Montreal, the multicultural metropolis of Canada, opens doors to new colors with its creative locals who know how to have fun and share an affectionate perspective on the innovative aspects of art.
Bonjour, hello are the first words of the customs officer as I give him my passport. This combination of languages which I hear in my first minutes in the city follows me all around in the days to come. Like the songs of Arcade Fire, Montrealers blend French and English as they speak.
The first "City of Design" in North America chosen by UNESCO, Montreal both confuses and mesmerizes me with its historic cobblestoned streets, neo-Gothic structures, and Victorian-era houses with mansard roofs on one hand, and its skyscrapers which are the trademark of modern-day North America, and award-winning buildings, on the other. St-Paul is no doubt the most “spoiled” of these streets. I feel like I’m in a European city with its chic boutiques and French, Spanish, Polish, and British-style cafés and restaurants. Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal) is named after Jacques-Cartier, the French explorer who stepped on the island in 1535. The square, which is very crowded in summer, is lively with painters, street musicians, tourists, and terrace cafés.
Marché Bonsecours, the old market building on the eastern end of St-Paul Street, is currently a structure filled with intriguing shops that sell clothes, souvenirs, artworks, handcrafts, and maple products. Up ahead is the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours. The "lady of the harbor," mentioned in Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” is no longer waiting for sailors to come home from their journeys to faraway and dangerous lands, but today, she still greets the tourists who are taking off on boat cruises on the St. Lawrence River from her place on the chapel's dome.
The charm of the Basilica of Notre-Dame, the biggest church in North America when it was opened in 1829, is hidden in its interior décor. I am duly impressed by the visual richness created by the handmade woodcarvings and the gilded ornamentation. You might have missed Luciano Pavarotti’s concert in 1978 or Céline Dion’s glamorous wedding in 1994, but you’re invited to another performance that takes place in the cathedral throughout the year. "Aura", a display of spectacular light and sound effects, transforms the cathedral into a breathtaking realm in the evening.
I treat myself to crêpes topped with maple syrup, which I love for its slightly fumed caramelized flavor, at a café on Royale Square. Next, I take a journey in time at the Museum of Archaeology and History. Known as Pointe-à-Callière, this area is the birthplace of Montreal, and the glass floor I’m walking on displays archaeological artifacts!
Today, the old bank buildings on St-Jacques Street host exclusive hotels, restaurants, and cafés, such as Crew Collective&Café housed on the first floor of a historic building. The humming of the people talking to each other echoes around the arched, wide hall with a high ceiling. As I admire the idea of transforming a flamboyant bank building into a working space, a group of young people discuss Alice Munro’s latest book at the next table. There’s also the world trade center named Centre de Commerce Mondial, a complex comprising boutiques, hotels, and galleries. My next stop is the Convention and Exhibition Center (Palais des Congrès) renowned for its colorful windows.
Before mingling with the crowd, I make up for lost energy by enjoying poutine (the famous Québécois dish made with French fries, cheese, and gravy) at a café on Ste-Catherine Street, the city's main shopping area. I buy some souvenir mugs and maple-scented candles at a bookstore and stop by stores that sell dreamcatchers and samples of Inuit and Quebec art. I finish my day at Quartier des Spectacles, a big art complex home to performance and exhibition halls. The square, which hosts Montreal International Jazz Festival, one of the world’s best jazz festivals, is the cultural heart of the city.
The next day begins at Atwater Market (Marché Atwater) which sells fresh produce from local farms. One of the salesmen is busy spreading the ingredients of paella on a tray as it needs to be cooked for three hours to be ready for lunch. In another stall, they prepare dishes from Réunion Island. Since it’s a beautiful day outside, the people leaving the market opt for a walk along Lachine Canal (Canal de Lachine). I arrive at the Old Port (Vieux-Port) at the end of the canal. I will be visiting this spot later in the evening to see the colorful illumination of Jacques-Cartier Bridge (Pont Jacques-Cartier) -the lights interactively change according to the season and the posts on social media sent by Montrealers. So, the bridge, which is central to local transportation, also reflects the mood of Montreal's urban life!
Built for the 1976 Summer Olympics, the Olympic Park is an important sports complex in the city. I take the funicular up the Montreal Tower, the tallest inclined tower in the world with a height of 165 meters and a 45-degree angle, for a bird’s-eye view of the city. One should also visit the Insectarium, the Botanical Garden, and the Planetarium, all located very close to the Olympic Stadium. At the Insectarium, I examine hundreds of bugs in all glamorous shapes and colors as if I’m attending a fashion show of the microcosm while the Planetarium takes me on a journey into the universe with images projected on its 360-degree dome.
The locals take pride in calling the hill of Mont-Royal, which lends its name to the city, the “mount.” The observation deck here overlooks the city center and the St. Lawrence River. Visited all year round by the locals for fresh air and sports activities, Mont Royal Park (Parc du Mont-Royal) is filled with people roller-skating on the frozen lake and skiing down the hiking trails in winter.
Before heading towards the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts), I stop by the restaurant XVI XVI on Sherbrook Boulevard because there’s a robot among its employees. As I sip some soda served by a robot for the first time in my life, we have a chance to chat a little bit! I make sure to take a souvenir picture with it before I leave. As I walk down Crescent Street lined with haute couture shops and luxury boutiques, I exchange a glance with Leonard Cohen, who’s looking at me from a mural on a side of a very tall building.
The multiculturalism of Montreal has presented the city with a superb gastronomical heritage in terms of variety and quality. Wherever you are in the city, you can always find an Irish, Indian, Lebanese, and Japanese restaurant within a five-minute distance. St-Laurent Boulevard is a true reflection of this cultural diversity. Make sure to walk along this boulevard which cuts the city in two and you will be surprised by the alternatives offered in the Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, and English neighborhoods. I savor the legendary smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Deli, opened by Romanian Reuben Schwartz with a recipe born from the method of preserving meat discovered by a Lithuanian immigrant family in the 1900s. I can still remember the meat’s smoked aroma and soft, juicy texture.
There are famous bakeries in the Mile End district which make traditional bagels in wood ovens. I buy a few at St-Viateur Bagel -the most popular classical bagel with sesame seeds makes for the perfect breakfast. While Plateau used to be a working-class district, it underwent a great transformation after the '60s when artists and authors started moving here. As I wander among bohemian cafés, art galleries, bookstores, design stores, and vintage shops, I encounter wonderful murals on the sides of buildings. I sit on a bench on St-Louis Square (Carré St-Louis) and feed nuts to squirrels, declaring to myself that this small park, surrounded by the finest examples of Victorian-era houses, is the loveliest square in the city!
It’s not enough to describe Montreal as French, British, or North American because it encompasses all of them. Here, everyone is an immigrant and a local at the same time. In fact, I've felt like a Montrealer since I arrived in this city. So, until our next meeting, “A bientôt, see you later, Montreal!”