Sunday, May 16, 2010

Toronto: Full Day #1

Before I came to Toronto I made a list of things I wanted to do whilst in the city. While I do this for every place I visit, it's rare that nearly all of the places I want to visit are in roughly the same place. This is yet another reason to love Toronto.

The day's sight seeing started off with a walk all the way up the famous Yonge Street - famous because I had actually heard of it before. I turned west on College Street, and walked past the Legislative Building, and the edge of the University of Toronto campus, where I stopped for lunch at Frankie's hot dog stand. I wasn't planning on buying any hot dogs, but the guy's name was Frankie, and he had a Brooklyn accent, so how could I not? Frankie prepared a massive ten-inch long Italian Sausage for me, and I sat and ate it on some steps while tiny birds hopped around me waiting for crumbs to drop.

From here I continued west on College Street until I hit Spadina Ave, where I turned south to explore Chinatown. Ironically, most of the restaurants in Chinatown seemed to be Vietnamese, or some other Asian variety other than Chinese. The real Chinese businessmen were instead concentrating on selling products like "Sweet Mangos" from Mexico, that weren't very sweet, for slightly less than standard price. From Chinatown I turned down a side street to explore the Kensington Market area.

My French roommate told me that Kensington Market was one of his favourite areas, and that it was full of "ee-peas" (hippies). At first I just noticed colourful, re-painted Victorian-era houses, but no hippies. Then I noticed that I had turned down the wrong street.

The real Kensington Market was originally supposed to be a suburb for rich Englishmen, but those plans fell through when no one bought the mansions, and so the developers turned the large lots into ten mini-houses all attached together - a "deca-plex"? - and turned the buildings into the original "affordable housing" units. Later, the area became a Jewish neighbourhood, and finally it made the transformation into an eclectic "ee-pea" market in the '60s. In 2006 it even became a National Historic Site of Canada.

(This bike shop wasn't in Kensington Market, but it should have been.)

While this was apparently the first sunny day all week in Toronto, it was still a Friday afternoon, and so the streets were not as full as I would have thought. Tomorrow will be Saturday, and I will come back to see the area at its best.

(Torontonians relaxing and enjoying the incredible weather in Grange Park, down town, behind AGO.)

From Kensington Market I started to walk south towards the CN Tower, but stopped in to check out the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) along the way. It was only about 2:30 PM at this time, but I was told the gallery took about 4-5 hours to peruse, even at a quick pace, and that the gallery closed at 5:30 PM. Furthermore, I needed to get to a chocolate shop called SOMAs to taste what I was told was the world's best hot chocolate (I love hot chocolate).

Eventually I did make it to the CN Tower, and did my duty as a tourist to ride what must be one of the fastest elevators ever invented. (See below for a video of the ride up all 147 stories.)

(Toronto's CN Tower during the day and night.)

(Looking down at Toronto, 500 metres below me, through the Glass Floor.)

(Looking down at SkyDome from the CN Tower.)

(Looking up at CN Tower from inside SkyDome.)

SOMA is located in another National Historic Site area of Toronto called The Distillery District. As the name suggests it used to house an old whiskey distillery, but ten years ago it was transformed into an eclectic collection of small art galleries, bakeries, what I assume are "artsy" restaurants, and of course SOMA.

(Some art? In The Distillery District of Old Toronto.)

SOMA is what I am prepared to call the world's best chocolate factory; or at least the best I've been to so far. The chocolate is prepared on site from imported Fair Trade, organic cocoa beans (oh no! I've caught The "Ee-pea"), and then used to make delicious drinks and treats. I had been urged to try one of SOMA's famous hot chocolates by Tourism Toronto's "Top 25 Things You Must Do In Toronto" web page, and I never knew that I didn't know hot chocolate could so incredible.

