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On a damp, dull morning along the Nova Scotia coastline the sky strained to hold back the rain as the Fortress of Louisbourg appeared, as if out of time. Mist enshrouded the small bay. In the near distance the details of a small cemetery eluded the eye, save for a large dark crucifix, the surrounding white slabs district only in their shapes. Scanning the distant shore we struggled to resolve the details of a strange, almost medieval looking town. Surrounded by high walls, the grainy shapes of buildings emerged from a jumble. A high thin spire became barely visible, its shape dulled by the fog.
Approaching in the shuttle bus did little to change that initial impression, only the scale of the place shifted. Initially small and distant like some toy-set, a real-life fortress soon emerged. High walls of grey stones cemented together, interrupted periodically by black iron cannons, masked all but the rooftops of an enclosed town.
Welcome to the 1740’s. It’s all an illusion, of course. A real-life replication though something far beyond mere virtual reality. This is quite real. Made from detailed historical plans, real stone, real wood and real humans. You can trust what you see and touch and hear.
As the bus deposited its passengers the line thinned and spread toward the distant gated entrance but not before being challenged by a uniformed sentry standing at the gate demanding to know why we were there and if we were spies.
Dispensing with these preliminaries we passed through the shadow of the high stone gate, topped with an elaborate engraving of the royal seal of the King of France. Our shoes crunched on the small wet stones of the path. Open doorways now beckoned the curious to enter darkened chambers. Some were empty, just a few wooden barrels or boxes stacked inside. A wrong turn and one descended into a dark narrow passage to an 18th century toilet from which everyone quickly retreated. Then after a room-to- room search we encountered a soldier in his barracks, lamenting the boredom of his routine or recounting some past glory. He stood next to a large stone fireplace, holding his rifle, in full uniform, his head topped with a triangular gold fringed hat, in a room filed with crude beds over lain with woolen blankets embroidered with a fleur-de-lis. The only illumination provided was the glow from the small window and open door reflected off the whitewashed walls. His visitors gathered round on the planked floors and were amused by his story of life on the Atlantic frontier.
So began a day of countless discoveries. Emerging from the barracks we heard the sound of distant military drumming and the wide main road of the harbor front opened before us. Unpaved, puddled, it gave the impression of a frontier town yet the imposing solidity of the stone warehouses along the waterfront suggested a serious attempt at permanence.
Turning right we entered the town obliquely.
Here an illusion unfolded. It’s as if we become time travelers transported back to the 1700’s. This isn’t some obviously fake virtual reality version of the 1700’s but a truly convincing physical recreation. As if ghosts we walked amongst people going about everyday tasks, chopping wood, transporting bread, making jokey conversation interspersed among those dressed for the twenty-first century in bright, garish colors and synthetic textiles. Here dark smoke bellowed from chimneys, cannon shots boomed at midday and rifles cracked in the distance.
Slipping inside a building we talked to a bread-maker. He offered us a choice of three kinds of freshly baked bread from one of his bins. We choose a bun of the most basic kind. This was real bread, warm, dense and nutritious though not overly tasty by sugary modern standards. This stuff must be chewed, worked over in your mouth.
From there we wandered in and out of 18th century buildings encountering a cast of characters from within a fortress society. Mostly everyday working class people. Entering a vast kitchen we meet two women who tended to the household. Sweeping the floors while explaining the steampunk like contraption that winds up like a clock and turns the fire spit as it unwinds, twirling and clicking as it did. She remarked how the fire was big enough to cook multiple chickens simultaneously. A moment later we were looking over papers showing plans for the fortress drawn up by the principal engineer. House by house we made our way towards the Kings Bastion. A large building complex whose spire we just barely noticed from the distance. Passing an external barracks building, a wooden punishment horse and a jovial soldier, we entered the largest building on the site. Once again the stratification of this society became evident. On the one hand were the rudimentary, functional soldiers quarters. Stepping across the hallway we entered an ornate chapel with hanging chandlers and religious statuary, behind which lay the relatively opulent rooms of the priest. Upstairs the theme continued. The governors quarters being almost palatial, reflecting French high society of the time. The period furniture, canopy beds, carpets, tapestries and paintings a world removed from life in the lower classes. One pondered if the ordinary folk ever caught a glimpse of this luxury and if some didn’t secretly think to themselves, ‘revolution.’
Exiting the building afforded a chance to inspect the defenses, the high walls and multitude of cannon, many of which faced the sea and a few the scrappy, swampy ground beyond the fortifications. The squawks and honks of live chickens and geese, kept in a fenced compound in the yard below, punctuated the air.
By now it was past noon and hunger made itself known. So we navigated our way back though the gate and onward in search of food. We happened upon the Hôtel de la Marine and its restaurant offering a table d'hôte menu, 1700’s style. The lady directed us to a large round table, and provided us with a single large pewter spoon. The single tool with which we would have to consume our meal, all of it. We were admonished to not misplace it since it was all we would get. Noticing guests seated and eating at a distant long table we scanned the menu. A selection of soups and fish or chicken main courses were on offer. We each made our selections and orders were taken as we filled our glasses from a heavy pewter jug. Soon the first course arrived. Hot, steaming pea soup, filled with large carrot slices. Here our large spoon was in its natural habitat and the pewter bowl was rapidly emptied. Before long the main course arrived, the chicken and vegetables. Surprisingly missing from the plate were potatoes. It was explained to us that potatoes were not part of the French diet until after the 1789 revolution. Before that time they were considered unhealthy. Again the dish was simple, earthy and satisfying. In fact one could be forgiven for thinking that meals haven’t changed all that much in the past 300 years. Habits tend to linger. We finished the meal with coffee and an apple desert. At the end we made our goodbyes and headed off to finish our exploration. By now the unrelenting grey sky began to break up and was replaced with a mix of blue and fluffy small clouds as if from a painting by the Dutch Masters.
We explored the last few buildings and slowly drifted back from whence we came. Still caught up in the grand illusion of this wonderfully unreal place.