Montreal, which is part of the Quebec, was founded by French missionaries in 1642. They were there to convert the local Indians to Christianity. But once they discovered the abundant wealth of fox and beaver pelts, the mission became one of making money – lots and lots of money. Plus, the Indians were formidable warriors and not really interested in the Wonderful World of Jesus anyway.
The white explorer Jacques Cartier gets credit for discovering the city. According to legend, he saw the big hill where the town would one day sit and he christened it Mount Royal, after the French king. And after a while, the two words morphed into one – Montreal.
Most of the city center is filled with shiny, modern glass and steel skyscrapers. Montreal’s stately old buildings only date from around the 1840's due to numerous fires that burned the earlier structures to the ground. Most of the solid and attractive older buildings are made of grey limestone, which is kind of gloomy. I’m thinking that it gets pretty depressing by the middle of winter.
The locals joke that there are two seasons in Montreal: Hockey Season and Construction Season.
Montreal is a very large island – there are fifteen bridges connecting the island to the mainland or other smaller islands. We didn't get the chance to explore any of the nearby islands, but we heard they were quite interesting and lovely.
Montreal Island is much bigger than Manhattan in New York to which the city is often compared. That comparison is kind of silly, but we heard Montrealers tell us this over and over again. I didn’t want to argue, but while you might be able to fit a bunch of Manhattans onto Montreal Island, it’s equally true that you could easily fit all of Montreal’s most stellar structures into one borough of New York City and still have room for Yankee Stadium and some bagel shops.
Speaking of bagels, because of its very large Jewish population – Yiddish was the third most spoken language in Montreal well into the 1930's, as Jews fled Europe in droves seeking refuge and a safer life – smoked meats and bagels are Montreal’s most famous foods. We didn’t try the bagels, but the smoked meats at the world famous Dunn’s restaurant were simply out of this world.
Food is really important in Montreal. It's like an art form, really. And they have more restaurants than any other city in North America. I don't know who keeps track of these sorts of things, but that's the party line in Montreal. We ate almost all of our meals at French restaurants – mostly in the Old City – and they were all incredibly yummy and fun.
French is Quebec’s official language. But almost everyone, especially the younger folk, not only speak English, but do so without the faintest trace of a French accent. Inna and I were fascinated how they pulled this off. I guess it’s because they learned both languages at the same time, starting at a very early age.
Several times, we heard guides say, “Quebec is the second largest French speaking nation in the world.”
Well, they are technically a province, not a nation. Canada is a nation. And that, of course, has been a point of constant conflict for a very long time indeed.
It has always been a delicate balancing act between the French and British cultures for the Francophiles who live in Montreal and Quebec. The British run the show, and the seat of government is in Ottawa, so it is sort of like living in two worlds.
Montrealers have a saying to describe their French and British heritage: "We were born under the Lilly and we flourished under the rose."
The west side of the city is primarily French and the east is mostly English. And Montreal is home to two English and two French universities. Believe me, Montrealers keep score.
All around the city, you will usually see three flags flying from the landmark buildings, like hotels and government offices.
There is the very beautiful Montreal flag with its four flowers, one in each corner, symbolizing Montreal’s complicated cultural past. It consists of a blue Fleur-de-lys, representing the Royal House of Bourbon (French); the red rose of Lancaster (England); the green and purple thistle (Scots), and the green shamrock (Irish); all set on a white background with a red cross, very much like the English flag.
Then there’s the Quebec flag, which is sky blue with a white cross and Fleur-de-lys in each corner.
And last but not least, there is the Canadian flag, consisting of a red and white flag with big red maple leaf in the middle.
We rarely saw these flags flown individually in Montreal. They seemed to be a trio. I suppose they do it in order to keep everybody happy. Canadians like to keep everybody happy.
