The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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In Toronto, the arts scene shines


Canada's largest city is a far more sophisticated place than the recent behavior of its mayor might lead you to believe


TORONTO -- It would be a mistake to base your impression of Canada's largest city on the wild antics of its Mayor Rob Ford, whose admitted drug use during a drunken stupor has cast him as a buffoon.

The city he oversees is far more sophisticated. It's a vibrant, multicultural metropolis resplendent with cultural amenities and foodie delights that are easy to enjoy by foot, cab, car or subway. And it's a major scene for theater and film.

It's been several decades since my last visit -- a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh -- and I remembered Toronto as a pleasant place but not especially exciting culturally. But as my wife, Sari, and I learned during a late-October visit, Toronto has become much more than the home of the CN Tower, the Maple Leafs, Hockey Hall of Fame or Rogers Centre, the domed stadium where the Blue Jays swing their bats.

Over a little more than 60 hours, we saw the works of scores of international artists, visited what National Geographic magazine rated as the "World's Top Market," witnessed architectural wonders, took a tour of the city's vibrant graffiti and feasted on braised Ontario boar.

After checking in Friday afternoon to the centrally located Thompson Toronto hotel, we hiked over to Nathan Phillips Square in front of city hall to experience dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's installation "Forever Bicycles" on its final weekend of display. The massive piece of public art was an assemblage of 3,144 silver-colored, wheeled bicycle frames welded together into a shimmering sculpture that was simultaneously static and alive.

From there it was a quick, three-stop subway ride to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Housing some 6 million objects, the museum's galleries, much like Carnegie Museum of Art's, are devoted to world culture and natural history, from dinosaurs and Egyptian mummies to Oriental art and early Canadiana. Its extensive collection of mineral specimens is a dazzling geological education unto itself.

Equally impressive as we left at the museum's 6:30 p.m. closing was the block-long queue of youthful patrons waiting for the museum's weekly Friday Night Live open house, which features three hours of live music, food and mingling.

We walked to Ciao Wine Bar several blocks away in Yorkville, where we enjoyed excellent grilled whole calamari, seafood linguini and veal Milanese. After dinner, we were happy to hail a cab back to the Thompson.

There we visited the hotel's rooftop, with its infinity pool. The evening was much too cool for a dip, but the panorama of the downtown skyline was superb, ranks of bright towers against the dark sky, with stipples of construction cranes everywhere. From that perspective, Toronto is even more beautiful at night.

We awoke on Saturday morning to sheeting rain, too wet for a planned walking tour of the nearby West Queen West neighborhood. So we drove over to check out the area instead.

The 20 blocks of Queen Street between Bathurst and Gladstone streets have become Toronto's largest concentration of edgy art galleries, unique restaurants, hip coffee shops, bustling bistros and custom retailers -- reminiscent of New York's East Village or Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh.

In better weather, we could have spent hours wandering, but instead we drove over to the Bata Shoe Museum on Bloor Street a few blocks west of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Started by Sonja Bata, wife of the founder of Bata Shoes, the collection now numbers more than 12,500 items that chronicle 4,500 years of footwear evolution, both plain and fancy, from earliest times to the latest fashions, with artifacts from cultures around in the world.

The museum's four floors feature exhibits such as "All About Shoes," "Beauty, Identity, Pride: Native North American Footwear," "Collected in the Field: Shoemaking Stories From Around the World" and "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture." There's an assortment of celebrity shoes, from Queen Victoria's slippers and Picasso's zebra striped boots to Elvis Presley's blue patent loafers, Elton John's monogrammed silver platforms and a John Lennon Beatle boot.

Our next destination was St. Lawrence Market, housed in two historic buildings in Toronto's old town. Ranked by National Geographic magazine as the "World's Top Market," the south building was once city hall. Refurbished in the mid-1970s, its two lower levels are filled with vendors selling all manner of tasty treats, while its top floor has an interesting exhibit from Toronto city archives.

Walking back to the car, we passed G for Gelato, an unassuming establishment that TripAdvisor recently ranked No. 3 among Toronto's 6,047 restaurants. I can attest that its espresso gelato was excellent, rich, tasteful and creamy.

Our next stop was the Toronto Convention Centre, where the 14th annual Art Toronto was underway.

Also known as the Toronto International Art Fair, this year's four-day event brought together representations from 111 modern art galleries from across Canada and a handful of foreign countries. There was so much to see, we found the experience somewhat overwhelming. But for art aficionados, it was clearly the place to be that afternoon.

That evening we dined on boneless fried chicken and braised Ontario boar at the hip and artsy Drake Hotel in West Queen West. As it happened, that Saturday was Halloween party night, and Queen Street was populated with colorfully costumed revelers, ghouls and bloody zombies. Even at 3 a.m. the four lanes of Bathurst Street outside our hotel window was gridlocked with honking cars and boisterous partiers.

Sunday turned out to be our best day for weather and attractions.

After breakfast, we hiked over to the Art Gallery of Ontario on Dundas Street at the fringe of Chinatown, pausing briefly to watch a group doing tai chi in Alexandra Park. The blocks of Chinatown lined with food stores and restaurants would have been good to explore, but we had timed tickets to the gallery's two-floor exhibition "David Bowie Is." Unfortunately the exhibition was far too crowded to appreciate. Same for the Ai Weiwei show "According to What?" that was also finishing its 10-week run there.

