Winnipeg – A City of Mysteries and Surprises

Peter Morrell goes on a rail journey and finds his destination is full of interesting revelations

Earlier this year in London, I met a friend who, in very animated fashion, raved about the ‘Hermetic Code’ tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Canada. When I later spoke with Don Finkbeiner, who actually runs the tour, I just knew I had to do it.

Union Station Winnipeg

Union Station Winnipeg

Louis Riel's Gravestone

Louis Riel's Gravestone

Statue in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden

Statue in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden

Old Railway Carriage at the Forks

Old Railway Carriage at the Forks

The Forks Market Image Brent Bellamy

The Forks Market Image Brent Bellamy

The Manitoba Legislative Building Image Brian Rudolf

The Manitoba Legislative Building Image Brian Rudolf

Two Bison standing guard in the Manitoba Legislative Building

Two Bison standing guard in the Manitoba Legislative Building

The Rotunda with Ballustrade and Frank Brangwyn's Mural

The Rotunda with Ballustrade and Frank Brangwyn's Mural

Inside the Dome of the Manitoba Legislative Building

Inside the Dome of the Manitoba Legislative Building

The WarChest or Ark of the Covenant on the Manitoba Legislative Building

The War Chest or Ark of the Covenant on the Manitoba Legislative Building

The Pool of the Black Star

The Pool of the Black Star

The Golden Boy

The Golden Boy

Sir William Stephenson - The Man called Intrepid

Sir William Stephenson - The Man called Intrepid

Peasant Restaurant on the Devour the District tour

Peasant Restaurant on the Devour the District tour

Brigitte Savard and Javier Torres with the Tower of Hope in the background

Brigitte Savard and Javier Torres with the Tower of Hope in the background

Statue of Gandhi outside the Museum for Human Rights

Statue of Gandhi outside the Museum for Human Rights

The Museum for Human Rights with Roots, Wings and the Tower of Hope

The Museum for Human Rights with Roots, Wings and the Tower of Hope

To add to the adventure my wife and I travelled the 1250-miles by train from Toronto to Winnipeg on VIA Rail’s service, The Canadian. There is a four-hour stopover before the train continues west to Vancouver. Through passengers get the opportunity to look around the station that was designed in Beaux-Arts style by Warren and Wetmore, the architects responsible for Grand Central Station in New York City. The stopover also gives people the chance explore the city on a bus tour run by Otours that starts from the back of the station. As it was early morning, we hopped on the bus to get acquainted with the layout of the city and its major sights before settling in for our three-day visit.

The City Tour

Our first stop was the new and as yet unopened Human Rights Museum which we would hear a lot more about later in our stay. Next was St Boniface church where the spiritual leader of the Métis people, Louise Riel is buried. The Métis are a distinct ethnic group in Canada; the result of marriages between the Canadian First Nations people and settlers from France and the UK. Louis led a revolt defending the rights of the Métis and was eventually hanged for treason in 1885.

A short ride out of town is the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in Assiniboine Park, home to more than 300 works of this prolific, world-renowned artist. Mol, a Ukrainian by birth, sculpted many of the 20th century’s most famous people including Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, JFK and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. There are some superb pieces on display and it’s well worth a visit.

We also toured the Exchange business district and took a look at the Legislative Building but we would return to these in the next few days.

The Forks

The tour ended back at the railway station where we said goodbye to the on-going travellers and strolled to our hotel, the Inn at the Forks. This is a very smart, boutique style residence with service to match. The Forks area itself has a history dating back 6000 years and sits at the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Red River. During the latter part of the 19th Century the railway companies developed offices and warehouses in the area and these buildings have now been restored to their former glory to create a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.

The market at the Forks sells all sorts of local produce, clothes and souvenirs and we were tempted by the stall selling handmade Ukrainian perogy dumplings and cabbage rolls, a hint of Winnipeg’s multi-culinary heritage. Our final choice for lunch was on the terrace of the Beachcomber, overlooking the river. A deli sandwich and a glass of the locally brewed Fort Garry Dark, a malty beer with chocolate undertones, was just what we needed.

An exciting afternoon lay ahead as we were taking the Hermitic Code Tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, the catalyst for our visit. We wandered up Broadway and there it was, a large domed building, topped with a golden statue, sitting at the geographic centre of North America.

The Hermetic Code Tour

Outside we met Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland International Travel and Tours, who had piqued my interest so much in London. He works closely with Dr. Frank Albo, who has made the study of this building almost his life’s work. Don talked about the architect, Liverpudlian Frank Worthington Simon, who designed and built a new King Solomon’s Temple, with dramatic symbols ‘hidden in plain sight’

From the decoration on the exterior with Christian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian and Jewish iconography to the use of the Fibonacci Sequence, Golden Ratio and Sacred Geometry in the design, you know that this is something special.

