Friday 9 December 2016

Montreal: A magical mix of the Old World and the New

O Canada!

John Chambers

Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30

Inspiring: The Basilique Notre-Dame in the place d'Armes will give visitors a wow moment. It is also home to the statue of Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal
Inspiring: The Basilique Notre-Dame in the place d'Armes will give visitors a wow moment. It is also home to the statue of Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal
Montreal - Chinatown
Quebec city
History man: John Chambers at the Maisonneuve monument in Montreal

There is always a moment on a good holiday when you just relax into things, when the cares of work drop away, allowing you to savour what's around you.

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And the earlier it happens, the better the holiday is likely to be. Happily for us, that moment came on the afternoon of our first full day in Montreal.

We had just visited Pointe-a-Calliere, the city's museum of archaeology and history, finding out how, where and why Montreal had come about. We had wandered through the impressive modern entrance building and down into the crypts, where layers of city life were stripped bare for us. We had also taken in a temporary exhibit on the Aztecs - ah yes, there's nothing like the depiction of ancient blood sacrifice to make one savour your own modern-day life.

And that's what we were doing down in the old city, vieux Montreal, near the docks, watching while we basked in the sun on some wooden chairs as young Canadians drove by in their convertibles.

We knew that Montreal had a reputation for cool, and this was just confirming our impressions from the previous night, as we had wandered through the Quartier des Spectacles, drinking in the sounds of the Francofollies music festival, as an extraordinarily eclectic - and talented - collection of Francophone musicians entertained the thousands of people, of all ages, who thronged the city-centre streets.

My bitter alter ego has always divided cities into three types - the friendly, where locals are so pleased to see a tourist they'll go out of their way to help; the buzzy, where there may not be a lot of spectacular sights, but to compensate you can party hard or attend cultural events and festivals till you drop; then there's the beautiful, blessed by geography or history, or both, which just doesn't have to try too hard because sometimes life is just unfair like that.

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Chinatown, Montreal

Well, we knew Montreal was buzzy. We had seen the Francofollies in full swing, and would continue to be entertained by it on each night of our stay; we knew that the jazz festival would be following soon after; then the comedy festival. And we discovered the Montrealers were both laid-back and friendly.

We had arrived worried about the language barrier, given the city is in Quebec, French-speaking Canada, but our fear proved groundless. Even the most halting attempts to use French seemed to be appreciated, and on realising that we were struggling with their replies, people would switch almost seamlessly into English. But why had no one told us that Montreal could be so beautiful?

And that the beauty was both natural and man-made?

The natural is encapsulated in the Parc du Mont-Royal - 300 plus acres which serve as Montrealers' playground, providing opportunities for activities as diverse as paddle-boating and tobogganing, depending on the season. What it provides all year round is stupendous views across the city and to the mountains beyond. The views stretched as far as Vermont and New York State, according to our guide. But your eyes didn't need to stray across the border to be impressed.

Nearer to hand were the mighty St Lawrence river and the white leaning tower of the Olympic Park, all viewed to a soundtrack of exclamations and clicking cameras.

Mont Royal park is also home to the massive Oratoire St-Joseph, a site of pilgrimage - some pilgrims climb to the basilica on their knees. Impressive and beautiful as it was, and we've mentally bookmarked it as a must-return- to, in this city of a hundred steeples (thanks, Mr Twain) there was another religious site that was calling us.

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John Chambers at the Maisonneuve monument in Montreal

The Basilique Notre Dame can be called awe-inspiring, breath-taking, stupendous, its Gothic revival magnificence well worth the $5 entrance fee, but of course that on its own may not help it overcome the doubters. Holiday-makers can be divided into two camps - church-visitors and members of the ADC (Another Damn Cathedral) brigade.

We are members of the former, but for the ADC-ers, let me put it like this. A tourism expert told us that when he brings first-time visitors to the basilique he likes to enter the building backwards, so that he can see the surprise and awe on his companions' faces. And if that's not enough to convince you, then perhaps the fact that the basilica was designed by an Irish Protestant, James O'Donnell, who, shortly before his death, converted to Catholicism, which allowed him to be buried in the building, will pique your interest.

Of course you must take in the sights when visiting any place new to you, but how many of our most long-lasting holiday memories come instead from taste? Those freshly chipped potatoes eaten beside the harbour at Lyme Regis, or the giant ice cream cone devoured on the bus back to Cork from Blarney: I can taste them both still and conjure up clearly who was with me at the time. So, yes, on holiday taste is important, and in Montreal you can combine eating, exercise and a lesson in social history on Fitz and Follwell's Flavours of the Main walking tour.

Wandering along, and off, the Boulevard Saint-Laurent which divides the city in two (addresses to one side are West, to the other, East) you can learn about the waves of migration which helped shape this melting pot. So try a custard tart in Little Portugal, an espresso in Little Italy or a bagel - our guide was adamant that Montreal bagels are better than anything you'd find in New York; who were we to disagree? The tour also took in a trip to Wilensky's, a renowned deli where we tried the egg-cream sodas made on the premises. Wandering down the side streets of Montreal, hearing about the history, soda in hand, certainly made for another memory.