In the 1970s, when Quebec began transforming itself into a modern day economic powerhouse the Parti Québécois, or PQ as it is known today, was founded. It was led by a charismatic journalist named René Lévesque. The PQ’s primary goals were to obtain political, economic and social autonomy for the province of Quebec. Basically, they wanted to secede. The PQ is a formidable political force in Canada these days, but Canada is never going to cut them loose, no matter how many times they vote for independence. It’s very much like the rift between Catalan and Spain.
The independence movement triggered a myriad of unintended consequences. If you could change the government, why not everything else?
When Quebec started saying that they wanted to leave Canada and become their own country, the exodus began and everything of prestige and importance, like the stock exchange, started steadily moving to Toronto. Montreal used to be on top, but now it plays second fiddle to Toronto.
But any way you slice it, Quebec is unique in that it is truly a bilingual province. In truth, given the diversity of its population, many Montrealers (especially the immigrants) speak as many as four languages.
• Your mother's home language
• Your father's home language
Irish is third largest group in Montreal. And a little known fact is that the traditional Irish parades of spring started in Montreal, and theirs is one of the biggest in the world.
Interestingly, especially given the daily headlines, Arabs comprise the fourth largest group in Montreal today. The Arabs come from all of the former French colonies, like Morocco. And guess what? The Arabic people of Montreal are happy, productive people with loving families who have become an integral part of the city’s overall flavor and character. You know, just like America’s huddled masses.
Up until the 70’s, when people said that Quebec was French, they really meant Catholic. But in just two generations there has been extreme social change in Montreal.
On the religious front, the Catholics have been inexorably losing their power and influence. They are now on the down slide and many Montrealers no longer even identify themselves as Catholics. In fact, most people don't even wear wedding rings because they think it's just another senseless formality concocted by a heavy-handed Roman Catholic church that ruled the roost for far too long.
Here is an example that was told to us by Marie, our guide when we took the Hop-On Hop Off Bus, that conveys just how arbitrary and foolish Catholic doctrine eventually became in Montreal. There are about 200,000 trees on Mount Royal, the city’s highest point and magnificent park designed by the world famous Frederick Olmstead, who created Central Park in New York City. But they are all about 60 years old because during World War II, there were a lot of soldiers coming through Montreal and they would go up onto Mount Royal and engage the services of prostitutes behind the trees on the mountain; so the Catholic Church ordered that all the trees be cut down. Then the mountain began eroding, so they all had to be replanted. And that's why they are all about the same age and size today.
In point of fact, there has been a lot of blow-back against the Catholic Church in the last decade. For instance, Montreal was once known as the City of Spires because there were over 200 churches with slender silver spires. Today, many of those churches have been re-purposed into things like brew pubs, condos, and government offices. A nunnery near McGill Stadium was recently converted into high-end housing. The locals refer to it as "convents into condos".
Montrealers are quick to make light of authority and the trappings of power. This is best epitomized by the two large, bronze statues of a man and a woman in the Place d’Armes. They are each holding their little dogs in their arms, while the man thumbs his nose at Notre Dame Cathedral and the woman thumbs hers at the Bank of Montreal. That said, Montrealers have wholeheartedly embraced the "nanny state" mentality. They seem to have a rule for everything, like big fines for turning right on red, and no plastic bags at the stores. They have initiated Draconian smoking restrictions – even outside. And people zealously enforce the rules. My sense was that they like to talk a lot about freedom, but they really like law and order.
Montrealers are courteous but aloof, and like Parisians, slightly snooty; industrious but inefficient; free spirits but wedded to the rules; and they really want to be French but they live in an English nation, so they have a chip on their collective shoulders. In short, they are a mixed bag all tied up in knots.
And their business sense seems very haphazard and not very well thought out. For instance, all of the museums are closed on Mondays. Rather than get together and stagger their days off so that there is always an open museum, they all close up shop on the same day, leaving tourists in the lurch every Monday. This has to translate into millions of dollars in lost revenue.
