Montreal (Canada)

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Montreal (Canada)

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Review of "Montreal (Canada)"

published 11/10/2008 | larsbaby
Member since : 23/05/2007
Reviews : 132
Members who trust : 148
About me :
Hmm I really should write something but I seem to have lost my mojo! AM hoping it returns sometime this decade.
Excellent
Pro Historical city, lots to see and do, decent prices, fascinating history
Cons See history
exceptional
Value for Money
Sightseeing
Shopping
Nightlife
Ease of getting around

"Memorable Montreal!"

Basilique Notre Dame

Basilique Notre Dame

INTRODUCTION

Having been to Vancouver for the first time with Ms Larsbaby on holiday, after a week there we went on to the east coast and Montreal. Montreal is a city I know quite well having been there three times before. I have friends there and so it's an obvious destination for me, perhaps less so for those with no connections there. It was Ms Larsbaby's first trip there, and we headed onwards to some other parts of the province of Quebec surrounding Montreal with my old friend Monsieur Montreal. Here is an account of our adventures.

ABOUT MONTREAL

Montreal is located on the east coast of Canada in the French speaking province of Quebec. The French speakers are known as Quebecois. With a population of 3.5 million, it's the largest city in Quebec and the second largest city in Canada. For me, it's impossible to talk about Montreal without a history lesson to put the city today into context, and this could easily be a review in itself. But it's interesting to follow the eventful, turbulent history and it certainly goes a long way to explaining the mentality there, so bear with me (alternatively, skip past this section).

THE HISTORY OF MONTREAL

The first permanent mission was founded in 1642 by Paul De Chomedey Maisonneuve, although French explorer Jacques Cartier visited the Iroquois village of Hochelaga (Place of the Beaver) in 1535. This became a hub for the fur trade, and Quebec City became the capital of the colony of Nouvelle-France (New France). The British conquered Quebec in 1760, and Montreal was seized during the American Revolution, although after 7 months they gave up as French Quebecois couldn't be persuaded to join their cause. In the 19th century many Irish immigrants arrived to work on the railways and in the factories. In 1867 the Canadian Confederation gave Quebec some control over social and economic affairs, and French was recognised as an official language. More immigrants arrived in the second half of the 1800s from Italy, Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe. In 1837 there was an uprising of the French against the British ruling class, which resulted in hangings and exiles as punishment.

Trouble flared up between the French and English during World War I, when in 1915 the province of Ontario passed a law that restricted the use of French in schools. Up to then French Quebecois had signed up voluntarily for military service, and when the draft was introduced in 1917, Quebecois nationalists saw it as a plot to reduce the Francophone population, with 80% of them rejecting the draft (and as many English speakers accepting it).

During prohibition in the US, when alcohol was illegal, Montreal, lying just over the Canadian border, gained a reputation as "Sin City" as American helped themselves to booze, hookers and betting. But with the Great Depression the plight of the Quebecois worsened. The nationalists were led by Maurice Duplessis, who was ultraconservative and ruralist; his Union Nationale party won provincial power in 1936 and this halted much industrial and social progress until he died in 1959.

In the 1950s Montreal needed a major overhaul, and Major Jean Drapeau drew up a blueprint for a skyscraper filled new downtown and underground city. As a result of this the Montreal skyline changed dramatically in the 1960s.

Large reforms from the Liberal Party in 1960 resulted in an expanded Quebec public sector and nationalised hydroelectric companies. This helped progress for Francophone public sector workers, who were denied equal rights in the private sector; this enabled them to work in French and progress up the ladder. Still though, this wasn't enough for radical separatists who insisted on nothing less than independence for Quebec. To appease this threat, in 1969 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau passed laws to make Canada fully bilingual and the constitution was amended to guarantee Francophone rights.

