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.
Montreal fest maverick
Serge Losique conquers Montreal scene
By SHANE DANIELSEN
Claude Miller's "Un Secret," starring Cecile de France and Patrick Bruel
In an increasingly corporate fest milieu, Serge Losique is a maverick. Pugnacious, unpredictable, the 76-year-old Montreal World Film Festival chief has for over three decades run his event as a personal fiefdom, as shuttered and inscrutable as the court of Tamburlaine.
He's also a survivor, having seen off a recent challenge that would have sunk many a less determined adversary. Launched amid great fanfare in February 2005, the New Montreal FilmFest quickly signed a high-profile director (former Berlin and Venice topper Moritz de Hadeln) and boasted coin from Canada's major government film offices. It was, its backers claimed, the breath of fresh air the Montreal film scene badly needed.
But in fact, the newcomer proved one of the fest world's more conspicuous train wrecks.
The omens were not good: Both the fest's staff and its board were castigated by de Hadeln in the Canuck press just days before opening night -- but the reality proved far worse, with few (and flummoxed) guests, an empty red carpet and most films unspooling to near-empty houses. "It was," one attendee commented, "like watching the Lusitania go down. For 11 days."
From across town, you could practically hear Losique's sigh of satisfaction. Sure enough, after that first, disastrous edition, the plug was pulled. Bloodied, but defiantly unbowed, the veteran fest celebrated its 30th anniversary last August.
However, the very creation of a rival fest signaled other, more serious concerns -- specifically, a deepening feud between Losique (who runs his event as a private company, even owning its principal venue, the Imperial Theater) and his chief funders, Canadian government bodies Telefilm Canada and Sodec, the Quebec film agency.
Both claimed disenchantment with Losique's autocratic managerial style and "lack of accountability" to the local film community. In electing to side with the NMFF, they expected his event to fold. Instead, the tyro event went under, leaving both bodies with oeuf on their faces.
"The problems we encountered in the last two years with Telefilm Canada and Sodec are due to the fact that they are judge and jury," Losique reports. "Sooner or later, this approach to culture has to change."
Losique has challenged the status quo before: "We raised these questions (just) as we raised questions about the rules of FIAPF (the Intl. Federation of Film Producers Assn.). We quit them. Now FIAPF is better, with new rules, and we are a member again." In the same way, he says, the relationship with Telefilm Canada is "becoming more normal." His lawsuit against them has quietly been dropped: "We're not yet kissing each other, but we are talking to each other."
Still, Telefilm has not committed to reup its funding: a spokesman would say only that MWFF was still "under evaluation." Sodec, however, has returned to the fold, announcing in June that Losique's event would be once again among the eight Quebec film fests to share its annual C$800,000 ($750,000) pot.
For many attendees, the chief virtue of the World Film Fest -- and the reason for its enduring importance on the fest landscape -- is the sheer unpredictability of its programming. Where Toronto, true to its origins as the Festival of Festivals, essentially culls a greatest-hits lineup from Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the Montreal slate comprises many off-the-radar pics from across the globe.
Last year saw entries from 76 countries; this time, filmmakers from Chad to the U.S. will compete on equal terms for the Grand Prix of the Americas, the event's major award. Many of these will be world premieres. As such, it's a distinct change from the homogenous, shopping-list selections of most fest selections.
Or as Losique puts it: "Our goal is to find the best films from as many countries as possible. We are not looking for 'names,' because even great names can produce bad films. In some festivals, you see the parade of stars and starlets offered by the marketing junket machine of Hollywood. We are not here to please dubious merchants, but to display the gems of the film industry."
Still, he admits to a growing sense of dejection: "The emotional mystery of cinema is disappearing. Today you can buy any film on DVD on the same shelves with cat and dog food. Films d'auteur are gradually dying at the box office, and that's a danger for a quality film festival and also for cinema in general." The only way forward, he believes, is to retain a sense of perspective: "If you're too big, it's not good for cinema and discoveries. If you are too small, you do not exist for the media and sponsors. A festival should not be so big that you cannot even appreciate the films. Some middle road must be found."
Montreal: Affordable Winter Base for Families
The blackboard menu is in French and all around the little cafe, people are chattering in French, nibbling on croissants and sipping cafe au lait. But we're a lot closer to home than Paris.
Welcome to Montreal, just a scant hour-long flight or a 370-mile drive from New York, or an hour's drive from the border of Vermont. Most everyone, it seems, speaks English, as well as French, so there's no need for my 16-year-old daughter, Melanie, to practice her French, she says happily.
Another plus: Though there are no bargains here for Americans anymore now that the Canadian "loonie" is about the same value as a U.S. dollar, at least we can soak up the foreign ambiance without spending so much in Europe where the dollar is so weak against the Euro. Especially this time of year, you can find hotel rooms starting at $135 a night (http://www.findyourmontreal.com).
