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Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton

This National Historical Site in Nova Scotia recreates 1744

Louisbourg

 

The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.

Well, Emerson believed that, but most Nova Scotians would disagree. Here, all life begins and ends with the sea. Yet our relationship is uneasy. The North Atlantic gives and takes. The rough seas that delight sailors and windsurfers in summer — raised a notch in winter — send fishermen scrambling for prayer books. When life's pressures converge, the Atlantic's infinite majesty is my soothing balm. But watching those same waves pounding the shore, I also feel uncomfortably humble.

The ocean is the alpha and the omega. In spirit, if not fact, Nova Scotia is an island — attached to Canada by a slender isthmus. We share 5,000 miles of undulating coastline. No one lives more than 50 miles from the sea, and most can walk to it easily. Shaped by wind and saltwater, Bluenosers are hearty and friendly, with a profound respect for culture and tradition that inspires song and ceremony. Just don't be surprised if the music brings smiles and tears. Life in this, my promised land, will always be bittersweet.

At it's best, Nova Scotia is achingly beautiful. But it's a hard place, too, where many resource-based industries are dying slowly. Still, I can't imagine living elsewhere. I even welcome winter - a cold, crisp season offering time to reflect. Perhaps I just distrust the full days between May and November, when life here seems almost perfect.

It's deep autumn when I travel to Cape Breton, so I'm not expecting perfection. Fortress Louisbourg — North America's largest historical reconstruction — awaits. Alas, my French forefathers were lovers, not fighters. Nor were they particularly good engineers. While exploring Canada, if a site proved cold and damp, the French unpacked their tools and started building. And they shivered in the dark. So I'm prepared, longjohns at the ready.

My impressions of New France were formed during an April visit to Port Royal, another recreated French settlement, originally built when Shakespeare was writing Othello. Spring was late and, buffeted by the Bay of Fundy's stiff gales, I nearly froze. Huddled against the Atlantic, a limitless and unforgiving ocean to the east, how could Louisbourg be otherwise?

But the day surprises, with blissful sunshine, warm and golden. I feel lucky. Blessed to be living in an elemental place, where ghost stories mingle with historical fact. Where most roads reveal an easy grace that touches the heart. Where surprises are faithful and welcome.

Canada's east coast buffers Old World and New. Venerable by North American standards, with a rich history, Nova Scotia often feels wild and untamed. Louisbourg was built strong, to withstand both man and nature. By 1744, the year this painstakingly reconstructed fortress immortalizes, the city rivalled New York and Philadelphia. More than 4,000 French citizens lived here, their numbers swelling two-fold during fishing season.

Alas, Louisbourg was doomed, captured by New Englanders in 1745, and the British in 1758. Even inexperienced troops couldn't miss when firing cannons at this colossus. Destroyed and abandoned after the war, it rose again as a national historic site two centuries later.

Cape Breton illustrates this province at its best. The countryside is lovely, and the people affable. Best of all, the permutations and combinations are endless. Nova Scotia can be a rugged wilderness. An adventurer's proving ground. A quiet place for contemplation or pampering. A cultural feast.

For historians, Louisbourg is a playground, with costumed animators providing detail and perspective. It also works for families, with music, dance and craft programs to engage and entertain. The town's inns feature hearty period cuisine, and thick soldier's bread made in wood fired ovens is sold at the boulangerie.

Daredevils are just as welcome. The Atlantic is a boon for scuba divers. Wrecks range from historical ships sunk in Louisbourg Harbour to thwart the British navy, to recent tragedies in challenging waters. Everywhere in Nova Scotia, people who learn by doing are rewarded. It can be relaxing or invigorating, as your heart desires.

Story by Richard Levangie

Nova Scotia Stories: Cape Breton
Nova Scotia Stories: Cape Breton Highlands

Nova Scotia Stories: Halifax & the South Shore
Nova Scotia Stories: Port Royal

Prince Edwards Island Stories: Green Gables

All Atlantic Canada stories by Richard Levangie
The Best Coast Group

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