Part XI: Montréal at my Quebec and Call

So, with the Pacific north west coast ticked off the list fairly comprehensively, it is time to fly east. Shit’s about to get (Mont)réal…

It is weighing heavily on my mind (and heart) at this point that only ten days of my trip remain. For some reason I find this a difficult boulder to climb out from under, try as I might. I know I need to soak up the adventure in every second that remains, so I grab Montréal with gusto and set about busying myself getting to know the city.

On arrival, it occurs to me that I don’t think I realised just how French French Canada is. Now, I should explain at this juncture that my degree was in French, and I lived in Paris for a year as part of the course. Some of the most special people in my life are friends I made there so Montréal, with its echoes of Paris, brings with it another surge of emotion. I think it’s important that you know that to put this post into context.

The similarity is completed when I check into the M Montréal Hostel in the Quartier Latin. That was the area of Paris where I lived and worked (and loved) for a while.

I should feel more confident talking French than I was speaking Spanish back in Latin America. But I swiftly realise that in Quebec, it’s French…but not as we know it. Also, my brain doesn’t seem to be agile in switching languages and for reasons unbeknownst to me…the Spanish word usually finds its way to my lips before the French one does. So it would appear that 4 months of Spanish has seemingly cancelled out 11 years of French. Right, great.

Together with its extreme Frenchness, there are lots of other things I didn’t know about Montréal. For example:

– it’s an island
– they voted on independence from Canada as recently as 1994
– they are nearly all hockey crazy
– Leonard Cohen was born here
– it was the capital of Canada for five years until 1849; an anglophone mob put paid to that when their protesting saw it shifted to Ottawa

With every word I devour of the guide book on the five hour flight from Van City, the more this city intrigues me, particularly politically.

So, with discovery in mind, I set out for an exploratory saunter. Of course, empires were never built on muesli bars, so I swing into Le Gros Jambon for a hearty breakfast. It is the slightly less spenny little brother of L’Orignal from chef Travis Champion – and his surname could certainly be applied as part of a review. The staff are super friendly, the walls are adorned with vintage Montreal kitsch and the food is presented as beautifully as it tastes.

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The coffee is exceptional, and comes along with this little guy…

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The next stop is the Basilique Notre-Dame, the grand dame of Montréal’s religious treasures. It was opened in 1829 and designed by New York Protestant architect James O’Donnell. I only mention his religion as, notably, he liked the Basilique so much that he converted to Catholicism in order that his funeral could be held there. You can see why…

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Don’t worry, Canadian God seems to be a little more laid back and is quite content with photography in the Basilique. He had his clergymen put signs up and everything.

Excuse the poor phraseology here, but the devil really is in the detail with this building. It is full of ornate wooden pillars and carvings.

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Gilt stars shine down from the ceiling, while the stained glass windows radiate light.

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The huge 7000 pipe Casavant organ oversees musical proceedings from on high.

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As has become the Mellotte family travelling tradition, I light a candle for loved ones who have gone before us and those we’re lucky enough to still have.

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Outside, the Basilique looks onto the Place d’Armes.

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Here the Monument Maisonneuve stands, proudly dedicated to Montréal’s founder Paul de Chomedey.

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From here it is a brisk walk along the Rue St-Sulpice to the Vieux Port. Despite the fact that it is a rather blustery day, you can see why the port is favoured for recreation. Quai Jacques Cartier is the centrepiece, and large promenades lend themselves to strolling, cycling and skating. It also looks like it is in the throes of rejuvenation, not least with the sleek and sassy Centre des Sciences de Montréal. The port has clearly always been an important revenue stream for the city, with cruise liners docking at the Quai Alexandra. In their absence, the sailboats bob around in the bay.

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I cross into the Parc du Bassin-Bonsecours…

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…and along the Quai de l’Horloge towards the Sailors’ Memorial Clock Tower, dedicated to mariners who died in the world wars.

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The views are across to Parc Jean Drapeau and the Montreal Biosphère environmental museum,

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an installation of public art, including Alexander Calder’s 1967 piece L’Homme,

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and La Ronde funfair.

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On the same side, a makeshift beach has been built to capitalise on the good weather that looms in the not too distant future.

