- When summer arrives in Montreal it flounces in like a rumba dancer – all ruffles and bright cotton, with flashing thighs and sweat-slicked skin.
… so wrote USA-born forensic anthropologist and author Kathy Reichs in her crime novel Déjà Dead. While I did not see too many ruffles or bright cotton, there were plenty of flashing thighs and ample quantities of sweat-slicked skin.
Before COVID 19 made most travel impossible, I went back to Montreal to visit the home of a friend I had met during an international house-swapping arrangement. Sam had spent time in my Thailand apartment and I subsequently stayed a week in his delightful – if rather quirky – place in Saint-Henri in the city’s south-west.
During an earlier visit in June 2002 when the celebrated Montreal Jazz Festival was in full swing, I had seen the city hopping … and I was hopping as well.
I stayed in a small place near McGill University and as my first night was so warm, I went to sleep with the bedroom windows open. In the morning I found I had been attacked by fleas or bed bugs or mosquitoes or (it felt like it) pterodactyls. I had thirty-two bites on my body, stretching from my right shoulder all the way down my sweat-slicked skin past my buttocks and my flashing thighs to my right knee.
My first business the following day was to find a pharmacy and some magic ointment to stop the itching: people were looking at me very strangely as I wandered the streets scratching here there and just about everywhere on my beleaguered body.
- I probably looked like an old boozer who had lice
Le Canal Lachine
Near my house on this later visit was the Lachine Canal, completed in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. In its halcyon days a couple of centuries ago, it was a busy fourteen-kilometre waterway with barges plying their way to and from the many factories along its shores, from the city’s Old Port all the way down to the St Lawrence River. The canal was reopened in 2002 and the old factories and warehouses are now being developed into modern and comfortable – and expensive – apartments. On both sides of the canal are lovely cycling and jogging pathways.
One of the locks along this canal (there are five in total) is the St Gabriel Lock near my temporary home. The locks allowed the passage of barges and boats carrying the wheat, nails and timber produced in the water-powered mills up and down a canal that rises and falls fourteen metres over its length.
My host had neglected to supply any maps of the area and so, following a long walk one morning, I found myself quite hopelessly lost – although admiring the nicely refurbished buildings and the striking rusting ruins of other old factories. I finally surrendered and asked a woman where I could find XYZ Street and Sam’s house.
- Oh monsieur – you are SO far away! You have to go back along this road … then take that road … then …
I knew I was getting close to “home” when I found the railway line that ran a block away from Sam’s place, with freight trains rumbling and chuffing and tooting their tooters at all hours of the day and night: never have I been so happy to see a freight train.
Just up the canal is the beautiful 1930s Art Deco Atwater Market, (marchespublics-mtl.com/marches/atwater) that is noted for its butcheries and fromageries – but as I was a guest in a vegan household none of this good stuff would have been very welcome. The Pôle des Saveurs in the market is a special summer attraction, offering
- fast, innovative and tasty food, Vietnamese, Réunionese cuisine, barbecue, tapas, ice creams and refreshments
all of which can be enjoyed sitting at the outdoor tables by the Canal, which is precisely what I did – after buying copious supplies of wine and meat and cheese to take home.
Escape from Suburbia
Getting about Montreal is easy as there is an excellent metro and bus system. It’s a big city – about 4.2 million people – and its heart is an island bordered by the St Lawrence River and the Prairies River. The city’s name comes from Mount Royal, a hill in the centre of the city, and like many old cities there are enclaves showing its development over time: Le Vieux Montréal, China Town, the Quartier Latin … and the Gay Village.
Old Montreal – a French colonial area – is noted for its cobbled streets (see featured photo, left), the massive Notre Dame Basilica and the marvellous Old Port with huge repurposed warehouses, art and photographic galleries, vendors selling ice creams and hot dogs … and butter and salt popcorn, a treat I have not had since my childhood.
The glorious five-storey Bonsecours Market pre-dates the Atwater Market by almost a hundred years and offers a treasure trove of goodies made locally – haute couture, jewellery, Eighteenth Century colonial furniture, chocolates made by Trappist monks and so much more. The market was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.
