Thursday, July 31, 2014

J'aime le Centre-ville (Montreal edition)

Part two of our French Canadian vacation took place in the form of a few days in Montreal. It was tough leaving quaint and picturesque Quebec City in the rear view mirror, but I was excited for another city adventure. It's about a three-hour drive from Quebec City to Montreal, and I knew as soon as we approached the city that it was going to be a culture shock. 

Despite being home to nearly half a million people, Quebec City felt small. The streets were designed in a way that it felt much smaller. Montreal is more than three times the size of Quebec City, and I felt it right away.  The skyline felt much bigger and more modern, and I was immediately excited to traverse the streets.  Our hotel room wasn't ready, so we set off to explore the neighborhood around the hotel.

We were staying on Rue Saint Denis near the Latin Quarter and the Village. We didn't really know what that meant in terms of a good location, and we quickly discovered what a great neighborhood it is. We strolled down Rue Sainte-Catherine which is a pedestrian only street garnished by beautiful strands of pink lanterns that remind me of cherry blossom time in DC. Rue Sainte-Catherine runs through the Village, a vibrant neighborhood with restaurants and shops and a large gay population. I love the welcoming vibe in Montreal. The Village embraces its residents and visitors of all diverse backgrounds so much so that the Metro station on the street is adorned by rainbow colored posts. It's awesome.

Rue Sainte-Catherine
Metro stop in the Village
Lunch was on the eclectic Rue Saint-Denis at Mache. My husband was sold by the poutine, and I had a grilled cheese with four cheese and bacon. The cheese was melty and delightful, and it was joined by delicious sangria.   The sangria made left me the need for a quick nap and a regroup after the drive and busy walking afternoon.

We saw signs for a circus in the street, and after talking to someone in the Metro learned that it was really a Cirque de Soleil style performance taking place twice that evening less than a block from our hotel. We headed out to check out the Cirque, and it was amazing. It started on the street, and the performers encouraged the crowd to follow them a few blocks to a public square where they put on about a half an hour long performance. The entire crowd was engaged, and it was so much fun. I can't even describe how cool it was seeing hundreds of people following these performers through the sidewalks and streets to watch their performance. It was really an amazing sight.

Around the crowd following the performers
Our hotel was only a few kilometers from downtown, so we walked there. We didn't realize before coming that Montreal's International Jazz Festival was still happening (we thought we'd missed it). The streets were filled with people and music. That last night Michael Buble, Diana Ross, Snoop Dogg and the Bare Naked Ladies were all playing. Just a few small names. We followed our people watching by checking out L'Entrecote St-Jean for dinner, a restaurant that has a fixed menu that includes steak frites, a distinctly French meal. It had good reviews on Yelp (how did we find good restaurants before Yelp?), and it was a very interesting dining experience. No Chez Boulay from Quebec City, but a solid outing.

One of the most noticeable things about Montreal's street design were its many bike lanes. There were even bike stop lights. In Michigan I've heard complaints that we don't need bike lanes that we can only use a portion of the year, and Montreal is proof that a northern city can invest in bike infrastructure that will be used year round.

On the way back we experienced round two of the street cirque. This one included performers being suspended above the street, including a woman playing a violin. It was stunningly beautiful. The street was packed at 9:30 pm with people watching the free performance. Restaurants had patrons overflowing their terraces. It made my urbanist heart happy. 

Street cirque, take two

I wanted to go for a run on Saturday morning, but the walking from the past week was taking a toll on my legs and back. Instead I decided it would be an amazing idea to hike to the top of Mont Royal, the highest point in Montreal. The park towers over the city near McGill University, and I'm just like my dad - if you show me something tall or treacherous, I'm going to want to climb it.

The views at the top were spectacular. Montreal was spread out at our feet, and it was stunning. We were treated by more breathtaking views as walked down a wooded trail on the side of the mountain. We could see Montreal's old Olympic park and sweeping views of the mountains in the distance. It was well worth the burning calves to get up there.

Sweeping panoramic views from the top of Mont Royal.

And amazing views on the climb down

We spent the afternoon exploring Old Montreal, the oldest part of this beautiful historic city.  There were people sunbathing on the lawn near the river and shops along the area's cobblestone streets. It's also the home of the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal where on this Saturday afternoon a wedding was taking place. Crowds were gathering outside of the church to see the bride and groom emerge into the square. What an incredible spot for a wedding (with a few hundred tourists as extra "guests"). 

Views of Old Montreal
On our last night of vacation we took a chance at popping into Taverne Square Dominion in downtown Montreal. On the website it indicated there were no reservations before 9 pm, and we took a chance at 7. We were able to seat at the bar for another incredible dining experience. Before I get to the food, however, I have to talk about the atmosphere. It was renovated four years ago back to its original 1927 gradeur. The space is gorgeous. It was the first legit cocktail menu we saw in Quebec, and we are suckers for a good cocktail. I started with Rye and Basil, and it was amazing. My husband had a mint julep. Also delicious. We then proceeded to work our way through the cocktail menu trying different things. My favorite was the Rye and Basil while my husband's was the Canuck (complete with a shot of maple syrup.) Dinner and dessert were as good as the cocktails, and it was a great final dinner in Quebec. 

Delicious cocktails at Dominion Taverne

I insisted on running our last morning despite the many miles we'd been walking during the week. We decided to run down the pedestrian mall on Rue Sainte-Catherine through the Village. It's a great spot to run, and we were amazed at the crowds leaving the clubs at 8:45 in the morning while we were getting up and moving. I don't think even on my wildest night I've left a club that late. Well done, people. Well done.

Our last mandatory stop in Montreal was Fairmount Bagels. We were told that Montreal bagels are worth the trip and the wait, so we mapped out the Metro/walking trip. The line was relatively short, and we emerged with our bagels that we ate on benches on the street. They were delicious - sweet, fresh, topped with tons of cream cheese. They were very different than bagels I've had anywhere else, and they were worth the wait. 

Montreal was one of the most eclectic mashes of cultures, languages and experiences I've ever had. There were festivals and public events everywhere. I don't know that I've ever been to a city that was so engaging in so many different ways. We got just a taste of Montreal, and that taste leaves me wanting more. 

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