Feature Image: Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and 1000 de La Gauchetière/ Downtown
Credit : © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin
It was the end of our sojourn in New York and time to depart for the ‘land at the top’. New York to Montreal is approximately 381 miles (613.6 km) and 11 hours on the train, not that far really. Ever since our first Amtrak train journey on the California Zephyr we had the Adirondack on our sights. Destination Montreal was the perfect excuse to board the Adirondack train from NYC Penn station, a daily service operated by Amtrak. Looking forward to simply taking our time to get to Montreal, we were content to take this 11 hour journey and indulge in the gradual change of scenery going north, along the Hudson River Valley to Albany and slowly up to Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, in the foothills of the Adirondack mountain range. Friends who have done this trip warned us of delays so we were pleasantly surprised it didn’t happen. However, we were somewhat disappointed that this much-touted scenic train route did not have the dramatic sceneries we saw while on the California Zephyr or the Rocky Mountaineer trains. Nevertheless, it was a delightful way to see the outskirts of New York and beyond plus the spectacular autumn foliage.
Montreal, the biggest city in Quebec province, certainly one of the most historic in North America, and the seat of bilingualism and culture in Canada was cold when we arrived in the evening. A sophisticated city juxtaposing distinct Franco features with Anglo characteristics, despite the rain and cold weather, Montreal stood with its bright lights, waiting to be explored.
I’ve always associated Montreal with the international jazz festival, Quebec French or Québécois French and the Québecoise (French-speaking native of Quebec) . The glorious food we have heard so much about at Au Pied de Cochon was another feature. Montreal is in fact more than these.
Long before the Europeans settled in Montreal and Quebec, First Nations native people (aboriginal natives of Canada) the Hurons, Algonquins and Iroquois were its inhabitants. Sooner than later, seafaring European explorers reached the shores of eastern Canada. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier came across a large settlement, called the Hochelaga (it is an Iroquoian fortified village) on the St Lawrence River and Stadacona, another fortified Iroquoian village near present day Quebec City. In a few decades, French navigator Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post there, hence is credited for founding ‘New France’ and the French settlements.
As we know, the British began its colonisation of the ‘New World’ (the Americas) in 1607 and was considered a serious threat by the early French colonisers. Without delving into the various skirmishes and struggles for supremacy among the colonists during that era,the British won in 1673 and Canada was integrated into the British colonial system in North America. Despite the British rule, to this very day, colonial French influence is clearly stamped in Montreal’s culture, architecture and language.
As an avid Francophile myself, I was looking forward to hearing the charming and old-fashioned lilt of français québécois. It is said that it still sounds like the French language spoken 300 years ago apparently because when the British took Quebec, the French settlers were cut off from France and the French language used at the time, didn’t evolve to its modern day form.(Though written French and grammar is exactly the same as standard French). Despite British rule, French prevailed and is still widely spoken in Montreal with 56.9% of its population speaking French at home. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. In fact, French was named the official language of Quebec province after Bill 101 or the Charter of the French Language was passed in 1977.
We opted to stay in the historic and restored district of Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) for many reasons; one of them was its proximity to the cruise terminal on the Alexandra Pier (we were going to embark on the Seabourn Quest from Montreal for our Eastern Canada and New England, USA cruise). We chose to stay at Le Petit hotel, a hip and chic boutique hotel in a century old building. It came highly recommended and is well situated in the oldest street in Montreal, the Rue Saint Paul Ouest. This street is the heart of the art and food scene. Some of the buildings date back to the 17th century.
We didn’t waste time. After checking in, notwithstanding the light rain and freezing cold weather we walked down the cobbled stones of the narrow streets, to explore the food scene. We happened upon Bocata and Barroco restaurants.
As the name suggests, we expected Italian food on the menu. We were pleasantly surprised however with the varied selection of modern fusion food and an extensive wine list, some served by the glass. It was crowded and having made no reservations, we sat right up at the bar and sampled various plates from the specials board and the menu. The restaurant had great ambience and a rustic décor but somehow managed to exude a very cool, funky feel, thanks to the trendy looking waiters and waitresses and young patrons. It was busy and vibrant. We enjoyed the whole experience so much we thought we would try another meal here before our departure.
Having no fixed itinerary nor a booked tour we planned to indulge our interest in architecture and visit some of the old buildings that date as far back as the 16th century as well as check out the other cultural attractions in Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal). The district is so compact, about one square km (or 0.4 square mile) that we thought we would explore it on foot. The original quarter (known as Ville Marie) is bordered by Rue Saint-Antoine, the St. Lawrence River, Rue Berri and Rue McGil and can be explored with ease within a day. A self-guided tour map can be obtained from the tourist bureau located at 174 Notre-Dame St. East – corner of Place Jacques-Cartie.
So, the next day, armed with this information and useful advice from the helpful hotel concierge, for our first ‘must see’, we set off to visit the square known as Place d’Armes and the Notre Dame Basilica.
This beautiful church, the Notre Dame, is for me one of the focal points in the neighbourhood. Architecture, craftsmanship, history and religious heritage are evident upon entering this big church. Designed after the Sainte-Chapelle church in Paris, this Gothic inspired revival features beautiful stained glass windows by Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé. Commissioned in 1929 for the Basilica’s centenary celebration, the windows depict the history of the early settlement of Ville Marie. The blue and gold colours dominating the altar and glass are stunning. The craftsmanship of the pulpit, statues and other pieces deserved closer inspection. We went back later in the evening to see the multimedia ‘Let there be light’ show, a brief history of the church and the settlement.