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As I walk back to the city, the city skyline hovers above me…

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…including the neoclassical Marché Bonsecours, formerly the town hall but now an arts and crafts market.

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Behind it is nestled the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, known as the Sailors’ Church where sailors would leave ship-shaped lamps in thanks for safe passage. It’s far more peaceful than its big Basilique brother, and a lovely place to spend a few moments giving your own thanks for safe passage.

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The statue of Our Lady of the Harbour sits atop it, and was made famous by Leonard Cohen in his song ‘Suzanne.’
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After this, a little lèche-vitrine (window shopping) along Rue St- Paul’s boutiques is in order.

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And a squizz at the Hôtel de Ville.

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The rains come, torrentially, so I drop into Boris Bistro for the duck and mushroom risotto and a large glass of Malbec. Then, it’s time for a little bar hopping in Vieux Montreal, with the standout being Philemon where you can have your Malbec with a cheeseboard. Don’t mind if I do.

I’m reliably informed by Canadian friends I met in Bolivia that Montréal is the place to get a smoked meat sandwich. (Hi Michael if you’re out there) The Montréal Reuben is the speciality of hot smoked meat, Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread. A Downtown Deli called Reuben’s seems like as good as place as any to start the day, and mighty fine it is too.

It also gives me a chance to ogle the areas that the world famous Montréal Jazz Festival is usually hosted, in and around the Place des Arts.

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En route, I also pass the dazzling Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

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But today’s main focus will be losing myself in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

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It is stunningly huge, Canada’s oldest museum, and houses its permanent collection of everything from the old masters to contemporary work in three free-to-access buildings on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest.

There is some beautiful work on display here, from Salvador Dali’s Homage to Marcel Du Champ chessboard,

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one of Henri Matisse’s many portraits of his muse Lorette – this one from 1917,

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Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Musketeer from 1969,

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and Claude Monet’s La Grande Allée à Giverny a copy of which hung in my room when I was an early teen.

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My favourite museum in Paris was the Musée Rodin, so I was really happy to find some of his work exhibited here too. Most notably, Sirens.

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People far more intelligent than me suppose that the three women represent the three furies in Dante’s Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, he is warned not to look at them in case they summon Medusa who will turn him to stone with just one look. Deceptive sensuality at its most beautiful for my money.

The Thinker also has a place here.

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This bronze cast from between 1902 and 1909 was bought directly from the artist and was the first Rodin piece ever to be exhibited in North America. This piece has come to have so many connotations in popular culture; art, humanity etc. But what I love about it, is Rodin’s own description of the figure, modelled on Dante himself: “Chin on hand, he muses. Fertile thought develops slowly in his brain. This is not a dreamer, but a creator.”

Next, the buzzy student area of Rue St-Denis beckons. After a saunter through, I settle into Le St-Sulpice for a swift one before dinner at O’Thym, a dinky yet elegant bring-your-own-eatery not far from my hostel in the Quartier Latin. Surrounded by exposed brick and enlarged mirrors, I dig into (vegetarians, look away now) Foie Gras Tatin followed by rack of lamb.

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One of the things that I love about this city, is the adeptness with which the people can switch between Québécois French and English. It is such a huge skill to be so completely and utterly fluent like that. The downside is that, spotting you’re not a local, people will switch to English for you. So, to gain back my French confidence, I need to insist on trying to speak French…and they are particularly conducive to it here.

Another day on the road…another market. This time Marché Jean-Talon in Little Italy in the north. It involves my first jaunt on the artful Metro.

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The market itself is the usual mix of vibrant flower stalls,

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colourful fruit and veg vendors,

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And my special favourites, the cheese and seafood…

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It’s a lovely meander, and I manage not to hemorrhage too much cash, leaving only with some sirop d’érable (maple syrop) and some Pear Ice Cider…apparently a Québécois speciality.

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After this, I tour round Little Italy stopping to inhale one of the city’s most famous foods, a bagel from St Viateur Bagel on the street of the same name.

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This place is an institution, and I opt for the cinnamon and thyme bagel with a giganta dollop of Philly cheese. I’ve never really been a bagel person, but I can see what all the fuss it about.

