by Lee Foster
About 100,000 festival goers gyrated around me on the Place des Arts to the Afro-jazz music. On four stages within my sight, there were clusters of dancers pulsating erotically.
I had arrived in Montreal in July to submerge myself in the annual International Jazz Festival, my introduction to one segment of the arts and culture of French Canada. I planned to spend a few days in Montreal, then take VIA Rail, the Canadian rail line, to Quebec City.
For several nights I enjoyed jazz in Montreal, plus, during the day, the city’s emphasis on urban design, gardening ideas, and culinary creativity. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, surpassed only by Paris. <
Anyone with a delight in urban design will find this city refreshing. Walking the Old Montreal area illuminates the careful attention that Montreal has paid to restoring its historic buildings and breathing fresh commercial life into the area. Cobblestoned St. Paul Street, the oldest of Old Montreal’s streets, is the place to start. Nearby Place Jacques Cartier is a lively space with street performers and crafts sellers. A modern World Trade Center building boasts a spacious atrium, but it preserves the walls of the adjacent older structures. Some older buildings have been recycled to become boutique hotels, such as the fashionable Place d’Armes Hotel, which was a bank in earlier days.
Former ugliness in an area adjacent to Old Montreal, called The International Quarter, has been replaced with innovation. For example, there had been an ugly urban freeway going through the area. However, now the freeway has been kept intact but covered over, allowing construction of the Centre CDP Capital building above it. The Capital building is one of the “greenest” buildings of my experience. White, forking columns holding up the building are meant to emulate trees. Movable shades on the windows allow in the sunlight or diminish it, greatly affecting the lighting and the heating/cooling costs of the structure. Many more of the latest concepts in energy-efficient architecture, combined with high aesthetics, are incorporated into the project.
For structures such as these, UNESCO awarded Montreal World City of Design title. The concept for the “city of design” moniker is that Montreal imbues all aspects of its modern planning with good design, not just for the elite, but for all citizens. Besides the street-level city, Montreal boasts a large “underground city,” which they now prefer to characterize and brand as the “indoor city.” Started in the 1960s, this indoor city connects 42 buildings in the downtown area and many more by rail or subway to outlying neighborhoods. People can live, work, shop, and dine in chilly-winter Montreal without ever leaving a comfort-controlled environment.
You can spend hours rambling around Old Montreal and its nearby neighborhoods, stumbling on inviting design details, such as a fountain by Jean-Paul Riopelle, called The Joust, which erupts with flames on the hour in the evening. The fountain is directly in front of the multi-colored glass facade of the Convention Center. Another provocative sculpture is Raymond Mason’s cluster of people, called The Illuminated Crowd. The people seem simultaneously fearful and awed at whatever they are seeing.
The joy of contemporary residential gardening might seem like a specialized travel subject, but the annual International Flora Montreal exhibit, July to early September, is extraordinary. This five-acre outdoor site of gardening ideas from Montreal horticultural designers is a treat. I particularly enjoyed the vertical gardens, in which flowers are planted in wall containers to create a kind of floral painting. The Flora exhibit is on an island near Old Montreal, just beyond the locks that ships used to negotiate the rapids in the St. Lawrence River.
International Flora inspires both locals and visitors, who may have a deck or balcony or other tight urban space impoverished with respect to plants. Each year some exhibits remain and others are introduced. There are displays of everything from sustainable urban vegetable gardening to drought-tolerant ornamentals. The level of ideas is high, asking “What is a garden?” and “How could a visitor turn a small urban space into a mini-paradise?”
Culinary artistry is also a Montreal tradition. You will dine well here, and the situation keeps getting better. French flair and an insatiable joie de vivre are part of Montreal life. Dining is a leisurely rather than hurried affair. Among the restaurants, try Ora at 394 rue St. Jacques, where the risotto with skate is delicious. At Lemeac, 1045 avenue Laurier Ouest, consider the roast Icelandic cod. The wine bar, Bar Pullman, 3424 avenue du Parc, offers a cluster of three tastings of the varietal of your choice. Restaurants exhibiting a passion for food are tucked into every neighborhood. Try the multi-course tasting menu dinner at La Montee de Lait, 5171 rue Saint-Laurent .
