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Northern Belle

Published: 01/05/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » May 2015 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Frequently described as Canada’s Cultural Capital, Montreal has earned the title because of its abundance of museums, galleries, restaurants and world class festivals which draw visitors year round. It’s a reputation that the country’s second largest city fully deserves. 

The phrase “combining business and pleasure” is taken to another level here and boredom is certainly not in the local vocabulary.

Founded in 1642 by French settlers, metropolitan Montreal actually sits on an island in the midst of the St Lawrence River. It is connected to nearby mainland suburbs and municipalities by enormous bridges, two of which – the Pont Champlain and Pont Jacques Cartier – are named after the explorers who claimed Canada or ‘New France’ for their homeland. 

The city is served by Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport located in Dorval about half an hour from downtown Montreal by taxi.

Montreal is headquarters to a number of international companies including Air Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada, the Bank of Montreal and the world famous Cirque de Soleil entertainment group. Only Toronto has a larger economy among Canadian cities. 

Although French is the official language of the province of Quebec, and province-wide only 13 percent of the residents claim English as their mother tongue, this is not an issue in Montreal. One might be initially greeted in French but most Montrealers quickly switch to English once they deduce their visitor is an anglophone.

However, when it comes to the question of language in Quebec, as the Bard would say, thereby hangs a tale.

Twice in its history Quebec has voted on establishing a separate country or something called ‘sovereignty association’ – independent, but with a continued economic association with Canada. The most recent referendum in 1995 narrowly rejected sovereignty association. The electoral fortunes of Parti Quebecois, whose platform has traditionally included the pursuit of an independent nation, has ebbed and flowed since its founding in 1976; it lost in the 2014 election.

The provincial government recently appointed a ‘minister of anglophone relations’ to boost confidence amongst anglophones but remains committed to the controversial language law, Bill 101. This law made French the official language of Quebec and the normal workplace language. In addition French became compulsory for immigrants to the province. It exists to protect the French language.

“I think we have a comfortable relationship between the English and French groups in Montreal,” says Michel LeBlanc, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Montreal Board of Trade. “The business community I represent wants the population to feel they have access to services in French. At the same time, we realistically know most of the population is bilingual on the island. Therefore, whenever foreigners come they can be served in English too.”

Other problems have plagued Montreal more recently. The city’s mayor, Denis Coderre, was elected in late 2013, following the resignation of his predecessor Gerald Tremblay in November 2012 under a cloud of corruption. If this all sounds off-putting, it pales in comparison to the more recent mayoral shenanigans in Toronto which garnered international media attention. Still, it’s not something that affects those visiting the city for business or pleasure.

“Business leaders questioned whether the business climate was deteriorating in Quebec,“ LeBlanc notes. “But it has nothing to do with whether this government suggests that Quebec should become independent. There is not strong public support for this at the moment.”

500 Years of Getting Along 

A world class city in every sense Montreal has twice hosted major international events. Expo 67 was one of the most successful world’s fairs of the 20th century and the 1976 Summer Olympic Games were also held here. Just don’t raise the subject of the Olympic debt which took citizens three decades to pay off.

Montreal’s history makes compelling reading. Jacques Cartier first arrived in 1535 to find Iroquoian communities along the rivers. Following the Seven Years War, the French ceded the land to Britain in 1763. From 1844-1849 the city was the capital of the United Province of Canada and still boasts the world’s largest inland port. Current language debates notwithstanding, the city has excelled through the coexistence of the French, English and native cultures.

A stroll down Rue St Paul in Old Montreal, where art galleries and French restaurants are crowded in on each other, is a wonderful way to experience the mix. The architecture itself offers evidence of the past with more than fifty National Historic sites within the city. And there is almost always a major festival or exhibition in the city which makes leisure time on any business trip unique. 

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is one of the world’s largest gatherings of musicians from all over the world and takes over the downtown core the first week of July. City streets are closed to traffic and more than 450 concerts on surrounding stages are free to the public. In addition, there are hundreds of indoor ticketed events for every taste, with some featuring musical superstars.

Then there’s the Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival which was founded in 1983 and has become the largest comedy festival in the world. With free performances in both English and French, it follows the Jazz Festival by a week. When the major collection of Impressionist paintings landed in Canada it was the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (Musee des Beaux Arts) that had the exclusive engagement.

Sports fans will find lots to entertain them too. Each year the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix is held in Montreal in early June. And, of course, Montrealers are passionate about their National Hockey League team, Les Canadiens or ‘Habs’ as they are known. To buy a ticket you’ll need good connections, however.

Part of Montreal’s vibrancy can be explained by the fact that it has more university students per capita than any other North American city apart from Boston. McGill, Concordia, the University of Quebec at Montreal as well as the University of Montreal are all located here. 