Little Italy and nearby Mile End are pretty areas to hang out in for a spell. They are jam packed with vintage boutiques, awesome bookstores (like Welch Books) and quirky independent coffee shops (I recommend Le Cagibi which translates quaintly as The Cubbyhole.) I had hoped to have time to head to Parc du Mont-Royal, but tonight’s gig by The Shins is not far away so it’s time to make for home.

Very handily, the venue The Metropolis is a mere two minutes walk from the hostel, so there is time to spare for a swifty in the nextdoor Foufounes Électriques before the show.

It has seemed like all of my favourite bands have been touring the US and Canada whilst I have been there, but most have played just before or immediately after my arrival in each city. How inconvenient. So I’m completely beside myself with excitement about this show. The last time I saw The Shins was at Reading Festival last year, but they clashed with Santigold so I only saw a couple of tracks. A full set will feel very indulgent by comparison.

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It is an absolutely great show, complimented by the hilarious drummer and a receptive crowd.

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I’m quite tickled to see that the bartenders actually walk through the venue here selling pints piled on trays that they hold aloft. I can see that approach lasting about ten seconds in a sold out Brixton Academy…

Before long I’m chinwagging with lovely fellow-Shins-fan Alex, and we decide to grab a late night drink at Le Saint Bock after the show. Of course, we end up talking about music until the wee small hours and I come away with a head full of new albums recommended to me.

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The next morning, I bravely fight through the groggy hangover and throw myself on a bus with the recently downloaded The National album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ which came out a couple of days ago. This is quite enough to amuse me for the 2 hour trip to Ottawa. Now, this will be a flying visit if ever there was one.

I’m visiting the fabulous Jimmy Rib (aka James Thompson) with whom I used to work back in the day in Glasgow. We slaved over many a T in the Park together and I have seen very little of him since he returned to his native Canada, wed the wonderful Amanda and produced ridiculously cute Jack. We’d very much like to be hanging out longer than an afternoon, but as bad luck would have it, Amanda is due to give birth any minute now! But the thought of being so close but yet so far was too much, so we decided to do lunch in Ottawa. And I was more than happy to make the trip for an old friend.

Jimmy Rib’s nickname originally came from his insatiable love of ribs, so you’ll never guess where we go for lunch…the inimitable Fatboys Southern Smokehouse. The ribs are smoked on site, and the smell that greets us when we walk in is nothing less than a-maze-ing. This hungover girl needs some carbs…

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It is so good to catch up with him, and to hear all of his news; his wedding to Amanda, their wee boy Jack and his hilarious turn of phrase. So much time has passed, and I hate it when good friendships drift over time. So it was worth every hungover second on that bus trip to get here, if even for a few hours.

When I arrive back in Montréal, Alex and I are trying to decide what to do with our evening. There is one thing left on the tourist check list that can be accomplished tonight; Poutine.

Poutine is to the Québécois what chips and cheese is to the Scots, literally. It is French fries smoothed in cheese curds and gravy. From discussions with people here, you either love it or you hate it. But I simply cannot leave Montréal without trying it.

We head for La Banquise at 994 Rachel Est, but we are greeted by the most gigantic queue I have ever seen at a restaurant. Keen not to simply fall into the nearest pub and repeat the excesses of the night before, we decide to take a walk in a nearby park and come back for Poutine later. I am particularly pleased because I haven’t made it to any of Montréal’s green spaces yet, not even the most famous Parc du Mont-Royal. When Alex hears this, a swift revision of our plans is made so that we can squeeze it in before sunset. And I am so glad we did.

The park was designed by Frederick Law Omlsted, the same architect as New York’s Central Park. This is every bit as amazing. Its wooded slopes and grassy areas attract joggers, cyclists, horse riders and even battle re-enact-ers in the spring and summer. Whilst winter’s snows welcome skiing and tobogganing. Either way, if you were born and raised in Montréal, you likely grew up doing one of the above.

It’s a solid hour or so walk up the mountain, but the views out over the city are truly breathtaking. The sun is settling as we climb, throwing a golden sheen over every building rolled out in front of us.

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Once at the Pavilion at the top, the city shimmers below.

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It is a stunning view, and proves once again why it is good to throw away with guide book from time to time and head out with someone who lives in, and loves, the city.

