Miles & miles, Toronto-style

My feet hate me. I did it again. We arrived in Toronto Friday night and I spent Saturday walking mile after mile, through neighborhoods and city blocks and university buildings until the balls of my feet feel raw and my shins yelp with each step. And tomorrow we head for four days in New York. They don’t make shoes comfortable enough for all of this. Our brief weekend jaunt to Toronto was a bit of a last-minute affair. Kim, Gerard and Graham were heading North for a road trip that will take them from Toronto to Montreal to Vermont and into Boston to reunite with Rainey for a few days before the three of them head back to Ann Arbor. It’s a bit of a North-Eastern road trip, a chance for Graham to show the Aussies his part of the country. (Rainey often calls Graham a Canadian trapped in an American’s body.)

Anyway, Chris and I, already feeling the sting of Rainey’s departure, invited ourselves along to get a little more quality time in with the gang. Plus, we’ve been four hours or so from Toronto for eight months and hadn’t made the trip yet. So a little of Chris’ online magic got us a cheapie room at the Sheraton City Centre and we rented a car since it’s no longer a safe bet that the Saturn will make it out of the driveway without dropping any number of fluids and/or a radiator. Somewhere in that whole process, Lisa & Chuck decided to swell the ranks of those Northbound and we had a bonafide group on our hands. Chris and I took off Friday afternoon and with some ridiculously bad timing and a bad route (thanks to Yahoo! Maps and Mapquest), headed out of Ann Arbor and through Detroit in construction – at rush hour. It took us two hours, most of which was spent at a standstill, to get out of the area, by which the novelty of the satellite radio – and just about everything else – had worn off.

By the time we rolled into Toronto (and by rolled in, I mean, missed entirely, got lost, turned around and re-approached) and checked into the hotel it was after 10. I’m sure greater and younger folk would still have ventured out to find the nightlife, but we were drained and sought instead a quiet soak in the hotel Jacuzzi before bed. We shared the large Jacuzzi with a handful of youth group boys firing on a group of giggly, bikini-clad 16-year-old girls. Relaxing? Maybe not. Entertaining? Yes, in that “Man, I’m glad I’m not that age” way.

Saturday we woke up to an absolutely gorgeous day. Our room at the hotel had a lovely view of Nathan Phillips Square. Who Nathan Phillips is, I have no idea. But there’s a large statue of Wisnton Churchill in his square. I just thought he’d want to know. (There’s also a really lovely public ice skating rink but, what with it being empty and warm out, there wasn’t much happening there.)

I was worried about being cold since I’d smartly left my jacket back in A2. But the sun was shining brightly and it was an absolutely gorgeous day. Neither Chris or I had been to Toronto and we both wanted to go. We just didn’t have much idea of what to do when we go there. And so we explored the way we like to – on foot, wandering from area to area, checking out the people and the city and the feel of it.

Our hotel was really in a great location, right at the start of Queen Street West where the funky boutiques and small eateries start. We got a taste of those shops, along with streetside vendors and artists and a great whiff of my favorite store on earth, Lush. (The meds I’m on for fibromyalgia require me to stay away from plant oils and so Lush has gone from being a grand indulgence to a terrible, forbidden temptation.) I stayed strong and kept walking, past shops offering up everything from kick-ass prom gear to trendy jewelry to underground records to books. You name it.

There are also a number of restaurants along the way and, both of us starving, we couldn’t resist the smell of warm chocolate coming from a creperie. Thus, we stopped in to shore up our energy with a couple of lattes and crepes – Chris’ with pipin’ hot Nutella and mine with gloriously simple lemon and sugar. Eating this way gives me no energy whatsoever but, man, does it taste good.

Heading just a tad further west on Queen Street, we hung a right on Spadina Avenue and wandered north. Within a block or so, the shop signs start making the transition from English to Chinese and then you’re suddenly deep in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown. Plenty of little shops with wares piled up front, everything from Hello Kitty backpacks to rubber flip-flops to barrels of ginseng and other mysterious dried herbs, prawns and beans.

The sidewalks were packed with people poring over produce outside the Chinese grocery stores, stooped old women picking over fifty-cent peppers to find the perfect one, turning over giant hunks of taro and selecting just the right melon. From inside the shops wafted the pungent, fishy odor of strange seafood. A few people sold still-crawling crabs to scrutinizing buyers and people came and went in all directions, weighed down with white plastic shopping bags bulging with fresh food.

There’s a certain everywhere-ness to Chinatowns. The scents, sounds (and sunny weather) were all reminiscent of San Francisco’s and if you squint just so and pretend the architecture’s blocking you in more, it could maybe be New York. But I love these places. I love the feeling of being so unfamiliar, of signs promising something I can’t read and wide barrels of things I can’t even identify. It helps me stay right-sized, if you know what I mean.

Chinatown led us right up the east side of the Kensington Market, a web of small streets offering everything good and odd and strange and wonderful across any number of vintage and first-hand clothing boutiques, coffee shops, pubs, health food shops, bakeries, cheese stores, etc. I wasn’t in the market (or in the mood) for picking through the racks of prairie skirts, blazers, tees and tanks outside the shops, but I loved walking among them. Many of the streets feature these beautiful little Victorian gems whose crumbling facades are cheered up with bright coats of paints, the lower floors turned into store fronts. Many of them have what I can only assume is original stained glass windows and decorate detailing around the eaves.