We then headed east on Notre Dame Street for the next stop, which was the Place Jacques-Cartier. Wandering down, on the way, we stopped to admire the town hall, built between 1872 and 1878 in the ‘Second Empire ‘ style. Though it was a cold day, the walk was made interesting by the surrounding buildings and shops (art galleries caught our eye). On reaching Place Jacques Cartier we needed to quench our thirst and were feeling a bit peckish so we had a light lunch at one of the cafés, dining al fresco albeit, in the somewhat fresh weather. ‘People watching’ was called for. Just like most squares, Place Jacques-Cartier is the heart of the old district where locals and tourists hang out. The cobbled square is closed to traffic but made lively by various street performers, the flower market and other touristy shops. Before the ‘Place’ was built in 1804, the Château de Vaudreuil was located there. For many years, the Place Jacques-Cartier was used as a public market and was restored in 1998.
Revived from our pit stop, we proceeded down towards the edge of the road and found Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market) at 350 rue Saint Paul. The Palladian style domed two-storey building was built in 1847 and was a public market for over 100 years. Specialty boutiques, art and craft shops and restaurants lure the tourists. An hour of browsing and a brief visit to the adjacent Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours(Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel – or Our Lady of Good Help) was next on the agenda. Walking further down towards Rue de la Commune, we could see the old port and the Pavilion Jacques Cartier.
We intended to have dinner at Au Pied de Cochon, (Address: 536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2L 1A9, Canada) which was highly recommended by my cousin (another foodie who lives in Toronto) but Dolcetto and Co nearby from our hotel looked so appealing with its nautical décor and scrumptious menu of light fare. An Italian bistro serving share plates and antipastos, the bar was well stocked and the service friendly and efficient. Anticipating 14 days of fine dining on board the Seabourn Quest in a couple of days, we thought we would go easy on our meals while in Montreal. My husband and I shared several small plates but the capresse è burrata, fig and foie gras flatbread stood out, washed with a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio. Delizioso (delicious)!
To market to market… Next on our list was the Marché Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon Market) at 7070, Henri-Julien St, south of Jean-Talon St in the Little Italy district. The next morning, we took the metro blue line toward Saint-Michel and got off at Jean-Talon station then walked a few yards heading west. (The compass app on my iPhone helped us get our bearings) We easily found one of Montréal’s farmers market. This market was opened in 1933 and is well patronised by the locals. It was crowded when we got there as this market has also become popular among tourists although it was not intended to be a tourist destination. In fact this is where chefs purchase their produce and ingredients. It is a covered market with a diverse selection of fresh produce, meat, fish fruit and vegetables. Merchants and vendors of cheese, bulk food, food stands, spices and imported goods are also found inside the covered area. Specialty shops such as La Boite Aux Huitres (seafood shop), Havre aux Glaces (ice cream and sorbet shop), Boulangerie Première Moisson (artisanal bakery with lots of delicious pastries and quiches on offer) make the market even more interesting. Having said that, what really caught our attention were the giant pumpkins on display for the Halloween pumpkin competition. As we were there in October jut a few weeks away from Halloween, the theme was evidently those of witches and ghouls, pumpkin lanterns that made the market all the more festive. After taking lots of photos, we purchased a variety of snack food of diverse origin and had those for lunch. There were in fact tables made available for people who wanted to eat their take out right there.Great way to soak in the ambience while tasting the influences of various ethnic groups that make up modern Montreal.
If food tells a story about a culture, its people and history, then one can indeed get a glimpse of Montreal’s interesting past right at the Jean Talon market. The French influence layered with the British is evident in the array of food and produce available. Canada’s immigrants from all over the world also take credit for the evolution of dishes with its layers and layers of complex tastes and ingredients. Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Spanish, middle eastern food…you name it, Montreal has it.
A good 3 hours later, we headed back to the subway and took the train for downtown to the Underground city, known to the locals as the RÉSO. Well not exactly true, as it is not a city underground because it is in actual fact a réseau (network) of multilevel tunnels and stairs connected to metro stations and sheltered pedestrian complex of shopping malls, offices, hotels, metro stations, concert halls. This city started from the interconnected tunnels of the subway system. Completed in 1966, it was really built to make shopping and getting around the city a bit more bearable during the harsh winters of Quebec.
It didn’t take long to satisfy our curiosity with this ‘must see’ place in Montreal as historic Old Montréal was waiting to be re-visited.
That evening we went to browse a few of the art galleries at Rue St Paul Ouest and nearly bought a beautiful (small) sculpture from the Galerie Le Luxart(66 Rue Saint Paul O, Montréal, QC H2Y 1Y8, Canada). Unfortunately, it would have meant carting this around for the next leg of our journey and to have it shipped was not practical due to the weight. So we didn’t buy it. Pity!
Because we loved the atmosphere so much, that evening we returned to Bocata for our final meal in Montreal. This time, we had a heartier main course of the milk fed veal chop with gnocchi for me, and the maple roasted duck magret for my husband- Italian and French fusion. This is what food in Montreal is all about. Fusion! It was a night to remember, a truly great way to end our stay in Montreal. Loved it!
The next day, we meandered around some parts of the old town again before rolling our suitcases (literally) from our hotel down the cobbled narrow street leading to the cruise terminal where we were to embark on the Seabourn Quest for a 14 day cruise of eastern Canada, New England USA, South Carolina and Florida.
Many thanks to Tourisme Montréal for allowing us to use these beautiful professional images