How could anyone not love the city for which Winnie the Pooh was named? That’s right! It seems that at the commencement of WWI, Winnipeg native Lt. Harry Colebourn adopted a black bear cub, naming it “Winnie” after his home town and capital of the province of Manitoba. He smuggled the young bear over to England as where it became the unofficial Fort Garry Horse regimental mascot.
When the regiment left for France, the cub found his way to the London Zoo, becoming the favorite of a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne. This prompted his dad, a certain A.A. Milne to pen a series of Pooh stories and the rest is history.
Winnipeg is a human-sized city of 700, 000. It’s large enough to offer many cultural amenities while still being small enough for people to exhibit the renowned prairie friendliness and hospitality.
For my visit to Winnipeg, I based myself at the historic Fort Garry Hotel, one of the Chateau-styled rail hotels built at the beginning of the last century. Newly renovated, the Fort Garry still boasts the elegance and personal touches that make for a great base for a visitor.
Located kitty-corner to Winnipeg’s Union Station it provides ready access to train-travellers (ideal for me as the next phase of my journey was by rail up north to Churchill).
On top of all that the hotel is supposed to be haunted by a female apparition, the spirit of a woman who, after a misadventure in the early 1900′s, is often found hanging around the closet of room 202.
Downtown Winnipeg’s many attractions are mostly accessible by foot. Exiting the hotel (with a brief stop in front of room 202, which sported a “do not disturb sign”), I turned right and walked toward Main Street and Union Station. Turning right on Main you’ll see a small park on the right side where the main gate of Upper Fort Garry is all that remains of the a Hudson’s Bay Company fortification built in the 1830′s for the fur trade. It once guarded the so-called Forks area where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet and formed the nucleus of the future city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba.
No longer of strategic importance, the Forks area is now a national historic site that can be reached by crossing the street and passing straight through Union Station. Designed by the same architect as New York’s Grand Central Station, the station often doubles for GCS in motion pictures filmed in Winnipeg. Continue through the station and have a look at the authentic Retro waiting areas for rail passengers, then out the back door.
Explore the Forks Market where you can lunch in a myriad of different ethnic styles, buy fine wine or slurp home-made gelati. Also be sure to take the elevator to the sixth floor of the glass enclosed observation tower adjacent to the market to get your bearings.
Explore river-front trails and try out the half-hour river tour offered by the Splash Dash Water Taxi, to get a unique perspective on the city. Passing by the Manitoba Legislature, my boat guide, David, filled me in on the Masonic Symbolism embedded in the structure, enough to inspire a new Dan Brown novel. (The legislature’s tower is surmounted by the Golden Boy, representing the youthful Greek god, Mercury and there are four figures surrounding the base representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Guess what medieval alchemists believed would happen if you added mercury to the four elements?).
Also visible from the water, stationed in back of the legislature and facing the Assiniboine River is a rather conventional statue of Manitoba’s controversial rebel and politician, Louis Riel. He was instrumental in the creation of Manitoba as a province, was elected a Member of Parliament three times and later was hanged for treason (a fate many Canadians still wish could be applied to certain MP’s).
For a look at the twisted, naked statue of Riel that used to be located behind the Legislature you’ll have to cross over the ultra-modern Esplanade Riel foot bridge to the French-speaking suburb of St. Boniface. Have a look at the burned-out ruins of St. Boniface Cathedral, with a more modest and modern church nestled within, then visit Riel’s grave in the cemetery in front of the cathedral.
Finally, for a peek at the controversial statue that used to grace the Legislature, walk past St. Boniface College where it is tucked away and mostly out of sight from voyeuristic visitors.
If you’ve worked up an appetite with all this walking, your choice of eateries includes St. Boniface’s superb Le Garage. For those with more “pedestrian” tastes, stop at the Salisbury House Restaurant perched in the middle of the Esplanade Riel foot bridge. It features burgers called “nips” in the local vernacular and is owned by Guess Who vocalist, Burton Cummings.
If you can restrain your appetite till back in Winnipeg, chow down like I did at VJ’s take-out, just across from the train station. Don’t go for the ambiance, but there are picnic tables outside where you can enjoy delicious, (though cholesterol-laden; but heck, I’m on holiday) hand-cut fries and burgers.
Finally walk North on Main Street to the Exchange District and its vintage buildings, including Maw’s Garage, the first Ford dealership in Canada. There are lots of cool little shops and the district has a distinct Bohemian, counter-culture flavor.
The day had been a July scorcher and by now I was ready for a dip in the Fort Garry’s pool. I returned to my room, then walked down to the spa. On the way out of the corner of my eye I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of an unhappy gal in the garb of the 1920′s.
Nah, must have been the heat…
IF YOU GO…
Tourism Winnipeg — www.tourismwinnipeg.com
Travel Manitoba — www.travelmanitoba.com
All photos by George Burden
Another view of Exchange District
View of Exchange District
City skyline from Red River
Polar bear statues in grounds of Legislature
Statue of Lous Riel behind Legislature
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