Whirlwind Montreal! From whiteout to White Night

2 Mar
Spending a Saturday enjoying the winter wonders of Montreal
 

Rambling

Last Saturday, Hubby and I went in search of winter, making our annual pilgrimage three hours due north to Montreal. Montreal is an amazing city, notably in the dead of winter, when the whole place comes alive with light, near-daily snowfall, and fur-clad festival-goers intent on making the best of this bracing season. It is an especially walkable metropolis, with an impressive mix of history, architecture, arts, culture, dining, shopping, and outdoor activities packed into its tidy island space.

Getting to Montreal is easy. From our home in upstate New York, it’s a swift three-hour ride on a single highway, Interstate 87–also known as The Northway–across the border near Plattsburgh, continuing onto Quebec’s Autoroute 15. Between home and the border, I-87 runs along the eastern perimeter of the Adirondacks, affording great views of granite slides, beaver ponds, and the High Peaks to the west. The landscape flattens out near Plattsburgh, where Lake Champlain can be glimpsed off to the east, and the Green Mountains of Vermont beyond that. Crossing the border at Lacolle is seldom problematic–“Where do you live? Where are you going? Why? For how long? Have a fun trip!”–and the drive into Montreal from there is (usually) an uneventful 45 minutes across open prairie. On this day, however, snow blowing across the highway outside of the city makes our approach a white-knuckled one…

Whiteout conditions along Autoroute 15 on the prairie approach south of Montreal

Too bad for the near whiteout conditions, as Montreal’s skyline is a beautiful one to behold. We can usually see the mountain first–a giant hill, really–for which the city is named: Mount Royal, or Mont Real.  (Montreal is bilingual, as is the rest of our neighboring country, supremely shaped by and respectful of both its French and English history, so its signs, menus, packaging, newspapers, and so forth are in both languages. In Quebec Province, however, a cultural tug-o-war continues, and French tends to dominate signs and place names. In deference to this, I try to stick to the French names in my references here.) The varied skyscrapers then come into view, as the expressway winds along the St. Lawrence River before crossing over it on the Champlain Bridge. From the bridge it’s easy to appreciate the city’s panorama, stretched along the riverfront: the old 1976 Olympic Stadium (“The Big O”) with its sweeping arc of a tower to the east, the Molson factory and clock, the towering grain elevators at the port, the ancient buildings of Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal) in the foreground, juxtaposed with newer skyscrapers of myriad shapes, colors, and sizes…all of it against the backdrop of a treed mound known as Mount Royal, itself topped by a giant cross that lights up at night. On this snowy day, our view of the city is only to be seen in our mind’s eye.

After unloading at our hotel (I could devote a whole post to Montreal lodgings, and at some point probably will…there are so many of them, each with its own assets and advantages; we’ve stayed at a different place with each visit, and been disappointed by none), we set a course to explore. This visit is a short one–just an overnight–so we opt to cover limited ground. One block east of our hotel, on the fringe of Old Montreal, is the start of Boulevard St. Laurent, an iconic Montreal street also known as “The Main”, a north-south thoroughfare that divides the city in two, between east and west. We decide to cruise The Main and canvass this low-rise side of the city by foot.

At the southern terminus of Boulevard St. Laurent, a sign shows views of a busy street corner throughout the years.

For me, one of Montreal’s main draws is its architecture. Like many North American cities in the 1970s, Montreal suffered through the rape of urban renewal and forsook some of its architectural gems. But many notable historic buildings remain, often wedged between modern and post-modern structures designed by greats likes Moshe Safdie and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Where old buildings no longer stand, the city does a great job of paying homage to their history with signs and stories of the way things used to be. In more recent new construction, buildings have been designed to mimic their 19th- and early 20-century predecessors, incorporating bygone style elements with a modern flare.

Then...and now, at Rue St. Antoine & Boulevard St. Laurent, looking west

As we make our way up St. Laurent, we leave the edge of Old Montreal and enter Chinatown. This section of the city is just a few blocks wide and long, and is bounded at the north, south, east, and west by gates like the one pictured below, also known as paifang. Chinese, Cantonese, and Vietnamese restaurants line St. Laurent and its pedestrian-only offshoots here, along with Asian specialty stores packed with herbs, teas, exotic imports, and electronics.

South Gate entrance to Chinatown. In the far background, to the southeast, is the former Palais de Justice in Old Montreal, built in the 1850s. Between the South Gate and Old Montreal stands an example of post-modern architecture.

