Kaye Holland is seduced by the sleek sophistication of Montreal and the old world charm of Quebec City in Quebec – aka the most surprising destination in North America
Confession time. Up until recently, Quebec – a French speaking region of eastern Canada – was a far away land of which, despite being three times larger than France, I knew little. Then in 2011, the province began to swim into my yen thanks to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whose inaugural Royal tour following their wedding, was to Quebec.
It’s certainly true that when compared to cities such as New York and Paris, Montreal – my gateway to Quebec – often gets overlooked, like a middle child overshadowed by its siblings. But in my mind, cosmopolitan (one in three residents is an immigrant), cultural, characterful Montreal – home to some three and a half million people – is one of the world’s greatest cities.
Most tourists make the Old Montreal neighbourhood their first port of call, particularly Place d’Ames. Here the main attraction is Notre Dame Basilica – a nee-gothic masterpiece, where the late Luciano Pavarotti recorded his celebrated Christmas concert. The scenic waterfront, stunning stone buildings, magnificent cathedrals and churches ( Mark Twain famously called Montreal “a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window”) and cobblestone streets of Montreal’s Old Town could keep you contented for days.
However, for me, much of Montreal’s appeal lies in losing yourself in the Bohemian enclaves of Little Italy, The Village and Plateau Mont-Royal. The latter, home to Montreal’s media and creative folk, captures the imagination like no other neighbourhood and has become the star of its own show – Les Bobos – which looks at the life and loves of the Plateau’s hip residents.
It’s fun to browse the vibrant boutiques along Boulevard St Laurent, before retiring for a cafe au lait in one of the Plateau’s wonderful pavement cafes (unlike other Canadian cities, Montreal has yet to be Starbucksified).
When you want to escape the hustle and bustle, go to the city’s green lungs – aka Mont Royal Park. This leafy expanse was designed by Frederick Law Omsted, the architect behind New York’s Central Park, and holds a special place in the hearts of Montrealers (don’t make the mistake of calling Montreal’s ‘mountain’, a hill as Oscar Wilde once did in the 1880s). You can reach Mont Royal Park by taxi, public transport or by BIXI – the super affordable public solar powered bicycle system, that served as the blueprint for London’s Boris Bikes.
And don’t worry about working up an appetite, from all that exercise: Montreal has a love affair with food. The star of this gourmet getaway, is smoked meat sandwiches served with a generous dollop of ‘slaw. Montreal’s best known bastion of brisket is Schwartz’s smoked meat emporium (owned by the Queen of the power ballad, Celine Dion) but be prepared to queue: even on a monsoon like sunday afternoon in October, there was a line snaking out of the door that reminded me of the queue to get into Kudos, my local nightclub, when I was a teenager.
If, like me, you’re not mad about smoked meat (I’m a veggie), it’s all about the bagel. There’s fierce (yet friendly) rivalry between Montrealers and New Yorkers, as to which city serves up the best bagel. Montreal bagels tend to be smaller and sweeter than their Big Apple counterparts. Two of the best places to try the Montreal staple (usually coated in either poppy or sesame seeds) are Fairmont Bagel and St Viateur Bagel – look out for the newspaper articles from around the world, on the walls.
Another Montreal ‘must try’ is poutine - that’s French fries drowned in gravy and cheese curds, to you and me. Admittedly it sounds downright disgusting, but it was – much to my surprise – also extremely satisfying. You’ll find poutine on menus all over Quebec, from McDonalds to more upmarket establishments like Au Pied de Cochon (reservations essential).
Indeed for those who want to dress up (Montrealers, like their Parisian counterparts, are notoriously stylish) for dinner, there’s a warren of gourmet restaurants, BYO bistros and ethnic eateries competing for your cash: Montreal has more restaurants per capita than any other city, save for New York, in North America.
There’s also a plethora of places for post dinner drinking and dancing, for Montreal is a destination that knows how to let its hair down. This is a place of parades, festivals and year round raucous concerts and shows, including those by home grown companies such as Cirque du Soleil. And with Montreal set to explode onto the world stage next summer with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Montreal shot sci-fi thriller Robopocalypse, it won’t be long before the secret is out.
To read part two of French fancy, be sure to log onto CD-Traveller this Thursday (3 January).