After our stay in Saskatoon we boarded the first train of our journey and made our way to the prairie metropolis of Winnipeg, Manitoba. This city is the largest in Manitoba and a major economical, cultural, and commercial center in Canada.
The name comes from the Cree First Nations word “Wi-Nipe-K” which means muddy waters and this aludes to the fact that Winnipeg is situated right where the Red River and the Assiniboine Rivers meet. It was a major hub of canoe travel for Aboriginal peoples of Canada many centuries ago.
It later became a fur trading post when the early settlers arrived, and in 1869 it was the site of the Red River Rebellion between the local provisional Metis government (led by Louis Riel) and newcomers from Eastern Canada. This led to Manitoba being the 5th province to enter the confederation of Canada in 1870.
When the railway across Canada was constructed, Winnipeg became a major transportation hub and was known as the “Gateway to the West”. Since the city boomed so much during the early part of the 20th century, much of the architecture reflects that time period and the downtown areas are very historic and beautiful to walk through.
We didn’t know anyone in Winnipeg to stay with, so we sent out a few requests on the website Couchsurfing.org. This is a travel network where people offer their couch or spare room to travelers for free in exchange for the opportunity to surf on other people’s couches in a sort of “pay it forward” hospitality exchange.
When I describe Couchsurfing to some people they recoil in horror at the thought of staying with a complete stranger. However, having used this travel method all across the country I can truly vouch for the fact that it works and it can be a wonderful way to meet friendly and interesting people.
Our stay in Winnipeg was a great example of just how fantastic couch surfing can be. In the ideal couch surfing experience you get a friendly and interesting host who is happy to share a bit of their culture with you and you are able to share something with them in return.
A Welcoming Host
Our couchsurfing host was Jacques. Soft-spoken with dark hair and eyes, he is in his mid-30s but easily looks 10 years younger (probably due to his healthy mostly vegetarian diet). He is interested in spirituality, nutrition, holistic health, nature, music, and many more fascinating things. His Couchsurfing profile states that his mission is “To experience what the rest of the world has to offer my smile to the beautiful people i meet,” and that is exactly what he did.
With a warm and welcoming smile, Jacques met us at the train station in Winnipeg and took us to his apartment in the beautiful St. Boniface area of Winnipeg. When we arrived there was a hot pot of chili on the stove ensuring that we were not hungry from our long journey. During our five day stay in Winnipeg our kind and peaceful host went out of his way to make sure that we had a great time and that we got a great glimpse of what his city had to offer.
One of the first nights we were there he took us to a live concert at The Forks, an area near the river with restaurants and shops, where his nephew’s fiance was performing. On the weekend, he took an entire day to drive us around the city, bringing us to the cemetery where Louis Riel was buried, Fort Gibraltar, the Manitoba Legislature Buildings, Assiniboine Park, St. Boniface Cathedral and more.
The Manitoba Legislative Buildings
I would definitely recommend you check out this building if you are in Winnipeg. It’s a fascinating example of early 1900s architecture and it has many curious features which relate to Da-Vinci-Code style geekiness like the Fibonacci Sequence, the Golden Ratio and Sacred Geometry. When you are there, visit the Pool of the Black Star which is the room beneath the rotunda. When you stand in the circle in the middle of the round room you can hear your whispered voice amplified throughout the building just like you were speaking into a microphone. Don’t forget to also look for the Golden Boy, who is a Winnipeg symbol. He is a gold-plated statue of the Roman god Mercury, standing in top of the roof of the building.
St. Boniface Cathedral
This 1906 Roman Catholic Basilica is located in the beautiful Franco-Manitoban community of St. Boniface, and it was destroyed in a fire in 1968. These days, only the front facade and the walls remain. These days, a new and very modern church has been built within the old walls that are still left standing. I thought the 1970s stained glass work within the cathedral was simply gorgeous and definitely worth a look. The cemetery in front of the building is also where you will find one of Manitoba’s most famous people and the leader of the Red River Rebellion, Louis Riel.
A fur trading fort built by the North West Company in 1809, Fort Gibraltar is a great example of the sort of rustic log encampments of the voyageurs whose explorations shaped the development of Canada. The fort that exists there now is not the original, but a rebuilt facsimile. It seems like it often has festivals, historical recreations and other family events which would be quite fun. However, when we visited they were preparing for a wedding so not much was going on.
Speaking of weddings, that day when we went around touring Winnipeg’s most scenic landmarks must have been a very popular Saturday for weddings, because we saw at least a dozen or more couples posing for photos! Just when we thought we had seen more people tie the knot than we could ever imagine in one day, we would turn around the corner and see yet another bride in a long white dress posing in front of a Winnipeg monument with a bouquet in hand!
Jacques was a wonderful tour guide, telling us stories of the city and the history behind its major monuments.Our wonderful host was so welcoming that he even invited us to Sunday brunch at his mother’s house! We spent a relaxing morning chatting with his family about our adventures. Rather than staying in a hotel and getting a very touristic impression of the city, staying with Jacques gave us an opportunity to really learn about the true character of Winnipeg and the people who live there.
What We Have to Share
Now, although Lee and I don’t have a spare bedroom to offer or even a house at the moment, what we do have is our knowledge of travel. After hearing from Jacques that he was itching to quit his job, buy a plane ticket and explore the world, we shared as much information with him as we could about working holiday visas, flights and more. The more we talked about our travel experiences in New Zealand, the more questions he asked until he started to become very seriously interested in planning a trip of his own.
A few weeks later, Lee and I were delighted to hear the news that Jacques had arrived in Auckland and was going to be travelling around the Land of the Long White Cloud for several months! He has been there since December, WWoofing, Couch Surfing and generally having an amazing time! You can read his travel blog here.
Although Jacques already had the desire and the idea to travel, perhaps the information that we gave him and the reassurance that it was a good idea was what he needed to finally take the plunge. We hope that his New Zealand trip is as wonderful and life changing as ours was. 🙂
Beautiful Winnipeg left us impressed by its historic attractions, peaceful tree lined streets, excellent museums, and abundance of cultural events. It also made us very thankful for the friendly and generous people such as Jacques that we have met on this journey who have welcomed us into their homes.