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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Big East Tour - Day 3

Guess now is about time that I should talk about the people that were on the tour with me - the great thing about Moose Travel Tours is the smaller groups that they take. We had 12 on ours and while there usually seemed to be a variety of nationalities on the tours, ours was 5 Irish, 5 Australians and 2 Kiwis. Even 2 days in, you could see the differences emerging - half the tour group seemed more interested in drinking each city than seeing the actual sights. Luckily, I managed to fit into both groups relatively well! The bus wasn't the most luxurious mode of transport but it suited our purpose perfectly. They have also designed most of the routes so that you're never in the van for more than 3 hours at a time generally.

Hence why we stopped at Montmorency Falls just outside of Quebec City on our way from Montreal. I'm a huge fan of water and water features (I am crazy about fountains that you get in parks and stuff. I got a lot of great fountain pics from this tour!) so even though it's just a load of water, I was happy to wander off and my own and just watch. It is actually higher than Niagara Falls (barely a fraction as wide obviously) and as you cross the bridge over it, you can see the City of Quebec in the distance. We did manage to see a rainbow in the churning water at the bottom - seemed to be a bit of a theme on the trip, reckon I saw 6 or 7 rainbows over the course of the week.

Once we got into Quebec City, I had an eerily familiar feeling. The old style cobbled streets, little traffic, flags and bunting everywhere - felt just like an European city. One particular street actually looked just like Kilkenny city for some reason... We went for a little bit of a walk around, to get our bearings and stopped for some ice cream at a spot our guide recommended. Being the morbid lot we are, we got our ice cream and went to sit in a graveyard to eat it. I love graveyards as much as I love water features strangely enough. We passed by the amazing Chateau Frontenac, built in the late 19th century as a stop over for Canadian Pacific Railway travellers. It has hosted many famous people and was the headquarters for the Quebec Conferences towards the end of World War 2 in 1944.

A couple of us decided to do a ghost tour that evening. Our guide recommended a company, Les Visites Phantomes du Quebec that she had used before (although she hadn't been a huge fan of the guide that they had). Our guide, Emile, was great; he knew a lot about the city in general, historically and architecturally and shared a lot of that as well as his spooky tales from years and years ago. It was all sort of creepy coincidence stories until we got to St Andrews Church. 10 of us walked in, led by me holding a candle (the only light in the church apart from the dim lights from the street) and Emil proceeded to tell us, probably not even the scariest stories of the night but things seem a lot creepier in a dead quiet church with nothing but the sound of your own breathing and flickering shadows on the wall from the only candle there... I saw at least 3 ghosts that night. Well worth it though. Popped out for a couple of drinks to steady the nerves after and stumbled upon an improv night in one bar. Totally in French obviously. I pretended to laugh along with the rest despite having next to no idea what was going on.

Moral of the Story - Don't go on a ghost tour in a strange city and then head back to a creepy hostel that looks like it might have been an old hospital back in the day...did not sleep overly well that night I'll tell you!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Big East Tour - Day 2

Waking up with a hangover in a brand new city is not fun. I think everyone will agree with me on that. Still, I managed to power through (although it did take me nearly 3 hours to actually get myself ready to leave the hostel). We decided to head for the old town, which would bring us on a walk through most of the downtown anyway. Vieux Montreal is a very beautiful spot; with it's old cobbled streets and European style architecture, it felt so familiar. I did get quite narcissistic and take one of my favourite photos with the Rue St Helene sign (not quite my name but close enough!).

I really wanted to get a smoked meat sandwich (as per everyone's instructions) but I went for a full smoked meat poutine to soak up the previous night's alcohol. For anyone who doesn't know, poutine is basically chips, cheese and gravy. Originally from the province of Quebec, they call it French fries, gravy-like sauce and cheese curds (the squeakier the better). I got a Bloody Caesar to complement it - again, quick explanation of this Canadian delicacy; essentially a Bloody Mary but they use Clamato juice instead of tomato juice. Yes, this is clam and tomato juice. Yes, it sounds disgusting and it did take me a long time to get a taste for it. The trick is to get it extra spicy with gin instead of vodka. Best hangover cure ever. The picture does not do it justice at all, I'm well aware.

