When finding myself stranded in Montréal for a weekend, there is only one thing to do – explore this very French island city nestled in the South of Quebec.
The Canadian Trip Begins
I have spent a fantastic week in Chicago. I was warned about the crazy weather before my visit and, though it is the end of April, I sit at the airport and watch a blizzard begin outside. Testament to the unpredictability of the Chicagoan climate, as the snow descends, my shoulders still burn and itch from the hot sun in which I basked at the start of my visit. Two hours of weather-watching later, I unexpectedly board my flight right on time. Beginning to believe we might really make it through the snow storm, two hours of waiting on the runway to be de-iced begins. I know I have missed my connecting flight from Montréal to London before we leave the ground. Checking the flight schedule, I suspect I am in for a long wait, in which I may be able to tick another country and city off the list.
Confirming this at the airport, and clutching in my hand the details of the next available flight – 24 hours later – airport hotels do not appeal. The city centre is less than 10 miles away and Uber rides are cheap, this is too good an opportunity to explore. I book a mid-price hotel, mindful that I will need to claim back the costs from the airline – and arrive there twenty minutes later.
All seems well at reception. The receptionist even digs out a dusty tourist map for me from a cupboard under the desk (apparently, no one asks for these anymore, and they do not routinely stock them. I can’t believe this!). As I enter my room on the third floor, however, I begin to wonder what kind of establishment I have stumbled upon. The room is painted entirely in black – even the ceiling. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors everywhere. After a quick look-around, I note there are also mirrors in the shower, together with a strange window exposing the shower-taker to the rest of the room. This does not feel like a room which is accustomed to single occupancy. The lack of map provision begins to make more sense.
Hoping that all adjoining rooms are sound-proofed, I unwrap the food I picked up from Chinatown on the way, eat quickly, and sleep.
Early morning sees me stopping at the Notre Dame Basilica for some quick photos before hoards of fellow tourists arrive, then walking the footpath that runs along St Lawrence river. And it literally runs; I am passed by a jogger every five seconds, and am full of admiration for their stoicism in the bitter cold (later in the day, someone tells me there are two seasons in Montréal: this winter, and next winter). I’ll be honest – here, I am expecting some excellent photo opportunities, but the riverfront certainly feels more ‘dock’ than tourist attraction, although there is some new-looking parkland and a big wheel to the North-East. There are two huge brown-grey structures in my line of vision. One appears to be an enormous stack of what looks like shipping containers, and the other a monstrous decaying industrial building. Further research tells me that the building I thought was shipping containers is, in fact, ‘Habitat 67’; a sprawling apartment complex designed to look like stacked blocks, and a coveted architectural triumph of the city which was built for the World’s Fair in 1967. I undervalued its worth to such an extent that I did not even take a picture; if you would like to see it for yourself, you will have to do a little internet research, I’m afraid! The second building is, indeed, an old shipping building which stands derelict and decaying at the waterside. No amount of discussions in local government seem to produce either plans or finance for its resurrection, yet it is a protected structure, and so looms messily dockside without purpose, indefinitely.
It is time for me to join a walking tour I booked last-minute. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I decide to use my map to find the back to the meeting point, and stop to open it at a picnic bench. The map, complete with cartoon pictures of each tourist attraction, is too big even to lay flat on the table, however, and its ridiculous size is too great a temptation for the wind. I fold it back up and open a map application on my phone instead.
Gems of Old Montréal
From this point onwards, forget my comments on the eyesores at the river, because the old town is beautiful. Thomas, my tour guide, sprinkles a cheeky humour through his stories of the city and we make our way around the East of the city, taking in the major points of interest.
The Notre Dame Basilica is arguably the centrepiece of this 375-year-old city and sits in a square crammed full of historical buildings and interesting architecture. Built in 1829, the current building is a mixture of English (outside) and French (inside) neogothic styles. Inside the chapel, which was rebuilt in the 1970s, is a stunning 60ft altarpiece. Thomas reports that it still “takes his breath away” every time he sees it, despite leading tours there for years.
Opposite the Basilica stands the first bank in Canada, the Bank of Montréal. This building has stood in the square since 1870 and looks across to the red-bricked New York Life Insurance building, Montréal’s (and arguably Canada’s) first skyscraper at eight stories tall, made with sandstone imported from Scotland. Conversely, the Scottish Insurance building next door was built with stones from Ohio. This mixture of cultures, countries, and styles is a common theme throughout the city and residents still pride themselves on their harmonious multiculturalism.
