Date of Trip: April 2005
I went to Montreal last April for three days, attracted by the idea of visiting a European city without leaving North America (and by a relatively cheap last-minute airfare). I’d been to France but never to French Canada — and I wondered, how different would they be?
Montreal definitely had a strongly French flavor to it, particularly in the “vieux” (or old) part of town. I loved wandering along the cobblestone streets and window shopping at various art galleries and boutiques. The heart of Vieux Montreal is Place Jacques-Cartier, a huge square that’s apparently very lively during the warmer months. (Note to self: don’t come here in April next time! It was quite chilly and gray, with plenty of rain. Yuck.) There are supposedly flower and food vendors, street performers, etc., though I saw little evidence of this during my visit. I did eat at a sidewalk cafe called La Grande Terrace (under an awning), but to be honest it wasn’t all that fabulous; this is a major tourist center, so all the prices are pretty inflated.
One of my favorite parts of Old Montreal was the Notre-Dame Basilica; I ended up going there several times (once on a quick city tour, and once for a frankly pretty cheesy multimedia presentation on the history of the city). The interior is absolutely breathtaking, with gilded wooden carvings, a magnificent organ with thousands of pipes, and a deep blue ceiling strewn with gold stars.
I had one fabulous dinner in Vieux Montreal at Modavie. I don’t remember exactly what I had, but it was some sort of chicken (good) with veggies (good) and risotto (to die for). I was in a bit of a hurry — wish I’d had time for dessert!
I stayed in Vieux Montreal at the Hotel Nelligan, a relatively new boutique hotel named after Emile Nelligan, a local poet. It was one of the prettiest hotels I’ve ever stayed at, with exposed brick walls, a soft comfy bed with a decorative wooden headboard, and romantic lighting. (Too bad my boyfriend couldn’t make the trip with me!) Breakfast was held in Verses, the hotel’s restaurant, which has a four-story atrium surrounded by graceful balconies and potted plants on each level. A fountain provides some nice white noise while you eat.
Outside of Vieux Montreal, the city still felt European in some spots, particularly in the architecture and in the chic boutiques in the downtown shopping districts. But there were other places that felt more North American to me (perhaps just because they were more modern, with less French flair) — such as the Biodome and other attractions near the Olympic Stadium.
The Biodome is really for kids, I guess, but it was fabulous! Basically it’s four re-created natural habitats, complete with the animals and plants you’d see there. First you go through a tropical room, with monkeys scurrying from tree to tree and caimans lazing in the water at your feet. The next stop is the Laurentian forest (the Laurentians are a mountain range in the province of Quebec), where the highlights are the playful otters and a lynx that prowls up and down a “mountain” ridge. Then you go through “marine St. Lawrence,” which includes the birds and fish that live in the famous river, and finish up in the Antarctic, where penguins waddle clumsily on land but then zip through the water like little torpedoes.
My too-quick city tour included a stop at a viewpoint in Parc du Mont-Royal, a huge mountain-top park where locals go biking and jogging and picnicking. You can get a nice view over the city from the park, but not on the day I went — it was impossibly gray. Ah well.
In the shadow of the mountain (Mont Royal — which is where the name Montreal came from) is Plateau Mont-Royal, a neighborhood where you can see some of the city’s classic outdoor staircases, which you’ll see on rowhouses either twisting or going straight up to the second floor apartment. (For some reason the stairs to the third floor are inside — never did get a straight answer as to why this is!)
Another neighborhood I spent some time exploring was the Latin Quarter, which is near at least one university and so has more of a young, trendy vibe than some other parts of the city. I walked along Rue St-Denis and checked out the used record/book stores, sidewalk cafes, tattoo parlors and funky clothing stores. The crowd here was definitely a younger one than I’d seen elsewhere.
The street led me to St. Louis Square, where I petted an adorable dog and stopped for a quick rest. Nearby is Rue Prince Arthur, a pedestrian-only street that again is usually pretty lively in the summer. (I’ll catch it next time!)
Not far from Mont Royal is St. Joseph’s Oratory, an absolutely mammoth white church on a hill. It looks a bit like the Sacre-Coeur in Paris or the U.S. Capitol building. Supposedly there are about 300 steps from the bottom all the way to the top inside, and there were penitents going up them on their knees. If you’d rather, there’s a shuttle bus that takes you up to the main entrance, but I walked.
The Notre-Dame Basilica felt more like a tourist attraction than a place of worship, at least when I visited, but St. Joseph’s was just the opposite; there were many people praying and lighting candles while I was there, and there was a service going on in the lower church. The upper church was like a big auditorium, with a very high ceiling. I left the building to see the little adjacent chapel, called Brother Andre’s Chapel — very small, not too much to see. But on my way there I had to pass the Oratory’s parking lot, where something was going on (perhaps?) related to the upcoming Formula One races that kick off Montreal’s summer festival season. There were oodles of sporty cars revving their engines in the parking lot, including one guy who was blasting some rap music with a heavy bass line. I guess he looked pretty cool (or thought he did) until his CD skipped and he hastily switched to another track. I was amused.
I wish I’d had more time to explore Montreal, and I also wish I’d come during the summer when it was warmer (and sunnier). But overall it was a great trip; I was particularly impressed with the friendly people of Montreal, who easily switched between “Bonjour” and “Hello” when they realized I didn’t speak French. The city is an intriguing mix of Europe and North America, English and French, urban streets and rural parks. I barely scratched the surface, and look forward to going back someday!