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Though Toronto is a favourite stand-in for other cities on film, Lance Richardson finds it has a character of its own.
Like most things with cult status, comic conventions elicit fervid devotion from those in the know and blank stares from everybody else. The week I arrive in Toronto, the streets are buzzing with young Canadians dressed in alien T-shirts and brown Jedi robes. One girl stands at the traffic lights, touching her temple until the cars stop, a female Professor X miming mind-control on a line of baffled taxi drivers.
While street conversations are peppered with references to Cylons and the proper attire of Superman, I can't help but feel the city has provided a perfect metaphor. Like many a superhero, Toronto leads a double life. The third-largest centre for film and television in North America – a veritable "Hollywood North" – Toronto has stood in for cities as diverse as New York and Paris, Tehran and Morocco. Whatever a film studio needs it to be, Toronto delivers enough details to convince as a stand-in on the silver screen.
This leads to an obvious question: beneath the frequent costuming, does Toronto have a personality of its own? Bruce Wayne is boring without the Batsuit, after all.
On the strength of my time in the city, the answer is yes. There are a number of sites easily recognisable to a film connoisseur but each is worth a visit in its own right. My hotel, the Fairmont Royal York, was used for a scene in the film Red during which Bruce Willis shoots up the convention floor kitchen.
This fact is rather dull when you hear a little of the hotel's folklore, however. There are rumours of two resident ghosts, one of which has been seen in the corridors wearing a red satin smoking jacket. Then there's the six-hive apiary of bees on the roof and the space for 10,000 people at dinner time. Addicted to statistics, the hotel management tells me they serve 188,123 kilograms of vegetables each year to guests.
A short stroll from the Royal York, the Distillery Historic District stars in more than 1700 films. But its 47 brick buildings have been renovated into a cultural landmark, an old trans-shipping hub that remains the largest preserved site of Victoria-era architecture on the continent. Like SoHo in New York, art galleries sit beside restaurants and boutiques, all contained within the same spaces that once housed horse carts and industrial machinery. This quickly becomes a theme in explorations of the city; places used in movies often end up being more interesting than their cinematic counterparts.
Casa Loma is another case in point. Last seen as the mutant school in the X-Men films, it's actually a rambling 98-room estate with secret passageways and incomplete bowling alleys. It was used as a hidden research facility for sonar technology during World War II. Visitors can explore the Gothic architecture on self-guided tours.
In search of a characteristic Toronto neighbourhood, I head to Cabbagetown. Though its gabled Victorian mansions have stood in for New York's brownstones and San Francisco's row houses, it has a small-town feel that makes it seem, without a set dresser, an incongruous haven in the big city. The original Irish residents planted cabbages in their front yards; today you're more likely to see carefully tended English gardens of box hedges and flowers, ivy growing up the street lamps, or a film crew attempting to capture the area's unusual charm on camera. I spend a full afternoon looping through the neighbourhood's several blocks. Once the poorest part of Toronto, now, as it often goes, it's an enclave for the wealthy.
Of course, like Los Angeles, simply knowing that so many movies are filmed here means you're never entirely inured from daydreaming yourself into one; the strange facts and unusual surprises of Toronto seem inevitably to encourage flights of fancy. After a few days I come to see it's a perfect place for a comic convention, the eccentric attendees simply highlight the latent oddities of the city. I like to think I'm above them all. Then I find that I am – 356 metres above them all, to be exact, wearing the sort of coloured jumpsuit more often seen in the pages of DC Comics graphic novels and their film adaptations.
The CN Tower, built alongside the convention centre, looks like an enormous toothpick spiked through an olive and I'm suited up to do the CN EdgeWalk, an operation launched last August. Standing on its roof, I can see the avid comic fans below, lining up to pass through a set of metal detectors. Do they realise that gravity is being defied right above their heads? The ordinary man is made extraordinary. Look, no hands!
"There was a guy earlier who actually peed his pants," says a fellow participant, as we submit to a breathalyser before heading up the tower.
"You mean metaphorically?" I ask.
"No, I think he actually peed his pants."
As I cower high above the Rogers Centre, the stadium home to the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, I can understand why. The guide, Will "the Thrill", directs us to tilt our bodies over the edge, looking down towards the stadium's open mouth. Held back from death by nothing more than a safety cord, I try to muster a stoic superhero face for the video and pictures being taken but my shaking knees give the game away. Not that it matters: I own every souvenir photo and they made a movie about it anyway.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Ontario Tourism and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada has a fare to Toronto from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1890 low-season return including tax. From Sydney fly to Vancouver (14hr 10min), then to Toronto (4hr 20min). Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see aircanada.com.
Apart from movie stars, the Fairmont Royal York has hosted three generations of the royal family. Rooms from $C200 ($187) a night; see fairmont.com/royalyork.
The Distillery Historic District is often cited as Canada's premier arts and entertainment zone; see thedistillerydistrict.com.
Cabbagetown is a short transit from Union Station via metro and then bus or streetcar. As well as a neighbourhood festival each September, private walking tours led by volunteers can be arranged by contacting the Cabbagetown Preservation Society, for a nominal fee of $10 a person, accepted as a donation to the society; see cabbagetownpa.ca. Several free tours in spring and summer are conducted by Heritage Toronto; see heritagetoronto.org.
Casa Loma, the former estate of the financier and soldier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, is open daily. Entry $C20.55 adult; see casaloma.org.
The CN EdgeWalk on the roof of the CN Tower's restaurant, 356 metres high, is extreme adventure in the city. Tickets $C175, including photos and a film. Book well in advance; see edgewalk.ca.
More information See ontariotravel.net; seetorontonow.com.