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Montreal skyline

Sometimes, however, you have go further afield, seek out the general rather than the particular. Often, when in a strange city, I take one of the hop-on, hop-off open-top guided bus tours, just to get my bearings. In truth they can be of variable quality: some are great and provide a useful overview, others seem only to leave you poorer in time and in pocket. Happily, the Gray Line bus we picked up in Dorchester Square had a fantastic guide and we stayed on for the entire two-hour circuit - up in to swish Mont Royal, down into the old city, through the famous McCord university. We drank it in and picked out places to which we wanted to return.

Yet every holiday must also have a resting place, somewhere to which you can return and sort through the day's experiences. Ours was the Delta hotel, 20-plus storeys of friendly welcome close enough to all the action and yet somehow an oasis, never more so than on the 23rd floor, where the club lounge afforded fantastic views over the city and the St Lawrence and out to the Laurentian mountains, where various Hollywood types (think Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas) either have, or have had, holiday bolt-holes.

We were lucky enough to have a club signature room which gave access to the lounge and also the free nibbles and teas and coffees between 5 and 7pm. These, along with a perusal of the complimentary newspapers, were very welcome not just as a restorative, but also prior to dining out, as we found restaurant prices similar to those in Dublin, once you added taxes and tips. Mind you, if you did want to work up an appetite prior to dining, the hotel also has a pool and a gym. Suitably refreshed, we could then head out, turning left in the evenings to the Quartier des Spectacles and all that free music or, in the mornings, right and then up to Rue Sherbrooke for museums such as the McCord and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

We took in a Rodin exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, which was temporary, but given the museum is on both sides of (and under) Sherbrooke Street there are plenty of treasures permanently on display including Inuit, Canadian and Quebec art, as well as international works.

At the McCord there was an exhibition of work by the famous Vogue photographer Horst P Horst but there are also permanent exhibitions on the like of the native First Peoples. Museums in Canada generally charge for admission (between $10-20) but sometimes there are free days or evenings so check out the museums' web sites before you go or, if you aim to take in a lot of culture, then the Montreal Musuem pass ($75-80) may be your thing. Alternatively, the Passporte MTL offers a combined deal on the transport system and admission into a number of the more important places to visit (passeportmtl.com).

Sometimes though it is enough to wander the streets either in the old city or the new, trying to figure out whether you are in France or North America, listening to the French and English languages mingle, maybe spotting a location for one of the many films shot here (anything from The Day After Tomorrow to Catch Me if You Can).

And everywhere there are the flags - the Canadian Maple Leaf, we all know about that; the Quebec flag, the fleurdelise, symbolising the ties to France, many of us would recognise that too; but what's that other one? Ah, the Montreal Flag containing a Fleur-de-Lys (again) but also a thistle (for the Scots), a rose (The English) and a shamrock. The last is a reminder that the story of Montreal is our story too - it's time we went and learnt more about it.

Getting there...

Canadian Affair offers various tours and packages to Canada, including Montreal and Quebec city with direct flights from Dublin to Montreal. A Montreal city break, departing on October 1 with return flights from Dublin to Montreal, and six nights at the Delta Montreal, costs from €939pp, returning on October 7.

A short break to Quebec City and Montreal  on the same dates, with one night at the Delta Montreal, return tickets on the Via Rail service between Quebec and Montreal, four nights at the Delta Quebec, and a further night at the Delta Montreal costs from €1069pp.

Visit Canadianaffair.ie or call (01) 866 6700.

For information on Montreal, visit tourisme-montreal.org

Air Transat flies from Dublin to Montreal, airtransat.ie

More details on Delta hotels can be found at deltahotels.com

For bus and other tours of Montreal and surrounds check out grayline.com

For the Flavours of the Main food and walking tour, see fitzandfollwell.co

Take three

Shopping

Rue St Catherine, above, has many of the main stores, including the department stores Simons and La Baie, known elsewhere in Canada as The Bay or The Hudson Bay Trading Company. I couldn’t see any trappers on my visit but it’s hard not to feel a sense of history. You’ll also find many shops in the extensive network of underground passages in the city centre — it’s the largest underground complex of its type in the world.

Eating

Quite apart from the Flavours of the Main tour, Montreal has other delights to tempt the palette. At some point you’re going  to try poutine — a local delicacy, if that’s the word, consisting of chips and cheese curds topped with gravy. Listen to folks discuss the consistency of the curds and the squeaking noise they should make and you’ll know you are among aficionados. On the other hand, Montreal has a thriving Chinatown, if ethnic is your scene.

Travelling

It would be a shame to be in this part of the world and not  try to combine your time in Montreal with a side trip to  Quebec. The old city is a World Heritage Site, and by train the trip takes about three hours. Once there, you’ll be in the  only walled city in the Americas north of the Mexican border. Delta hotels has a place here too, just outside the city walls.

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