Strictly speaking this is our second visit to Canada but the first lasted only a couple of hours. It was a number of years ago and we were on a winter road trip round the Great Lakes, sticking to the US side. After a long and snowy drive along the southern shore of Lake Superior we came to Sault St Marie. This is where Superior flows eastwards into Lake Huron. There are some massive locks on the American side that carry the largest volume by weight of any canal system in the world. On the Canadian side there are a set of smaller locks that carry mostly leisure traffic. We couldn’t resist crossing over the lock system and entering Canada, albeit briefly.
So going back to Sunday night we arrived late in Montreal after a serious delay to the Amtrak train as we crossed the border from New York State in to Quebec Province. The customs crew were being extremely diligent and took three hours to clear the train of less than one hundred passengers. Eventually we arrived at Montreal Central Station and a quick taxi ride took us to the Hotel Gault.
On arrival at the hotel we heard the words everyone likes to hear “we’ve given you a free upgrade to a suite”. The hotel is boutique style in a renovated French style building in the old city. The room had light-wood panelling on two sides with cupboards built in, one exposed original stone wall and, the piece de resistance, two floor to ceiling French windows leading onto small balconies. We were delighted. As it was now approaching eleven o’clock we decided bed was the best answer and we’d leave exploring Montreal until tomorrow.
Our first port of call in the morning was a French style café, Le Cartet, that we had been told by the hotel receptionist served the best breakfasts. He was right. Margaret ordered French toast, her favourite. Little did she expect that the plate would include a bowl of yoghurt with nuts, pieces of pineapple, strawberries and pink grapefruit, the French toast and assorted crèpes. In comparison my scrambled eggs with shiitake mushrooms and spicy sausage on brioche with a selection of fruit seemed quite unadventurous. Complete with regular top-ups of the coffee and a bottle of chilled water this was a meal to set us up for the day ahead.
Montreal is a truly bilingual city with the dominant language being French. We knew that it was in the French speaking part of Canada but we were not ready for the dominance of the French language. Everyone seemed to have French as their first language and not all have English as their second. Nearly all signage is in French and the dominant architectural style in the old city is French. But, and it’s a big but, unlike some big French cities, this city is spotlessly clean, the people are extremely friendly and everyone you encounter wishes you a good holiday.
After breakfast it was time to start exploring. Modern Montreal straddles the St Lawrence River but the main tourist areas are in the original port city on the north shore. We were close to the river so off we set. The old harbour area is a series of wharfs dating back to the 19th century when Montreal was the main port for the export of wheat from the Canadian prairies. In the 20th century the port area became too small for the volume of trade and a new port was built further downriver to the east. That port is the longest river port in the world, so we were told. The old wharfs are now converted for leisure activities.
The riverfront is a great walking area with a promenade and gardens. As we walked along we became gripped with the idea of joining one of the short cruises on the river. There was one leaving in half an hour, so tickets were booked. The boat turned out to be a Bateau Mouche, the large shallow draft and glass covered boats that are synonymous with the Seine in Paris. There was an open-air upper deck towards the rear and that is where we headed.
Once away from the pier and heading towards open water, it became clear that we were leaving from a sheltered inlet and that ahead of us was a very wide and fast flowing river. It reaches speeds of up to 20km/hour (12/13 mph) and to the untrained eye it looked to be moving at the top end of the range today. As we left the inlet on our left was a tall clock tower. It was built as a memorial to the Canadian soldiers who died in the 1st World War. There are clocks on the four sides of the square tower that looked reminiscent of Big Ben in London. And that turned out to be nearer to the truth than imagined. The clocks were the work of Gillet & Johnston in London who built the mechanisms for Big Ben.
The commentator on the boat spoke in French and English, sometimes so fast that it seemed she was speaking two languages simultaneously. She knew her stuff. As we joined the river proper, she pointed out that the island on our right was extended to more than three times its original size at the time of Expo 67. All the rocks and soil used to do this came from the digging of metro tunnels that were also part of the Expo project. Recycling at its best. The upstream half of the island is now quiet leisure space whilst the downstream half is a loud, noisy amusement park with a gigantic roller coaster. Beyond the island we were able to look upstream to see the channel built to accommodate large ships going up and down the St Lawrence.
Our boat then turned round and headed back towards the city but this time staying on the main course of the river. It was explained that the Bateau Mouche was the only tour boat capable of doing this as, although the river was very wide, at least ¼ mile, it was also quite shallow. Next on the left-hand side was another artificial island built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. It housed, amongst other sports, rowing. Today the island is home to the Canadian event in the Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.
