Perched high above the Ottawa River, on the limestone bluff that is Parliament Hill, Canada’s postcard-pretty Parliament Buildings have a distinctly ecclesiastical air, their spires, pointed windows and soaring clock tower amounting to “a stupendous splodge of Victoriana” as travel writer Jan Morris expressed it. Begun in 1859 and seventy years in the making, the complex comprises a trio of sturdy neo-Gothic structures, whose architectural certainties were both a statement of intent for the emergent country and a demonstration of the long reach of the British Empire. The Parliament Buildings were designed to be both imperial and imperious, but they certainly didn’t overawe the original workmen, who urinated on the copper roof to speed up its oxidization.
Two popular events are staged on Parliament Hill: the Changing of the Guard, when the Governor General’s Foot Guards march onto the Hill dressed in full ceremonial uniform of bright-red tunics and bearskin helmets (late June to late Aug daily 10–10.30am); and a free summer-evening sound and light show (early July to mid-Sept), illustrating Canada’s history with alternate French and English performances nightly.
Dominating architectural proceedings on Parliament Hill is Centre Block, home of the Senate and the House of Commons and in fact a replacement for the original building, which was destroyed by fire in 1916. The Peace Tower, rising from the middle of the facade, was added in 1927 as a tribute to Canadians who served in World War I. The tower, which offers fine views over the Ottawa River, holds some superb fan vaulting and a Memorial Chamber complete with a Book of Remembrance. The tower is not part of the guided tour, whose (changeable) itinerary includes a quick gambol round the House of Commons, where the Speaker’s chair is partly made of English oak from Nelson’s flagship Victory, and the red-carpeted Senate, which, with its murals of scenes from World War I, is surmounted by a beautiful gilded ceiling. The debates in both the House of Commons and the Senate are open to the public, who can observe proceedings from the public galleries.