And down along the St. Lawrence River waterfront, at the Vieux Port (Old Port), which is undergoing a remarkable transformation, with zip line parks that look like pirate ships, trendy restaurants, the glittering Science Center, and tour boat terminals, they have several gigantic areas where cargo ships once docked that are entirely vacant. It is hard to imagine such prime real estate being left unused in any other cosmopolitan city on earth.
Montreal boasts that it is the world’s biggest Festival City. They even have a section of town called the Festival Quarter where there is always some sort of festival happening. Fashion Week was in full swing while we were there.
The Festival Quarter is home to Canada's largest outdoor music venue that can seat 8,000 people. The biggest jazz festival in the world takes place there each year. They also have one of the biggest comedy festivals. All in all, they have more than sixty venues for the arts around the Quarter des Spectacles. And this area is also home to several amazing art museums, like the Museum of Fine Art, where we spent a rainy afternoon, and one of the world’s biggest contemporary art museums.
Montreal's 375th anniversary is next year and "everything has to be just perfect." That translates into more street construction, going 24/7, than I have ever seen in any big city on earth. It resembled a giant blast zone. There were gaping holes in the street everywhere we went. Montrealers joke that it is the Orange Cone Festival, and it runs every single day of the year.
But jokes aside, the arts reign supreme in Montreal, from the countless murals, to their glorious fountains and sculptures, and 1 percent of city budget goes to art each year.
And they have all sorts of interesting interactive playgrounds scattered throughout the city, like the Classical Music Swings, where the harder you swing the louder the classical music plays.
We did a lot of walking during our visit and cruised most of the neighborhoods. And they run the gamut, from rich to poor, though the poor have been better integrated into the cityscape than in most big cities I've visited.
There’s Habitat '67, a science fiction-looking public housing complex along the waterfront that was designed by a McGill graduate student. It was going to become a model for affordable housing around the planet. But it never caught on. To be honest, it looked weird as hell.
Recognizing that cities are often food deserts, especially for the poor, there are more than a hundred communal vegetable gardens around most of the public housing communities so that people can grow their own food.
We learned that you can tell renters from residents in Montreal by the balconies. The homeowners have the balconies, many of them ornate, wrought iron beauties like down in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
And they also have what they call Montreal Stairs that are outside the front of each building, leading up to the second floor. They do this in order to reduce heating costs in winter. But they are usually made of metal, and when it snows and gets icy, they must be loads of fun to deal with.
One of the most interesting sites in the Gay Village (It is actually labeled that way on Google maps!) was the Church of St. Peters the Apostle Roman Catholic parish church. It is known locally as the Gay Lesbian Catholic Church.
I talked to an old docent from Columbia about how the church can still be sanctioned by the authorities in Rome if it allows gays into its congregation. He chuckled and then offered up several clever dodges:
• The rainbow flag hanging over the alter is not a gay flag, but rather, celebrates diversity.
And while I don’t know this to be true, I’ll bet you that because the church is so popular, they probably take in a lot of money, which in turn, gets sent to the diocese. With religion, as with most things in life, you should always follow the money.
If I had to pick one word to describe the Gay Village, it would be tolerant. But just like the Castro District in San Francisco, there is a sort of militancy about being gay that permeates the whole community. And this leads to a weird dynamic in which you have a whole section of Montreal where gayness is like a badge of honor and a constant celebration. The Gay Village is culturally separate from the city, like Little Italy or the Latin Quarter. It's on all the maps. The tour buses cruise through it like it's some sort of amusement park attraction. And I find this approach very odd because rather than integrating into the whole city, the gay people of Montreal have decided to all congregate together in one special place. And proudly plant their flags.
We were eating at an outdoor cafe in the Gay Village and heard a couple of guys from Toronto discussing gays.
One of the guys asked his friend, "Have you ever noticed that gay men tend to be quite handsome and always stylishly dressed? But the lesbians look and dress like crap?"
