By Utpal Borpujari
Quartier des Spectacles – French for “entertainment district” – in downtown Montreal, would be quite familiar at this moment for a Delhi resident. It is all dug up! But while Delhi has been fighting, unsuccessfully, with the Commonwealth Games deadline and nobody knows how long will it take, even after the Games are over, for many areas to get the refurbishing work done with, Montrealites know that Quartier des Spectacles it will remain so for a few more years. For, the area, which befitting its name has 130 culture-related organisations within one square kilometre, is undergoing a major facelift to make Montreal even more up to date with its worldwide reputation as a major hub of all kinds of festivals.
July-September is the best time to visit Montreal, the most-famous city in the French language-preferring Quebec region. It is the time when Summer is ending, and the air is pleasant most of the time, neither too warm nor too nippy (cold here means up to -30º Centigrade), and Montrealites are out in full force to end the last days of the Summer holidays. It is also the time when the city hosts its numerous festivals that make Montreal almost a festival capital of the world – the international fireworks festival, the jazz festival, the ‘just for laughs’ festival that celebrates the funny bone in us, the world film festival, and so on.
But while festivals do make Montreal a jazzy place to be in, it is more than just a festival city. For one, it hosts six universities, including the world famous McGill and Concordia, within its city limits, it has an incredibly vibrant look at any given point of time. For another, it has north America’s only Formula 1 track – the best part of which is that you can actually hire a bike and ride the full stretch of the track, an experience that one can recount to grandchildren later on. And its predominantly Roman Catholic nature is visible in the form of hundreds of magnificent churches, so much so that Mark Twain had once remarked, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” In modern times, you can also add restaurants to the same category – it arguably has one of the world’s largest concentration of restaurants, serving food from all across the globe, most of them jampacked most of the time their doors are open.
Montreal has gone through some difficult times, thanks to linguistic and political tensions that in the late 1970s saw a massive flight of business to Toronto. But it held on to its strong cultural moorings, and if it is no more the business capital of Canada (even though it headquarters Bombardier, telecom giant Bell, International Civil Aviation Organisation, National Film Board of Canada and Telefilm Canada), it has more than made it up by becoming the host to its numerous world-class cultural events. But even otherwise, Montreal has quite a lot of touristy attractions, including its own Chinatown, La Petit Italy (The Little Italy) and Quartier Latin (Latin Quarters) – localities that got identified with communities that had originally settled their in larger numbers.
There are quite a few options to travel around Montreal, but the best way is to walk or take the Bixi bicycles on hire. I personally prefer the first option anywhere I go, as that allows one to really soak in the sights, sounds and smells of a place. In Montreal, with its number of magnificent cathedrals, beautiful boulevards, innumerable eating joints and friendly people, that was the option I exercised as much as possible. Montreal also has a great underground network of pathways, connecting the various underground metro stations and lined with small shops, which one can use to move from one place to another in case it is raining and you are not carrying an umbrella, or when you want to move faster. To visit slightly distant locations, such as the West Islands suburbs like Beaconsfield on the banks of the huge Saint-Louis lake, one has to take the metro and then travel also by bus (which incidentally arrive at each stop at the exact time that is mentioned on the timetable pasted on each stoppage).
But whether you like or not, you have to walk, and only walk, if you want to soak in Old Montreal – the location where Montreal city took birth. Still retaining its old world flavour, it is where the Notre Dam cathedral, a magnificent structure that stands tall in stature even if dwarfed a little by modern-day skyscrapers nearby, is located. The souvenir shops and eateries in Old Montreal are places that are to be soaked in at a leisurely pace, with a beer here and with some knick knacks there. Sundays are a busy time in Old Montreal, as the place comes alive with a mock 18th century market place, with French-speaking dames dressing up in old-style dresses and selling vegetables, maple syrup and wines from their kiosks while performers bring alive the world of Inuits – the original inhabitants – and French settlers. There is something for everyone in this market, whether children or adults, and it is time well spent. If you are visiting Montreal, mark your Sunday there for the Old Montreal visit just to be at this “market”.
If this gives you a feel of old-time Montreal, Rue Saint Catherine is where you get the feel of modern Montreal, with its shopping malls, fancy restaurants and night clubs. It is a street that literally bifurcates Montreal into its north and south halves, and runs almost across the whole length of the city, cutting via quite a few important locations.
Montreal is also where you get what are called the world’s best Bagels. The Montreal Bagel even got its clientele in the outer space, with American astronaut Gregory Chamitoff taking three dozen of them while going on a six-month stint at the International Space Station in 2008. A legacy of the large Jewish settlers, the Bagels are almost worshipped here, with tourist booklets calling some of the outlets selling their unique Bagels, such as Fairmount Bagel or St-Viateur Bagel, as “temples” of this delicacy. “If you don’t want to offend Montrealers, never compare Montreal Bagels, which are smallish, chewy and slightly sweet, with the New York variety, which is puffy, moist and salty”, goes the sanguine advice to visitors.
Montreal got its name from what is known as the Mount Royal (Mont Real in French), a biggish hillock actually (don’t call it a ‘hill’ in front of any Montrealer though). A walk on the hill is a calming experience, with its dense foliage and beautifully-maintained pathways. And the mountain is not the only open space in this city of some very-beautifully manicured parks.
And yes, if you are the kind who wants to try out how lucky you are, the Montreal Casino is a must visit for you. Rated one of the world’s best, it has 120 gaming tables and 2,955 slotting machines, apart from a range of restaurants. For those who love visiting museums, some of the places to be in are the Montreal Insectarium, the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History…indeed, it is a city that is a haven for museum crawlers. Montreal is an experience to soak in, and one visit is not enough to do that fully for sure.