I burned some ready-to-expire miles and spent the Fourth of July with our neighbors up north…across that other border that we don’t talk about very much. Since the only place I had ever been in Canada was Toronto, I was looking forward to spending a long weekend in Montréal, with a side trip on Via rail to Québec for a little extra culture, as well as a much-needed brush-up of my extremely rusty French before a trip to Paris in December.
I stayed at the Gouverneur Place Dupuis in Montréal’s gay village, and while the hotel on the whole is a little tired and showing its age, the staff was friendly, the bed was comfortable and the hotel is in a prime location to wander beneath the thousands of strands of illuminated pink balls strung over the main gay drag Ste. Cathérine street, which is lined with bars and restaurants and closed to vehicular traffic throughout the summer. I have always been a big fan of the afternoon cocktail hour combined with a seat in the shade and excellent people-watching opportunities…the weather was gorgeous, much cooler than it would have been at home, and I took full advantage.
My room on the fifteenth floor provided a view of Montréal stretching north toward the Jacques Cartier bridge and the St. Lawrence, which I didn’t fully appreciate until I found that Montréal is hosting the International Fireworks Competition, with different countries competing each Saturday evening throughout the summer in Parc Jean Drapeau on Île Sainte Hélène; in an odd twist, 4 July was England’s evening to compete. I love fireworks and bravo, God save the queen, tally-ho, the Brits put on a great show and I certainly hope they do well in the final reckoning.
I walked Montréal’s Old Port and visited the Basilica of Nôtre-Dame de Montreal, a nineteenth-century French Gothic church designed and built by an Irish architect to occupy a consecrated spot where chapels have stood since the late seventeenth century.
The exterior is impressive and gray. The interior is impressive and every other color, intricately carved, eye-poppingly painted in heavenly blue dotted with golden stars, and decorated with massive stained glass depicting scenes from Montréal’s history. I actually preferred the smaller, glowing Sacré Coeur chapel behind the main altar, rebuilt after a fire in the 1980’s and where a sense of peace was the order of the day.
Walking makes me hungry. I had a couple of memorable lunches, one at the insanely (understandably) busy Olive et Gourmando in Old Montréal (their delicious version of the Cuban sandwich paired with a bowl of minestrone) and another at Ma’tine (in the gay village) where my treat was a Québecois Eggs Benedict with black boudin sausage, field greens and a poached egg on thick, whole-grain toast.
With a couple of drinks and a siesta after lunch, I can’t use walking as an excuse for dinner. Montréal has a well-deserved reputation as a foodie town, and I gained a few pounds chowing down on poutine, my favorite of which was the house-smoked corned beef and caramelized onions at Mâche, a little basement-level gastropub in the university district.
While walking makes me hungry, eating makes me walk. After a couple of days of sampling everything I could find in the way of sausage and poutine, a hike up Mont Royal sounded like it fit the bill. This large hill in the middle of the city is basically a huge park, originally laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of New York’s Central Park and my own hometown’s Piedmont Park), and a hike to the top to see the tall, illuminated cross (think Jesus on Broadway) and the staggering views of the city from the Chalet du Mont Royal was a good way to burn off a few calories on a weekend morning and check out the locals.
Before heading back down for lunch.