First off, it’s not Tuh-ron-toh. If within five minutes of arriving you’re still saying Tuh-ron-toh, then you’re not listening. You might think you’re off to Tuh-ron-to, but when the wheels touch down beside sparkling Lake Ontario, six hundred movies away from Delhi, you’re in a city called Tronno.
Most people know three things about Tronno: that it has a very tall spiky tower thing in the skyline; that lots of Hollywood movies get shot here, on account of how bits of it look a bit like bits of New York but are lots cheaper to shoot in; and that it’s stuffed to the rafters with Indians.
But our hosts, the city’s Tourism Board, are keen for us to appreciate other stuff besides the CN Tower, Film City and our own food, so they take us to a show by superstar comedian Russell Peters, who is one of their Tourism Ambassadors.
“Welcome to Tronno,” Russell tells us backstage after the show.
“Get hookers and coke. Enjoy yourselves. Tourism!” He pumps his fist.
Everyone else in Canada rags on Tronno for being elitist, stuck up and self-obsessed, snarkily calling it the Centre of the Universe, but it, like Canada, is fundamentally a nice place. This city has given the world people like Margaret Atwood, Frank Gehry, Mike Myers and rock band Rush, so it’s off the hook for much else, including giving the world people like Justin Bieber and Celine Dion.
Now I’m going back to spelling Toronto properly, but please promise to keep pronouncing it properly.
We’re staying at the hip Thompson Hotel, whose rooftop bar and basement disco attract the city’s beautiful people at night. They swan around drinking, among other things, icewine — that famous Canadian speciality that requires the grapes to be picked frozen on the vine at -8°C in the dead of winter, and pressed immediately to produce a delicious dessert wine. They squeeze one drop out of each grape, using 45 to 50 bunches to produce 200ml of booze, so this is expensive stuff.
You can taste and buy icewine at the St Lawrence Market, a wonderful farmers’ and speciality vendors’ market, where I discovered that Canada, in large part the town of Hamilton, fulfils 90 per cent of the world’s mustard needs. Who knew? At Kozlik’s stand I taste a few of many flavours on offer, including a super-hot mustard that stings deliciously.
Horseradish mustard is essential to the extremely tasty Canadian snack called the peameal bacon sandwich. I have this flavourful back-bacon-on-a-bun classic at the stalwart Carousel Bakery stand run by the Biancolin brothers, exalted in many publications and apparently popular with film set crews.
We undertake a quick orientation drive around the city, with a little cultural orientation thrown in — beginning, inevitably, with Canada’s relationship with America. Canada is often treated like the fifty-first state of the United States, but Canadians endure this with forbearance, making mild fun of the USA the way adults might make fun of spoilt teenagers who are so silly that they’re cute. (“They think that as soon as they cross the border they have to bundle up, as if the snowline begins right there!”)
We see the gorgeous Old City Hall, where the courtroom scenes in Chicago were filmed, and the much less charming new City Hall next door. We drive past the shopping mecca of the Eton Centre, the green and lovely University area, Toronto General Hospital and high-end stores on Bloor Street along the so-called Golden Mile. Singers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen got their start playing in cafés in the quaint Victorian-accented enclave of nearby Yorkville, once the hippie hangout of Toronto. There’s the gay ‘Village’, loud and proud, which leads the Pride Parade every June down Yonge Street (incidentally, the longest street in the world). Toronto was the first place in North America to witness a same-sex marriage.
Kensington Market is a world unto itself: a colourful, wild little world filled with pot-praising cafés, brightly painted houses and not a brand name in sight. Three guys playing guitar and drums in a truck attract an appreciative crowd, a painted-up dancer does a jerky silent dance, artists sell their wares from clothes to jewellery to craft and there are lots of mellow sunlit cafés and bars to dawdle in. Bumming around here is one of the nicest ways to spend an afternoon.
Of course we visit the tall spiky thing in the skyline. The CN Tower turns out to be quite fun, what with the elevator that makes your ears sing as you rocket over a kilometre up into the sky. At 1,122ft there’s a glass floor, and people are daring each other to go and jump up and down on it. My limbic brain thinks this is a stupid idea but my ego, which is apparently taller than the CN Tower, has spotted children doing it, so I take a step out onto what looks like air, and jump up and down, and can now say I did it. (The guide says the glass floor is stronger than the rest of the floor, which then makes my limbic system unhappy about the rest of the floor.)
From the CN Tower I can see the next place I’m going — the Distillery District, where Mill Street beer, among others, is brewed. A walk around the brick-walled district is a pleasant afternoon’s distraction. Sample the drinks at the various pubs, buy interesting looking bottles, tour the breweries and gape at the sculpture. Everyone wants a picture with the silver Koilos sculpture and the giant replica of one of those War of the Worlds monsters, named IT. Do not miss out on a ‘Black Velvet’ cupcake at the Sweet Escapes Patisserie.
Speaking of eating, you can’t throw a pea in Canada without hitting a Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain with dodgy fast food but decent hot chocolate. There are 3,000 Tim Hortonses in Canada, and one in Kandahar for the troops. There’s lots of stuff I had no idea came from Canada, including MAC cosmetics and the Four Seasons chain.
Of course, few of the people are originally Canadian. Until the 1960s Toronto was a very WASP town; now you can’t tell the tourists from the natives. It’s a tremendously diverse city, populated by immigrants from all over the world. There’s the regulation Chinatown and the regulation Little India. Over half of all of Indo-Canadians live in Toronto, and May is South Asian Heritage Month, a good time to hang out in Gerard Street Bazaar in Little India. But there’s also a Koreatown, Greektown, Little Portugal and Little Italy among others.
