Wednesday 22 November 2017

Montreal: Spellbound by the magic of Canada's quirkiest city

O Canada!

The capital of quirkiness: There is always another captivating sight or experience to entice the visitor to Montreal
The capital of quirkiness: There is always another captivating sight or experience to entice the visitor to Montreal
Habitat 67 is a wonderful collection of concrete boxes stacked almost haphazardly on top of each other
The Canada Day parade was full of fun and colour

Fergus McDonnell

Of all the words you could use to describe Montreal - cosmopolitan, historic, warm, friendly, sophisticated - quirky is probably the best.

On a quirky scale of one to 10 it is a 10, and rising. It is the capital of quirk.

Of course you need evidence for such an assertion, and you don't have to look far to find it. From the different neighbourhoods (each with its own design of street lighting) to the annual ritual of 'moving day' to the wonderful law that precludes the charging of admission to events held on public streets and the one that forbids the construction of anything higher than Mount Royal, the case for the prosecution is overwhelming.

And then there are the 'Stop' signs which read 'Arret'. Which makes sense of course, except that the French themselves use 'Stop'. The point is that in Montreal, they consider their use of the French language to be more pure than the original. Quirky.

This is all meant in a good way. Who wants to visit a city without a personality? There are, elsewhere, a thousand soulless, dull, cold collections of homes, offices and shops that you could quite happily live your life without ever soiling their streets with your shoe-leather. But a visit to Montreal will teach you something. It will leave you challenged, excited, fulfilled and, perhaps above all, determined to return.

We arrived fresh from Toronto. Fresh mainly thanks to a business-class trip on Via Rail, which was an experience in itself rather than just a way of getting from A to B. English footballer Jermaine Defoe recently returned from an 11-month stint playing with Toronto FC having failed to settle, prompting Newcastle's manager, John Carver to comment: "I can't believe he hasn't settled in Toronto because it is a fantastic party city." In reality, it is so much more.

We had passed four days soaking up the many sights and sounds of that wonderful city, including a never to be forgotten trip to Niagara Falls and the nearby wineries, which had left us, shall we say, in need of a little TLC. The Saturday morning train trip was the perfect refresher ahead of the magic of Montreal.

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Habitat 67 is a wonderful collection of concrete boxes stacked almost haphazardly on top of each other

Habitat 67, Montreal

So where to start? Well, the Basilica seems as good a place as any. It is a hugely impressive edifice, has a colourful interior and rich wood carvings and despite the many tourists milling around, you can't help but be touched by the tranquillity of the space. A great place to sit for a while and contemplate.

Standing at the front of the Basilica you can see where the building used to extend before (quirkily) it was rebuilt a little further back and from here, facing the Place d'Armes in the heart of the old city, you get a real flavour of Montreal's history.

Directly in front of you is a monument in memory of Paul de Chomedey Sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal, while you are surrounded by Montreal's first skyscraper, the New York Life Building; the Bank of Montreal, Canada's first bank; the Aldred Building, Canada's first Art Deco structure; and the international-style building at 500 Place d'Armes, known to some as Montreal's first mistake.

Book the best value city breaks on Independent Travel.

Beneath the square, they built one of 25 public toilets during the great Depression and while this could be considered quirky enough, it pales towards normality when placed alongside the indoor city, the largest underground complex in the world. A network of walkways, office, living and retail space, it is well-served by the metro network and enjoys a mixture of artificial and natural light.

In summer, it offered us a welcome relief from the heat but in winter it really comes into its own, allowing the citizens to carry on their normal daily routine sheltered from the worst of the weather.

The indoor city and the metro are intrinsically linked, having been born as part of Expo 67 and having grown together through the decades since. Indeed, Expo 67 has really left its mark on the city, which is ironic given that the event was originally planned for Moscow and only a late switch - too late, many experts believed at the time - saw the event moved to become the main event of Canada's centennial celebrations.

Today, a bike trip across the Saint Lawrence River to Saint Helen's and Notre Dame Islands is like a journey into the past. The islands were expanded (Notre Dame actually built from scratch) using the rubble from the city's metro excavations and you can still see some of the buildings that made up Expo 67.

The most striking, to these eyes at any rate, is Habitat 67, a wonderful collection of concrete boxes stacked almost haphazardly on top of each other which are not just occupied, but are so desirable that the architect Moshe Safdie's dream of designing affordable high-density living spaces has long since died. Safdie, on the other hand, is very much alive and still owns a penthouse apartment in Habitat.

Still on the island, our rental bikes brought us eventually to the Gilles Villeneuve motor racing circuit, where it is possible to cycle, or even drive, in the tyre tracks of your Formula One heroes, although at a much more sedate pace.

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The Canada Day parade was full of fun and colour

Canada Day, Montreal

Our visit happily coincided with Canada Day, which, as most rental leases in Montreal are of one-year duration and expire on June 30, is also moving day. The parade was a sight to behold. Full of fun and colour, it reminded us instantly of St Patrick's Day parades of the 1970s. The tradition of Moving Day, on the other hand, is about as quirky as you can get, with rental trucks and furniture removal vans around every corner.

Montreal offers everything you could possibly want in a city, from the historic and cultural sights to the simple pleasure of exploring the streets and discovering the wealth of restaurants, cafes and bars. There are many hidden gems, and many more overt ones. We were there for the International Jazz Festival, just one of many festivals which guarantee that, whatever else Montreal might make you feel, you will never be bored.

Getting there

Canadian Affair (canadianaffair.ie) offers direct non-stop flights from Dublin to Toronto and Montreal, from April to October. Return flights start from just €372pp return, and are operated by Air Transat's Airbus (airtransat.ie) wide-body aircraft, with newly refitted interiors offering exceptional comfort and generous legroom. Toronto City breaks start from just €529pp based on return Eco Class flights from Dublin to Toronto, plus three nights at the 4-star Sheraton Centre Hotel, Toronto on selected dates in May 2015.

Book the best value city breaks with Independent Travel here.

NB: Prices subject to availability/change.

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