Two markets that supply these restaurants are worth visiting. Atwater Market is upscale and polished. Have breakfast at their Boulangerie Premiere Moisson, starting with a steaming bowl of cafe au lait and some fresh-baked croissants hot out of the oven. Among the many food shops, be sure to stop by Gilles Jourdenais’ cheese store La Fromagerie du Marche Atwater. He has hundreds of cheeses, including about 350 cheeses from Quebec. The Jean-Talon Market is more ethnically diverse, as its location in the Little Italy neighborhood suggests. Sample the cut-up tropical fruit that grocers display to lure you with a taste. On the edge of the market you can visit a shop, Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, which sells products from Quebec only. Items to consider taking home are ice apple cider wine, maple syrup, and local cheeses.
Montrealers look back on the 1960s as the era that changed the city dramatically and thrust it into its modern design and cultural prominence on the world stage. At the 1967 Expo the residents developed a taste and appreciation for worldwide design and foreign ideas. After this decade, the Catholic clergy’s grip on the populace diminished dramatically. The changes were profound. While a Catholic family might have had 5-10 children earlier, the current birthrate is under two children per family. Some of the surplus churches have been transformed into community service centers, condos, or venues for other religious denominations.
At the end of my Montreal sojourn, I boarded Canada’s national train service, VIA Rail Canada, at the underground station, two levels below my lodging, the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. From 6 p.m. until the final July twilight moments at about 8:30 p.m. I savored the countryside during the trip to Quebec City. Grazing lands and corn fields were the dominant motifs in this lush landscape. I disembarked and went to my lodging, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac Hotel. Several great hotels across Canada were built as palatial destinations along the rail route, and the Chateau Frontenac, with its imposing position on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River, is one of the more splendid efforts.
The best way to start a visit to Quebec City is to get up at 8 a.m., walk downhill to the waterfront, and cross on the ferry to the other side of the St. Lawrence River. There is no need to get off the ferry. Just go over and back to enjoy the views. From a water perspective, you will collect memorable sights of the Chateau Frontenac and the nearly impregnable fortress that Quebec presented to any adversary who approached by sea. Quebec City is the only walled city in North America whose walls remain virtually intact. On the river, it is also easy to comprehend that the word Quebec meant, in the Algonquin tongue, “where the river narrows.” For the first Canadians, the Indians, the river was “the great road that walks.” Cannon perched high on the cliffs in Quebec City could obliterate ships trying to approach the city where the river’s width narrowed.
Back in Quebec City, wander the streets of Old Town near the water. The Place Royale is an especially charming small square, where costumed interpreters recall the historic culture during the busy summer travel period. Then climb the hill to the plateau area, the Plains of Abraham. Walk down Saint Anne Street until you see the Parliament Building, a major facade, and then take the elevator to the top of the G Building, the Government Building, behind the Provincial Parliament. From this observation deck you can see the battlements that protected the city from attack via land. The most fortified position is The Citadel. English forces won a decisive battle against the entrenched French here in 1759, with the top generals from both sides, Wolfe and Montcalm, perishing. After that struggle, the dual-language, dual-culture English-French character of Quebec and Canada was assured. While Montreal developed historically to embrace English and several foreign languages, spoken by its many immigrant groups, from Italians to Algerians, Quebec City retained proudly its pure French-speaking aura and its more focused French population base. A visitor who brushes up on some French will have a more enjoyable time in Quebec City.
Quebec City’s Old Town area, like Montreal’s, can be enjoyed and appreciated by just aimlessly wandering. The area is compact, both on top of the hill and under the hill. Restaurants abound. Small museums flourish. Two major architectural treasures are the gold-clad altar of the Basilica-Cathedrale Notre-Dame-de-Quebec and the courtyard of the 17th century Seminary, the Seminaire de Quebec, from 1688, still whitewashed with stucco, as was the custom in early Quebec City to protect the limestone rock from weathering. Year 2008 was the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Quebec City. Like Montreal, Quebec City has enough fine dining restaurants to satisfy a gourmand for many days.
Quebec City has a special UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site. As with Montreal, the delicious aspects of the city for a visitor are design, history, and French exuberance.
For the most satisfying “foreign” immersion possible in North America, a kind of European experience without the jet lag, it would be difficult to top a visit to Montreal and Quebec City.
French Canada: If You Go
For overall tourism information regarding the Province of Quebec, contact Tourisme Quebec, www.bonjourquebec.com.
Montreal tourism information is available from Tourisme Montreal, www.tourisme-montreal.org.
For Quebec City info, www.quebecregion.com.