Exploring all the nooks and crannies

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Whew! Yesterday, I wrapped up my last school visit of the year. While I still have some camps and conferences coming up in the summer, I get a little break in my schedule.

It was one of my most hectic seasons in recent memory and, as I reflect, I’m very thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work with so many kids and to explore so many different parts of the world—both close to home and afar—that I may not otherwise visit.

In my home province of British Columbia, I worked as a writer-in-residence at schools in Sechelt and in Surrey, and as an artist-in-residence in Coquitlam—where we built a hatchery’s worth of dragon eggs.

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I visited many schools in my home city of Vancouver, including one where many of the students dressed up as Kendra Kandlestar . . . check out all those braids!

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At another school in West Vancouver, the classroom produced an entire “EENcyclopedia” board and booklet, build off the characters, creatures, and settings in the Kendra Kandlestar books.

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I also participated in two separate school tours this spring. The first took place in the central Okanagan Valley, with schools in Kelowna and West Kelowna. It was nine schools and a bookstore in one week! The second tour was built around my appearance at the the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest, which entailed visiting many different schools in the city of Nanaimo and its neighboring communities. During that trip, I was taken to the hidden gem known as Protection Island.

There are no stores or businesses on the island, except for a pub situated on the docks. I had never even heard of the island and, if not for the festival, probably never would have. It is a charming place . . . sort of reminding me of Tom Sawyer’s Island. In particular, I loved seeing the heron nesting site.

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Recently, I was also given the opportunity to present at the school in Stewart, BC. This is a very remote community on the border of the Alaskan panhandle. It’s small—in fact, I’ve presented at schools that have more people than the entire town of Stewart. But it is a gorgeous place. Getting there involved a 1.5-hour flight, followed by a four-hour drive through beautiful scenery. It was during this trip that I got to see my very first glacier.

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A big highlight of the fall was presenting at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. This is an event of rare characteristic. Where else do you get to hang out for three solid days with so many creative people in the same hotel. A sort of culture sinks into that place. It’s exhilarating and exhausting all at once. Especially, when they introduce costume events . . . because I’m just not the sort of person who can mail it in!

Here’s a photo of myself and my buddy, kc dyer, as steampunk fairytale characters!

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As for out-of-province, I had the opportunity to speak at the Package Your Imagination conference in Toronto, which also involved doing some library visits, including at the beautiful and historic Wychwood Library. That’s my bag and coat sitting on the ledge in the photo. And, of course, in the bag, is one of my dragon eggs. In retrospect, I can’t believe I left it that far out of reach—even for a moment!

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And here’s me doing actual work at the conference itself, where I discussed world-building for the middle-grade novel:

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I also had the opportunity to teach a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie Nestman, in Korea just after Christmas. One of our favorite moments was waking up on New Year’s Day in Seoul and going to explore the Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. It was a very spiritual way to begin the year.

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I really want to thank all the people who hosted me: the teacher-librarians, the public librarians, the classroom teachers, the festival and conference organizers, the billets, the volunteers, . . . wow! Without all of you, I’d never get anything done. And, also, there are the PACs and the Canadian Council for the Arts that helps to fund all of these endeavors. I really hope I could help inspire and invigorate our children this past year.

Now, for a bit of R&R before it all starts up again in September!

 

In which I survive my most recent tour and visit a magical island

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I recently  made it back from a second tour in three weeks, in which I visited eight schools in four days, followed by a day of presentations at the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest. You can only get to Vancouver Island by ferry, so I opted to drive over with my car so that I could cart all my various props and supplies.

What supplies? Well, for one, that included my Tour Survival Kit. I knew it was going to be a tough slog, energy-wise, just because I had come off another recent (and hectic) tour of schools, so I prepped a kit that included:
~ throat tea
~ vitamins (echinacea, golden seal extract, vitamin C)
~ coffee
~ cereal bars
~ hand sanitizer
~ more coffee

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Unfortunately, just before heading out, I caught a bug and that really played havoc with my voice. Without the benefit of days off or rest, I had no choice but to just plow straight ahead and squeak like a teenager going through puberty.

