Montreal – c'est un peu francais, and a little bit English!

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September 11th 2014
Published: September 11th 2014
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Up at 6am and after getting ready we venture out for a coffee & try Jimmy’s in Kensington Market. Not bad. It’s a chain that has as its inspiration, people who have been famous with the name ‘Jimmy’ e.g. Jimi Hendriks, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Page etc. with photos of said people on the walls. An interesting concept!

We take a few more pictures of the area – without the crowds and then it’s back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and catch the tram to the bus stop at 8.30am. We get to the Mega Bus terminal in time to check in and board. This is our first ever trip with them. Greyhound does not do this route.

The bus is a double decker coach. We opt for upstairs for the views. The seats aren’t the most comfortable but we can endure it for 6 hours. It’s full when it leaves and its bye to Toronto – we have enjoyed it.

The drive is smooth, the scenery not particularly spectacular – what do you expect on a motorway? Anyone thinking of catching this bus should read the Trip Advisor comments as there are things to watch for. There is one short stop at Kingston; do not get off the bus for any reason at Kingston – they only stop to change drivers & they have left people behind before. Next bus is at 10 pm and you’ll have to buy another ticket. Crazy!

C spends most of the journey brushing up on her French as the next two weeks are in French speaking Canada, and we’ve heard they don’t take prisoners. Speak French or else! Eventually at 3pm we get to Montreal. One surprise is that it is actually on an Island in the St Lawrence River. Our initial impression is that this is another large city with loads of concrete buildings – not very inspiring. The Mega Bus stop is pretty awful here compared to the one in Toronto and seems to be away from the main town area.

It’s only 15mins walk to our hostel, Auberge Alternative in the Old Town. What they don’t tell you when you book is that the reception is up 2 flights of stairs! Its also a ‘Cash Only’ place, which is a drag as we had to take funds out of the ATM which costs a bit in fees & currency charges.

Inside though the hostel is very nice with a lovely common room/kitchen and they play some great music. Our room is lovely, colourful and quaint with a fan which we are very thankful for over the week as it gets hot as hell in there. It’s a lovely warm sunny day. The forecast for the next few days is cloudy and then rain for 2 days. Never mind we shall cope. We get loads of advice from Arnaud at the hostel (in English thankfully) – pay for 4 nights initially and go for a wander to the central Vieux Montreal area which is 5 minutes away.

This is when the French feel of the city comes alive. Virtually every business is an eatery for a while and as its Friday some of the places are packed. There are buskers around and many restaurants have live music – so there is definitely a Gallic feel in the air as well as the lovely aromas of the food but more forgettable the smells of drains struggling in the heat to cope…….an unnecessary distraction.

We come to the old city off and on a few times during our 1 week stay. It’s rustic in parts, quaint as you hear the sound of the clip clopping of horse drawn carriages with tourists. And even car drivers are quite considerate here and stop for people to cross.

A few other snippets about the city: C notices many BYO booze places here. M doesn’t notice any! Says something! (Yes, that C can read French says she!). There also seem to be many Sex Shops in the city (cinemas, strip joints, clubs etc.), by the far the most we have seen in the whole of Canada so far. We see very few sleeping rough, though there are quite a few folks with mental health or alcohol and drug related problems begging.

One thing of note is how many people here will happily speak English if you don’t speak French, and even those who don’t try when they come across English speaking visitors much to our surprise. C always gives it a go though. Also if we have tended to look lost people have approached us and offered to help. Well done Montrealers!

We go to Vieux (Old) Montreal along Rue St Paul, a mainly cobbled street which is pretty touristy and bustling with people, to the central square known as Jacques Cartier Square. There are quite a few caricature artists here. The Hotel De Ville (City Hall) is by the end of the square as is a column with a statue of Nelson on it – not quite as big as Trafalgar Square column but erected before the London one apparently. Further along St Paul is Marche Bonsecours, a grand building that has been a home, hotel and other uses over the years, now a trendy shopping mall. Turn right and you have Vieux (Old) Port with Railway track running alongside –which we thought was disused but turns out not to be - and a harbour and nice bridge in the distance.

By the harbour there is an Oriental Exhibition/Fair in full swing – rather Middle Eastern – stalls from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, showcasing their ethnic heritage. There’s music & belly dancing, however, it’s a pretty sparse crowd. What strikes us is how they (possibly to achieve greater acceptance) have their people dressed in gear that went out with the 20s and 30s. Fez, long moustache, robes etc that most modern people in these countries stopped wearing years ago. We are not sure reinforcing these stereotypes does their cause any favours at all.

After much searching & trying to avoid some of the ridiculous prices for the benefit of unsuspecting tourists we eventually go for dinner of Crepes at Montreal Poutine. Excuse the name but the company does Poutine, Crepes and Pizzas all in separate properties but operates under the same name. Also it’s the most convenient & reasonably priced place near us and it does nice beers and we try a lovely Quebec Cider as it’s been so hot.

