11.13.10

Canada Trip, Stop #5: Montreal

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 5:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the fifth post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

After five days in Ontario, I crossed the border into Quebec, the primary remaining bastion of French civilization in North America.

With a metropolitan population of 3.8 million, Montreal is the largest urban area in Quebec; roughly 5 times the size of Quebec City, the province’s second largest urban region.
Montreal is also the second largest metro area in Canada, after Toronto.  But to the uninformed visitor to both cities, it would hardly appear that Toronto and Montreal are part of the same unified nation.  From my own anecdotal observations, I experienced less culture difference traveling between Illinois and Ontario than I did between Ontario and Quebec.
The most obvious difference is language;  Montreal is a French city.  While English competency is relatively high (especially compared with the rest of Quebec) the primary language spoken on the streets of Montreal is Quebecois French.  Montreal’s English speaking population is concentrated downtown (previous 3 pics) and consists mainly of Americans and Canadians native to outside provinces.
The English majority of Canada has a history of attempts to placate the French, while the French have tended to shun English encroachment.  This is apparent in Canadian signage (unfortunately not pictured).  In Ontario, most signs, public and private, are in both English and French, even in areas with miniscule francophone populations.  In Quebec, most signs are in French only.
Living up to the worldwide stereotype, French Canadians are proud of their French language, and encourage its use by outsiders.  When I attempted to speak French, most locals and shop employees were obliged to continue the conversation in their local tongue, even when it was obvious English would have been more expedient.
Until Toronto’s ascendancy in the middle of the 20th Century, Montreal was Canada’s largest city and economic center.  At that time, Montreal’s economy was based on manufacturing and shipping along the St. Laurence River.  A product of its industrial past, Old Montreal (not to be confused with Downtown) is Montreal’s premiere tourist draw.
From an urban planning and architectural standpoint, Montreal is the most European major city in North America, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Old Montreal.
These days, Old Montreal’s function as a downtown economic center have long expired, and the area is home primarily to guesthouses, souvenir shops, expensive French restaurants, and any other kind of establishment which caters to tourists.
Despite its over-commercialization, a stroll through Old Montreal is still probably the most authentic way to experience Europe in North America.  My recommendation is to visit early in the morning (8 or 9ish) before the souvenir shops open and the streets flood with tourists.
The commercialization of Old Montreal does simplify gift shopping.  Maple leaf refrigerator magnets, “J’aime Montreal” T-shirts, Quebec flags, bandannas, and ashtrays…you can buy it all in Old Montreal.
Just northwest of Old Montreal is Chinatown.
Montreal’s “Quartier Chinois” is much smaller than the gynormous Chinese settlement at Spadina and Dundas in Toronto.  Consisting of only about 5 or 6 dense city blocks along Rue De la Gauchetière, Montreal’s Chinatown is still a bustling little enclave, with restaurants, souvenir shops, and the usual hoopala associated with Chinese neighborhoods in North America.
Le Quartier Chinois caters to tourists and locals alike, and its proximity to Old Montreal has certainly contributed to its becoming a major tourist attraction.  For this reason, it is also one of the few neighborhoods in Montreal where the default language of commerce is English.
Montreal’s Chinatown may be touristy, but not to the point where it’s become a charicature of itself.  Between all the tourists and giftshops, scenes still exist like the one above which could have come from a street in Anytown, China.
It also serves as the organizational center of the Quebecois Chinese population.
Like Old Montreal, Le Quartier Chinois fills to the brim with tourists as the day progresses.  For a less congested experience, go early.
I’m not sure if this is an every weekend thing or a special occasion, but on the Saturday I spent in Chinatown, there was an outdoor fair, selling crafts and tourist knickknacks.  Other than the Canada and Quebec themed flair, it’s basically the same stuff sold in any other Chinatown around the world (or any street market in China for about 10% of the North American price).
Next on the itinerary was the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, arguably Canada’s most eminent financial disaster since the Great Depression.
The Olympic Stadium wasn’t finished until after the conclusion of the Games.  When it was finally paid off in 2006, the total expenses, including interest and inflation, had totaled $1.6 billion.   At the time it was built, Olympic Stadium was arguably the most sophisticated sporting venue in the world.  34 years later, it sticks out as an awkward, historical anomaly, lacking a primary tenant since MLB’s Expos left in 2004.
Walking around Olympic Stadium is a bit like wandering through a ghost town.  The infrastructure reveals a glorious past, but in its current state, it feels empty, underutilized, and misplaced.  The site of Montreal’s 3 weeks of Olympic fame leaves one wondering what will come of the Beijing Olympic Park in another 30 years as well.
and here’s a shot from inside the stadium, where it looks pretty much like any other arena
Like Toronto, Montreal is a city of neighborhoods.  One of my favorites was the area surrounding Square Sainte-Louis.
On most public signage, Montrealers prefer writing out “Sainte” in full rather than abbreviating it as “St.”  I found this ironic, since probably at least 85% of all streets and squares include “Sainte” in their name.
more houses near Square Sainte-Louis
With urban planning from the European mold, Montreal is dense.  For a North American city of its population, there are relatively few high rises.  Rather, its density lies in efficient land use, with buildings close together and few parking lots.
Because of Montreal’s density, it’s also one of the most walkable cities in North America.  The best way to explore most neighborhoods is on foot.
For cross town trips, Montreal has one of the best rapid transit systems on the continent.  With four lines wrapping around Mount Royal (the mountain in the center of town) and extending out in all four directions, there is hardly a location in the city centre not reachable via Metro.  Trains run regular and frequent, and due to Montreal’s compactness, most trips are short, even those involving transfers.  It is also very affordable, with a  3 day pass costing only $14.