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And of course, with all that exercise, dinner is well earned. So we flop into Chez Claudette at 351 Laurier Est to reward ourselves with Poutine and a beer.

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Chips, cheese and gravy has never tasted so good.

Soon enough it is time for the magic of Montréal to come to an end, and Alex drives me to the airport for my middle-of-the-night flight to my final stop, Miami.

When I look back to Montréal, the stand out memories will be The Shins at The Metropolis, sharing ribs with the King Rib himself, making great new friends (and letting them show you how amazing their city can be) and that sunset. Let’s see it one more time shall we?

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Onwards, to Miami…

And the soundtrack was:
Leonard Cohen ‘Suzanne’
The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’
The Shins ‘Wincing The Night Away’
The Shins ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
The Shins ‘Oh, Inverted World’
The Shins ‘Port of Morrow’
Les Colocs Unknown
Eric Satie Various
Karkwa Unknown
Blonde Redhead ‘Loved Despite Great Faults’
Arcade Fire ‘Neon Bible’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Sly And The Family Stone ‘If You Want Me To Stay’
Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

Part XI: Victoria to Vancouver

Another morning, another country frontier crossed by boat. Going from country to country, by sailboat, skiff or ferry has become one of my favourite things.

So, Leslie, Chris (from Team Wokich) and I load up the car and set sail on the Washington Ferry from Bellingham, WA (say WA?) to Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, (Oh!) Canada. I’m pleased to announce slightly higher health and safety standards than on my Caribbean Sea crossing…

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So, it’s farewell to the US, but only for ten days after which I shall revisit your soil once more. I mark the occasion with a very American convenience breakfast.

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It is a smooth crossing, and with the dense fog, the stunning San Juan Islands look distinctly surreal, like a kind of Truman Show film set.

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It’s my intention to come back here one day and sail my way round the archipelago. Yet another thing for the future travel-musts list.

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For now I am content with the girls day out that Leslie, Chris and I have created for ourselves. British Columbia, at least this small corner that I see, is beautiful. I did not expect it to be so literal though. As we walk along the water side, I jolt at the number of English accents that surround me. It is the first time for a long time that I’ve heard them.

It also feels and looks very British here. I know the clue is quite literally in the title, but you could easily be standing at Brighton or Southampton (if slightly warmer…) And by the way BC, that’s a compliment. The port is very pretty…

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…full of eager tourists setting off on whale-spotting missions…

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…desperately cute water taxis puttering around the port…

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…and flanked by grand county and tourist buildings.

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We’re not walking aimlessly at this point…we have a very special appointment to keep, a Wokich family tradition if you will. We are going for that most quintessentially British of things, afternoon tea.

Our target? The stunning Fairmont Empress Hotel.

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The timing of this is perfect. If you were to ask me what food I missed the most in Latin America. I would more than likely say scones. Yes, the banana bread in Belize was second to none, but Latin Americans don’t really do scones. God I love scones, I’d quite forgotten how much until we sashay into the grand tearoom.

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After a very British starter…

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…the pièces de résistance arrives.

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Incredulously, Team Wokich had never heard of that very Celtic tradition, and integral part of the British version…asking for free refills. This is a new awakening for them, and we more than certainly put a dent in the price tag as a result.

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After an elegant sufficiency (renamed by Harry Mellotte as the ‘elephant sufficiency’), waistline damage limitation is next on the menu. We walk round to Beacon Hill Park for a stroll to burn off the baked goods. It’s a stunning meander through the park.

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We are greeted at the most southerly tip by stunning views out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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We snake our way through the myriad of paths.

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And make some new friends along the way.

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My personal favourite being this little chap, who made us feel decidedly underdressed.

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After our confab, we saunter back through the park to the city.

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In the evening, we reward ourselves with a jaunt to a Scottish pub The Bard and Banker (aye) where we indulge in a couple of fine bottles of red and set about putting the world to rights over them.

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After a grand night’s sleep at the Ocean Island Backpackers Inn, and Chris’s first ever backpacking hostel experience, we head to John’s Place one of the city’s famous brunch spots. They even serve (Buffie – look away now) a chocolate bacon waffle! Zing!

