Montreal | Cold? Mais oui, but the winter welcome is warm
By Kristin Jackson
Seattle Times travel staff
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STEPHAN POULIN / TOURISM MONTREAL
Sled-dog races are just one attraction of Montréal's Fête des Neiges, the winter festival.
KRISTIN JACKSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Saint Joseph's Oratory, seen from a tour bus, is one of Montreal's grandest churches.
Archive | Europe without the euro awaits visitors in historic Montreal
MONTREAL, Quebec — Taxi drivers kept stopping to offer us rides, beckoning to the steamy warmth of their cabs. No wonder; it was 10 degrees below zero on a February night, and we were the only people on the city sidewalk. "Non, merci," I'd wave off the taxis, determined to get some fresh air after spending the day on stuffy planes en route to this French-speaking Canadian city.
The air certainly was fresh — sparkling clear and frigid as my daughter and I trudged along, swaddled in all the clothes we'd packed. I looked like a walking sleeping bag in my old, very puffy down coat.
On the narrow street, wrought-iron banisters and balconies of Victorian buildings were glazed in ice. Snow sparkled in pools of light cast from living rooms and old-fashioned street lamps.
Another taxi stopped: "Vous êtes fous" — you're crazy — said the driver, as we smiled and walked on.
Maybe it was nuts, but the intense cold of the starry night was exhilarating. And thankfully, it warmed up in the next few days to a relatively balmy 15 degrees.
Seattle Times travel writer and editor Kristin Jackson answers your questions about Montreal and other Canadian destinations in a live Q&A at noon Tuesday on seattletimes.com.
Winter visitors to Montreal, a city of 3.6 million that's the largest French-speaking city in the western world after Paris, do miss out on the bustling summer life of sidewalk cafes, music and heritage festivals, and the city's world-class film festival.
Yet there are advantages to the off-season. It's much more peaceful, with none of the summertime hordes of tourists who cram the narrow, cobblestone streets of Vieux Montreal, the historic heart of the old city that was founded in 1642 by French settlers.
Flights and hotels are much cheaper. I paid less than $100 a night for a somewhat ramshackle, but cozy, suite with a kitchenette at the small University Bed & Breakfast. Its location was unbeatable — a short walk to the heart of downtown or to the restaurants of the trendy Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
And winter brings its own pleasures, including outdoor skating rinks in the heart of the city; sleigh rides and cross-country skiing in city parks; and an annual winter festival (La Fête des Neiges) with concerts and other cultural events plus snowy fun, including outdoor games of volleyball and soccer and dog-sled races. And there's indoor fun, from shopping and museums to music clubs and restaurants of every ethnicity.
To warm up, we headed indoors to some of Montreal's excellent museums. The premier art museum, the Musée de Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts), was a stylish place to wander among paintings and sculpture, from European old masters, including Rembrandt, to Islamic art to moody 19th-century Canadian landscape painting.
Day by day, Montrealers beat the cold in "Underground City" (called RÉSO in French), a 20-mile pedestrian network beneath the city center where it's always balmy. The brightly lit underground concourses are lined with hundreds of stores and eateries, and link the city's major sights, hotels, Metro and train stations.
It felt like an endless shopping mall to me, and I soon coaxed my teen daughter away from the trendy shops to the streets above. When we got too chilled, we'd warm up at one of the many European-style bakeries, indulging in fruit tarts or handmade chocolates. I'd order in French; hearing my mangled grammar, the shopkeepers would immediately switch to English. While only about 18 percent of the city's residents are native English speakers, many Montrealers are bilingual.
On the bus
To see more of the city and stay warm, we hopped on a Gray Line sightseeing bus for a three-hour city tour, from the pastoral heights of Mont-Royal, a 343-hilly park that rises steeply above downtown, to the stately stone buildings of Vieux Montreal and the stadium of Olympic Park, where Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics.
The bus driver cranked up the heat and his patter: "It's a nice shack, eh," he cackled as we passed the sprawling 19th-century mansions of Westmount, the traditional bastion of rich, native-English-speakers. Later, the bus lumbered past the modest row-houses of East Montreal, where exterior iron staircases, built outside to save space, spiral to the upper floors.
