Part XI: Montréal at my Quebec and Call

So, with the Pacific north west coast ticked off the list fairly comprehensively, it is time to fly east. Shit’s about to get (Mont)réal…

It is weighing heavily on my mind (and heart) at this point that only ten days of my trip remain. For some reason I find this a difficult boulder to climb out from under, try as I might. I know I need to soak up the adventure in every second that remains, so I grab Montréal with gusto and set about busying myself getting to know the city.

On arrival, it occurs to me that I don’t think I realised just how French French Canada is. Now, I should explain at this juncture that my degree was in French, and I lived in Paris for a year as part of the course. Some of the most special people in my life are friends I made there so Montréal, with its echoes of Paris, brings with it another surge of emotion. I think it’s important that you know that to put this post into context.

The similarity is completed when I check into the M Montréal Hostel in the Quartier Latin. That was the area of Paris where I lived and worked (and loved) for a while.

I should feel more confident talking French than I was speaking Spanish back in Latin America. But I swiftly realise that in Quebec, it’s French…but not as we know it. Also, my brain doesn’t seem to be agile in switching languages and for reasons unbeknownst to me…the Spanish word usually finds its way to my lips before the French one does. So it would appear that 4 months of Spanish has seemingly cancelled out 11 years of French. Right, great.

Together with its extreme Frenchness, there are lots of other things I didn’t know about Montréal. For example:

– it’s an island
– they voted on independence from Canada as recently as 1994
– they are nearly all hockey crazy
– Leonard Cohen was born here
– it was the capital of Canada for five years until 1849; an anglophone mob put paid to that when their protesting saw it shifted to Ottawa

With every word I devour of the guide book on the five hour flight from Van City, the more this city intrigues me, particularly politically.

So, with discovery in mind, I set out for an exploratory saunter. Of course, empires were never built on muesli bars, so I swing into Le Gros Jambon for a hearty breakfast. It is the slightly less spenny little brother of L’Orignal from chef Travis Champion – and his surname could certainly be applied as part of a review. The staff are super friendly, the walls are adorned with vintage Montreal kitsch and the food is presented as beautifully as it tastes.

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The coffee is exceptional, and comes along with this little guy…

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The next stop is the Basilique Notre-Dame, the grand dame of Montréal’s religious treasures. It was opened in 1829 and designed by New York Protestant architect James O’Donnell. I only mention his religion as, notably, he liked the Basilique so much that he converted to Catholicism in order that his funeral could be held there. You can see why…

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Don’t worry, Canadian God seems to be a little more laid back and is quite content with photography in the Basilique. He had his clergymen put signs up and everything.

Excuse the poor phraseology here, but the devil really is in the detail with this building. It is full of ornate wooden pillars and carvings.

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Gilt stars shine down from the ceiling, while the stained glass windows radiate light.

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The huge 7000 pipe Casavant organ oversees musical proceedings from on high.

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As has become the Mellotte family travelling tradition, I light a candle for loved ones who have gone before us and those we’re lucky enough to still have.

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Outside, the Basilique looks onto the Place d’Armes.

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Here the Monument Maisonneuve stands, proudly dedicated to Montréal’s founder Paul de Chomedey.

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From here it is a brisk walk along the Rue St-Sulpice to the Vieux Port. Despite the fact that it is a rather blustery day, you can see why the port is favoured for recreation. Quai Jacques Cartier is the centrepiece, and large promenades lend themselves to strolling, cycling and skating. It also looks like it is in the throes of rejuvenation, not least with the sleek and sassy Centre des Sciences de Montréal. The port has clearly always been an important revenue stream for the city, with cruise liners docking at the Quai Alexandra. In their absence, the sailboats bob around in the bay.

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I cross into the Parc du Bassin-Bonsecours…

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…and along the Quai de l’Horloge towards the Sailors’ Memorial Clock Tower, dedicated to mariners who died in the world wars.

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The views are across to Parc Jean Drapeau and the Montreal Biosphère environmental museum,

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an installation of public art, including Alexander Calder’s 1967 piece L’Homme,

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and La Ronde funfair.

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On the same side, a makeshift beach has been built to capitalise on the good weather that looms in the not too distant future.

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As I walk back to the city, the city skyline hovers above me…

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…including the neoclassical Marché Bonsecours, formerly the town hall but now an arts and crafts market.

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Behind it is nestled the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, known as the Sailors’ Church where sailors would leave ship-shaped lamps in thanks for safe passage. It’s far more peaceful than its big Basilique brother, and a lovely place to spend a few moments giving your own thanks for safe passage.