Not that all immigrant life is rosy. Most cab drivers I meet are some stripe of South Asian, and all of them are thrilled to be here, but one Ethiopian-origin cabbie summed up immigrant woes thus: “Nobody who comes to somebody else’s country can be happy—not your people, not your food, not your religion. People don’t communicate. They don’t smile. They’ve been here twenty-five years and don’t have a girlfriend. Would you change your mother?” My experience of Torontonians, including him, is rather different. Everybody smiles, people are obliging to a fault and I have a pleasant chat with almost everyone I run into.
Anyway, with immigrants comes food, glorious food, so strike out and enjoy. As Peter Finestone, film commissioner, says, “It’s not ‘What do you want to eat tonight?’ but ‘Where do you want to eat tonight?’ And the answer is not just ‘Greece’, but ‘Northern Greece’.”
We stop in at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where I’m gobsmacked by an exhibition of David Blackwood’s prints of Newfoundland, called ‘Black Ice’ — brooding, otherworldly representations of the least developed of Canada’s provinces. Equally excellent is the exhibition of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), showing the process of oil production. The Bata Shoe Museum is also quite interesting, though I sadly never get to the Museum of Inuit Art.
Toronto has a mellow vibe, but also plenty of energy. There are wonderful buildings all over the place: the blue cube of the Sharp Centre for Design, held up mid-air by giant colour pencils, designed by Will Alsop; the new crystalline wing of the ROM designed by Daniel Libeskind; and the dramatic TIFF Bell Lightbox. Something seems to be going on everywhere. New hotels and venues are rising in a construction boom.
But at least one old building is just as wonderful: the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre Centre. This double-storied vaudeville theatre, built in 1913, renovated by 1989, is one of barely a dozen such double-deckers. The Elgin theatre is all sumptuous red velvet and gold; the Winter Garden, above it, has a ceiling hung with beech leaves and fruit, and balconies swallowed up in tree trunks and climbing vines to create a strange and beautiful setting. It’s absolutely worth a visit; and if you’re philanthropic (or just egotistical) you can endow a chair in either theatre and have a plaque put on it.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is the new headquarters of the thirty-five-year-old Toronto International Film Festival. It’s been called ‘a church of cinema’, and besides five cinemas, galleries, library and lounge, it’s also got the mighty good Luma restaurant to eat in (I tried the tourtière — a spiced meat pie — and loved it.)
Speaking of food, please don’t miss eating at either The Fifth, for its elegance, fine food and awesome elevator, or at Ultra for its utterly whacky cool — a fifteen-foot rooster theme, for instance. (Why roosters? I ask the barkeeper. “Barnyard chic,” he deadpans. “Barnyards are back.”)
Remember at some point to dive underground into the PATH, the city’s amazing Gaimanesque twenty-seven-kilometre underground pedestrian world, lined with shops and cafés and services, linking major buildings and transport hubs. In the brutal Canadian winter you can step out of the house and go to work wearing normal clothes if you use the PATH.
When you’ve had enough of the city, head out. The closest place to go is just across the Toronto Harbour to the islands, on a ferry. You can picnic or bike in these beautiful green spaces, go birdwatching or take kids on the rides. It’s a surprisingly pastoral setting, cheek by jowl with the city.
Better yet, set out for the biggest star in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA): Niagara Falls. The name comes from the Native American word Onghiara, meaning Thundering Water. The two-hour drive there passes by auto plants, towns and wineries (there are eighty wineries in the Niagara region thanks to its microclimate). We drive along the beautiful Niagara escarpment and past the Welland Canal, through which 4,000 ships a year make transitions along the St Lawrence Seaway Navigational System.
Winston Churchill called the parkway drive in the 4,250-acre Niagara Parks the most beautiful Sunday drive in the world. It’s along this lovely road, skirting the Niagara river, that we come to the mighty sweep of the Falls, marked by an angry head of foam and spray. A control dam above reins in half the water (and three quarters at night and during the winter) to limit the erosion of the falls. Turns out there are three waterfalls in the gorge — Horseshoe Falls, which is the classic Niagara image, American Falls and Bridal Veils Falls. Beyond is the Rainbow Bridge, one of four road bridge borders between Canada and the USA.
We board the Maid of the Mist boat, which chugs straight into the heart of the maelstrom, like a creature entirely without a limbic system. You can’t hear yourself think above the roar of a million bathtubs (160,000 cubic litres) a minute of water crashing into rock and water. I can’t believe that people have gone over the falls in a barrel and survived, including a 63-year-old retired teacher named Annie Taylor. In the calmest part of the water, it feels as if your life is about to be snuffed out. It’s exhilarating.
The scenery in Niagara Parks and onwards is ravishing, with fields filled with dandelions and the blue, blue Niagara river winding away into the distance. We visit the Inniskillin winery and chug glasses of the icewines for which they’re famous.
We wind up in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, filled with broad leafy lanes and picture-postcard houses. I walk into the Niagara Historical Society & Museum, patting my pockets for the C$5 ticket fee. I’ve left my wallet on the bus, a long way off. The lady asks where I’m from. “You know what,” she says, “you’ve come to see us from so far away, don’t worry about the ticket. Enjoy your visit.”
Maybe I’m just a cheap date, but I think I love Canada.
For my last trick in Toronto, I decide to see it a little differently. Of the many walking tours of the city, the Ghost Tour grabs my fancy — a creepy enumeration of the city’s wispier residents. So, at 10pm, more or less clinging to my guide who is an extremely good storyteller, I see the ROM, the AGO and the University area in a whole new light, so to speak. I don’t want to give anything away, but the name Celeste will forever give me the serious willies. All I’ll tell you is, do the tour.