(In case you’re wondering, no—this doesn’t have much to do with Portland Architecture. But I trust you gentle readers will cut me some slack. We’ll be back with regular local design programming by late this week. Or early next week at the latest. I mean, hey, the French take a whole month off. Can't I have a couple days?)
The city is considerably smaller than I expected. I knew Victoria was not a big metropolis like Vancouver (Canada), but it feels almost like a small Oregon coast town—particularly Astoria, with its fabric of historic homes. From our hotel looking out at the inner harbor (or, if you prefer, ‘harbour’) there is a constant stream of sea planes landing on the water and the squawk of seagulls, but otherwise it seems like a sleepy town. Victoria, like lots of Canada, also feels a bit more European, especially British of course, than US cities. There are old stone churches and probably more Welsh rarebit or shepherd’s pie than we have in Portland. But like our city, the visual icon is not any built structure so much as the surrounding mountains. In Victoria despite the proximity to the sea, the sunset view is blocked by the Olympic mountains of Washington, but in return they seem to insulate the town both figuratively and literally.
Easily the most well known building is the Empress Hotel, a grand stone edifice covered in ivy, overlooking the harbor from a front row vantage on Government Street. Although Portland has a few venerable old hotels such as the Benson, we don’t have an iconic grand hotel like the Empress – wouldn’t you say?
Naturally the signature attraction of Victoria, though, is Butchart Gardens. We went there today and it was indeed spectacular. But riding the half-hour so on the bus from downtown to Buchart, the otherwise unique central city gave way surprisingly quickly to the same generic stretch of strip malls and chain stores as everywhere else. This after seeing not a single McDonald's downtown. Starbucks seemed the only corporation to crack the code until we got further into Victoria's outer environs.
Yesterday I was walking in the Oak Bay neighborhood and happened to notice a historic marker designating the spot of an old trolley-car line. Although more European, Victoria also was not immune to the age of automobiles.
Because I have a back injury and can’t walk around as much as I’d normally like to, we (the girlfriend and I) took a ride on one of those touristy open-topped double-decker buses. I had to laugh at the tour guide’s unintended architectural prejudices. If we came past an old “heritage building”, the guide would proudly explain how it had been preserved and couldn’t be torn down. Which is great, of course. But then inevitably he’d say something like, “Now if you see that building on your left that looks a little like a prison, that’s one of our new modern waterfront houses,” or “that’s one of our new condos.” It’s true that bad modern architecture can be pretty oppressive, especially if there isn’t a lot of glass and transparency to the design. But some of the high density they’re adding to Victoria, like most other North American cities, seems both aesthetically appealing and good for the town. Who wants sprawl in such beautiful country, looking out at the San Juan Islands, and the ocean?
To get here, we eschewed the easier/faster plane right or driving combination for an Amtrak trip to Seattle and then a ferry to Victoria. Boarding at Union Station early last Sunday morning, the train was surprisingly packed. The conductor told us ridership on the Cascades line between Portland and Seattle has been way up since the cost of gas skyrocketed. I don’t like paying over $4 a gallon any more than the next person, but it was another reminder of how the resulting changes in Americans’ habits because of oil and gas inflation are a strong bright side. If people keep riding Amtrak a lot more than they used to, might this be the impetus that’s needed to upgrade this pathetic excuse for a national passenger rail system? Or maybe, dare I say, a high-speed rail system? After all, our combination train and ferry trip through Seattle to Vancouver took us about nine hours (three for each leg, with another three hours in between). If the numbers stayed high, it’d be easier to have more trains running more frequently on the tracks between Seattle and Portland each day, or even more ferries to Victoria. It seems like we’re ready to upgrade mass transit in the coming generation, but the infrastructure is still far from meeting those needs.
Meanwhile, it will always be nice to get back to the Rose City. Call me biased or even sentimental perhaps, but whether it’s Seattle or any other North American city, I don’t think any compare to ours.