Continuing up St. Laurent, we cross a few of Montreal’s main east-west streets, including Boulevard Rene-Levesque, Rue Ste. Catherine, and Rue Sherbrooke (rue means “street” in French). A few blocks to our west is the hub of Montreal’s downtown: its financial district, its entertainment center, its “red-light” stripper stretch, its Golden Square Mile of museums, galleries, shops, eateries, and upscale homes. Also to the west is my alma mater, McGill University, along with Concordia University and Universite de Quebec a Montreal (UQAM). To the east, the city is much more residential. Also to the east are the Olympic Stadium, Botanical Gardens, and Biodome. So much to do and see…so little time! We keep our focus on our humble single street, but note that this stretch of St. Laurent is decidedly “fringe” and “grunge”. Some might say boho-chic. Bones of beautiful old buildings remain, in varying stages of rehabilitation (or decay…it’s hard to tell).

St. Laurent streetscapes

Stores and restaurants along St. Laurent are, um, eclectic. In some cases, it’s difficult to know if shops are open, or abandoned, or even shops at all. But the signs and window-front displays are entertaining, if not perplexing!

Store? House? Vacant? Occupied? Crime scene?

Our stomachs are leading us up The Main, and I have a lunchtime destination in mind. But first, Hubby wants to duck into this Irish pub called McKibbin’s. I don’t argue, since the snow is now falling horizontally (a typical Montreal weather event as the wind blows off the mountain). The waitress hands us a menu on newsprint. Resembling an old time-y newspaper, it has articles on the history of Irish people in Montreal, facts on the Titanic, and, of course, the menu items. It’s in French, and I can understand about 80% of it. But some of the offerings elude me. I can tell they serve poutine, but can’t quite translate what ingredients make their version special. I also think they have a fried pickle appetizer, but again, can’t be sure. I cave and ask for an English version of the menu. I cave again and order the poutine–made with curry and three cheeses!–and, yes, the fried pickles, or “McKibbin’s Frickles”.

Food and drink at McKibbin's Irish Pub

Appetites and thirsts temporarily sated, and snow having ceased, we head back outside and continue up The Main. More comical signs and storefronts. Montreal is an incredibly liberal city, and no where is this more evident than in its seductive store displays and promiscuous advertising. These are tame, G-rated examples…

Stitch 'n' Bitch...Je t'aime ce mannequin!

A little further up St. Laurent, we happen upon La Vieille Europe. With its unassuming storefront and rolled-up awning, it’s easy to miss. But its cheese case, all awash in golden light within, catches my eye and like a siren song seduces me. Cheese, as far as the eye can see. Cases of the stuff. Domestic Québécois cheese, French, Danish, German, Swiss. Above the cheese cases, all manner of cured meats and sausages. Around the corner and deeper into the store, shelves brimming with soups, oils, canned fish, mustards. Labels so colorful they make an artful patchwork that is a feast for the eyes. A whole section devoted to flavored salts. Exotic chocolate bars with ingredients like curry, wasabi, lavender, bacon, smoke, and stout. We could easily spend hours and hundreds of dollars here. A provisions paradise!

Surveying the amazing collection of food imports...including a whole section devoted just to salts!

A stone’s throw from the store is our intended lunchtime destination: Schwartz’s Delicatessen. This place is a Montreal institution, and is always humming. We hit it just right, no lines, and snag two stools at the end of the deli counter…the best seats in the house.

Lunchtime destination and Montreal institution: Schwartz's Delicatessen

Though Schwartz’s has a menu, the options are ultimately “smoked meat sandwich” or “smoked meat platter”. Having just come off our McKibbin’s mini meal, we opt for the sandwich. Beforehand, we are each served up a single, huge, super crunchy, über tart dill pickle. We start by biting into it whole, but then see others at the counter using their knives, and figure this must be the more proper pickle-consuming protocol. Then, the main event: A mountain of smoked meat, sandwiched between two modest, mustard-slathered slices of rye. Unadulterated beefy bliss.

Appetizer: Huge, crunchy, dilly pickle. Main event: Smoked meat mountain!

Camaraderie with the “counter culture”, up-close view of the old-school, white-capped gents carving up the signature smoked meat…Consider us two jolly gentiles!

A view from the counter at Schwartz's

Bellies full, we return to The Main, and start working our way back toward the hotel. Boulevard St. Laurent continues to the north side of the island on which Montreal sits, for another 6-7 miles. Further on are Little Italy, Little Portugal, and the Mile End arts district. But for us, this marks the turnaround point on our St. Laurent ramble. Heading back down the boulevard at dusk, we get our first glimpse of Montreal by night. Our visit coincides with the end of the city’s month-long High Lights Festival, or Montreal en Lumiere. During this festival, there is a flurry of arts activities, and businesses and public spaces throughout the downtown neighborhoods are aglow with unique light installations.

