Canada, Part Deux

31 Aug

So my much anticipated train journey on the ‘Adirondack‘ never quite materialised. Reason – track work! Catch them getting away with that excuse in India!

Instead I had to resort to my least favoured mode of long distance transport – Greyhound! It’s a different story altogether on how I literally and figuratively almost missed the bus!

Montréal – 1

Despite everything I had heard about Montréal, it still managed to throw me off a bit and was all very confusing to begin with. French speakers, street signs in French, hoardings in French, subway announcements in French (only!) – more French, visually and aurally, than your likely to encounter on a first visit to Paris!

Even thoroughbred North American brands aren’t spared..

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The reasons are plenty – historical, political and possibly even geographical! Whatever they may be, it definitely distinguishes the city (and the Province of Quebec) as the most culturally unique part of North America. Not a bad thing at all, as I was to discover during the course of my visit 😉

Montrealers and Québécois alike are proud of their French lineage and aren’t in the least bit shy of admitting to their French inspired way of life. The Europeans, however, and the French in particular, view them with somewhat of a disdain – if only for their lesser accent!

However, Montrealers possess an attribute that the French would probably take centuries to perfect, if even from a reputation standpoint – friendliness! In my travels to the English speaking world, Montrealers are by far the friendliest folks I’ve come across. So much so that if you open up a map on a street corner, there’ll be a handful of people standing by, asking if you need help!

The people are amazingly friendly, and the city they inhabit, pretty, to say the least! Not just in its old and historic ‘touristy’ bits but visually pleasing every step of the way! Cool graffiti and colourful murals are a dime a dozen and there is nary a dull street corner in this vibrant city.

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As if the journey to Montréal had been nothing of consideration, I spent my first day exploring the city entirely on my two weary feet. Truth is, downtown Montréal is extremely conducive to walking and the older parts of the city, with their winding cobble stone streets, beg to be explored on foot!

If you can selectively screen out the ugly American automobiles from your frame of reference, so to speak, you will be forgiven for believing you are strolling through an alleyway somewhere in Europe!

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Rue Notre Dame is one of the main thoroughfares of Vieux-Montréal or the old city, where most of the city’s architectural landmarks are located. Hotel de Ville or City Hall is the first of these, as you walk west. Even though currently under renovation (apparently it has been for the longest time!), they have opened up its impressive lobby and council chamber for public visits – worth it!

La Bisilique Notre Dame is next – an attractive building, no doubt, but not worth paying to get into. Besides, if you’ve seen the real thing in Paris, this one, quite frankly, pales in comparison!

The nice thing about Vieux-Montréal is that unlike historic areas in other cities, people actually live and work here. A lot of the grand old buildings, which you can’t help but admire, are actually office blocks – both commercial and federal- so there are people milling around all the time and the whole area has a ‘downtown’ air to it.

No doubt, the old city has its share of tourist traps as well – a lot of the establishments along Rue Saint-Paul, for instance, some along Rue De la Commune (which runs along the riverfront), and certainly all those surrounding the very charming public square, Place Jacques-Cartier!

So it always helps to get tips from locals! Le Petit Moulinsart is where I ended up – for a much needed break – on one such tip! A Hergé inspired Belgian bar strewn with awesome Tintin memorabilia!

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If you still have some juice left in you (and not a great deal of Belgian Cherry Beer!), then head over to the eastern end of Vieux-Montréal, where the old Clock Tower is located. Walk west from there, along the promenade, passing the very imposing structure of Bonsecours Market place and Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Church – the latter, a lot more striking in my opinion, than the Basilica by the same name!

About a mile west of the Clock Tower, after having walked past the many piers of the Old Port, Habitat 67 – an eye catching housing complex – comes into view. Just west of it is the entry to the Lachine Canal, marked by locks and a humongous historic Grain Silo – Elevator #5.

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Montréal is commonly regarded as a City of Festivals. The month of July itself had no less than ten! I had missed one of its most storied ones – the International Jazz Fest – by about a week! However, as I emerged from the Berri-UQAM Metro stop onto street level that night, it didn’t take me long to realise that I had walked into one – Juste Pour Rire or Just for Laughs, the Comedy Festival!

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Quebec City

Quebec City is where all the American tourists – those not wanting to spend the extra bucks to cross the Atlantic – head for a taste of Europe! For this reason, many guide books have come to refer to it as ‘Europe for less’!

To even the most obtuse, it wouldn’t take long to understand why..

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Quebec City, henceforth QC, is undoubtedly one of the prettiest, quaintest destinations in North America, and its rolling topography coupled with its narrow, winding streets only serve to exemplify that fact. Throw in some fine old colonial architecture, a few dozen horse drawn carriages and a handful of French Bistros and you’re all set! All this for a fraction of the air fare to Brussels, Salzburg or Lyon!

So if you don’t mind noisy, oversized and often obnoxious American families on vacation, go there for longer. If not, a day trip out of Montréal is ample to get a feel for the place!

The train is the most comfortable and pleasant way of getting there, if not a wee bit expensive! Gare du Palais, QC’s train station, is absolutely grand and serves as a fitting start to the rest of your day in the city.

