Winnipeg Pride of the Northern Plains

I almost blended in, but not quite. I say “a-bout,” while they sing “a-boot.” I sweat or shiver in Fahrenheit, not Centigrade. Info signs here are writ in French along with English (and sometimes First Nations tongues), adding the sizzle that comes from visiting a foreign city. For yes, you do need a passport these days.

Esplanade Riel at the Bridge Dock. Photo Courtesy of Destination Winnipeg Inc./grajewski fotograph inc.. St. Boniface Basilica at night Photo Courtesy of Destination Winnipeg Inc./Juncatta International. Skating in the Park. Photo Courtesy of Destination Winnipeg Inc./Harv Sawatsky

Other than that, visiting Winnipeg, our northern neighbor, is like dropping in on family friends. It’s a seven-hour drive (or an hour in the air), a trip much more comfy than back in the day. In times past, fur-trading voyageurs paddled past us, up the Mississippi to where it joins the Red River on its way past the splendid Legislative Building of the provincial capital, aside what’s now a woodsy river promenade supervised by Golden Boy, symbol of the city, atop the dome, grasping a wheat sheaf—the true gold of this prairie.

Follow the path (or take a narrated water ferry trip) to where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers come together at The Forks, now a National Historic Site, and before that, a trading post that gave birth to the town. Long before that, this juncture served as a holy site for native tribes.

Today, a heritage trek through the park also tells the turbulent story of the rebellion led by Louis Riel, a Metis (half-breed) hero dear to the locals’ hearts, who stood up for his people when the Hudson Bay and North West trading companies conspired to break their promises, and shut off livelihood and sustenance. Riel got hanged for treason for his efforts, but lives on in the hearts of Manitobans. We’ll hear more of him later when we cross the river.

For now, step into the Forks’ Explore Manitoba Centre to discover what makes the province so rich and diverse: farming, mining, forestry—and immigrants, wooed in the ’20s to make it all work. Don’t miss the Forks Market, vending locally harvested foods (stock up on maple syrup), crafts, and eateries of its patchwork citizenry, from Ukrainian to Filipino.

From here, an iconic pedestrian bridge spans the river to St. Boniface, once the largest French town in Western Canada, and now incorporated—just barely, for French is still the lingua franca—into the city. In 1848, a handful of nuns arrived in this frontier outpost, and founded a convent to tend the sick and orphans—the oldest building still standing in town. Today, it houses the St. Boniface Museum, with rooms furnished both as the haves and have-nots back then lived, along with the sisters’ homemade papier mâché altar abiding in their sweet little chapel. And more of Riel: his moccasins, hairs from his very beard, and tendrils of the rope that hanged him. Go next door to find his grave in front of St. Boniface Cathedral, built in 1818, burned in 1860, rebuilt, and burned again in 1968. Today, the remains of its Baroque facade shelter a smaller, modern church within, where Mary wears native dress and moccasins.

Bid adieu to the French, and hike over to Corydon Avenue, where it’s all “bon giorno” and Italian flags. An eight-block stretch, decked in flowerpots, contains more trattorias and gelaterias per square inch, I swear, than Rome. You’ll come across a glass-blowing shop (buy theirs, or try your skill) and Nunavut, the flat-out best gallery of Inuit art in the nation, whose owner travels north—far, far north—to meet the artists whose lyrical works celebrate nature like visual haiku.

Peppered with a spicy mix of ethnicities, Winnipeg’s cultural stew has kept its distinct flavors—French and Italian, Ukrainian and Aboriginal—rubbing elbows, but not uprooting traditions. Thus, Little Italy is bordered by Osborne Village, the bohemian Soho of the city ripe with ethnic cafés, wine bars, bakeries, elegant boutiques, inelegant tattoo parlors, and dollar stores: something for everyone, as long as everyone is a little bit hip.