His buddy nodded. "The guys are fashionistas and the girls have buzz-cuts and wear black t-shirts."
"And don't forget all the piercings," added the other.
The first guy continued, "I have theory about why the gay men and women act so differently. The guys are very effeminate and they are very girlie. And most girls like to look and dress nicely. So that's why the guys look GQ. But the women want to be men, so they look like, dress, and even walk like men."
All in all, Inna and I liked the couple of hours we spent walking around the Gay Village, but we found it all a bit confusing.
As you make your way around Montreal, you keep hearing about the Underground City. “You have to see the Underground City,” people kept telling us. The name certainly sparked our curiosity.
Because of their long, cold winters the Montrealers have built nineteen miles of underground city filled with shops and offices, but no residences, divided into six unconnected sections around the city center. There are more than 200 access points down into the Underground City. Some look like the entrance for a Metro station, while others connect through above ground buildings. The entrances are marked in large blue signs that say RES. This sounds cooler than it really is. I expected a cavern or tunnel town, but it's just a glorified underground mall, and it didn’t look or feel different than any other mall I had ever been in – other than you take an escalator down to the "Underground City".
As we covered the city on foot and by tour bus we found many delightful places to explore.
There was the Latin Quarter, a vibrant middle class area near the Gay Village and the Festival Quarter, with Victorian style architecture, a major university, the city's biggest library, murals and a happening art district. And this is where you will find one of Montreal’s most popular nightspots, Charlie Biddle's House of Jazz with the Blues Brothers statues jamming on the roof. Charlie learned his trade in Philadelphia, arrived in Montreal in 1948, after serving in World War II, and ended up staying because he liked the refreshing and open-minded attitude of the Montrealers toward African-Americans.
Many locals were always using the twenty mile bikeway along Boulevard de Maisonneuve, running east to west through the heart of the city and open all year round. In addition, there were the Manuvie Bike Share stations conveniently located wherever you go, allowing you to ride around the whole city for $5, just as long as you bring the bike back to a station every thirty minutes. That can become a bit of a pain, but it’s still a great way to get around town cheaply and we saw many people utilizing the three-speed green and white bikes – including ourselves the day we decided to do the six mile ride over to the incredibly beautiful and expansive Botanical Gardens. The gardens are next door to the Olympic Stadium that was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. There is a monstrous white tower next to the stadium that houses the world’s largest elevator and leaning structure.
Montreal is home to the Molson Brewery, the oldest in North America, rising like a red brick block of rock adorned with the distinctive white Molson logo next to the colossal blue Jaques Cartier Bridge over the St. Lawrence. In my humble opinion, Molson has never been the same since Adolph Coors made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Montreal has one of the biggest Chinatowns in North America. There were four massive gates into each side of Chinatown, but they were all under construction and encased in construction wrap, so we really couldn't see them. Our Uber driver one day was a structural engineer from Palestine who had worked in Dubai before coming to Montreal and he marveled that they could take a year to restore an arch. I told him that it seemed like it took a long time to finish almost every construction project around the city. He laughed and said, “In Dubai, we build skyscrapers in less time.”
There has always been a big Scottish presence in Montreal. Some of the city's wealthiest businessmen were Scots. The Complexe Le Gleneagles, in the British enclave of Westmount, near the top of town, was built with stones taken from the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Westmount is where the rich Brits live and is technically outside the Montreal city limits, though it is surrounded by the city.
As we slowly ascended the steep Chemin de la Cote-des-Nieges, one of the city’s busiest streets and traffic-snarling construction zones, we came to my favorite church in Montreal. St Joseph’s Oratory - St Joseph of Mount Royal which sits atop a dark volcanic sill on the Westmount Summit. Not only does it have the third largest dome of its kind in the world, but the story of the church is one of miracles galore.