Perhaps the low point of the language wars was when the separatist movement the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped the Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte (a left wing liberal) and a British trade official, James Cross. A state of emergency was declared, the army was called in to protect government officials and Laporte's strangled body was found in the boot of a car. The kidnappers were caught and given long sentences but only served 7 to 11 years each. Cross was released after 2 months in exchange for the kidnapper's safe passage to Cuba. But the murder discredited the FLQ to some supporters and the movement ceased to exist over the following years.

Still, money pumped into Quebec failed to convince the Francophones that French would be the first language at work. In 1976 the Parti Quebecois were elected, who stood for full independence. In 1977 Bill 101 was passed, a controversial law making French the sole official language of Quebec and stating that all immigrants had to send their children to French speaking schools. This caused many Anglophones, who thought the measures petty and vindictive, to flee, many heading west to Ontario and beyond.

More concessions were made by the Liberals and in 1980 a referendum on Quebec sovereignty resulted in a comfortable no to independence vote. In 1987 the Conservatives were in power and the failure of an accord to meet more demands was defeated, causing more friction. A new accord was thrown out by the separatists and some of the provinces and political and economic decline set in by the early 1990s. Another referendum on sovereignty resulted in another no vote, but by only 52,000 votes (less than 1%) in 1994. Montreal voted against by more than two thirds. Things picked up after a freak ice storm in 1998 which helped to bring the communities together, and the local economy was reshaped, helped by low labour costs, with modern industries like telecoms and software coming in.

LANGUAGE TODAY

These days, with young Montrealers being in some way bilingual, the language issues have decreased and some Anglophones have returned. But to the visitor, Bill 101 has some interesting consequences worth a closer look at. Signs have to be in French and the letters in English are much smaller. Apparently the language police can be quite enthusiastic in enforcing this, and I've heard of a story where a restaurant which had the handwritten sign "push" on a toilet door only seen by the Anglophone staff were fined and forced to change it to "poussée" (or at least make this a larger sign). So you see "Café Starbucks Coffee" for example. My personal favourite is that the Kentucky Fried Chicken signs aren't labelled KFC but PFK - Poulet Frit Kentucky. You will also see some signs for hot dog outlets labelled "chien-chaud". Monsieur Montreal tells me Chien-Chaud Victoire on Rue McGill has the best hot dogs in town, though the service can be a bit harsh, so be warned!

It might sound that I am sceptical of the Bill, but I have read in places that it has saved the French language in North America, and I consider that a great thing for cultural diversity, even if the laws are a bit draconian. Even in this country we are being invaded with American TV and fashion and American English phrases; at work the signs for centre are spelt "center", much to my annoyance. So I say bravo Quebec, stick to your principles and keep that European influence; just remember to leave room for others, too.

The French spoken in Quebec is hard for people from France to understand, as it evolved on its own due to sparse contact with the motherland at first, and has also been affected by being in close proximity to English. The result is phrases not used for a long time in France in common usage in Quebec, and differing sentence construction. Monsieur Montreal explained it to me as abbreviating of spoken words so that the whole sentence is squeezed. One interesting thing I find about the language is that a lot of the curse words are related to religion, a result of the church's influence over the centuries. So be careful who you say "tabernac" (tabernacle in English) to as it's pretty offensive.

My personal tip with language is to at least try a little bit in French as it will be really appreciated (at least by the Francophones!) It isn't like France can be in some places and you will encounter no hostility at all if you speak in English; at times when people are unable to speak English they still beam at you and shrug in a friendly manner. I never fail to be impressed by the genuine warmth of the Quebecois in general (and my friends in particular). They're just such laid back, welcoming people.

GETTING AROUND

The centre of the city is easily navigated by foot, but you can also travel by car, taxi, bus or Metro (which is apparently quite unreliable, but I've used it in the past and it seemed OK). We were lucky as we had Monsieur Montreal, who kindly drove us around.

ARRIVAL

We stayed in the centrally placed Hyatt Regency hotel and arrived there late in the evening after our five hour flight from Vancouver, just in time to meet up with our host, Monsieur Montreal. We also had an unwelcome surprise in the hotel, which will be covered in the hotel review. Just east of the hotel is Montreal's Chinatown, where we had a late dinner.