Mel and I have come to Montreal for a mother-daughter weekend getaway and a look at McGill University, one of four in this oh-so-cosmopolitan city, which visitors can't help but love. Even our taxi drivers wax eloquent about their city - the restaurants! (There are more than 6,000 offering everything from French to Ethiopian to Montreal's famous bagels.) The museums! (There are more than 30. Visit http://www.museemontreal.org for the Montreal Museums Pass.) The theater, dance companies and festivals that go on all year! (There are more than 90, including the popular la Fete des Neiges de Montreal in January.) The shopping! (Simons, http://www.simons.ca, on Montreal's famous Ste-Catherine Street, we discover, is a good bet for young fashionistas on a budget. Such a clean city! So many parks; there are 1,009 of them and scores of green spaces.
Let's not forget the 21-mile Underground Pedestrian Network that connects everything from metro stations to restaurants to skating rinks, office buildings, hospitals, libraries and nearly 1,000 retail shops.
With ski areas just an hour away, I think, Montreal would prove a good, affordable winter base for families whose members aren't equally passionate about the slopes.
Mel and I are ensconced in one of the city's many boutique hotels, the 59-room HotelXIX Siecle (http://www.hotelxixsiecle.com), which was built in a 19th-century bank building just a short walk from the historic cobble-stoned streets of the Old Port on the St. Lawrence River where this city began. And I love that breakfast is included.
I promise Mel if she goes with me to the Pointe-a-Calliere, the Montreal museum of Archeology and History that tells the story of this city from its first Native-American settlers - our next stop will be Ste-Catherine Street where she can shop till she drops at street level and at the three interconnected malls underground.
She liked the museum more than she expected - thanks to the terrific multimedia show and its excellent introduction to Montreal, from the first North Americans to the arrival of French settlers in 1642 and then later, the British. The museum is actually built atop authentic archeological remains, enabling visitors to take an underground archeological tour. Models set in the floor reveal how Place Royale evolved through the centuries and the exhibits include displays of artifacts found here, including dice, crockery, old combs and beer caps. Virtual historic figures also pop up to chat about their era. Even kids who hate museums can't help but be intrigued - and leave with a much better understanding of the cultures that have melded to make this city what it is today.
Last modified: October 07. 2007 9:33AM
Posted: November 15, 2007, 2:46 AM by DrewHasselback
Downtown Montreal is going through a rapid revitalization that has seen the rise of condo towers, university buildings, hotels -- and major international retailers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the corner of Peel and Ste-Catherine, one of the city's busiest spots.
"The corner has always had a certain amount of vibrancy," says Sam Sheraton, senior administrator for Montreal's Drazin family, which owns property near Peel and Ste-Catherine. "Now, it has become the central core of downtown Montreal."
One-level retailers who once occupied 1,500-to 2,000-square-foot spaces and generated sales of about $400 to $600 per square foot are making way for bigger, multi-level stores that bring in twice as much.
A large Roots store on the northeast corner of Peel and Ste-Catherine recently downsized and hot U.S. retailer American Eagle Outfitters moved in. On the northwest corner, a Guess store opens next month.
Next door on Ste-Catherine is the year-old flagship store of Montreal's own Garage chain, one of Canada's top fashion retailers. And on the southwest side, several retailers, including a Rogers phone store and SAQ liquor outlet, are being relocated by the owner, to make way for a multilevel H& M store, industry sources say.
(On the remaining southeast corner is an HMV store, in the same building as the Montreal Gazette and National Post bureau).
Rumour has it Pottery Barn is looking for a location nearby. A few blocks to the west on Ste-Catherine, next to Ogilvy's, Apple is taking a space formerly occupied by a menswear store.
Festivals: The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal wins the prestigious 2007 Silver Posted by: eJazzNews Readeron Tuesday, January 29, 2008 - 11:26 AM Montreal, Monday, January 28, 2008 - The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International presented the prestigious Silver Adrian Award 2007 to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal during a ceremony held today in New York.
This was the 51st anniversary of the Silver Adrian Award, considered a very high distinction in the travel sector. A jury consisting of experts from the domains of hotel management, travel, tourism and media considered no fewer than 1,300 submissions before choosing the Festival in the category of "Attractions/Theme Park for Feature Placement Print-Consumer Newspaper" after having read an account in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"We are very honoured to receive this prestigious award. It is the result of years of work by the Festival to develop and deploy a marketing strategy, which appears to have paid off handsomely, judging by the growing number of tourists who flock to Montreal each year for our annual 'high mass' of jazz. I would also like to highlight the excellent work and commitment of Lou Hammond & Associates, the agency which has represented us for years in the U.S. market," stated André Ménard, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival.
Every summer, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal presents over 650 shows, including over 280 indoor performances and 372 free outdoor concerts on 25 different stages. Close to 3000 musicians from some 30 countries take part in this massive musical party, with over 2.1 million people pouring onto the site to enjoy it all. For its upcoming edition, the Festival is preparing an enticing outdoor program set to groove to the rhythms of the world. The 29th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal takes place from June 26 to July 6, 2008.