Return to Montreal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 1995, 12:00am

'UN P'TI tour, monsieur?' The caleche driver's inimitable patois rolled down from the front seat of a handsome cream-coloured rig as he touted for business. 'Non, merci, un peu plus tard, peut-etre,' I answered, begging off reluctantly.

It would be nice to sit back in the fake plush of his carriage and pass a leisurely hour taking in the quaint face of Old Montreal, where many of the early chapters of Canada were written. But it was equally pleasant to be on foot, especially as early evening settled in over Place d'Armes, the dying light dressing the cool stone statue of de Maisonneuve, Montreal's founder, in a soft yellowish glow.

I had been in Montreal for a week, rediscovering some of the sights, sounds and smells of the city where I lived until the early 1980s. There was the rich and pungent onion soup at La Crepe Bretonne, the harsh neon tackiness of rue Sainte Catherine as it crawls east toward the Jacques-Cartier bridge and, best of all, the architectural styles spanning three centuries.

Everyone still jaywalked and spoke in joual, the hybrid street slang of the French-speaking Montrealais (phrases such as 'lavez mes windows' for 'wash my windows' and 'changez mes tires' for 'change my tyres').

Along the broad, elegant sweep of rue Sherbrooke, women - their outfits screaming Milan, Paris or London - still swished through the doors of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Further along the street, the ornate mansions of wealthy, 19th-century Canadians were still graceful and imposing despite their modern guise as shop fronts and offices. Off the boulevard Saint-Laurent the maze of alleyways in the old Jewish quarter were as congested and intimate as ever. And in the early mornings, when the city was just beginning to stir, Chez Gauthier on the avenue du Parc was still baking its seductive croissants and the merchants of the marche Jean Talon, Montreal's principal market, donned huge white aprons over their thick woollen sweaters and primped their produce for another day.

Unlike other North American cities whose postcard images mask something darker, a harsher reality of high crime and decaying buildings, Montreal is a story-book place where a European past and a North American present come together in a vibrant mix. With a population of roughly two million, it is one of the largest bilingual cities in the world and the major metropolis of the French-speaking province of Quebec, which has struggled for generations to protect its language and heritage in the midst of a country and continent that are overwhelmingly English-speaking. The separatist Parti Quebecois, which now forms the provincial government after victory at the polls last year, has vowed to hold a referendum this year on whether Quebec should continue to remain a part of Canada.

Situated roughly 100 kilometres north of the United States border and an hour's flying time from New York, Boston or Toronto, it sits on an island at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. Its layout is relatively simple. Beginning at the Old Port along rue de la Commune, with its 64 kilometres of waterfront, some of it recently restored to 19th-century splendour, the city slopes slowly northward through the old quarter, the one-time heart of Montreal, and into the skyscraper canyons of present-day downtown or centre-ville at the foot of Mount Royal.

Less a mountain really than a large hill, albeit one with a 220- metre elevation, Mount Royal dominates the landscape. Home to the fashionable neighbourhoods of Westmount and Outremont, it is as well known for graves - it is the site of the city's two principal cemeteries - as it is for glitter.

For visitors, though, Mount Royal's most impressive feature is its 200-hectare park, laid out in 1877 by Frederick Olmstead, the landscape architect who created Manhattan's Central Park. In autumn, the deep dramatic colours of the season's foliage brush it with reds, oranges and burnished yellows. It's a perfect time for picking up a delicious petit gateau de saumon fume (smoked salmon cake) at Lenotre Paris on rue Laurier, the Montreal branch of the famous Parisian caterer, and heading up the footpaths to the mountain's lookouts for spectacular views.

Although Montreal is convulsed from time to time by linguistic turmoil, a reflection of the uneasy relationship between Canada's English and French founding peoples which has existed since Britain wrested Canada away from France in 1759, it is effusive in its charms. Its raucous, colourful past, evident everywhere in the city, harks back to the very beginnings of white settlement in North America. In 1642, the French colonist Paul de Chomedey, Monsieur de Maisonneuve, and 53 others landed at Pointe-a-Calliere, in what became the port. On this spot, now home to the starkly modern Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, the city was born. The aim of its first settlers was to evangelise the Iroquois Indians who lived here in the village of Hochelaga.