Took a stroll through the mains square with a huge statue dedicated to the alleged founder of Montreal, Paul de Chomeday de Maisonneuve, who came along in 1642 to settle the island of Montreal for the French. The square is beautiful and dominated by the Notre Dame Basilica, which was actually designed in large part by an Irish Protestant architect called James O'Donnell. There is a $5 charge to get into the church during the day, $10 to get in for the impressive light and sound show that animates the history of the basilica itself as well as Ville-Marie de Montreal.

From there I headed down to the Places Jacques Cartier and the old port, then headed up to the Parliament Buildings, through Chinatown and right up through McGill University, hitting at least 5 other beautiful churches on the way. I was making my way to Mont Royal, the hill that overlooks the city. One of the major attractions here is Mount Royal park, which was originally planned by the same guy who did Central Park. There is a cross that looks down over the city, symbolic of the wooden cross set up there by good old Maisonneuve as a thank you to God for not drowning the entire city during some major flooding in 1643. I didn't quite make it up that high but I did get as far as the Kondiaronk Belvedere and managed to take this beautiful shot.

At that point, I was completely exhausted. I went to meet up with a friend of mine in a Shisha bar to the east of the city and by the time I got back to the hostel, all I was able for was my not super comfortable hostel bed. Almost a lame way to end my time in Montreal but I feel that I saw everything I wanted to see. Apart from Eggs and Legs, the almost unbelievable strip club that serves an all day breakfast buffet while lap dances are happening. Eggs and legs baby.

Moral of the Story: Travelling hungover is not the way forward but sometimes it forces you to make more of an effort. Like sweating the shit out of your hangover by walking up a mountain (or a hill, whatever, it was tough).

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Big East Tour - Day 1

So, I finally got to get out of Toronto on a Moose Tour for 7 days that is taking me to Montreal, Quebec, Mont Treblant and Ottawa!! Very exciting, so I figured I could use this to re-start my failing blogging career...

An early morning departure from a rainy Toronto led to a very quiet opening leg of the journey. A few tentative introductions to the people sitting closest to you and that was it...sleepy time. I chose to ride shotgun, primarily to keep our driver company, mainly for the extra leg room ;)

Our first real stop was The Big Apple where some much needed sustenance was procured in what was essentially a pie factory. The fresh apple turnover was divine but I can imagine the surroundings being much more appealing when it's not raining; there was a train track and some ping pong tables that looked fun! Instead, I made do with kissing a scarecrow.

Next stop was the Thousand Islands cruise - another activity that would have been nicer on a sunny day, or even later in winter when the St. Lawrence River freezes over completely. Although we wouldn't have been able to take the cruise then... did get to see the smallest international bridge in the world though, bridged between 2 islands, one of which is in Canadian waters, the other is in American waters. We learned a lot about George Boldt, lovely fella that built a castle on Heart Island for his wife, who died before it was finished. Poor George never set foot on Heart Island again. Cheapest real estate on the Thousand Islands runs at $250,000. Bargain.

Coming into Montreal didn't feel that different from Toronto apart from the extra church and cathedral steeples and a distinct lack of a space penis. Going into the hostel felt a little strange; I have not stayed at another hostel since I started working in one. It does give me a certain extra level of respect but it also makes me criticise more... The rooms were clean; we had a bathroom inside which was a bonus. The common area in the basement was pretty decent with a bar and pool table and a really nice kitchen. I literally just threw my things down and headed off to see my friend Rob for the last time before I go home. Cue the tears. As he's lived here for a while, I asked him to recommend a bar/street to find one so we headed up to Crescent Street where I pick... Hurleys Irish Bar. Yeah, yeah, I know. I made the mistake of finding out that they charge $4.50 for a Jameson, although that did lead me to one of the best free shot getting lines I've ever used.

Me: So, I've heard 2 rumours today and I REALLY hope that they're both true.
Andrew (bartender): Oh yeah? And what might they be?
Me: Well, the first one is that you're going to give me and my 2 friends here shots. The second one is about your penis (followed by a sleazy wink)
He laughs and walks away, I laugh and go to walk away. Next of all, he comes back with 3 shots of Jameson and plonks them on the bar. He winks at me and says 'I guess both rumours are true', smiles and walks away.

Moral of the Story - don't take shots from a cute barman, who is flirting back with you, and then get too drunk to do anything about it.