Neither Trey nor I had stepped foot outside of the United States until Sunday, July 13, 2014. We acknowledge that Canada can barely be classified as international travel, but that is how it worked out for us – plus, we accept the fact that Canada is a good baby step to acquainting ourselves with foreign travel prior to our planned travel across the Atlantic in the spring.
Verizon Wireless knew exactly when we crossed the border and started blasting our phones with texts on the limits of our plan, data service costs, and the fact that we no longer had mobile service. Regardless, we managed to successfully navigate the kilometers to our Airbnb apartment situated between the Quartier des Spectacles and Quartier Latin areas of Montreal. A great location to walk or bike to everything we wanted to see in Montreal!
We unloaded quickly as we were anxious to check out a nearby festival we noticed on our trip into the city. We walked just a few short blocks south and then east and came upon barricaded streets, rows upon rows of tents, and loads of people of all sorts.
Most like us, spectators, but many that would put Austin’s weirdness to shame – like the little person, a male, wearing nothing but a white cowboy hat, matching boots and a cloth diaper!
We soon realized he and the others were performance artists. We were enchanted watching a pair of what appeared to be large air conditioner ducts dancing to techno.
Then there were the deadpanned faced robot dancers. And these guys…
It was a fantastic welcome to Montreal which made us feel comfortable and at home despite the fact that everyone was talking French.
Without cell phones to guide us to restaurants and unable to confidently read menus we were completely reliant on intuition to find a place to eat. We were hungry, but not feeling too adventurous, so selected what appeared to be a chain that had a name we could read – Baton Rouge. It was similar to the U.S.’s TGIF chain in food quality and ambiance, but we were able to refuel and watch Germany beat Argentina in extra time to win the FIFA World Cup.
Feeling refreshed the next morning we hopped on our bikes and peddled our way toward Mount Royal. A hill located in the center of relatively flat Montreal and just west of downtown. It rises roughly 740 feet above the city and is visible from many parts of the city — the entire city is visible from atop Mount Royal!
A city park, as well as nature and recreation areas encompass the hill. It also makes for a beautiful and challenging bike ride. The foot and bike only path is an old carriage road that winds around the hill for about 4 miles ascending at a steady grade to the summit.
It was only from the top of Mount Royal that we could truly appreciate the beauty of Montreal.
It is an obvious must see for visitors, but it was also an obvious favorite of the locals as well.
Having gained some confidence with our ability to communicate with the locals we ventured to find a neighborhood lunch spot near Mount Royal and wound up at Café Santropol – mostly vegetarian and very funky. Perfect!
Next, it was off to Jean-Talon market, which we had been told is the best of the city’s several outdoor farmers markets. Had we researched previously, we would have found that it was the further of three in our area and the main route required a harrowing bike ride on a heavily traveled street. Once we safely arrived though, we very much enjoyed the market’s energy, colors and freshness.
The indoor and outdoor market takes up two square blocks and is surrounded by eateries. It is well worth a visit even to just browse among the fresh food and flowers. Even though we were on bikes, we couldn’t resist buying a few fresh vegetables which Trey stir fried us up for dinner the next evening.
We found an indirect but safer route back to our apartment cutting through neighborhoods and for a portion, an actual bike path.
Too tired at that point to cook, we opted to walk several blocks north to Rue Saint-Denis – a lively street lined with restaurants, street musicians, hungry tourists and more than a handful of homeless 20-somethings. Without a particular craving we strolled several blocks before our indecisiveness was overcome by our hunger and we settled on a Mexican food restaurant.
Mexican food in Quebec? I know, but it had been over 6 weeks since we’d left Austin and our two Tex-mex meals a week habit. Plus, the sign on the restaurants entrance advertised the best margarita’s Montreal. Sold!
The walk back to our apartment at dusk provided us with the most disturbing image we had experienced to date on our travels. I can now say that it was the most disturbing image of our North American travel period. An older than the average Rue Saint-Denis homeless man followed us for a couple of blocks talking sporadically and incoherently. As we neared an open green space I noticed a young woman with light brown hair sitting on the lawn to our left with her backpack contents spread about her. She had some type of makeshift tourniquet tied around her right upper arm and a syringe in her left hand – she was shooting up.
This site also caught the attention of the homeless man who promptly turned away from us and made a beeline to this young lady. I wanted to intervene and tell her that she didn’t have to live like that. But very much feeling my own vulnerability in that moment, I instead opted to continue walking with Trey toward our apartment. The well-being of this young lady and our reaction to the scene still haunt me today.
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
Our last full day in Montreal was just that – a full day. We walked again through the festivals of the Quartier des Spectacles on our way to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal — the first of four basilicas we ended up visiting in North America.
We’re not Catholic, nor particularly religious. We were simply drawn to Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica’s grand gothic architecture; however, it was the opulent interior that left us awestruck and wanting to learn more about what exactly sets basilicas apart from other Catholic cathedrals and churches.
The designation of a church as a basilica can only be made by the Pope and it generally is due to the cathedral’s level of historical or artistic significance, and/or its importance or role in the local community.
Montreal’s basilica did not seem to be lacking of any such credentials. The massive organ has an impressive 7,000 pipes and four keyboards, and the alter showpiece was a whopping 20-ton bronze sculpture.
We were two of about 30 that paid $5 to take one of two guided tours that are offered daily every 30 minutes — The 190 year old gothic revival cathedral was bustling, beautiful and bodacious. My new belief that perhaps the Catholic Church believed there was a direct correlation to the level of grandiose-ness and Godliness would gladly be adjusted later in our trip.
It is a short walk from the Basilica to Rue Saint Paul — a street in an upscale residential, shopping, art and dining area that includes several blocks closed off to cars.
It is located in “old Montreal” which had been surrounded by a wall in the 1700’s and sits along the Saint Lawrence River. I was sorry that we did not allow ourselves more time to explore and absorb the old city. It provided our first experience of what I imagine some European cities will be like – narrow cobble stone streets lined with quaint Victorian buildings full of unique shops and engaging people.
After arriving too late at the Montreal Science Museum to secure entrance, we started the mile and half trek back to our apartment enjoying the scenes and scents in China Town along the way.
We were happy to give our sore feet a break when we came upon a spirited pick-up soccer match – very competitive and entertaining.
We left Montreal enriched with the experience and people we encountered there, and with a few regrets – again, would have loved to have had more time in “old Montreal,” and will assure that time is allowed on our next visit to tour the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.