On a Thursday evening, I was gripped by a sudden urge to travel. It happens sometimes. I checked out flight prices, but it was Easter weekend and everywhere in Europe was absurdly overpriced. I looked down a list of flight prices, scrolling to ever higher prices in search of somewhere that was even remotely both affordable and interesting. And then I spotted a flight to Canada, for a very reasonable sum, leaving the next morning. Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd gone and bought the tickets.
And so only a matter of hours later I was touching down in Toronto, on a cold overcast April day. I headed into the city with no plan at all. One of the first things I caught sight of was naturally the CN Tower, once the tallest structure in the world. I went up and watched night fall over the city.
The most common way for me to be out and about early in the morning is if I've been out all night. But I was suddenly and unexpectedly five time zones west of my usual habitat so I got up at 6am and headed out into the city. The day started grey and drizzly, and I slightly regretted leaving behind London during its hottest April ever. But the clouds started to break up and the sun eventually appeared.
I wandered randomly and ended up at City Hall, which looked like some kind of alien launchpad. Temperatures were now soaring, almost to the high standards that I'd left behind in London, so I decided to head out to the Toronto Islands.
I walked down Bay Street and found my way to the ferry terminal. The boat shuttled across to the islands in a few minutes, and in hot sunshine I went walking. I didn't get very far before I reached a small cafe, so I bought a coffee and sat on a nearby rocky beach, watching high clouds drift over Toronto. I wanted to walk out onto a small headland for a better view, but as I did, a giant Canada Goose suddenly reared up in front of me, flapped his wings and hissed. I backed off, a bit surprised. I waited until he'd calmed down and then tried again, skirting the edge of what I thought might be his territory. But he jumped up again. I thought about braving it and pushing on, but had visions of "Traveller killed in freak goose incident" headlines and decided the views from the beach were OK.
I walked over to the far shore of the islands, and it felt like a very peaceful place compared to the city. It was still early season and most things were closed, so all I could do was relax and watch the green waters of Lake Ontario churning in the wind. On a pier on the outer shore was a sign like you often find in touristy places, indicating the distances from here to various places. It was a bit sparse, though. The only places indicated were Niagara Falls and the North Pole.
I wandered through the islands back to the main ferry terminal and found that the queues for the return boats were immense. It looked like it would take hours to get on board, so I headed to a quieter ferry terminal, two miles away at the other end of the island. It was a long walk and I got there just after a ferry had left. It was an hour until the next one, and there was nothing to do but watch sunbeams over the city until the boat came in.
I got up early again the next day, planning to go to Niagara. But I got lost on the way to the subway station, ended up walking all the way to Union Station, and missing the train by five minutes. It was Easter Sunday, and few trains or buses were running. It was raining anyway, so I decided to leave Niagara for the next day. I walked out through the empty streets of Toronto, quiet in the drizzle, and the only people around were homeless, unhinged, or both. I ended up in a Tim Hortons, a place I had never heard of before arriving here but which was on every street corner. Their business is in providing disgustingly sugary snacks. I bought a coffee and a doughnut, and felt slightly nauseous after I'd finished. 20 minutes later I had bizarre cravings for another one. I decided Tim Hortons was a dangerous place and left.
By 11am the streets were getting a little bit busier. I wanted to check out some contemporary art, so I walked a long walk from the centre of the city out to the western districts, where I found the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. A gallery with a coffee-inspired acronym - it had to be good. But it was closed for a new installation to be constructed, so I trudged back into the city.
By now it was hot and sunny again, and I was annoyed not to be at Niagara. I hoped the weather would stay fine the next day.
The next morning I managed to get to Union station in time for the train to Niagara Falls. I still almost got into trouble with a streetcar that stopped short of its normal destination and left me a few minutes away, but I got on the train with a couple of minutes to spare.
The train was going to New York. Ontario sped past outside the window, as the bright blue sunshine that had started the day ebbed away and left behind high grey cloud. We passed through towns called Aldershot and Grimsby, and eventually we pulled into Niagara Falls station.
The grey clouds were descending. I walked out of the station, into an empty town. I was coming to one of the most touristy places in the world, but it looked like not many people arrive by train and walk two and a half miles down to the falls. I reached the cliffs above the wide green Niagara River and walked south. Small icebergs in the river floated north.
I didn't expect much of the falls. I wasn't even sure why I was going there. I've seen some of the biggest and widest falls the world has to offer, and these ones would surely pale in comparison. But then I walked round a corned, and in the distance saw a wall of water thundering over a cliff, and it was breathtaking. I walked on down the road. Spots of rain were starting to fall. I passed the international bridge and wondered if I should pop over to the US while I was here, but I thought that my battered and frayed passport might make it much more hassle than it was worth. I decided to stay in Canada.
The rain got heavier. By the time I reached the falls it was utterly grim, and at the lip of the falls it was even more grim as the spray competed with the rain and made everything twice as wet. I briefly retreated inside a ghastly tourist complex, had a nauseating Tim Hortons doughnut and a coffee, and then decided that whether it was raining or not, I had to get out of there. I walked up into Niagara Falls town. Giant hotels and casinos lined the streets. I was thinking of going up an observation tower, but the top of it was in the clouds. I walked randomly until I got to a place downstream of the falls where I could look over the rushing river with the massive horseshoe bite taken out of it.
The rain eased off and I walked back to the falls. In spite of the horrible commercialisation and the horrible numbers of tourists, they were impressive. I watched the water powering over the precipice for a while, wondering why humans like waterfalls enough to build grotesque tourist empires next to them.
Then the rain started falling again, and I headed back up to the station. Clouds clung to the sides of the river valley, and icebergs drifted by. The bus back to Toronto fought its way through the downpour and at one point the driver had to ask a passenger to wipe the condensation off his front window. Wet to the skin, I trudged back to where I was staying.
It rained almost continuously the next day. I'd planned to explore some outdoor places, but in the end the rain battered down relentlessly and I spent most of the day in cafes waiting for breaks in the weather.
I found a food market, in which there was a spectacular choice of maple syrup. What is sold as maple syrup in the UK must be mostly flavouring, or else I was getting severely ripped off here, because the tiniest plastic bottle of the stuff here was as much as a big jar in the UK. I bought some anyway, having been advised by a friend to get hold of the dark stuff that you don't get anywhere else.
I bought some food and coffee in the market, relieved to have broken my severe Tim Hortons addiction that had blown up over the past few days. And then I walked back towards my hostel for the last time, through the sodden streets and the crowds of umbrellas. A thick fog brewed up and when I got to the airport for my flight home I could hardly see the planes on the runway.
Tuesday, April 26th 2011
I was playing around with an intervalometer quite a bit while I was in Toronto. Here's the result: