Sunday, July 19, 2009


Montreal is not as compact and quaint as Halifax, but it is more diverse and vibrant, full of shopping centers, restaurants, historic sites and other diversions. The old center is picturesque and, though not as closely resembling a European capital as Quebec, it is nonetheless filled with old and interesting buildings, quirky boutiques and cobbled streets.

Montreal at night

We took a walk from our hotel to the center and around the piers and—in that relatively small area in a short amount of time—saw the preparations for the Jazz Festival, a raucous street party featuring a mini Mini rally and some loud music, two wedding parties, some lovely old buildings and one stunning church. If we had more time (we're leaving tomorrow morning) we could visit Mount Royal, the World's Fair locations and go on a river cruise. It is definitely a city that merits a second look.

Montreal--the old

And it is, by golly, a clean city. The Canadians are a tidy lot and very proud of their country, and it shows in the way they don't use it as a communal litterbin, like they do in Britain.

It's also a very polite city. A brochures we read featured a humorous list of ways to blend in with the natives and one of them was, "Strike up conversations with complete strangers." And it is true; if we happen to remain in the shared proximity of a local for more than, oh, five seconds, they start talking to us. This makes queuing at shops, waiting at pedestrian crossings or making eye contact with the couple at the next table in the restaurant an illuminating experience.

Montreal--the new

The one unfriendly encounter we had was in a boutique in the historic district. We went in, as is our habit, with my wife leading the way and instructing me to feel this or that item and holding up different outfits for me to assess, when a short, perky lady appeared at our side.

"Let me tell you how this store is operated," she said, then launched into actual instructions regarding the browsing methodology they apparently employed in their particular boutique. It wasn't startlingly unique, and it made us wonder why we needed training. It also made us leave the store.

The bums—my litmus test of a city—are plentiful, but polite. Mostly they just stand unobtrusively next to the buildings holding out a hat or a cup. They rarely say anything, but there are more than there should be in a city so outwardly prosperous.

Attractive as the downtown area is, the ring around it is heavily populated by high-rise concrete structures—no doubt hastily constructed in preparation for the 1976 Olympics—that would look more at home in a former Soviet Republic. Our hotel is one such building but, thankfully, the communist-inspired architecture is only skin deep; the inside is elegant.

Our room is up on the twenty-first floor. It has a spacious bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area and a sunken living room complete with writing desk, coffee table, sofa and chairs. It also has a balcony, which has allowed me to engage in an activity I like to call "Extreme Herfing."

Both my wife and I are afraid of heights. She stepped out onto the balcony once and refuses to do it again, but I love a challenge, so over the course of our stay, I moved a comfy chair out there and managed to smoke a cigar while teetering on the edge of terror.

I don't know how many of you share this particular phobia with me but being separated from a 300-foot drop by nothing but a railing produces a feeling similar to a low-grade electric shock running continuously through your bowels. It was strangely enjoyable to engage in my traditionally relaxing ritual while, at the same time, having my nerves stretched tight as banjo strings.

Extreme Herfing

And for your information, if the railing had not been there, I would not have even opened the balcony doors.


  1. Anonymous3:50 PM

    Goody, goody, another destination to add to my list. I'm impressed by clean cities as well Mike, but I must say that episode in the boutique would put me right off. The nerve! Oh well, plonkers in every city of course.

  2. I lived 250 miles south of Montreal most of my life and never visited it. It wasn't until I moved to the UK that I went there--once with my son just prior to leaving, and this trip. I highly recommend it.

  3. Aaah. Hate hate heights and also get that feeling ripping through the lower regions... how brave you are to sit out and stay out!!
    Fascinated by Canada, without ever visiting it. Must look back to see what you made of Halifax. Read book about the Halifax Bomb that blinded all those people... extraordinary how I'd never learned about it before. (Now might have completely confused you.
    Off to read previous posts! Will be back to confuse you more no doubt.)

  4. Now thats a shame... no mention of Halifax!! Come on... and photos...??x

  5. LBWM: Seems I never got around to re-attaching my travel essays. The Halifax trip can be found at:


  6. For anyone considering going to Montreal, I would say definitely wait till summer. Like many northerly cities over here, nothing really "opens" till the summer. I went in May of last year and apart from it being too cold and rainy (no one's fault) a lot of the places and open market things hadn't started their season yet.

  7. The first time I went was in November of 2001. Gosh it was cold!!!

  8. I grew up in Arizona, home of the Grand Canyon, and have had a fear of heights since my first trip. I know that plummeting feeling in your stomach while forcing yourself to look over the edge of a tall cliff/apartment building/stairwell, but didn't have a word for it! The designer of the Ledge in Chicago is insane, n'est-ce pas?

  9. Kirstin: I'd never heard of The Ledge so I just looked it up on Google. Yikes!!! I felt a bit unsteady in The Gravity Bar in Dublin, and that was only on top of the Guinness factory. 106 floors with a glass floor! I don't think so.

  10. Aww Montreal is nice in May (though possibly it's better if you lived through winter, since often it snows nightly through April), but yeah lots of stuff isn't totally open.

    I worked at a fairly down market hotel in Montreal one winter and I was constantly trying to find nice ways of telling young British tourists that maybe they should wear heavier coats (or coats at all) and hats and gloves when they went out clubbing. The weather in Montreal can have serious bite in January, especially at 3am. I probably shouldn't have bothered, it isn't a mistake most people make twice.