Time travel in Montreal, Canada - A trevelogue by Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

Montreal, Canada
Montreal, Canada - An eclectic mix of the old and new (C) Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

Boston, July 12, 2010: As our car crawls into rush hour Montreal, the chic city crowds around us—beautifully dressed women clicking their high heels down cobblestone streets, shoppers stopping to listen to a whimsically dressed musician playing his accordion in front of the famed Ogilvy’s store, locals and tourists toasting the July warmth with a glass of wine in Parisian sidewalk cafes. And all I can think of is if the 28 jars of Gerber baby food and almost an entire Barnes & Noble collection of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh videos in my suitcase would last the entire trip!
Well, that’s what happens when you have a 16-month-old in the back doing his best to squirm his way out of the car seat, voicing his protest in a shrill mélange of “gagas”, “waaahhhs, and “eeeiiis”.

But then the city’s joie de vivre gets to me, and I (and my toddler) soon get lost in the glorious collision of cultures that is Montreal. Although we have Canadian immigration stamps on our passports, everything in Montreal, from the French street signs to its monument filled plazas and incredible churches, makes us feel like we are in France rather than somewhere on the North American continent.

Walking is perhaps the most rewarding way to explore this wildly diverse and edgy city, and so that is what we decide to do. We pack Little One into his stroller—amply supplied with a variety of snacks (Flavor of the Month: fruit crisps), and a few handy toys (Choice of the Month: trucks and cars)—and put our best foot forward.

Where the old meets the new, Montreal, Canada
Where the old meets the new - Montreal, Canada (C) Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

However, scarcely out of the hotel, we come to a grinding halt. It seems that Montrealers use the river and the mountain to guide their direction, instead of the conventional N & S of the modern compass. They consider the St Lawrence River “south” and the Mount Royal mountain “north”. So, starting out from our downtown hotel, we go east (or what we think is the east) toward the East End, only to find that we have actually gone north. While any conventional map would mark the East End as north and the West Island as south, most local maps tend to use traditional Montrealer designations.

So thank God we stop to hear Cyrille the Cacophone! The sprightly tune he is playing on his accordion makes us stop in front of the middle-aged guy in riding breeches, and a few friendly banters later, we realize we are headed the wrong way. As Cyrille moves on to his next number, we retrace our steps and start off again.

Old Town Montreal, Canada
Old Town Montreal (C) Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

Having always been drawn to all things European, we start our tour at Vieux-Montreal (or the Old Town). The Tourist Information Officer happily provides us with a walking map of Old Town, and gives us some interesting advice—walk the route twice—once during the day, and then again at night, when most of the buildings are beautifully lit up. It isn’t advice that I can follow with my temperamental toddler, but if you can, it should be a walk to remember.

Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal, Canada
Inside Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal, Canada (C) Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

The narrow streets and buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is the Notre Dame Basilica that takes our breath away. Built in 1656, it is one of the crown jewels of Montreal’s history. The interior is dramatic, with a deep blue ceiling studded with golden stars, and the rest of the church awash in hues of red, azure, purple, gold, and silver, inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The basilica’s stained glass windows, chronicling the history of the city, are a sight to behold.

After over an hour, we finally decide that we have to force ourselves to tear our eyes away from the artistic grandeur of the basilica and take in the rest of the city. The rest of the morning sweeps by as we meander along the river and stroll down St Paul, before stopping for a wonderfully flaky croissant sandwich stuffed with Montreal’s famous smoked meats and an allongé (a long espresso) at a little-known sidewalk cafe.

Recharged and refocused, we now trundle toward the Plateau—one of Montreal’s hippest districts. Once a dreary, blue-collar neighborhood, it is now a charming area with a bohemian vibe. It has rows of old Victorian houses with spiral staircases and wrought iron balconies overhanging with foliage or flower pots.

A taste of Mardi Gras, Montreal, Canada
A taste of Mardi Gras in Montreal, Canada (C) Dipanwita Bhattacharyya

Our next stop is Mont Royal, a mountain immediately north of downtown, which gave Montreal its name. An extinct volcano, probably active more than 125 million years ago, the hill is situated between the Laurentian and Appalachian mountains. It is now the site of the Mount Royal Park, the man-made Beaver Lake, a short ski slope, a sculpture garden, and the St. Joseph’s Oratory, Canada’s largest church.

From here we move on to the Quartier International, where we soak in downtown Montreal’s eclectic mix of the old and new—daunting skyscrapers, heritage buildings, chic bistros, upscale boutiques and art galleries. I suppose this is the closest I shall come to time travel—going back in time or moving into the future with every step.

A few more blocks bring us to one of the entrances to Montreal’s “City Below”, also known as the Underground City or RESO. At first glance, I am a little surprised that, despite having such a beautiful city, Montrealers would build such a massive underground complex. But then it strikes me that with winter temperatures often dropping to -15̊C, the RESO is perhaps the only way people here can make sure that they can work, shop, dine and go to movies, a museum or a hockey game all winter without putting on a coat. Spread over 4.6 sq miles and with 120 exterior access points, it is the biggest underground boardwalk in the world, filled with stores, food joints, and other entertainment, used daily by some 500,000 people (or so the guide says).

It gets late by the time we come up for air, and immediately get pulled into the droves of locals and tourists flocking toward the Old Town again. It seems that in Montreal, there’s always something happening – even on Saturdays… It’s the time when the city cools its heels by the river in Old Town and enjoys a fabulous fireworks display courtesy the La Ronde Amusement Park.

It is a break we welcome after our long day of walking and maneuvering a stroller up and down mostly cobblestone streets. An exhilaratingly exhausting experience that we celebrate with our first taste of Montreal’s artery clogging culinary specialty—the poutine. It is a mixture of french fries with fresh cheese curds, smothered with hot gravy. It is apparently imperative that, in order to be regarded as “genuine poutine”, the curd stays soft in the warm fries, without completely melting. Some restaurants offer variations, adding chicken, meat, vegetables, or sausage, or replacing gravy with marinara. The dish has even inspired a book, “Maudite poutine!” (which translates loosely as “Damn Mess!”), published last year to mark the poutine’s 50th anniversary.

I am a little torn about the taste though—the gravy makes the fries soggy, and I definitely like the crunch in my chips. But pray, let my disapproval not be known to a true Montrealer, or else, the doors of this seductive, bohemian city may be shut on me for ever more.