The bus became so drowsily hot, it was a relief to get out at viewpoints and at some of Montreal's grand churches, evidence of the once-firm grip of the Catholic church on Montrealers and all of Quebec province. That changed with the "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s as Quebec turned more affluent, secular and multicultural.
The faithful (and tourists) still flock, however, to St. Joseph's Oratory, a massive hilltop church by Mont-Royal park. Started as a tiny shrine in 1904 by a devout monk, Brother Andre, it expanded through his relentless efforts into an imposing, ornate church with an almost 200-foot-tall dome. Outdoor stairways climb steeply to the church; pilgrims still struggle up them on their knees, imploring for the healing miracles for which Brother Andre was renowned.
Always a fan of visiting churches, I led my daughter into Notre Dame basilica in Vieux Montreal, the historic heart of the city tucked between the broad (and icy) St. Lawrence River and the downtown highrises.
We whispered as we entered the ornate Catholic church, with its soaring Gothic-style nave, stained-glass windows and a vaulted blue ceiling that shimmers with 24-karat gold stars.
There was only a handful of tourists, dwarfed by the vastness of the church, which, while it looks almost medieval, was built in the 1820s. It was a place to sit quietly, to think of the religion and cultures intertwined with Montreal, where the Iroquoian natives roamed for thousands of years, where French explorers landed in the 1500s, followed by fur traders, settlers and eventually the British and now waves of immigrants from all over the world.
Where to stay
• Stay at a downtown hotel, where you can easily walk to major sites (even in winter, thanks to the "Underground City." Some top hotels and boutiques are on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, including the landmark Ritz-Carlton Montreal. Other upscale lodgings include the Hotel Sofitel and InterContinental Hotel.
• I stayed at the moderately priced University Bed & Breakfast (adjacent to the downtown McGill University, Montreal's premier English-language university). It won't suit everyone — furnishings are eclectic and services minimal — but for about $100 a night, I got a cozy suite in an old-fashioned, townhouse-style building, with a living room, bedroom and kitchenette (www.universitybedandbreakfast.ca or 514-842-6396).
• Get hotel information and make reservations through the city's tourism office, www.tourisme-montreal.org/ or phone the Quebec Department of Tourism at 877-266-5687.
You don't need a car in the city; its center is compact, and the downtown and adjacent Vieux Montreal are ideal to explore on foot. For outlying areas, the city has a good Metro system. Guided bus tours are offered through Gray Line Montreal (www.coachcanada.com/montrealsightseeing/), or take a ride in parks or Vieux Montreal on a "caleche," a horse drawn-carriage (or sometimes sleigh).
• You don't need to speak French to get by in Montreal; English is widely spoken (However, it's generally appreciated if visitors try to speak a bit of French.)
• While winter can be the most economical and least crowded time in Montreal, late September/early October and May also can be good times to visit, with lower hotel rates and more moderate weather.
• Montreal Tourism: www.tourisme-montreal.org/ or 877-266-5687.
• La F&ering;te des Neiges (winter festival): www.fetedesneiges.com/en/
In a Notre Dame side chapel, Catholic schoolchildren finished their prayers. They filed out into the street, bare-legged and laughing in their gray and navy uniforms, skipping along the snowy sidewalk.
They didn't give Montreal's winter cold a second thought.
Life in Montreal - Telegraph Mentor
Patricia Smith says Canadians are genuinely nice people; friendly and welcoming, fond of the British and very proud of their homeland.
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 28/11/2007
Patricia Smith is willing to answer your questions about Montreal.
Our mentors are volunteers and any information they provide is for information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Click here to access the message boards terms and conditions.
My family moved to Montreal in early 2000 when my husband was offered a job with a Biotech company here. I also worked in the Biotech sector in Montreal for two years but left to start my own relocation company, Home Thoughts.
My company is a Destination Services company that specialises in helping Brits who are moving to Montreal to find housing and schools, showing them where to shop, helping them to get drivers licenses, finding them cleaners, doctors, dentists, child-minders etc. Basically, all the things I wish someone had helped me with when I moved here!
In addition to my experience of international relocation, having worked here as well, I understand the work ethos, which is very different from that in the UK and in the US. If anyone has any questions about visiting or moving to Montreal I am more than happy to answer them.
Ask questions and read the answers on the Mentor Noticeboard.
