Lyon on the Lawrence

Montreal – home to European style, American scale and Canadian charm. Famed for fashion, jazz and bagels, it takes its name from its local landmark, Mont Royal – christened by the explorer Jacques Cartier who sailed here up the Saint Lawrence River in 1535. Despite being surrendered to the English in 1760, Montreal is the second largest French-speaking settlement in the world (a mere 3,419 miles from Paris) – and, although it’s no longer Canada’s most populous city (having lost that crown to Toronto in the 1970s), it remains a thriving hub of commerce and culture.

Another month brings another statutory holiday – this time for Labour Day – so we hopped in a tiny plane at Toronto City Airport and within an hour were gazing down at the skyscrapers of Montreal. The first stop for tourists is the old town, including the imposing Notre-Dame Basilica, the industrial Old Port, and bustling Bonsecours Market, all in the shadow of the city’s financial district and Mont Royal. Wandering the cobbled streets we passed charming squares and quaint cafes – some apparently created for Instagram – as well as the superb Pointe-à-Callière on the exact site of the city’s foundation, a fascinating archaeological museum that vividly depicts how Ville Marie (as it was established in 1642) developed into the Montreal of today.

Moving out from the old town, we encountered Montreal’s many universities (McGill the most famous among them), its fashionable boutiques, and an extraordinary array of art. Seemingly every alley was decorated with a vibrant mural. At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (or Musée des Beaux-Arts), we enjoyed a detailed exhibition about the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and their influences on Pablo Picasso, as well as works by contemporary artists of African descent. Elsewhere in the four-building complex we explored the development of Canadian art, noting particularly the Beaver Hall Group that emerged in the 1920s only a few streets away.

Meanwhile, over at La Maison Symphonique, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were hosting La Virée Classique (or ‘Classical Spree’), their annual ‘grand celebration’ of music that comprises over 30 concerts in a single weekend. Surprisingly Harriet wasn’t keen on the Laurel and Hardy films accompanied by organ improvisation, so instead we enjoyed hearing the OSM Chorus perform music by Wagner and Verdi. Indeed, Montreal is known for its music festivals – most famously the International Jazz Festival, which has been held annually around the start of July since 1980. For the rest of the year the jazz plays on in bars around the city, so on Sunday night we headed to Upstairs (ironically downstairs) for its Latin Jazz Night led by Alex Bellegarde. Complex samba rhythms and saxophone improvisation reverberated around the poky tavern as we dined from a similarly eclectic menu.

Talking of food, Montreal is renowned across Canada for its cuisine. We’d been advised to try its famous bagels – which, unlike the New York variety, are boiled in honey-water then baked in an open woodfire oven – so headed to St Viateur’s bakery in the Mile End district. The Montreal-style smoked meat club is also famed, its beef brisket salted and cured with special spices, and served with mustard and rye bread.

If Montreal seems the least relaxing so far of our Canadian mini-breaks, perhaps it’s because of the many similarities to Toronto: the looming skyscrapers, the expansive avenues, the endless grid system. But its past is more complex and its identity more difficult to define. Montreal is a proudly French metropolis with a multicultural population. It’s an ancient settlement – the site of indigenous communities for thousands of years – and now stands at the forefront of music and research. It’s a symbol of unity – 39 First Nations signed the Great Peace here in 1701 – and a victim of division, its economic stature fading in the recent turbulent decades of Quebecois politics. All of which is to say, if you want to try to understand the world’s second largest country, where better to explore than Montreal?


Popular posts from this blog

Dublin in the dominions

Niagara Falls