The first thing to note about Montreal is that it’s the 3rd largest French speaking city in the world after Paris and less obviously Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It seems virtually everyone speaks French but gladly for us L’Anglais most are more than happy to join you in the English tongue, unlike their cousins across the Channel.
The struggle between French and English has been a constant theme throughout Montreal’s history. The French flag was first planted here in 1603. Then the British and French fought over this land but as British loyalists flooded over the border from America both Quebec City and Montreal fell to the British in the 1760’s. The French and Brits lived together but anger and warring was never far from the surface.
Despite this Montreal flourished as a city. The world wars had no obvious effect on Montreal or Quebec as it grew monumentally both economically and by population. By the 1950’s over 1 million people lived here as the Francophiles continued on with their lives regardless and in 1976 Montreal hosted the summer Olympics.
Since the 70’s the Quebecois have taken out their ire on the Canadians more than the British. It established French as the province’s official language and nationalists seeked more control over taxes and laws which eventually led to radical terrorism acts and then a full blown referendum in 1995. It was close but the province opted to remain part of Canada by a margin of less than 1%.
Now Francophiles and Anglophiles live together under one roof, although there is a little bit of seperation in the city. Montreal certainly shows the signs of a lot or prosperity in the middle of the last century leading up to Expo ’67 and the ’76 Olympics and in places the tower blocks are in need of some modernisation.
Most of the recent investment appears to be on Montreal’s oldest part of town, Vieux-Montreal, which I am sure originally exists from the fruits of British merchants but the cobblestone streets and town squares do preserve the cities unmistakable French heritage.
Montreal’s old town, Vieux-Montreal was certainly the biggest attraction. The narrow cobblestone streets with the sights of Victorian lamp posts and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages can produce a Dickensian spirit. Once Montreal’s financial base but now home to boutique hotels, cute restaurants, pavement cafes and art galleries it is a pedestrian’s dream, although sadly cars are not prohibited. The best mode of transport though is cycling. Initiated a year before Boris’ Bikes, Bixi has 5,000 bikes and 400 docking stations in Central Montreal and prices start at $5.
Vieux-Montreal was not only the birthplace of the cities financial power it was also the birth of a French religious colony, a plan that converted the original natives to Catholicism. There are many remants of this, the most significant being the Basilique Notre-Dame (photo) and the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours.
Sadly there was a wedding going on at The Basilique Notre-Dame when we visited (sad for us, not for the bride and groom I assume), which was a pity because the interior is said to be very dramatic. The architect was an Irish-American who was so taken by what was then in 1829 the largest church in North America, he switched from Protestantism to Catholicism. It didn’t help him with the bloke upstairs though as he died a year later. His name is James O’Donnell and he is buried in the church basement.
The Place d’Armes is said to be the heart of the city although it has little to encourage you to visit it itself apart from some office blocks, it does represent a good starting point to explore Old Montreal though. East of the square takes you along the very historic Rue St Sulpice and the beautiful courtyard Rue le Royer.
At the far end of the courtyard you can join one of Vieux-Montreal’s main thoroughfare’s Rue Notre-Dame. This street is mainly home to large administrative buildings including the Palais de Justice and the Old Courthouse. But don’t give up keep walking until you come across the immense Hotel de Ville, opulent both inside and out, it is Montreal’s City Hall and has been witness to many historical moments.
The other main thoroughfare is a bit more flattering to stroll along. Rue St Paul is dotted with inns, cafes and galleries with the odd tacky tourist shop thrown in for good measure. Most activity can be found around Place Jacques-Cartier. Buskers, street artists and overpriced restaurants compete for tourist favours.
At the north end of Place Jacques-Cartier can be found an indentikit version of Nelson’s column. About a third of the size of the original, a group of Montreal Anglophiles had the monument erected as a celebration of Nelson’s defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805. The monument has caused plenty of angst and even as recent as 1997 the local government proposed moving Nelson to some far off suburb but newer generations of Anglophiles made sure the idea was binned.
Opposite the Nelson Monument (photo) though is the Francophiles answer. French naval commander Jean Vauquelin was a bit of a stud by all accounts and in the mid 1750’s he was a real thorn in the British Navy’s side, so the Francophiles honoured him with a square bang opposite the one-armed Nelson.
The best looking buildings are together down at one end of Rue St Paul. Masion du Calvert was built in 1725 for Pierre du Calvert and then across the street is the iconic silver-domed Marche Bonsecours (photo top left), a quintessential marketplace still jam-packed with vendors and shoppers to this day. Also down this end is the multi-steepled Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. The church is Montreal’s oldest built in 1655, but mostly rebuilt after fire ravished it in 1771.
Most of the cities gentrification has happened at the dock. The Vieux Port like most ancient docks around the world fell into decay but now one can stroll, cycle, rollerblade and eat until your hearts content along the waterfront. However at each end there are signs of it’s history. The watchtower Tour de l’Horlage is at one end but for me the far end was more fetching.
