Saturday, 4 September 2010

Victoria 2010

His spirit grew restless and, selling all his effects, he brought his wife and two small daughters out to the new world. Round the Horn they came again, and up, up, up the west coast of America till they came to the most English-tasting bit of all Canada - Victoria on the south end of Vancouver Island, which was then a Crown Colony.

Father stood still, torn by his loyalty to the Old Land and his delight in the New. He saw that nearly all the people in Victoria were English and smiled at how they tried to be more English than the English themselves, just to prove to themselves and the world how loyal they were being to the Old Land.

These words penned by the immortal Canadian artist Emily Carr in her biographical work A Little Town and a Little Girl describe her hometown and one of Canada's most distinctive cities. Gaily bedecked in flowers, traversed by double-decker buses, lined with gingerbread houses and interrupted for afternoon tea, the city of Victoria is indeed British... Consciously, achingly, charmingly so. The overly sensitive soul might stop short of weeping for the cuteness of a city seemingly locked into a pastiche of its sibling era, birthed alike by their regal matron.

One of the great signs is the hotel named in honor of the Empress of India. The Empress Hotel is one of the stately Grand Railway Hotels that landmark the Canadian cultural experience. Originally developed by the various railways operating in and through the country, these luxurious edifices drew from English Gothic and French Chateau architecture to create a unique, national style dubbed "Railway Gothic". It is perhaps telling that, like two of the three founding peoples of this constitutional monarchy, it is a style steeped in Old World heritage. Like the Westminster Chimes of a fine-tuned clock, tea is served in the original lobby of the Empress every afternoon.

In front of The Empress is Victoria's picturesque Inner Harbour. Adjacent to its one side is Government Street with its stately British bank-style buildings. In August, the Victoria Symphony Orchestra holds their Symphony Splash event in which the whole company boards a stage floating in the harbour. One of the events of the year, it climaxes with Tchikovsky's 1812 Overture to full canonfire and fireworks from the nearby Canadian naval vessels and concludes with Amazing Grace performed by a regiment of pipers. Following the performance, these same pipers muster in front of The Empress and launch into Scotland the Brave. The tune carries them directly up the middle of Government Street and into the local Scottish pub.

The Dalton Hotel, where I stayed.

To The Empress' other side is the BC Legislature, affectionately though unofficially called the Parliament Buildings. Legally, the only Parliament Buildings in Canada are in Ottawa where the governing Parliament sits, yet the Victorians felt their provincial headquarters were so stately that they deserved the appellation. Across the street from the Legislature is one of Victoria's quaint attractions, the Royal London Wax Museum, importer of genuine Madame Tussaud waxwork figures. In the bowels of the building are the lane of fairy tale characters, movie stars and the chamber of horrors (featuring mediaeval torture devices and Adolf Hitler), but the grand hall is reserved for royalty. The current reigning monarch, Elizabeth the Second, and her family are present, as well as several Charleses, Henry the Eighth and his regiment of wives, and Victoria the one and only. Besides the wax figures, Royal London also has a full set of the Crown Jewels in polished brass and shimmering glass. Beneath The Empress is another charming attraction, Miniature World, with its scale recreations of the Canadian Pacific Railway, scenes from Dickens novels, and Olde London Towne.

He's not just Happy; he's freakin' ECSTATIC!

Returning to the coastal sunshine of the Inner Harbour, one passes pristine white carriages with equally white horses and lacquered tall ships to attend the Royal British Columbia Museum. Iconic of the museum is its lifesize woolly mammoth recreated from the hides of nine musk oxen, the other taxadermies recreating British Columbia ecosystems, and a stunning collection of Pacific Northwest First Nations arts and crafts. While the building is of modern vintage, they could not resist adding Old World touches like an "Ocean Station" in the style of Jules Verne.

Olde Victoria Towne

Further, past the museum and the birthplace of Emily Carr herself, one comes to Beacon Hill Park. Carr's writing describes the former wildness of Beacon Hill in its past as a lit marker for passing ships to save them from running aground. Now, however, it is as charming and sculpted an English pleasure ground as can be found anywhere outside of that other distant island. Sundial gardens, cricket pitches and putting green monuments to Robbie Burns are set between lily ponds and weeping sequoia. One half expects to see Mary Poppins cavorting over stone bridges on a jolly holiday.

