As often happens with my trips the planning for a visit to Montreal began many months in advance when my father mentioned the upcoming 50th anniversary of his graduating class of Presbyterian College and 150th anniversary of the college and asked if I’d to come along to see the city I hadn’t seen since childhood in the early 1970’s and despite some initial ambivalence we confirmed the early May escape on Boxing Day. As also often happens I am not sure the reasons for my early reluctance as the holiday was full of both warm weather and warm memories and was thoroughly enjoyed.
Given my hit & miss weather mojo I was happily surprised to digest a forecast that was unseasonably warm for the duration of our four night visit to Montreal with daytime highs between 26 – 29 Celsius that even the locals found unusual. Having three full days to explore the city I began the first by dropping Dad at his reunion before meandering around the campus of McGill University founded by royal charter in 1821 and named for prominent Scottish merchant James McGill.
As the scholastic year was winding down the McGill campus was quieter making for a little easier wandering around the institution located at the base of the mountain from which Montreal takes its name, Mount Royal. A short walk up Rue Peel leads one to the base of the park that surrounds the mountain and a quad busting set of stairs that seems to go almost straight up. The walk is worth the weight however as the view from a plateau above the downtown is magical and worth enjoying savouring for an extended period of time.
The pavilion that anchors the plateau houses a tourism info centre, washrooms, a large great room complete with Champlain frescoes on the walls and in one corner a small upright piano the passing player is encouraged to play.
Heading down the hill proved much more agreeable than climbing up it and so moved on to explore more of the city by walking straight down Rue Mansfield from Mont Royal past Eaton Centre and Place Ville Marie to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth and adjacent Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral and its façade adorned with a crowd of the patron saints of local parishes.
After admiring the 19th century cathedral it was onto Vieux (Old) Montréal to walk it’s narrow cobblestone streets and admire the historic buildings. The district is where the city was co-founded in 1642 by Sieur de Maisonneuve whose regal statue inhabits the Place d’Armes that frames the twin towers of Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic Revival basilica dating to 1824.
While entrance into the Basilica carries a nominal $5 fee the interior is a must-see for not only the strikingly beautiful blue coloring behind the altar but the sheer opulence in the decoration of every column and railing on up to the heavenly ceiling adorned with golden stars. The design, according to the guide on one of the free 20 minute tours in English offered throughout the day, is borrowed from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and having been fortunate enough to have seeing its soaring stained glass walls and intricate decorations the connection fit my memory.
The stained glass windows on the upper floors interestingly do not depict biblical scenes as is typical in such a cathedral or basilica but rather scenes from the religious history of Montréal. These windows were normally left partially open but were closed after a 1978 arson fire ravaged the smaller Chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur directly behind the main altar and nave. A four year painstaking restoration returned the small chapel to its former glory with as detailed woodwork but a less dramatic design.
Exiting into bright sunshine on a very warm Spring day I made my way down Rue Notre Dame a few short blocks to the Hôtel de Ville or City Hall famous for its balcony from which French leader Charles de Gaulle proclaimed in 1967 ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ (‘Long live a free Québec!’) that ignited separatist passions for decades to follow.
Nelson’s Column is opposite and heads the downhill pedestrian only Place Jacques Cartier that ends at the waters of the old port of Montréal which is more modern redevelopment than actual working port save for a few sightseeing boats.
Facing the port in a block long Classical Revival building is the Marché Bonsecours or Bonsecours Market which had been the city hall until the newer one just up the hill was built in 1878. Designer boutiques and trendy café are the current occupants of the market and it made for a pleasant detour.
I found my memorable half day of ambling around Vieux-Montréal aided by a district map that’s worth printing and taking with you if you do find yourself visiting Montréal and that map is here.
Nearby in the downtown core is a cathedral of another sort, the Bell Centre, which is home to the Montréal Canadiens who sadly remain the last Canadian NHL team to win the Stanley Cup way back in 1993.
My visit happened to fall on a pivotal game day in the Habs playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning which saw them heading into game five down three games to one in the best of seven series. While guided tours of the building aren’t available on game days the adjacent Montréal Canadiens Hall Of Fame was open and at $9 proved a fun and interactive stroll down hockey memory lane.
There are so many interesting exhibits including the dressing room preserved from the old Montréal Forum, game-worn jerseys and equipment from the teams biggest superstars and even a few items from other plays such as Wayne Gretzky.
After leaving the temple of hockey I was in no real hurry to exit the arena district so found a corner spot at a lounge directly across and watched the pre-game while a steady stream of hockey fans descended upon the Bell Centre in anxious anticipation. After a close game the Habs eked out a narrow 2 -1 victory thanks in large part to the goaltending of Carey Price but while winning the battle they ultimately lost the war going down in game six in Tampa. On this night however I enjoyed joining the throng of jubilant fans packing sidewalks on the short walk back to my hotel knowing that while not a real Habs fan at the very least I was celebrating the success of a Canadian team.
While I somehow escaped without an obligatory taste of poutine I couldn’t miss out on a visit to Canada’s oldest deli, Schwartz’s, which dates back 80 years so made my pilgrimage on foot and arrived on the historic “Main” in the later afternoon quite hungry after a day of sightseeing.
I found a stool at the long counter to perch and ordered my pastrami on rye sandwich with lean meat as it’s drier and a little less messy. In short order the sandwich arrived and was devoured while I watched others come and go and scanning the wonderfully dated décor.
For heading to several stops beyond the downtown or Vieux Montréal areas one of the better values is a $10 day pass on the Métro and put mine to good use riding out to take in the Olympic Stadium and adjacent Montréal Biodome for a morning.
After admiring the “Big O” from the outside we paid to enter the Biodome, a building which began as a cycling velodrome for the 1976 Montréal Olympics but was converted into an indoor nature centre in the early 1990’s with the four ecosystems found in the Americas. The tropical forest, Laurentian forest, St. Lawrence marine ecosystem and polar areas include native plants and animals to each region from penguins to beavers, lynx to macaws and crocodiles to otters.
A few Métro stops away are the islands in the St. Lawrence, Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame with the former housing the Biosphere, a large geodesic dome leftover from Expo67, and an amusement park with the latter where the Casino de Montréal and famed Gilles Villeneuve F1 race track are found. The Grand Prix track is used by a slower mode of transportation, bikes, but for a week in June the asphalt comes alive with a series of races the culminates with the annual Canadian stop on the F1 global circuit.
Having a morning free and wanting to see more corners of the city I explored the Atwater Market in the Little Burgundy area and was as taken with the 1933 Art Deco building as the explosion of colours in the rows of seasonal flowers and plants for sale from local greenhouses.
Steps away is the Lachine Canal and a bike rental and repair little cottage Ma Bicyclette who also offer city bike tours and group rides.
Wandering through the local market, sampling some of the goods and stopping for a morning coffee to briefly watch the world go by reminded me very much of European and especially French markets I’d visited in the past. Maybe it was the caffeine or the sunny day or recalling fond travel memories or a combination of all three but I left Atwater feeling pleasantly warm and very glad I’d escaped for a morning beyond the downtown core.
Montréal has so many rich neighborhoods I’d only glimpsed that I resolved to find an excuse to return and stay a little longer. Merci Montréal!