This week marks the end of four months in Montreal. Arriving in late March, snow was still everywhere on the side walks, and today in late July, the sun bright and the trees are green. Montreal has been filled with good memories – she is a wonderful city to live in, with many accessible day or weekend trips around once the good weather rolls in. Even in Montreal herself, there’s always so much to do – the people are friendly, the parks and public spaces come alive with events and shows in summer, and the food is good. Here follows a series of vignettes I’ve written about places and memories of my time here.
The heart of the city : Mont Royal
Montreal gets her name from Mont Royal – the huge hill in the middle of the city. Jogging over from home takes about 20 minutes, and a final uphill chug brings me to Beaver Lake, ringed by trees and rising further up behind still, people strewn out on the grass, soaking in the sun. In spring, tulips are planted all around the look out point, tossing their colours into the wind; in summer, pianos are placed all over the city, including before the Mont Royal chalet. Although designed by the same architect as Central Park, Mont Royal is much more of a sanctuary from a much less concrete city. The city decided not to cut through the park with metro or bus lines – making it an easy and pleasant getaway where one can breathe and hear oneself think.
Beacon on the hill : Oratoire de Saint Joseph
From any vantage point, it seems, one can spot the oratory – driving into Montreal over the Pont de Champlain, for example – the green dome on it’s own separate hill just left of Mont Royal. To get to church on Sundays, I cycle by this old lady and get this imposing view of the staircase leading up to the doors – a monument to the faithfulness of one particular worshiper whose zeal saw the oratory conceived. Surprisingly, perhaps, she has a rather modern interior – with a series of the Passion of Christ inscribed into the walls. Pilgrims, it is said, climb the steps to the oratory on their knees.
Almost Europe : Vieux Montreal
Vieux Montreal is charming with her cobblestone streets, with the multiply quays branching out on the river, with people, people, everywhere (once the weather permits!). In this square where stands the Notre Dame, buildings from different ages rise up on all four sides – there’s a quiet charm here, even as horse drawn carriages catering to tourists wait patiently by the road.
Tour La Nuit : Bixi
My favourite part of Montreal is probably the Bixi bike sharing system. With stations and bike trails all across the main parts of the city, I’ve been relying almost exclusively on Bixis to get everywhere. Of course, with Mont Royal in the middle of the city, almost any path you decide to take would involve some climbing and descending! One of my favourite memories on the bike would by Tour La Nuit – a huge 20km long night cycling event with many participants decked out in lights and funny hats, some even going so far as to cart along loudspeakers behind their bicycles, or to join up bikes to form triplet tandem bikes! The best part of the night: arriving uphill to Park Jeanne Mance, getting free cold chocolate milk, and caramelizing marshmallows on open fires!
Summer daze : Parks and pools
Come summer, grab bagels from Fairmount or St Viateur, and head out to the parks for picnics. Exterior pools are free, and probably not very ideal for swimming, because of all the people that will be there! I loved Park Laurier, Park Jarry (where I caught Much Ado about Nothing as part of Shakespeare in the Park), and Park La Fontaine, but even passing by all the quiet spaces and road corners with a bit of green scattered round Montreal – trees and inviting benches laid out – made me happy.
Hipster’s playground : Village Aux Pieds du Courant
Hammocks hang by potted plants, construction site materials were used to built shelters and lofted walkways, various brightly painted huts and umbrellas are scattered around Village Aux Pieds du Courant. Something about the sand, I guess, brings out the kids in us. Every Sunday night in summer, this interesting public space turns into an open air cinema – I watched Pink Panther and Kedi here, sitting on the sand or in the lawn chairs, as the long shadows of the various installations were thrown over the screen.
Childlike wonder : l’International des Feux Loto Quebec
In summer, Wednesday and Saturday nights explode with light as one of the most prestigious fireworks competition move into town. Each competitor launches a series of lights, sounds, some accompanied by gasps from the audience, for the length of half an hour, each trying to outdo the other with novelties – “I didn’t know fireworks can do that!!” is probably the sentence uttered the most among the audience (in French, though). The whole city, it seems, turns out with lawn chairs and snacks and head down to the riverside. Vantage points can be found all around – launched from La Ronde, the attraction park situated in Park Jean Drapeau, the best views, aside from within La Ronde itself, are probably from Pont Jacque Cartier, which is blocked off for pedestrians during the hour or so before and after the competition. The downside though, is the lack of music – the smaller fireworks are so well coordinated with the chosen soundtracks that with a season passport for La Ronde, one should almost always head into the park to watch the fireworks. Just this enough, is reason to live in Montreal in summer.
Winter pleasures : Cabane à Sucre / Sugar Shack
We arrived early enough to visit a sugar shack at the tail end of winter season (Ferme Aux Vieux Chênes in Laval, accessibly by public transport) – where traditional meals are served, copiously covered with maple syrup. After the maple syrup dipped sausages, the maple syrup slathered bake beans, the maple syrup covered crackers, the maple syrup pie, … maple taffy, formed by hot maple syrup poured onto a bed of ice, then rolled onto sticks!
Emblematic dish : Poutine
A “plat typique” in Quebec : the famous poutine. Fries, dripped over with gravy and curdled cheese, often topped up with meat and vegetables. It is ideal to attack this concoction when extremely hungry, but even then, I’ve found it almost impossible to finish a plate. At La Banquise, I tried the version with guacamole, which helped – the avocado provided some slight relief when the greasy fries became almost too much to bear.
New arrivals : Kem Coba
When I first passed by this shop on a Bixi, I had never heard of it. The long queue outside and the brightly coloured benches though, testify to her success. Launched by a Vietnamese family, Kem Coba serves classic tastes, and South East Asian ones. I particularly loved the soursop icecream – the slightly acid tang and the sweet chill of sorbet washed away the heat of summer, bringing back memories of drinking soursop juice with my dad back in the equatorial heat of Singapore. Also tried : salted butter, pandan, peanut butter, in decreasing order of my preference. Something that I really appreciate about Canada is how actively she celebrates migrant communities – during my stay, I’ve come across posters or advertisements featuring people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.
Biodome: of the four spaces in Espace pour la Vie, I found the Biodome most engaging and worthwhile. An ancient olympic biking velodrome converted into kind-of-a-zoo-but-not-really nature education space, I had the good luck to visit when they held an open “behind the scenes” day – going into the underground labs to meet the vets and other researchers and workers contributing to make the Biodome function (studying how to create a salt water environment from tap water, for example).
BANQ & Westmount Library: Montreal really knows how to do libraries : two that I really liked were BANQ and Westmount. Aside from having rows of good books and movies (Question: should you sort French and English books into two sections or one? Answer : One, because everyone here speaks both anyway), these libraries were also designed with care, and extremely conducive spaces for studying or working.
Markets: Of course, the most famous are Jean Talon and Atwater, and rightly so! All the same, nothing beats heading down to Jean Brillant Market, all of a 5 minutes walk away from home, and scoring $1 strawberries!
Long cycling trails: Canal Lachine, Park Angrignon and the south side waterfront near the rapids, Estacade du Pont Champlain… all great ways to spend summer afternoons.
Day Trips: It’s almost astounding the possibilities of heading out to nature when one gets a little tired of the city – Mont St Bruno and Cap St Jacque, both accessible by public transport; and a little further away by car, Mont Tremblant and the Eastern Townships; and so many more that I didn’t get to explore: Oka, Iles de Boucherville…
Dear Montreal, you have been good to me, and I am loath to leave you.