In recent years, I have made it something of a habit to celebrate my birthday in some far-flung corner of the world. I’ve gotten a year older in Munich, Germany; Lausanne, Switzerland; New Zealand; and Hong Kong, among other places. Now I can add Montreal to the list.
As birthdays go, it wasn’t one of my best weatherwise. Steel-gray skies opened up to release fat droplets of rain as I stared dispiritedly from my hotel window, wishing I had chosen to spend this particular birthday in Hawaii.
But if travel writers are supposed to possess one quality, it’s resilience. Was I just going to sit here and mope when I was in one of the most charming cities in North America? After all, what could a little rain hurt?
With that in mind, I grabbed a map and my umbrella and headed off to explore Old Montreal, with its collection of ornate buildings that look as if they were transported from a Grimm’s fairy tale. In actuality, they were erected by the French settlers who came here in 1642 — Montreal celebrated its 375th anniversary in 2017.
My first stop was at Notre Dame Basilica for a look at its impressive stained-glass art that depicts scenes from the history of religion in French Canada rather than the traditional biblical scenes more frequently found in cathedrals.
Next, I headed for Place Jacques Cartier, the gateway to the Old Port and named for the explorer who first claimed Canada for France more than a century before the founding of Montreal.
This makes it all the more baffling that the square’s oldest public monument (1809) doesn’t celebrate the intrepid Jacques or even a Frenchman, but rather Britain’s Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Over the years, it has been the subject of controversy, as one might expect from a statue honoring the architect of a British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I asked several Montrealers why this statue, but none of them seemed to know either. One did tell me that there was an unsuccessful plot in the late 19th century to blow up the column. Yet there it stands in this militantly Francophone city, predating its London counterpart in Trafalgar Square by 34 years.
Art and Entertainment
By then, the steady rain had lessened to a drizzle, which brought out an assortment of street entertainers, from mimes and jugglers to minstrels and troubadours.
As I listened to a guitarist strum the haunting melody of “Are You Going to Scarborough Fair?” it occurred to me just how deeply this city’s creative juices flow.
I have been to its wonderful Jazz Festival, held annually over several weeks in June and July; seen the inspirational garden designs of Mosaiculture; and attended several performances of its famous Cirque de Soleil. However, I had never heard of Moment Factory, a Montreal-based multimedia studio that has produced some 500 unique “sound and light” shows worldwide.
I was determined to rectify that, and that night, I made my way back to Notre Dame for Moment Factory’s stunning show “Aura.” Entering the cathedral, I could see the stained-glass panels I had marveled at earlier, now illuminated by thousands of flickering candles.
Taking my seat, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t the laser show, coupled with orchestral music, that kept the audience mesmerized for the next 25 minutes. Silver and gold streaks of light bounced around the nave, highlighting the cathedral’s interior, while the visuals, again in multicolored light formations, exploded in celestial starbursts.
This combination of light, orchestra and grand architecture proved to be a fitting celebration of Montreal’s rich culture and a testament to Moment Factory’s creative genius.
I had a chance to see more of the company’s work the next day at Pointe-à-Callière: Montreal Archaeology and History Complex. Situated on the exact spot where the city was founded, Pointe-à-Callière combines archaeological remains with innovative exhibits to tell Montreal’s story.
Descending to an underground tunnel, I arrived at what may be Moment Factory’s most unusual production — a dazzling sound and light show — in an even more unusual setting, the city’s first sewer. Constructed over a period of six years, 1832 to 1838, the sewer system was the most sophisticated in the New World at that time.
Old Montreal, which begins at the St. Lawrence River, is a walker’s paradise, with overtones of Paris’ Montmartre and New Orleans’ French Quarter. The streets are cobbled, some dating back to 1672; the architecture is mainly 17th and 18th century. And the culture, like that of Paris, is cafe.
