“God Himself could not sink this ship.”
A Crewman of the Titanic to Mrs. Albert Campbell, as she boarded the ship in Southhampton, England, April 10, 1918
Halifax, the pocket-size capital of Nova Scotia, has borne the brunt of huge tragedies and most of them maritime.
On December 6, 1917, the city was a jumping-off station for supply ships ferrying goods and materiel across the Atlantic to help fight the “war to end all wars.”
At exactly 9:05 (we know this because watches and clocks froze in time; their hands fused) the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, collided with the freighter, Imo in Halifax harbor setting off the world’s largest man-made explosion prior to Hiroshima. You can hear the cries of terror and listen to the whispered, awe-struck voices relive that fateful day in the moving exhibit in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. (MMA) (902-424-7490. Fax 902-424-0612. www.maritime.museum.gov.ns.ca
The explosion killed more than 1,770 Haligonians (as residents of Halifax are called) and devastated the north end of the city. Completely.
But the positive spirit of the city prevailed over adversity, and Halifax is today a fun and friendly place to visit.
And since Boston was among the first to send aid and humanitarian assistance in Nova Scotia’s time of need, the Scotians show their gratitude each year by sending a towering Christmas tree to Boston, its lighted glory in the Prudential Center a heart-felt “thank you” and a reflection of Nova Scotian generosity.
Unlike many museums, the MMA is very visitor-friendly. Its exposed beams and bricks, its broad-planked flooring are unpretentious and welcoming.
The simple arrangement of the exhibitions underscores one of the city’s recurring themes: the life-long love-hate affair with the sea.
Standing alone, an exquisitely articulate example of irony, is one of the only remaining deck chairs rescued from the Titanic.
Above, is the tragically naïve quote: “God Himself could not sink this ship.”
The Titanic plays a big part in the museum, and in the life of the city. One hundred and fifty casualties of the tragedy are buried in three of Halifax’s graveyards, the closest port to the maritime disaster.
The exhibit’s powerful spell is undisturbed. There are no loud voices of visitors or distractions. The flotsam and detritus of the tragedy do all the talking.
But Halifax is also an “uneven” city, at times presenting an odd mix of the artistic and the eclectic which can result in a “lost” feeling. Walk down Argyle Street, for example, and you’ll see patrons sitting outside at the Argyle Bar and Grill which abuts several eating and drinking spots forming a long boardwalk of happy Haligonians making merry.
A few doors down is a real find: The Economy Shoe Shop The Tapas bar with the unlikely name (locals say it never was a shoe store) is an architectural delight: whimsical and quirky.
The outside is a pastel stucco with a life-size, life-like, floozy looking mannequin hanging from the balcony window.
Inside are winding staircases leading to hidden alcoves and cleverly placed seating levels.
The clientele are fun-loving and gregarious, and the food, while not overly imaginative, is quite good.
But leave Argyle Street and you’re apt to wander a bit without a clear sense of place.
You’ll come upon some Halifax beauties like The Book Room, Canada’s oldest book store, and St. Paul’s, Halifax’s oldest church, and the oldest protestant church in Canada. It graces a quiet courtyard where visitors come to sit, read and enjoy the serenity of Parade Square.
Next to the church is the city hall, a handsome Victorian building
Yet other streets seem to go no where.
They actually can feel a bit lonely, as if the city’s cultural identity hadn’t yet coalesced.
Then, suddenly, you’re in the middle of “cafe culture” and a strong arts presence, where energetic street performers entertain with considerable verve and lots of humor. One waitress told me that the creative energy of the city really belongs to the young people, her cohorts, who don’t yet have the political or financial power to make the city over in their image. “Wait,” she said. “You’ll see”!
It’s tempting to believe her.
Halifax is home to six degree-granting institutions colleges and universities, and they bring an unmistakable vibrancy to the city. The influences of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) are everywhere, for example. The school was created by Anna Leonowens, the one-time governess of the King of Siam’s children, whose job was immortalized in the movie, The King and I. NSCAD graduates are all over the place, working at some of the more than 60 pubs, designing restaurants and creating a funky downtown.
As an alternative to the creative energy of NSCAD, the sedate Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS 902-424-7542. Fax 902-424-7359. http://www.agns.gov.ns.ca// ) occupies a Dominion-style building (1863-1868) with a rough, attractive sandstone exterior. Christopher Ondaatje, a relative of Michael, who wrote, The English Patient, donated 48 pieces of art, much of it the contemporary works of some of Canada’s best artists who provide the Gallery with color and life.
What’s unique about the exhibit I think (something other museums can learn from) is the provocative explanations that accompany the art. The curators ask very interesting questions about a painting’s content and style such as: “What do you think the artist’s included a knife and pair of socks in this painting?”
It’s fascinating to listen to the discussions these questions stimulate, especially among parents and their children. I loved the ingenious comments from the kids like, “Maybe the painter didn’t have any socks when he was little so he added them to his painting.” Indeed.
There are “Talk Back To Us” books for visitors to write in so the staff can gauge reactions to the exhibits. It’s a clever attempt to make basically static exhibits interactive.
