Heart of the prairie

MAX ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 16/01/2014
Winnipeg
M Readey/Wikimedia Commons.

IN GOOD COMPANY: Winnipeg's architecture wouldn't seem out of place in London, New York or Paris.

Winnipeg
Samyaka Verma/Wikimedia Commons.
MILLIONAIRES CLUB: Winnipeg was once so wealthy that Chicago called itself the Winnipeg of the South.

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Canadians love to heap poop on the city of Winnipeg: too cold, too boring, too flat. Even the Americans are in on the joke - a spoof welcome sign in an episode of The Simpsons reads: ''We were born here, what's your excuse?''

Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba, the Prairie state where you can sit on your verandah and spend three days watching your dog run away.The winters are so fierce the city main street is threaded with tunnels and overpasses so you don't have to go outside. The historic buildings are built of a bloodless stone that looks like rendered cement.

But here's the funny thing: Winnipeg is an extraordinary city - an epic riddle that's fresh and intriguing, a surprise package that will leave you delighted at having made the discovery.

''This city was once so rich that Chicago called itself the Winnipeg of the South,'' says Kristen Verin-Treusch. '

'In 1912 we had more millionaires than anywhere else.''

Kristen's Boom and Bust walking tour lays the foundations of a city that is out of all proportion to its 680,000 population and present economic fortunes. A century ago it was a crossroads of commerce, literally at the centre of North America. If you needed to freight goods anywhere, it went by train through Winnipeg.

''We were forecast to be huge,'' she says, ''bigger than Toronto.''

She twists her mouth into a wry smile.

''As you can see, it didn't quite work out that way.''

Nevertheless, I spend most of our walk craning upwards at architecture more suited to Paris, New York or London. The Bank of Montreal is a columned cathedral of Beaux-Arts, the domed Union Station is a restrained Grand Central, the Hotel Fort Garry is a nine-storey chateau.

''You know the movie The King's Speech?'' says Kristen, indicating the Gothic fantasy that is the Government House of Manitoba.

''Well they forgot to mention that he first made that speech here.''

It's true. Four months before making his wartime rally, George broadcast a stammer-free address to the empire out of Winnipeg.

The city lays claim to some surprising cultural influences. In 1913 Groucho Marx walked past the Empress Theatre and heard the audience in stitches at ''a little guy on the stage'' who ''was walking around kinda funny''; he went backstage to introduce himself to the young Charlie Chaplin and toured with him a year later.

Winnipegger Sir William Stephenson was a spymaster known to Churchill as ''Intrepid''; a spy named Fleming worked under him and would later write: ''James Bond is a highly romanticised version of a true spy. The real thing is ... William Stephenson.''

And resident vet Harry Colebourn adopted a bear cub from his travels, took it with him to Europe and eventually donated it to London Zoo; named Winnie, the bear came to be much-loved by A.A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin.

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The city's most confounding sight is the neoclassical Legislative Building (the Ledge), a parliament completed in 1920 to rival the White House in grandeur and scaled to serve the many millions they predicted would live in the provincial capital.

Today, Frank Albo - a highly charismatic polymath - leads one of the very best tours of any public building anywhere in the world. He entrances his audience for three hours, making his case that its Freemason architect secretly wove religious messages through the ostensibly secular building.

''Everything hidden in plain view,'' he says, ''that was the Masonic way. This building is a temple in disguise.''

Albo points to domes, columns, staircases, paintings and statuary and ''decodes'' them using principles of divinity, Greek architecture and Masonic ritual. It's a tour that should have punters running for the hills (if there were any) but Albo's unique subject matter - not to mention a finale that leaves some locals in tears - means you're lucky to get a booking.

Winnipeg hit the skids in the 1920s, weakened by strikes, speculators and the Panama Canal, which reduced demand for trans-Canadian rail crossings. It's been a long time between drinks, but now the government is spending A$2 billion ($2.1 billion) to inject a little love.

The Forks district, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, is an edgy hub of arty installations, markets and gentle riverside walks. A pre-1900 railway building has been transformed into a happy cavern of steel gantries, iron lacework and spiral stairs, filled with buzzy stalls of colour and charm. (Here's where I discovered saskatoons and chokecherries - native berries that taste as spritzy as they sound.)