Thankfully, I was billeted for the week with one of the festival volunteers. Laurie tended to me like a nurse, which helped me make it through all those school visits. One day, I headed off to my school without my thermos of tea and when I came out into the parking lot, there she was, waiting with it! Now, that’s dedication!

It’s a challenge doing this kind of tour because it not only involves during several presentations in one week, but doing them at several different schools a day. For an author such as myself, who loves his props, that means a lot of quick set up and tear down, not to mention all the driving in between. Luckily, I have all of this down to a fine art.

Throughout the week, I did a variety of brainstorming activities at the schools. We often brainstormed doors, but we also did creatures and entire worlds. I even got to spend a couple hours talking archetypes with Grade 6s and 7s at Queen Margaret School in Duncan.

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Doing so many presentations in a condensed period of time takes its toll on me physically, but mentally as well. It’s fun brainstorming with kids, but it fires up my imagination. By the time I am finished for the day, my brain is percolating like a pot on the stove and I feel the urge, despite my exhaustion, to create.

One way I tried to purge my brain of all the creative clutter was to do some character naming. I ended up generating a long list of names for background characters in a world I’m building. That seemed to be able to settle my mind down enough to get some sleep.

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By the time Saturday rolled around, the day of the Book Festival, I felt I had made it over the hump. My voice was holding out, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I did two presentation/workshops at the festival, and was delighted to have my room teeming with kids and parents. For the festival day, I decided to try something I hadn’t quite done before, and that was brainstorming a magical market with the kids. I’ve done this sort of workshop before, but it’s usually with more time, and in a more classroom-style setting. This was the first time I did it with the sort of raw brainstorming approach. Thankfully, the kids (and parents) embraced the activity and we ended up with many fun and lively shelves full of all sorts of magical items, strange foods, and bizarre curios.

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One of the most fun things about going on this sort of tour is all the people you get to meet. I really enjoyed meeting my billet, Lauri. Her home has a very cool vibe to it, for it is full of treasures such as old-fashioned school desks, antique cameras, and typewriters. Laurie saw how enamored I was with her collection so bequeathed to me one of her typewriters.

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Of course, there were many other people to meet: all the librarians, book vendors, and other volunteers who helped make the festival a possibility. There were many other authors and artists to meet as well. This year’s presenters were Celestine Aleck, Scott Chandler, Eugenie Fernandes, Suzanne de Montigny, Ruth Ohi, Chieri Uegaki, Richard Van Camp,  and Cybèle Young.

I had met some of these creators at past festivals and events, so it was great to see old acquaintances again. (If you have ever met Ruth Ohi, then you know she pretty much takes the party with her. There’s a certain shake in her soda).

As a special treat, we were taken out to nearby Protection Island, which is a short ferry ride from Nanaimo. Protection Island is a real treat. I’m pretty sure it’s enchanted.

First of all, the ferry is for passengers only; no cars. So any cars on the island itself had, at one time, to be barged over. In fact, there are no stores on the island, not even a small one. The only business at all is a pub (well, I guess they got their priorities right). So, the people who live there have to bring everything over on the passenger ferry (that includes canisters of petrol for their cars).

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That means the island is quiet and peaceful; no urban noise, no cutter for the ears. The island and its views are stunning, and we had a wonderful dinner hosted by residents Dora and Jerry who founded the Children’s Book Festival many moons ago. As I said, I feel like there’s a rumbling of magic on this island. It also sort of reminded me of Tom Sawyer’s island; it just had that sort of vibe.

I especially enjoyed seeing the heron nesting site. Apparently, the herons themselves have moved on, but you can still see the evidence of their habitation.

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My deepest thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, and administrators who helped make Bookfest Nanaimo 2017 such a success. Also, my thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding helped make my participation possible. It was a rewarding week full of adventure and inspiration!

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Favorite doors of Shanghai

During my trip to Shanghai, I was able to find a lot of inspiration from the gardens, the architecture, and the overall sights and sounds of the city. Most of all, I found many wonderful doors!

Students, friends, and colleagues know I have a bit of a door obsession. I photograph them, write about them, and collect door knockers. I even have a trunk that is made out of an old door.

