Laura Tanna, Contributor
Montreal is a marvelously multicultural city. Our Berber taxi driver is thrilled that we had visited his native Morocco earlier this year. The Spanish-born shoe salesman tells us how he loves the city while our Bangladeshi waiters (college graduates) are busily studying French to increase their employment opportunities. Greeks, Poles, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Haitians, Africans - all are contributing to creating a French and English-speaking city of great charm.
The concierge at Hotel le St-James arranges a superb, personal, guided tour for us. David Menard provides fascinating commentary as he drives for more than three hours, introducing us to the highlights of Canada's second-largest city. He begins with the influence of the Iroquois, now known as the First Nation people, explaining that 'Canada' and 'Quebec' derive from the Iroquois language. We pass a tower 23 stories high, once making it the tallest building in the entire British Empire. Today, no building may be higher than 234 metres, the height of Mount Royal, which is why Montreal is not crowded with skyscrapers the way Manhattan is, though both are islands. Montreal, a 30-mile long island, founded at the confluence of the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, is actually linked to the mainland by at least 15 bridges and a tunnel.
Old Montreal's most beautiful building must surely be the Basilique Notre-Dame-de Montreal, a stunning Catholic Church where free tours in both English and French are offered. The French-speaking guide explains the azure-vaulted ceiling covered in golden stars was influenced by the St Chapelle in Paris but, contrary to belief, the twin towers of the facade reference Westminster Abbey's silhouette and not Notre Dame in Paris. The ornate Basilica, rebuilt in 1829, accommodates more than 3,000 occupants, hence the exquisitely carved spiral wooden pulpit is centred in the grand interior so that everyone in the days before electricity could hear and see the priest. Richly coloured stained-glass windows imported from Limoges depict Montreal's history of having been founded originally by missionaries in 1642 as a Christian community, though the economic benefits of the fur trade were what fuelled the city's development.
Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, another grand cathedral, has an altar canopy built as a replica of that in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, though a quarter of the size. The only building actually taller than Mount Royal is the Oratoire St Joseph, because it's built on top of the mount with an octagonal copper dome 146 feet high and 125 feet wide. Brother Andre, who achieved Sainthood on Sunday October 17, is responsible for this church where every year some two million pilgrims climb 300 steps uphill to the entrance on their knees. Anglican worshippers have their fair share of churches, including the gothic Christ Church Cathedral.
Lest you think religion plays too great a part in Montreal's daily life, there is a casino on Ile-Notre-Dame, open 24 hours a day and a circuit for Formula 1 auto races. With Ile-Sainte-Helene, this area served as the site of the Expo 1967. Today, the strikingly beautiful Biosphere left from Expo is an environmental museum. The 1976 Olympic Games left another exciting park with a stadium and the stunning Montreal Tower, an inclining arch of 575 feet with a cable car to a viewing deck. But the loveliest viewing locale is from Parc Mont-Royal, 250 acres of hardwood forests and meadows designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for designing New York's Central Park. North of the park is the vast and elegant Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges Catholic cemetery as well as the Protestant Mount Royal Cemetery.
The city's historic past is well preserved in numerous museums and stately buildings. The Centre Canadien dArchitecture, Centre d'Histoire de Montreal, Maison Saint-Gabriel, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Musée d'Art Contemporain and Musée Marc-Aurele Fortin are among the best known, though my favourite is the Musée des Beaux-Arts where I found two exquisite Alfred Sisley paintings.
'Autumn: Banks of the Seine near Bougival', painted in 1873, was included in the first impressionist exhibit of 1874. Sadly, the museum's reproductions were so poor in colour quality I shall remember them only in my mind.
Montreal boasts excellent institutions of higher learning, the best known being the University of Montreal, and McGill, the latter the location of Redpath Museum of Natural History, another must-see place of interest, especially if the weather turns cold, though locals maintain one can live the entire winter in the Underground City. Composed of 19 miles which began with the advent of the Metro or Subway in 1966, today there are hundreds of shops and restaurants, plus hotels, concert halls and even cinemas, all beneath the city in well-lit, clean corridors, to me reminiscent of the area under Rockefeller Center in New York. But if the weather is pleasant, strolling along the cobble-stoned streets of Vieux-Montreal, down to the old port and the Marché Bonsecours is delightful. Street signs in red indicate the area. We enjoyed breakfast at Olive Gourmando on rue St Paul Ouest, but regretted we hadn't time to dine at Marche de La Villette Café Bistro across the street.
Did I mention, in this city of three million there are 7,000 restaurants! Since 12 million tourists visit Montreal every year they probably need them all. We sampled two for dinners that were superb for service, ambience and cuisine. At both L'Orchidée Chine, an elegant restaurant with Chinese cuisine, and at Queue de Cheval, an excellent steak house with great music and paintings, we were given window seats with views of downtown nightlife. From the mansions of Westmount, to the grittier streets of gay life in the Village, Montreal seems to have something for everyone, though beware, construction is ongoing at Place des Arts in preparation for next year's jazz festival and around Notre Dame Basilica.