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On the buses: across Canada from Toronto to Ottawa

By road the average journey-time between Toronto and Ottawa is five hours. The bus I hopped on managed to make it in four, mainly because the female driver was due to relinquish work for three days upon arrival. At Ottawa’s terminal she admitted as much to a fellow driver who looked shocked by her reckless attitude, having potentially endangered passengers’ lives by speeding and literally cutting corners. She’d even left Toronto fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. This led to us high-tailing it into Ottawa at 4 a.m., long before expected. A guard who’d just started his shift couldn’t believe his eyes as our coach-load of passengers squeezed into the building. The majority appeared to be sleepwalking. Hustling across to me as I settled on a bench, he asked how we’d managed to get there so early. I explained that our driver had seemed over-eager to deliver us in order to finish her shift. ‘But you’re an hour early,’ he whispered, unable to comprehend the fact. ‘I know,’ I guffawed. ‘It was a rough ride.’

At such an ungodly hour, there is – I imagine – very little to do in Ottawa. A nightclub might have been open, though it seemed unlikely. I had no option other than to pine for dawn, at which opportunity I could waddle off. It meant an additional two hours of sitting. Frustratingly, if anybody so much as fashioned their body into a horizontal position, the guard dashed over, chastising such rebellious behaviour. ‘Sorry,’ he said to an exhausted girl in her late teens who kept keeling over through being so tired, ‘but it’s not a hotel.’ Like she wasn’t already aware. Meanwhile, a diabetic woman collapsed in the toilets, under different circumstances entirely.

I’d barely slept on the bus, owing to my so-called recliner remaining stoically immobile. At one point, I’d contemplated reposing in the gangway, until the harrowing thought of intercepting a high heel where it conventionally hurts pointed my foolishness towards an inner sanctum of perspective.

I left the terminal at 6 a.m., allowing Bay Street to guide me away from the suburbs, towards the magnificent Parliament complex which cowered behind a bevy of skyscrapers. Everywhere I looked, what I presumed to be tiny cats galloped across gardens and roads at high-speed, as if late for an important community meeting. On closer inspection, it transpired that they were devilishly cute black squirrels. My tally spilt into double figures within ten minutes, the possibility that Ottawa was being taken over by the bushy-tailed creatures a credible notion. As I approached the Rideau Canal, there seemed to be a squirrel crittercising every bin. They were scurrying and scampering all over the spot, yet joggers and cyclists weren’t paying a blind bit of attention, as though mankind and the squirrel population were on equal terms, courteously living in harmony.

Trekking past Parliament, I bumped into a familiar face, albeit one cast in metal. Before me stood a memorial to Terry Fox, a remarkable Canadian youth who’d bravely embarked on a Marathon of Hope in 1980. Aiming to run across Canada to raise funds and awareness for cancer research, he’d unfortunately failed to realise his dream. He did, however, run for one-hundred and forty-three days, covering more than five-thousand kilometres before collapsing. For a man running with an artificial leg, it represented a profound achievement which required an enormous amount of perseverance. Sadly, Terry passed away the year after setting out from Newfoundland. He was twenty-two.

Venturing over the river, the province of Ontario is traded for Quebec, the river forming an incontestable natural boundary. It didn’t take long to walk a couple of miles along both sides to admire the vicinity’s churches. Exercise-enthusiasts aside, barely anybody was around. Given that it was a holiday weekend, most folk were evidently enjoying a lie-in.

Never one to take it easy, I opted for a ride to Montreal, catching a 10 a.m. service to travel further across Maple Leaf Country. Flung onto Maisonneuve upon arrival, I hadn’t a clue in which direction the Downtown district extended. I simply strode towards the most intense concentration of skyscrapers. A block away lay what appeared to be one of Montreal’s main streets, Rue Sainte Catherine, flanked by everything anybody could ever desire: restaurants, takeaways, clothes shops, and music retailers.

Judging by the high volume of posters pasted around, it seemed the exciting city of culture almost always had a landslide of events to keep visitors and residents entertained. Mourning the fact I’d missed the Carling music festival in the UK due to travel commitments, I was tempted to embrace a two-day festival which roared as I ambled. Staged in Jean-Drapeau Park, it was proud to feature The Magic Numbers, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. Learning that the park was a fair hike away, I decided against attending in favour of finding the old port. Reeling from rejuvenation, portly attractions included an old warehouse, transformed into a labyrinth from which visitors aspired to escape, along with bicycle and rollerblade hire for those sick of walking. The park could be seen over the water. On the downside, owing to its tree-lined perimeter, no bands or crowd could be glimpsed, though faint, distance-distorted murmurs of music intermittently drifted Ruddwards.

Other events on the month’s calendar included a World Film Festival, along with an open-air rap competition that the likes of Eminem might have entered if he wasn’t already world-famous. Had I been in voice, I might have had a stab. As it was, my energy levels staged a nosedive as I attempted to escape Victoria Square. In it to frame it, three happy couples were having wedding photos composed, traipsing after each other to the square’s prettiest spots. I unwittingly nabbed a starring role in every snap, perched in the background, chomping on a sub. Flinging both caution and gherkins to the wind, I even waved for the cameras a couple of times.

Skipping past Notre-Dame Cathedral, I felt wired, invincible, thirsty for another city. The Monster drinks I’d been gulping were taking their toll. In a moment of madness, I staked a foothold on the next bus. Destination: Quebec City. Having benefited from an early start, it didn’t seem as though I was overdoing things by visiting three cities in one day. Stamina raged, adrenaline coursing through my veins like a high-speed train that would no doubt crash and burn at a moment’s notice.

The three-hour journey was a breeze, yet I nearly made the fatal mistake of alighting at Sainte-Foy, a sight-deprived slog from the terminal I so desired. Once safely Downtown, I set myself the task of locating a hostel in the dark. It was 8 p.m., the only help to hand a pathetically scrawny map. Finding the place within an hour, a pat on the back was in order. Coyly, I asked a random staff member to do the honours, ever so gently. Safe in the knowledge that I had a bed (the last in the entire hostel, to be pedantic), I hit Rue Saint-Jean.

A port that grew on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is steeped in history. The oldest hospital in North America is there for starters, founded in 1639. It’s also the only walled American city north of Mexico, the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fortified on a prominent rise in a naturally defensive position.

If partial to a dab of fine dining, it’ll be near-impossible to find a restaurant not to your taste, platters of sophisticated eateries secreted down narrow alleys away from the main thoroughfares. Additionally, the city is reputed to be a commendable place to drink. A pub crawl commenced at ten. By that time, though, I was lost on the far side of the city, my legs having been swallowed by an ill-lit flight of steps. I’d subsequently pursued a wrong turn to render me up a street light-lacking creek without a torch. Eventually ascertaining my whereabouts, I managed to retrace my steps, though for a while I feared I was doomed to aimlessly stumble around all night. I should have signed up for that pub-crawl after all.

More by this author on his very excellent website.

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