Thursday, August 21, 2008

Montreal - Paris Of The Sub-Arctic

World’s third largest Francophone city after Paris and Kinshasa, Montreal is Quebec’s answer to Toronto. Until the bungled 1976 Olympics got the better of it, it was Canada’s première metropolis, the cultural as well as economic centre. It still puts up a fierce competition spreading to sports, business and contested cultural supremacy. World’s largest inland port, it processes more containers than anywhere else in North America. It is the St. Lawrence River that brings prosperity here. Vast enough to be a major whale playground, in French it is called not a rivière but a fleuve, a waterway rather than simply a river. Somewhere around Trois Pistoles where it takes one and half hours to cross it by ferry, the water that I tasted was definitely salty.

If New York is about pizazz, Toronto – about savvy, Montreal is about panache. Gallic love for beauté and bonne cuisine took strong roots above the 49th latitude. You can dine really well here and the city folks dress smarter than the North American average norm. Trundling on the cobbled streets of Vieux-Montréal it is easy to forget that you are not in France but just a one-hour drive away from the US border.

Spread over one huge island that contains one quarter of Quebec’s population, Montreal's urban jungle consists of the American- style skyscraper overgrowth and the fine Old World architecture undergrowth, an unexpectedly attractive blend. For the pressed for time there is a handy way to appreciate it in just a minute’s span: position yourself in the centre of the Place d’Armes and make a 360-degree turn for an uninterrupted slideshow of Montreal’s architectural history, from the Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica and the Pantheon-like Bank of Montreal Head Office to the Art Deco Aldred Building and the surprisingly congruous in such a setting post-modern style of the 500 Place d'Armes skyscraper.

If that has whetted your appetite for more, in just a few steps there is a line of horse-drawn carriages, les calèches, waiting to take you on an unhurried tour of the Old City. Make sure to make it to the magnificent waterfront that includes an imposing line of fine edifices dominated by the Neo-Classical dome of the Marché Bonsecours and the phantasmagorical rear of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel with the skyscraping glass-and-concrete gravitas of the Quartier International, Montreal’s business district, looming right behind.

Thence, after tipping your driver generously – or, as seems the custom in Quebec, he will surely remind you if you forget – continue on foot to the Place Jacques-Cartier graced by the Belle Epoche folly of Montreal’s City Hall. It was from its balcony that General de Gaulle delivered his highly controversial Vive le Quebec libre! speech to ecstatic crowds. The terraced cafés here churn out pretty much the same culinary fare as their Parisian cousins. It is a good place to stretch your legs and enjoy moules frites at your leisure while watching street entertainers and sauntering tourist crowd on the square.

Just like Paris, Montreal’s cityscape is planned and built to impress: both far perspectives and close-ups seem calculated to create powerful photo ops for the visitor. Make sure to have a look inside though and be amazed by the interiors of public buildings meant to eternalize la gloire de la France, even two centuries after it ceased to be the sovereign here. Our favourites were the monumental frescoes of French nuns converting Native Americans into Christianity in the Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral.

Montreal, essentially the city of immigrants, is much more cosmopolitan than other Francophone cities that tend to be assertively monocultural. Montrealers switch effortlessly between French and English and the proliferation of ethnic restaurants is a testament to the city's citoyen du monde character.

Ethnic neighbour- hoods here, like the pearls on a necklace, are stringed on the original Anglo-Gallic geographical divide, Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Pedestrian Rue de la Gauchetière hosts Chinatown, also full of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, Little Portugal is on the corner of Boulevard Saint Laurent and Rue Marie-Anne while Little Italy lies on the same boulevard between Rue Jean-Talon and Rue St. Zotique. Little Greece sits on Avenue Parc between Avenue Mont Royal and Avenue Van Horne.

Chinese restaurants are always a good bet for the traveller on the shoe string, but thanks to the favourable exchange rate you can even pamper yourself a bit without dipping too much in your wallet: two excellent lobster lightly stir-fried with ginger and scallion set us back mere 20 Canadian dollars (that’s 10 quid for the mathematically challenged)! If that still doesn’t seem a bargain, there is indigenous street food to get on by: Montreal bagels, sweet and smoky, and viande fumé, smoked meat, available on every corner.

It is easy to overlook one of Montreal's most staggering landmarks as it is hidden beneath the land surface. Harsh Canadian winters made 32 kilometres of shopping streets dig underground. The corridors of La Ville Souterraine connects 10 metro stations, 2 bus terminals, 1,200 offices, about 2,000 stores including 2 major department stores, approximately 1,600 housing units, 200 restaurants, 40 banks, 40 movie theatres and other entertainment venues, 7 major hotels, the University of Quebec at Montreal campus and the University of Montreal, Olympic Park, Place des Arts, a cathedral, the Bell Centre (home of the Montreal Canadiens), and 3 exhibition halls: the Place Bonaventure, the Convention Centre (Palais des Congrès de Montréal) and the Olympic Centre. Even when the harsh northern winter sets on, you do not need to miss out on la douceur de la vie in these high street catacombs.

Bienvenue à Montréal


No comments: