MONTREAL – Montreal beckons visitors to its 375th birthday celebration with a warm “Bonjour!” The city is finishing anniversary preparations and inviting visitors to participate in the yearlong festivities.
Montreal is an unexpected surprise to most first-time visitors — unexpectedly charming, unexpectedly intimate and unexpectedly modern. It boasts historic churches and endless street parties, yet sits on the cutting edge of the latest technology.
From its warm, French-English bilingual population — known as “les habitants,” or “habs” — to its bountiful green markets, one-of-a-kind architecture, vibrant street performances, fabulous food and hidden works of art, Montreal is a city that feels unlike any other.
Start your visit with a bird’s-eye view of the city at the observation deck and the digital interactive #MTLGO exhibit, located at the Au Sommet Place Ville in the heart of downtown Montreal. From its floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the 46th floor observation deck, visitors can enjoy a 360-degree view of the city. Geographical maps help visitors plan excursions and highlight landmarks, such as the St. Lawrence River, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, the Olympic Stadium and the lush greens of Mount Royal, from which the city takes its name.
At the #MTLGO exhibit, visitors can virtually tour the city through the 11 different video kiosks, which provide 55 video portraits of daily life in Montreal.
You will be outfitted with a RFID-sensor bracelet that interacts with the kiosks, collecting information as you watch the videos, “liking” favorite activities such as a journey to Mount Royal to play in the snow in the winter or a Bixi (bicycle ride) along the Old Montreal waterfront in the spring.
As you watch, instead of taking notes, the bracelet records your likes and, before you leave, you can print out a tailor-made list of four tour “missions” or journeys, to complete based on those likes.
From #MTLGO, visit the highest restaurant in town, the brasserie Les Enfants Terribles. The food there is a delightful combination of modern and traditional French cuisine and street fair, like gravy-laden poutine french fries and maple-syrup-laced mojitos.
Poutine is a decidedly Quebec dish that has spread across the provinces. At first glance, it looks like french fries, or “frites,” tossed with chunks of creamy cheddar cheese curds, all generously laced with gravy.
Seriously, the dish is far more than it appears.
What makes or breaks poutine is the gravy. It is traditionally a thin yet substantial brown chicken, veal or turkey gravy, somewhat salty and mildly spiced with a hint of pepper. The gravy is finely strained for a silky appearance and texture.
Les Enfants serves a traditional French duck confit, among the finest dishes originating from the farming Province of Gascony, with broccoli rabe and peach compote over a bed of crisp, peppery arugula.
What makes this dish extremely moist and flavorful is the slow preparation, which can take days. The meat is seasoned, buried in duck lard to rest, then slow-cooked until crisp and tender.
Time your visit right and experience one of Montreal’s signature events, the Montreal Jazz Festival (June 28-July 8, 2017). This 10-day street party shows off the heart of the city and its people. It is welcoming and inclusive, all about music and performance art, food and more food, and joyful, friendly smiles.
Music spreads a shimmering web throughout Montreal, anchored with golden strands of fellowship. A street concert is an interactive party, with dancing and singing that can carry you all the way home. Immense crowds break into impromptu song and dance, and habs offer genuine hugs to residents and visitors alike.
No one is ever alone or excluded from the fun of Montreal’s street parties. Single travelers are welcomed into the festivities and encouraged to join the group dance. Generous in spirit, concert-goers graciously welcomed a stranger before making room at the front of the stage for a wheelchair-bound music fan.
The Jacques Cartier Bridge, a Montreal landmark, is receiving a facelift for the anniversary. The historic, steel truss, cantilever bridge crosses the St. Lawrence River from Montreal Island to the south shore at Longueuil, Quebec. It was constructed between1926 and1929, and required 33,000 tons of steel. For the 2017 anniversary party, it will be lit up at night.
From the bridge, off-ramps allow access to the Parc Jean-Drapeau and the remnants of the Expo 67 “Man and His World” World’s Fair. The Parc Jean-Drapeau is spread across two islands, St. Helen’s Island and the artificial Notre Dame Island. The fair featured exhibitions from over 60 countries.
The Parc is 20 minutes from the center by car, but it’s also accessible via the pedestrian lanes on the bridge or by public transportation.
Notre Dame Island was built from the fill excavated from the construction of the Montreal Metro. Today, it houses the La Ronde amusement park, operated by Six Flags. Indications are that La Ronde will be greatly expanded for the anniversary celebration.
Still standing in the parc are the French pavilion, now the Casino de Montreal, and the Montreal Biosphere, which was the U.S. pavilion during the 1967 Expo.
Like Mount Royal, Parc Jean-Drapeau is a year-round playground for Montreal’s habs and tourists alike. During the summer, a beach alongside the man-made Olympic rowing basin is perfect for swimming. There are also bike paths, gardens and walking trails.
Winter offers skating and other winter sports, from sledding to long, leisurely walks in the falling snow.
Not all of Montreal’s treasures are bold and obvious. Some are more subtle and difficult to spot. Watch for the hidden art, found in the most interesting of places — from sculptures to fabulous Art Deco-era architecture in reclaimed, rehabilitated buildings.
