Canada's Best Places to Live 2017

My Ottawa — away from the tourist tours

Take a little walk with a local for a glimpse of masterpieces and plaster satyrs

Let me begin this insider’s mini-guided tour of Ottawa, here duly designated a great place to live, by telling you how to find the washrooms at the Canadian War Museum.

From the main entrance area, walk into the exhibition spaces, pausing to show the kid at the door that you’ve paid at the admissions desk and got your hand stamped. Take a right, under the “Ramp to LeBreton Gallery” sign.

You’ll find yourself in a corridor with slanting, textured concrete on your right and historic paintings of war scenes up high on your left. Then you pass a display of cool “nose art”—the logos airmen painted on the metal of the forward fuselages of their Second World War fighter planes—a selection of cartoon wolves, archers, a dragon and several scantily clad ladies.

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And finally, just before the corridor spills into the wide, glass-walled space of LeBreton Hall, where they show off old tanks and artillery, the facilities are on your right. Can’t miss them.

Before you duck in, though, look up. The large canvass above the door that freezes you in your tracks is “Canadian Headquarters Staff,” by the British painter William Nicholson.

Nicholson was commissioned to paint this assemblage of war-weary Canadian officers in 1918. Rather than depicting them formally, though, he shows us the men standing around rather awkwardly, absorbed in separate sad thoughts, as if it’s just a moment before they pose. Their eyes tell you the fighting has dragged on too long.

A few months before Nicholson executed this deeply moving painting, his own son, Anthony, had died of wounds suffered in France. Once you know that, the source of its power seems obvious. Don’t take my word for it: When it was loaned for a major Nicholson retrospective in London in 2004, British critics greeted this masterpiece as a revelation.

And that’s the sort of city I live in. Expect to stumble upon unexpected points of fascination. Sometimes they’re not made obvious. So, rather than tell you what the MoneySense Best Places to Live survey shows you already know—that Ottawa is a convenient, comfortable, appealing city—let’s continue this brief stroll through its touristy core.

Walking east from the war museum you’re soon on Wellington Street, passing by the handsome Supreme Court of Canada. In a few moments, the Parliament Buildings’ wide lawn opens on your left, punctuated by the Peace Tower.

Of course you line up for a tour. The stone carving throughout the Centre Block is impressive, the portraits of prime ministers intriguing, the Library of Parliament’s carved pine panelling superb. But that’s what everybody sees.

My tip is to check out the plaster. Duck your head into the Reading Room, for instance, where the clock over the main door is flanked by winged figures, rendered in plaster, symbolizing youth and old age. Or sneak a peek into the Commonwealth Room, where plaster satyrs are the stars of the elaborate chimney decoration.

Parliament’s official sources used to credit these decorations from the 1920s to one Enrico F. Cerracchio. However, I looked into Enrico last year for a Maclean’s story, and found that this Italian immigrant artist was busy casting famous bronze statues in Texas in those years. It didn’t seem likely he was also commuting to Ottawa.

A little research turned up references to Ferdinand L. Cerracchio, also an Italian immigrant, but apparently no relation to his Texan namesake, as a New York City sculptor of the same era. Through the power of the Internet, I was soon chatting with his great-niece, Laura Rush, of Manahawkin, N.J., who confirmed, with old newspaper clippings to back up her story, that her uncle had indeed worked on Canada’s Parliament way back when.

Even better, Laura reminisced about “Uncle Freddie,” who died in 1964. He drove a yellow Cadillac and was reputed to have dated Mae West in his younger days. By the 1940s, he’d changed careers, opening a hot-spot Manhattan restaurant, El Borracho, in partnership with a former nightclub singer, described in an faded society-pages clipping as an “oomphy brunette.”

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Ferdinand (and no longer Enrico) Cerracchio has since been properly credited as Centre Block’s master of plaster on Parliament’s official website. They don’t mention Uncle Freddie’s bon vivant side there, but now you’ll be able to imagine, when you see his handiwork, how he might have been daydreaming about spending his Canadian paycheque, back home in New York, as he applied his fine touch to our democracy’s home.

From Parliament Hill, keep walking east along Wellington, and turn left down the stairs just before you reach the Chateau Laurier. The famous Rideau Canal locks are below on your left. Then it’s out onto the green of Major’s Hill Park, just south of the old hotel.

Strolling around the park, you might come upon a bronze Anishinaabe scout, cast in 1918. He’s a little Hollywood, with his feather and quiver of arrows, and used to kneel below a nearby statue of Samuel de Champlain, until the cringeworthiness of that arrangement became apparent and they moved him.

But Champlain is still there, and only a short walk further, at a place overlooking the Ottawa River called Nepean Point. He grandly holds aloft his famous astrolabe. Except the navigational instrument is upside down—a dumb mistake for a monument to one of history’s great explorers and mapmakers. You don’t need me to point that out; it’s a much-noted blunder.

Never mind. The view from that promontory of the waters Champlain first paddled into the continent’s heart in 1613 is epic. Our capital offers must-see edifices and unexpected diversions, but when you’ve had enough of both, the river remains Ottawa’s steady pulse, and you won’t need any local guide to find your way into its romance.