Geography: Montreal is located on an island gently nestled within the St. Lawrence Seaway in Eastern Canada in the Province of Quebec. The city is dominated by a large hill in the centre, grandly called 'The Mountain' by the locals, and only slightly less grandly officially 'Mont Royal'.
This beautiful parkland, with the Mansions of Westmount and Outrement cut part way up it, has a chateau at the top and a lookout from which you can see right across to the States. Looking down you can see the business center of Montreal, the McGill University campus buildings and the bridges that cross the St. Lawrence. To the north of Montreal only 45 minutes away are the Laurentian mountains with their superb ski resorts, golf courses, lakes and cottages for summer and winter. To the East an hour away, are the Eastern Townships, again with superb skiing, golf, lakes and holiday cottages.
The US is 40 minutes away to the south with Boston and New York six hours drive away and one hour by air. There are several daily flights to London only 7 hours away, and to the rest of Europe.
Cuisine: The French influence means that the food is great; the croissants and pastries are second only to France. It appears that everyone who has ever emigrated here also loves food because there are restaurants of every nationality serving good food to suit every budget. Eating out here is so cheap compared to the UK, the portions are large, the service is great and children are welcome everywhere.
There is a lot more smoking here than in the UK so ask for a non-smoking table if that is your preference. Wine and spirits are very expensive as they are sold by a Quebec government agency, the SAQ.
The wine sold in the supermarkets is more like Ribena. Beer is more reasonably priced and can be bought in supermarkets or corner shops called depanneurs.
People: Canadians are genuinely nice people; friendly and welcoming, fond of the British and very proud of their homeland. It has been said that Canada is a bit boring, but this is really not the case in Quebec. The European influence, particularly that of the French, really livens things up.
After Paris, Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world. 69% of its three million people speak French as their mother tongue, 12% speak English and 19% don't speak either. The reality of the situation, however, is that in this tolerant, vibrant, and youthful city most of its inhabitants are functionally bilingual, often trilingual, and so coming here only speaking English is not a problem. Even if you speak perfect French you will be spotted as a visitor as the Quebecois accent is very different. I have lived here for four years and people still start speaking in English to me the minute I say 'Bonjour'.
Montrealers love Brits and the shop assistants always want to chat, telling you who in their family is British, and how much they love your accent. There are also large numbers of immigrants from non-English or French cultures and there is no obvious racial tension. I suspect this is because they are not perceived scroungers or benefit seekers but just as new additions to a long line of immigrants, who are here to work hard, learn French and get on with life.
Weather: Montreal has four distinct seasons. Winter is long lasting from November until the end of March. It has usually snowed by the middle of December and carries on intermittently until March. January and February are the coldest months with temperatures averaging -10ºC but on the odd day it does fall to -40ºC with the wind chill factor. -10ºC sounds cold but it isn't really provided you have the right clothes. It is a dry cold and so it doesn't penetrate through to your bones as it does in the UK. The children love the snow, which is dry and brushes off easily, and you can always appreciate the beautifully clear blue skies.
Spring is very short lasting from April to the end of May, but everything grows extremely quickly and it is delightful to see the grass and flowers pushing through past the residual snow. Summer runs luxuriously through June to September and is hot and often humid. The temperature can reach the mid 30's in July and August and it is truly fantastic. Fall (Autumn) runs from October until mid-November and is beautiful with red, brown and gold colours abounding. It is a great time to travel to Vermont and the Laurentians or anywhere woody and rural.
Standard of Living: Everything in Montreal is roughly half the price of that in the UK, from food and clothes to restaurants and housing, and people are not embarrassed to question prices or complain about bad service. Salaries are lower than in the UK but despite this you will still have a much better standard of living in Montreal.
Healthcare: The medical system, Medicare, is very similar to the NHS with the same sorts of advantages and disadvantages. Treatment is free on demand and the doctors and nurses are generally very good but the waiting lists are often long. GP's are in short supply and you have to wait for hours in the Emergency Room (casualty).
Once you arrive on a work permit or land as an immigrant you need to obtain a Medicare card to get treatment. The private health system in Quebec is very limited. You cannot pay to see a consultant or have tests performed in a public hospital more quickly but you can go to a private clinic for certain tests, particularly if you are an adult. Many health insurance schemes will pay for this.