Here are some of my favorite doors and details that I was able to find during my recent trip to storied and exotic city of Shanghai. These come from Old Shanghai, Ancient Town in Qibao and the French Confession . . . or, otherwise, just here and there throughout the city.

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A Magical Morning in Old Shanghai

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After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_05_-_The_Blue_Lotus.jpgThis is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.

We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between.  We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!

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The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.

We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.

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We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.

In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.

It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .

First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.

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Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.

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Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.

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Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.

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Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.

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At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!

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I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.

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I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.

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Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.

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And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.

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Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!

 

Exploring Québec ~ Day 4

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Day 4 was actually the final day of my time in Québec City. Since it was a truncated day, with part of it spent getting to the airport and flying home (which actually also turned out to be a better part of the night—but such are the risks that go with trying to make flight connections across a giant country such as Canada), Marcie and I did not do a great deal, other than visit the Museum of Civilization, have a final lunch, and then wander the old streets one last time.

The Museum of Civilization is in the lower old town, but in a very modern building. The main exhibit chronicles the history of the province and is brimming with all sorts of interesting relics from the past. I highly recommend it.

Well, one thing we learned about this place is that people are extremely convivial, full of love, and very proud of their beautiful cities. And well they should be! Even wandering through the time-worn streets of Québec City one last time, Marcie and I discovered many lovely doors and details.

How did we miss these previously? I’m not sure! But here are some of the final things we noticed.

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Well, my next adventure, will be sticking my nose into my sketchbooks and laptop to work on the actual “writing” phase of my writing projects—and to teach some creative writing courses. One involves the theme of family history . . . but that’s a post for another time. In the meantime, I’m fuelled up with inspiration and ready to spring into a fall of creativity!

Exploring Québec City ~ Day 3

We woke up on the morning of our third day in Québec City feeling very sore, our legs reminding us of the amount of trekking we did yesterday. According to Marcie’s app, over 26,000 steps! So we decided to have a casual day.

Marcie spent the morning exploring the shops on Rue Saint-Jean, while I stayed in the hotel room, at the window seat, doing some writing. I had a goal to finish a particular chapter of one of my books before the end of this trip. The scene I’m working on is set in an old museum, a sort of cabinet of wonders, so this whole trip to Old Canada has been very helpful and invigorating. I’m not sure if I’m actually going to be able to complete this chapter before I’m back in Vancouver, but I’ve outlined the whole scene and now—ha, ha—just have to write it. Well, maybe I’ll complete the chapter on the flight home and that will give me some sort of sense of accomplishment. I tend to be a slow writer anyway, and am not one of those who forces myself to achieve a certain word count each day or week. It’s just not the way I create.

In any case, after Marcie returned from shopping, we headed out to the provincial parliament building and registered for the free tour. We had 45 minutes to spare, so we wandered around the neighbourhood, which we had some familiarity with from the previous day. We came across an old church on Grande Allée East that was for sale and discussed whether we would ever consider buying in it and living in it. We thought the turret at the top would make for a neat studio—but it would be one laborious walk each morning!

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It was actually sad to the church in a dilapidated state. Tall weeds were sprouting from the sidewalks and many of the windows were boarded up.

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Of course, the cost for renovating and up keeping such a building would be exuberant and, of course, we don’t have the money for such a venture. So we left behind our whimsical moment and took our tour at the parliament building.

Like so many of the provincial parliamentary buildings in Canada, it is a beautiful structure—and a little better maintained than the old church up the street!

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The 45-minute tour was excellent and we enjoyed the beautiful stained glass windows and magnificent chambers. Many of our fellow tourists were Canadian, so the guide made sure to keep testing us on Canadian history. (I feel like I did pretty well.)

After the tour, we decided we needed a leisurely lunch and headed back towards our church and enjoyed a couple of hours at Le 3 Brasseurs, which is a chain I was first introduced to in Montréal. I encourage Marcie to try the flammekueche, which I had tried previously, while I had poutine. Because, you know. You can never have enough poutine.

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Well, of course you cane have way too much poutine. I certainly have while I’ve been in this province, but, hey, I convinced myself that I deserved my poutine indulgence after walking 26,000 steps the previous day before. I’m not sure how we convinced ourselves that we also deserved a refreshing pitcher of sangria. We just did.