We had meant to continue further north to the upscale Bloor shopping area but I was working directions from memories and wasn’t quite sure how far we needed to go. We missed the mark and wound up wandering back eastward on College. It’s not a terribly exciting street, but we did get a feel for the southern boundary of the University of Toronto campus and a distinct balance (or argument, depending on your tastes) between distinctly modern and unmistakably old architecture.

Our plan was to meet up with the rest of the gang at 3 at their hotel, so we killed a little time wandering Yonge Street, one of the main thoroughfares of downtown Toronto. We’d hoped for a nice sunny café in which to grab a quick bite but between the shwarma shacks and pizza joints, couldn’t quite find something that would work. We wound up running out of time and ducking into the Pickle Barrel by Eaton Square mall, mistaking it for a small eatery before being led down an escalator to a labyrinthine dining room below. We were handed a menu on par in volume to the Cheesecake Factory’s ridiculous offerings and I picked out a fair sandwich I had neither time nor ability to eat much of before we had to head to meet the others.

I should mention that, at this point in the day, we had probably clocked about four miles or so and that my feet were already growling at me. In addition, I’ve been finding that if I walk long distances, my right hip gives me trouble. But the minute I say “hip” and “trouble” aloud, I sound 80. So never mind.

Chuck, Gerard, Kim, Lisa and Graham were all waiting in the lobby for us and we discussed briefly what to do. They hadn’t much in mind, although Birgit had suggested we check out the Casa Loma, a medieval-style castle built by some Richie Rich a while back. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that, having visited real medieval castles, this could hold much interest.

I had, however, read that the Harbourfront Centre was worth checking out, offering up shops, restaurants, entertainment, etc. And Lisa said she thought the castle was down on the waterfront too. So we decided to hoof it all the way down Yonge to the waterfront. Not a great idea. Not only is it a really boring walk, with the retail shops giving way to boring office buildings and, ultimately, the highway underpass but it’s also a long frickin’ way.

Gerard spent most of the way down pining (or was that whining?) for a gyros and, oddly enough, when we finally reached the waterfront there was a tiny gyros shack dwarfed by the giant Captain John’s ship & restaurant. So sustenance was found and everyone was happier. For a bit. Because, as far as we could see, there just isn’t much to the waterfront. It’s pretty and all, but other than a walk way leading along, there was little reason to have headed down there. Unless you like schlocky restaurants or are heading to a specific event at the theater. And we weren’t.

No one seemed to have an idea of what they really wanted to do or see, so Chris and I suggested Kensington Market. We headed back north, winding our way around the base of the CN Tower and the perimeters of the Sky Dome. The area was practically deserted. It reminded me of downtown St. Louis on a Saturday, with easy street navigation thwarted by behemoth concrete parkways, buildings and domes. Not much fun but, did I mention, the weather was beautiful?

Up Spadina we went, passing through the quiet fashion district, markable from that street only by a couple of fancy dress shops. And no matter how much I begged, Kim would not go into one of them and try on a big, frou-frou dress that looked like a sparkly pink meringue. Spoil sport! Thus, we kept going, through Chinatown again, and delivered everyone to the Market.

Chris and I bowed out of another go ‘round and took seats outside the Moonbeam Café at the Market’s edge as they split up and explored their own pursuits. Lisa and Chuck joined us after a few moments. Seems the vintage wasn’t as vintage as they’d like and Lisa was feeling a little beat too. The others walked through the Market and further north to Little Italy to scope out dinner prospects for the evening.

We got a quick break back to the hotel – long enough to put my feet in the tub and my aching neck on ice for a few – and cabbed it to dinner at Sotto Vocce at College and Clifton. It was a tiny, cozy joint, which made it tough to hear the conversation at times. The appetizers were quite nice but the boxes of Barillo pasta visible from the dining room raised my suspicion and, sure enough, the linguine dish I ordered wasn’t remarkable but filled me up well enough.

It was quite chilly by the time we headed outside, debating whether or not to brave the street car but deciding that none of us had the knowledge or the coins. Thus, we meandered slowly back towards our hotels, stopping for scoops of ice cream along the way. Delicious, if imprudent, given the temperature. Not that I cared, since my chivalrous husband had insisted I take his leather jacket.

I was surprise, but my feet actually held up just enough to hobble back to the hotel and collapse into a shallow but fantabulous bath. Depending on who you asked, and how much they wanted to make me feel good about it, we walked somewhere between seven and ten miles yesterday. Makes me feel better about the pasta and ice cream bit.

Now we’re in the car heading back home. We had breakfast with the gang at Fran’s Restaurant. Kim, Gerard and Graham have probably already arrived in Montreal. Lisa and Chuck were spending one more day in Toronto and then a night in a B&B on the way back. Chris and I are heading back to Ann Arbor for about 15 hours. Tomorrow morning, we board an early flight to New York where we’ll be visiting with some friends, attending the premier of “The Architect” at the Tribeca Film Festival and, if I have my way, not walking nearly as much as last time.