The huge grain terminal, known commonly as Silo 5 dominates the landscape (photo) and across the water is a jigsaw puzzle of cubed apartments that I stared at in a ‘what the hell is that kind of way’, called Habitat and built for Montreal’s Expo in 1967, an event that catapulted Montreal to international recognition and 9 years later the Olympics.
Walking inland from the Vieux Port will take you into downtown, quiet when we were there as it was a Saturday I presume, except for bargain hunters at Square Phillips and families at Place du Canada and Square Dorchester, where we interrupted a very colourful and fun Indian pre-wedding ceremony.
More funny, in a kind of weird way, was what we stumbled into at the cities entertainment complex at Place des Arts and that was the Twin Parade. Hundreds of twins of all ages had come to Montreal with their identical sibling each wearing the same clothes. Weird but kind of sweet at the same time.
Downtown has a small Chinatown, which was nothing to write home about. The cities best architecture can be found at Square Dorchester. The Edifice Sun Life Building, once the largest office building in the Commonwealth speaks of old money. The equally opulent Windsor Hotel is opposite and the Basilique-Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, a smaller version of St Peter’s in Rome is nestled in between Place Dorchester and Place du Canada.
The most visible landmark, if not the prettiest is Place Ville Marie, a silver cross-shaped 46-storey building. You can grab a Molson in it’s rooftop bar, Altitude 737 but there is surprisingly no viewing deck.
Downtown is dominated by the expansive campus of McGill University which brings with it the obvious college hangouts. For shoppers Montreal was pretty good with a couple of pleasant malls to browse. I liked Complex Desjardins and Faubourg Ste-Catherine. Rue Sherbrooke will satisfy window shoppers with boutiques, food shops and department stores lining the the wide boulevard.
Montreal is a walking city and to really get the heart racing climb the cities highest peak. Calling Mont Royal a mountain is stretching the word a bit far, but don’t tell a local that as they are very proud of their mountain which inhabits the north of the city.
It’s winding trail led us past the Lac aux Castors (Beaver Lake) (photo) which was busy with pedalo’s and not beavers, then the trees gave way to a rustic looking chalet (more interesting from the outside than in) and it’s plaza with stunning views of Montreal’s skyscrapers and Canada beyond the St Lawrence River.
Nearby is a 103ft-high illuminated cross that has been one of Montreal’s most famous landmarks since 1924. Then on top of the mountain lie two vast cemeteries offering a tranquil moment in time. Visit Mont Royal it was worth it, if only to tell friends you have been mountain climbing!
Under the shadow of Mont Royal is the rather dignified neighbourhood of Golden Square Mile. Once the centre of the privileged Anglophiles, it offered a genteel stroll around nice houses and chic boutiques.
The other neighbourhood on our list to explore was The Plateau which occupies Mont Royal’s eastern flank. Once these tight streets were witness to duelling French and English, then all manner of immigrants and now I suspect yuppies, if that is still a word. Many of Montreal’s best restaurants can be found in this area plus Parc Lafontaine, a green respite amongst the concrete that has a huge pond within it.
Of course Montreal is known as a cold place. From November through to April snow buries this place which presents a real plus for skiiers and snowboarders, but is grim for everyone else. A bit like Chicago, spring doesn’t really exist, and Montreal moves seamlessly into summer around the middle of May but the summer can bring some very humid days, albeit cooler in the evenings.
In terms of sports, Montreal paid the price for their indifference towards the American pastime, baseball when the Expo’s were moved to Washington DC in 2004. Canadiens ice hockey fans should be less worried as they are the NHL’s most successful ever team, but it has been a while since the glory days and more and more fans are turning to their domestic sports leagues. Canadian (gridiron) football lacks the razmataz of the NFL and the rules are slightly different but the Alouettes attract decent crowds at their newly renovated 25,000 seater stadium near the McGill University.
Montreal hosts a Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which is situated on a man-made island on the St Lawrence River. Lewis Hamilton was the winner this past June. For football lovers Montreal Impact play in the Saputo Stadium, which was formerly a 1976 Olympic training facility. Made up mostly of Canadian players, the Impact will join the MLS in 2012.
Another kind of sport in the city is er, stripping. A few mates had mentioned Montreal’s notoriety for strip clubs, so I did some research.. no not that kind of research and it all hails back to the early twentieth century apparently when it was more showtime than um, good time. Unusually strip clubs occupy normal shop fronts on normal streets around the city as opposed to being out in some dodgy area you’d only get a cab to.
Montreal has a good reputation for restaurants, although those searching for traditional Quebecois cuisine such as fatty bacon and baked beans or pea soup might be hard pushed. As you would expect there are plenty of French options plus a host of deli’s serving smoked meats and cheeses, such as Montreal institution Reuben’s.
We had a great meal on the patio at Accords (photo), close to the Basilique Notre-Dame. The menu was fun and interesting. Breakfast is all about the bagel, smaller, sweeter and more doughnut looking than traditional bagels. Try Wrap City for all kinds of bagels, wraps, salads and drinks.
Montreal is a mouthwatering mix of influences. There are good eats, good shops, good history and roughly a festival of some sort most weekends. Old, new, walkable with a touch of mountain climbing thrown in there is plenty to do over a long weekend’s visit.