Over the course of the next few days, I was to discover that creativity was the common link that bound together Montreal’s diverse neighborhoods. In the Old Port, I treated myself to a massage at Bota Bota, a historic ferry that once plied the St. Lawrence River and now is permanently berthed there, and that has been reborn as an upscale spa and yoga studio. There’s nothing better than a massage accompanied by gently lapping waves to soothe body and spirit.
I took a walking tour of Plateau Mont-Royal, with its multicolored houses, outdoor staircases and narrow, shady cul-de-sacs, and checked out the hilltop park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park.
Then it was on to Mile End, technically part of Mont-Royal but light years removed in terms of style and substance. Mile End’s 10-block enclave is the incubator to which all those creative types — artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers — gravitate.
Staid Victorian houses cheekily sport colorful murals, many of them with political and social messages, reminding me of prim Victorian ladies suddenly taken to garishly painting their faces like music hall entertainers.
Here, you can also find, cheek-by-jowl, eclectic eateries serving everything from organic falafel to gnocchi served in Chinese take-out containers to Starbucks coffee.
Another day was reserved for a foodie walking tour in one of the city’s farther-flung neighborhoods, Rosemont, with its tiny, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants and famous Jean Talon Market.
At one of the former, Los Planes Salvadoran Restaurant, I sampled not poutine, but pupusas, a traditional corn tortilla stuffed with pork and cheese and served with curtido, or pickled cabbage.
But it was the market that really captured my fancy. Located in Little Italy, it’s a market in the true European style. In addition to the freshest produce, it also is home to a variety of small shopkeepers, such as fishmongers, cheesemongers, butchers, bakers and grocers. Do sample the goods while here. I tried a locally produced honey wine infused with rose petals and the maple-smoked salmon nuggets — a run-of-the-mill chicken nugget will never taste quite the same again.
As the largest open-air market in North America, Jean Talon covers some 600 acres and at its peak will host 300 vendors. Better yet, it’s open year-round and provides a completely different experience with each season.
If there is one area in which Montreal’s creativity reaches its zenith, it’s in the cuisine. I had three of the best meals I’ve experienced west of Paris and north of New Orleans.
At Helena, a Portuguese Restaurant in Old Montreal, I started with a tomato and goat cheese salad and ended with pork chops accompanied by clams and tomatoes, garnished with tarragon, mint and delicate sprigs of parsley.
Another memorable dinner was at Brasserie T! in the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal’s cultural heart. From my table in the tiny ultramodern glass cubicle overlooking a plaza of dancing waters, I sipped a South African chardonnay and feasted on smoked sturgeon and potatoes, gazpacho and goat cheese souffle.
Back in the Old Quarter, I opted for Accords Wine Bar and Restaurant, where I had a typical French-style meal of oysters and an assortment of Canadian cheeses paired with an icy Chablis, followed by a tomato tartlet with mozzarella, basil and white balsamic.
Like their French ancestors, Montrealers revel in the pleasures of the table and can turn even the simplest of meals into a gastronomic experience.
A Hotel Icon
On my last day and still in birthday mode, I decided to indulge in afternoon tea at the elegant Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Referred to as “the Grande Dame of Sherbrooke Street,” it embodies all for which the luxury hotel brand has become known.
But it also has its stories to tell. This is where Howard Hughes, wandering the lobby in a shabby bathrobe and tattered house slippers, was mistaken for a vagrant by the hotel’s general manager and where Elizabeth Taylor, her hair braided with yellow roses, married Richard Burton the first time.
A book on the Ritz-Carlton, “No Ordinary Hotel,” tells it all: “it’s immaculate doormen have doffed peaked caps in the summer and fur hats in the winter for an assortment of dignitaries from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Shah of Iran to former ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent Mike Wallace and rock icon David Bowie.”
As I was ushered into the elegant Palm Court, part of a recent $200 million renovation, and presented with a glass of champagne, I decided that rain or no rain, Montreal was a pretty good choice for a birthday celebration.