CHINATOWN

It would perhaps be unfair to compare this Chinatown with the one in Vancouver, as it is quite small, and we didn't spend as much time in it. However, there seemed to be a lot more restaurants there, and it was pretty bustling. There are two ceremonial gates which were gifts from the city of Shanghai. Our meal wasn't bad at all, not the best Chinese we've ever had but quite acceptable nevertheless.

DOWNTOWN MONTREAL

Our first full day began with us having a look around downtown. My knowledge of the city is distinctly Francophone due to my friendships in the city being predominantly with the French speaking Quebecois, and so any tour for me is concentrated to the east of downtown. The general rule is the more west you go, the more English speaking it gets, and the further east you go, the more French speaking it becomes.

The Plateau is a very popular neighbourhood leaning towards Francophone Montreal. Originally a working class neighbourhood, it's now full of restaurants, clubs and boutiques. The main streets in the area are rue Sherbrooke, rue St-Denis, ave du Mont Royal, rue St-Joseph boul St-Laurent, rue Prince-Arthur and ave Duluth. I particularly enjoy strolling down rue St-Denis, which has lots of pretty buildings and houses many arty Francophone shops, trendy record shops and cafes. Ave du Mont Royal for me is the most vibrant and interesting Francophone street, an interesting mix of bargain and trendy boutiques, cafes and bars. Boul St-Laurent is known as "The Main" or "Rue Principale" and divides the east and west of the city. Rue Saint-Laurent is also quite an interesting road, which a big mix of cafes, restaurants and shops. Mingling with Francephone boutiques and eateries are Vietnemese and Thai restaurants and most notably of all, the famous Schwartz deli, the unbeaten champion of Montreal smoked meat.

Some areas I have never ventured into, and I would like to some day as they sound interesting such as Little Italy, and anywhere to the west of the city.

VIEUX MONTREAL

The old city (vieux Montreal) was a ten minute walk from the hotel to the south, and we spent a good few hours walking in this area. To me, you could easily be in Europe here, with the old buildings and pretty churches. The original settlement of Ville-Marie was centred here, established as a base to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. The action centres on the old market square, Place Jacques-Cartier, which is full of restaurants and performing artists. The square is quite large and roomy, giving plenty of room for the throngs of tourists, a great sight for people watching from one of the restaurant terraces. The area used to be known as a rip off tourist trap, but is becoming very trendy and is home to some fine restaurants. One of the highlights is the Basilique Notre Dame, a beautiful basilica with stained glass windows depicting Montreal history.

Moving on from the old town, the old port has a nice park that is perfect for strolling through and sitting around in on one of the many benches with an ice cream, the Promenade du Vieux-Port.

THE OLYMPIC STADIUM

The Olympic Games were held in Montreal in 1976, and the city finally paid off all the debt in 2007 (perhaps a warning for London 2012). The stadium had problems from the start, with a construction strike meaning the tower wasn't finished in time, which was actually completed after 11 years! The showpiece retractable roof never worked properly. The stadium isn't even used much anymore, as the local baseball team the Montreal Expos, who used the stadium for home games, moved their franchise to Washington DC in 2005 (Wimbledon football fans who watched their team move to Milton Keynes will have some sympathy here). The stadium did host the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in 2007, and hosts gigs by artists such as U2. The area is also home to the biodome, an ecosystem exhibit with rainforest, Arctic Circle, woodlands and Atlantic oceanfront, and the Botanical Gardens. We went up the 175m Montreal Tower (or Olympic Tower) by cablecar, which is well worth the visit for the brilliant views over Montreal city. I'm not a fan of heights and ummed and aahed before finally going up with Monsieur Montreal and Ms Larsbaby and enjoying it - only to remember I'd been up before without any fear!

