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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 10

Ottawa, city of surprises

by Anne Gilbert / July 13, 2004

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The Lonely Planet guide to Canada mentions the popular belief that Ottawa has never been considered an exciting city. The national capital may indeed represent all that is purely Canadian and organizational, and the seat of government and various institutions. Yet there is room for creative chaos and an abundance of outdoor activities, exhibitions, green spaces, and festivals, some of which are world famous. All in all, Ottawa will surprise and perhaps astonish.

A ramble through the heart of the city allows the visitor to get a sense of the city's soul and of its dual nature--at once official and spontaneous. On Wellington St, which is part of Confederation Drive, banners feature various historical monuments, and the Parliament buildings rise proudly, symbolizing the city's political significance. Despite their dignified look, the buildings harbour droll gargoyles as well as delightful sculptures and friezes said to be the purest examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in the Western world--which makes Ottawa one of only four capital cities with a such an architectural element. On the same route, which is occasionally the one used for visiting dignitaries, there are a number of three-dimensional models of the city, as well as information booths and interpretive signs explaining the city's history and guiding visitors from downtown Ottawa to the present city of Gatineau. Confederation Drive has won several prizes for urban design.

Ottawa holds its own in terms of vibrant atmosphere. Near the Château Laurier hotel (an example of French Neo-Renaissance architecture) lies the Bytown Market area, now a popular restaurant and shopping venue (Ottawa was originally called Bytown after its founder, Colonel By). This lively section of the city hums with activity night and day. Sidewalk cafés offer a chance to watch the colourful passers-by: jugglers, musicians, tourists, business people, punks, and determined shoppers in search of rare objects or clothing in the many boutiques. In summer the streets provide a continuous festival of the arts and other activities that make for a convivial atmosphere.

Few people may think immediately of the arts as a feature of Ottawa--perhaps because Parliament Hill casts a long shadow. But this is a culturally rich and diverse city. There are plenty of museums with dozens of permanent exhibitions in the city itself and across the river in surrounding communities. They cover a wide range: the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the interactive Canada and the World Museum in Rideau Falls Park, the Bank of Canada Currency Museum, and the Aviation, War, and Nature museums, to name only a few, each well worth a visit.

Rideau Hall, the governor general's official residence, is one of the country's most powerful cultural symbols. This gracious old-world house set in rolling grounds is a treasure trove. Glenn Gould's piano graces the main drawing room, and throughout other rooms are scattered a fine collection of antique furniture, stained glass, silver objets d'art, and prints and paintings that include portraits of different governors general by such distinguished Canadian artists as Jean-Paul Lemieux, Emily Carr, and Charles Comfort. The magnificent gardens are open for guided tours throughout the summer.

Theatregoers are also in for a treat. For 35 years the National Arts Centre (NAC) has offered a brilliant succession of music, opera, dance, and theatre in the heart of the nation's capital. In summer the NAC features various musical comedies. Numerous outdoor stages also present major events such as the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, the Ottawa Bluesfest, the Ottawa Folk Festival, and the Franco-Ontarian Festival.

To top it all, visitors will find Ottawa an amazingly tranquil city. Its streets are clean and so is the air. Not only is the capital dotted with parks and green spaces, it is surrounded by 170 kilometres of recreational paths and parkways that form the largest such network in North America--a great attraction for outdoor enthusiasts.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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