Emily Carr House National Historic Site.

A fairly average neighbourhood home.

Yet this is not the British Isles. This is the farflung coast of the colony, as far West as one can go before they find themselves in the Far East. Wild spaces still erupt from Beacon Hill's green, manicured lawns. Local tradition is that the fields of wild Camus flower formerly nurtured by local First Peoples reminded the English settlers of their homeland, their Spring blossoms blooming in nostalgic, melancholy shades of blue. Into Autumn, these same fields have turned gold, dessicated by the harsh ocean wind blowing in from the Salish Sea. These grasses fringe bubbling bedrock and gnarled Gary Oaks. Within the park is a reminder of the people who came before: one of the world's largest totem poles. Beacon Hill itself stands over all, fields declining to a rocky shore, a windy sea and the Olympic Mountains beyond, so frequently masked by mist and fog.

The Pacific Northwest is a verdant, fecund region. James Douglas, the Hudson's Bay Company factor who chartered Fort Victoria , called it "a perfect Eden". Both land and sea are defined by their rich green forests... Kelp by sea, Cedar and Hemlock and Fir by land. Of this immense power of nature, everchanging in its moods yet unchanging since time immemorial, Carr the painter and wordsmith said: "There are no words, no paints to express all this, only a beautiful dumbness in the soul, life speaking to life."

One of Victoria's grand tourist attractions is a study in this intriguing contrast so emblematic of Canada. In 1904, Robert and Jennie Butchart moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island to develop a cement factory which, upon the quarry's exhaustion, became a grand ornamental garden. The Butchart Gardens are a floral fairyland, with various themed gardens, like the Mediterranean and Italian Gardens. Garden designer Isaburo Kishida was imported from Japan to create the Japanese Gardens which, while still impressive are not much like Japan. They also created gardens specifically for roses and a star pond for Mr. Butchart's collection of fancy ducks.

The Private Garden and former Butchart residence,
Italian Garden, Star Pond, and Japanese Garden.

The most iconic of the gardens is the Sunken Garden. It is not merely iconic because it is famous, adorning millions of Canada's tackiest souvenirs and even replicated in a fashion at EPCOT's Canada pavilion. It is iconic as a metaphor for Victoria, British Columbia and Canada. To reach it, one must pass through a grove of cedar, fir and fern, the constituents of the primeval forest. Yet pathways are paved through it, lined in the rough rocky walls that are so common to Canada's national architecture. Then one sees the Sunken Garden itself, sunken because it rests in what was once a limestone quarry. It is stunning in its colour and its attempt at carving order from chaos. Still, it is pressed in by ivy-covered limestone cliffs crowned with the forest. The Sunken Gardens are symbolic of the Canadian experience as an Old World nation eking itself out of the New World, with stunning beauty both natural and civilized.

My trip to Victoria would not have been even half of what it was without the following enterprises. One was Victorian Garden Tours, with whom I was able to leave the city confines on a fantastic Emily Carr art tour. Joan is a fount of knowledge and seems to know all the best spots and most interesting people in southern Vancouver Island. For a very reasonable price she is willing to invest a whole day tailoring a tour to your interests, be they English gardens, Canadian forests or Victorian heritage sites. The other was 3 Hour Sail, who built and operate the tall ship Thane. Bypass the packed, exhorbitant whale-watching tours (which are akin to using mopeds to chase down packs of wolves and calling it "wildlife viewing") and instead enjoy a cruise aboard a replica of the first ship to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe in 1895, Joshua Slocum's Spray. Len and Sue and their trio of cats are fantastic hosts and deliver one of the most entertaining safety spiels heard anywhere. If you chance to visit Victoria, I cannot vehemently enough recommend factoring Victorian Garden Tours and 3 Hour Sail into your plans.


Thufer said...

Very impressive. Thank you.

Russell said...

Breathtaking! Thank you!