Halifax, Nova Scotia is not particularly noted for its shoes. This hilly seaport town smelling of hemp rope and salt air has the world's second largest natural harbour after Sydney, Australia. It was founded in 1749 by Governor Edward Cornwallis and his company of 2,500 settlers as a bastion of British power in the New World. It's famous for its massive Citadel guarded by Highlanders in MacKenzie tartan kilts. It's renowned for its ice-free harbour, its buskers, bagpipes, and foghorns, its salty seafood restaurants and rowdy Maritime music pubs. Not its shoes.
Yet shoes were on our mind as Gordon and I made our way toward #1663 Argyle Street onour last rollicking night in Halifax. It was after midnight. We were ravenous. Wandering the Spring Garden Road for a place still serving, we'd asked a Haligonian (as the friendly natives are called) and he directed us to The Economy Shoe Shop. “It really is a restaurant,” he promised. “Very popular, and open till 2 a.m.”
Well, whatever. Gordon and I imagined a menu of boiled boots, stir-fried Thai heels, smoked moccasins and marinated sneakers. It would be the perfect eatery to set beside the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. We wandered over to the neon sign announcing The Economy Shoe Shop Café & Bar and sat down at one of the cafe tables crowding the sidewalk.
We ordered Greek pizzas. Twenty minutes later the waiter rushed out, apologising profusely that there was no more pizza. We ordered garlic scampi. Fifteen minutes later the red-faced waiter bolted out, lamenting that they were out of shrimp. We ordered wild mushroom paté, hummus and pita. Half an hour later the waiter slinked over to our table, mortified, shamed beyond recognition, confessing, finally, that the problem was that the produce truck and the meat truck and the dairy truck hadn't shown up because of the Labour Day holiday. And lacking supplies, around 10:30 p.m. the chef had lost his mind, screamed “I'm outta here!” and fled. “The food is really good here” stammered the waiter. “—when we have it."
“Well, have you any shoe leather?” grumbled Gordon from a growling stomach. “Any sauteed pigskin, or roasted cowhide? Or steamed alligator? This is a shoe shop, isn't it?”
“Naw, the owners hung up that old Halifax shop sign, thinking it'd make a campy restaurant name. Hey! I'll bring you all that's left - and it will be on the house!” extolled the waiter.
He rushed out another pitcher of the local brew, Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale. Then, an hour after I'd muttered, “I hope it's not steamed mussels; I hate mussels” he brought out enough mussels to fill a pair of hip-wader boots, joking that he'd taken the boat out to trawl them himself. Then stacks of garlic bread. Then carrots and artichoke dip. Then a shoebox-sized portion of lobster scraps. Now we had more food than we'd eaten in three days of Halifax adventures and a server eager to please and entertain. He sat down and began a friendly patter ranging from shoe fetishes to bagpipes—the agony bags— to Buddy McMaster's Cape Breton fiddling, to complaints about Yanks buying up the coast of Cape Breton Island.
I tried to imagine such a wacky dining experience in Manhattan, or Paris, or London! This was Maritime sociability at its zaniest, and that's why we'd fallen in love with Halifax. The jewel of Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia's provincial capital of 110,00 bon vivants is urbane and cosmopolitan, yet as casual as a bag of fish and chips. Despite its history weighted with wars, disasters and shipwrecks, this pub-crawling, foot-tapping town loves to play.
And play bagpipes! The the skirl of Highland pipes was the first sound to greet our ears as we arrived into town and opened the car doors at the Lord Nelson Hotel parking lot. We followed the reedy cry across North Park Street to the ornamental wrought iron gates of the Halifax Public Gardens, the oldest Victorian Gardens in North America. There we paused to gape at some odd ancient Asian camel heads being sketched by a street artist who said he'd just moved from Toronto to practice his Gaelic and explore his Scottish roots.
Following the phantom piper, we rambled dreamily among the flower beds, duck ponds, Victorian fountains and gazebos. Then we explored the slate headstones and angels of death in the Old Burying Ground, dating from June 21, 1749, the day after the first English settlers arrived. Then the mysterious droning seemed to lead us up the steep earthen rampart to the Halifax Citadel, the fortress built between 1828--1856 to counter the French Fort at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.
Yards and yards of sharply-pleated tartan plaid filled the drill field, moving with tall feather bonnets, silver-mounted sporrans, bright red doublets, sgian dubhs daggers tucked into kneesocks, and polished white leather spats. This was the rousing spectacle of the kilted 78th Regiment Highlanders in full regalia, drawing visitors from around the world. I was mesmerized by the noon cannon, fired daily since 1857, and the buzz of droning hornets. But Gordon, wistful for his Scottish pipe band days, slipped into a reverie of shining his white dress shoes, combing the long horsehairs on his sporran, and straightening his kneesocks.
We enjoyed the misty romantic Halifax waterfront with its chunky seagoing tugboats, tall-masted sailing ships, weather-scarred wharves and boardwalks, narrow streets and Victorian-Italianate façades. The lively three-block Historic Properties area contain the oldest surviving waterfront warehouses in Canada. But sadly the rest of the skyline is blighted by a hodge-podge of some of the ugliest modern architecture ever conceived. What happened to those other vintage buildings? If you hop the oldest saltwater ferry in North America, operating since 1752, across to Dartmouth, the ten-minute ride will give you a view of the narrow watery passage where the tragedy which killed and maimed thousands, and obliterated 130 hectares of northern Halifax took place.
On December 6, 1917, in a wartime harbor crowded with ships transporting troops, munitions and food to Europe, the French Mont-Blanc, loaded with 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzol, was struck while moving through The Narrows by the Norwegian vessel Imo. The largest manmade explosion in history until Hiroshima killed 2,000 Haligonians on the spot, wounded 9,000 and rocked the ground all the way to Sydney, Cape Breton Island.
Exhibits, films and artifacts at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic document the Halifax Explosion, and that of the doomed Titanic which sank northeast of Nova Scotia in 1912. It was the grim work of three Halifax ships that recovered the Titanic victims, and they lie in numbered graves with small black headstones dated April 15, 1912 in the Fairview, Olivette and Baron de Hirsch cemetaries. The Maritime Museum has the world's largest collection of wooden Titanic artifacts—including a deck chair—dredged from the sea by ships searching for bodies.
Nova Scotia has over 100 different ethnic groups. From 1928-1971, over one million immigrants, refugees, war brides and children arrived at Halifax's Pier 21 to begin new lives in Canada. The map of Halifax-Dartmouth is salt-and-peppered with their names: Blink...Bonnie...Celtic Drive...Pelzant...Kaluna...Navara...Montague... Westphal...Capistrano..Sirius...Pulsifer..Cuisack et. al. At the Pier 21 National Historic Site, the last remaining immigration shed in Canada, you can see precious personal artifacts of these immigrants--mildewed trunks, yellowed passports, old photos, heirlooms and vintage souvenirs--and a fascinating multi-media show.
The tour of Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery, the oldest working brewery in North America, is a bit corny considering all those ancient breweries in Europe that don't even bother to give tours. But the story of this enterprising Scot born in Halkirk in 1795, who started his own brewery at age 26 and was thrice mayor of Halifax between 1843-53, is part of the local folklore, and makes an afternoon's entertainment. At the Stag's Head Tavern you'll hear Maritime drinking songs, bawdy jokes, and play some curious old pub games. I won all the black-eyed peas on the table, and got a Keith's brewery token good for a Keith's Indian Pale Ale anywhere in town. If I were a good Haligonian I would have spent it on the spot. But I'm saving this silver coin with Alexander's mug on one side and the stag's head on the other for my next Halifax gallivant.