The cost of prescription medicines is borne by the patient or by the private insurance that you will have through your employer.
Dental care is high quality but very expensive and not covered at all by Medicare for adults and even for children the provision is limited. Employee insurance schemes cover dental treatment but cover varies from scheme to scheme.
As in the UK, adults in Quebec pay for eye check ups and children and those on welfare benefits do not. Medicare does not cover the cost of glasses or contact lenses, however, most insurance schemes cover the costs in part or completely. Glasses and contact lenses are considerably cheaper in Quebec than in the UK.
Driving: If you hold a valid British Driving License you can obtain a Quebec license without taking a test. You can drive for a few months on your international license but it is best to get a Quebec license as soon as possible. You can obtain this from the SAAQ (Société de l'Assurance Automobile du Quebec).
You are legally required to carry your license with you when driving as well as the insurance and registration documents for the car. The rules regarding drink-driving, the wearing of seat belts, and use of child car seats are similar to those in the UK, i.e do not drink and drive, wear seats belts at all times and make sure your child has the correct car seat for their size and age.
It is relatively easy to adjust to driving on the right hand side of the road in Quebec, because the speed limits are lower than in the UK and they are, by and large, obeyed.
The general consensus among expats is that drivers in Quebec are not very good. It is not that they are deliberately obstructive or aggressive; they just seem unaware of other cars, not letting you into a lane or out of a side street, pulling out suddenly and rarely indicating. There is 'no fault' insurance in Quebec. That is, if you have an accident your insurance company pays for your damage and the other parties company pays for their damage regardless of who was responsible. Any injury to your person is insured by the SAAQ.
Banking: If you are just visiting banking is fine, you can use your UK cashpoint cards in the ATM's which are everywhere, not just in the banks but in cinemas, depanneurs and supermarkets. Of course, UK credit cards are accepted everywhere. The banks are open 10am until 4pm on weekdays only and have very long queues so use the ATM whenever possible.
If you are planning to move here for a few years banking is more difficult. Your credit reference in the UK is no good here at all and you basically start from scratch proving your financial worthiness to be given a credit card and overdraft facility. Getting as many store cards as possible is one way to improve your credit rating.
Extreme Commuter: From Montreal to Queens
By Justin Rocket Silverman, amNewYork Staff Writer
January 28, 2008
This Extreme Commuter rides a plane the way most of us ride the subway.
Professor Adnan Turkey lives in Montreal but teaches computer science at DeVry Institute of Technology in Long Island City. He's been making that commute once a week for nine years, 45 weeks a year.
Although the flight itself is only about 75 minutes long, getting to and from the airport makes it impractical to make the ride daily. Price is a factor, too. Flying directly from Montreal is too expensive even once a week, so for half the ticket price he drives across the border to fly out of Burlington, Vt.
So every Monday at noon he leaves his house in Canada and makes that 2-hour trip to Vermont. He puts the car in long-term parking ($6 a day) and flies to New York, where he will sleep in a small rented apartment and teach until Thursday afternoon. Then he takes the flight and drives back home.
Door-to-door it's about seven hours each way.
"After working many years in Canada, I thought, 'why not come to New York City?'" he asks. "It's just next door and it's the capital of the world."
Adnan knows of no other commuters on the Montreal/New York City run, and says many of the border guards laugh in amazement when he states his business in the U.S.
Although the weekly $150-round trip JetBlue ticket, and the monthly rent in New York takes a bit out of his income (he won't say how much), Adnan says he has no plans to ask his wife, also a university teacher, and two college-age daughters to move to New York. Besides, money has never been his primary interest.
"Education is a noble mission, so salary is not the No. 1 concern, at least for me," he says. "When I see the next generation of students learning and becoming skilled, that's my job satisfaction."
Know an Extreme Commuter? Transit reporter Marlene Naanes wants to hear the story. Email her at [email protected]
Copyright © 2008, AM New York
Travels with Lonely Planet: Canada
By Sarah Richards
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:03/29/2008 12:36:47 PM MDT
My favorite time of the year in Montreal is spring. As the powerful hands of winter release their tight grip on the city, its bright, cheery spirit emerges from the cold, bleak gray of winter. After months of being cooped up indoors, Montrealers wake from their slumber and roam the streets like hungry bears. The warm sunshine and sweet smells of croissants and roasting coffee bring them to Montreal's infamous sidewalk cafes.
