There were times … many times … on our thirty-plus hour journey to Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (Airport Code YUL), when we seriously wondered if Montreal, or even the whole of Canada, could possibly be worth it! Air New Zealand’s new economy class configuration might have lots of entertainment, but I’m sure its purpose is to take your attention away from the fact that they have stolen a couple of inches of leg room! These days there is a direct flight to Vancouver, but in 2006 we still had to transfer in the US, always a tortuous process. Fortunately we could transit through San Francisco rather than LAX, making our journey slightly less hellish than it would otherwise have been. Travellers from New Zealand bound for the eastern provinces of Canada have to be motivated to undertake this trek. In our case, it was a work trip for me, with some vacation time tagged on.
We arrived in the pouring rain … and it rained off and on for the next three days. So much for spring in Canada. There was one afternoon when it was fine and reasonably warm so we were able to walk along the riverfront. But the weather didn’t matter too much – we stayed in Old Montreal, with the cobblestone streets and old French style buildings that cried out to be photographed in black and white. Rain seemed appropriate somehow. We stayed in a boutique hotel with welcoming rooms, stone walls, comfy armchairs around a fireplace, a stereo that was playing classical music whenever we entered the room, a huge soft bed and a lovely big bath with bath salts etc. This cosy haven made it hard to fight the jetlag and leave the room.
Montreal is a reasonably large city, and parts of it are ultra-modern. But in the Old Town, which was rebuilt in stone after a fire in the 17th century, and where we spent most of our time, the streetscapes would not have been out of place in Europe, and the stylings of the Town Hall and other major buildings were straight out of Paris.
The mix of French and North American culture seemed incongruous. It seemed wrong to hear French when surrounded by various unsophisticated aspects of North American culture (eg really bad bottomless coffee, white sneakers, fast food, and huge servings of food). It somehow lacked the charm of the mix of French and Pacific cultures you find in Tahiti and Vanuatu.
As we were recovering from jetlag and severe sleep deprivation the first couple of days, and with the rainy weather, we didn’t rush around to see all the sights. We gave the Olympic Stadium and World Expo Site a miss. But we were able to explore the Underground City. Montreal’s weather in the winter sounds diabolical – a freezing wind off the river whips through the city, and they get heavy dumps of snow. So there is an entire network of underground shopping malls, restaurants etc. We found we could walk blocks and blocks of the city without ever going over ground. Spending so much time inside must be very depressing in the winter … but it was very convenient for us when it was cold and raining outside! Hearty meals were available at the malls and restaurants, and, although it looked unappealing, I now regret that we didn’t try poutine – French fries topped with fresh cheese curd, covered with brown gravy.
There was a good museum about the beginnings of Montreal, which we enjoyed. But like other museums in Canada that we visited, we found it paid lip-service only to the indigenous people of the area. The focus seemed to be the establishment of Montreal, and the arrival of the British. The impact of the French on the First Nations people was barely discussed. It took us several museums to find out that they signed treaties, and that the French took sides in tribal wars to gain territorial advantage for themselves. It made me realise that although New Zealanders feel a real affinity with Canadians, we actually know very little about the history of Canada itself.
Just around the corner from us was the Montreal Notre-Dame Basilica. I was in two minds about going into it – victim of a stereotyped assumption that a church in North America couldn’t be very noteworthy. But it was gorgeous.
Congregation numbers have dwindled dramatically, and now admission charges on tourists help maintain the basilica, and most importantly ensure the church is heated in the winter (and spring). Needless to say we didn’t begrudge our admission charge!
The Notre-Dame Church (as it was in 1829) was designed by an Irish Protestant architect who is also the only person buried there. He converted to Catholicism just before his death so this could be permitted. Whilst parts of the basilica are magnificent, he did have some flaws as an architect. He designed stained glass windows directly behind the altar, facing the east. Of course, once the basilica was finished, the parishioners were blinded by the light in the mornings as the sun rose. In the end, the sun won, and the stained glass was removed, the window walled in. Then of course the church was too dark, so windows had to inserted overhead. Still, the end result is extraordinary.
When the rain eased, we walked up the grandly named Mount Royal, a hill in the centre of Montreal island which we found behind McGill University (which reminded me of very much of Victoria University here in Wellington, consisting of many individual houses converted into different faculties). The park itself was celebrating the arrival of spring, the new leaves were that bright, fresh, light green, and the blossoms were suitably pink, even if it was still freezing. The walk up the hill was steep, but the park designers very thoughtfully included a staircase to the top – a good way to work off all the good French food and wine we’d been enjoying in the evenings. At the top, we were treated with a view of the city, giving us a better feel for the layout of the modern and old towns, and a chance to catch our breath.
As the clouds cleared, and the sun emerged, we later ventured along the waterfront, getting a taste of the outdoor pleasures Montreal must offer in the summer.
After a few days in Montreal, we packed up, said goodbye – reluctantly – to our wonderful hotel (and its free wine and cheese sessions in the courtyard bar every night) and headed further north, onwards to Quebec.