Back on the trail in this city made for walking, it’s off to the Exchange District. Look familiar? That’s because its grand, turn-of-the-last-century architecture has been the backdrop of many a movie set, like Shall We Dance? with Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere, and Susan Sarandon. Designated another National Historic Site, the 20-square-block district (that’s more than 160 buildings) is a treasury of sturdy Richardson Romanesque, yours to self-tour with info from Exchange Street Biz on Old Market Square.

Or, join a guided trek such as Matthew leads. His theme, this time, was “green”: the innovative reuse of old materials such as in Red River College, a new edifice born of five from 1882, incorporating tin ceilings, tiled floors, and bank vault doors painted in spidery patterns.

Market Square is also the hub of many a festival, from jazz to Winnipeg’s fab Fringe, the second-largest in North America, they say. Speaking of fringe: The area’s hip artistes hang out in The Fyxx, a boho coffeehouse; the Underground, where black rules (except for the vivid murals and intriguing veggie menu); and Mandragon, self-titled an “anarchist bookstore” (cum coffeehouse). Boutiques, such as Cake, showcase stylish rags by Canadian designers. Galleries stretch from Mayberry Fine Arts, representing renowned Canadian artists, to Plug Institute of Contemporary Art, heralding the names of tomorrow.

The best overview of today’s art scene is yours at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, saluting Canada’s talent, such as Doug Head and his “juicy paintings.” Another exhibit, called “staff picks” (like the “best books” at Barnes & Noble), includes a whimsical mobile of hats. But the museum’s claim to fame is the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art—grace on paper and stone.

The Manitoba Museum is an outstanding catch-all of everything else you’re keen to know about the province, from prehistoric times (dinosaur skeletons) to Arctic climate (polar bears on icecaps, Northern Lights, and loons. Loons!). Its dioramas of early Native life and artifacts (tepees, caribou hunt) detail social history, as does the prize attraction, a replica of the Nonesuch, which sailed from England in 1662 into Hudson Bay. Climb aboard. and explore. Then, peek into the hall across the street, where the symphony and Winnipeg Royal Ballet perform.

Shoe leather turned shabby, and body gone faint, it’s high time to think of eating. Local flavor is what I’m after, and the kitchen at lively Fusion Grill is a microcosm of what Manitoba has to offer, with pickerel cheeks with pickled fiddlehead ferns, Northern pike caviar and crème fraîche, among the starters. Or, choose the equally fabulous truffle-scented pirogies (Ukrainian ravioli) stuffed with duck sausage. Proceed to elk tenderloin with pearl barley and gastrique of local berries; or sample bison, either back ribs in whiskey glaze or served with wild boar bacon. Fusion’s wine list proudly stars Canadian vintners, too.

Over in The Forks, the Current sends out pickerel fillets with a red grapefruit-beurre blanc; or choose the wild Arctic char. Better still, go for the Prairie Trio of bison tenderloin, homemade bison sausage and rack of lamb.

Above the Forks Market hovers Sydney’s, a romantic room with a stellar kitchen featuring a starter of potato dumplings stuffed with applewood-smoked sausage; a Manitoba mushroom éclair; and foie gras topped with a blueberry ice-wine reduction and Manitoba honey. Then, it’s on to entrées like red deer tenderloin, followed by a trio of beignets: apple, dark chocolate, and banana-rum, gilded with caramel sauce.

Fresh, a perky upstart on Corydon, cooks up a breakfast of sweet potato latkes or eggs with bison sausage. Stick around for a bison burger with horseradish aioli and molasses mustard.

Mise, a sweet mom-and-pop bistro, offers wild rice latke fries as a starter, along with pike and lobster cakes with hot red pepper polenta. Proceed to elk-stuffed quail with sundried blueberries and puffed wild rice. Save room for a decadent brownie served with (get this!) wild rice ice cream.

Oui, another straight-from-Paris bistro, offers a bison ribeye, after a starter of braised pork belly in maple-bourbon glaze. But here I went the classic bistro route with foie gras, pâté, and hearty cassoulet. If you don’t have the chocolate terrine for dessert, you’ll live to regret it. C’est la vie.

And la vie in Winnipeg is pretty darned entrancing.

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