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Report 155: Three Days in Montreal

By StCirq from Virginia, Summer 2003

Trip Description: Having forgone my usual month in the Dordogne this summer, I needed a French fix. Three days in Montréal was just the ticket.

Destinations: Countries - North America; Regions/Cities - Montreal

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Art Trip; Foodie Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; Single Traveler

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Page 1 of 3: Day 1

Montréal – August 7-10. 2003

It’s gray and spitting rain when my Air Canada/United flight lands in Montréal. The cab driver says “Allo,” so I don’t know whether to speak French or English to him, so after giving him the address of my B&B, in English, we are both mute. It’s $35 Can., including tip, to the doorstep of La Belle Mansarde from Dorval airport.

Mme. De Chevigny, the owner, is a bit disheveled at 11:00 a.m., and keeps telling me she hasn’t eaten yet (I sense that the French sense of the sacredness of mealtimes and eating well is alive and well here in francophone Canada), which is why my room is not ready yet, so she shows me around the general lie of the place and then leaves me in the salon while she eats and gets my room ready. I hear the beeping of the microwave and almost breathe a sigh of relief when I hear her chewing and sipping in the kitchen. She has left me with maps and newspapers and local city guides so, while I am eager to get out and about the city, I am content to do some planning that will make the rest of my first day here go smoothly.

The house is an old but beautifully restored Victorian on three levels. The woodwork is exquisite, albeit somewhat heavy on the pine (a soft wood that doesn’t bear up to heavy use). The walls are hand-painted, there are exquisite moldings, a graceful huge armoire is planted in one corner of the salon, and the chandeliers are enormous period pieces. A large fireplace has a distinctly French look to it. There are four round tables for four and an anteroom with comfortable couch and armchairs and copious reading materials. Between the salon and the suite I am to occupy is a small kitchen with an extra fridge where guests can keep their private stuff to eat if they like, and off that are the private quarters of the de Chevigny family. My room is at the back of the first floor, and when it is ready at 11:45, after Mme. de Chevigny has finally sated her appetite, I find it perfectly appointed with a king-sized bed with incredibly firm and comfortable mattress, a couch with comfy pillows, a tv, a large closet, and a good-sized bathroom with ample tub and shelf space, the shelves albeit installed without benefit of a level. It’s also well lighted, which suits me, and is on the alley/backside of the house, which means it will be quiet.

The street is 3 blocks from the Sherbrooke metro station, 4 blocks from rue Duluth, which is jam-packed with bistros and cafés and restaurants, and 3 blocks from the rue St-Denis, a Paris-like boulevard chockablock with sidewalk cafés, nice shops, and restaurants of every ethnic type. There is an épicerie at the end of the block where I can pick up snacks and mineral water and wine until 11 pm, and the Parc La Fontaine is about 4 blocks away if I want to wander around a manmade lake or read by the side of a large fountain.

By the time my room is ready I have a plan, and guide materials packed in my small purse/backpack, I wander out onto the rue St-André, then turn left, cross rue Berri, and arrive at rue St-Denis. First restaurant in Montréal I see is a Subway, but no matter, I turn the corner, and the scene is *almost* reminiscent of Paris. My mother has asked me to look for lavender oil for her, as on her last trip to Montréal, which must have been 45 years ago, she bought some there. No matter that she has been to Provence a few times in between, or that I am in Provence yearly, she wanted lavender oil from Montréal, and so as soon as I spy the Ma Provence store I run in and purchase a vial of lavender oil – at an absurd price, even by Canadian standards. But I can cross that off the list. Then I wander up and down the rue St-Denis noting the likenesses to Paris and the differences. The architecture is all wrong for Paris, but the bright awnings and the sidewalk cafés and the French signs and the bohemian attire of the locals all speak of a Parisian boulevard, albeit one of the rue Sebastopol type, not one of the great boulevards. I guess I should confess up front that I am in Montréal partly because I can’t be in Paris this summer, and try though I may, it’s hard not to make comparisons. A friend of mine mentioned that she tried instead to compare it to NYC, and when I do that I am more favorably impressed.

I end up at the Sherbrooke metro stop, where I buy a carte touristique de trois jours for $14 Can. – it’s good for unlimited use on the metro and bus systems ( more useful than I even imagined as you’ll see later). I go three stops to the Champ de Mars and wander down into the Vieux Quartier. It’s like any popular French tourist town peppered with cafés and bistros and souvenir shops – and throngs of tourists. There are French faces everywhere, and classic French proboscises galore, and French gestures, and French fashions, and French signs that play on the language as anywhere in France, such as “Curio- Cité.”

