Castle within a City: Casa Loma

As ashamed as I am to admit, I can never get over the feeling of limousine leather. Everything is as grand as their website has promised. The chauffeur was waiting for us outside our hotel with a smile and with the limo just behind him. He opened the door for my wife, Julienne, with a declaration of our first destination: Casa Loma.

We stepped into the car… and entered a room. I should be ashamed by my blatant amazement but I’m just surprised at all the luxuries that could exist. Flutes and glasses sparkled against lights built in the shelves. The sofa is so spacious, Julienne could sleep on one length and I on the other while staring at the ceiling window. The ceiling even has a tastefully designed fibre optic ceiling that bath the whole room with a warm ambience. I tacked a mental note to put a good testimonial on the website that we have booked for a Limo City Tour.

The chauffeur, who introduced himself as Paul, continued to blather on. Casa Loma, he said, is a “Castle within a City”.

It was a good 30 minute drive from where we came from. Paul pointed out Casa Loma as soon as its peak came into our view. Even in the distance, we could tell it’s a giantess.

After leaving Paul to park in the Visitor’s parking area, we stopped for a moment and stare at the behemoth. I tried to act mildly impressed but I have my suspicions I’m not the only one. After seeing so many storybook pictures of castles, who else could have seen a life-size medieval castle before?

Henry Palett was the owner of Casa Loma whose life-long dream is his own castle. He was said to be one of the people who “own” Canada. But due to financial struggles later on, he was forced to auction off the castle. After years of neglect, an organization restored it into a tourist attraction.

We stepped into the main hall along with a herd of other tourists. Even from there, I can smell the old oaky smell and traces of varnish fumes that tells of dignified preserve ahead. We wandered into the library and scattered into the vastness of the room. The library is fit for the sensible unlike libraries today. It’s bright by the sunlight coming from wide windows and airy to combat the summer heat. Footsteps tapped patterns in the oaken floors while people passed by walls and walls of bookcases. I pity the dusty books; I doubt they’d ever been read.

We wander around the house and it feels vaguely like intruding someone’s home. This was a dream of a man come true. I kept this with a sober mind as I walk on to his study. The guide showed us a secret door on either side of his fireplace. Again, like all men, it was made by a man who dreamed how his study should be. The difference is he made it happen.

We shambled upstairs into more personal quarters. I began to understand why Hollywood would film here. Casa Loma is a house of history that you can breathe and walk in without feeling out of place. It’s a place you could have lived in comfortably modern times or not. It’s nostalgia without the dust.

Julienne and I went into Lady Palett’s bathroom that has its own bidet. Bidet is a rare bathroom fixture which was used to wash the privates.

“You know,” Julienne said in a very conversational tone as we stare at the low sink complete with spigots, “I’ll never be able to look at another photo of hers again without imagining her using that.”

Well said, Julienne.

To the third floor is a narrow staircase leading to the highest point of the castle. It was so narrow, Julienne and I had to take turns going to it. Holding my phone securely on my hand, I walked up the spiralling staircase and ignored the vandalism scribbled on the walls. My breath caught a little at the height but I got some spectacular views of Toronto downtown.

We then joined the pack of tourists outside. I closed my eyes enjoying the sun and noted the crispier air. The garden expands as far as the eye can see; you’d forget you were in a city and not in some old romantic movie.

“If I have visited here when I was a kid,” she said, “I’d be pretending I’m a princess and this is my royal garden.”

I told her it’s never too late.

We went back to Paul with me nursing some elbowed ribs.


Yonge Street

Feeling a bit worn in the edges but refreshed by the crisp, clean air of Bluffer’s, Paul drove us back to our hotel to change. Since the drive now is longer, we entertained ourselves for a while making ourselves drinks and watching a movie. We did have fun playing with the strobe lights till our eyes hurt. Julienne was laughing so hard, she couldn’t touch her drink for a while.

Paul waited for us as we get ready for our dinner reservation in La Vecchia. Julienne didn’t know where we’re going. I found it in the internet and I wanted to surprise her.

We drove down Yonge Street, the city glowing with activity and flashing signs. Finally we arrived at the Italian restaurant –a smooth-looking place with its own rustic charm.

I smiled a little when I saw her eyes widen with approval when we got inside. Sepia photos –wood framed and hanged adorned the stone walls. Velvety, wine red curtains sections our reservation from the rest. Candles and lamps bathe everything with a soft light.

It was a bit noisy but it was kind of expected. Italians are very expressive people in my experience –somewhat up in volume with wide gesturing hands.

We tried appetizers first. I can never get the names right but I tried something that the menu described as sautéed mussels in roasted garlic tomato broth. Maybe I should have written it down on a paper along with my name. Because when I tasted it, I forgot everything else. Julienne tried a salad of baby spinach and mushrooms flavoured with some time of vinegar and topped with goat cheese.

