Romancing Evangeline


By Ilona Kauremszky

GRAND PRÉ, Nova Scotia - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned, "In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas, Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pre lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the estward, giving the village its name."

When Longfellow wrote his entry about the big meadows, "Grand Pré" for Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie back in 1847, the poet had never visited Nova Scotia; yet he knew how to spin a good yarn. His epic saga meshing a fictional love story with the tragic tale of the expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland between 1755 and 1763 was to become an instant best seller. Critics hailed Longfellow's prose as a masterpiece and poetry lovers everywhere scoured bookshops in search of the limited edition. The story went on to be published in 130 languages with over 270 editions and still counting.

The narrative poem describes the tale of the separated lovers Evangeline and Gabriel who met on the windswept meadows of Grand Pré. Over 150 years later the poem and characters still have a great resonance over the imagination and have come to symbolize the historic struggle of an entire people. The Acadians long ago have embraced the heroine Evangeline as their queen.

Today, the Land of Evangeline, which includes the national historic site of Grand Pré, has become a Mecca for all things Acadie. Recently in recognition of this important historic site the Canadian government has added Grand Pre to its tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. From the Bay of Fundy's inner-most crevices near Grand Pré to Nova Scotia's rocky southernmost tip along Yarmouth, you can take a scenic drive across a route appropriately called, The Evangeline Trail, which retraces the lush countryside where Evangeline roamed.

With this summer's 400th anniversary salute to the founding of Acadie unfolding at the World Congress Acadie (July 31-August 15, 2004) in Nova Scotia, visitors' enroute the trail have an ideal opportunity to immerse themselves in Acadian culture. Here's a sneak peak on romancing Evangeline:

A Bevy of Maidens The hardship endured by the earliest Acadian settlers who lost everything when the British seized their land, burned their homes, and forced them into exile has created a resilient people, rich in tradition and noble in spirit.

One of the ultimate places to see Acadie or "Acadia" alive and well is to visit the southwestern tip where the Acadie settled after their return from exile. By the French Acadian Shores, part of the quaint municipality of Clare, this picturesque pocket of small communities is woven into a 50 km stretch between Digby and Yarmouth. Follow the road signs marked Evangeline and coast through these fishing and farming hamlets along route #1. It's here where you'll find places named after saints Mary, Clare and Anne. And it's here your ear will be delighted by patois blending Mi'kmaq, English and 17th century French.

Considered the oldest Acadian village in Canada, Pubnico is a rural farming community that boasts a unique collection of heritage buildings. Le Village Historique Acadien de la Nouvelle Ecosse is situated in a bucolic setting steeped in history.

Amid the wild fields of golden rod and apple orchards, overlooking Pubnico Harbor, white clapboard homes with steep gabled rooftops harken back to a bygone era. The day I visited sheep were grazing in the lush meadows and lines of laundry flapped in the fragrant country breeze.

A row of 17 through 19th century buildings have been dismantled and relocated to the quiet countryside. Past the wild bushes of rosemary and mint, the white farmhouse of Maximin D'Entremont appears. Its front door opened to reveal low ceilings, a couple of fireplaces and six rooms. At one time, 13 children slept, ate and did chores in this humble abode. All in all five old buildings allow you to step back in time with the help of interpretive guides on site.

The largest wooden church in North America is St. Mary's, which stands like a sentinel watching over the residents at Church's Point. An engineering marvel that took two years to construct, the cruciform-shaped building was completed in 1905 and was met with jubilation from the parish's large Catholic congregation. It's said the self-taught master carpenter Léo Melanson used a photograph of a church in France to help reconstruct the architectural masterpiece. Daunting columns culled from massive tree trunks support the soaring structure. The walls are covered in white sailcloth and are punctuated by ornate stained glass windows that were shipped from France in huge molasses crates. Today, the historic church is part of the campus of Universite Sainte-Anne, Nova Scotia's only French-speaking university and is open for tours.

In summer, under the maritime sky, the Evangeline Musical Drama (July 9-August 21, 2004) is performed to sell-out crowds so it's best to book early. Another favorite is the world's oldest Acadian festival, the Festival Acadien de Clare (July 5-11, 2004). This event was started in the 50s and each year they hold a contest to select a young Acadian couple as Gabriel and Evangeline.

Binoculars and Beaches The first explorers, Samuel de Champlain and Pierre deMont passed along the rocky coastline off St. Mary's Bay (Baie Sainte-Marie) onto the New World in 1604. Fast forward 400 years and you'll find that St. Mary's Bay remains a remote haven. The eternal rhythm of tides still plays against the shoreline cloaked in a thick veil of fog blown in by sea gales.

