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.
World vibe at Montreal jazz fest
David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007
"Jazz is a tree that has many leaves," says André Ménard, artistic director of the Montreal Jazz Festival -- a terse and apt summation of not only jazz but also his festival and the city of Montreal itself.
The festival -- beginning its 28th annual edition June 28 and running through July 8 -- is the biggest of its kind in the world, an event that features more than 350 free outdoor concerts and 150 paid indoor shows. It is expected to draw more than 200,000 attendees, yet it manages to feel intimate. It's hard to imagine how a music festival that traffics in such numbers could be as sophisticated, smooth running, user friendly -- and inexpensive -- as Montreal's, but it is.
Purists may raise eyebrows over the fact that two of the festival's headliners are Bob Dylan and Van Morrison (both shows are sold out), but this festival long ago got past distinctions of genre. In fact, in booking nonjazz acts, which Montreal started doing about 20 years ago, it pointed the way to survival for every major jazz festival, including San Francisco, whose fall lineup includes nonjazz acts Caetano Veloso and Ravi Shankar, and Monterey, where Los Lobos and DJ Logic will perform.
"In 1986, when we last programmed Van Morrison, people questioned it, but he was on the cover of (jazz magazine) Down Beat three months later," Ménard says. "I wish every jazz album was as spiritually strong as Van Morrison's music. ... And as for Dylan, the way he redoes his songs -- that's a jazz attitude."
Attitude is the right word. It's the thread that connects jazz acts the festival is producing this year, like Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter and Bill Frisell, with world music acts like Angélique Kidjo, Femi Kuti and Richard Bona, with rock acts like Garth Hudson, Rickie Lee Jones and the Cowboy Junkies. It's not a punk or grunge attitude, obviously, but a dedication to musicianship and exploration -- a willingness to stretch and take chances. A jazz attitude.
The strong world music presence at the festival -- 30 countries are represented, from a Chinese jazz singer covering Patsy Cline, to French new-wave pop, to Italian barrel percussionists, to Malian kora, to Australian didgeridoo, to Garifuna singers -- is appropriate, given the diverse ethnic mix of Montreal, which, as home to 80 nationalities, is considered North America's gateway to Europe and beyond. That is true even though almost everyone younger than 60 speaks English fluently.
Centrally located downtown at the complex of theaters, museums and hotels called Place des Arts, the Montreal Jazz Festival packs all the action into a relatively compact space. Free outdoor shows are on nine small -- and one whopper -- stages, and 12 indoor venues feature the paid nighttime shows. The festival doesn't only stick the little-knowns on the outdoor stages, either. This year, a Brazilian carnival bash with Carlinhos Brown gets things going June 28; last year, it was the Neville Brothers.
With more than 50 performances a day, it's clearly too much to take in, so it's a good thing adventure beckons outside the Place des Arts from any direction you choose. Heading south toward the St. Lawrence River, you'll hit Old Montreal, where you can easily spend an afternoon investigating the cobblestone streets, some with buildings dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. Stop at any of the many bistros offering mussels and pomme frites, usually with a good selection of French and Belgian beers and, of course, wine.
Continue south to the river and at 27 De La Commune, you'll find Boutique Ça Roule, where you can rent bicycles -- a great way to see the city. But if dodging traffic sounds daunting, there's a leisurely ride to be had along the tree-lined Canal de Lachine, where heading west you can stop at the Marché Express, Montreal's equivalent of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, only it's open every day.
Less than a mile northeast of the festival grounds are enticing residential neighborhoods of many ethnic flavors along Boulevard St.-Laurent and Rue St.-Denis -- including the Latin Quarter, where last summer a spontaneous parade broke out, clogging streets, when Portugal defeated England in the World Cup soccer quarterfinals.
Keep heading north along St. Laurent and you'll hit the Jewish neighborhood that gave the world, believe it or not, William Shatner. Now we can settle for old-school deli sandwiches and soda-fountain drinks at Wilensky's Light Lunch, or superb bagels at La Maison du Bagel or St. Viateur Bagel.
Heading back south to the festival, consider having dinner at what many call the most authentic French bistro in the city, L'Express. There's nothing pretentious about this spot. It's all business, packed with locals who seem ecstatic to be there, digging into bowls of bouillabaisse or scarfing pate foie gras or bone marrow, and tossing back wine that practically dances in the glass.
There's so much more to do: great museums, galleries, beautiful parks, a 20-mile underground city where people spend much of their time in the frigid winter, day trips to the Laurentian mountains.
Once you've spent a day exploring the city, the music back at the festival -- be it danceable, cerebral or both -- offers a way to relax and synthesize your experiences, processing them through the sensual to the aesthetic to the spiritual and back. That's jazz, and that's Montreal.