Well it was Monday, and that was the last day of the long holiday weekend in Canada, and we certainly noticed a difference in the city as we walked around through the afternoon and night. The streets were sedate, and we had many of them to ourselves! We enjoyed the frantic hustle bustle of the weekend, but now we were privileged enough to enjoy a more romantic experience of the city on a warm summer night. In particular, we enjoyed all the stunning lighting of the buildings, both modern and old.

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As is always the case, I’ll end with a few doors and details that I espied during the day. My particular prize is the lion doorknob! I’m pretty sure this a portal to Narnia—but I posted it at the bottom of the photos, just so you don’t shun the others!

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Exploring Québec City ~ Day 2

Our second day in Québec City was another busy one. We woke up a little bit later than usual and decided we would go visit the Plains of Abraham, the site of the famous battle between the British and the French in 1759—a deciding moment in Canada’s history.

We ambled along the wall again, past the provincial parliament, and arrived at the museum’s office. The clerk there told us that, if we hurried, we could make it to the nearby “Le Citadel” to see the changing of the guard. So we abandoned the Plains of Abraham for the moment and charged off to Le Citadel, along with hordes of other late-arriving tourists, hastily purchased our tickets, and squeezed through the gates to observe the ceremony.

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I’ve seen quite a few changing of the guard ceremonies (London, Prague, Seoul, and so forth), but this one was the first one to feature a goat. And this is no ordinary goat, but one with golden horns!

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The goat’s name is Batisse. He is the regiment’s mascot and is an integral part of the changing of the guard.  The origins of the goat goes back to Queen Victoria, who in 1883 was given a goat by the king of Iran. Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, and Queen Elizabeth II gave one of the descendants of this goat to the regiment at Le Citadel. Well, Queen Elisabeth II is still around, but the original Batisse is not. In fact, the regiment is now on the twelfth Batisse. According to our guide, the queen sent over a new goat each time one passed away . . . until number four. With that fourth goat, came a wife. So now the regiment is responsible for propagating its own line of mascots.

In any case, Batisse looked quite regal. I suppose horns painted gold will do that for you.

We really enjoyed the tour. Our guide was informative and humorous and we learned a lot about the history of the fortifications—namely, that it was built to protect the city from an attack by the Americans that never came. (They did attack Québec City, but only before the citadel was constructed.)

It was interesting to see the difference in construction between the original French buildings and the subsequent English fortifications.

French:

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English:

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The tour guide also introduced us to this twelve-tonne cannon:

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According to our guide, this beast once caused the destruction of a woman’s house on the other side of the Saint Lawrence River. They fired the cannon one winter, only to have its payload strike the frozen ice, ricochet off the hard surface and bounce forward to obliterate her home. Thankfully, she wasn’t inside at the time. Recently (and by recently, I mean within the last few weeks) many of the shells for this cannon were unearthed and were lying nearby for us to see:

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You can see my foot in the bottom of the photo, to show you how big the shells are. (Also, my foot is there because I didn’t know it was in the frame when I took the shot.)

Nearby was the building where they kept all the powder. There was a slot in the outside wall that most of us assumed was for use by soldiers inside to use for firing at enemies.

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Actually, it’s just a ventilation shaft. It zigzags into the building so that an enemy couldn’t simply stick his own gun through, fire, and easily explode the store of gunpowder. However, our tour guide told us that attacking soldiers sometimes used animals as incendiary devices. What they would do is take a rat, dip its tail in oil, light it, then send it scampering into the shaft to ignite the entire building.  Very cruel, but I suppose effective. This technique was never used at Le Citadel, but about a half hour later, I spotted a black squirrel scampering across the grounds and thought to myself that it best just keep moving in case anyone got any ideas . . .

Well, of course, they don’t store powder in that building anymore. It’s a museum where you can see plaques and relics from the Seven Years’ War, including a very cool original canon. (We weren’t permitted to take photos.)

Near the end of the tour, we got to stand on the battlements overlooking Old Québec City. The view was very impressive. Marcie and I had taken our tour of Château Frontenac the day before, but we looked upon it with fresh eyes from this vantage point—it truly is an impressive and magical building. I have to say, it’s just one of those buildings that no photo can really seem to do justice. It rises out of the cityscape like a castle.

