quiche -like tart of eggs, feta cheese and mushrooms along with a dish of fresh fruit and terrific coffee. Why would anyone going to Ottawa want to take any other means of transportation?
I felt fate had a great hand in this trip since from the moment we checked into the monumental fortress- like, beautifully stone Fairmont Chateau Laurier, I knew immediately that this too, would be very special. The hotel’s history goes back to 1912 with a list of dignitaries and celebrities over the decades. And if only the walls could talk!!! One of the great tales is that an underground tunnel was linked to the Parliament buildings by a steam pipe tunnel. Now, of course, it is secured and locked. I then didn’t have to ponder over how prices have changed in this century. It’s difficult to think that rooms were only $2 then.
Another great but more contemporary story has special meaning for me. A decade ago, while I was covering in my capacity as social writer, I was invited to an event in Ottawa where I met the renowned photographer, Yousuf Karsh and his stunning wife Estrellita. I asked if I could photograph the world famous photographer and so as I say, “I Karshed Karsh”. Their connection with the Fairmont Chateau Laurier is a tale of great importance. They lived on the 4th floor in an apartment for 18 years while Karsh’s studio was on the 6th floor where some of the most fascinating and important powerful people were photographed.
The 4th floor or as it’s now known Gold/Or Executive Floor, with its born to the manor living room, is how a chateau’s Lounge room should look with a special concierge service that seems to manage every request. One of the great extras is that in this comfortable setting and great vista, a fine and full buffet breakfast is served and then in late afternoon, hors d’ouvres and drinks and, like the London’s Ritz Hotel, it’s a tradition to have a true English tea.( This impressed our American guests}. However, at breakfast, it was déjà vu. Sitting in a discreet corner was the still stunning and ultra elegant Mrs. Karsh. She returns to this home away from home every year from Boston where she now resides, to recognize the death of her famed husband and to thank the staff who cared for the Karshs’ needs. She is a celebrated and most cherished guest. We chatted and although she’s back in the USA, this hotel, she told me, was still “home” since she lived here for almost 40 years and her attachment to it and the staff was obvious.
Yes, the Chateau really does deserve the accolades with its fine service, grand rooms, and the Reading Lounge where there are many signed portraits by Karsh which were gifted to the hotel in 1998.
Another good reason to go to Ottawa when we did, was to see the Caravaggio exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada (the exhibit is only on until Sept 11th, 2011). Ottawa is filled with magnificent buildings from another era and now filling the skyline are marvelous contemporary edifices like this splendid architecture treasure.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an artist who was considered a radical in the 1500s, had a profound effect on art of his day. His masterpieces are a marvel to view and he is considered one of the greatest artists ever. Although he was somewhat of a rogue with a violent temper, too much pride and had actually killed someone thus forcing him to flee Rome, this temperamental artist saw a new way of viewing the world and left a major impact through his art with his dashes of shading and light. Although there are only a dozen Caravaggio canvases on exhibit, more than 40 outstanding canvases painted by his followers are part of the exhibition.
There are many more reasons to visit this capital city where the Rideau Canal is filled with yachts during the summer months while in winter it becomes a skating rink and looks like a Breughel painting. Watching the yachts navigate the locks, The Byward market and their wonderful fruit and veggie stalls, outdoor cafes, so many historic sites that are evocative for historians, the incredibly wonderful Parliament Building, all enough to make us consider revisiting and doing it all over again and then there’s Via Rail, Chateau Laurier, the National Gallery. All aborad and encore, encore.