by D.J. Wilson –
Over 25 years ago, a good friend and I threw caution to the wind by taking an unexpected trip to Montreal. Having fewer responsibilities back then, we dropped everything, threw our passports and clothing into backpacks and headed for the train station. A bit of naivety left us with few fears, not even bothering to make reservations ahead of time. Neither of us carried much money, nor did we bring a map. Youth has its advantages, as we had not a care in the world. We simply set out to have fun. Once off the train, we walked the charming streets of Montreal and let the wind direct our path, sharing a complete sense of freedom. We had little contact with home in those pre-cellphone days. Thankfully, God watched over our safety and the weather was in our favor. We managed to rest on bunk beds at hostels, which allowed us to visit Montreal on foot and on a dime. Returning there has been a dream to me. While I no longer desire walking for miles with a backpack and two bunions, a well-planned visit to Montreal continually offers great appeal.
Located in the province of Quebec, Canada, it is the second largest city in the country, after Toronto. Named after Mount Royal, a triple-peaked hill in the heart of the city, it is Mont Réal or Mont Royal in present French. The city is on the Island of Montreal, with French adapted as the city’s official language. It is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world after Paris. Montreal is considered an irresistible city by many, due to the unique blend of historical, traditional and cosmopolitan lifestyles. This mix creates a unique city vibe, unlike any other in the world. From its nearby magnificent countryside to this city with Parisian ambiance, Montreal possesses great allure for travelers. Old Montreal is the historic area located southeast of downtown, with many great attractions. The Old Port of Montreal, renamed The Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, is located along the St. Lawrence River and was used as early as 1611 by French fur traders as a trading post. Redeveloped in the early 1990’s, it is today a recreational area which draws six million tourists annually. Its riverfront access makes it perfect for walking, cycling and pleasure boating. This cultural center offers a plethora of activities, including the Montreal Science Center and IMAX Theatre and the Montreal Clock Tower. The charm of Old Montreal is evident in its cobbled streets and historic architecture. A visit to Place Jacques-Cartier on a cold winter’s night offers stunning views of the square. During high tourist season, the area hosts many street artists. Restaurants on rue Saint-Paul offer a smorgasbord of excellent dining choices. Near Place Jacques-Cartier, on rue de la Commune, pieces of the wall of the old fortified city can be seen in the basement of restaurant of the Auberge du Vieux-Port.
Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal, or Notre-Dame Basilica, is a church featuring Gothic Revival architecture. It is considered one of the most dramatic examples in the world, with a grand and colorful interior and featuring a deep blue ceiling complete with gold stars. The church is decorated in a variety of rich colors, including blues, azures, reds, purples, silver and gold. Wood carvings and religious statues are found throughout the cathedral. The stained glass windows depict the religious history of Montreal and there is an antique pipe organ from 1891 featuring four keyboards, 7,000 pipes and a pedal board. A great museum to visit in the historic area is the Pointe-à-Callière, a national and international award winning archeological and historical museum located atop the city’s birthplace. For those interested in architecture, Montreal City Hall, Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, is a stunning example built in the Second Empire style and was built between 1872 and 1878. Bonsecours Market , or Marché Bonsecours, is a two story domed public market which briefly housed the Parliament of United Canada for a session in 1849 and Montreal City Hall between 1852 and 1878. Today it is an upscale mall with outdoor cafés, restaurants and boutiques. The upper and lower floors contain hall and banquet rooms available for rental.
Travel to Montreal by automobile is quite scenic. Canada has an impressive Autoroute system which provides a network of expressways for car travel. Like any major city, Montreal experiences traffic which generally peaks at rush-hour. Fortunately, there is an excellent Metro System, rendering movement in and around the city effective. The network of buses, subways and commuter trains work efficiently. Arrival at the Square-Victoria is reminiscent of a Paris Métro station and the original Hector Guimard gate was a gift from the city of Paris. The city is easy to get to by air and train. Montreal has two international airports, one for passenger flights only and the second for cargo. The U.S. national passenger rail system provides service to Montreal, operating its Adirondack daily between Montreal and New York City. Traveling through the scenic Hudson Valley, and departing New York’s Penn Station, the train ride is considered one of the top 10 most scenic train rides in the world.
Backpacking, years ago, provided me with a unique perspective of Montreal on foot. Today, I am ready to experience the city in a brand new light, visiting historic sites and immersing myself in the Parisian-like charm of an outdoor café or restaurant. Since my bunk bed days are gladly over, a stay at a pleasant hotel in Old Montreal just steps from the waterfront is ideal. While my adult responsibilities cannot so easily be tossed aside as in the days of my youth, a well-planned vacation to the beautiful and historic city of Montreal, Canada is a great way to revisit “Canada’s Cultural Capital” and to see the city anew after many years.