Sunday, May 25, 2008

Saving a few thousand words on St. John's

St. John's has been my home base since I got back to this side of the Atlantic, and so I thought I should share a bit of the area. I'll admit that my first impression of the town was not so favorable - after more than nine months away from the realm of big box stores and strip malls I was a bit in shock at how, well, American it seemed here. But St. John's is also a city with plenty of charm - the oldest and easternmost city in north America, capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, a city that manages to have both the most bars per capita of any city in North America but also a friendly atmosphere, low crime rate, and lots of walking trails and parks within the city limits. (Much of this, I should add, is helped by the fact that St. John's has a population only slightly over 100,000 and seems more like a small town at the center of a sprawling suburb than a bona fide city. But I digress.)

Downtown itself is rather quaint and cheerful. To me, the bright colors on the wooden houses says New England meets Iceland, which might not actually be so far off.
The town is situated at the site of an excellent natural harbor, which made it a great location for the early English fishermen who used the town as a base when they began crossing the Atlantic in search of cod in the 1500s. This view shows most of the downtown area and the entrance to the harbor, known as the "narrows" for rather obvious reasons.
When the town was initially founded, this geography was also a major benefit for defense - on the hill to the left of the picture above you'll find Signal Hill, and to the right, Fort Amherst (yes, the very same Lord Jeffrey Amherst of my fair alma mater). While Adam was here, we took a walk up to the top of Signal Hill to see the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, as well as the site of harbor defenses for St. John's from the 18th century to the Second World War.The town is obviously well-defended.Partly because it is such an excellent harbor and partly because Newfoundland's lifeblood is the sea, it is still very much an active harbor. There are many fishing boats tied up along the harbor downtown (also a number of other boats, including supply and service vessels for the growing oil industry and even an EU fisheries patrol vessel). As you can see from the crab pots, these boats are actually here to work, not just to look pretty.Also among the defining characteristics of St. John's is its weather - lots of wind and rain and fog that is only just starting to clear up enough to hint of summer. Here Adam demonstrates mid-April wind at the top of Signal Hill, so strong we actually had to be careful not to get blown over. Most people tell me that this year is worst than most, but I think I'd be missing something of the Newfoundland experience if I only saw clear, sunny days. To make up for it, though (and partially causing it), the spring brings visitors from the far north...icebergs!This one was right in the entrance to the harbor at Quidi Vidi, a small fishing harbor just at the edge of downtown St. John's. One of the other things I like about this city is that there can be a small village like this just a few kilometers from the central downtown.With this just next to the city, even for "townies," it would be hard to forget the central role of fishing in the economy and identity of Newfoundland.

It's a good place to be.


Steve Sauter said...

So I saw Adam just a few days ago on campus- funny to see him here in the wind and fog. Glad you included a photo of yourself, Hilary.

Closer to home, Nova Scotia, is where Sally and I will go camping this summer. There is a wonderful book of art and beautiful writing called "Far out is not far enough" by Tomi Ungerer. A New York City refugee, Ungerer and his wife move to a little coastal fishing village for a few years. Amazing.

Hilary said...

I'm actually going to be making my way home from Newfoundland via a roadtrip across the island here and then through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I'm excited to see some of the rest of Atlantic Canada. Any suggestions for where to stop in Nova Scotia?

Sharon said...

Hi Hilary,
I love reading about what you've done and seeing the pictures. But some of these photos I don't see in your picasa photo album. Are there more you have yet to post?
You'll have to give a REALLY LONG
slide show when you come home.