Maximum city

Maximum city

Ever changing:  St Catherine Street in  Montreal. Photo by Utpal Borpujari

Quartier des Spectacles — French for ‘entertainment district’ — in downtown Montreal will be a familiar sight for any Delhi resident as it is all dug up! But while Delhi and the Commonwealth Games have become infamous for being disorganised, Montrealites know that Quartier des Spectacles will remain so for a few more years. For, the area, befitting to its name, has 130 culture-related organisations within a square kilometre and is undergoing a major facelift to make Montreal even more up to date with its worldwide reputation as a major hub of all kinds of festivals such as the international fireworks festival, jazz festival, ‘just for laughs’ festival that celebrates the funny bone in us, the world film festival, and so on.

Church city
Festivals do make Montreal a jazzy place to be in, but it is more than just a festival city. For one, it hosts six universities, including the world famous McGill and Concordia within its city limits and has an incredibly vibrant look at any given point of time. For another, it has north America’s only Formula 1 track. You can actually hire a bike and ride the full stretch! Denizens of Montreal are predominantly Roman Catholics and the place is peppered with hundreds of magnificent churches, so much so that Mark Twain had once remarked, ‘This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.’ And not just churches. Montreal has arguably, one of the world’s largest concentration of restaurants, serving world cuisine. 

The city got its name from what is known as Mount Royal (Mont Real in French). A walk on the hill is a calming experience, with its dense foliage and beautifully-maintained pathways. And the mountain is not the only open space in this city of some very-beautifully manicured parks. The city has gone through some difficult times due to linguistic and political tensions, which led to a large chunk of business enterprises shifting to Toronto in the 1970s. Despite the setback, the city held on to its strong cultural moorings, and although it is no more the business capital of Canada (even though it headquarters Bombardier, telecom giant Bell, International Civil Aviation Organisation, National Film Board of Canada and Telefilm Canada), it has more than made up by becoming the host to its numerous world-class cultural events. In addition, the city has quite a few touristy attractions, including its own Chinatown, La Petit Italy (The Little Italy) and Quartier Latin (Latin Quarters) — localities that got identified with communities that had originally settled here in large numbers.

There are quite a few options to travel around Montreal, but the best way is to walk or take the Bixi bicycles on hire. I personally prefer the first option anywhere I go, as that allows one to really soak in the sights, sounds and smells of a place. In Montreal, with its number of magnificent cathedrals, beautiful boulevards, innumerable eating joints and friendly people, this was the option I exercised as much as possible.

Also, the city has a great underground network of pathways, connecting its various underground metro stations, lined with small shops. To visit distant locations such as the West Islands suburbs like Beaconsfield on the banks of the huge Saint-Louis lake, the metro is the best way to commute.

But in order to soak in the old-world charm of Old Montreal, walking is the best option. Still retaining its old world flavour, it is here where the Notre Dame Cathedral, a magnificent structure that stands tall in stature even if dwarfed a little by modern-day skyscrapers nearby, is located. Souvenir shops and eateries in Old Montreal are places that are to be soaked in at a leisurely pace, along with some chilled beer and few snacks to go with it.

Sundays are a busy time in Old Montreal, as the place comes alive with a mock 18th century market place, where French-speaking dames, dressed up in old-style dresses, sell vegetables, maple syrup and wines from their kiosks while performers bring alive the world of Inuits — the original inhabitants — and French settlers. There is something for everyone in this market, whether children or adults, and it is time well spent.

Modern side of Montreal
On the other hand, Rue Saint Catherine is where you get a feel of the modern Montreal, with its shopping malls, fancy restaurants and night clubs. It is a street that literally bifurcates Montreal into its north and south halves, and runs almost across the whole length of the city, cutting via quite a few important locations. Montreal is also where you get what are called the world’s best bagels.

It’s got a loyal fan following, so much so that American astronaut Gregory Chamitoff took three dozen of them while going on a six-month stint at the International Space Station in 2008. A legacy of the Jewish settlers here, bagels are almost worshipped here, with tourist booklets calling some of the outlets selling their unique bagels —Fairmount Bagel or St-Viateur Bagel — as temples of this delicacy. ‘If you don’t want to offend Montrealers, never compare Montreal Bagels, which are smallish, chewy and slightly sweet, with the New York variety, which is puffy, moist and salty’, goes the sanguine advice to visitors.

The Montreal Casino is another must visit. Rated one of the world’s best, it has 120 gaming tables and 2,955 slotting machines, apart from a range of restaurants. For those who love visiting museums, some of the places to be in are the Montreal Insectarium, the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History. Indeed, it is a city that is a haven for museum crawlers.

Montreal is a city where there is a lot to explore. Just one visit didn’t seem enough, which is why I will go back, for sure.

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