Montréal: Canada's Cosmopolitan City

By Michael Algar

Montréal's Joie de Vivre is contagious. Few Montréalers would even dream of living anywhere else, while visitors have claimed it as one of North America's favorite cities. They love it all - the architectural mix of old and new, the galleries and museums, fabulous restaurants, its general sophistication. On summer evenings restaurants and clubs spill over to sidewalk tables and gaiety permeates the narrow streets of the old sector. Montréal's very Frenchness sets it apart. The second largest French-speaking community in the world (Paris is the first), it exudes a European finesse seldom seen in North America.

Located on an island where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers meet, the city enjoys a strategic location in the huge system of lakes and rivers that cover all of eastern North America. Not surprisingly then, native peoples settled here long before Europeans arrived.

In 1535, while on his second voyage of discovery, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St Lawrence River and landed at the Indian village of Hochelaga on the largest island. He established temporary camps and planted a cross at the top of the mountain which he called Mont Réal. Over a century later, (1642) Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, leader of a mission to the Indians, landed here with fifty-three soldiers and settlers to found the colony of Ville-Marie de Montréal, later shortened to Montréal.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 resulted in Montréal becoming part of the new British colony of Québec. And two more decades passed before it emerged as the British Empire's gateway to central North America. Prosperity from fur and lumber exports to Britain led to massive immigration, and a period of enormous economic growth. Newly established banks funded canals and harbor construction, steamships and railways, along with a host of new industries. It was only in the 1970s that Toronto outstripped Montréal as Canada's largest city. There is still a large Anglo population here, resulting in its claim to be bilingual. Consequently it is a very easy city to know, whether you are fluent in French or not.

A tour of Old Montréal, by calèche or on foot, is an excursion into city history, as it is steeped in old stone homes and churches, warehouses and neo-classical buildings from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most buildings are still in use, their lower floors often converted to bistros, restaurants and boutiques. A good place to start is Place d'Armes, close to the site of the first battles between settlers and the Iroquois, dominated now by a statue of the city's founder, Sieur de Maisonneuve. As the city prospered this became Montréal's first financial district, and buildings here now used to house Canada's earliest banks and trading companies.

To the south of the square, Nôtre-Dame Basilica is one of the largest and most beautiful churches on the continent. Everything about it is inspired - from its twin spires and neo-gothic architecture to the intricate wood-carving, artwork and stained glass windows depicting the founding of Ville-Marie. Concerts and recitals held regularly are glorious in this setting.

Continuing south, near the waterfront, Place Royal is the site of the earliest settlement. To the northwest, Place Jacques Cartier was the location of one of Montréal's oldest markets, opened in 1804. Now surrounded by houses, hotels and restaurants, the square is filled on summer evenings with noisy outdoor cafes, street musicians and flower vendors. The Old Port has become a park stretching down to the river. In summer it is scene of daily entertainment: classical, jazz and modern music

But enough of Old Montréal, for this is a city that continues to make history. Mont-Royal, christened by Jacques Cartier, now contains a park popular with Montréalers because of its attractive trails, used for jogging in summer and skiing in winter, and so easily accessible from downtown. In Olympic Park, the Biodome was built to celebrate the city's 350th anniversary. It contains four different ecosystems, namely a tropical jungle, a polar environment, a northern forest and the habitat along the St Lawrence River.

In 1976 Montréal hosted the Olympics, and has since put some of that event's more spectacular buildings to excellent use. Beside the Olympic Stadium, on Sherbrooke East, the Botanical Garden of Montréal is in size second only to London's Kew Gardens, and every bit as impressive. Containing some 26,000 species in its thirty gardens and ten greenhouses, it has a Chinese garden prefabricated in Shanghai and assembled here by Chinese craftsmen. Its Insectarium is North America's only entomological museum, housing over 3,000 insects gathered from around the world. Many are so exotic, so huge, so colorful, it's hard to believe they aren't of human invention.

1967 was a landmark year celebrating Canada's 100th birthday across the country, at which time Montréal hosted a World Fair, with its nucleus on Notre-Dame and Ste-Hélène islands. In 1993 the Casino de Montréal opened on Île Notre-Dame in the former French Pavilion. With close to 3,000 slot machines and more than 100 tables, it is one of the largest in the world.

Underground Montréal has grown steadily through the years, providing a welcome escape from summer's heat and winter's cold. Development started beneath the city's first highrise in the l960s, and expanded with the opening of the Métro (subway) a few years later. Subway stations, rail and bus depots, hotels, concert halls, theaters - even an ice rink - are all connected in this complex. In fact, some apartment dwellers claim they don't own boots or thick coats since they have no need to venture outdoors in winter.

In true Paris tradition, Montréal's trendiest areas are well endowed with terrific patisseries, restaurants and sidewalk cafes where you can sit and enjoy the passing parade. Wining and dining here, with food prepared by one of the world's best French chefs is just one of the many pleasures offered to visitors to this dynamic city.