The hostel provides an organic breakfast for folks like us who pay $75 for a private room. Alternatively they charge $5 each. It’s ok and something different. The hostel staff are helpful but the 2 that stand out are Ericka and Arnaud. We eat in quite a bit and till Labor Day (1st Sept) the place is packed. Then as school and other holidays finish the hostel is pretty quiet and we seem to have it largely for ourselves.

On our second morning, as the weather is better than forecast we go wandering & walk along Rue Notre Dame and come to Place d’Armes Square where the Basilica de Notre Dame, a mini and not so impressive look alike of the one in Paris. As there is a long queue to get in we decide we’ll return another day.

Then it’s Chinatown or more like Vietnamese town these days. It’s pretty disappointing after Toronto - small, dishevelled and insipid compared to the delights of Toronto. There are however, many Chinese and Vietnamese food places that are all packed out along Rue Ste Laurent and a few side streets.

We venture to Place des Arts in the Quartier des Spectacles which we’ve read a lot about. It’s nothing special, just an area that they hold a lot of events near or in. There’s a large mall – exactly like the one in Calais in France – where there’s an IGA supermarket that we spend a few hours in over the next week to get some food and beers. Oddly in this part of Canada supermarkets can sell beer but not wines and spirits.

We wander along Rue St Catherine (one of the main streets of Montreal) and up St Laurent and head to the Institution called Schwartz’s for dinner. It’s essentially a small Jewish deli which has been around since 1928 and is famous for its Montreal Smoked meat (essentially salt beef in the UK) sandwich. There are very long queues outside to get in & a small animal rights demonstration outside the store which everyone seems to ignore. We definitely aren’t prepared to queue for hours. Then we notice that they have a small take out place next door so we pop in. They also have a few tables here as well. So we try the famous sandwich and enjoy it and can’t understand why folks are queuing up at all when the limited menu food is available here as well. There doesn’t seem to be any specific ambience that one could miss either looking inside. Ah well – none so queer as folk as they say!

The next neighbourhood along is Little Portugal with quite a few Portuguese eateries and community centre etc. where we stumble across a very colourful ceremony at the church with 2 brass bands people dressed up and some in very traditional colourful costumes. At first we think it’s a funeral then realise it’s a celebration of the community in the area. Nearby there’s a quaint French looking Fire station, now a Museum, which was originally a Town Hall in 1905.

We understand that the other city foodie institution is Wilenskys which has been around since 1932 in the same family and as it’s nearby we pop along to check it out. A bit of a surprise awaits us. The place is hardly noticeable at the corner of a block. As we approach at first we think it’s the place with the long queues again. No that’s the specialist ice cream parlour. Our destination is a rundown looking shop nearby. We enter with some anxiety and find a ‘shop’ that looks like it will be condemned any day by the authorities. There are no tables, just a counter with seats behind which is the guy making the ‘Wilenskey Specials’, the lady owner and 2 girls serving.

The place has display units with old newspapers covering them up and pictures of the family going back to the opening. They clearly have seen better days and have a story to tell. There’s a couple in there enjoying a ‘special’. It’s the only item on offer – with or without cheese is the choice – you can’t say no mustard as that’s how it’s always been done. It costs $4 and is a slightly toasted bun with bologna, salami, cheese and mustard! Voila you have the ‘Special’. They do also do a few sodas and C goes for a chocolate variation and enjoys it. M thinks it’s peculiar! (Enough said). After a very pleasant chat with the girls and lady owner we make our way to the Plateau Mont Royal.

A festival last night had about 40 artists painting murals on the main road - Rue du Mont Royal – which today has been pedestrianized (though most folk don’t seem to realise they are walking on someone’s artwork) with lots of clothes stalls a few food stalls and some live entertainment, through Park La Fontaine which is full with folk enjoying the weather, pass Basilica de Notre Dame de Lourdes a lovely looking church from the outside, via IGA for a bit of shopping, take in some more Street art, then back home – tired feet! We must have walked about 6 miles.

One problem with all this exercise now is that M’s right knee starts playing up again and makes walking somewhat difficult for him. But this means more stops for coffee……

Next day is warm, cloudy & humid (90%) and we decide to head into the main shopping area. On the way we pass Palais des Congres, (the convention centre) a nice building with multicolour glass panels that make it stand out. Outside are some great modern sculptures, a bit Japanese in style, which jets out steam from the bottom and water through fountains at the top. We like it!

The Rue Ste Catherine is one of the main drags in the city, crossing it East to West. Part of it is very commercial and has a host of shopping Malls (essentially a few Westfield Centres put together - all busy) and Eateries etc. It’s definitely the Oxford Street & Regent Street of Montreal (this is being unkind to them – it’s a million times better than London’s Oxford Street). We do some shopping in the Hudson Bay Company & Gap as its sales time and we get some good deals for M. What is noticeable is how many of the big brand name clothes are actually made in Bangladesh or China.

