We were to be in Montreal for twelve days because we came to attend the jazz festival which runs for eleven days.
When I gazed at the street of our hotel I thought “Oh no, more drab grey and dirty beige anonymous office towers”.
The weather was also against us. Sombre skies settled in during the first few days of our stay and lingered. We had sporadic rain. When the rain ceased, it was humid and muggy. The sun was rare to show itself.
However, as the days passed my appreciation for the city grew.
On the first day, we visited the old town which I enjoyed - I do prefer old, historical buildings to most modern ones. The Royal Bank Building on Rue Dollard was sumptuous. These days, you can get good coffees there and lounge around enjoying the free wifi. Or, grab a pop up style office space for a mere $25 an hour (if that be your inclination).
The Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Pointe-à-Callière covers the history of Montreal from the arrival of the Amerindians, and, takes you through the founding of the
city and beyond. It is built on the site of the original settlement. Two things I found out about this place I didn’t know before: Montreal is an island, and, in 1701 a significant peace treaty between the French and 40 First Nations of North America was signed. As their signatures, the First Nation’s representatives used marks which were pictographs of animals: deer, bear, frog, turtle, crane, fox, beaver etc. There is a very good, and, very detailed panoramic stained glass mural of this historic event by Nicholas Sollogoub in the museum.
The Basilique Notre-Dame is an example of a building whose exterior is somewhat bland but, once you step inside, a vast sky-blue gilded ceiling - featuring three rose windows - is breath-taking. There is much more to feast your eyes on inside this neo-Gothic beauty.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts has a vast collection. Any genre of art your heart desires can be found inside the labyrinthine layout of this gallery. We only discovered the building with all the Canadian art at the end - if I were to go back I would concentrate on this section.
As to food,
during our first few days we had a few highlights. First, the coffee is good – hooray! Secondly, the pastries are too – second hooray. A few recommendations: we were given a tip to try Casse Croute Wilensky at 34 Fairmount Ave West. This place opened in 1932 and hasn’t changed a bit. We tried the classic grilled beef salami and beef bologna sandwich with mustard on a kaiser roll. Don’t even try to say “no mustard thanks” or “please cut my sandwich in two”. A sign on the lurid green wall tells you that the sandwich always includes mustard and is NEVER cut! It reminded me of establishments in New York City of the 1980s. Towards the end of our stay we also feasted on a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz on Rue St Laurence which Mark loved but I found a bit too meaty. We dined at two very good restaurants during our stay, Graziella and Milos which were excellent but not cheap.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday were market days. We went to Jean Talon (the biggest and my favourite), Maisonneuve (the smallest and the most difficult to get to – don’t get off at
Assomption!) and Atwater Market which was the middle sized one. These market jaunts were meant to happen in the morning but a number of late night jazz gigs ensured that we usually slept in so didn’t make it there until late in the morning.
Sunday was a wet day so we visited the Biodôme which is located within the Olympic Park. Here there are four internal Canadian ecosystems you can visit under a roofed structure (Tropical Forest, Laurentian Forest, St Lawrence Marine Eco-system and the Sub-Polar region). I enjoyed seeing the puffins and the beaver and I even glimpsed two very large paws and two pointy ears of a sleeping lynx. I do get excited about these things! However, I have to say the hordes of families with little children was claustrophobic. Perhaps, Sunday was not the best day to go. After that we walked over to the Botanical Gardens to visit the Insectarium first (although we did not sample any of the insect foods on offer!) and then went for a lovely stroll in the very beautiful gardens of the Jardin Botanique.
In the evenings, there was jazz. We attended many performances. Some
I thought were outstanding but others I found extremely challenging. One thing is for sure: the calibre of the musicianship was exemplary and there was so much to listen to. Two thirds of what was on during the Festival was free but that was less jazz focussed but very popular with the locals. The other interesting thing I have noted is the number of musicians hailing from the USA who make political statements during their performance. It is safe to say neither the musos, nor most of the people in the audience in Montreal, seemed particularly enamoured with the current administration in the USA.
On Tuesday, we caught a bus to St Joseph’s Oratory and were, apparently, two out of the two million people who come to Montreal’s most visited site each year. It is the third largest basilica in the world. Many of the faithful who come to this site climb the steps to reach it on their knees. While it is a very impressive building, sitting on the summit of its hill, the interior was very minimalist and modern.
