After a restful night of recovery, watching films and catching an early night in Orleans, we were on track once more to climb aboard our bikes for the short but sweet ride into Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.
We were officially riding in on Labor Day- which, for all intents and purposes, is not too unlike a bank holiday in the UK, in that shops and businesses tend to be closed, the majority of people are off work enjoying the long weekend, and ‘normal’ life has all-but come to a standstill as a result. Perhaps this impacted upon our initial perception of the city, as we didn’t cycle in on a ‘normal’ day. But in a way, I kind of hope that isn’t the case- and that the Ottawa I glimpsed upon our ride through is a true representation of the city as a whole.
As we entered the city boundaries, it actually took me a while to realize we were officially ‘in’ the city. Everything was just so crisp, clean, tidy and spaced out. There were actually vast lawns surrounding all four sides of the large upmarket houses that couldn’t have been more than a 15minute walk from the hub of downtown Ottawa. The roads were wide and spacious, without the mayhem of weaving traffic I have come to accept as being part and parcel of city life. Wide, tree-lined sidewalks and bike paths lined the central streets. The main buildings all stood proudly in their own independent right, in their own space, their own grounds. Everything seemed remarkably…calm. There was none of the agitated, stressful ‘bustle’, the fast-moving, elbows-in-ribs dashing along the crowded streets (as per London, New York, even Liverpool at times…) but rather a relaxed, slow-going, easy pace. Yes, I can’t deny that the holiday no doubt is the root cause for this: but this is the image Ottawa presented to me, and that is all I have to run with.
The buildings were a wonderful combination of clean-cut, sharp-looking modernism- glass a-plenty, a vast spectrum of innovative architectural designs, shapes, quirky contemporary statements… the Ottawa National gallery Art Museum, for one, complete with it’s spider-like sculpture outside that captured Theo’s attention…and some with a more ‘classical’, elaborate feel- in particular, the outstanding gothic-revival style Parliamentary Buildings, that stood rather imposingly in their own grounds at the centre of downtown, slightly raised above the city upon Parliament Hill. Reading further into the history of the architecture, the buildings themselves are described as perhaps he most important example of gothic revival architecture in the world- and yet resembling no specific example of architecture from the middle ages by boasting an arrangement that is deliberately and distinctly modern. This, to me, embodied the general atmosphere of the city as whole: a combination of history and modernism.
I find it amazing that the capital city of a country so vast is, in fact, only the 4th largest city in Canada. The idea that the governing city of any country would not be the largest or busiest is a new one to me- accustomed to the cities of Europe (and London in particular) that carry their governing status alongside with a vast population in line with their size. But perhaps this actually allows the city to concentrate on its primary purpose: as a place of government.
We stopped briefly for lunch, finding that almost all shops were, in fact, closed, and the streets were extremely quiet to the point of deserted. It was almost eerie- like a ghost town, we were seeing Ottawa as a mere shadow of its true self. We then proceeded to weave our way carefully through downtown towards the river, consciously aware of the restrictions for riding bicycles on the sidewalk in the city (and anxious to avoid the fine associated with breaching them!) but finding, thankfully, traffic to be largely cyclist-aware and courteous. We found ourselves on the bike path and begun to slip away from the centre of the city, riding past the Canadian War museum as we weaved our way alongside the Ottawa River. We also managed to find a park at one point to allow Theo to blow off some steam- and with the water park still up and running (although, I suspect, perhaps not for much longer!) he was promptly soaked and laughing away as he chased the local kids through the many different water features.
Our destination for the night was with a family we had actually chanced to meet whilst in Maine- they had camped alongside us for a night, spotted our geared-up bikes and we had got talking to them about our trip and future itinerary. Enthusiastic cyclists themselves, Matthew and Angie also had two sons (although older than Theo!) and had been fascinated by our description of our trip- and the fact that we had managed to bring our toddler along also!- and had kindly offered us a place to stay if we chanced to head through Ottawa on our way through, which we gratefully accepted. Although poor Angie and Matthew hadn’t quite anticipated our unfortunate timing: arriving the very evening before the boys returned to school after a long summer and they, both working within the school system themselves, returning to work also. When you’re on the road, the timetables of day-to-day life seem to escape you- and we’re certainly the worst for it, neglecting to remember public holidays, losing track of the season dates, even forgetting the days of the week or when the weekends are (and the implications that naturally has on people’s availability, due to work and so forth!) The days, for us, simply blur together- the only grasp we have on time is the inevitable reminder of our return date, looming ahead of us.
We found ourselves, eventually, at the house of our hosts (having managed, after 4 failed attempts, to locate an open pharmacy in order to purchase more nappies…just one more example of our complete lack of organization skills…) and once again I marveled at the fact that this state of living- in detached houses complete with generous lawns both front and back!- could be found so close to the city without paying out more than I could hope to earn in a lifetime for the privilege. How amazing to have this sort of family-oriented, clean, safe neighbourhood right on the doorstep of the city!
We had a lovely time with our hosts and Theo greatly enjoyed the company of the boys (along with their vast collection of toys… of course…) enjoying good food and conversation, comparing parenting experiences (!) and gaining a small insight into the life awaiting us as Theo continues to grow. We made arrangements to stay for two nights, in order to afford ourselves with a day off to explore a little more of Ottawa- receiving some great recommendations from parents and kids alike as to whereabouts we might be best taking Theo!
However, as it happened, we decided that a trip right into downtown Ottawa- with it’s normal daytime traffic resumed to former glory after the return of all to work following Labor Day- actually wasn’t what we felt like confronting on our day off, especially with Theo in tow. Instead, we opted to climb aboard our bikes and explore a little by bike instead, making our way once more to the river path and heading in the direction of downtown, without fully intending on entering it. After some googling, Matt had decided perhaps a cheaper family expedition might be to hire one of the pedlos and take a mini tour from a slightly different perspective- using our cycling legs on the water!