Intriguing light and multi-media installations are scattered throughout the city during Montreal en Lumiere, a month-long mid-winter celebration of the arts.

Near the intersection of St. Laurent and Rue Ste. Catherine, remnants of a disappearing red-light district remain. Montreal boasts a bunch of “gentleman’s clubs”–nude-y bars, strip clubs, cabarets–but most of these are clustered on other parts of Ste. Catherine to the west. They have in-your-face names like Club Super Sexe and racy photos of bare-boobed, stick-thin vixens. Frat boys from the States pack those places. Stumbling on this aging St. Laurent club, Hubby chortles, “Look how big and curvy the women are on the sign!” I can’t help but wax wistful for a time when bona-fide buxom and Rubenesque gals set the aesthetic standard. I imagine that behind the darkened windows of this Cafe Cleopatre, a 60-something broad named Babette is shaking her deflated bosoms for some fellow in a fedora who has been coming here since 1954. But I just Googled the place, and it looks like they are pretty much keeping up with the sexy times. Still, I will cling to my more nostalgic notions.

Retro "go-go" club on The Main has seen better days.

From sinful to saintly…After a quick pit stop at our hotel (for our free happy hour cocktails), we head back out, continuing just a few more blocks south to where Montreal begins, historically, geographically, figuratively, literally. Old Montreal. Vieux Montreal. This is my favorite part of the city. Blocks and blocks of breathtakingly beautiful buildings, cobblestone streets, boutique hotels in repurposed factory buildings and warehouses, funky galleries, cozy cafes and creperies, and sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River and Old Port. The awesome Basilique Notre-Dame is a landmark structure within this historic neighborhood. Construction of this Gothic Revival wonder spanned much of the 1800s. The exterior is a massive marvel; the interior, a jewel-toned and gold-leafed masterpiece of truly divine proportions.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal

On the eastern edge of Old Montreal, some blocks away and situated on the Old Port, sits Marche Bonsecours. When I was attending university here in the early 1990s, this once-grand 1840s building and its environs sat idle and in decay. Since that time, the area has been reborn as a beautiful architectural bookend to the old city. The Marche now houses several cafes, boutiques, exhibit spaces, and open air-styled shops that showcase wares and works by local artisans. The Old Port in front of the Marche has been rehabilitated, and now features a science museum, IMAX theatre, linear park, yacht basin, and launching point for Cirque du Soleil.

Marche Bonsecours, Old Montreal

A portion of the Old Port has been carved out to create an ice skating rink. Ringed by illuminated cubes, bounded on one side by the St. Lawrence and on the other by Old Montreal and the rest of the city beyond, this is among the most scenic outdoor skating venues. (Note how a newer pavilion built for the rink’s rentals, warming hut, and cafe is a modern incarnation of Marche Bonsecours in miniature.) Hubby and I didn’t have our skates, and decided not to rent at the late hour, but still had fun people watching…

Ice skating at the Old Port

Just to the west of the Old Port and Marche Bonsecours is Place Jacques-Cartier. Named for the French explorer who helped to discover Canada, this square is a scenic gathering place no matter the season.

Illuminated planters in Place Jacques-Cartier. Montreal's City Hall is at the top of the Place, seen in the background.

On this night, as part of the special “Nuit Blanche” (“White Night”) festivities, ice sculptors saw and carve their crystalline creations.

Carving ice sculptures at Place Jacques-Cartier

Having our fill of the outdoors, Hubby and I craved cocktails. Earlier in the day on St. Laurent, we had seen a great poster for a brand of absinthe, and snapped the below shot. Now trekking the darkened streets between Old Montreal and downtown, a sign for an absinthe bar caught my eye. It was a sign. Literally. So, absinthe it was.

"After the first glass (of absinthe), you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." -Oscar Wilde

If you have never had absinthe, seek it out. Unless you live in a big city, you likely won’t find absinthe served in any local bar. Absinthe is an art. And until recently, it was banned. A few years back, Hubby bought a bottle in a nearby liquor store after reading about the U.S. lift on the ban. He was drawn to it for its, um, “transformative” properties. I was drawn to it for its Art Deco/Jazz Age legend. Absinthe is one of those old-timey aperitifs that peaked in popularity in the early 1900s, before being vilified for its purported harmful hallucinogenic effects. In former fashion, it was the select spirit among Parisian artists and authors. Look how it figured into the works of some great artists, who often called upon “the green muse” or “the green fairy” for creative inspiration…