I wander out to the Vieux Port, which doesn’t seem vieux at all but rather a very modern and rather dirty riverside mall of epic proportions. I have a “misto” sandwich which I eat at an unbelievably filthy cluster of café tables with fat sparrows falling over each other to scarf up garbage left behind by tourists. I only do this because I am suddenly famished and it is about 1,000 degrees and humid outside. I had intended to have a nice lunch somewhere in Vieux Montréal but I have no strength to keep walking to find something. The “misto” sandwich is filling, with ham and pepperoni and marinated eggplant and cheese, and it’s filling. When I’m done I walk the length of the Vieux Port to the middle of the Canal Lachine, a very long way. The entire walk involves sidestepping scooter riders and bicyclists and rollerbladers and large American tourists who like to walk 5 abreast at a snail’s pace. I take a brief break to sit along the canal under the shadow of a café where I find a bench and spread out my maps and tourist info and prep for the rest of the afternoon. Then I reverse direction and walk back toward the Vieux Quartier. There is an expensive and extravagant botanical garden-type exhibit I briefly ponder visiting, but I opt instead to see it from afar and keep trekking, hopping to avoid the pedestrian and blade traffic.

It’s really hot and sunny now. I head for the Pointe-à-Callière and watch a good movie about the complicated history of Montréal, then go downstairs into the bowels of the building to see the archaeological digs, which are mildly interesting, but this continent is just so new that the “old” stuff doesn’t impress this old Périgord hand all that much. What I got out of the exhibits was the cultural conflicts that still reign supreme in this part of Canada today – stuff confirmed on the nightly news, too – between the British and French and Indian populations. That was much more palpable than the arrowheads found under the old city hall.

I walked back through the Vieux Quartier and headed up the rue St-Sulpice to see Notre Dame de Montréal ($3 Can). What a frightfully gaudy thing it is! But even more blinding is the Chapelle de Notre Dame behind it! There is nothing at all serene or austere about this interpretation of religion – it’s just waaay over the top!

From the Place des Armes I chug over to Chinatown. The first thing I see is a Holiday Inn with two pagoda-shaped towers on the roof. OK. Then I enter the massive bright-red Chinese portals and am in a cacophonous whirlwind of vegetable and fruit vendors and Peking duck hackers and potion stores and paper parasols and souvenir shops selling silk purses and Chinese slippers and sandals and cafés bleaching odors of steamy soy and coriander and lemongrass and fish sauce. It only takes up about four square blocks, but it’s a heady, vibrant place.

From here I traverse the seedy end of the rue Ste-Cathérine over to the Quartier Latin, which really is like a little slice of Paris. I stop at a café for an iced tea. The girl sitting at the table next to me looks exactly like the star of “My Wife Is an Actress,” so much so I can’t help staring and almost ask her if she is – but since I can’t remember the actress’s name, I think I might sound phenomenally stupid, so I don’t. She’s reading, smiling, smoking, and drinking a Coronado with lime slice. A handsome blond guy comes along and looks at her and sits at the next table over. He’s clearly moonstruck. Soon he has engaged her in chitchat about her book, and before I am ready to leave he has moved over to her table and they are deep in conversation. This makes me at once incredibly fond of the world in general and almost unbearably sad, and I have to leave and pound some more pavement to get back to equilibrium.

Back to the Berri-UQAM metro station – WHOA!! There’s a whole underground city down there. I poke around in the shops and then go one stop to Sherbrooke, turn right on rue Cherrier and walk to the Parc La Fontaine, where I sit and nurse my tired feet by the side of the lake.

After a soak in the tub back at La Belle Mansarde I venture out for a stroll and dinner. I have already told myself I am not going to concentrate on French food on this trip because goodness knows I’ve had so much good French food in France already in my lifetime, but I do think one bistro meal might not be out of order, so after wandering up and down rue St-Denis checking menus and looking at what diners have on their plates, I settle on La Charade, which also has some other single diners who look quite content. I order a carpaccio of salmon and an entrecote in Port sauce, along with a half bottle of Château Treytins 1999. The wine is a big splurge, but my feet need it. The carpaccio is fresh and good, but pairing it with little balls of mozzarella doesn’t seem right – the old don’t mix fish with cheese rule seems to apply here. The entrecote is every bit as chewy as they are in France (they must cut their beef the French way, I suppose), and the Port sauce is thin, but it’s tasty. The wine is absolutely superb, as is the service. All in all a pleasant meal, but not outstanding. Total bill is $53 Can., but half that is the wine.

I’m back at the B&B by 10 pm to lounge on the couch watching ER in French, followed by the news, dominated by a story about how the Canadian Grand Prix won’t be run this year because it is financed by tobacco sponsors and there’s been a huge outcry about that. But the most interesting show is one about the Québec slogan “Je me souviens,” and what it is supposed to mean. The general consensus is that it means one is meant to remember one’s FRENCH origins, and the various other populations interviewed – Italians and Native Americans and Portuguese and others – have a high degree of resentment and indignation concerning this, as one supposes they might.

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