Thursday 18 December 2014

French polish makes Montreal sparkle

Quebec's bilingual biggest city likes its visitors to have fun

Published 28/07/2013 | 05:00

Cosmopolitan vibe: Place Jacques-Cartier in the oldest area of Montreal and, inset, the city's skyline as seen from Parc Jean-Drapeau.

We arrived in Montreal on the opening night of a four-day festival. We couldn't have planned it better – or so we smugly thought as we watched a singer strut across the stage from the perfect vantage point of the terrace bar of our hotel. A day or so into our short trip, we realised that practically every summer's day is a festival in this party town.

Still, Les FrancoFolies – a celebration of French music acts from sultry chanteuses to young rappers – would provide the soundtrack to our visit. It was emblematic of the Canadian city. Anything goes – so long as it's French.

There's a real cosmopolitan vibe to Montreal. And it has a long history of integrating settlers. As the largest city in Quebec province – that French-speaking slice of Canada – it's proudly bilingual. But you'll be greeted en francais by almost everyone you meet.

On that first jet-lagged day, we followed the tourist trail to the old town, stopping to admire the beautiful Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. We basked in the sunshine, sipping the local brew and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Rue de Saint-Paul.

The oldest street in the city, it was named after Montreal's founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and used to be the main thoroughfare. Now it's a magnet for tourists – on the east side. You'll see a much more authentic side to the city if you cross over to the cooler western part of the street.

There, over a lunch of hot smoked trout with sun-dried tomatoes on flatbread at the busy Olive et Gourmando, I debated whether to buy a one-off dress by a local designer from a boutique a few doors away. Well, a girl needs a souvenir.

Montreal isn't a particularly pretty city; you have to make an effort to get under its skin. But it's worth it.

We walked for miles exploring its varied neighbourhoods, encountering wide green spaces, busy street markets, hipster haunts and old-style townhouses while outdoor artists worked their magic for Montreal's graffiti festival.

We became captivated by the self-possessed city as we stopped for bagels at the St-Viateur bakery, Quebec cheese and wine at Marche Jean-Talon and a drink or two at the Baldwin Barmacie, a bar set in an old pharmacy.

A day later, we joined Montrealers as they cycled, skated and walked the route of the Canal du Lachine, a national historical site. We hired bikes from Montreal on Wheels (caroulemontreal.com) and were a kilometre or two along the 14.5km route from the Old Port to the south-west tip of Montreal island when we were stopped in our tracks by a mini festival that had sprung up on the canal banks.

Music filled the air as children played and their parents basked in the chilled atmosphere. A few minutes later, we stopped again – this time to pick up picnic provisions at a farmers' market. Packed with stalls filled with almost every conceivable fruit and vegetable, as well as fresh fish, meat and cheese, Marche Atwater (like Jean-Talon) is a Mecca for foodies. We couldn't resist one of the local dairy offerings, aka ice-cream, and the chocolate-coated cone was worth every calorie.

Back on the track, we swerved to avoid families taking a more relaxed approach. Looking over the mighty St Lawrence river, the Parc René-Lévesque at the tip of the island is surprisingly serene. We took our time admiring the 22 massive sculptures created by local artists, and then got back on our bikes to enjoy a sun-downer or two before going to the hip Bar Boris for dinner.

The next morning, it was payback time. That came in the form of a 13km run around Mont-Royal, Montreal's mountain. We joined the many runners and cyclists winding their way along the tree-lined route to reach the summit. Our reward was a stunning view of the cityscape.

Later that day, we discovered what happens in Montreal when the sun doesn't shine. As we walked through the quiet Sunday streets, the heavens opened and the temperature plummeted. It was hard to believe we had been re-applying sun screen at 6.30 the evening before.

Although tempted by the thought of some retail therapy on Sainte Catherine, we by-passed it in favour of (possibly) loftier pursuits. Montreal has a thriving cultural scene, but we were still surprised when we arrived at the Musee des Beaux Arts to find a queue of people snaking around the block.

When we got inside, we understood. The exhibition of glass-blowing by renowned US artist Dale Chihuly had just begun, and it was breathtaking. The rest of the museum's regular (free) collections were special too, particularly the one devoted to iconic furniture.

Afterwards, we rushed to meet penguins, puffins and beavers at the Biodome (montrealspaceforlife.ca). Built for the 1976 Olympics, it now houses a replica of the four ecosystems found in the Americas.

Our visit to Montreal was fleeting, but fabulous. It's a city built by people who like to enjoy themselves and want their visitors to have just as good a time – an alluring combination.

Need to know

We flew to Montreal with Canadian Affair. Direct flights from €569 return including taxes (canadianaffair.ie). We stayed at the centrally located Hyatt Regency in Place-des-Arts (montreal. hyatt.com). Rooms from €125.

For more information on travel in Quebec, go to quebecoriginal.com

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