A few blocks to the west you come to McGill University and the splendid MAC – Musée d’art Contemporain – with its wide fountain-studded plaza giving kids and slightly silly adults every chance to try their luck by running the length of the plaza dodging jets of water sprouting up in unexpected places.
- I managed just a few metres of jet skiing before admitting that the kids were much better than I was at getting wet and wetter and wilder
The art inside the museum is exciting and when I visited there were several interactive video installations where visitors could become (temporary) parts of the exhibit.
Nearby at 1072 Rue Bleury is a building with superb art deco façade. I cannot find who designed the building nor what its original purpose was. It now seems to be a place where there are retail outlets and where offices and studios can be rented.
Also just a painter’s beret or a sculptor’s chisel toss away, in McGill College Avenue leading to the 1821 McGill University, is Raymond Mason’s wonderfully tactile sculpture The Illuminated Crowd. Birmingham-born artist Mason is known for his works featuring tightly packed people, and his sculptures can also be found in Paris and New York. This silky polyurethane work just cries out to be stroked, but as the work is depicting “the degradation of the human race” and as it “symbolises the fragility of the human condition” (1) it is probably not a good idea to strive for Oooh! and Aaah! feelings after all.
- Pity, really
Travelling up Montreal Island, past the Basilica again, you come to China Town – in itself not a terribly exciting place, but there is the usual gaggle of restaurants (I had a very jolly lunch in one of them) and some interesting street scenes of fortune tellers. On my earlier visit to Montreal I stumbled across a small gallery that featured the work of Chinese-born, but Canadian-raised artist Ng Poon Keung who has exhibited in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Montreal.
On that earlier visit I bought a small oil by him showing one of the gates to China Town covered in snow, and was delighted to see the same gate twenty or so years later – without its snow cap.
Going North again, Montreal’s Gay Village awaits.
I have been to many cities where there are gay areas, but I think this is the first place I have seen that has a whole chunk of the city centre – about thirteen blocks by six blocks in size – officially designated as a gay village.
Running through the heart of this area is Saint Catherine Street.
It seems there are at least two Saints Catherine: Catherine of Siena who was or is a patron saint of Italy; and Catherine of Alexandria, an Egyptian martyr, who is the patron saint of philosophers and scholars, and who is believed to help protect against sudden death.
Judging by the fact that I survived a lunch at a street-side restaurant in St Catherine Street, perhaps this area is named after the Egyptian woman rather than the Italian.
St Catherine Street is a jolly area – mainly a pedestrian zone – covered by tens of thousands of little fairy lights and coloured balls … and I make no comment on this at all.
The Stock Bar is a well-known bar in this street and when I visited it there were just six or seven bored-looking patrons sipping drinks while watching equally-bored-looking dancers gyrating around a pole in front of them.
Jazz singer Peggy Lee crooned the words:
- Is that all there is, is that all there is
- If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
- Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
- If that’s all there is
So perhaps if those bored patrons and those bored dancers broke out the booze then the dancing may have been better … and there may have been some ruffles, some bright cotton, some flashing thighs and some more sweat-slicked skin.
- Or not.
And so to bed …
It’s a long walk – or a short metro train ride – from the northern parts of Montreal Island back to my home, passing Bishop Street en route and a marvellous piece of street art.
My host had offered to take me back to the airport but as I had found it so very easy to stroll up the street to Metro station Lionel-Groulx, and to take the very appropriately named Number 747 bus direct to Mr Trudeau’s airport, I did that, and had a good night’s sleep later that day in Boston, USA.
- And there were no bedbugs that bit in the night
A sad footnote to happy travels and happier times:
MONTREAL (20 August 2020): Public health authorities in Quebec reported 86 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of cases in the province since the start of the pandemic to 61,402. No new deaths have occurred in the past 24 hours, but one death from an unknown date has been recorded, bringing the provincial count to 5730. (2)
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall August 2020
With thanks to Gina Ryan (Chiang Mai), Olga Leskiw-Suzuki (Vietnam) and Rob and Carol Hues (Hobart) for additional information.
Location map from Internet
In my blogs I try to present just a snapshot of the places I – and other travellers – may discover during a visit of a week or two. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship