Via venture

Eleven-thirty. Almost midnight, and my room for the night suddenly shakes and judders. With a little sigh the Via Rail Canada Enterprise gently pulls away and we are off. The sign on the platform says Toronto and I won't see it again for a couple of days. Montreal, here I come.

I pull back the curtain that separates my teeny compartment from the corridor and say a silent 'thankyou' when I see there is also a door that locks firmly for the night.

Inside I have a seat, and a toilet with a seat-top cover, in case I should have a visitor, I imagine. Later I discover that my bed pulls down and stretches across the loo almost completely filling the available space, so I find a new way to undress for the night, one that involves minimal movement.

 So compact is the arrangement, that these cabins are almost shuffled into each other, each one raised or lowered slightly in relation to its neighbour, so that the cavity under my seat appears to be where the adjoining compartment allows extra length. Very nifty.

I have always loved sleeping with the rhythm of a train, and this one is no different, humming me to sleep so that I wake only in time to rush to the breakfast bar in the next carriage, grab some complimentary cereal and yoghurt, check the (also complimentary) morning papers, then hustle my gear together ready to de-train, as I  believe these North Americans call it, at 8am.

My co-travellers hop off, bright and perky, ready for a hard day in meetings or work at an office downtown, no doubt. Some have chosen to arrive this way to save the cost of a night in a hotel. Montreal's Gare Centrale is well named. It's much more central than the airport, so they have cannily saved on taxi fares as well.

You could, if your business in this island city is completed quickly enough, even hop on the afternoon train that leaves at 5pm and take a swiftly scenic ride through the Canadian countryside, landing up in Toronto again at 9.30pm the same day.

But there is plenty to make you want to linger. This European-style city with a population of around a million, never sleeps, it seems. Spend an afternoon in Vieux Montreal, the old town, and you feel you've slipped across the Atlantic to France. It's worth the time needed to wander up to Plateau Mont-Royal though, to discover hip neighbourhood bars, cafes and trendy boutiques that rival many larger cities.

My program allowed me a day or so to explore, so I crowded in as much sight seeing as I could, even lingering to watch street performers in the fair-like atmosphere of the old town, and consider a horse-drawn carriage ride around the cobbled streets. But soon enough I was boarding the faster VIA 1 train back to Toronto.

This sleek silver beauty travels the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor at speeds of up to 160 kilometres an hour we were informed, and we believed it too, as the trackside houses and horses and cows blurred beside us. No wonder the driver had an affinity with the whistle, giving it a blast at every crossing, but the business people around me with their laptops plugged into the seat sockets, hardly blinked.

Dinner was served in the First Class cabin as we flew  along, just after crossing the mighty St Lawrence River dotted with islets. Chicken breast and risotto (sorry, the sole's all gone) coffee and chocolates as we zoomed past Cape Cod style houses and barns set in impossibly green fields.

Finally about an hour out of Toronto we came to one of the Great Lakes -  Lake Ontario - stretching out to the horizon like an inland sea. In summer you get your money's worth as far as views go on this trip, with daylight all the way, and we pulled into  Toronto's Gare Union station just as the last long, low rays were touching the hills.

OK, a plane is quicker, and you have to do the math to see if the price is right, depending on what deals you can get - but the ground-level view lets you feel you have connected with the land. And there's no worry about your  mobile phone interfering with the navigation equipment, so you can either work your passage, or lie back and enjoy Canada.

- by Sally Hammond

 

 

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