Canadians are wonderful people.
They’ve somehow managed to soak up the best of American, French and British influences without the ignorance of the Americans, the arrogance of the French or the sheer bloody mindedness of the English.
Montreal may be the largest city in the determinedly French-speaking Quebec province but it’s a welcoming, warm-hearted and truly cosmopolitan place, with Greek, Italian and Chinese quarters and a thriving gay village as well.
And the rest of the world flocks to this gracious metropolis set on the broad, fast-flowing St. Lawrence River, just an hour or so from the US border.
Year round events
Few North American cities can boast such a jam-packed all-year-round events’ calendar nor offer such a diverse range of venues in which to stage them.
Hub of all the activity is the newly created Place des Festivals – a massive and stridently modern pedestrianised outdoor plaza at the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles entertainment district, hosting all manner of celebrations, product launches and major cultural events, like the spectacular week-long Présence Autochine Montreal First People’s Festival ( www.nativelynx.qc.ca), which had its 22nd annual staging last August and continues to broaden its appeal.
It’s a fitting event to be staged in such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, showcasing as it does the art and creative talent of aboriginal peoples – not just the First Peoples Native American tribes of Canada and the USA but the original peoples of other countries round the globe.
A colourful procession, lectures, film shows, art displays, Amerindian gastronomy demonstrations and all manner of happenings – both spontaneous and arranged – are all part of the fun. Poetry readings, plays, music and dance from traditional to avant-garde, seminars, discussion groups, painting, sculpture, all have a place. Events radiate from the Quartier to theatres, cinemas, galleries, bars, restaurants, clubs, social halls, churches and other spaces across town and beyond to the Kahnesatake pinewoods. For a week, the drums beat to a very special rhythm, celebrating the incredible cultural splendour and diversity of the First Peoples.
Largest comedy festival
One of the highlights for me was watching a Moroccan Berber tribesman, in exotically flowing robes, playing manic down-home hillbilly bluegrass music on an electrified version of an ancient violin-like bowed instrument. The great Innu artist Florent Volant was on sparkling form, A Tribe Called Red and DJ Mood were other standouts.
Montreal also hosts the world’s largest comedy festival, featuring more than 2,000 stagings. There’s also one of the biggest and best jazz festivals.
Get your culture fix at the Museum of Fine Art, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Mc Cord Museum, Redpath museum and the Canadian Centre for Architecture; walk the riverside Golden Square Mile, with its exquisitely ornate Victorian and Edwardian mansions; take in the exquisite view from the open-air rooftop terrace at Place Ville Marie; for an even grander outlook, scale the world’s tallest inclined tower and take in the sights from the top of the Olympic stadium; explore the Latin Quarter with its intimate bars and bistros, chic boutiques and student hang-outs, and, if it’s deep weather or to avoid a springtime shower or summer’s often blistering heat, explore the 20 miles of the shop-crammed underground city, which has 1,700 boutiques, 200 restaurants and 40 cinemas and exhibition halls.
Above all, Montreal is a city of enticing neighbourhoods, each with its own enticing take on life. Rent a bike, buy one of the unique Montreal bagels to munch on and get out exploring the streets.
You discoveries should include the massive and highly colourful Marché Jean Tallon, with its massed displays of fruit, veg and other produce; the park that straddles Mont Royal; the riverside beach; the beauty of Notre Dame Basilica an its majestic pipe organ, and the tourist-thronged Place Jacques-Cartier, with its pavement cafés and always busy restaurants.
For the record, the key neighbourhoods to explore and savour include the Bohemian-chic Plateau Mont Royal; Little Italy, which is what it says on the spaghetti tin; Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, where you’ll find the botanical garden, the Olympic stadium, the biodome, an insectarium, pristine parks and leafy side streets and The Village – party central for the gay and gay-friendly community.
How to get there
Air Canada and BA offer direct flights from London-Heathrow to Montreal
How to get around
Montreal is an essentially walkable city but watch high heels on the cobbles and some of the hills are quite steep. There’s a large and efficient, reasonably priced network of buses and an underground metro railway system. Société de Transport Montréal (STM) offers one, three and seven-day tourist passes providing unlimited access to the bus and metro services.
What and where to eat
Claiming to have more restaurants per square mile than any other city of its size, Montreal is a veritable melting pot of culinary influences. Traditional elegance of Michelin Star standard competes with contemporary chic; nitty-gritty brewpubs rub cheeks with sophisticated cocktail bars. All favour local produce, which is of an exceptionally high quality – just sample the artisan cheeses, good enough to make a French gourmet salivate. Fish and seafood are also class acts across town.
But be careful of your restaurant choice – some of those in the Old Montreal district are of a poor standard food-wise and very over-priced. The free official tourist guide will point you in the right direction.
While Tim Horton’s coffee and snack bars are as thick on the ground as McDonald’s elsewhere, the city’s most popular fast food is poutine – a rather messy combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. Montreal bagels are less gooey than the American norm while a pilgrimage should be made to Schwarz’s, on Saint Laurent Boulevard, where they have been preparing and selling delicious Jewish-style smoked meat (brisket) since 1928.
What to speak
Quebec Province is French-speaking but the vast majority of Montreal’s inhabitants are bilingual. It’s interesting that, unlike in France itself, French Canada uses the word ‘Arret’ on its stop signs!
What to spend (and tip)
Canada offers generally better value than the UK, though wine and other alcoholic drinks are pricey and tipping follows American practice – so you are looking at 20 per cent to add on to that restaurant bill.