One fabulous way to see the city is with a Le Petit Navire boat tour. Environmentally friendly, electricity-powered boats will take you on excursions along Montreal’s Old Port, soon to be the site of a new cruise line dock, or the Lachine Canal.
American Author Mark Twain called Montreal “La Ville aux Cent Clochers” (“the City of 100 Steeples”). He said, “It’s the first time I come to a city where you can’t throw a stone without breaking some church stained glass.”
A more accurate description reflecting the city’s Catholic heritage would be “the City of 1,000 Steeples.”
Montreal boasts world-class cathedrals that speak to the city’s deep, Catholic heritage. The Notre Dame Basilica, the Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral that is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the stately St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal are all magnificent.
One church that speaks to the city’s deep religious history is the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, located on the port of Old Montreal. One of the oldest churches in Montreal, it was built in 1771.
Emphasizing the connection between the church and the port, the chapel is often called the Sailors’ Church. In 1849, Mgr. Ignace Bourget, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Montreal, gave the chapel a statue of the Virgin as Star of the Sea, which was placed atop of the church overlooking the harbor.
Sailors returning to the port would bring “offerings,” intricately carved replicas of their ships that were hung from the church’s ceiling and are still there today.
The chapel also houses the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum, dedicated to the life of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, an early educator to the island’s poor. The museum also explores the early history of Montreal and the chapel site.
While St. Marguerite’s final resting place is to the side of the altar, below the chapel, ongoing archeological excavations continue to reveal new information about the city’s past.
Montreal is infused with history. Da Emma is a wonderful trattoria that serves Italian food in generous portions in the now-relaxed atmosphere of a 19th century women’s prison, with thick blocks for walls, low wooden-beamed ceilings and solid-steel doors with small, reinforced windows.
True to its Italian heritage, there are no printed menus and the service is casually friendly. The cuisine at Da Emmais modest, but far from underwhelming; there are plenty of pasta dishes, flavorful hunter’s baked rabbit cacciatore with the essence of rosemary wafting from the dish, and creamy burrata served with fresh tomatoes and salty prosciutto
Wine is an important part of an Italian feast, and decanters of light-berried 2011 Il Grappolo Brunello di Montalcino, a medium-priced red table wine from the Tuscany Sangiovese grape, grace the table. Generous plates of fresh green beans, artichokes, fusilli with tomato sauce, grilled zucchini and eggplant are served family-style.
No true walking city lacks street food to eat while watching soccer with the natives, or take-out to carry to the city’s scenic pocket parks and plazas to see the street festivals and performers.
A favorite of the habs is Chez Jerry, the domain of Chef Jerry Ferrer. Here, chef-driven food meets the casual dish to delightful results — with foi gras and lobster transformed into street food.
A lobster roll with large chunks of sweet, firm lobster claw, celery, cucumber, red peppers and vinegar — not mayo — based dressing on a soft, butter rich roll is filled with light and crunchy and sweet and savory. The roll is served with a Bec Maple Syrup-sweetened cola and sweet potato frites (not fries).
Chez Jerry’s would be one of my first and favorite haunts if I lived in the city.
Old Montreal is filled with cobblestone streets lined with narrow buildings filled with shops selling savory pastries and with eateries from the traditional to the hip.
In Montreal, the weather just is. It does not stop the activities or the constant stroll of les habitants or the tourists. On a rainy Saturday, the maître d’ at Holders greets visitors with clean, crisp linen kitchen towels to dry hair and pat clothes.
Find Old Montreal in the borough of Ville-Marie, bordered on the west by McGill St. Ruelle des Fortifications. On the east is Rue Saint Andre and on the south, the St. Lawrence River. Or just ask how to get there and be cheerfully pointed in the right direction.
In Old Montreal, you will find the city’s oldest buildings along the cobblestone walks. These include the Old City Hall that is now the restored 169-year-old Bonsecours Market, the oldest and largest public market in Montreal.
All that is above ground; find time to explore Montreal’s underground. Bakeries and delicatessens line the underground walkways to the metro, which will swiftly take you to new destinations to explore.
Do not miss the farmer’s markets, filled with the bounty of Quebec.
Unwrapping Montreal reveals constant joys. Even discerning world travelers who claim Canada is “not exotic enough” will find 2017 the perfect time to visit a city that has something to celebrate whenever you visit.
• Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning travel and food writer and travel editor at Communities Digital News.
IF YOU GO Les Enfants Terribles Brasserie1 Place Ville MarieMontreal, QC H3B 2E3, CanadaPhone:+1 514-544-8884 Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain 1050 Rue de la Gauchetière O,Montréal, QC H3B 4C9, CanadaPhone:+1 514-878-9000 Basilica Cathedral Marie-Reine-du-Monde1085 Cathedral Street Montreal (Quebec) H3B 2V3Phone: 514-866-1661 Da Emma 777 Rue de la Commune O,Montréal, QC H3C 1Y1, CanadaPhone: +1 514-392-1568Holder407 Rue McGill #100a,Montréal, QC H2Y 2G3, CanadaPhone: +1 514-849-0333