Story by Ilona Kauremszky
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
LOUISBOURG, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — “You’re entering a French fortress during a time of war! No drawings of the fortress and no speaking to English prisoners. Understood?” summons the sentry standing all high and mighty.
At the Fortress of Louisbourg looming on the edge of Cape Breton Island this National Historic Site has routinely been dubbed Parks Canada’s crown jewel and in January was named Vacay.ca’s No. 1 place to visit in Canada for 2013.
Secluded off what was formerly known as Île-Royale, the grounds of the park make you imagine the enormity and significance of the former French colonial capital of Louisbourg. For 18th-century France, the site was essential for a thriving fishing industry and a key military outpost. Visitors to the recreated fortress have the opportunity to learn in detail about life in 1744, beginning with the decree a costumed soldier announces to a bunch of vacationers.
Back in the day an incoming flotilla of mighty frigates once plied these waters. They were laden with gun powder and everything from flour to the enormously expensive chocolate only given to the lucky few engineers and high-ranking officers. Meanwhile, the taverns were packed with ale-drinkers quaffing a new elixir called rum, fresh from the French West Indies.
The seaport of Louisbourg was a bustling trading post rich in precious cod. While fishers and French soldiers called this walled city home from 1720 until 1758, the original fishing settlement started in 1713.
Now it’s bustling with tourists ready to celebrate Louisbourg’s 300th anniversary. The attraction, which was recreated in the 1960s and depicts one-fifth of the original colonial village, has a number of events planned for the tricentennial that visitors will enjoy throughout 2013. The best way to experience this time capsule of early colonial life in North America is to hang with the locals, aka costumed interpreters.
What to See and Do in Fortress Louisbourg
Talk about hard labour. It looks like the long arduous career in blacksmithing is never quite finished at this shop. Every time I poked my head inside, a thick plume of smoke arose over the ringing bang of iron blows to the anvil. The strong-armed blacksmith was busy stoking the fire lined with red-hot irons. This is a great spot to watch the craft of making horseshoes, tools and other paraphernalia for daily use.
De Ganne’s House: Military Captain
They say that back then ladies of a certain status were delicate creatures. They would toil by making extraordinary lace masterpieces like the ones you will find at Madame De Ganne’s house. Lace making was the fashion of the day and a common past-time for women of a distinguished cultural class. So was sitting by the parlour sipping tea. Imagine the aromatic scent of boiling meat coming from the kitchen and the wafting of sea breezes filled with drying cod. Mmmm.
Think long and hard the next time someone says he or she is taking a basket-weaving course. In my school days it was code for easy-peasy, basically a “bird course.” Well think again as you observe these basket weavers demonstrating the tricks of the trade. I saw an 18th-century Acadian basket made from pussy willows. The technique was first used in the Brittany region of France but when the French arrived here and mingled with the aboriginal population they adapted new techniques and produced something practical and uniquely Canadian. It’s truly divine!
Like clockwork, a military garrison of Fortress Louisbourg’s finest schlep their muskets, march in unison and stand on guard ready to be summoned for the ultimate show: the firing of the cannon. You want loud — stand anywhere in the vicinity and you will be guaranteed the loudest cannon boom this side of the Atlantic. It’s all very ceremonial and makes for fantastic photo-ops. Plan to see the firing at midday.
The King’s Bakery
Imagine four bakers living above a bakery ready to hit their day job then when it was all done head upstairs for some shuteye. By day this scorching hot oven operation provided a paltry few slices to every soldier every four days. Flour was a precious commodity that didn’t come regularly. Nowadays the oven is manned by a baker in period costume demonstrating the age-old bread-making process. Fresh daily baked bread is available for purchase.
Life definitely wasn’t easy in those days, maybe it was simpler.
But after a visit to this windswept place on Cape Breton, fuelled by the enthusiasm of an adept group of re-enactors, I left with a better understanding of those days before the onset of automobiles and locomotives, not to mention the Internet and smartphones.
Although a recreated village, Louisbourg is a living museum, an absolute tonic from our busy 21st-century lives.
For sure you’ll come away with some kind of head scratcher, mulling over some of the discoveries you encountered. I know I did.
More About Fortress Louisbourg
Location: 58 Wolfe Street, Louisbourg, NS
Admission: Adults, $17.60; children, $8.80; family, $44.10. Visit the Fees section of the Fortress Louisbourg website for other prices and more details.
Louisbourg300: For further information on the tricentennial celebrations for 2013, including the LouisRocks! concert series planned for the summer, visit the Activities section of the Louisbourg website.