“When you are in Montreal you don’t get bored,” LeBlanc declares proudly. “At points you will definitely feel you are in North America and at other times you will have the flavor of a different lifestyle, perhaps Europe, or something that happens in Paris or elsewhere which creates I think something fun, something special. That’s Montreal’s DNA. It’s a city that has heritage from different places and cultures and it can be felt in the day to day life.”

Old Meets New 

The city is serviced by a well designed and efficient subway system, the Metro. There is also an underground labyrinth of tunnels, many of which are lined with shops and restaurants. It is known as RESO, and measures some 20 miles with 120 exterior access points all of which are linked to commercial or residential complexes. During the cold winter weather visitors will be thankful for its availability. It’s best to ask a hotel concierge for directions the nearest access points.

There is a wide selection of hotels which are perfectly situated for business travelers. The 1007 room Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth (900 Rene Levesque West) where John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously had their ‘bed in’ for peace in 1969 is one of the continent’s finest. The bell captain will give you a tour of copiously photographed suite 1742, “The John Lennon and Yoko Ono Suite” if you ask. Many heads of state including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela have also stayed at this luxury hotel.

Another fine option is the Westin Montreal (270 St Antoine Ouest) which straddles Old Montreal with its 17th century heritage. It is also convenient as it sits right across from the Palais des Congres, the city’s main convention center, and the Place d’Armes Metro Station. There are plenty of restaurants, brasseries and galleries within walking distance. 

Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, at 350 Place Royale offers a comprehensive history of the French and English culture. It is literally built squarely on the original site of Montreal and visitors can take a fascinating guided tour through the ruins of six centuries worth of landmarks.

There’s evidence of the first native Iroquois settlements, the first Catholic cemetery dating back to 1643, the Montreal Customs House from 1836 and the original sewer system. Don’t worry – it’s long since been decommissioned and cleaned up.

The aforementioned Musee des Beaux Arts (1380 Sherbrooke Street West ) is another highlight. Canada’s oldest art institution, it opened its doors in 1860. It’s near the Guy/Concordia Metro station. There is no admission cost to see the permanent collection, but there are always some incredible collections on display.Currently on view through May 31, “The Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism,” a stunning collection that includes vibrant oversized works by a largely forgotten 19th artist, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant.

For a completely different experience there’s the Montreal Biodome (4777 Avenue Pierre-de Coubertin) which opened twenty years ago inside the Olympic stadium. In fact the cycling velodrome was converted from its original purpose to build this unique zoological facility with its replicas of four ecosystems of the Americas: a tropical rain forest, a Laurentian forest as well as Arctic and Antarctic exhibits. It is home to exotic birds, plants and animals.

Bon Appétit 

Dining out is an absolute joy in Montreal with myriad choices. Holder Restaurant-Bar (407 McGill St) is a busy eatery that has operated on McGill Street for the past ten years round the corner from the Westin. There is a large selection of bottles of wines and beers on tap and the food is well recommended. Along with steaks, lamb and frites, the restaurant is noted for its beef tartare and duck confit. The after work crowd fills this place Thursdays and Fridays, so plan accordingly.

Along St. Catherine Street, inconspicuous amongst the fast food outlets, is Guido and Angelina’s (690 St Catherine) a moderately priced Italian restaurant. Here pizzas are baked in wood fired ovens and cream sauce pastas are served in extremely generous portions. The service is friendly and courteous.

Three Amigos (1621 Rue Saint Denis) is an affordable Mexican restaurant situated on Rue St. Denis near the UQAM metro station in an area known as the Latin Quarter. Generous portions and wonderful cheese enchiladas are amongst the highlights; so too are the homemade salsa and chips. Reservations are highly recommended as the line usually extends out onto the street.

Right next door to the restaurant is Montreal’s self proclaimed “Temple of Blues” a small club called Bistro a Jojo (1627 Rue Saint Denis Montreal, QC ) Some of Quebec’s best blues artists perform here. At the entrance in a glass cabinet is a Gibson Les Paul guitar autographed by American blues star Joe Bonamassa thanking the club for “keeping the blues alive for 35 years.” When Mireille the bartender is called up to sing you’ll know you are in the right place.

No visit is complete without a visit to Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique (Hebrew Delicatessen) (3895 St -Laurent ) a landmark since 1928 and the home of the famed ‘Montreal Smoked Meat.’ 

“When the Rolling Stones were in town we went to the Olympic Stadium and catered there,” says Frank Silva who has been general manager for 31 years. “When Michael Jackson came to Montreal the hotel called us and sent a limo. Same with Madonna. We will never close the restaurant for anybody. If they are too big of a star to come to Schwartz’s, Schwartz’s will go to them.”

There’s something for everybody in

Montreal. Fortunate are those, indeed, who are able to explore Canada’s Cultural Capital – even if it’s just for a few days. It’s the epitome of ‘joie de vivre.’   

By Paul Gains

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