In contrast, we were pleased to discover the gallery's permanent collections. It provided a variety of interesting art, but what surprised us most was the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre.

In 1974, the British sculptor donated his personal collection to Toronto -- drawings, plaster and bronze maquettes of many of his pieces -- along with numerous full-size form masters from which his most famous sculptures were cast, including the "Reclining Woman" that has resided at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum since 1957.

In addition to the stones and bones that inspired his art, there are video displays with archival footage of Moore explaining why he became a sculptor and how bronzes are cast from the plaster masters. The huge collection is ever changing; next spring the center will pair works by Moore and the British postwar artist Francis Bacon.

Appreciating all that art worked up our appetites, so we headed for a late lunch at Strada 241, a southern Italian restaurant on Spadina Avenue a few blocks away.

I then walked over to visit Toronto's most outstanding work of art, the sculptural CN Tower.

At 1,815 feet, it was the world's tallest freestanding structure when it opened in 1976, a distinction held for 34 years. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Engineers in 1995, it is a marvel of design and engineering; its central spine is a single solid casting of reinforced concrete that was poured continuously for four months.

Erected initially for communications purposes, the tower with five observation levels quickly became Canada's architectural icon and Toronto's top tourism attraction.

The lowest level -- at 1,122 feet high -- features a full 360-degree 75-mile panorama from its screened promenade, as well as a glass-floored section that's a real crowd magnet. The lookout level above that offers similar vistas. One level up, the 360 Restaurant makes a complete revolution every 72 minutes, so diners don't even have to leave their tables to enjoy the view. The 2-year-old Edgewalk experience above that allows daring souls to stroll around the tower's perimeter outside, tethered to an overhead track-way by a steel cable. If those vantage points aren't sufficient, there's the Skypod another 350 feet higher, from where, it is said, on a clear day you can see tomorrow.

A work by Uber5000 on Toronto's Graffiti Alley

Later that afternoon, we discovered the city's most underappreciated art collection on a walking tour of Toronto's graffiti scene. We met the very affable Jason Kucherawy of Tour Guys near the corner of Queen and Spadina. Leading us to a nearby alley, he explained that graffiti, defined as the unauthorized adornment of walls or public spaces, has an ancient history, but the development of paint spray cans changed everything.

Starting with simple "throw-ups" and "tags," quick graphic sketches identifying the perpetrator's alias or affiliation, to elaborate "pieces," much more developed depictions, modern graffiti has morphed into dramatic, complex, albeit impermanent, works that are either covered up or scrubbed away.

During our tour, we passed a dozen or so examples painted on the rear walls of several buildings. Mr. Kucherawy pointed out technique and style as well as identified the signatures of Kwest, Anser, Skam and Elikser.

We followed him across Queen Street and a few steps down Spadina to Rush Lane, known as Toronto's Graffiti Alley. For two long blocks, virtually every vertical surface -- walls, doors, light poles, fire escapes, even fire hydrants -- had been festooned with bright designs. As Mr. Kucherawy explained, most had been painted illicitly on the fly, but others had been sanctioned, even commissioned by the property owners, recognizing the value of the art and/or the admirers they attract.

One piece, an elaborate undersea scene that covered every inch of two walls of a three-story brick building, even had a waxy coating to protect the paint. As it happened, its creator, who uses the street tag of Uber5000, was there, attending a commercial photo shoot using his piece as a backdrop. Hardly the image of an angry anarchist, he reminded me of any young artist proudly displaying his work and enjoying the attention it generated.

Our final stop was WVRST, a recent dining addition to the King Street entertainment district. Pronounced "verst," the name may be imperfect German, but it conveys the simple concept. The menu has only three elements but myriad options, with two dozen varieties of fresh sausage, from the traditional pork to elk and kangaroo; duck-fat french fries with a selection of house-made dipping sauces; and some 40 beers, both draft and bottled. Totally unpretentious, with counter service and communal tables, WVRST is an excellent option for a late evening snack. We certainly didn't leave hungry, nor did we suffer late-night indigestion.

In fact, like our entire Toronto weekend, our WVRST experience left us with a desire to come back for more.

If you go: Toronto
Toronto Tourism --
Royal Ontario Museum -- 100 Queen's Park, Admission: Adult $16 Canadian; $15.34 U.S.
St Lawrence Market -- Jarvis and Front streets, Free admission
Bata Shoe Museum -- 327 Bloor St. W, Admission: Adults $14 Canadian; $13.43. U.S.
ART Toronto -- 2013 Admission for the annual show was $15 Canadian; $14.40 U.S. in October. 2014 dates are Oct. 24-27)
CN Tower -- Admission: Adult $32 Canadian; $30.69 U.S. Tower admission is complementary with purchase of an entree/meal/prix fixe at the 360 Restaurant. The Edgewalk Experience costs $175 Canadian; $163.79 U.S. and includes video and photographs.
Toronto Graffiti Tour -- Tour cost is $30 Canadian; $28.77, U.S.)
Uber5000 --
Ciao Wine Bar -- 133 Yorkville Ave.,
G for Gelato - 75 Jarvis St.,
The Drake Hotel -1150 Queen St. W.,
Strada 241 - 241 Spadina Ave.,
WVRST - 609 King St. West,
Thompson Toronto -- 550 Wellington St. W, M5V 2V4.; 1-888-550-8368.

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