The Quebecois have a refined nose for high-grade espresso, one that has been honed with a passion for fine wines. It is a city to be honored for keeping out the coffee-chain blight that has scarred the landscape of most of the world's major cities. Of course, you'll find a fair share of Tim Hortons and Starbucks dotting the city's central commercial drags such as Rue St. Catherine and Rue St. Laurent, but independent cafes and groovy baristas emanating from the heart of alternative Montreal - the Plateau Mont-Royal - have kept the chain spread at bay.
Life is slow in Montreal. Surrender to the laissez-faire lifestyle and you're halfway to becoming a local. It was within this relaxed state that I found myself quite happily drifting from cafe to cafe, searching for the ideal cup of coffee. Was I looking for a straight-up shot of jolting Italian espresso, or was my goal a perfectly frothy cafe au lait? Or were my West Coast roots secretly searching for the ideal brewed American coffee, preferably Fair Trade?
For full-strength espresso, an Italian hit is Caffe Italia (6840 Boul. Saint-Laurent; espresso $1.50; 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.), which hides phenomenal beans under the guise of a humdrum décor. And since it's in the heart of Little Italy, your coffee beverage of choice comes with a view into the lives of the locals who frequent this coffee bar in droves.
Shots of espresso go down as smooth as butter in Cafe Olimpico (124 Rue Saint-Viateur; espresso $1.50; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), which is popular with Mile End locals. No more than a hole in the wall, this hangout is low on chic but huge on quality and charisma.
Although less traditional (think less soccer paraphernalia and more slick upholstery and trendy artwork), Caffe ArtJava (837 Ave. Mont-Royal Est; espresso $1.95; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) is rumored to have the best cappuccino in the whole city. Behind the beautiful foam play the notes of an espresso symphony, resonating with rich hues, creamy texture and bold flavor, while the surface is etched with an intricate leaf pattern.
For the ideal steaming bowl of cafe au lait, you need a completely different sort of place - checkered tablecloths flapping in the wind, with a table overlooking charming and winding staircases. La Croissanterie Figaro (5200 Rue Hutchison; cafe au lait $3; 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.) fit the bill, both with its inviting décor inside, reminiscent of a Parisian bistro, and the ivy-covered outdoor patio, providing ample ambience to accompany the heavenly combination of chocolatine (chocolate croissant) and cafe au lait.
On those days when your sweet tooth needs more attention, indulge in the sheer decadence that is Juliette et Chocolat (1615 Rue Saint-Denis; espresso $2.25). Try a selection of exotic truffles (the ones with red wine and lavender are particularly enticing) or a pot au chocolat, washed down with a shot of rich espresso for an unforgettable caffeine kick.
And as for a fairly traded, brewed cup of joe? Cafe Santropol (3990 Rue Saint-Urbain; coffee $2.50; 11:30 a.m. to midnight), a friendly cooperative cafe, does it with a twist - the rim of the mug is colorfully decorated with slices of strawberries and honeydew melon. Come here for dreamy soy lattes, herbal teas and a tranquil back garden.
Where to stay
* Slick, post-modern Opus Hotel (10 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest; 514-843-6000; 866-744-6346; http://www.opushotel.com) is smack dab in the center of the downtown action.
* To get a little more north, into the hipster hood, rent an apartment-style room at Anne ma soeur Anne (4119 Rue Sanit-Denis; 514-281-3187; 877-281-3187; http://www.annemasoeuranne.com), and overlook the picturesque storefronts and sidewalk cafes of Saint-Denis. Rooms here start at $70.
Where to eat
* To explore another one of life's greatest vices, try wine bar BU (5245 Boul. Saint-Laurent; 514-276-0249; http://www.bu-mtl.com), whose extraordinary wine list accompanies a relatively traditional menu of Italian slow cooking.
* Assumed by many to be the finest dining experience in Montreal, Toque! (900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle; 514-499-2084; http://www.restaurant-toque.com) blends innovative gastronomic experimentation with tried-and-tested traditional French culinary art, erupting in a fusion Quebec cuisine.