The Château Frontenac luxury hotel dominates the city skyline but other than being imposing, it is not nearly as appealing from an architectural standpoint as some of the other marvels the city has to offer – its interiors even less so! My favourites were Grand Séminaire de Québec (the seminary); Notre-Dame de Québec (free entry!) whose exterior does little justice to the magnificent interior; Le Ministère de Finance and Hotel de Ville.

Terrasse Dufferin is the promenade along the edge of the bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River and a walk along it is highly recommended – cannons, canopies, et al..

Walking up and down QC’s steep streets can exhaust even the most die hard amongst us so plan on doing the sights in Haute-Ville or upper town first and then breaking for lunch somewhere in Basse-Ville or lower town. Rue Saint Paul is full of cosy, if not a little touristy, looking eateries and so after much debate based off ‘critics picks’, we stumbled upon Café le Saint Malo, where the service was warm and the Steak Frite simply outstanding!

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If the red meat hasn’t done its bit to slow you down enough, Basse-Ville has some charming streets and public squares worth checking out – most of them devoid of traffic and notable among them, Place Royale. Not far from there is Musee de la Civilisation which came highly recommended by at least two Montrealers. Unfortunately finding a lunch spot took away a precious amount of our time and energy so we skipped out on the Museum!

However, there’s always enough time for a walk along the Saint Lawrence River, where the promenade offers great views of QC’s active river port, the city of Lévis on the cliff fronted South Bank, and looking back, the distinctive lines of Haute-Ville.

They say time is of the essence but I like to believe that ‘timing’ is of the essence! Just when I turned my back on the waterfront, I heard the distant melody of a band – not just any ‘ol band but that of the Canadian Forces Fleet School, who were marching in my direction, in full period regalia! A splendid sight, indeed, and a fine way to cap a perfectly good visit to QC!

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Montréal – 2

Day 2 in Montréal was spent doing what I love to do best, and long for in every new city that I visit – biking! Bixi, Montréal’s public bike share system was one of the earliest such initiatives in North America and is undoubtedly the continent’s most successful! Even though based of Paris’s Velib, Bixi is a far more efficient system, a whole lot easier to use and cheaper to, if that were even possible! It’s little wonder then that London & Boston are next in line for adopting that system!

There are many facets of the city that lend it a distinct European feel – some of which I have already enumerated. But in my opinion, none shouts out ‘Europe’ more than the biking culture in Montréal. Practically everyone owns a bicycle in the city and if not, there’s always Bixi! Protected bike lanes are the norm, bicyclists can be spotted at every nook and cranny of the city and bike racks are available nineteen to the dozen, with parking meters officially doubling as bike racks! In short, as far as North American cities go, Montréal is well and truly European (read evolved!) in its outlook..

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I used Bixi at least ten different times during the day – picking up one outside my hostel, dropping it off near a chosen breakfast spot, picking up another to explore a neighbourhood, dropping it off in time for a coffee break, picking up another.. You get the picture! I clocked around 23 miles in all that day, exploring parts of the city that I hadn’t seen on day 1. At the end of it all, I felt like a true ‘local’ 😉

Montréal derives its name from Mont Royal, the mountain to the north of the city’s downtown area. The mountain is today the site of one of the city’s largest green spaces – Parc du Mont-Royal! It was completed in the late 19th century and designed by the same gentleman credited with designing Central Park! Just like its counterpart in the Big Apple, Parc du Mont-Royal is a city icon and true gem. Being at the highest point in the city, it also commands the best views!

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Day 2 was also a day full of ‘local picks’. I got off to a fine start with some delightful breakfast at La Croissanterie Figaro in the Mile End neighbourhood. And I ended it with an ‘as good as it gets in Paris’ dinner of Steak Tartare, at the charming L’Express on Rue Saint-Denis.

Actually, the day ended with even more panache! On the Saint Lawrence waterfront to be precise – watching the Canadian team perform at the International Fireworks competition 😉

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Niagara

As you head west into Ontario by train, pay close attention to the announcements – French followed by English slowly but surely changes to English followed by French! In a matter of hours, literally, the change in cultures is so apparent, it is akin to traveling between two totally different countries!

Montréal to Toronto by train and a return trip to Niagara from there by bus! A lot of travel for one day but for good reason to, or so I was led to believe! I was told, ‘if you ever want to see The Falls, make sure you view them from the Canadian side – on the US side the only people you’ll find are Indians without Canadian visas!’. So there I was, definitely on the ‘right’ side, so to speak, waiting with bated breadth to behold the most storied Falls of them all!

And, they didn’t disappoint..

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I have to say though, as spectacular as the Falls are, the Canadian town of Niagara, full of casinos and neon, is equally ugly – a complete travesty!

If the journey into Canada was disappointing, the journey back into the US was anything but! In fact, it was a revelation! Meet Canada’s Porter Airlines – inexpensive, comfortable and punctual (ok, so you should expect all of that from any airline!), with a city terminal literally walking distance from downtown Toronto, a departure lounge resembling a 5 Star Hotel lobby, a free for all Cafe and about ten MAC work stations for anyone to use! Free WiFi – check, free breakfast on a 70 minute flight – check, leather upholstery – check!!! Flights to Europe & Asia? Unfortunately not!

For a full set of pics, click on the links below:

Montréal, Quebec City & Niagara.

Hergé

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