This will be a wide ranging section, as “places” is pretty generic, only encompassing…literally everywhere. The architecture of the city is varied itself, home to the centuries’ old, the modernist approach and the well-worn.
Easily the most impressive building in Montreal is the Neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica. Built with the pointed arches and stained glass rose windows typical of the style, the church takes the European roots and runs with it. It is distinct and unto itself, beyond mere comparison with its inspirational material. The wood carvings and artwork in the chapel is unique, while only the modernist charm of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia captures the essence.
The altarpiece is grand, reminiscent of many Spanish churches, but again, comparisons don’t do it justice. The bold blue paint adorning the ceiling is far different than the feel of the whites and golds and browns of many churches. The woodwork on the spiral staircase up to the pulpit is as visually striking as any church’s. The stained glass depictions of the Stations of the Cross are all memorable and lively.
An odd scene memorialized in the stained glass of a few of the churches across Montreal is that of Europeans meeting the native peoples. While I’m not an expert in relations in Canada between the First Nations, the English and French centuries ago, I do know in general is wasn’t BFF-status. (You’ll read that verbatim in textbooks years from now.) In all four churches I walked into, I saw something to this effect, and I don’t think missionary work was always done with the best intentions in the Roman Catholic Church, but I digress.
In any case, the Notre-Dame Basilica is definitely worth your time. If you came to Montreal and saw nothing else, it would be worth it.
The area around the church is fantastic, as well. Cobblestone lined streets were a treat for my camera lens, but not so much for my recently sprained ankle. The Old Port is truly where the moniker “Most European City outside Europe” comes into play. The buildings ooze French charm. The cuisine seems lighter and more layered than some of its American counterparts. (Doesn’t mean better or worse.)
The Old Port region itself sits right on the canal built in 1825 to cut out a treacherous stretch of the St. Lawrence River that contained rapids. Today, it’s been spruced up, and the calmer canal waters sit juxtaposed the latticework of currents on the river. The gorgeous fall leaves, vibrant dusk hues and Montreal skyline reflecting off the glassy water are well worth a stroll.
Further along the road, motorists attempt to guide their way through crowds of pedestrians, on roads that in no way seem like roads. (Very European of them.) Dessert shops, boutique stores and tourist traps alike yearn for business. You can find both Canadien knock-off hockey sweaters and succulent crepes. Your pick.
I have long romanticized ports and quays; this must be the Portuguese in me. And surely I’m not the only lusophone to feel the same way as we soon found out. As noted earlier, the Portuguese are all over Montreal in fact, concentrated in one area dotted with churrascarias and bakers. From what I can tell many of the Portuguese immigrants come from the Azores and the Madeira islands, not from mainland. Many of the continental Portuguese were more conservative in nature and for whatever reasons settled in the industrialized mill towns of the American Northeast, rather than Canada.
Portuguese immigration didn’t wind up in Canada until 1953, after World War 2. Those that did were mainly from the island chains, those escaping dictatorial António Salazar. Those from the islands tended to be more risky, and from the 1700s onward made their way to the Wild West and then onto South America or Canada. My highly anecdotal evidence was corroborated as my Portuguese waiter in Schwartz’s Deli revealed his family, too, was Azorean. Not being an expert on Portuguese immigration (yet), I will work out this theory soon!
One of the more interesting things about this city is the contrast between old and new. It’s really hard to work out what was built when. It’s not quite Paris, where gothic cathedrals sit on Lutetian ruins next across from Haussmann’s nineteenth century city planning. Montreal, however, has its own temporal blending.
Sometimes a row of nearly identical houses would show its own variation. They would have European inspired window sills and rooflines and paints. However, a sole owner would spruce up the trim and brighten the hues and sharpen the contrast. So in a row of housing with serious architectural merit, one would keep up with modernity while highlighting its past, all while the others drifted away into mediocrity.
The most obvious representation of this was, in fact, a very practical one. As Tony and I walked along one street in the Latin Quarter, we noticed a facade under construction. On the sidewalk, along the divide of where the buildings met lie a plaque at our feet, on which was simply written, “1894/1993,” indicating when the two buildings where built.
In a city where it is not always clear what’s old and new, this is phenomenally convenient. It helps place the city on a timeline. It helps the metropolis come into focus. And it would serve wonders in a place like New York or Boston, where timeworn brownstones sit across freshly renovated bodegas. It would be a wonderful idea if all sidewalks were adorned with these time plates. If only….
One thing you also definitely don’t see much of in the American counterparts is abundantly available in Montreal: sex shops. There were a number of these things all over city center, including both male and female spots. It seems prostitution is half-illegal in Canada, but in any case, there are some sketchy looking spots right next to your local grocer. It seemed bizarre to have dildos being sold next to a burger joint every 50 yards. But hey, to each his/her/their own.
The last place we walked is Mount Royal, the namesake of the city and the island. At the top of the mountain is a brown icon of a camera, or at least that’s what Google Maps shows us for the less adventurous and the more selfie-indulged. There’s also a chalet that was built in the 1920s to serve park-goers. It truly is a phenomenal view of both a modern city and a glimpse back to what Jacques Cartier must’ve seen in his land claim. It is urban hiking at its perfection: speedy, impactful, quasi-adventurous.
I love when the last thing I do in a city is impactful. Maybe you try donkey on your last day in Beijing. Perhaps it’s watching a sunrise over the Ha Long Bay. Maybe it’s a meal at your favorite Parisian bistro. In Montreal, it was gazing out over the St. Lawrence that proved my last view. And what a view it was.
Coming back home
The drive from Massachusetts to Montreal is super easy; it is smooth sailing through lovely valleys that autumn renders even more stunning. We stopped just north of the Canadian border at Parc Régional Saint-Bernard to play some disc golf. We hiked through some colorful forests and around calm, reflective lakes. The course was as beautiful to play as it was to look at, and the rest of the drive was similar.
The reds and yellows and oranges burst and the sun setting just over the nearest ridge sends kaleidoscopic rays out yonder. This time of year, it’s truly stunning, but it’s noteworthy that as we descended from slightly higher elevation south to Springfield, the trees became greener and greener. Even the slight change in temperature, altitude and latitude makes a world of difference in autumnal hues.
So, as sad as it was to be leaving our lovely northern neighbor, I realized that the green trees this way meant I would soon be treated to the very same sensational turning leaves in the weeks to come. Home sweet home!
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