We lunch at Rueben’s in a small basement. It’s a typical Jewish Deli/Diner and share a nice smoked meat grilled sandwich with fries. A stereotypical American’ know all’ is sitting at the next table & can’t stop talking (at volume) about his opinions of any and everything and what he would about this (IS) and that (environmentalists) – he would make a great TV sitcom character – sounded like one too (out of Taxi for those who could remember that far back!). His son was definitely taking to walking in his footsteps. His (the mouthy git’s) mother tried but couldn’t get a word in edgeways. It made for an entertaining lunch though.

We are recommended to go to the Parc du Mont Royal as it’s Sunday & the thing to do in the city. Many drummers turn up and put on a ‘Tam-Tam’ show (named after the particular type of drum apparently). We make our way via the Mc Gill University (the most prestigious in Montreal). The University buildings have a very French Chateau feel to them. Also it looks like the new term is about to start as loads of students are moving into the halls & local student accommodation. On the way we come across an awesome modern sculpture of a guy with sitting on a park bench with Laptop on his knee typing away & a coffee with straw. Beside him is a squirrel with nut in mouth. The clever bit is a bitten off pear as the logo on the Laptop as opposed to ‘Apple’ - Nice touch!

Eventually we get to Parc du Mont Royal and can hear the Tam – Tams session in the distance. It’s held at the base of a quite impressive column with lion sculptures around it – just like Trafalgar Square in London but with no fountains. Due to the weather the crowd is smaller than expected but the rhythms are still the same. It’s mainly college kids dancing to the beat, enjoying a few “substances”, and it makes for a great atmosphere. There are a few folks selling trinkets and clothes as well. Too bad the clouds are so heavy and dark as taking pictures of the column & statues is pretty impossible in the poor light.

Even with all this we are not sure that Montreal does it for us despite some folks saying it is lovely and has great places to eat. It’s more expensive than Toronto with less food choices and the street art is definite weird. Done by Dali or Picasso students – largely we don’t get the messages.

At dusk we stroll down by the Old Port near the hostel for a while as it’s much cooler & pleasant compared to our room which seems to have retained all the heat & humidity. We take pictures of the old Flour Mill which stands derelict by the quayside – a significant redevelopment opportunity for the city we feel. We hear the sound of a horn and see a train engine out of the blue on what we thought was the disused train lines which drives straight into the place. Next to the Mill is a Spa on a ship moored to the quayside. C checks it out & it looks pretty swish and is expensive. However, its right opposite what C affectionately refers to as “the favela” – some modern concrete flats across the river that look beyond grim. We are not sure the location and views warrant the Spa’s prices but it’s busy.

It’s Labor Day Holiday (1st Sept), which technically in North America signifies the end of summer. It’s warm but overcast. Surprisingly many restaurants are closed. We spend time again wandering Vieux Montreal, and come across a place marked as the Birthplace of Montreal. They claim that it’s the only city in Canada that can do so?! We pass the old Fire station from 1905 – very French architecture and come across the Chapel of the Grey Nuns (Soeurs Grises). They were famous for their charitable work providing housing & caring for the city’s destitute –the first ever form of social work in Canada.

The Vieux Port area is busy & we go to Quay King Edward where you can catch a ferry across to Isle St Helena or take a harbour cruise of the river & local islands. There’s a small cruise ship port next door. Most of the area is walkable and we make our way to the Place de L’Horloge (clock tower), which you can walk up, to the corner of the quay from where we get some good views of the bridge providing the main crossing to St Helena (where there is a huge permanent fairground & a Music festival for the day). This is where we stumble across 2 beaches created for locals to enjoy and one is pretty full with bar etc. There’s also a small harbour for private boats here.

Walking back to the Quay entry point we come across the Speed boat rides sections. From here there are largely 2 options. Take a speed boat upto the rapids on the river (1 hour return) or a boat that goes into the rapids where you get totally soaked (being the object of the exercise we think) for $67. We consider it but seeing a video of the event we decide we already did this at the bottom of the Grand Canyon & that was much more spectacular.

We wander to Pho Bang New York in Chinatown for lunch. It’s supposed to be one of the top places for Vietnamese food. It’s packed but as we are only 2 they squeeze us in earlier than the larger parties. We have our first Pho for years. It’s definitely not like the real deal in Vietnam. We might have to go back there…….