Built in 1931 and standing far taller than its trailblazing, skyscraping neighbour, is the Aldred building, demonstrating perfect architectural confirmation to laws which require tall buildings to be set back from public squares, in order that light may continue to enter the spaces. This can be seen in the different levels of the building, the multiple towers of which also offer structural stability. Moving from Place d’Armes, it is impossible not to notice that there are sculptures and art everywhere in the city. One percent of the budget of every new building must be spent on public art, and it really is a striking part of the Montréal experience, and makes me wish I had a little longer to find more of it across the city as a whole.
The charm of the old town can really be seen in a stroll through St Paul Street – the oldest street in the city, and the only one not part of the grid system of roads. Restaurants, cafes, shops, and a growing number of microbreweries line the once-cobbled, currently under renovation street. Unlike similar “main” streets in other cities, you can visit any of these establishments without fear of so-called ‘tourist trap’ pricing or gimmicks. The climate of the city means that tourists are scarce during winter months, so local businesses must ensure they are appealing to and visited by locals all year round. If you like maple syrup, here you will find a store in which every single product is made with it. And, according to a couple of my fellow tour participants, if you visit the microbrewery opposite, you can even sample maple syrup beer. This is another thing I find myself wishing I had the time for!
Place Jacques-Cartier is next. Visit this square in the summer months and it will likely contain a festival of some sort. Today, it is empty, save a few traffic cones – a sign of what appears to be a city-wide renovation project. The Hotel de Ville (town hall) stands proud on the North East corner, the late 19th century treasure itself ear marked as the next renovation project, although it still looks wonderful to me. I would recommend taking a moment to walk North of Place Jacques-Cartier, past the statue of Nelson and across the road. From this spot, there is a fantastic view of the modern part of the city, with many a skyscraper (all over eight stories tall now, of course) on show. You can also see, here, some remains of the original city wall, accessible by some steps from the side of the town hall. What you won’t see from this point is the huge underground city that hides under the towering buildings ahead. Some 23 miles of tunnels and walkways are tucked under the downtown highrises, making it the biggest underground city in the world. It is the brainchild of Jean Drapeau, who also brought the metro system to Montréal. If you want to say hello to him, his statue stands proudly before the town hall, before Chateau Ramezay, former residence of governors and now a museum.
A particularly striking building, a little further East in the old town, is the Marché Bonsecours. It takes pride of place at what would have been a main entry point to the city from the old docks, set to make a statement about the prosperity and promise of Montréal to those arriving. It is typically eclectic mix of architectural styles, being comprised of Palladianism, Victorian windows, Roman dome, and the Greek columns added to so many buildings throughout the city. But it works, and it’s beautiful, despite having been burned down and renovated eight times since its appearance in 1847. It has served a multitude of purposes over the years, temporarily housing parliament and acting as city hall when fires or renovations have deemed it necessary, but today holds a collection of boutique-style shops run by local traders, which are open every day from 10:00.
We also wander along Cours le Royer, a pretty lane on which the first, six-bed hospital was founded by Jeanne Mance in 1644, before later being developed into warehouse buildings, the likes of which can be seen throughout the city. We also take in the old courthouse building (just a little further West than the Hotel de Ville) before ending the tour. My fingers are raw from the biting cold and there is only room for one in my left pocket, thanks to the imposing presence of the much-folded map in the other, so the prospect of venturing inside for lunch is appealing.
Dining with a view
I meet with a new friend made on the plane from Chicago and quickly make reservations for a restaurant called Les Enfants Terrible, situated downtown, on the 45th floor of Place Ville Marie. If you only have time – as I do – for one meal in this city, dine here if you can. The ear-popping ride up the lift takes you to spectacular views of the city with good and surprisingly reasonably priced food. We are lucky enough to be sat at the window and spend a while pointing out the landmarks we have visited so far, together with speculating on what ‘Habitat 67’ could possibly be. All too soon, it is time for me to return to the airport. My dining buddy refuses to take my map, laughing as I explain that it is – contrary to appearances – possible to fit it in one’s pocket if you fold it in a certain way and pray a little. Who knows – maybe I should cut the hotel a little slack; perhaps I really am the only one who uses paper maps any more.