Random observations on Montreal

The Thinker by Rodin

Montreal is New York City done right. While certainly not as large as New York City it has most of New York City’s charms without any of its drawbacks that I could discern. For example, where are the homeless men in Montreal? They must be here. Maybe it is too cold for them most of the year. Or maybe the police keep them away from us tourists. Or maybe, hopefully, Montreal is an enlightened city and they don’t exist.

New York City feels dirty and smells unclean. Its subway stations are full of rats and trash. Big Apple is a constant ear piercing hell. Despite these drawbacks it is also a place full of amazing energy. I’ve not been to any place on the North American continent that feels so piercingly alive.

But Montreal is civilized. It has a metro, not quite as extensive as New York’s, but reasonably clean and rodent free. Unlike New York’s, which is largely underground, much of this metro system is just at or just below the surface. Rather than riding on rails its trains ride on rubber wheels. This strike me as much more sensible because it reduces the noise level. It is easy to find your way around on the Montreal metro.

Since Montreal is in Quebec and French is its official language I had some concerns that my language might be a barrier. Fortunately I had my daughter Rosie with me to translate, if necessary. But her services weren’t really needed. Those involved in commerce readily speak English well enough to transact business. Most signs are in French and have English translations next to or below them. But unquestionably French is the dominant language here. While Quebecans tolerate English they do not prefer it. This makes it awkward at times since so much of the English culture is embraced. Watching TV in French in Montreal seemed comical at times. Mostly it is the same English programs we see in America that are dubbed into French. It often seemed that the translators didn’t even bother to try to match the lip movements. Even American cartoons are dubbed into French. My daughter Rosie was very amused by Sponge Bob Square Pants translated to French.

Shortly after we arrived Sunday afternoon I went running. Our hotel was on the east side of the St. Lawrence River in Longueuil. I made it my mission to run across the bridge to Montreal and back. It’s quite an intimidating span and I made it most of the way. I could hardly ask for better weather. Montreal was delightfully dry with largely clear skies and gentle breezes. The view from the top of the Pont Jacques Cartier Bridge was spectacular. I could look to the east and see some of the northernmost mountains of the Appalachians. Looking west I had a breathtaking view of Montreal laid out before me.

We only had one full day to try and experience Montreal. I won’t bore the casual reader with details that are easy enough to discover for yourself if you visit. But in brief we spent the morning and the first half of the afternoon at Olympic Park, where the 1976 Olympic Games were held. (Oddly we arrived as the Summer Games were being held in Athens.) The Biodome, the Insectoriam, the huge Botanical Garden and the Parc Olympique Tower were all worth seeing, but are just very nice tourist traps. I was more interested in downtown Montreal. It was there that I hoped I could find the character of the city.

Old Montreal can be found along the riverfront near Vieux-Port. Hawaii has its Waikiki. This is Montreal’s version. While there is no beach, there are piers that go out into the river and lots of places where you can hear buskers, get a caricature of yourself drawn, or eat at a trendy cafe. I was more interested in the streets a few blocks in from the riverfront. In particular the ex-Catholic in me was drawn to the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal. I never paid money to enter a house of worship before, but it was worth the $4 CAD I paid for the half an hour or so I spent in the Basilica. This neo-Gothic church must look like a toned down version of some of the great cathedrals in Europe. Unlike those cathedrals this one is relatively new, so it gives the tourist some idea of how the great European cathedrals must have looked like in their prime. This basilica is a delight to the senses and was the highlight of my brief time in Montreal. There is much to thrill to: the statues of saints on both sides of the altars and along the sides of the church, the ornate statue of Jesus on the cross behind the altar, the dozens of confessionals along the sides of the church, and the many votive candle displays beneath little shrines of a favorite patron saint. I lit a candle for my ailing mother. The altar itself is lit up in a dazzling array of lights. It makes a logical place for the laser light shows that are held in the basilica on the weekends. Although no longer a Catholic I could be persuaded to attend a high mass here. The sounds of the choirs and the organs echoing through such an ethereal setting would make the experience religious even to this died in the wool Unitarian Universalist.

We had dinner down by the riverfront. We chose the wrong restaurant. A cold front that came through made eating more unpleasant. The ladies were tired. Rosie is not used to being on her feet and my wife’s arthritis made even our limited walking rather painful. A visit to a Ben and Jerry’s revived spirits. We retired to the Hotel Sandman sore but generally pleased with our brief escape in Montreal. We wished we had the luxury of a few more days.

Overall Canada strikes me as something of a bargain for an American tourist. The Canadian dollar is worth about 77 cents. Meals tend to be less expensive than what I pay for their equivalent in the Washington DC area. Even ticket prices seemed very affordable. A historical museum we stopped at offered a family rate of $20 CAD, which is about $15 in American dollars. With those prices and so much to see I will have plenty of incentive to come back to Montreal again. I hope my French will be better next time.

2 thoughts on “Random observations on Montreal

  1. I recently spent six days in Montreal to take in a pair of games during the World Cup of Hockey, and I came away with somewhat of a different impression when it came to the homeless problem in the city. My hotel was downtown on President Kennedy near McGill University, and trust me, the homeless are around — especially on Ste. Catherine’s and Ste. Laurent. Are they there in the same numbers we have in the Washington area? Not on your life, but the seamier side of Montreal exists nonetheless. As for the rest of your impressions, I don’t have anything to quibble with, as the Montrealers were universally friendly and welcoming — even if I always used English.

  2. One quick trivia tidbit: Montreal’s metro system is actually one of the few to run completely underground (no station has a ground-level or elevated platform), and most of them quite deep (Longueuil is one of the most shallow stations but still a few meters below ground). The trains technically run on rails, but the additional tires are there to allow the trains to accelerate and decelerate rapidly, reduce noise and create a smoother trip for passangers. (www.metrodemontreal.com for more info) Come back soon, more pleasant surprises await.

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