The city has two large produce markets, the nearest to us is at Atwater & we realise that we can walk there along the river all the way. We join it by the old & still operating flour mill, passing a couple of food trucks on the way (we see a few of them around but they seem to be mainly standard fare) then it’s along some historic industrial land where old steel mills are now being converted to Condos by the river. There’s a lot of redevelopment going on here but no businesses, shops or cafes, so gives the place a bland & boring feel unlike along the Regents Canal from Islington to Hackney in London. We get to the Atwater district & market which is pretty good even though not fully operational as it’s only Tuesday. There’s a very French feel to it and other than having some coffee at the most amazing bakery we get some food for dinner and walk back via Griffin Town (a trendy & rich area) to the hostel to FT with Sarah in Winchester. Her flat with Simon looks really nice.

Another day we head to the Jean – Talon area and it’s Market. We get the Metro there – our first ride on it. $3 per person per trip. Most expensive in Canada so far but then most things here seem to be slightly more expensive. The market is about 3 blocks away and a bit like Borough Market in London. There’s a food section and the fruit and veg market. Surrounding the covered market area are more specialist shops – butchers, deli, café etc. We are impressed with the fact that each shop has taster trays for their fruit and some vegetables which you can pick at as you go along. The produce is laid out really neatly in rows. Great photo opportunities. There are multi-coloured tomatoes, multi-coloured cauliflowers and whole stalls selling chillies and garlic (obvious they have a spicy palette these French Canadians). Prices seem a bit more than at the Atwater market as well.

We come across a small fish stall selling lightly fried cod steaks and a local woman recommends we try some as they are as good as anything you would get in a fancy restaurant. We take her advice and boy are we grateful. It is the best fried fish we have tasted in a long, long time. Around the corner we come across a Breton Creperie which seems very popular so we try one with Salmon, spinach & goats cheese in fromage frais and wow – its such an amazing combination. We will definitely try making this at home.

We spend a good 2 hours there then walk back via the Mont Royal area. We are definitely doing some exercise here. Thankfully it’s sunny but a lot cooler after the rain yesterday which has taken the humidity down. We stop off at Schwartz and buy some smoked meat for dinner. A good move as it goes down well with the rest of our meal at the hostel.

For our final day in Montreal – this time around – we make our way to the Basilica Notre Dame and pay $5 each to get in. Whilst the outside doesn’t look very special, the inside is a wow. It’s one of the prettiest and most elaborately designed and decorated churches we have ever been in. It’s very impressive. They also do free tours in English and French every half an hour.

The main chapel is amazingly beautiful, the pulpit a masterpiece in wooden craftsmanship as are the leaded glass displays all around the church. The church has a second chapel as an extension – the chapel of the sacred heart – which you get to through a side entrance. In contrast whilst being spectacular in its own right it’s very modern in design, light and airy.

Outside the Basilica is a square with a statue to the founder of Montreal. On one corner are groups of horse drawn carriages ready for action and on another is an impressive old style French building which houses the bank of Montreal.

As we have a problem with charging our ipad that we have now come to depend on quite heavily we make our way to the Apple Store on rue Ste Catherine. It’s packed and the technical guys says that he thinks it’s the charging cable (it would appear to be a common fault researching this on google). After initially suggesting there were no appointments till 8.30pm or tomorrow, he says they might be able to do it at 4.50pm. He suggests we go upstairs where the technicians are and another guy says we could be seen in 20 mins. He talks to some guy on his device and he presto we are seen in 5 mins and they guy fixes it in another 5. Phew – well done Apple!

C tries to go to the beach as this may be her last opportunity (it’s a nice 27 degrees) while M decides to catch up on the blog (not very easy when we have been struggling to see the ‘fun’ side of being here). It’s an ok city to visit but perhaps 2 or 3 days max. She returns saying that the beach is closed – what a strange place.

Meanwhile we have had a bit of an issue with our booking of the NYC B & B as the owners have been in touch and have a family crises so won’t be able to put us up. The landlords (Trudy & Paul) daughter is having her first child in Oct and have now been given notice by her landlord – so she and partner are potentially homeless. However, they have found us an alternative and so a ping pong of emails ensure with Louise (slightly stressed) & Ben (offering to look for alternatives as he’s not too keen on the travel involved – first we’ve heard of this and all this was booked back in January!!). Joan our friend in NYC is asked for help and does some amazing work for us even though it’s her first day back from her hols.

We treat ourselves to a night out at a place called Bocata – just by the hostel. The hostel is staging a photography show by a local guy who’s taken some b & w pictures in NYC, Philli, Paris & Montreal. M's not impressed by them, but we make the effort as we have been invited. As nothing happens for ½ an hour we try Ericka’s sangria and leave for dinner.

We definitely splurge a bit, cocktails, wine and some great Brunswick smelts $4 (twice they were so good), seafood & chorizo squid ink risotto & duck confit with egg salad. All really good but a tad expensive. Hey ho we only live once.

Getting back to the hostel we find the ’party’ in full swing so join in a bit with snacks and Rum (that’s all they had left). Then its pack & sleep as it’s off at 8am to catch the bus to Quebec City.

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