MONT-ROYAL

For great views of the city, head to Mont-Royal, a 232m high piece of rock just outside downtown. Parc du Mont-Royal has some beautiful nature, with grassy meadows and wooden slopes. This is a popular spot for joggers, cyclists and picnickers, and peering over the edge gives you a grandstand view of the city that is quite spectacular. It's also a nice area to just chill out in and get away from the city for a short time.

WESTMOUNT

Westmount has always been known as a hardcore Anglophone area. For the English speaking population, this is where the serious money in downtown resides. We took a drive around this area and the real estate for sale signs from Christies perhaps indicates what sort of area this is. There is certainly some nice architecture to be seen around here in the form of mansions and houses from the late 1800s.

THE SUBURBS

We spent a night at Monsieur Montreal's house, in the suburb of St-Lambert which is a quite pretty area just outside Montreal on the South Shore, across the St Lawrence river, with the centre having the usual amenities such as gift shops, a Starbucks, a bakery that sold lovely ice cream and an excellent deli café that specialised in fine cheeses, where I had a delicious blue cheese baguette.

THE EASTERN TOWNSHIPS

Monsieur Montreal was kind enough to take us for the weekend to his families' house in the eastern townships (Cantons de l'Est) overlooking Lake Trousers (named as the lake is the shape of a pair of trousers). This is an area of great natural beauty, with hills, farmland, lakes and woodland. Originally a refuge for British Loyalists leaving the USA during the revolution, this was an Anglophone area until the 1970s and is now much more mixed. The architecture is a good mix of French and English influence, and it's apparently a truly bilingual area. You can do cycling and hiking here, and there are some vineyards to visit. We mostly took it easy in the house playing Rock Band as it was raining most of the time, but on the final day of our weekend there, we went to visit Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, which is an abbey founded in 1912 with about fifty Benedictine monks. It is a very tranquil environment, and the story of the abbey is explained on the walls. I was impressed by the discipline and principles of the monks, living a simple, selfless life. Money is made for the abbey from the gift shop, which enterprisingly sells foodstuffs made by the monks through their daily work, such as cheese, cider, and chocolate. I bought some of the plain chocolate drops and we have been scoffing them after we got back from our holiday. Particularly nice were the chocolate covered blueberries.

Foodwise, we had a nice buffet brunch at a local restaurant, and had poutine (see section on food below) at a roadside café which was recommended to Monsieur Montreal by his brother in law, which was excellent and a fun change for me, as I usually have this in the heart of the city.

FOOD

You can find all kinds of food in Montreal, from the traditional French to Asian and American. Comfort food is big in Quebec homes, thanks to a historical legacy of scare imports from the French motherland in the early days, and a lack of produce in general. Probably due to the cold, long winters, these kind of dishes are heavy on the calories. For example, Pate Chinois is a sort of shepherd's pie with beef or pork, creamed corn and a layer of mash.

Another local speciality is a hot chicken sandwich, which is basically a sandwich of red meat chicken with gravy poured over it - delicious! This can be found in any branch of the St Hubert chain, chicken restaurants which I find an iconic Montreal institution. Another local speciality is poutine. This would be quite familiar to Northerners amongst you, as it's chips and gravy, but add to that some cheese curds. There are all kinds of varieties of this, including with chicken, beef, vegetables and even foie gras. I generally stick to the classic; being a Northerner myself I know that a decent chips and gravy is peerless for a taste of my childhood; the curds add an interesting almost plastic chewiness to the proceeding. I always find time for poutine on every visit. You can even get it in McDonalds (although local connoisseurs would consider this an act of desperation). On no account confuse "poutine" with "putin" which means prostitute.

It isn't hard to find steaks, burgers and fries here if you're hankering for something more North American. Personally, I like to go to Schwarz's deli for a smoked meat sandwich with fries to satisfy this kind of craving. You can't beat their smoked meat, just ask any local.

Maple syrup is very important here, perhaps not surprising considering Quebec produces three quarters of the world's syrup. When we had brunch in the Eastern townships, the scrambled eggs were covered in the stuff by Monsieur Montreal, Madame Montreal and the other Quebecois. I was even told by one of the waitresses to have it "it's good for you!". Perhaps a bit sweet for me, but I must admit it wasn't bad at all with the eggs.