This year it will also be home to the $300 million ($321 million) Canadian Museum of Human Rights. This massive Gehry-esque fabrication looks a little like a hornet's nest - some prescience, perhaps, given that it's already stirring passions among Canada's many minority groups over issues that are anything but black and white.

Not far is the Exchange District, a den of merchant buildings and warehouses, favoured by Hollywood as a stand-in for turn-of-the-century Chicago. It's gentrifying all by itself, enjoying an influx of hipster restaurants like Tallest Poppy, vintage clothing shops (the retro treasures in Rhymes With Orange are a steal) and pubs like the Fiddle and Fox, an attractive 1905 bank given over to boutique beers.

The city fathers are also dropping US$120 million (NZ$129 million) on the zoo, with the world's biggest exhibit of Arctic animals - Journey to Churchill - opening in 2014. It will include glass walkways beneath frozen lakes of ring seals, a polar bear island (the animals rescued as orphans from Churchill in the north) plus exhibits of arctic foxes, musk ox and snowy owls.

But wildlife is never far away. If you're in town during autumn, be sure to look up: for three weeks, the skies are filled with curling black streamers of Canada geese returning home. Locals visit Oak Hammock Marsh to stand on the roof of an interpretive centre and enjoy the sight of hundreds of thousands of birds, flying out of the waxing sun in long, honking lines.

Even at street level, you're surrounded by millions of animals, albeit somewhat less active ones. That bloodless grey stone that makes the historic buildings appear cement-rendered is actually Tyndall stone - polished blocks of 450-million-year-old seabed, studded with fossilised primordial inhabitants. Like Winnipeg, it deserves a closer look.

But for the daddy of all Prairie critters, you should go to FortWhyte Alive - 32 hectares of urban wilderness that may put a dent in the notion that the Prairie flatlands are unedifying.

Fort Whyte is home to a herd of Canada's largest land animal, Bison bison or the American buffalo. Lisa Turner takes me by van to get among them, crawling up to chief beast Charlie and sliding the van door open. We're close enough to get a powerful draught of the two-tonne animal. He's magnificent and, I swear, 90 per cent head.

''He has great smell, great hearing and bad eyesight,'' says Lisa, hands on the wheel.

''If his tail is up, he's alarmed - and you need to let me know. Charlie can jump his own height and reach 60km/h from a standing start.''

Charlie is the curtainraiser on a clever cultural tour. In a native tipi in a copse of trembling aspen, Lisa demonstrates how the Cree people used the buffalo for just about everything they needed to survive. In a farmer's ''sod house'' (a crude cabin of cut turf) she explains how the Canadian settlers - in contrast to the Americans, who wiped out the great herds - managed the buffalo for their manure, which provided fuel and fertiliser.

And beside a hand-made wooden cart she explains how the Metis, a people of mixed French-Canadian and native heritage, traded hides and pemmican, a dense mixture of fat and protein. In the restaurant I get another perspective on Charlie - he makes for a brawny, fat-free burger that is exceptionally good with Swiss cheese.

I love my days in Winnipeg, especially the people - from the staff who serve breakfast at 6am in the Fairmont Hotel, to the people hanging out in the cool bars of the Exchange District. They're all amazed anyone would be interested in their city and gamely share jokes made at their expense.

En route to the airport I see Winnipeg's real welcome sign, and it reads: ''Heart of the Continent''.

Winnipeg has a great heart - and that's all the excuse I need.

The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

GETTING THERE Fly to Vancouver (14hr 15min) and then to Winnipeg (2hr 44min).

GETTING AROUND A hire car will serve you well. All the usual rentals available at the airport for about $64 a day.

STAYING THERE The Fairmont is an old-school hotel between the Forks and Exchange districts; a twin is about $214 a night; a suite on the Gold Fairmont Level with breakfast and cocktail hour is about $321 a night.

TOURING THERE Kristen Verin-Treusch's walking tours, see muddywatertours.ca; Legislative Building Hermetic Code tour, see heartlandtravel.ca.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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