Are you tired of all the royal baby talk? There’s been an awful lot of it this month. Bear with me though, because we should all take a moment to mark a significant anniversary of yet another royal birth.
Two hundred years ago today, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born in Kensington Palace. With her birth, she became fifth in the line of succession to the British throne.
Fifth seems a long ways away from the throne these days. (Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh at present.) But due to a series of monarchs and heirs to the throne dying without legitimate heirs, Princess Alexandrina Victoria ended up becoming Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837. She had just turned 18.
This statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. Many places in the Commonwealth are named after Queen Victoria; Canada is the only country to honour her birthday with a statutory holiday. It falls on the Monday before May 24. I grew up referring to Victoria Day as the “May long weekend.” It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I first heard it called the “May two-four weekend.” For a long time, I thought that was because Queen Victoria’s birthday is actually on May 24.
But, no. It’s because beer is sold in cases of 24. I had never heard a case of beer called a “two-four” — that’s not a common term in Western Canada — and was completely oblivious to its link with beer.
And why is beer on the mind of patriotic Canadians during this particular weekend in May, you ask? It’s because the May long weekend is the unofficial start of Cottage Season in Ontario. (Don’t get me started on the whole cottage vs. cabin debate.)
Regional differences. Long may they reign. Just like British queens.
That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.
Maybe all of Canada.
One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.
Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.
The story has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.
One last look at Victoria, and then we’ll leave what a friend of mine who lives there likes to call “City of the Newlywed and Nearly Dead.”
This photo was taken in Bastion Square, a pedestrian-only street that begins at the corner of View and Government, where the North Bastion of Fort Victoria once stood, and ends at Wharf Street, overlooking the Inner Harbour.
When I travel, I try to arrange a home exchange, but when I’m not successful in finding one that suits my destination or my dates, I stay in hotels. I haven’t been blogging about the hotels I stay in because, to be quite frank, I usually bunk down in budget hotels that aren’t anything to write home about.
The other weekend I went to Victoria to visit a friend who was there on business, and I stayed with her as her guest at the Magnolia Hotel and Spa. This hotel is most definitely not a budget hotel and my two-night stay there was a real treat for me.
The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is rated by Tripadvisor.ca as the # 2 hotel in Victoria and # 11 of the Top 25 Luxury Hotels in Canada. The room my friend and I shared contained two queen-sized beds made up with fluffy white duvets and a mountain of soft and hard pillows to suit any preference. The ensuite bathroom was the size of my kitchen at home, with a soaker tub and separate spacious shower, and was fully stocked with Aveda bath and hair products.
Turn-down service included chocolates on the bedside table ― very good chocolate, I should add. I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in months and did not want to get out of bed come morning. My friend took advantage of the spa facilities and went for a massage to help her get over her jetlag.
The complementary breakfast was continental, but don’t think small when you read “continental.” Served buffet style, it included your choice of carb (croissants, toast, waffles, oatmeal, and a variety of cold cereals), yogurt or made-to-order smoothies, fresh fruit, cheese, boiled eggs, and cold cuts. After my arrival on Friday night, my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives over drinks and tapas in the hotel bar, the Catalano Restaurant & Cicchetti Bar, which sources its seafood and produce from local fishers and farmers.
The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is located one block from the Inner Harbour. I highly recommend it.
Most afternoons, I have a cup of tea. With milk. It’s such a part of my routine that this past week there was an “incident” (shall we say) at work when I discovered someone had used up the milk I keep for my tea in the office fridge, thinking it was hers. My co-workers laughed at my distress, but I can’t drink tea without milk. And I really enjoy my afternoon cup of tea.
So last weekend, while I was in Victoria visiting a friend there on business who told me she really wanted to someday, one day, have afternoon tea at the Empress, it didn’t take much for me to decide I liked that idea very much. “And what’s stopping us from having tea at the Empress this weekend?” I asked. Within minutes, we had a reservation in the hotel’s Tea Lobby for the next day.
Victoria, BC, has been called the most English city in Canada, and the city definitely plays up that reputation for the tourists. Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel is a big part of that playing up, and there is no setting more lovely than the Empress Hotel. One of Canada’s iconic “railway hotels,” it has been a landmark on Victoria’s Inner Harbour since its opening in 1908.