Wednesday - we decided to walk around the large green space which presides
over the city of Montreal and after which it is named - Mont Royal. This is a large hill which is and feels much closer to the city than the Adelaide Hills. Jacques Cartier claimed it for France in 1535. He was led there by the people who lived in the village which already existed up there (named Hochelaga). If you are into forest bathing, this is the place to go. It is a jewel of green spaces, quiet nooks, and, forested glades. Mount Royal Park was also designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. While on our wanders we visited the Cross (the current metal one was put there in 1924 and is illuminated at night), the Kondiaronk Belvedere, the man-made lake, and, the chalet. We also took delight in the scurry of squirrels who at one point inquisitively frolicked around us. I think the collective term for a group of squirrels should be a “fluff” or a “cuteness”.
Thursday, we opted for cycling. We rented bikes from Ça Roule Montréal and cycled along the Lachine Canal. This man-made canal which begins at the old port and goes to Lake
Saint-Louis was built back in the early 1800s to allow boats to avoid the rapids on the St Laurence River which were extremely difficult to navigate. The whole ride took us almost four hours and we covered at least 35 kilometres. It was quite a feat for someone who only ever rides to the local shops for milk or bread. The first 10 kilometres were a little disappointing as we passed by historic and current industrial areas. There wasn’t a great deal of scenic beauty to be enjoyed along this first tract of the cycling path. But once we reached Écluse Lachine 5 (a lock) the scenery improved markedly. Now we could see the actual lake, lots of green open spaces and the beautiful trees in the Parc René-Lévesque. There was also an extensive and imaginative sculpture park to investigate. We had a picnic lunch, rested, and, then continued on the ride. The rest of the cycling journey around the peninsula and back towards the city was much more pleasant. The Lachine rapids on the St Lawrence river proved a sight. I have never really witnessed such a scene close up. The power of the churning waters was quite something.
There were people getting into the fresh river water attempting to surf! I enjoyed the ride. However, it was very challenging for someone like me who doesn’t ride long distances.
Mark and I had a lovely reunion on Friday with two people we met in Prague three years ago. Elaine and Brian live in Ontario near the Ottawa River and we organised to catch up with them for lunch. They very kindly drove nearly 100 kilometres to come spend some time with us. We had a great time with them lunching at Jardin Nelson - a very charming courtyard styled eatery in Old Montréal with nice live jazz playing in the background and beautiful flowers all around. We had a lovely afternoon in their company.
I have enjoyed many things about Montreal. The French which is spoken here was a little difficult for me to understand. I loved it nonetheless. I grew accustomed to the chirpy greeting of “Bonjour, Hi” wherever we went. The locals are friendly and helpful.
This is a city which offers its inhabitants countless cultural and artistic activities and events. Whilst we were here for the jazz
festival we, randomly, found ourselves in the middle of a colourful circus arts festival on our second to last night out. Montreal is easy to get around without a car. The metro system is efficient and clean. There are many talented performers who busk in its tunnels. Which brings me to the RÉSO. This is the system of interconnecting underground tunnels that connect office towers, buildings, hotels, shopping centres universities, performing arts venues and metro stations. Apparently, there are about 32 kilometres of these things. They are very useful in avoiding Montréal’s long and severe winters, or, as it happens, rainy weather and hot days too.
Now that it is almost time to say goodbye to this city, I realise I like it a lot! Montreal is a city that places a huge emphasis on culture and the arts which is of inestimable value - never mind the economic injection into the city’s coffers. I saw so many independent bookstores as we walked around the city. That is also a wonderful thing. There is much public art to enjoy: interesting statues, fountains, and, vast modern murals and street art that brighten the sides of many otherwise drab
walls. The outdoor staircases which adorn the older styled apartment buildings are a local tradition and add a visual interest to the streetscapes which I found appealing.
There is a sense of familiarity that comes from staying in a place for 12 nights. I am now very adept at getting around on the metro; I know which one is “my” line (the green one) and “my station” (Places des Arts) without even checking the map. All this makes me think I live here now. Of course, I don’t. Very soon we must depart. So, already a sense of loss is developing within my heart. I think perhaps you leave a little of yourself in the places you visit. Certainly, there is a little part of Montréal that will now stay with me. I will be sad when I have to say goodbye to this city. I think it is a great example of how vibrant, harmonious, and, successful a modern multicultural city can be.
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