Bonjour, Montreal

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!

28 comments

  1. It sounds like you guys had a fantastic time, and that Montreal was absolutely beautiful! I know it’s wrong of me, but I can’t help thinking of Canada as a tundra of hockey players and ice fishers (yes, I know how stereotypical that is, but when my dad used to go to Canada on business, the stories he would tell us when he came back were all about hockey players and ice fishers) and it’s so nice to be proven wrong – especially with such beautiful pictures! One things for sure: Montreal just made my list of places outside my country to visit! Thanks for a great post and all the wonderful pictures of your trip.

    1. We really did! I am guilty of terrible stereotypes about countries, so I am not judging you! Canada is actually far more diverse than you might think and I was completely shocked that Quebec IS so French. I thought a few people would speak French etc but the whole place is totally Francophile – amazing! I hope you get to visit one day and I am glad you enjoyed the pictures!🙂

  2. I remember that it felt really weird hearing people speak French! What a lovely city, though – it was quite different from what I’d expected. Wish I could have had a bit longer there.

    1. I know- I knew people spoke French there but not to the extent they do! It’s amazing! I really was charmed by Montreal and it’s so easy to get up there. I hope I have a chance to get to Quebec City as well, as I’ve heard it’s prettier.

  3. Look, you came to my country! I enjoy the odd visit to Montreal but it’s not somewhere I find particularly exciting. Quebec City, on the other hand, I adore and I hope you have a chance to visit it before you head home!

    1. I did indeed! Yes I have heard Quebec City is wonderful. Hopefully I’ll manage to make it there as well – so many places to see and not enough time!!

  4. That church photo is just gorgeous. The closest I’ve been to Montreal is Toronto, which is none too close!
    Now you really have to read Shadows on the Rock, which takes place in Quebec City, before it was called that.

    1. Oh Nancy, it’s a stunning place – that photo doesn’t even begin to capture it! Oh yes – I have that waiting. I am anxious to get to it now I’ve actually been to Quebec!

  5. Glad you caught a sunny day, your photos are lovely! What I remember most about a couple of trips to Montreal is the food, absolutely delicious. Did you see any Montreal smoked meat sandwiches go by? Phew…they’re not for the faint of heart or dainty appetite!

    1. Thanks Darlene! I know, we were so lucky! It was just beautiful and so warm – I curled up and went to sleep in the sun like a cat! I did – those sandwiches looked monstrous! I couldn’t face one!

  6. It sounds lovely, and Notre Dame looks as lovely as you say! I love a good church (obviously), and I love your posts for making other destinations seem get-to-able. :p

    1. I think you’d love it, Jenny! And Notre Dame was breathtaking – you thought St John the Divine was incredible but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Notre Dame!!

  7. Lovely photos! I remember “escaping” New York for a bit with a visit to Montreal when I lived there. I loved the french patissieres and even though Montreal is very English compared to Quebec City, I still thought it had oodles of charm and you show us it still does!

    1. Thank you! Oh, the pastries! Yum!

      If Montreal is English compared to Quebec City, then I’d LOVE to see Quebec City. I bet it’s gorgeous! I wish I’d gone there as well while I was in the area – never mind!

  8. I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip to Montreal. We were there at the same time, although in completely different neighbourhoods! Montreal is my home town and no Canadian city I have since been in or lived in can compare. It only gets better every time you go – Montreal in the summer is fantastic. Quebec City is pretty great too, so I hope you have a chance to explore there as well!

    1. Thank you! What a coincidence! I wonder if we passed in the street?! I bet Montreal is amazing in the summer – it was so lovely when the sun came out. I’d love to go to Quebec City – one day!

  9. Beautiful photography, Rachael. It looks beautiful. My one experience with Montreal was not as pleasant. We were driving home from Prince Edward Island, we speak almost no French and there was road construction everywhere. We knew the signs were warning us about something, but we weren’t sure what. We did enjoy some of the scenery, but we were more concerned about getting home. After seeing your photos, I might consider a return trip.

    1. Thank you, Janet – I’m so glad you enjoyed the photographs. What a shame that you didn’t have a good experience – that would be enough to put anyone off! I hope you get a chance to go again one day under better circumstances, as it is a truly lovely city.

  10. Sounds like a wonderful trip, Rachel. I’ve always wanted to visit and should have when I went to college in Maine, it was so close! I’m glad you are having such a great time exploring so many different parts of the northeast. I always wind up back east in October, which is one of the most beautiful times to be in that part of the country. Last year we visited Vermont and Maine. Next time, who knows, maybe Montreal.
    By the way, just read “By Nightfall” by Michael Cunningham and loved it, it is loosely based on “Death in Venice.”

    1. Thank you, Domenica! I’d love to get to Vermont and Maine – maybe this summer. Time seems to be running out and my money/vacation allowance with it! If I don’t manage to do it while I’m in the US I will come back.

      I have wanted to read that for a while – thank you for the recommendation!

  11. If you manage to get south of the Mason-Dixon line before your visa expires, both Charleston and New Orleans (especially the French Quarter) are very “European” in architecture. And I promise you’ll get some delicious food too!

    1. I am very much hoping to make it to both, Deb – they are my top two cities other than San Francisco, which is my super top destination, to get to before I leave!

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