Our dinner arrived shortly; julienne tried Pollo Savoia –chicken breast oven baked with red pepper, onion and mushroom wine sauce. I slowly took my time with the Costata Di Vitello, veal chop cooked in porcini mushroom red wine with mashed potatoes and vegetables on the side. We couldn’t resist pizza either and ordered the Pizza Vegetariana –a name that says it all with a tang of goat cheese.

And thus ends our City Tour in Toronto Canada. It has been quite helpful booking a limo online beforehand. The chauffeur had also been an excellent guide and made sure our tour was enjoyable. Casa Loma has been a nostalgic Hollywood experience. The people have certainly had their way on preserving its classic charm.

Bata Shoe Museum had been interesting. It was certainly stimulating to learn culture in a new way –as well as poke fun with shoes.

Bellevue had been fantastic and I wished we took the time to shop there. Sunnyside Beach was peaceful and it really made us catch up with each other. Bluffer’s Park has been something else. It was truly a getaway attraction that seems to transport you into a natural preserve while being in the city. Yonge Street too was also a very classy street. We truly enjoyed our stay in the Italian Restaurant and it never failed in putting up a romantic ambience.

Bata Shoe Museum: Footwear Fancy

Bata Shoe Museum is literally a museum of footwear. I made jokes of the museum probably smelling like feet but Paul nor Julienne laugh. Well, Julienne did a little but only because there was a presence of another company so I shut up.

It’s an 8-minute drive from Casa Loma. We stopped by a sleek grey modern-looking building. Paul said by learning about the shoes we learn about Canada’s culture. How can he say that with a sober face?

Julienne and I entered the building and into a semi-permanent exhibition. We paused and looked around. It’s an elaborate, clean and artistic display that is almost scientific in positioning. Another glance at the sign says it features Native North American Footwear. It was something I’d never expect for something that only features shoes. Julienne tugged my hand with barely controlled 8-year-old enthusiasm, her ingrained love for shoes rising.

I don’t want to sound like I’m stereotyping but it’s obvious that women love shoes. Not only do the native women make them, they do elaborate fringed, beaded and tufted designs because they like how pretty it looks. They have a tough job sewing animal skins together with dried sinew yet they do it because it’s pretty and they wear them. Cherokee women favour black buckskin because the dark pigment brings out the colour of the beads. Lakota women could have made practical shoes but they sometimes make moccasins have fully beaded soles.

“There are some things I’ll never understand,” I told my wife, “Who needs fully beaded soles?  Didn’t dirt get stuck between the beads and get harder to clean?”

Julienne just gave me a look that can dry a wet dog before walking off to another exhibit. I rolled my eyes and followed suit.

Next we visited an exhibition about how the founder collected shoes around the world while accompanying her husband in a business trip.

I bet you rolled that sentence around your head one more time. I guess collecting old, used footwear can also be art.

I blandly looked at a crummy piece of cowhide used to be someone’s slipper. Quaint.

“But,” my darling wife argued, “Imagine it having stepped on African soil. It suddenly becomes interesting.”

The wooden clog of the Dutch makes more sense. It was said to be made from a less absorbent wood that is perfect in working with wet, spring soil.

Another thing that was memorable was the boots of the last Mongalian ruler’s first wife. It has a brown background with artistically loop rainbow-blending colours. Julienne and I stared at it for a while trying to figure out how did they do that. We never did.

Too bad the Sneaker Exhibition isn’t ready yet. I would have loved to see that. Correction, the inner teenager would have loved to see that. He’d probably worship them and become a priest of soles.

Julienne didn’t laugh at that one too.

We have also seen another semi-permanent exhibition, “All about Shoes: Footwear throughout the Ages”. Now I understand why Paul said about learning shoes, we learn history. I cannot shake off the image of metallic prawns that are the armour shoes worn in Germany around the 1490s. My mind also kept generating sassy remarks at the old-fashioned shoes that look silly at this time. Such as the button boots that has to be buttoned all the way to your mid-shin. Imagine minutes consumed by buttoning one shoe. How about a pair of them?

All in all, I did have fun in Bata Shoes Museum. In their own way, they are artistic and interesting. I have the most fun trying to figure out what the shoes are for, like the French Chestnut Crushing Clogs. I did have a fleeting urge to try it. But I repeat; it was only fleeting.


Sunnyside Beach: To All the Fine Young Men in There

We were getting hungry by then. Paul had already eaten while we were in Bata Shoe Museum. Having already planned the tour, Julienne and I have bought food from Bellevue to eat in Sunnyside Beach. We put on our more appropriate summer clothes by changing in the limo.

I made comment that I knew I’d regret. “Taking off our clothes inside the limo –we’re just as bad as those punks TMZ loves to chase.”

