Over Easter weekend a friend and I decided to take ourselves away for a relaxing weekend. We were talking idly a couple of weeks ago about places we’d like to visit, and I mentioned, flippantly, Montreal. Suddenly we looked at each other and both said ‘Why not?!’ – a bit of web searching later and we had a hotel room and two seats on a coach booked. At midnight on Thursday we set off on the Greyhound, and eight hours later we arrived in sunny Montreal, which could have been a world away. The skies were blue, everything was in French, and there was not a single skyscraper in sight. As we walked from the bus stop, surrounded by churches and ornate stone buildings, we were astounded at how peaceful and quiet the city was. We couldn’t wait to explore!
We climbed to the top of Mont Royal, after walking through the beautiful campus of McGill University, and basked in the warm sunshine as we took in the breathtaking views of the city. A mixture of historic cobbled streets lined with higgedly piggedly 18th and 19th century buildings, turn of the century and art deco office blocks, impressive churches and more recent, mid century modern concrete structures, Montreal is a very European city, and not one I had ever expected to find in North America. As we wandered through the beautiful parkland, and through the city’s lovely squares with cafe tables spilling out onto the pavements, we really felt like we’d boarded a plane to the Continent rather than a bus across the Canadian border.
Star features of Montreal for me were Notre Dame Basilica and the McCord Museum. Notre Dame Basilica is the most stunning church I have ever stepped inside, and I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time. As you enter, you are confronted by a cacophony of beautiful stained glass, painted frescoes, stone and wood carvings, and lofty architecture, and the combined effect is truly breathtaking. As it was Easter Sunday, the church was positively festooned with fresh, colourful, fragrant flowers, and coupled with the skillful backlighting of the altar and the hundreds of flickering candles that lined the aisles, it was a real feast for the senses and an experience I shall not soon forget. The McCord Museum tells the history of Montreal and the province of Quebec, and it’s a fantastic Museum that has impressively curated displays filled with a variety of interesting objects that paint a wide canvas of stories, giving a broad overview of life in this part of the world. I particularly loved the sections that showed how French and European architecture, culinary favourites and cultural traditions were adapted by French Canadians to fit the much colder climate they lived in, and it was so interesting to see how they tackled the problem of living in a city where snow and extremely cold temperatures are a fact of life for almost half the year. The underwear 19th century women wore to keep warm under their dresses was an especial eye opener – scratchy woolen bloomers, anyone?!
Montreal is certainly a fascinating and diverse city. From the rural French village feel of the old town and port area and the luxurious Victorian and Edwardian houses along the edge of Mont Royal and scattered throughout the McGill university campus, to the magnificent Biosphere on Ile de Helene, and the modern sprawling complex of underground malls that enable Montrealers to get through the harsh winters without spending too much time outside, it is a place of contrasts, contradictions and surprises. In some parts of the city, I could easily forget I was in Canada; in others, I knew I couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. The culinary offerings are distinctly North American; poutine, which I didn’t try, would never fly in France; and the Montreal version of the bagel, which was sweet, dense, and delicious, and can be bought here, would not be preferred over a baguette, I am sure. However, you can sit and eat omelette and ratatouille in the old town, devour bœuf bourguignon and steak frites in any number of traditional bistros, and gorge on waffles with fresh maple butter in the main square. The food was delicious, and I had a wonderful time deviating from my usual New York diet of burgers and pizza!
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend in a wonderful city. I’m not sure if I feel the need to go back, but I’d certainly like to explore more of Quebec; perhaps Quebec City will be seeing my face sometime soon!