by Neilia Sherman
Why go to all the way to Europe when you can visit North America’s most European city, Montreal? The cafes, the food, the shopping, the locals who parlez en Francais, it is all here, but with just enough of a Canadian slant that you know you are in the province of Quebec. As my very knowledgeable tour guide put it, “We are French but we are also proud to be Canadian; we are both.”
Montreal is the second largest French speaking city in the world, after Paris, with over 68% of the population being native French speakers, so, obviously, this is not your typical North American city. Culturally, the difference is immediately noticeable — Montrealers do not shy away from making eye contact with strangers — and the customary way to greet friends is to kiss them on both cheeks, unlike Canadians in other provinces, who tend to keep a distance of at least three feet and shake hands upon meeting.
Where to start in describing this wonderful city? Five hours from my hometown of Toronto by train, Montreal is as different from its conservative cousin as night and day. This is truly the city that never sleeps.
Walking around on a Tuesday night, there were crowds of people everywhere I went. In cafes, in restaurants, on the streets. It looked like a busy long weekend in Toronto. Mais, ca c’est la difference. People in Montreal love to walk, to eat, to socialize and to enjoy their city, especially in the summer and Montreal is considered to be a safe city for a woman to travel alone. For instance, Montreal’s subway system is one of the safest in the world with only 6 violations per 100,000 passengers recorded annually.
The hardest decision you may face is to pick a place to eat or even to have a drink — the restaurants and cafes are just that plentiful. After enjoying comedienne Kathy Griffin’s hilarious act, at the fabulous “Just for Laughs” Comedy Festival, I found myself with one of those inexplicable cravings for a late night snack. Luckily a sign that said Juliette et Chocolat caught my eye.
It turns out that this chocolate-lovers dream had just been opened two weeks earlier by 22-year-old Juliette Brun, a Parisian chef who was living out her dream by opening her own cafe. We feasted on fruit dipped in milk chocolate fondue and cafe au lait. Located on popular Rue St. Denis, this is place to go if you need a sweet pick-me-up.
Food is very important to Montrealers; on average they spend more of their income on food and eating out more than most Canadians. Montreal is famous for foods such as bagels, poutine and smoked meat and for some fans of these foods, a trip to Montreal begins with a scurrying around to acquire a stash of one’s favourites that can only be found here. My curiosity got the best of me and I had to taste a “Montreal” bagel, so I tracked down the St. Viateur Bagel Shop, where they have what are arguably the best bagels in Montreal and I have to admit — they were quite good. I’m not a major bagel lover and and I ate three in the next 12 hours.
The difference from Toronto or New York bagels is that Montreal’s are made with eggs and baked in wood-burning oven. Mmm, they are sweet and crispy. And St.Viateur’s is open 24 hours a day for the bagel emergencies that apparently plague Montreal natives.
Most Montrealers purchase their food at markets rather than grocery stores, especially things like breads, fresh produce and meats. Not surprisingly, having lunch is a major undertaking in Montreal and is apt to take several hours between the bread and the wine and the appetizer, main course, and dessert.
One popular place to lunch that I highly recommend is the Boris Bistro on McGill. This bistro has a large outdoor patio and is so popular that a table outside has to be booked in advance on nice summer days. The food is excellent and the atmosphere is sensational. I had a roasted duck sandwich on walnut bread that still makes my mouth water.
Of major appeal to female visitors is the fact that Montreal has the hightest concentration of stores in Canada and the largest collection of fashion boutiques; in fact nearly 1,200 stores line the fashion district along Sainte-Catherine Street between Guy and Saint-Denis streets.
The cold winters do not keep Montrealers at home-that’s when they take full advantage of the Underground city. Montreal has 18 1/2 miles of underground pedestrian walkways linking 10 subway stations, 60 buildings, 200 restaurants, 1700 boutiques and 30 movie theatres, thus it’s possible to visit in the winter and have no need to put on a coat in order to go on a shopping expeditition.
My favourite part was watching the penguins and puffins toddle about and dive into the icy waters.
The Botanical Gardens would take at least a day to explore in their entirety but in the short time available to me, I was very taken with the Chinese Garden which has a lake and a temple on-site.
Of added appeal to American visitors is the closeness of Montreal to the U.S. border (Vermont and New York are just an hour drive away). And of course, the prices because of the lower Canadian are quite enticing. You might just want to postpone your costly European getaway and head to Montreal instead!
If You Go:
Start with Tourisme Montreal’s website – a lively, colorful and content-rich site that will help you plan your stay! http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/
Copyright 2005 by Neilia Sherman. All rights reserved. Photo credits to Linda Aksomitis.