A hidden gem for the ecotourist and a beachcombers' paradise, Mavilette Beach Provincial Park is home to countless migratory birds, butterflies and the solitary sand crabs who skid along the beach and burrow holes in the sand. Envirohounds will love the "living beach" tour along this 2km stretch, where salty sea breezes are buffeted by tall sea grasses, dunes and the nearby marshlands. Ambling along the meandering boardwalk takes you to a bird watching hut, a perfect place to spy on a blue heron soaking up the late afternoon sun.

This is also a place of strange legend. It's where Acadie's Alphie Deveau was born. They called him "les gros peids de la Salmon" (Big Feet of Salmon River). "At birth, Alphie had huge feet, the size of a grown man," starts Clarice my guide. Alphie's grew to size 24. Legend has it that another big-footed man once scared the dickens out of his mother who was pregnant with little Alphie at the time.

An hour later, it was time for some rappie pie, an Acadian specialty, served at the Cape View Restaurant overlooking the bay. This stick-to-your-ribs dish made from grated potato, simmered in chicken broth and lined with juicy strips of chicken runs $5.25.

Big Meadows Still on my quest for Evangeline, we left our beachcombing behind, and made our way through the rolling farmlands of the Annapolis Valley closer to Grand Pré.

Flanked behind the rounded dykes topped with tall grasses, the low tides reveal a rich red clay soil where sailboats maroon and wait for the rescue of high tides. We have reached Wolfville. Soon, the early morning sun broke through the dense fog, sending fresh color over the ancient Minas Basin. It's here by the wild rocky Blomidon bluffs that Longfellow's Evangeline bid farewell to her beloved Gabriel.

During the Gilded Age of Rail, crowds arrived by train to pay homage to these Acadian shores immortalized by Longfellow. It was Evangelinemania. Hollywood moguls made movies of her. Operas were composed for her. And the Royal Dominion Atlantic Railway baptized their two engines along the Annapolis-Grand Pré Line, Evangeline and Gabriel.

While the train tracks remain a reminder to its earlier hey days, today visitors of the Grand Pré National Historic Site can learn about the Acadian history via a multimedia presentation at the new interpretive centre. Styled after a ship's hull, the theatre resonates with the haunting sounds of lapping waves as actors narrate Le Grand Derangement "the great uprooting." After the show, I wandered along the overgrown tracks, through a canopy of weeping willows until a bronzed statue emerged.

Each year, thousands of visitors pay homage to their Acadian Queen. Evangeline is cast stoic and steadfast. She is turned as if to suggest a life left behind, perhaps still searching for her long lost Gabriel. Many visitors have been known to shed a tear or two reflecting on her longing as they approach the chapel.

Inside the church, azure blue waves of stained glass illuminate the sad voyage. As I was drawn to the beautiful windows, I noticed an old man give the sign of the cross and genuflect to the Assumption. I wondered if his ancestors were one of the 10,000 Acadians who were banished from the land of rolling meadows.

-30-


photos: Stephen Smith



If You Go:

The region of Clare will host the official opening of The Congress mondial Acadien on July 31st, 2004. The "Bon Temps" festival packed with music, dance and celebration is expected to attract over 250,000 people. For more details visit www.cma2004.com

Le Village Historique Acadien de la Nouvelle Ecosseis a delightful village retracing old structures once commonly used by the early settlers. Located in West Pubnico, exit 31 on highway 103. Open early June to mid-October, 10 am to 5pm, seven days a week. Admission rates: Adults $4, Family (2 adults and 2 children/students) $10, Children under 6 are free. For more information visit www.tusket.com or call 902.762.2543

St. Mary's Church is located 40 minutes from Yarmouth and 30 minutes from Digby at Church Point. The church is open May-October (Thanksgiving weekend) daily 9:00am-6:00pm Admission: individual $2.00 family $5.00

St. Anne University is the familiar site for the Evangeline Play, which occurs every summer. For ticket reservations call Resevations 902-769-2114. Prices: Adults: $ 15. Seniors: $ 13. Students: $ 8

The Grand-Pre National Historic Site is located outside Wolfville. Price ranges $3.25-$16.25. For directions and information visit www.grand-pre.com

For more travel information on the Evangeline Trail, contact the Evangeline Trail & Tourism Association 1-866-260-3882 or call Nova Scotia Tourism at 1-800-565-0000 or visit www.novascotia.com.


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