In the old town I had a nice seafood salad at a fancy restaurant, which was mixed seafood wrapped up in a parcel of smoked salmon, Yum! The Chinese was good and on previous visits I've sampled fine Vietnamese cuisine.

NIGHTLIFE

We didn't really sample many of Montreal's bars on this trip, but on previous occasions I've found a very laid back bar mentality, with people in shorts and trainers being quite acceptable, but I've seen a lot of fancy bars sprout up since my last visit. We did go to Pub Ste-Elisabeth on rue Ste-Elisabeth, which is a popular spot, known for its vine-covered courtyard, and it was nice to sit outside and have some Hoegaarden beers.

SHOPPING

The main shopping street, Rue Ste-Catherine, runs southwest to northeast, although locals consider this to be more east to west, mirroring the Anglophone/Francophone axes of influence. You will find all the big chains on here such as Gap, Banana Republic and Nike. There are also many shopping streets coming off Rue Ste-Catherine, but as Ms Larsbaby isn't much of a shopper, I didn't get to explore as much as I would normally do. Head to Rue Saint-Laurent, Boul St-Laurent, Rue St-Denis and Ave du Mont Royal
for the more trendy shops.

Below the street is the underground city, a 29km network of interlinking tunnels full of shops and eateries to provide relief from the harsh winters. There are 2600 shops 200 restaurants and over 40 cinemas here, most of which I've never found. One area of it Monsieur Montreal showed us on this trip has a very fancy hotel and large section of the Berlin wall. I have never been in the winter but I still like to wander around this area, although I didn't get much of a chance on this visit. Usually I get lost and have to go to ground level again, but it must be fun to be able to go down Rue Ste-Catherine without ever going to street level. You could actually get to the underground city from an escalator just outside our hotel, and we paid a brief visit to the food court downstairs and had some nice falafel there.

FESTIVALS

Montreal is home to several festivals, including the Just For Laughs comedy festival, the International Jazz Festival and the World Film Festival. On a previous visit the film festival was on, where you could watch an outdoor showing of some films for free, as the screen was set up in the open with seating arranged in front of it. While we were there, it was Les Francofolies, the French language music festival. There were artists from French speaking countries such as France, Belgium and Switzerland. We briefly saw some bands, and notable were a group of ladies playing some sort of rock with violins, who we dubbed "Le Dixie Chicks". The festival saw one end of rue Ste-Catherine shut off to traffic, and teeming with people watching the various stages, ordering drinks from the beer tents and buying CDs from the music tents.

CONCLUSION

I have a real soft spot for Montreal, and have a great time every visit. I find the Francophone population very friendly and every time I go the place seems more prosperous, a place on the up. The fact that it's a very walkable city makes it a great destination for non drivers such as me, and the European feel to it gives it an interesting flavour for a North American city. This is even more acute in Quebec City, which really does feel like France, but that's for another trip. The pretty old town is well worth a visit and there are many things to see and do in the city. August is a fantastic month to go and visit and I always go at that time of year, although I can imagine it being fun in the winter for winter sports. The prices for food and shopping are cheap which makes it good value once you arrive. Although not the first name on people's list when they think about Canada and not the most popular destination when it comes to finding flights, it's definitely worth the effort to seek it out. Montreal and the surrounding areas offer something different across the pond.

TOURIST INFORMATION

I used the excellent Lonely Planet guide to Montreal & Quebec City whilst there, and have used it in this article to source the historical information.

You can find a lot of information at these websites:

http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/

http ://www.go-montreal.com/

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Comments on this review

  • Ruby.xo published 07/04/2010
    Well covered. E
  • Amazingwoo published 09/12/2008
    Absolutely fab review there - some of my friends are in Canada so seriously interesting!
  • TheChosen1 published 17/11/2008
    Fantastic review!
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