Julienne threw me her balled-up clothes to shut me up.

A beach is just as good as any beach when you’re already in one. I can already feel myself unwind by salty breeze ruffling our clothes by the time we chose a spot. Whoever was the guy who posted in the internet to use a bed sheet with garter corners as beach towels is a genius. By propping up the bed sheet upside down and using wire stands to erect the corners, the bed sheet keeps away the sand.

Put me in a beach with a beer in my hand and I’m happy –simple pleasures in life. Julienne, in the other hand, had totally fallen for dumplings. She went into this restaurant and went gaga over meat, cheese and herbs wrapped in dough. She bought fried ones, boiled ones, steamed ones. They’re good but not that much of a big deal for me.

“Just because you can’t tell freshly cooked from midnight leftovers,” she told me, raising haughtily, “Doesn’t mean no one can.”

We deliberately went to sandy shores because of how thin our slippers are –pebbles would have been a nuisance. The waves lap lightly on the shores, inviting me to wade. Julienne told me to wade with my slippers because there might be jellyfish.

“But I don’t think you need to worry, your urine is your first aid.”

I asked if she wanted to come with me but she’d stay on the sand for a while. The sun was beating down my back and my eyes focused to get used to the intensity. The waves call me again and I step on the cool waters. It was a nice feeling as my body accommodates from sun-baked hot to water-chilling cold, finding a balance in between as I slowly wade deeper to the waters.

But by the time I get waist-deep, I was finally having a problem.

Have you ever tried wading in the sea with slippers on? It’s hard. Every time I’d take a step, the rush of the waves would try to carry it off in its currents. I finally gave up when I saw something colourful and slithering between the rocks: a sea snake.

Now I do know you have to pee on yourself when you got stung by a jellyfish. But I’d rather not find out if it applies with sea snakes too.

Julienne looked up when she saw me walking back to our spot. We sat together side by side and it was that moment that I wish I can share how great is that other simple pleasure: the moment of just being together.

It’s so simple yet profound that I can’t even tell it right to fine young men to settle down with a nice girl. But good luck with that boys, they won’t be as good as what I got here.

“Tim, how come you write some of our conversations and sometimes not?”

And there goes the moment chased away by my muse.

Bluffer’s Park: The Sound of Silence

We were getting to the last leg of our city tour. Bluffer’s Park, Paul said, is a “Quiet Refuge in the City”.

In the first bend is the boating deck. We passed by Bluffer’s Restaurant, which Paul comments is the only place you can buy food before going to the beach. “Because,” Paul further explained as he stopped the car, “The beach is almost an untouched land.”

Thumps went down the wooden stairs as we step into the deck. The yachts look like a flock of metallic white seagulls sitting on the water. We lingered in the deck, admiring them while feeding ducks, pigeons and birds.

But when Paul drove us to the beach did I finally understood why he called Bluffer’s Park a quiet refuge.

The limo parked near the beach for free. Paul explained that parking is free of charge until 5pm. Julienne and I set out into the pebbly sand. The water, as I recall, is comparably bluer than that in Sunnyside Beach. We stare transfixed at the waves that are mere ripples coming to the shore. The water is so clear; we can see the convoluted lines. Shapeless clumps of seaweed float here and there.

I lifted my foot ready to splash my ankles in the water before I stop. The wrinkles in the sand are perfectly unmarred –free of any footprint. I remember what Paul said about the land being almost untouched. Stepping back respectfully, I kept my distance from the water.

Bluffs stood proudly behind us, sheltering the land from most of the wind. Perhaps that and the direction of the wind is what cause the sound of silence. Everything is quiet save for a cawing of a lonely seagull. It sounds like we were so far away from the city.

“Pity we didn’t simply eat lunch here. This would have been something,” Julienne said.

I didn’t say anything and simply held Julienne’s hand, we walked down the beach.

Now, I’m not the most romantic guy in the world and Julienne knows that. But there was something about that silence, that moment of peace that broke away from the tangled-together lives of civilization. Simply put, we just saw us. Silence can be good.

We saw a trail leading up the hill and followed it. The wind got stronger as we go higher. Tall grass brushes our side and wild flowers wave at us from the bushes. The sun poured yellow warmth on everything but the wind kept us cool. We kept on walking with the silent expectation of a great reward: a better view. I gave Julienne my jacket just in case.

We stop on a levelled land when we can go no longer.

“I feel like we’re on top of the world,” she said with amusement. She’s right of course. We could almost see everything. We even managed to be higher than some of the bluffs.

I feel ourselves breathing deeply at the rushing winds that kept whipping her hair away from her face. Could summer breeze and coastal wind taste better? I just know it does.

 After that, we walked back to the beach. For some reason, the silence made us more whole than before. Even though we hardly said anything, the time we spent said volumes already.