In 1904, a small church was constructed on the slopes of Mount Royal near Notre Dame College. A young man named Alfred Bessette came to work as the doorman at the college. He spent the next forty years, welcoming the crippled and the sick from around the world who came to the small shrine to be healed. He would help lead them up the steep hill to the church and people said that they felt good when they were around him. Soon, the word spread that he was a healer, and he became Brother Andre. Eventually he was put in charge of the Oratory. There is a huge banner of a smiling Brother Andre hanging from the front entrance of the now massive church. Since the beginning of the last century, Indians, Africans and Latinos from around the globe have been making the pilgrimage to this holy shrine which is purported to be a place of great healing powers for the common man. Their crutches line the inside walls of the huge multi-leveled church as a testament to the power of faith. There are three long flights of steps that begin at the lovely gardens at the base of the hill, with three side-by-side staircases leading up to the top of the hill. It’s quite the climb. The middle staircase is not made of stone, but rather, wood painted a light gray. People pay penance by going all the way to the top, step by step on their knees. There was a middle-aged man from Mexico doing it the day we were there and it took him forever.
I have bad knees from playing contact sports and hiking into the steep canyons of the American Southwest for many years, so I couldn’t do it if I wanted to.
But just to see what Inna might say, I told her that I would try it if I had knee pads.
She laughed and said, "It is supposed to hurt and you don't get to do it with pillows on your knees, you big dummy."
There was the stunningly beautiful Gardens of the Way of the Cross beside the church, built into the surrounding black stone with large white sculptures scattered throughout the hilly garden, mostly comprised of sad people lugging big crosses and Jesus being crucified.
It took sixty years to build the shrine that stands today because of winter, money and the depression. At first, there was just a small church and a statue of St Joseph on the top of the mountain. According to legend, the word went out around the world, telling people that if God and his children wanted it so, St. Joseph would one day get a roof over his head, which he did in the 1930's. Today, St. Joseph’s Oratory is Montreal’s most visited site. Over two million visitors flock to the church each year.
Brother Andre died in 1937, at the ripe old age of 91. And in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI canonized him as a saint. Saint Andre (the Doorman).
We stayed at the Hotel Bonaventure, and I would recommend it very highly. It sits at the top of a fourteen floor, nondescript, brown building, and it is central to all the best spots in town. Most importantly, it's an easy ten minute walk to the Old City where the best restaurants are found. The hotel has an amazing restaurant and bar; spacious rooms with magnificent views of the city; a year-round pool and gym; a luxurious garden with waterfalls; stone walkways; a multitude of ducks; multi-colored koi fish; and a jungle of trees, some at least twenty inches in diameter. We were totally baffled how they could have trees that large at the very top of a skyscraper in the heart of Montreal. Coming back to our hotel each night was like entering an oasis of wondrous delight.
Two blocks from out hotel sat Dorchester Square, where the Visitor Center and Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours begin. This is the designated city center of Montreal and is the starting point from which all distances are measured. It is also where the city's first cemetery was located, before they moved them all up into the high rent district atop Mount Royal. Across from the park sits the green-domed Basilique Marie Riene Du Monde, a handsome knockoff of St Paul’s Cathedral in Rome, which was very lovely in a simple and understated way – especially for Catholics. But in comparison to any of the ornate churches we saw in Italy or Spain, it was laughably plain.
Montreal Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
Montreal Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
The winters may be cold and long in Montreal, but they have more outdoor public pools than any place else in the world. And there are over 2,000 parks. At least, that's how the story goes.
The granddaddy of Montreal’s parks is the Parc Mont Royal urban park. It is 700 acres of woodlands; hiking, biking, and horse trails; Beaver (Muskrat) Lake; picnic areas; and eye-popping views of Montreal.
The people of Montreal love the park so much that they passed a law that says no Montreal skyscraper can be taller than the top of Mount Royal, which is 760 feet high.
There are several huge cemeteries atop Mount Royal – the dead have the best view in town.
There are two million people buried in Our Lady of the Snow tree-lined cemetery, including ten from Titanic. And 10,000 people a year get buried there.