Going back downstream to enter the harbour, the boat made a slightly alarming manoeuvre. It turned sideways on to the current and drifted at speed until, with a roar of the engines, it forced its way straight ahead out from the main stream and into the quiet, sheltered waters of the harbour area. The boat then moved passed the ends of each wharf until we came to a disused lock gate. This used to mark the start of a lock system leading up-river now replaced by the channel on the far side of the river that we had seen earlier in the cruise.
As the boat started to turn we came close up to an amazing piece of architecture. At the time of the 1967 Expo a completion was launched to design an apartment block to house visitors. The winner was a young architect still studying at the city’s McGill University, Moshe Safdie. His concept was to prefabricate 354 identical concrete “boxes” and to link them together to form about 150 apartments with numerous open spaces between the “boxes”. All the windows face north or south so that each apartment has complete privacy. Although now nearly 50 years old it is still a stunning structure.
And so our 1 ½ hour cruise came to an end. It was fascinating to see how Montreal has developed around the river not only in historical times but also more recently with Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. But the immensity of the river and the speed of its currents were mind boggling. It was so much bigger than I had imagined.
Back on terra firma we took a pedestrianised road, Place Jacques-Cartier, that ran uphill towards the Hôtel de Ville (the town hall), a very impressive building that would not have been out of place in any French city. This was clearly the heart of the tourist area with loads of eating places.
Rather incongruously, at the top of the short hill was a column with a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson on the top. It turns out that the French in Montreal at the time of the Battle of Waterloo had no love for Napoleon or the French Revolution. Through public subscription the funds were raised to erect the column that is now the oldest monument in Montreal.
Earlier in the day we had noticed, from a distance, that the National and Provincial flags close to the Nelson monument were flying at half-mast. Now they were at the top of their poles. It was only later that we read that this morning had been the funeral of a past, well-loved Mayor of Montreal, Jean Doré. At his request the service had been held in the Hôtel de Ville.
Our wanderings then took us to the Basilique Notre-Dame du Montréal. To quote from Wikipedia
“The church’s Gothic Revival architecture is among the most dramatic in the world; its interior is grand and colourful, its ceiling is coloured deep blue and decorated with golden stars, and the rest of the sanctuary is a polychrome of blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold. It is filled with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues. Unusual for a church, the stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary do not depict biblical scenes, but rather scenes from the religious history of Montreal.”
To add to the experience we were lucky to be treated to a short choral recital given by a teenage girl choir all wearing long purple dresses. It gave us an opportunity to sit in the pews, soak in the architecture and listen to some music. Perfect.
For the rest of the afternoon we walked round the commercial area of the city and looked at the wide variety of architectural styles. The most interesting and at the same time bizarre, was the Aldred Building. The lobby of the 23 storey building was a gem of art deco style. The bizarre aspect was that, from the outside, it looked like a shrunken version of New York’s Empire State Building. The Aldred Building had been built a mere one year after the Empire State.
At one point we went into a coffee shop, Différance, where we had good coffee served by a guy from Guildford in Surrey of all places.
Back at our hotel for a bit of a wash and change before dinner, we looked through our Moons guidebook to Montreal and Quebec. These books have the USP (unique selling proposition) of being written by people who live in the area they are writing about. The recommendations are full of local knowledge. There are plenty of restaurants in the old city and making a choice was difficult. We drew up a short list and headed first to look at Boris’s Bistro, just one block away. First impressions were not favourable, the place was empty at 7.30. Next door was the stone frontage of a long demolished building. Looking through the empty window frames we saw a scene of happy diners. This looked a lot better.
Once inside we could see that nearly every table was full. The head waiter said he would find us a table and he was true to his word, but it was the last available table. The ambience was first class. Trees had been planted in space where a building would have stood many years ago. The trees were probably 30 years old. To protect diners from the sun and the rain, large parasols provided a makeshift ceiling-cum-roof. Our fellow diners were of all ages, many looked as though they had just finished work whilst others were clearly having a night out. We were one of the few tourist tables.
The menu had a real French Bistro flavour. Our choice of starters was the charcuterie, a selection of cold meats served on a slate platter. It was very tasty and the French style bread that was served with it was kept topped up throughout our meal. For main courses we had a lamb shank, beautifully tender and a generous size, and scallops served on a bed of risotto in a lobster bisque. After this we only had room for coffee. What an excellent meal. The only downside came with the bill. In Montreal, as we had found out, prices are always quoted without tax and service. There are provincial and state taxes plus a hefty service charge. Suddenly our bill moved from being affordable to the expensive. Still we had had a great meal, the service had been impeccable and, although the place was very busy, it was not noisy. Definitely a place to recommend to others.
From Boris’s we took a short stroll round the neighbourhood streets then decided it was time for bed. We needed to pack our bags ready for departure in the morning.
ps Talking of Boris, earlier in the day we saw a Boris bike – the real London article with Barclays branding – being cycled around the city. How did the rider get it on a plane?