It’s time to say farewell now as Leslie and Chris head back to Bellingham to the male half of Team Wokich. I’ll miss my partners in road trip crime! After waving them off, I visit the Royal British Columbia Museum on Belleville Street. It is a natural and human history museum, the latter of which is the draw for me as I want to learn more about the First Nations people of Canada.

It is a great introduction to the nation, from Kwakiutl and Haida tribes all the way through to the Asian population. I particularly enjoy the masks that First Nations People used, each with their own story and meaning within the culture.

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Before long it’s time for me to take my leave of the island and catch the bus, then ferry across to the mainland where Vancouver awaits my arrival.

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Once checked into the HI Vancouver Central hostel (good hostel – woeful wifi), I head out to meet an old pal for a pint.

Remember back in Bolivia, when I mountain biked down the world’s most dangerous road, like a (very slow) badass? Okay, and do you also remember Tim (nickname Timvincible), the daredevil who actually came off road plunging about 10 metres over the drop and sustaining little more than a few cuts and bruises? Well, him and his fabulous missus Naomi have finished their six month walkabout, and have moved from their Melbourne home to Vancouver…just in time for my arrival. How’s that for timing?

We catch up before he has to head to work in the evening with plans to reconvene. After this, my first introduction to Van City is to be gig-shaped. The lovely Australian Alice, from the Lanquin instalment of the Guatemala chapter, also lives out here and she has invited me to join her and her lovely pals to see Daughter play at the Commodore Ballroom tonight.
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It’s a cracking gig complete with a cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. They’re a band who I knew little about, but I’ll definitely be buying their album on the back of that performance. Alice – you have impeccable taste!

Afterwards, I head next door to The Bottleneck for a good ol’ chinwag with Tim and Naomi to hear all about the post-Bolivian component of their travel story. After a suitable reminisce, we all roll home in the wee small hours.

At brunch o’clock the next day, Tim and I meet at The Templeton old school diner on Granville Street for a hearty brunch. It is quirky, kitch and wonderful.

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Here I am introduced to the Canadian tradition that is the Bloody Caesar, a variation on the Mary theme but made with clamato (made up word KLAXON) which is a blend of tomato juice and clam broth. Sounds horrific, tastes really rather brilliant.

We take a stroll afterwards as I am in day one exploration mode. We head through Downtown towards Canada Place, shaped like a series of jutting sails. It’s pier offers brilliant waterfront panoramas. We gawp at the cruise liners lining the dock and the seaplanes jetting in and out of the bay.

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20130615-164638.jpg How the other half live…

We gaze out over North Vancouver.

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We saunter through Gastown to the east of Downtown, past the old steam clock built in 1977 by Canadian horologist Raymond Saunders.

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Despite its steamy exterior, it apparently is run on electricity. Still, it looks the part. Then, we spot early Gastown resident Gassy Jack teetering on his whisky barrel.

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The barrels put us in mind of ale, so we head to a local hostelry called The Steamworks Brew Pub for a couple of swifies. Before we know it, we’ve been gassing in Gastown far too long and it’s dinner time. So, off to The Fish Shack on Granville Street we go. The fish is super fresh, the atmosphere is laid back and friendly, and the restaurant is decked out with wooden pallets to give it the fishing shack feel – even the seats are upholstered to look like life jackets. Mussels feel like the way to go here, and they are cooked in a metal vat right before my eyes.

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We have cocktails in mind now, so we nick into UVA Wine Bar, Tim’s new place of work where I sample the I’m A Banana cocktail (c’mon it had to be done.) Purely by accident, we happen upon a cheeseboard to complete the dining experience. The booziness continues once more as we scoop up Naomi after her shift at The Hawksworth and head to new local The Bottleneck for a few libations.

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Sunday kicks off with a bundle of nerves for Tim as it is the last day of the English Premier League and today London’s teams will fight it out for the remaining Champion’s League place. A staunch Arsenal fan, he insists that we’re all up for the 8am kick off. My beloved Manchester City has secured second place, and there is nothing else to play for, but Tim needs the moral support so we troop over the road to the Same Sun hostel, the only place open at this ungodly hour, to watch the game. 90 minutes later, Arsenal have secured the spoils, and everyone heads home nap-bound. But sleep evades me, so I walk down to Granville Island Market.

It is a stunning view from the Granville Bridge looking down on the island and the bay below.