The Montreal Metro is one of the world’s few subway systems which uses rubber tires (see pic).  While one might assume the rubber tires would provide a smoother ride than the metal wheels used in most mass transit systems, I found the opposite to be the case.  My only gripe on the Montreal Metro is that you can feel every bump of the surface. This makes noticeably more strenuous on the eyes to read on the train.

Since Montreal’s subway cars are not designed to be weather resistant, the entire system runs underground.  Most stations are modern and quite clean.
The Montreal Metro has the highest daily ridership in Canada, and is one of only 3 North American mass transit systems with over 1 million average weekday riders (New York and Mexico City are the other 2).
Because of its ridership rates, trains run frequently, and I rarely waited more than 2 or 3 minutes at a station.
Here was an interesting application of street parking from the Mont-Royal neighborhood.  Spaces for street parking were located offset towards the middle of the street as opposed to being flush against the car, creating a barrier between the bike lane and vehicular traffic.
As a proper tourist, there were 2 “can’t miss” eateries included in my itinerary.  The first was Schwartz’s, Montreal’s renowned Jewish deli, in business since 1928.  With lines always extending into the street, Schwartz’s is a veritable feedlot, and possibly the busiest restaurant in Montreal.   With tables crammed together like animal corrals and it’s old school decor, Schwartz’s gets a 10 for ambiance.
Schwartz’s specialty is “smoked meat.”  (They even call it “smoked meat” in French).  Smoked meat is served on rye bread and (if memory serves me correctly) comes in 3 grades, lean, fat, and medium fat.  While the sandwich was top-notch, it certainly wasn’t the best deli food I’ve even consumed.  If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably eat it once a month, but overall it’s over-hyped.
The second item on my culinary checklist was La Banquise.  La Banquise is Montreal’s premiere poutine joint, and on my last night in town I discovered it to be the Holy Grail of Quebecois Cuisine.  In case you missed the description from the last post, poutine is french fries topped with cheese curds and then drowned in brown gravy.  La Banquise elevates poutine to the next level by combining the 3 base ingredients with a choice of 28 different combinations of toppings.   (click here for a more legible version of the menu).
Average poutine will never taste quite right after a trip to La Banquise.  In fact, it is so scrumptious, that they require patrons to pay their bill (with tip) before the food is even served.
On my last full day in Montreal, I took a trip outside of the city centre to Lachine.  An inner suburb of Montreal, Lachine was a separate municipality until it was annexed by Montreal in 2002.  Lachine was formerly a canal town, and the token tourist activity is to rent a bicycle and bike along the canal all the way to Old Montreal.
The route along the Lachine Canal provides an exquisite visual history of Montreal’s industrial past.
Most of the infrastructure is now either abandoned, or used for non-industrial purposes.
Near Downtown, the Lachine Canal trail also provides some of the best views of Montreal’s skyline.
…and finally the old factories adjacent to Old Montreal
Montreal is often listed as one of the most attractive cities in North America.  After my short visit, I’d have to concur.  In terms of urban design as well as size and scope, Montreal reminded me of a French Canadian version of Boston.  Well on the cusp of cultural trends, Montreal might also be the hippest city in the North America with accolades also going to New York and San Francisco.  Next leg of the journey, the heart of Quebecois culture:  Quebec City.

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