Making time for Montreal

By | Category: Travel destinations
maple syrup and the maple leaf

I decided not to opt for maple syrup for dinner but in Montreal you find the best © Tourism Quebec

The 11-hour train journey from New York’s Penn Station through upstate New York and into Québec Province was finally coming to an end, the Amtrak train gently chugging into Montreal’s Gare Centrale in the early evening. It was the first weekend in May, but you could have fooled me – the winter up here had been so severe, patches of snow were still visible along the tracks before I’d even reached the Canadian border. The quiet, rural landscape of Québec might only slowly be awakening from its winter slumber, but Montreal at least, appeared wide awake on a Saturday evening, the streets busy with late shoppers and early diners.

My taxi driver, giving my school French something of a work-out, dropped me off outside my Montreal abode, Au Cœur Urbain b&b, where the French exercises continued unabashed and unabated – a bit of a shock after my previous two weeks in the U.S. of A – enhancing the feeling that I had arrived somewhere very different altogether. Winner of Les Grands Prix in the 2013 Québec Tourism awards, this quaint and very friendly b&b is situated towards the top of Montreal, near Mount-Royal Park, overlooking the city below – remarkably handy when heading downtown, but pretty knackering when heading back. Needless to say I continued practising my French with various taxi drivers during my stay.

The first evening’s shenanigans are perhaps best described with a brief “drink, eat, crash” – it’s amazing how tired one gets after long journeys. A good night’s rest, however, and I was ready to take on Montreal in earnest, that is after taking on the epic breakfast. The most important meal of the day swiftly acquired a whole new meaning at Au Cœur Urbain and they fully deserve the 2014 Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence. Their four-course affair was to have me fabulously impressed and stuffed silly each morning – a gentle, but refined, start of fruits or yoghurt, followed by fluffy, artisan breads and a wide range of local jams, honeys and other spreads, then on to a hot course such as Gruyère flan with Canadian bacon or, my personal favourite, heart-shaped poppy-seed pancakes with Quebecois maple syrup. This was all rounded off with a choice of pastries and washed down with beautiful strong tea or coffee and a choice of fruit juices – breakfast heaven had been reached.

Place Jacques Cartier

Place Jacques Cartier in the old part of the city © Mownet

Of course after such a feast, moving around proved rather difficult, but luckily I had a car and driver to take me on my guided tour of town. As it happened, the weather gods were proving particularly unkind that Sunday morning, making me even more grateful for said car. Montreal is the second largest city in Canada and as such it’s rather spread out. Situated on the island with the same name, it’s surrounded by the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, with a backdrop of the 232-metre high Mount Royal.  Although Montreal is firmly French-speaking and there’s a long-standing history of French rule and influence – the French first arrived in the area in 1535 and Montreal was founded in 1642 as a Catholic mission named Ville Marie after Virgin Mary – there is also plenty of First Nation, Scottish, English and Irish history to be found here. Our first stop for the morning was Westmount, a neighbourhood of exceedingly opulent houses and good views of the surroundings, where the richest English and Scottish families originally settled. Montreal remained French-controlled until 1763, then the British had a go until 1867 when Montreal became part of independent Canada.

The views from Mount Royal were rather spectacular and I was really starting to get into my history lesson delivered by my knowledgeable guide Carl-Pierre, as we continued our drive past the city’s graceful Oratory, through the extensive Mount-Royal Park, checking out Lac aux Castors (Beavers’ Lake) and the Belvedere with more sweeping, if somewhat soggy, vistas. If Westmount was historically home to the English and Scottish well-to-do, Outremont, on the other side of the mountain, was where the French bourgeoisie resided. These days it’s branched out to include Montreal’s Hassidic Jewish community, just one of many immigrant communities that have settled in the city over the years. Arabs, Latin Americans, Chinese and many others have been influential in creating today’s modern metropolis, which has both a Latin Quarter and a small Chinatown. The borough of Plateau, traditionally the French-speaking working class neighbourhood, has recently gone through a process of gentrification and is now the place to find cool shops and trendy bars. Most houses here have staircases on the outside – historically a space-saving measure – quirky looking, but quite possibly lethal in times of snow and ice.

After skirting the centre, my grand tour continued along Rue Sherbrooke towards the so-called Golden Square Mile. From 1860 to 1930 Montreal was the wealthiest city in the world and this comparatively tiny piece of land was home to the richest businesses and families. The years have been kind and almost 100 years on the buildings remain impressive and also impressively low-rise – no one is allowed to build any structure higher than the 232 metres of Mount Royal’s summit. The area is home to McGill University, Canada’s oldest and Molson House, headquarters of the brewery started by UK emigrants now run by 4th generation Molsons.

a panoramic view of the Pointe-à-Callière  © Pointe-à-Callière Museum

a panoramic view of the Pointe-à-Callière © Pointe-à-Callière Museum

The Golden Square Mile isn’t far from the oldest parts of Montreal and, with the rain easing off, a walking tour of this part seemed a good idea. Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main drag for shopping, restaurants and bars made for a stroller-friendly start. From there I ventured down to the cathedral Marie-Reine-du-Monde, and onto the old town square Place d’Armes. This part of Montreal, close to the historic port, is replete with grand old buildings such as the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal and the Town Hall, a good number of interesting museums and also the main centre of internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil. For a good introduction to the city and its history, Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History is a good bet and I just managed to squeeze in a visit at the end of the day. By then my feet were slightly weary, so after checking out the various galleries I opted for a sit-down, until a guard kindly asked me not to sit on the exhibits. Oops, how was I to know the stone “bench” was that old?

the gossiping ladies of Montreal - probably gossiping about how wonderful their city is! © Anna Maria Espsäter

the gossiping ladies of Montreal – probably gossiping about how wonderful their city is! © Anna Maria Espsäter

A couple of days in Montreal certainly aren’t enough to see all the city has to offer – there are markets, gardens and world-famous underground shopping malls galore to choose from as well – but it proved a great taster session, making me want to set plans in

motion to return at the earliest opportunity. Above all I’d happily return for breakfast every day of the week.

For more information about Montreal, click here.

For more general information about Quebec, click here

Getting there:

There are direct flights from the UK to Montreal with Air Canada, Air Transat and British Airways. A number of international carriers including KLM, Lufthansa and Air France fly via respective hubs. While in Canada, Via Rail is a good option for getting around.

Where to stay:

Au Cœur Urbain, 3766 Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, Tel + 1 514-439-4003,   Cosy and charming b&b with legendary breakfasts. Friendly owners and peaceful rooms.

Auberge de la Fontaine, 1301 Rue Rachel Est, Tel +1 800-597-0597,  Pleasant b&b in the Plateau district, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Le Simone, 1571 Rue Saint-André, +1 514-524-2002,  Small-scale b&b in Victorian house near the Latin Quarter.

La Petite Bourgeoise, 611 Manning Street, Verdun, Montreal, +1 514-806-5983 . Small-scale b&b with individually decorated rooms. Good veggie breakfasts.

B&B Le Cartier, 1219 Rue Cartier, +1 514-917-1829 . Downtown b&b with self-catering options.

La Petite Prune, 3422 Avenue Laval, +1 514-289-4482 . Housed in a historic building with pleasant terrace.


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