As usual, we took a back road from Ottawa to Montreal. It ran along the river and when we reached Cumberland where we planned to cross a bridge into Quebec, we were pleased to find ourselves on a small ferry. We always enjoy a ferry ride and have taken them across little rivers like the Potomac and Susquehanna and large ones like the Mississippi. Ferries cross the Ottawa River in several places (Outaouais, as the signs say in French in Quebec).
Miles before we reached the little riverside town of Montebello, we noticed young people camping and walking along the highway. There were even more in Montebello and beyond. By chance we arrived at “Amnesia Rockfest,” the largest rock and roll festival in Canada. Montebello has only about 900 residents, but this festival, which was first held in 2005, looked like it was drawing hundreds of thousands to see its 150 bands. We didn’t have tickets.
Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. It has over three million eight hundred thousand people and is growing. By contrast, Toronto has just over two and a half million and Vancouver about six hundred thousand. Quebec City, the other major French-speaking city in Canada, has just under a half million people.
Parking is a challenge in any big city. Unlike Ottawa, we had inner-city hotel reservations,
and even our hotel parking had a surcharge and was on a first come, first serve basis. We got in early and had no trouble, but for the rest of our stay the lot was full. It didn’t matter because we left our car in the garage.
We chose our hotel over the Internet, and purely by luck it was in the Latin Quarter near the Metro system. Canadian cities are not as wheelchair-friendly as most American towns, but we managed, and the Metro was an excellent way to get around.
Quebecois insist on putting everything in French while the rest of Canada has bilingual signs, but I had survived in France, so I felt we could get along. Fortunately, however, most people dealing with the public are bilingual, and a “client service” officer in the Metro actually came out of his office to explain the system to us and to suggest places we might like to visit.
Catherine Street, in the Latin Quarter, is another pedestrian street. But unlike many such streets, it was mostly restaurants and
nightclubs, not souvenir shops. Our helpful friend in the Metro had said excellent meals could easily be found anywhere in Montreal (much like New Orleans). We certainly had an excellent meal that evening on a patio on Catherine Street. However, the street is also a gay and lesbian center with many bars and restaurants catering to that community. If that bothers you, you should get your view of the street from a passing tourist bus.
The next day we took an amphibious bus for a tour of the old city and then out into the old harbor for a view from that perspective. It was relatively early, there were just six of us, and we had a good guide. I had forgotten about Harbor City, a housing complex built on a breakwater created with fill that was taken when Montreal’s underground city was excavated. Harbor City, a truly unusual building complex, was designed by a twenty year-old man for the Montreal Exposition of 1967 and was an international sensation at the time. Unfortunately, my picture is back-lit and not clear.
The underground city is basically a huge shopping mall connecting skyscrapers in the central city. It means one never needs to go outside in cold weather. We were told it was the largest underground city in the world.
The amphibious tour was interesting, but a better value is the hop on/hop off bus which covers a much larger area of the city including the Mount Royal Park on a high hill in the center of the large island that is Montreal. The park
was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same man who designed Central Park in New York City and the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C.
It seems every major city has its major church. And while I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s observation that they are built on the sweat, labor and poverty of the “hired-girl,” one is often struck by some point of particular beauty. The Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal is unlike any other we have seen. Construction started in 1824 and the interior decoration was completed in 1880. The beautiful ceiling windows were impossible to capture in a daylight photo. Indeed, the elaborate detail in soft polychrome can only be suggested in a photo. It was one of the most decorated churches we have seen, but was not gaudy.
Leaving the city, we were pleased to find ourselves driving by the 1976 Olympic Park. It is possible to take a funicular up to the top of the “flame” for a great view of the city, but we were contented just to see the buildings and to see that they are still in use.
Once again, we just had a glimpse of a major city that deserves much more time. In addition to its fine food, there are museums and art galleries to visit, interesting streets and parks to stroll, and distinct communities like Chinatown and Little Italy. But even though we are taking three months, there just isn’t enough time to see everything going west across the U.S. and back east across Canada.