28.08.2013 - 03.09.2013 21 °C
Upon arriving in Toronto customs to catch the connecting flight to Montreal, I immediately felt I was no longer in the US. The fashion was different and people seemed less...rushed. Approaching the customs officer, I braced myself for the stern, serious, no-nonsense personalities normally found at US customs, but instead, I was greeted with a friendly and chatty guy who asked about my trip. Totally living up to the Friendly-Canadian stereotype
I had originally planned 7 days in Montreal, with the intention of spending a couple of days for Quebec City. I hadn't researched the logistics of it prior to leaving, so when I found out it was $120 round trip and 3.5 hours each way, I decided to skip it. I probably could have done with less time in Montreal, but in a way I appreciated the slower pace and not having to rush to cram all the sights in. I was exhausted from the entire month of August and welcomed the time to slow down and shift into travel mode.
It's been a while since I've stayed in a hostel, and after a few years of being an "adult" and used to having my own space, I must admit it was a bit of an adjustment. Sharing personal space with a bunch of random strangers is probably not something I thought I'd be doing at this stage in my life. But after a few days, and many grunts of "I'm too old for this", I quickly assimilated and slipped right back into it - living out of a backpack; wearing thongs (I.e flip-flops) in the bathroom that looks so dirty you want to avoid touching anything in it; getting reacquainted with my eye mask, ear plugs, sleeping sheet and microfiber towel; carrying a map and my wallet with me everywhere; being open to talking to strangers and making new friends, etc. I also received my very last paycheck in Montreal - this is the first time since 15 I've been completely unemployed - eep!
Montreal is a very spread out city, but easily accessible with the public transport. We stayed in the Gay Village, near the orange line, which was pretty central to the key areas we wanted to visit. One thing I noticed straight away were the bikes and bike paths EVERYWHERE. Montreal's network of bike paths total 600km / 960 miles!!! Woah. It seemed fitting to do start off doing a bike tour of the city with Fitz and Follwell (highly recommended, even if just for the cute guy who does the bookings :p). We did the 4.5 hour Montreal Highlights tour which covers pretty much all the key sights. It starts and ends in Plateau Mont Royal which is a really busy neighborhood at the bottom of the Mont Royal "mountain". The mountain is hughmongous and contains a lot of park areas and hiking trails, right in the middle of the city. The bike tour didn't go up the top, so we walked it. It's a bit of a walk to get up to the top, which was kind of a shock to the system seeing normally my body was used to sitting at a desk all day. All the sunshine and exercise was tiring! The views from the top were pretty cool, though coming from seeing the Chicago skyline the day before, a wee bit underwhelming. But still worth checking out. There's a crucifix up the top too which we didn't know the significance of, but kind of cool to see. If you're in Montreal on a Sunday, a must-see at Mont Royal is "Les Tam-Tams du Mont Royal". Simply put, its where locals form a drum circle, drink a lot of alcohol (picture a guy drinking Merlot out of the bottle in the middle of the afternoon) and dance as if no-one's watching. There is a sort of positive energy floating around the park which is quite infectious, even if just watching.
The week in Montreal really flew by. I spent a lot of time walking, which my poor old knees weren't used to. There's a lot of funky little neighborhoods to explore, and there are a lot of more touristy sights to see. Old Montreal is tourist central, with souvenir shops galore. The architecture in the area is beautiful and lined with cobble stone roads, street vendors and buskers. The Notre Dame Basilica is close by, in Place d'Armes, the square of the exact spot where the city was founded. The $5 entry fee to the Basilica includes a free tour. It's a good one that covers the history of the Basilica which is interesting because its closely tied to the history of the city. Also in the area is the Old Port, which is touristy but a nice walk along the pier. Again, I couldn't help and compare the water-front with Chicago's lakefront... and was a bit underwhelmed, but I had to remind myself that Montreal is a much smaller city and to not compare the two.
Our time in Montreal coincided with the Montreal Film Festival. We went to check out an independent film, "La Fille Du Martin (The Martin Girl)", that was made by a Montreal local and filmed locally in the city. There were also free film in an outdoor plaza, where we went to watch "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Gladiator". Also happening while we were in town was the "Mosaicultures Internationales" in the Botanical Garden. There are many huge displays of plant sculpture artwork. I can't describe in words how unbelievable these sculptures are, so some photos are below.
Aside from the sights, Montreal has an interesting culture to experience, and great food to sample. With both French and English roots, most locals are bilingual. Walking into restaurants and stores, you are greeted with "Bonjour! Hi!" How you respond back will determine which language is used in the conversation. (I learnt quickly to stop responding with "Bonjour" in order to be polite!). The French influence means amazing pastries. A bakery called "Boulangerie Patisserie Au Kouign-Amann" is a must for their delicious kouign amann. It's basically butter and sugar caramelized and melted in between layers of pastry. Other foods you will be told to try are poutine and bagels. Yep, apparently Montreal is known for bagels (?). They're made differently and some claim are better than NY bagels. Big call. After some research, we decided on St. Viateur bagels and had an awesome meal. Despite the great meal, I personally prefer US style bagels. For poutine, the general recommendation was Le banquies poutine. It's a funky restaurant with a casual atmosphere, kind of a like a diner. The poutine was really good, though I'm not the best judge as I'm not a huge fan of cheese or gravy. Another spot we went to sample Montreal food was the Jean Talon Market. Heaps of fresh produce and yummy crepes!
By our last couple of days in Montreal, I felt we covered a lot and I was ready for our next stop, Boston!