We both skipped breakfast and arrived at the hotel’s Tea Lobby appropriately famished. It’s located off the main lobby and its windows overlook the Inner Harbour. We were seated near those windows at a low table.
(And here’s an aside for you: I learned that high tea is actually the supper-type meal the English eat in the early evening, while afternoon tea or low tea is always taken in the afternoon. It’s called low tea because typically you sit at a low table.)
The meal began with cups of seasonal fruit served with cream ― in our case, strawberries. I’m a bit of a strawberry snob and unless the berries are grown locally and are in season, I really don’t think much of their taste. Such was the case with these strawberries, shipped in from California, I’m sure, but hey, what seasonal fruit would you find anywhere in Canada in mid-April?
We were given a choice of eight teas ― I chose the Empress Blend, a tea that “boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well.” My friend chose Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which offered “the distinctive character of Muscat grapes and hints of current.” Clearly tea can be as sophisticated as wine.
Along with our pots of tea came the three-tiered plate of … well … the main event. Our little table was packed, what with the silver teapots, china teacups and small plates, and the tower of savouries, scones, and sweets, but the server positioned everything on the table with expertise and, remarkably, it all fit. Then, after pouring our tea and ensuring we had everything we needed, he offered to take photos of us with our own cameras. He definitely had the routine down pat.
And then? And then we dug in!
The savoury level of the tiered plate consisted of tiny sandwiches: smoked salmon pinwheels, cucumber sandwiches (of course!) with saffron loaf, mango & curried chicken sandwiches (my favourite), free-range egg salad croissants (also very tasty), and cognac pork pâté on sundried tomato bread.
Then we moved up a level to the fresh baked raisin scones with clotted cream and the Empress’s own strawberry jam.
On the final, upper-most tier were the pastries: lemon curd tartlets, cappuccino chocolate tea cups, rose petal shortbread, chocolate and pistachio Battenberg cakes, and the one I’d been waiting for: Parisian style macaroons.
It was heavenly. And when we were finished, our server presented each of us with a small box of the tea we had been drinking.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. Who knew afternoon tea could sustain your body for an entire day?
I was expecting one room, maybe two, with a handful of paintings, but this exhibition completely exceeded my expectations. It is one of the largest-ever retrospectives of Kurelek’s work ― some 80 pieces ― and opened in Victoria earlier this summer after appearing at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
William Kurelek was born in Alberta in 1927, moved to Manitoba as a child with his family, worked as a lumberjack as a young man to earn money for art studies, and eventually settled in Toronto, where he married, raised a family, and painted. He died there in 1977.
Before he settled in Toronto, Kurelek travelled to England because he had heard the English were doing interesting things with art therapy. He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and spent the next seven years in and out of hospital. Some of the paintings he did as part of his therapy are included in this exhibition. They are disturbing images, filled with evidence of his illness. But in them you also see the influence of Bosch, Bruegel, and Vermeer ― artists whose work Kurelek studied while in Europe, and whose work would be life-long influences on his style.
While in England, Kurelek converted to Catholicism. At that point, he began painting Biblical scenes and subjects. Later, after his return to Canada, he took on apocalyptic themes as he reacted to world events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kurelek saw himself as “the messenger,” tasked with spreading moral and Christian messages through his work. Although the prairies are a central theme in his artistic vision, even his pastoral landscapes have a mushroom cloud on the horizon, or a crucified Christ at the edge of a freshly plowed field.
Most of us know Kurelek’s artwork from his illustrated children’s books that are now Canadian classics. I don’t remember when I first was introduced to his work ― I suspect it was in grade school by one of my teachers ― but I appreciate it because I’m interested in the themes Kurelek explored: the prairies, landscape, place, memory, the immigrant experience, and Christianity. He was an avid photographer as well, and used his camera as a view finder to find subjects to paint.
Canada has a great tradition of landscape painting. Unfortunately, when asked to name a Canadian landscape artist, most of us don’t get much beyond the Group of Seven. Maybe Emily Carr. William Kurelek, I’m now convinced, is one of Canada most underrated artists. William Kurelek: The Messenger is at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until September 3.