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The statue of Our Lady of the Harbour sits atop it, and was made famous by Leonard Cohen in his song ‘Suzanne.’
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After this, a little lèche-vitrine (window shopping) along Rue St- Paul’s boutiques is in order.

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And a squizz at the Hôtel de Ville.

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The rains come, torrentially, so I drop into Boris Bistro for the duck and mushroom risotto and a large glass of Malbec. Then, it’s time for a little bar hopping in Vieux Montreal, with the standout being Philemon where you can have your Malbec with a cheeseboard. Don’t mind if I do.

I’m reliably informed by Canadian friends I met in Bolivia that Montréal is the place to get a smoked meat sandwich. (Hi Michael if you’re out there) The Montréal Reuben is the speciality of hot smoked meat, Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread. A Downtown Deli called Reuben’s seems like as good as place as any to start the day, and mighty fine it is too.

It also gives me a chance to ogle the areas that the world famous Montréal Jazz Festival is usually hosted, in and around the Place des Arts.

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En route, I also pass the dazzling Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

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But today’s main focus will be losing myself in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

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It is stunningly huge, Canada’s oldest museum, and houses its permanent collection of everything from the old masters to contemporary work in three free-to-access buildings on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest.

There is some beautiful work on display here, from Salvador Dali’s Homage to Marcel Du Champ chessboard,

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one of Henri Matisse’s many portraits of his muse Lorette – this one from 1917,

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Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Musketeer from 1969,

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and Claude Monet’s La Grande Allée à Giverny a copy of which hung in my room when I was an early teen.

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My favourite museum in Paris was the Musée Rodin, so I was really happy to find some of his work exhibited here too. Most notably, Sirens.

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People far more intelligent than me suppose that the three women represent the three furies in Dante’s Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, he is warned not to look at them in case they summon Medusa who will turn him to stone with just one look. Deceptive sensuality at its most beautiful for my money.

The Thinker also has a place here.

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This bronze cast from between 1902 and 1909 was bought directly from the artist and was the first Rodin piece ever to be exhibited in North America. This piece has come to have so many connotations in popular culture; art, humanity etc. But what I love about it, is Rodin’s own description of the figure, modelled on Dante himself: “Chin on hand, he muses. Fertile thought develops slowly in his brain. This is not a dreamer, but a creator.”

Next, the buzzy student area of Rue St-Denis beckons. After a saunter through, I settle into Le St-Sulpice for a swift one before dinner at O’Thym, a dinky yet elegant bring-your-own-eatery not far from my hostel in the Quartier Latin. Surrounded by exposed brick and enlarged mirrors, I dig into (vegetarians, look away now) Foie Gras Tatin followed by rack of lamb.

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One of the things that I love about this city, is the adeptness with which the people can switch between Québécois French and English. It is such a huge skill to be so completely and utterly fluent like that. The downside is that, spotting you’re not a local, people will switch to English for you. So, to gain back my French confidence, I need to insist on trying to speak French…and they are particularly conducive to it here.

Another day on the road…another market. This time Marché Jean-Talon in Little Italy in the north. It involves my first jaunt on the artful Metro.

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The market itself is the usual mix of vibrant flower stalls,

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colourful fruit and veg vendors,

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And my special favourites, the cheese and seafood…

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It’s a lovely meander, and I manage not to hemorrhage too much cash, leaving only with some sirop d’érable (maple syrop) and some Pear Ice Cider…apparently a Québécois speciality.

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After this, I tour round Little Italy stopping to inhale one of the city’s most famous foods, a bagel from St Viateur Bagel on the street of the same name.

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This place is an institution, and I opt for the cinnamon and thyme bagel with a giganta dollop of Philly cheese. I’ve never really been a bagel person, but I can see what all the fuss it about.

Little Italy and nearby Mile End are pretty areas to hang out in for a spell. They are jam packed with vintage boutiques, awesome bookstores (like Welch Books) and quirky independent coffee shops (I recommend Le Cagibi which translates quaintly as The Cubbyhole.) I had hoped to have time to head to Parc du Mont-Royal, but tonight’s gig by The Shins is not far away so it’s time to make for home.

Very handily, the venue The Metropolis is a mere two minutes walk from the hostel, so there is time to spare for a swifty in the nextdoor Foufounes Électriques before the show.

It has seemed like all of my favourite bands have been touring the US and Canada whilst I have been there, but most have played just before or immediately after my arrival in each city. How inconvenient. So I’m completely beside myself with excitement about this show. The last time I saw The Shins was at Reading Festival last year, but they clashed with Santigold so I only saw a couple of tracks. A full set will feel very indulgent by comparison.