If you go
All locations are in Montreal. Prices are in Canadian dollars.
From San Francisco, Air Canada flies nonstop to Montreal. A number of airlines offer one-stop connecting flights.
Where to stay
Hyatt Regency Montreal: Online rates for doubles from $244 (about $229 U.S.). 605 modern rooms and suites across from the Place des Arts. 1255 Jeanne-Mance. (514) 982-1234, montreal.hyatt.com.
Hotel Place des Arts: Eight air-conditioned rooms, studios and suites in a renovated Victorian building downtown. $40-$80 ($37.55-$75.10 U.S.). 270 Rue Sherbrooke W. (514) 995-7515, http://www.hotelplacedesarts.com.
Where to eat
L'Express: Bustling traditional French bistro. Entrees $12-$22 ($11.27-$20.65 U.S.). 3927 Rue St.-Denis. (514) 845-5333.
Wilensky's Light Lunch: Tiny shop serving classic deli fare 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Entrees less than $10 ($9.39 U.S.). 34 Fairmount St. W. (514) 271-0247.
What to do
Montreal Jazz Festival: June 28-July 8. Various venues across the city. $12.50-$87.50 ($11.73-$82.14 U.S.); many free performances. (888) 515-0515, http://www.montrealjazzfest.com.
For more information
Tourisme Montréal: (877) 266-5687, http://www.tourisme-montreal.org.
E-mail David Rubien at [email protected]
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Montreal hotels offer escape from tourists
Graeme Hamilton, National Post
MONTREAL - At street level, there is an old-world charm to parts of this city, where horse-drawn caleches roll over cobblestone streets, passing buildings dating from the French regime.
But then again, the smell of horse urine can get a little pungent on a steaming-hot day, the cobblestones can do a number on your ankle if you're not careful, and for every building of historic interest there's another housing a tacky souvenir shop.
Montreal's year-round inhabitants have discovered a new escape route from the tourist-clogged streets, which oddly enough begins in a hotel lobby.
A number of city hotels have sprouted rooftop terrasses where the (admittedly steep) price of a beer is also said to buy you a smashing view, a chance to mix with the in crowd and in one case, a dip in the pool if the spirit moves you.
The trend has been fuelled by a proliferation of boutique hotels in Old Montreal, which have helped revive a neighbourhood that had been sliding.
The best of a bunch sampled recently was atop the Hotel Nelligan, just up from the waterfront on St. Paul Street West.
In one direction, the view was of the St. Lawrence River, Ile Notre-Dame and Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 apartment complex, gleaming as it caught the early-evening sun; in the other, Notre-Dame basilica loomed.
Dormer windows on adjacent buildings looked very Parisian, although the music -- an eclectic mix of oldies ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Smokey Robinson -- screamed 1970s rec room.
The terrasse, called Sky, does not exactly qualify as a best-kept secret. The rooftop was packed, and the area reserved for dining had an hour-long wait for a table.
An even larger crowd awaited atop the Hotel Place d'Armes on the Aix terrasse.
After wandering past hotel rooms to find the door leading to the roof, we were greeted by a bouncer recording each arrival and departure with a handheld counter.
Asked how many people there were, he replied that the information was "confidential."
A waiter said we had arrived on the patio's busiest night of the week, a Thursday.
It was largely an after-work crowd looking to start the weekend early; a hotel guest looking for a relaxing cocktail in the sun would have been surprised to find a scene fit for Crescent Street, the city's famous nightclub strip.
"It's happy hour," the waiter advised us, which seemed hard to believe after having just paid $7.50 for a bottle of beer.
He clarified that the prices are unchanged during this particular bar's happy hour. It's just that people are happy.
The view was not the best, hurt by the fact Montreal planners over the years have allowed an architectural jewel such as the basilica to be dwarfed by modern monstrosities such as the National Bank tower on Place d'Armes and the courthouse a block to the east.
For a view, the hands-down winner was Hotel de la Montagne, in the city's downtown -- and not just because its rooftop pool is surrounded by bikini-clad sunbathers.
On a recent evening, looking southeast we could see clear to the Eastern Townships.
In the foreground was Montreal's skyline and behind us Mount Royal. The hotel has no pretense of "boutique" trendiness, from the ebony elephants and crocodile statues in the lobby to the party atmosphere on the rooftop.
"People say that it is dated, so what, so is your girlfriend," a young Ohio man who recently stayed at the hotel wrote on tripadvisor.com last month.
"The pool on the roof is as cool as it gets. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and the roof looked like a scene from spring break in Cancun."
Our waitress advised us that the small pool is open to all customers whether they are staying at the hotel or not, "as long as you have alcohol."
Not too much, she hastened to add, relating the story of a drunken man who had a contest with friends to see who could stay underwater the longest. He never came up, she said.