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As I’m crossing the bridge, a fellow tourist asks me for directions mistaking me for someone who actually knows where she is going…we get chatting and we’re both heading to the market so we wander down together. Kyla has just moved to Vancouver from San Francisco with a three month stint volunteering in Africa in between times. With a new house, a new job and a new puppy on the way, she’s settling into life in the city after an amazing time on the road. Clearly, we have a lot to talk about!

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The market is very quaint.

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It is the usual mix of speciality food stalls…

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…and flanked by pretty little boutiques stock to the brim with jewellery, gifts, books, cards and objet d’art. As you would expect, I am drawn to a jewellery store where we both buy silver necklaces handcrafted to look like aerial map views of cities; Kyla buys her new home Van City, whilst I buy Paris, a city that will always have a special place in my heart as the very first place outside of Scotland I ever lived.

We take a walk through Kyla’s new hood and former 60’s hippy haven Kitsilano, and peruse a few shops including the bookstore Wanderlust, a must for travellers at heart, and Zulu Records.
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Then, we say our goodbyes. It has been lovely to randomly meet a new like-minded friend and spend the avo with her. I hope you’re settling into Van City well Kyla – maybe see you back there some day.

I bus back to Downtown before walking up to English Bay beach. But first, I pass tiny Morton Park and its interesting piece of outdoor art called A-maze-ing Laughter by Beijing based artist Yue Minjun. First installed temporarily in 2009 as part of the Vancouver Biennale, the sculpture of 14 three-metre tall shirtless bronze statues, all standing in different poses, but all laughing maniacally, is due to stay in the city.

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Upon further investigation, it would appear that the artist in question modelled the statues on his own face, and has created various sculptures and paintings that depict him laughing. Neat little idea, and beautifully executed here.

I amble over to English Bay beach where the sun belts down in the hazy late afternoon. Tim comes to meet me and we sit on the beach chatting in the sunshine.

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As the sun starts to drop and, hearing how stunning the sunsets here are supposed to be, we rue the bad planning of us not bringing a bottle of plonk to the beach with us. Alas, I have an Oregon Winter’s Hill Pinot Noir just asking to be drunk before I fly to Montreal tomorrow but it is back Downtown.

As we debate this, a guitar player has turned up behind us on the beach. He is playing original music, very much in a Jamie T stylee. He’s really good, and I quietly love that he isn’t even busking…just playing to himself.

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With the sun dropping behind us…

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…we bus back to Downtown, pick up the vino tinto and head to a bring-your-own-booze Italian for a pizza before flopping down at the bar at the excellent Keefer Bar for numerous cocktails and chats. Naomi comes to meet us after work, and we fight through tiredness for another couple of swifties at last chance saloon The Pint. Soaked in booze, my long weekend in Vancouver is coming to an end exactly how it started.

A healing brunch is on the cards so I meet up with Alice and we head to The Elbow Room where Naomi joins us (Tim is being a gigantic lightweight and hasn’t been able to get out of bed – disgraceful…)

This cafe is hysterical, bruskly rude in a congenial sort of way. One of the first things the waiter says to Alice and I, pointing at the empty seats on our table, is “where the fuck are these dickheads?” It’s affronting but endearing all at the same time, and the staff turn out to be a right laugh.

What’s more, the eggs benedict with blue cheese, bacon and avocado is exquisite.

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But what is even more exquisite is the company. It is absolutely great to have been able to meet up again with good pals from Bolivia and Guatemala again. I had been looking forward to it for a long time.

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One of the greatest surprises on my travels has been the amazing friends I’ve made along the way. Not only that, but being able to see some of them again either on the road, or in the future when I get back to London. I feel really quite privileged to have been in such good company.

For now, it’s goodbye to Naomi and Alice, and off to Van City airport to scoot east to Montreal. I intend to spend the 5 hour flight reloading the French tapes in my brain…and filing the Spanish ones.

And the soundtrack was:
The Kinks ‘Victoria’
Jamie T ‘Panic Prevention’
Daughter ‘If You Leave’
Cold War Kids ‘Mine Is Yours’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Jurassic 5 ‘Power in Numbers’
Alt-J ‘Am Awesome Wave’
The Maccabees ‘Wall of Arms’