There is also the Mount Royal Cemetery. Mount Royal is Montreal’s oldest cemetery and is filled with many wealthy Scots, including John Molson.
Friends of the Mountain help take care of Mount Royal. And the Montreal police have a large station at the top, with stables for the horses which they use to patrol the park. Weekends in summer, the park is filled with picnickers.
We stopped at the expansive overlook on the north side of Mount Royal to check out the views and buy some water because it was pretty hot – about 85 humid degrees. While waiting for the next bus, we met Charlie, a young Montreal businessman who had ridden his motorcycle to the Mount Royal Overlook. He was smoking a big, fat blunt.
I asked him if weed was legal and he smiled, “Medical pot is legal, and next year recreational use will also be allowed, like in Colorado.”
He told us that is was currently a $25 fine for more than an ounce, if you didn’t have a medical script.
“But weed has always been very popular in Montreal,” he said. “We traditionally got it from the pot farmers in British Columbia. They grow the best bud.”
Like I said before, Montrealers are pretty carefree and laid back.
We discovered during our travels around town that lots of movies are filmed in Montreal, like X Men. We saw two under production while we were there, but couldn’t find anyone who knew their names.
One night, while we were walking around St. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping district, we stumbled by pure chance onto the Barbie Doll exhibit at Cours Mont-Royal in the Underground City off Peel Street. There were over 200 dolls. Now, I’ll be honest, I never paid a whole lot of attention to Barbie dolls. But I assumed they were all leggy blondes. And that might be how they started back in 1959, but that apparently changed a long time ago. Now they come in models representing all of the world’s cultures dressed flamboyantly in their native garb, plus super heroes, and celebrities of all color and either sex. I especially liked the Frank Sinatra doll.
Americans are always bitching and moaning about taxes. We think our taxes are way too high. We all want great and virtually unlimited services, but we get pissed when the government raises taxes to pay for the services we said we wanted. The Republicans have made lowering taxes their cornerstone mantra. Suffice it say this approach is not sustainable. And it goes a long way toward explaining the current gridlock on Capitol Hill. So when it comes to cutting taxes, the Republicans lower taxes for the rich in the name of business and jobs, and then pick on the services that go the neediest, saying that welfare, healthcare and parks are not basic government services, while waving the Good Christian Family Value Flag, of course. I mean, do you really think that Jesus would have helped the poor, rather than build up the military and helping out the money lenders? So, here's what good services and providing a reasonable social safety net costs in terms of real dollars and cents. We were dining at a nice French restaurant and the bill was $65. But with the fifteen percent city and federal taxes, plus the tip, it came to $90. So, the Canadian government and working people need about 25%-30% of your money to provide the good life for all? Is that too much?
All is not happy days under the Canadian system. Let’s start with the fact that it cost me $158 to get $200 Canadian dollars. Our money goes far in Canada, and they know it all too well. And while we were walking around Cartier Park, we encountered a line of very well-behaved protesters carrying signs, banging on drums, and playing amplified music. They were union workers from Vieux Port who had been on strike since May 27th. They wanted higher wages and better benefits.
Regardless how you might feel about taxes, the Canadians have come up with a really smart idea. Their paper money is made of durable, long-lasting plastic. It looks and feels really cool.
As usual – it seems like no matter where we go, it’s always the same – there were hordes of Chinese. It’s not like Vancouver, but pretty crowded nonetheless. I was amused to see how much they try and look and dress like Americans. But then every place we visit around the world these days is slowly but surely being Americanized.
Here is a closing travel tip: When someone like a waiter first welcomes you to the table, they invariably ask you how you are doing – it's the standard greeting when someone is serving you – and you always say that you are doing well because that's the standard reply. But if you then ask them how they are doing, they will be pleasantly surprised and their faces will light up with a big smile. And your service will improve dramatically. It even worked on the normally snooty Montrealers.