Canada's surprisingly cool city

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 30/11/2011

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The Canadian customs guy eyed me suspiciously. "You're going where?"

"Winnipeg," I repeated as nonchalantly as possible. But he wasn't convinced.

"Really? Why?"

"Um - for a holiday."

He squinted at me for a few more seconds, then finally shrugged his shoulders and stamped my passport. "Good luck," he said, sliding the documents over the desk.

And that, right there, sums up Winnipeg. Even Canadians, even experienced customs officials used to seeing all manner of travellers passing by their gates, can't understand why you'd want to go to Winnipeg.

Canada has some world-famous tourist attractions but the capital of Manitoba isn't one of them. To Canadians it's known as "Winterpeg", thanks to the biting cold that can seep into your bones at any time of year. To the rest of the world it's just known as "Where?".

Even I wasn't really sure why I was going to Winnipeg. It was on a whim, out of a misguided desire to find the "real" Canada. There are a million tourists in places such as Montreal and Vancouver, I figured, but who goes to Winnipeg?

And I like visiting little-known places. Sometimes they confound your expectations; other times they're just amusingly bad.

I'd also once travelled with a girl who was from Winnipeg and I'd always wanted to see her home town, so I took the plunge and booked the ticket and was soon stepping out of the city's little airport and into a brisk prairie breeze one summer's day.

So what does Winnipeg have going for it? On the surface, not much. This is a city that counts a difficult intersection (the aptly named Confusion Corner) as a famous landmark, which should tell you all you need to know.

The tourist brochures would point you towards the Manitoba Museum, an undoubtedly interesting collection of artefacts and historical pieces in the town centre. But I'm not much of a museum goer, so that was only going to keep me amused for a couple of hours.

You'd also be told to visit the Manitoba Legislative Building with its carved Masonic codes but that's only another hour done. What about the rest of the time?

There's a big-country-town feel to Winnipeg, with wide streets that you could imagine farmers herding cattle through not so long ago. The place is pancake-flat; winds whistle in off the surrounding prairies and crackle along the bare streets.

The concrete pavements are strangely empty; it feels like a ghost town until you realise everyone's going about their business indoors.

The thermometer hits the minus-40s in winter - people here are used to being inside. Most of the shops in the downtown area could have been transplanted from any suburban Canadian hellhole: a Starbucks here, a Tim Hortons coffee there, a Subway, a couple of pawn shops, an outdoor adventure wholesaler.

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So far, I could see what the customs guy was on about.

But help was at hand. That friend I once travelled with was still living in Winnipeg and she'd offered to meet up for a drink. We were going to Osborne Village, she said, the artsy, creative side of Winnipeg that I only realised existed after I was told we were meeting there.

And that's when Winnipeg started to make sense.

You know how dodgy, rundown suburbs seem to become cool over time? How places such as Surry Hills in Sydney used to be no-go zones until the artists and musicians moved in and suddenly the people who wanted to be around artists and musicians followed suit?

Winnipeg is on the cusp of that transition. It was never dodgy - just dull. But it was also cheap and the government offered incentives for creative types to move in, so the artists and musicians packed up their vans, tackled Confusion Corner and settled down on the prairies, completely changing the city's landscape.

My friend and I headed to the obligatory Irish bar for a pint of local beer. "That's a cool accent," the barman said. "You're from Australia, eh?" (Another benefit of small towns: people still think being Australian is interesting.)

There were a few things we could do that night, my friend said. We could see a band downstairs. Or there was another band playing across the road. We could go to a street-art exhibition opening at a local tattoo parlour. Or there was hockey - always hockey - on the pub TV.

It was a pretty impressive line-up of events for a supposedly quiet little town on a Tuesday night. We ultimately plumped for the band downstairs and spent a long night dancing, drinking and explaining my accent.

Fun was had and a revelation dawned.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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