When he visited Montreal, the American author Mark Twain remarked that the city had so many churches a person could not throw a stone without hitting one. That's true enough. Following a French and Italian tradition, the heart of Brother Andre, a member of a Roman Catholic religious order who was reputed to be a miracle worker for the sick, has been preserved and is on display in St Joseph's Oratory which he founded. One of the world's foremost pilgrimage centres to St Joseph, it has a dome second in size only to that of Rome's St Peter's basilica.

But Montreal has as many sex clubs as steeples and its nightlife throbs with an energy that observers liken to decadence. Maestro Charles Dutoit can be seen regularly at the Place des Arts concert hall conducting the Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal in the music of Ravel and other composers. And on a more jarring note, there are the many in-your-face attractions of the city's numerous rock and jazz clubs.

European and home-grown fashions rub shoulders in the boutiques clustered along rue Sherbrooke, rue Crescent, rue Laurier and rue Saint Denis, which straddles the Latin quarter with its noisy sidewalk cafes, handsome greystone Victorian facades and chic, innovative shop windows.

Compared to Toronto, its Canadian sister city and long-time economic rival, Montreal revels in a reputation for aesthetics, spectacle and even irreverence. Each year, the city hosts dozens of cultural events, from the Just For Laughs Festival to internationally famous festivals honouring film and jazz.

As a city is it far more vital than the province's capital, Quebec City, 560 km to the north. Despite the high spirits of its February winter carnival, the capital seems imprisoned in bureaucratic rigidity and formalism, with government bureaucrats fleeing on weekends to the suburbs: Montreal, on the other hand, has developed as a real city. It is used. And the physical limitations of its island setting, its denseness, also make it happily accessible for those who live here.

Whereas residents of many large US cities have abandoned their urban centres, the core of Montreal is inhabited as it has been for generations. Depanneurs or corner grocers offer fresh baguettes as well as beer, wine, lottery tickets and even conversation, and many of the two- and three-storey terrace houses, with their large inexpensive flats, sport outdoor spiral staircases, an architectural characteristic unique on the continent.

While English is widely spoken and understood, French is the official language. Houses in the predominately English-speaking western part of the city may put up Canada's red and white national flag but those in the French-speaking East are as likely as not to have Quebec province's blue and white fleur-de-lis draped across doors and balconies.

For visitors, getting around Montreal is easy and inexpensive. A fleet of modern, efficient buses and the subway system, called the Metro, will take you anywhere you want to go all day for C$5 (HK$27). But the closeness of its various parts means that Montreal can best be experienced on foot, above ground and below - something of a boon in winter, which can be long and bitingly cold. Forty-two city blocks, strung together by a system of well-lit pedestrian concourses make it entirely possible to live here without ever going outdoors. Connected to the underground city are hundreds of apartments, more than 1,400 stores and restaurants, two department stories, 3,800 hotel rooms, 11,500 parking spaces, two railway stations, 15 cinemas and six subway stations.

Montreal's past is as alluring as its present. And the best place to experience it is in Old Montreal, where the hustle and bustle slows down to a genteel canter. Walk through the streets and lanes of the old quarter, some 38 hectares of heritage district, and you experience a tapestry of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. There are restored and renovated warehouses, monuments and churches, such as the famous twin-spired Notre-Dame, as well as squares and cafes. Two of the most outstanding restaurants in a city where dining is an art can be found here, Le Saint-Amable on rue Saint-Amable and rue Saint-Vincent's Claude Postel.

A relatively recent addition to Old Montreal is the World Trade Centre, which houses the five-star Hotel Intercontinental and the exceptional Les Continents restaurant. The centre encompasses a full city block on rue Saint-Jacques and its Fortifications Lane, once a derelict alley, has been transformed into an interior space covered by a 182-metre long glass roof. It is one of the city's most engaging interior spaces.

But wherever a visitor goes in this multi-faceted city, he or she is bound to experience a unique style and rhythm, an enticing enervating spirit which the French justly call joie de vivre.

HOW TO GET THERE Canadian Pacific Airlines flies daily to Vancouver with a connecting flight to Montreal. Economy round-trip fare, $10,120. Information supplied by Wallem Travel, phone 2821-3861.