I had ordered a regular dark chocolate hot chocolate called "The Dark Side of the Mug," but I think I was given the "Spicy Mama" hot chocolate instead. I was not worried at all though, because it turns out the Spicy Mama is the best hot chocolate ever invented. It contains dark Peruvian chocolate, melted, and mixed with chili peppers, Madagascar vanilla, ginger, and orange peel; in short, it's a real zinger.

Since I was now in Old Toronto, I decided to visit the St. Lawrence Market to see if I could find some fresh fruit actually grown in Ontario. I didn't make it in time to catch the farmers at the Farmer's Market though, so I stopped in at another Mediterranean fast food restaurant to have a gyro (lamb and beef) pizza instead.

The man working at the restaurant told me he had been working in Edmonton for two months, but "couldn't take it any longer" than that before he just had to move back to Toronto, even though he could not find a full-time job there. I told him I had lived in Edmonton for four years, and upon hearing this he appeared to become very ill and looked like he was going to throw up.

Up to this point, it should be obvious that I had done a lot of walking around the Toronto Core, and so I feel qualified to say that this area of Toronto is a great walking city. I've yet to visit Montreal or Vancouver, and so I will hold off calling it the best walking city, but it must definitely be in the top-three; it even has bike lanes! (For my readers in Grande Prairie, a bike lane is a section, or "lane", of the main road that has been reserved for commuters riding bicycles, and is a sign of a progressive city.)

(Toronto also has street trolleys.)

In my travels this day I must have crossed at least 200 intersections, yet I can count the number of times I had to wait more than twenty seconds to cross any one of them on the fingers of my two hands. Furthermore, even at night, down town Toronto feels incredibly safe. And despite what Alberta students are taught in school, Torontonians are very friendly. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a number of friendly interactions with people on the street, and it should be noted that even the shop keepers and employees in Toronto are friendly. The nineteen year-olds working behind the counters of some of said shops even do actual work, and don't just stand there "texting". But I digress...

(Even the graffiti artists have a sense of humour. The "Post No Bills" Sign was painted on this construction barrier by the City of Toronto. The "Bills" were added on afterwards.)

After finishing my pizza I rushed back home to grab my jacket, and then raced over to the SkyDome (now called The Rogers Centre) to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play the Texas Rangers.

I expected the stadium to be packed, but there could not have been more than 10 000 fans in attendance- the stadium holds 50 000 - so it created an odd empty sensation, what with entire sections empty. Regardless, I was determined to enjoy this rare experience, and there was a small section of drunk fans a few rows over who provided some extra entertainment with their boisterous, if not always coherent cheering.

When I arrived at my seat at the top of the 2nd Inning, the score was already 3-3 and I feared I had missed all the scoring. I needn't have worried though, for no sooner had I sat down in my seat than the Rangers scored, and then scored again and again and again until they were up 9-3.

At this point, some guy behind me proclaimed the game to be "over", but in the bottom of the 3rd Inning the blue jays scored 8 runs to take the lead, 11-9. By the bottom of the 4th Inning the score was 15-10, and I wondered if I was not actually watching a CFL game.

(3-run home run in the third inning to start the come back. I can't believe I actually caught this on video.)

By the end of the 6th Inning the score was still 15-10, but the time was 9:45 PM, so I left back home. As if this had not already been a memorable day/night, on the way home I came across no less than ten Torontonians coming back from watching the NHL Playoffs at the bars, but wearing Montreal Canadiens jerseys. It was such a break from tradition that the local papers had pictures of it all over their front pages.

It appears then as though we have been poorly misinformed about Torontonians, and Toronto in general, in the rest of Canada. In the small section where I walked, it seems Toronto is a lovely city, and one which every Canadian should visit at least once. I'll be back to Toronto for one day on my trip back across Canada to Vancouver, and this thought gives me a fizzy feeling inside.

Toronto's Core: don't knock it 'til you try it. (For those of you who have already tried it, you can knock it all you want, and I probably will too after I've been to Montreal and Vancouver.) Note: I only went up to Bloor St. I hear north of that is a "no-go" area for the hip, happening people.

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