Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Coast-to-Coast Across Canada by Rail -- Part Two

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

I waken in the morning to a splash of yellow sunlight on the forward wall of my compartment. We’ve crossed above the State of Maine during the night and are now heading southwest toward Montreal. I’m about to leave the Ocean, however, and catch a connecting train to my next stop, Quebec, capital city of Quebec Province.

We follow the broad St. Lawrence River approaching Quebec through suburbs of tidy little houses with steep-sloped roofs. Up ahead, the city is now clearly visible with the distinctive tower of the Chateau Frontenac dominating the skyline.

This city is thoroughly, proudly and defiantly French. First settled by French traders in 1608, it will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year. The British captured Quebec in 1759 and it remained under British control until Canada was formed in 1867.

It’s the only fortified city in North America thanks to the British who built the massive stone Citadel on a bluff more than 100 meters above the St. Lawrence. The ritualistic changing of the guard takes place here every morning at 10 o’clock – a British tradition presented by French Canadians to mostly American tourists.

Two days later I’m off again, heading west on a three-hour train ride to Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world. The skies are clear and the forest trees are leafing out in the warm sun. Halfway to Montreal we enter dairy country – large farms with herds of black and white Holstein cattle wandering in verdant pastures.

Exactly on time, the train comes to a stop in the Montreal station, which teems with people bustling to and from trains. I’ll only be here overnight, so I spend the balance of the day walking around the old town and along the riverbank, with a stop for lunch at Schwartz’s Delicatessen,a Montreal institution for 75 years. Their famous beef brisket sandwich is a euphoric experience that must have registered on my face because a young man next to me at the counter nods solemnly and says, “Extraordinaire, n’est-ce pas?”

Another day, another train – this one from Montreal to Toronto. The countryside along the way is rural, but the farms are large and prosperous. We pass a picture-postcard horse farm, with a stately main house and several out-buildings. The pastures and paddocks are delineated by pristine white rail fences. Minutes later we flash by an orchard with hundreds of fruit trees – apple or pear – each a giant snowball of white blossoms.

Lake Ontario appears and reappears on our left and seagulls, silhouetted against a mist that shrouds the lake, swoop lazily in and out of the haze.

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