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It is an absolutely great show, complimented by the hilarious drummer and a receptive crowd.

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I’m quite tickled to see that the bartenders actually walk through the venue here selling pints piled on trays that they hold aloft. I can see that approach lasting about ten seconds in a sold out Brixton Academy…

Before long I’m chinwagging with lovely fellow-Shins-fan Alex, and we decide to grab a late night drink at Le Saint Bock after the show. Of course, we end up talking about music until the wee small hours and I come away with a head full of new albums recommended to me.

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The next morning, I bravely fight through the groggy hangover and throw myself on a bus with the recently downloaded The National album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ which came out a couple of days ago. This is quite enough to amuse me for the 2 hour trip to Ottawa. Now, this will be a flying visit if ever there was one.

I’m visiting the fabulous Jimmy Rib (aka James Thompson) with whom I used to work back in the day in Glasgow. We slaved over many a T in the Park together and I have seen very little of him since he returned to his native Canada, wed the wonderful Amanda and produced ridiculously cute Jack. We’d very much like to be hanging out longer than an afternoon, but as bad luck would have it, Amanda is due to give birth any minute now! But the thought of being so close but yet so far was too much, so we decided to do lunch in Ottawa. And I was more than happy to make the trip for an old friend.

Jimmy Rib’s nickname originally came from his insatiable love of ribs, so you’ll never guess where we go for lunch…the inimitable Fatboys Southern Smokehouse. The ribs are smoked on site, and the smell that greets us when we walk in is nothing less than a-maze-ing. This hungover girl needs some carbs…

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It is so good to catch up with him, and to hear all of his news; his wedding to Amanda, their wee boy Jack and his hilarious turn of phrase. So much time has passed, and I hate it when good friendships drift over time. So it was worth every hungover second on that bus trip to get here, if even for a few hours.

When I arrive back in Montréal, Alex and I are trying to decide what to do with our evening. There is one thing left on the tourist check list that can be accomplished tonight; Poutine.

Poutine is to the Québécois what chips and cheese is to the Scots, literally. It is French fries smoothed in cheese curds and gravy. From discussions with people here, you either love it or you hate it. But I simply cannot leave Montréal without trying it.

We head for La Banquise at 994 Rachel Est, but we are greeted by the most gigantic queue I have ever seen at a restaurant. Keen not to simply fall into the nearest pub and repeat the excesses of the night before, we decide to take a walk in a nearby park and come back for Poutine later. I am particularly pleased because I haven’t made it to any of Montréal’s green spaces yet, not even the most famous Parc du Mont-Royal. When Alex hears this, a swift revision of our plans is made so that we can squeeze it in before sunset. And I am so glad we did.

The park was designed by Frederick Law Omlsted, the same architect as New York’s Central Park. This is every bit as amazing. Its wooded slopes and grassy areas attract joggers, cyclists, horse riders and even battle re-enact-ers in the spring and summer. Whilst winter’s snows welcome skiing and tobogganing. Either way, if you were born and raised in Montréal, you likely grew up doing one of the above.

It’s a solid hour or so walk up the mountain, but the views out over the city are truly breathtaking. The sun is settling as we climb, throwing a golden sheen over every building rolled out in front of us.

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Once at the Pavilion at the top, the city shimmers below.

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It is a stunning view, and proves once again why it is good to throw away with guide book from time to time and head out with someone who lives in, and loves, the city.

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And of course, with all that exercise, dinner is well earned. So we flop into Chez Claudette at 351 Laurier Est to reward ourselves with Poutine and a beer.

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Chips, cheese and gravy has never tasted so good.

Soon enough it is time for the magic of Montréal to come to an end, and Alex drives me to the airport for my middle-of-the-night flight to my final stop, Miami.

When I look back to Montréal, the stand out memories will be The Shins at The Metropolis, sharing ribs with the King Rib himself, making great new friends (and letting them show you how amazing their city can be) and that sunset. Let’s see it one more time shall we?

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Onwards, to Miami…

And the soundtrack was:
Leonard Cohen ‘Suzanne’
The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’
The Shins ‘Wincing The Night Away’
The Shins ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
The Shins ‘Oh, Inverted World’
The Shins ‘Port of Morrow’
Les Colocs Unknown
Eric Satie Various
Karkwa Unknown
Blonde Redhead ‘Loved Despite Great Faults’
Arcade Fire ‘Neon Bible’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Sly And The Family Stone ‘If You Want Me To Stay’
Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

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