At first glance, I could be forgiven for feeling confused. Three Gothic Revival buildings – offering the expected mix of turrets, buttresses, arches and spires, as well as a soaring clock tower – loomed commandingly over an adjacent river. A familiar-seeming Changing of the Guard ceremony had just ended. And, the spell-binding toll of bells resounded all around me.
These experiences may echo those of their more famous Thames-side counterpart, with a touch of Buckingham Palace tossed in for good measure, but this was actually the Canadian Parliament. And this entire Ottawa neighborhood, dubbed the Hill, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, drawing three million-plus visitors a year.
The area presents a great opportunity to learn a little more about Canada’s history, and how this modest, but nonetheless powerful nation, operates. Plus, you get great panoramic views of the entire city.
An unknown village in l858 when Queen Victoria selected it, Ottawa is ideally positioned on the Ontario-Quebec border (read: between Canada’s English- and French-speaking regions), in eastern Ontario. Still, it was considered an unlikely candidate for a capital, with one British critic even lambasting it as a “sub-Arctic village.”
The Queen never set eyes on the territory, but her son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), made the Atlantic Crossing to lay the cornerstone of the “Centre Block” (which houses the Senate and Commons chambers). At the time, the development was the largest construction project in North America.
Today, Ottawa is a cosmopolitan capital with more than 100 foreign embassies lending an exciting presence of multiple languages and cultures.
Guides lead free tours of the Parliament throughout the day, and although Parliament wasn’t in session during my tour , I did see the rooms where laws are made. First, though, I benefited from a brisk brush-up on matters Canadian. (It’s a constitutional monarchy, with powers limited by the nation’s own Constitution.)
After admiring the ornate foyer of the House of Commons, I peered inside the chambers, which featured soaring stained glass windows. Each elected official has his or her own designated seat, with the Speaker occupying (literally) the largest chair. Our tour also included the Senate’s chambers, brilliantly hued in crimson.
Next, I ascended to the top of the 302- foot tall Peace Tower, which houses a 53-bell carillon, a Memorial Chamber commemorating Canada’s war dead, and a clock that resembles Big Ben. This tower dates from 1921, since much of the Centre Block was destroyed in a 1916 fire that ravaged Ottawa. Every day at noon, the carillon rings out, and its joyous sounds can be heard from blocks away.
Prefer your Canadian exploits to skew Francais? Jacqueline Ostrowski explores a funky Quebec neighborhood.