Inside, the huge main staircase of three sets of thirteen steps is guarded by the statues of two huge bison while the faces of Athena and Medusa stare down at you. At the top of the stairs, under the dome, is a circular balustrade that looks into a lower chamber with a black star decorating the floor. Ahead is a mural by Frank Brangwyn, the British artist; the painting showing half hidden images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

To the left a peek through a set of double doors reveals a room 20 cubits square, the biblical measure of Solomon’s Temple’s most sacred room, the ‘Holy of Holies’. We had seen on the outside a stone war chest above the window of this room and thinking back it had more than a passing resemblance to the Ark of the Covenant, which traditionally rested in the temple’s inner sanctum.

Moving through the building, in corridors and on light fittings thirteen bulbs keep recurring. Finally we descended into the lower chamber, known as the Pool of the Black Star. I stood on the Star, my voice sounded muffled, like I was under water, a strange and inexplicable experience. Presiding over all of this, at the top of the dome, is the golden statue of Hermes, messengers of the Gods and guide to the underworld. The tour had more than lived up to all its expectations.

Winnipeg’s Literary Connections

As we left, Don pointed out a statue by Leo Mol in the gardens in front of the Legislature. It is of one of Winnipeg’s finest sons, Sir William Stephenson; the Man called Intrepid. As well as being an aviator and spymaster, he was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s hero, James Bond. Another famous character associated with the city was the mascot of the Fort Garry Cavalry Regiment. Taken to Europe, this female black bear called Winnipeg was billeted at London Zoo and eventually remained there. After a visit to the zoo by A A Milne and his son, her name was immortalised as Winnie the Pooh.

The Culinary Heritage

Winnipeg grew from an influx of immigrants both from North America and further afield and the city still has an upbeat, pioneering spirit about it. The arrival of this diverse mix of people has left an indelible stamp on its cuisine, as we discovered on an early evening foodie tour of the Exchange District. On the tour, as well as learning about matters culinary, we also had the opportunity to look at the architecture and understand why the city is described as the Chicago of the North.

The tour, Devour the District, started in the Old Market Square. The Square was a hive of activity, as preparations were under way for the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, one of the many music events the city hosts. First stop was just steps away at Peasant, a charming French restaurant where we tasted their classic food paired with a crisp white wine. Next stop was Blufish for sea fresh sushi and then next door to Hermanos for the flavours of Latin America. Just a few doors down Argentine Pizzeria, Corrientes offered an impressive range of wines matched by some delicious and inventive pizzas. A sticky dessert made with dulce de leche at Brooklyn’s Bistro was our penultimate stop and the finale was a cocktail at the sophisticated wine bar, Sensi.

This had been an excellent snapshot of the city’s culinary repertoire but it wasn’t the end of our foodie discoveries. The following day we started off with a hearty breakfast at Stella’s Cafe and Bakery and enjoyed a lunch and a dinner in Osborne Village, one of Winnipeg’s oldest districts which now has a distinctly artsy feel. Lunch was at Unburger which serves superlative hamburgers made from fresh, local meat. Dinner was at the Deseo Bistro, where chef Scott Bagshaw has created a very distinctive tapas menu. With huge portions it is a long way from tapas as I know it but it was very tasty and the chorizo and figs in a punchy, sweet, oriental influenced sauce were particularly memorable

More Culture

We managed to fit in two other cultural attractions, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, with its eclectic mix of art and artifacts and the Manitoba Museum. The museum is very well curated telling multiple stories of the Province, covering both its natural and industrial history. A particularly fascinating exhibit describes the trials and tribulations of the first railway builders.

The Museum for Human Rights

One of the biggest events on Winnipeg’s horizon is the opening of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This is Canada’s first Federal museum to be built outside of the county’s capital Ottawa. The museum has a striking appearance, designed by award-winning architect Antoine Predock, and it will take the visitor from darkness to light.

We took the tour, which starts at Union Station and our guides, Brigitte Savard and Javier Torres, gave a unique insight on this forthcoming attraction. Starting at the ‘Roots’ of the structure visitors will ascend via a series of bridges, that are enclosed in walls shaped like the folded wings of a dove, to a 23 storey Tower of Hope. The builders are still putting the finishing touches to the museum so we couldn’t go inside but its presence is already having a major impact and this will increase substantially when it opens in the summer of 2014.

Our time in Winnipeg was over all too quickly and we had enjoyed every minute of it. Travelling to the city by train had been very enjoyable and relaxing and our stay had been packed with countless fascinating cultural and culinary experiences, with more than a few surprises thrown in.

Useful Links
Peter Morrell flew Air Transat to Toronto with Canadian Affair
To book go to www.canadianaffair.com

For information about VIA Rail go to
www.viarail.ca

For information about Winnipeg go to
www.tourismwinnipeg.com

For information about Manitoba go to
www.travelmanitoba.com

For information about travel to Canada go to
http://uk-keepexploring.canada.travel/

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