Toronto musings

Toronto musings

Canadian retreat

Toronto musings

We stood teetering on the edge of the deck, 116 stories above the ground, at the 553-metres-tall CN Tower in Toronto. Clad in fluorescent orange jump suits, we were doing the Edge Walk, billed as Toronto’s tallest most extreme urban adventure.

We strolled on a 1.5-metre ledge, supported by a harness and a pulley attached to an overhead rail; our air was casual, but within, we felt flutters of panic. Our pert 22-year-old guide kept up a constant patter, urging us to test our limits even as a couple of faint-hearted participants in our group of six felt giddy as they looked down on ant-like cars and ribbon like roads of the city.

Adrenaline rush

Our guide urged us to do a few tricks — stand with our toes jutting out, arms widespread in a Titanic pose, facing the city; and then, backing the city, our heels hanging over the edge, arms held upwards in a stance of despair! But the views of Toronto, of Lake Ontario, planes taking off… made the walk worth every drop of nervous sweat that dotted our temples.

When Toronto’s iconic tower was completed in 1976 on the lakeside harbour-front, it was undisputedly the city’s heart and its defining landmark. Today, the city’s many vibrant edgy neighbourhoods are all jostling to be dubbed Toronto’s core though they pulse in unison, seeming to exult in this unique city’s diversity... Indeed Toronto, one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the world, welcomes into its fold immigrants, refugees and troubled souls so much so almost half the population has reportedly held foreign passports at one time or another. We explored this multi-cultural mosaic, a city that is essentially a collection of neighbourhoods that spread out from Yonge Street and decided that the most edgy and vibrant precincts for us were the Distillery District, Bloor-Yorkville and Kensington Market.

One of Toronto’s hottest entertainment neighbourhoods, the Distillery District, a short walk from downtown Toronto, brims with restored, red-brick Victorian era buildings that were once part of the largest distillery in the British Empire — the 19th century Gooderham and Worts. We walked down the pedestrian-only neighbourhood, our heels tapping on cobblestone streets and felt the youthful vibe of the city — a nine-metre-long Love Locks installation on a brick wall invites visitors “to lock down their love.” This is a favourite spot of newly-weds who pose in front of the installation as a public expression of their undying love. We ambled past pubs, beer halls, bakeries, bistros, designer boutiques, cafés, art galleries… nearly 70 cultural and retail establishments.

Music poured out from different outlets in a delightful mosaic of sound as we headed to the funky Mexican restaurant El Catrin Destileria for lunch to sample a tapas-style menu and creative cocktails. There we slipped into a bizarre, larger-than-life world of a floor-to-ceiling mural of El Catrin which means ‘the gentleman’ in Mexican, with a top hat and foppish garb, done by a Mexican street artist. 

El Catrin is popular, judging by the long line snaking beyond its outdoor patio section. Its haunted air is in keeping with the fact that the Distillery District has its share of spooks — from the former distillery owner’s restless ghost — he committed suicide by jumping into the company well after his wife’s death; a man in whaling gear who sometimes makes an appearance in the wee hours; a late-night sighting of another gent hanging from a wine rack in one of the restaurants to the ghostly laughter of children that was heard during the restoration of the district!

But bumping into other-worldly wraiths is rare for, at all times of the day, the district resonates with fun, laughter and special events, even jazz riffs at the time of the Toronto Jazz Festival and a lively Christmas market leading up to Christmas in December. There’s carolling and Santa’s Elves sing-alongs, choirs, children’s storytelling and traditional foot-tapping dances by Toronto’s Morris Men...

In contrast to the Distillery District’s more earthy charms, the Bloor-Yorkville precinct’s blandishments are arty, haute and designer-related. We started our ramble from the Royal Ontario Museum’s moder-nist façade — a diamond-shaped crystal imposed on a 100-year-old building, both loved and hated by residents, depending on who you asked. We walked past the Mink Mile where Cartier, Tiffany, Gucci et al blink their lure to people with deep pockets. The Who’s Who of the city and Hollywood shop and dine here, said our guide. The sidewalk cafés, elegant rooftop restaurants and snazzy designer boutiques have seen the likes of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks; mere mortals like us could only window-shop or indulge in a guilty one-time splurge.

Coffee house culture

We then walked down elegant tree-shaded avenues which don’t reveal too much about Yorkville’s hippy days in the 60s and 70s when cafés like the Riverboat Coffee House, located in the basement of a Victorian row house, lured singer-songwriters to perform on its handkerchief-sized stage. Then newbies like Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and Arlo Guthrie brought the roof down in this packed space which also served as a platform for musicians like Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot... some of the biggest names in Canadian music.

In Yorkville, we ran into Suzie Sprott, a painter who has seen the neighbourhood evolve from the bohemian, counter-cultural, drug-soaked mecca of the 60s to modern haute avatar. “I thought the developers would come and history would vanish,” she said with an engaging smile and a flutter of long eyelashes as she showed us her self-published book on the neighbourhood.

Today, luxury condos and office towers have appeared, as she feared, but elegant Victorian homes shaded by crab apple trees still remain, as do quaint hangovers of the past like an old post office, a defunct church which is now the venue of concerts; a lush park where office-goers sit on a bench and have a quiet lunch, and even the curtained shady outpost of a psychic.

But it was vivacious Kensington Market wreathed in a sense of celebration that we fell in love with… A maze of alleys on which stand blindingly colourful Victorian homes where the walls are daubed with colourful artistic graffiti of unknown kings, lions, newly-weds, a giant Om and next to it a Mona Lisa! An establishment called Skincare Queens was helmed by a solitary male; another emblazoned its wares on a blackboard – Fries B4 Guys! A blue house called Courage My Love had naked mannequins on top of it; Crow’s Nest was a barber shop…

It’s hard to leave Kensington Market especially when you want to see some method in the artistic madness!

There we met another long-haired local historian of sorts, who looked like a hangover from the area’s racier past, a local historian of sorts. He told us that the graffiti started as advertisements for goods and then slowly escalated to street art. In the 1920s, Kensington Market was primarily a Jewish neighbourhood where families would set up stands in front of their homes and sell their merchandise to one another. When the Jews left, it was taken over by the Portuguese and even today, this charming enclave welcomes immigrants into its eclectic heart.

And that’s what Toronto is about – a city that is a shining example of life’s generosity and beauty!

Plan your trip

How to get there

Toronto is well connected by air with most international world cities. This financial and media hub is prettiest from late spring to early fall.

Stay

By way of hotels, this international city has everything from luxury hostelries to B&Bs.

Activities

Toronto has a lively food scene as well, thanks to its ethnic diversity.
For more information, check:
www.keepexploring.in


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