I couldn’t believe, after 4 months of cycling, how hard I actually found it to power the pedlo boat. In a reclined seating position, with- yes!!- back support, I found we were required to use entirely different muscles from our usual day-to-day biking. The untrained muscles in my glutes and quads screamed in protest and regular breaks were an absolute must in order to afford some relief. Funnily enough, given his protests just days previously at the house of Pierre and Natalie, Theo didn’t raise any objections to the pedlo what-so-ever, or show any fear towards the water. I suspect this has more to do with the lack of engine, rather than his being cured of his phobia…
It was a gloriously hot, sunny day and the views from around this section of the river were truly beautiful. Surrounded on both sides by a cycle path, we were able to people-watch as students, celebrating their freshers week, ambled along to an introductory BBQ and dog walkers, runners and bikers enjoyed the beautiful weather. We were slow; far slower than we would be by bike on land, and although this gave us a welcome change in perspective, we mutually agreed that it was a pace neither of us could bear to uphold long-term. It seems we’re too impatient to be hikers- cycling is the perfect speed for us!
We treated ourselves to a lovely lunch as a reward for our hard work by joining those we had been watching on the bike path, stopping at the Canal Ritz and eating on the deck overlooking the water. We contemplated cycling further into the city, but decided this was the perfect, lazy afternoon for us: our glimpses at the amazing architecture during our ride into the city the previous day had, admittedly, left me hungry to explore further- but the prospect of undertaking such a task with Theo in tow during such glorious weather was enough to convince me that staying on the outskirts and enjoying the green scene before me was a far wiser decision.
When eventually found our way back to home of our hosts in time for Theo to play with the boys as they arrived home from school, while I pulled on my running shoes for a small taste of escapism around the local neighbourhood. I’ve missed my running immensely- and in spite of the ‘training’ my cycling has given me, I’ve lost my running capacity quite dramatically- the different muscles used in each process, I guess, mean that my running fitness isn’t what it was. However, it’s something to aim towards on my return!
That evening, a friend and neighbour of Angie and Matthew- a man called Rob- asked if he could pop by and chat with us, after hearing a snippet about our adventure from our hosts. We spent a good hour or so chatting about cycling and sharing experiences, enjoying our temporary status as faux-minor celebrities as we evoked such interest in our adventure from people we had never previously met. It’s been an incredible, unprecedented aspect to the tour, in fact: the ongoing interest and enthusiasm with which people receive the story of our tour, the looks of surprise and awe when we explain what we’re doing, the expressions of admiration when they learn of the distance we’ve covered with Theo in tow. I love that what we’re doing- given that our sole motivation was to explore the world for ourselves- is inspiring others and even motivating them to undertake more adventurous escapades themselves. We get stopped everywhere we go- by people we see in the supermarket, out of the street, in campgrounds. We have people pull up alongside us on the road and offer their support and encouragement, strangers who’ve heard about our journey offering their assistance, time and any resources available to them in order to help us. It’s absolutely incredible- and completely restores my faith in humanity!
It’s even in the small, sweet gestures that people make- I remember with a smile the guy who stopped Matt outside a store in San Francisco and insisted, upon learning more about our adventure, that he do something- ANYTHING!- to help us, offering equipment, a residence, money, anything. Matt protested with a smile that we were absolutely fine, and thanked him for offering, but we genuinely didn’t need anything. However, he was insistent- and Matt left him 20minutes later with an additional $20 in his pocket. From a complete stranger. We had someone pull up in front of us only a day or two ago, whilst we were battling on in the midday heat, and simply wind down his window to hold out a bottle of icy cold water. “Please, take it!” he called out, “You’ve totally earned it!”. Cold water never tasted so good. Or the elderly couple who passed us in a campsite and after observing my incessant itching during our conversation, excused themselves only to return moments later with their ‘thermapik’ with which to treat my mosquito bites. It was such a simple act, and yet, so incredibly heartfelt and from our point, tremendously appreciated. Combine this with the amazing experiences we’ve had with hosts along the way, and I find my previous perceptions and stereotypical views of the general world population have been completely shattered, altered and twisted- to a far better view than before.
Rob himself was an extremely enthusiastic cyclist, actually overseeing a programme for kids aged 5-15, through which he would help teach this 100+ kids about road safety and safe cycling, arrange tours, races and trips, advise on racing, bike maintenance, technique and more. What an incredible thing to offer kids- if only more programmes of a similar nature existed back in the UK!
Anxious to help, Rob also offered assistance by putting us in touch with his parents, who lived in Bath, a little further along our route, and with whom we arranged to stay in two nights time. We couldn’t believe our luck- and were so grateful!
Although short and rather lacking in tourist-orientated activities, our stay in Ottawa was perfect and gave us a tantalising taster of the city that satisfied the surface of curiosity and engrained in us the desire to return and explore further again in the future. Perhaps it is hubristic of me to assume I will be back, one day- but if nothing else, that thought serves as a means of self-preservation. If I were to tell myself this was my ‘one and only!’ opportunity to see Canada, my itinerary would be so full in the desire to take in as much as possible that I would most likely collapse in exhaustion (taking an empty purse with me!) after just a few short days. I don’t believe any place can be fully explored in such a short space of time (particular when you have a toddler in tow..) and therefore can never bring myself to think that one trip will be sufficient. I’m creating some incredible memories, and I’m dipping into what I can… but there is more to be discovered, and one day, I hope to return and fulfill that desire.
Thank you to Angie and Matthew, along with their two boys, for being such wonderful hosts for the duration of our stay. And to Rob, also!
Orleans to Ottawa: 20.72
Total miles to date: 3,197