Great artists have paid homage to absinthe in their works, including (l-r) Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

Absinthe tastes like liquid licorice, being derived from green anise, wormwood, sweet fennel, and other herbs. Apparently, there really is an art to preparing and properly enjoying absinthe. At home, Hubby and I had sipped it diluted with ice water and a touch of sugar stirred in. But at the absinthe bar we stumbled upon, we observe a much more purposeful technique. First: The ice water must drip. Preferably from a beautiful, vintage Art Deco fountain. Also: Don’t just stir in the sugar. Instead, follow the French Method, placing a sugar cube on a specially designed slotted spoon, and then placing the spoon on a glass containing a measure of absinthe. Then, start the drip. As water dilutes the spirit (3-5 parts water), the less soluble herbs in the absinthe cloud the mixture, making it a milky, chartreuse-colored concoction. Voila!

The art of enjoying absinthe? It's all in the drip.

Absinthe had, we are ready to get our art on. We haven’t yet been to the core of downtown, a handful of blocks to the west and north. Luckily, we can travel the full route without ever being outside and exposed to the frigid nighttime temperatures. Montreal boasts an expansive underground network of tunnels and passageways, totaling some 20 miles. This “underground city” allows residents to avoid the weather and traffic above, and go quickly between metro stations, office buildings, shopping malls, and schools. On this night, we notice placards throughout the network pointing us to various art exhibits and performances, as part of Art Souterrain. Performance artists, muralists, musicians, puppeteers…all convening underground to entertain the masses in the wee hours of this Nuit Blanche. Most of it is, well, weird. But a fun way to pass through the city, at an hour when the underground city businesses are otherwise closed up and quiet for the night.

Performance art, interactive exhibits, and visual art installations as seen in Montreal's underground network

Final destination for the day: Les 3 Brasseurs (The 3 Brewers), a hopping brew pub in the heart of downtown. Our night cap: A six-beer sampling of all the pub’s brews: blond, red, white, brown, La Belle Provence (an amber), and a seasonal special that packed a whopping 9% ABV punch.

Enjoying a 6-beer "flight" night cap at Les 3 Brasseurs in downtown Montreal

The sobering walk back to the hotel (mostly above-ground) permitted us to enjoy a serene, late-night cityscape. Freshly fallen snow + illuminated architecture x 6 beer samples = Magique!

Old Montreal architecture

Like most cities, the true beauty of Montreal is “up”. Jaded city folks shuffle along briskly with eyes down. Mistake! While you might run the risk of increased bumping or unintentional jay-walking, I challenge city slickers to walk while looking up. Buildings are beautiful. Unfortunately, their beauty often evades the ground-level multitudes, unless viewed from afar or above. Gargoyles, flourishes, gables, roof lines, windows…so much of what gives city buildings their unique character can be easily overlooked. In this case, tilting our heads heaven-ward yielded a pretty cool perspective on a minimalist and otherwise nondescript office building.

A city best enjoyed at night, by foot, while looking up

Our Montreal visit wrapped a mere 17 hours after our arrival, we bid adieu to the fair city by finding a different way off the island than usual. This time, we wind through the streets of Old Montreal, then between the old grain elevators at the port, following small, cryptic signs pointing us to Pont Victoria. This Erector set-looking structure is ancient, built in 1859 and the first to span the St. Lawrence. Obviously constructed in an era predating the automobile, it is little changed. The bridge was built for trains, and trains still use it today, taking center stage, with cars limited to one lane on each side, on that scary metal grating that makes a lot of noise and makes your car wiggle, like it wants to dance off the roadway.

Exiting the city via the aging Pont Victoria across the St. Lawrence Seaway

Homeward bound across the prairie in the crystal clear light of day, we see the effect of yesterday’s winds on the snow banks, which resemble sand dunes.

Returning south along Autoroute 15 in clear weather, we see the snowdrifts shaped by yesterday's winds.

Arriving in white, departing in light. A wonderful, whirlwind weekend getaway. Montreal…je t’aime!

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One Response to “Whirlwind Montreal! From whiteout to White Night”

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  1. Thank You Notes – Sarah's Place - March 8, 2012

    […] Ramblings and Roasts – Yes, I know this is 6 people I’m giving the award to, but it’s my blog and I can. Tara, I just adore you – As you already know. You made me feel so comfortable here in the blogosphere, and that’s a very big deal to me. I’m rarely completely comfortable anywhere. Plus, you have the other half of my brain and I can’t tell you how good it feels to know where it is now. Finally! Three words: Muumuu Mac & Cheese. O. M. G. !!! […]

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