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After leaving the citadel, we returned the Plains of Abraham, but thought we better get some lunch before we ran out of steam. We found a restaurant called “Cosmos” just past the statue of General Montcalm and enjoyed some crepes. You can see Marcie’s meal. It was like fruit exploded all over her plate.

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Our stomachs satiated, we returned to the Plains of Abraham and wandered across the grounds of the infamous battle. It was so verdant and peaceful that it was a bit difficult to imagine that this was once the sight of the grisly Battle of Québec, the deciding confrontation in the Seven Years’ War.

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Incidentally, this pivotal battle lasted all of fifteen minutes. It resulted in the deaths of the leaders on both sides, James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph Montcalm. Whenever I think of this moment in Canadian history, I am reminded of this pair of famous paintings:

The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West (1770)

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La Mort de Montcalm, by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1902)

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Just outside of the park, there is also a statue of Montcalm. I could not really get a good photo of it due to the position of the light at that time of day, but here it is anyway:

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The Plains of Abraham also features a famous statue of Joan of Arc. I guess she was kind of like a patron saint for New France.

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After exploring the park for a bit, we crossed down to the nature path and descended down a long staircase to the rue at the bottom. From there we gained a good vantage point of the cliff looking upwards:

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It was this type of cliff that a small contingent of British soldiers had to scale in order to surprise the French garrison at top. Once they seized the garrison, the rest of Wolfe’s 5,000-strong army was able to reach the plains via a road. (Let’s just say the walk down was onerous enough and we had the use of stairs; so I can only imagine how difficult it was for these men to climb up beneath the cover of night.)

We required refreshment after our long walk in the hot summer sun, so we decided to head back to Château Frontenac, where we had seen the lovely 1608 bar the day before on our tour of that hotel. We arrived just after the bar opened at 2pm, so were able to procure a table (the bar filled up very quickly afterwards). This is a beautiful, cozy location in the hotel, affording a great view of the Saint Lawrence, if you get the right seat. We sat next to the bookshelf, since we wanted to feel like we were in the old reading room—which is what this room used to be.

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Our next adventure for the day didn’t happened until later at night when we took the ghost tour through old Québec City. As I mentioned in my blog posts about Montréal, I really enjoy taking ghost tours, since it is a good way to hear about the history of a place.

This tour did a good job of trying to create atmosphere. Our guide was dressed in a cape and hat and led our way down cobblestone streets with a candle-fuelled lantern.

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Marcie and I appreciated the fact that the tour took us down several streets, back alleys, and courtyards that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored. In fact, there was a great deal of walking on this tour—it had some people puffing and panting, especially when we started climbing some of the steep hills. The grande finale of the tour was at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity near the Château Frontenac. Here is my picture of it in the night:

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The guide led us inside—it was pitch dark with only the lights from the streets beyond to provide us with any illumination. We then sat in the pews as she told us stories about the ghosts who apparently haunt the cathedral, her candle light flickering and adding a certain macabre ambiance. That was certainly a lot of fun!

After the tour, we headed back towards our hotel and came up through the gate on St. Jean where raucous music was playing on the festival stage. It’s the Pride Festival here this weekend, so each night they have been having celebrations. On this night, it was drag queens performing. We paused to watch a bit of it. Marcie said to me, “That looks like Marilyn Manson on stage.” It was just a look-alike of course. Afterwards, faux-Marilyn stalked through the crowd looking grim and somber and people delighted in taking pictures with him. Faux Gwen Stefani went next. Well, it was a fun way for the night to come to an end.

As usual, I’m finishing off this post with a series of photos chronicling the doors and details discovered throughout the day. Every time I turn a corner in this city, there is a new treasure to find . . .

celticcross-snake

oldtownquebec-greendoor

chateaufrontenac-greenman

lecitadel-yellowdoor

lecitadel-yellowdoorhinge

lecitadel-yellowdoorwindow

lecitadel-blackshutter
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oldtownquebec-reddorwithblackhinge

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