Excursions from Montréal: Among the excursions from Montréal are two one-day outings to resort areas frequented by Montréalers and other perennial visitors, where some stay for a weekend or their annual vacations.

Mont-Tremblant (186 miles - 300km return) This drive goes into the Laurentians (Les Laurentides), a hilly section of the Canadian Shield immediately north of Montréal. Very enjoyable at any time of the year, it is particularly colorful in late September when the foliage is at its best. The Laurentians are Montréal's cottage country , and in addition to private accommodation, the region claims to have the highest concentration of holiday resorts in North America. Certainly there are numerous facilities for golf, tennis, equestrian activities, and watersports on the lakes. Hikers, campers and naturalists generally love this region. Then, with over 100 ski lifts and tows, and trails for cross-country skiers, it is a major winter sports center As you might expect, the area is well-endowed with inviting small inns, cafés and restaurants, as well as summer stock theatres and that uniquely Québecoise institution, the boîte à chansons, where performers sing traditional and popular songs.

To get to the Laurentians, leave Montréal via Rte 15 (Autoroute des Laurentides). This highway is paralleled most of the way by the slower Rte 117, which could be taken on the return journey. About 25 miles (40km) north of Montréal, and after passing Mirabel Airport, you will come to St-Jérôme known as Gateway to the Laurentians. This was home to the legendary Curé Antoine Labelle. It was his untiring efforts at development during the late 19th century that led to the founding of so many villages named after saints.

Ste-Adèle, about 13 miles (20km) further north is a pretty town with good visitor facilities. Another 13 miles (20km) north, at Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, the autoroute merges with Rte 117. Ste Agathe (population 8,500) located on lac des Sables is the Laurentian's largest town. This is a well-known sailing centre with popular beaches. Many prosperous Montréalers have summer homes here, and visitors will readily find excellent restaurants and inns. Continuing on via Rte 117, you pass through a number of smaller communities before arriving at the village of Mont Tremblant in the shadow of Mont Tremblant (960m - 3,150feet,), the highest point in the Laurentians. This very attractive village (population 700) is surrounded by several lake-side resorts. It is a favorite ski center One lift operates all year, providing a super lookout for fall colors. Mont Tremblant Park, which covers 1,248 sq km (482 sq miles), contains over 500 lakes as well as countless rivers and streams. Summer activities include fishing, hiking and horse-back riding. Of the park's campgrounds, those at Lake Monroe and Lake Provost have extensive facilities and are suitable for Rvs. The large northern section is a wild-life reserve.

The Eastern Townships (300km/186 miles return) This drive goes east from Montréal parallel with the United States border and into the Eastern Townships - L'Estrie. It is part of the route followed when returning from the Atlantic provinces after leaving the United States, and could be included in that itinerary, time permitting. The area was settled by Loyalists who came here after the American Revolution, and the term Eastern was used to differentiate from the Western Townships in what is now Ontario. During the 1820s to '40s these settlers were joined by Irish immigrants, and as industry expanded by French-speaking Canadians. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the region was populated largely by francophones. Even so, it retains many British and early American characteristics and most residents are bilingual.

Known as L 'Estrie ("Kingdom of the East"), this is a region of rolling hills, woods, orchards and rich farms, so similar to lands to the south that it is sometimes described as Quebec's New England. Lakes and rivers enhance the tranquil scenery, and the hills make for excellent skiing. It is a natural year-round playground for the residents of Montreal and Quebec City. Here are fine old hotels and modern resorts, and golf courses, along with cosy village bistros and elegant restaurants.

Leave Montréal via Rte 10 (Autoroute des Cantons de l'Est). Granby, to the north of the highway, about 37 miles (60km) from Montréal, has large zoological gardens and a collection of fountains from various parts of the world. However your objective is Magog named after nearby Lake

Memphremagog (Abenaki Indian for "expanse of water"). It is still an industrial city (population 13,600) but also a major resort centre. To the north Mount Orford Park just north of Rte 10 is reached via Rte 141. The summit of Mount Orford (2,795ft - 852m,) is served by ski-lift all year round. It provides great views of the surrounding farmlands and vacation country , with the Appalachian Mountains to the south. In summer park visitors can golf, hike and canoe. The Orford Arts Center is an important summer attraction, particularly during its festival featuring art exhibitions, concerts of popular and classical music presented by well-known performers, English and French language films and theater.

South of Magog at St-Benoît-du-Lac the beautiful Benedictine abbey, created by an architect member of the order, provides a retreat for men and women looking for a few days of quiet contemplation. Its gift shop sells cheese and cider produced by the monks. North Hatley, to the east of Magog via Rte 108 is outstanding among this region's resort communities. The lake-side village first attracted wealthy Americans who came here in the 1920s to escape prohibition. Now many of those homes have been converted to resorts,inns and B & Bs. The village is renowned for its art galleries and shops, its cafes and restaurants, and during summer English-language performances at the Piggery Theater.