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Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa

St. Valentine’s Day is noted for roses, but the holiday always reminds me that my wife’s favorite flower is actually the tulip, Tulips and Churchsomething that can be hard to come by in a snowy February in Vermont.  Planted before the first frost of autumn, they’re quickly forgotten about until they emerge unexpectedly in the sunny warmth of spring.  The red, yellow, purple, pink and white heads on single smooth green stalks begin to frame gardens and walkways around the country, reflecting our fascination with this simple and elegant flower from Holland.  As a belated gift last spring, I took my wife to one of my favorite Canadian cities, Ottawa, which just happens to host an annual Tulip festival that showcases both the city and this wonderful flower.

This quaint capital city reflects both the English speaking majority and the French speaking Québécois minority, divided by the Ottawa River separating the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.   Punctuated by beautiful parks, stunning architecture, scenic river overlooks, and lively outdoor markets and cafes, Ottawa is relatively small and often overlooked, lying midway between the larger cities of Toronto and Montreal.  While winter might be a challenge here, since it’s considered one the coldest capital cities in the world (with an average temperature of 41.9 degrees Fahrenheit), the spring and summer months are fantastic, perhaps made more so by the contrast.

The Canadian Tulip Festival began in 1953, several years after Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave Ottawa 100,000 tulip bulbs to show appreciation for the city’s harboring of Holland’s exiled royal family during World War II.  The eighteen day extravaganza each May has become the largest Tulip festival in the world, hosting hundreds of thousands of tourists viewing millions of tulips spread throughout the city.  Many of the events are free, or can be accessed with an inexpensive pass including transportation between the venues on the “Tulip shuttle”.  The event has grown in scope, and features Tulip Fieldmusical concerts, competitions, and a formal Tulip ball including beautiful dresses made from flowers.  Visiting in the beginning of the festival can be risky since the weather determines when the tulips bloom en masse, but the crowds increase as the weather gets warmer, so going early can often be a risk worth taking.  Make sure to take in the lower key display at Commissioner’s Park, set in a beautiful suburb surrounding Dow’s Lake.

Unless you’re a horticulturist however, the amazing variety of colors and styles of tulips mostly provide a stunning backdrop to experience the rest of the things this city has to offer.   The downtown area is about four square blocks and centered on the ByWard Market, featuring lots of indoor and outdoor vendors selling their wares, from crepes to cheese to hot sauces and pretty much else anything you can imagine.  It’s surrounded by specialty shops, boutiques, cafés and restaurants, and cute little cobblestone alleys where you can sit and watch the world go by.

For people watching and an interesting menu, I especially recommend the Fox And Feather Pub, tucked down a picturesque pedestrian street.  On a hot day, they had a Tulipsrefreshing melon bisque special, Leffe beer on tap, and they even welcomed our overheated canine companion providing ice water and lots of attention.  There are plenty of other bars and clubs around which create a relatively subdued but fun nightlife.  For those fans of Douglas Adams, one that sticks out is a club called Zaphod Beeblebrox that is known for live music and festive young crowds.

Despite the small area, downtown Ottawa (called Centretown) also reflects the melting pot of cultures with a variety of restaurants from high end cuisine to hip vegetarian joints, and choosing one may be a challenge.  One of our favorite places we always go back to the Calendario Azteca restaurant, a very authentic journey through the cuisine of Mexico, including the rare Huitlacoche, a mushroom that grows on the corn cob, spiced and served in a crepe.  There is also a Little Italy (and it’s really little), and we had a wonderful meal at Trattoria Café Italia which offers a large menu of traditional items including a number of vegetarian options.  You can also snack your way through the market, and if you’re not from the area, don’t miss the bagels made Montreal style at Continental Bagel.

Besides being the provincial capital of Ontario, Ottawa serves as the national capital, and it has the official and parliamentary buildings to prove it.  Most of them border Major’s Hill Park along the western bank of the Ottawa River, and they’re joined by cultural landmarks like the National Arts Centre, National Gallery, the Mint, and a War Memorial.  Take a scenic walk across the Alexandra Bridge into Quebec and visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization in the Hull area, which includes an IMAX theatre.  While this side of the city doesn’t have a lot of restaurants, there are a number of nice patisseries and coffee shops.  The best place to stay if you can swing it is the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, which looks like a castle, and sits right on the river along with the other buildings on Parliament Hill, making it the perfect location to walk anywhere.

In all, Ottawa provides a compact, scenic and multicultural experience easily explored in a long weekend.  Make it extra special by visiting in spring during the annual Tulip Festival, sure to impress the one you love.

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