If the gallery is a touch too monochromatic, The Cheapside Café saves the day. It’s a happy, colorful little cafe that sits at the far end of the building. It’s its own wonderful work of art, with colorful walls and drapes, saucy cups and saucers, a quirky menu and thoughtful staff. I’ve never seen such a delightfully “irreverent” cafe in any museum.
Spring Garden Street is Halifax’s version of SoHo and best captures the creative energy and youthful spirit of the city. Often grungy but always fun, Spring Garden Street is worth walking through and finding a spot for a beer or something to eat.
In front of the library (a “hang out” for the university crowd) is a statue of Winston Churchill in half-stride, and on the same street is something arguably even more famous: Bud The Spud. This dilapidated truck is a day-time institution in Halifax. There are other trucks selling French fries to the knots of students and visitors, but it’s Bud’s that has the queue. Truthfully, the fries are fresh, crisp and deeply flavored, an obvious staple of life here.
Halifax was a planned city, designed by the British Crown to be a major presence in England’s strategy to drive the French from Canada and become the dominant power in North America. They succeeded, after winning the French and Indian War, in creating British hegemony in Canada.
Interestingly, in the process, the Brits were guilty of their own brand of “ethnic cleansing” in driving the Acadians (the French farmers and settlers) from their homes and seizing their choice farming lands for the crown.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long, heart-breaking poem, Evangeline, was written in celebration of two Acadian lovers separated by the British-ordered expulsion from their homes. These two, and hundreds of others fled south, some as far as Louisiana where they became known as “Cajuns.”
The star-crossed lovers make their home an hour west of Halifax in a small park called Grand Pre.
It’s a National Historic Site, elegantly simple and unadorned. There’s a small stone chapel tucked in a copse of trees, and a quiet, graceful statute of Evangeline. It’s a poignant and somewhat melancholy place as befits the longing of lovers lost to each other…and very much worth a visit.
Halifax retains the British influence in the names of her streets (Duke Street; Prince Street), the gene pool of the residents (lots of blonds and blue eyes) and some of the chief attractions like the Halifax Citadel 902-426-5080) – a well maintained working fort where the guided tours introduce visitors to the 78th Highland Regiment in action.
The sound of the bagpipes lingers long after that last breath has been blown, and the costumed guides answer such questions as, “How was it to be a soldier’s wife in the early 19th century?”
Right below the Citadel are the Halifax Public Gardens. These unspoiled Victorian gardens stretch colorfully for some 17-acres, and are enclosed by a wrought-iron fence with a set of magnificent ornamental gates. The bandstand was dedicated to Queen Victoria on one of her visits, and the changing floral arrangements are artistically designed.
But it’s the sea that defines the city.
The waterfront is less commercial than Boston’s; more of a real waterfront.
There are snack shacks of course and restaurants, tours of the harbor and souvenir stores, but the sense of a “working waterfront” is unmistakable.
The wharves are rough wood, the boats floating on the gentle swells are plying wares, and the entire feel is that of a place not far removed from the business of life and the dangers of the sea.
Pier 21 is a “must see” (902-425-7770. Fax 902-423-4045. E-mail: email@example.com www.pier21.ns.ca ). On the far end of the waterfront, this unique museum is still very much a warehouse. But it echoes with the sounds of voices from immigrants expressing their hopes and the fears as they arrived on Canada’s shores from 1928 to 1971.
The museum is a tapestry of moving collages interwoven with the amplified shouts of children, the songs of refugees fleeing the armies of Russia, and a train ride through the Canada as seen from the eyes of the newly arrived.
One can only guess what these displaced persons felt as the vastness of Canada, its mountains, plains and cites, unfolded before them.
This is a living history lesson, and it’s easy to appreciate why visitors become engrossed in the thoughtful sights and sounds of life’s struggles and joys.
Halifax is a city with a lot of promise.
Blest by a laid-back life style and peopled by some of the friendliest anywhere, Halifax, with its many festivals, colorful history and Maritime soul, feels like the home you’ve always wanted.
• Predictably, Fish and Chips are big in Nova Scotia and the only place to have them is at Pineau’s Cafe. The portions are big (1/2 order is enough) and very satisfying. (5191 Blowers Street 902-429-9819).
• Now and again I find a place to eat that combines the best of a cafe, tapas bar and old-world bistro. In Halifax it’s The Press Gang (902-423-8816) on Argyle and Prince Streets. The unfinished concrete walls, dripping wax from burning candles and exposed beams and wrought-iron grates are exceptional touches. Try the Prince Edward Mussels in elephant garlic and white wine or the Paella.
The Visitors Bureaus are full-staffed, very helpful and interactive places to visit. In Halifax, drop into the Visitors’ Center on 1595 Barrington Street (902-424-5946). The airport has a Visitors’ Center or call 1-800-565-0000. www.explore.ns.ca or www.halifaxinfo.com
Did You Know
The Titanic had four dinning rooms, three cafes, 2000 windows and two full-time window washers…and an 18 hole deck golf course.