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Ottawa: A Capital Idea
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Ottawa: A Capital Idea
  Ottawa Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton

Canada's Parliament Buildings are the focal point of the Nation's Capital, dominating the skyline against the shore of the Ottawa River. Ornate and traditional in design, they exude grandeur and seriousness. We walked within the hallowed halls of Parliament, steeped in the trappings of a royal heritage. The priceless paintings illuminated by stained glass windows impart a certain dignity to the business of Canadian politics.

One of the most fascinating areas in this governmental complex is the House of Commons, where the elected representatives of the people ceremoniously and methodically applaud and assail each other. The debates are televised for the world to judge, sometimes to the dismay of all Canadians.

A stark contrast to the noisy environment of the House of Commons is the Library of Parliament. In this cathedralesque setting ne'er a word is spoken. The vaulted chamber that houses the nation's parliamentary records miraculously escaped a fire in 1916, but fell prey to water damage in 1952 when a second fire destroyed the dome. It took four years to restore the library to a condition befitting the royal presence of Queen Victoria's statue that presides over the 600,000 volumes in the collection.

One other chamber on Parliament Hill is distinguished by dignified silence. The Memorial Chamber is a quiet and revered monument t Canada's 114,710 war dead. The names of Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen who gave their lives for their country are inscribed in five Books of Remembrance. The calligrapher of the first book, William Baldwin, faithfully entered 66,655 names of the fallen soldiers of the First World War. The task spanned five years, and as fate would have it, his name was to appear on page 113 in the second volume of the Book of Remembrance.

This tribute to the Nation's war dead is a solemn bond linking generations of Canadians. Displayed on five alters, the books lie open for all to view, and each day at eleven o'clock a page is turned in each of the five books, so that every name will be on view at least once a year.

The Memorial Chamber is the only room on Parliament Hill that you can enter without a guide. It is a deeply private place, where you can be alone to contemplate the great sacrifice these Canadians made for their country. I'm overwhelmed by the thought of 114,700 fallen soldiers. I may forget the splendor of the copper-topped monuments, but I will not forget the Books of Remembrance.

Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the Nation's Capital in 1857. She ignored the big cities of Toronto and Montreal and chose Bytown, as it was then called, despite opposition from those who couldn't envision a cold and miserable lumber camp as Canada's grand Capital.

Granted, the winters are still cold and miserable but the crude community has grown into a first class city. It didn't happen over-night, in fact, the only change was the strange rocky building stuck on the hill. It took Wilfred Laurier's dream of a 'grandeur capital ' and years of planning to transform the rough and tumble village into a modern moving mecca--with an eye on history, of course, stored for future generations to view and understand inside a plethora of museums.

Ottawa is also home to scores of historical churches, the famous RCMP Musical Ride, and the National Gallery of Canada, a glass, steel, and stone structure, designed by Moishe Safdie of Israel. It is situated in plain view of the Parliament Buildings, a bold contrast between the old and new faces of Ottawa.

Safdie traveled the world to gather ideas for this beautiful building. He discovered that natural light is the ideal illumination for fragile works of art, and he designed the National Gallery to make the most of natural sunlight. The towering roofs are of double safety glass and the walls of triple safety glass. Computers raise and lower shades beneath the glass allowing just the right amount of light in. The lower levels get outside light through cleverly designed portholes and bridges. An ingenious architectural feat.

I've been to Ottawa twice now. Once in the summertime, when flowers, fruit and sunshine mingled in the Byward Market, adding a messy European flavor to the city, and most recently in the fall, when the autumn leaves flashed color of such magnitude no-one paid attention to the dull and dreary sky. Yes, it was fall, the streets were sort of empty, but, what the heck, the indoor malls were full. Especially, the sophisticated Rideau Centre. I would guess the over 230 shop owners appreciated the crowds.

We toured past the Prime Minister's residence on Sussex Drive (couldn't see a thing), and drove through Rockliffe Village where the world's ambassadors reside. The opulent mansions make life in the political arena seem very attractive, despite the need for security guards scrutinizing every vehicle that slows down to take a closer look .

Three rivers historically governed the growth of Ottawa; the Rideau, the Gatineau, and the Ottawa. They meet at the banks of Parliament Hill. In 1826 a man-made river was dredged to enhance navigation; the famous Rideau Canal.

The Canal was built between Kingston and Ottawa so that British gunboats might avoid confrontation with the enemy on the shores of the St. Lawrence. The hostility never took place, but today, a cruise on the unique waterway of 49 locks over 200 km is a popular recreation excursion. To be sure, Ottawa's residents make use of their 8 kms. In the summer they splash about in dinghies and sailboats and when it freezes in the winter, they put on their skates and go to work.

Because of all these giant ditches, downtown seems congested and the streets a conglomerate of one ways and confusion but after a few trips around the block they begin to make sense.

In May, during the Festival of Spring, tulips bloom over every inch of earth in and around the city. The Visitor's Center promotes it as the largest display of tulips in North America. These living carpets are gifts from the Netherlands in gratitude for giving refuge to Queen Juliana during the second world war.

I've seen pictures. The Parliament Buildings float on a sea of crimson and gold. The rough blocks not quite as solid, not quite as serious and not quite as dogmatic. It's a comforting thought.

For brochures and maps, write: National Capital Commission Visitor Information Centre, 14 Metcalfe, Ottawa, Canada

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