In the Titanic city of Halifax, Canada, hope, courage and laughter overcome a tragic past

  • Sonia Nazareth
  • Updated: Jan 30, 2016 08:56 IST

W hen the Titanic sank in 1912, courageous locals brought the bodies not buried at sea, to close-at-hand Halifax. This makes it a unique destination, a cemetery that causes an instant re-arrangement of your cerebral furniture: is this a place of sorrow or courage?

The Fairview Cemetery, the best tended of the lot, is the final resting place of over 100 victims. The three lines of graves are laid out in a gently-curving shape, which suggest the contours of a ship.

This is where you’ll find your first surprise, the grave of Jack Dawson. Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in Titanic (1997), is named after (but has no connection to) a real person. You’ll soon realise, however, that the real stories are more powerful than those you saw on screen. Like the tale of William Denton Cox, a heroic steward, who died escorting third-class passengers to the lifeboat.

Breaking the ice

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has a Titanic section, is what weaves individual stories together. More history lives in the exhibits that focus on the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Halifax, like much of the world, was sucked into the First World War. It was the point of assembly and departure for transatlantic convoys taking supplies to soldiers oversees. A miscommunication between two ships resulted in a collision, followed by an explosion reducing the city to shambles and killing several people.

A different side to canada: Sights like the harbour (top), the museum (above) and the public art (below) are best explored on foot.

And yet, the focus is not on who is to blame, but what the city did next. Citizens bravely bounced back both times, re-building their lives. On the day I arrived, the place was hosting a farewell for Erik, the resident cat.

This might explain why, no matter where you go in Halifax, people smile. A sign outside a fish shack by the bay reads, “Who needs the gym? We have all the mussels you need.” Even the Five Fishermen restaurant, a former funeral home that housed corpses from the Titanic and Halifax explosion is now a place for ghost stories over steaks, burgers and martinis.

Art matters

Halifax, a place that knows how quickly fates can change, makes the most of every day. Walls become artists’ canvases, photogenic boats are abundant. Locals swear that it’s the presence of water around them that makes them such an easy-going breed. Men are out playing a spot of waterfront golf in their lunch break. The Wave, a 3.6-meter tall sculpture, proves once again that approachable art is always a good idea – children kick off their shoes and scramble up with confidence. But it’s really the parents who get wild. They climb less confidently, often only to slide back to the foam base. The excitement in their eyes makes me wonder if the free-spiritedness we’ve left behind is more precious than all we’ve gained.

Walking on

This is a city best explored on foot. The 1814 Privateers Warehouse, an old stone building, is where the booty that came in from across the waters, was stored. Nearby, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, apart from being a hotbed of aboriginal and local talent, is also the mecca for fans of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. The 3x4-metre home she lived in has paintings on almost every surface. What strikes you at once is that the heroes in these parts are the ordinary folk.

The stories that peg the waterfront are of the men who worked the cable ships, clearly among the best seafarers and technicians in the world, who often grappled with dangerous work on the ice-choked waters of the Northern Atlantic.

The wall project: The colourful streets on the waterfront are a testament to the determinedly cheery people.

If the walking builds up an appetite (and you love fresh produce and seafood) you’ll be delighted with Halifax once more. You’ll find every combination of seafood, every kind of sausage at the sausage festival, and an abundance of preservative-free chocolate, served with local ingredients from ice wine, berries and seaport to maple syrup, honey and seaweed.

Perhaps it’s even worth mentioning that the doner kebab from Middle East has been adopted by Halifax in its own unique way. The garlic sauce made with yoghurt and lemon juice didn’t go down well with the locals. So they created their own – a sweeter version with vapourised milk, vinegar, garlic powder and sugar. Call it ‘donair’ like the locals.

And while I lick the sweet sauce off my fingers, I’m reminded once more of how a city can change its own story. For here are people who haven’t let their past determine them, and let hope hold sway over history.


Need to know

* Getting there: There are no non-stop flights from India. Conect via Turkey, France or Amsterdam. Canadian visa is required.

* Eat: Restaurants focus on fresh, sustainable and local produce. Seafood is abundant.

* Do: See the Titanic section at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

* Plan: Canada can get cold, so visit during the warmest time: late June through August. The Canadian dollar is roughly Rs 48.

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From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016

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