I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Montreal, June 2010: Sights, Activities, and Culture

I went to Montreal last week for Pattern Review Weekend! I had never been to Montreal--or to Canada at all--so my friend Cidell and I decided to head to Montreal early to see what we could see.

Monday, 14 June

When my plane landed on Monday it was pouring rain and quite cold. Cidell and I were scheduled to land at around the same time but, as is the way, her flight was quite delayed. The good thing was that when I finally left the airport, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out!

The Plateau We bought weeklong Metro passes--carte hebdo--and navigated our way to Marche Atwater, a large market the guidebook insisted was open until 8. Unfortunately, it had closed at 6 so we hopped back on the metro (love that unlimited pass!) and headed into the Plateau, to famous La Banquise for poutine. It has about 30 varieties of poutine on the menu. Poutine, by the way, is a regional dish of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. La Banquise makes a vegetarian gravy so even veggies can have the pleasure of clogging our arteries. It had been a long day of travel with an early morning breakfast and no lunch so fries, gravy, and cheese sounded just about right. I'm not sure it's an experience I could repeat very often, however.

The Plateau After dinner we walked around a bit, trying to digest our meal. The row house architecture is lovely, and everyone has added their own little twist with brightly colored balconies, hanging plants, and painted doors. We got back to the Mount Royal metro stop just in time for the (late) sunset and headed back to the Universite de Montreal dorms and hit the sack.

Tuesday, 15 June

Trena, Cycle ChicThe weather prediction was for alternating days of rain and sun, and luckily our first full day was a day of sun. We decided that a bike tour would be the perfect way to take advantage of the weather and get an idea of the city, so we contacted Cycle Tours Montreal and arranged to take the City Highlights Tour.

This turned out to be a fantastic decision. Our guide, Shea, was very enthusiastic, loves the city, and tailored the tour to our varied ability levels. We started at Parc La Fontaine in the Plateau, meandered through the Plateau (stopping for croissants and coffee), headed to the Mountain where I very proudly biked all the way to the top, then went down into the city, stopping to see McGill University, biked along the Lachine Canal, and had lunch at the Marche Atwater. It was a gorgeous day and we could not have been happier with our choice!

Wednesday, 16 June

Basilique Notre Dame de MontrealRain was predicted and the morning started cloudy, but we hoped it wouldn't start until the afternoon and planned a self-guided walking tour of Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) for the morning. We started at the Basilique de Notre Dame de Montreal, a copy of Notre Dame in Paris (though without the flying buttresses). I visited the famous wedding chapel, which honestly did not seem very romantic! I did enjoy its modernism, in contrast to the traditional interior of the main part of the church.

Molson BankNext we meandered our way through the old financial district, stepping into several amazing banks that still serve customers, including one with a wedgewood ceiling and one guarded by gargoyles. Looking at the gargoyles I think I understood J.K. Rowling's inspiration for the goblin bankers in Harry Potter. I was amused that there used to be a Molson Bank (left), now an office building, but beer-making is pretty steady business through good economic times and bad so perhaps we should have more liquor-run banks and fewer mortgage-backed for the stability of our financial system.

We ended our tour at the Old Customs House, next to the Archaeological Museum and along the St. Lawrence river, just as it was beginning to rain. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit the museum. It is my reason to go back!

Cathedrale de Marie ReineFrom there, we headed to the McCord Museum, stopping along the way we stopped by the Cathedrale Marie Reine du Monde, which the guidebook said was a 1/4 scale reproduction of St. Peter's in Rome. We went to the McCord to view their temporary exhibition of costumes from Cirque du Soleil. I love Cirque, but when I go I am in the very far away seats and the costumes are nothing but a bit of color to me. It was so interesting to see them up close. The designers put minute and intricate details into each one. I really appreciate their dedication to their craft. The museum also has exhibits on winter in Montreal and Irish-Canadians, with lots of artifacts and bits of history.

I had a late lunch at vegetarian restaurant Lola Rosa. It was so pleasant to enjoy my meal and watch the passers-by. It is very near McGill's campus so there were lots of students to-ing and fro-ing. The waiter was very pleasant and (as with our bike guide and most Canadian men) quite attractive, which never hurts.

As soon as I left it began to rain in earnest, and then it began to POUR. Cidell and I tried to visit the Musee des Beaux Arts, which has late opening on Wednesdays. Unfortunately, only the temporary exhibits are open during the late hours and we wanted to see the permanent collection. So we headed to Pullman for a glass of wine and some nibbles instead, and capped off our evening with gelato.

Thursday, 17 June

Since sun and rain were alternating days, Thursday was a day of sun. Yay!!! I returned to the Musee des Beaux Arts in the morning, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is free to visit the permanent collection. They have a wonderful little capsule collection of Impressionists, whom I love, and an excellent exhibit on Modern Art by artists from the Quebec province and Montreal in particular. There is also an exhibit of Contemporary Art; I must confess myself a cretin when it comes to Contemporary Art. I pretty much hate it all. Then I took the underground passage to the Decorative Arts exhibit, which has great furniture and glassware from the early 1900s through the present.

Stade OlympiqueNot wanting to waste a beautiful day, I took the long metro ride out to the Jardin Botanique. I first stopped to take some photos of the 1976 Olympic Stadium, which is on the walk up from the Pie IX metro stop to the Botanical Garden.

Admission to the gardens is steep--$16 (though I got a small discount because the Insectarium was closed). But once inside I saw dozens of groundskeepers hard at work maintaining this huge and beautiful complex and realized that the admission price is actually a bargain. I had only about three hours to spend before the gardens closed, but you could easily make a day of it with a nice picnic lunch (there are restaurants on site, but I didn't see any prohibition on bringing your own food).

Serpentine wall, Chinese Garden There is an amazing diversity of gardens--including a vegetable garden, poisonous plant garden (!!!!--I finally know what poison ivy looks like), First Nations Garden, medicinal garden, water gardens (I got to see cranberry plants! they are one of my favorite foods) etc. etc., but the real showpieces are the Japanese and Chinese gardens. I have been to many Japanese gardens, including in Tokyo, but never visited a Chinese garden before. It is gorgeous! The garden was built in China and then carefully disassembled and shipped to Montreal, where it was reassembled by the original Chinese designers and gardeners. It has water features, buildings, a Bonsai garden, and amazing views.

Greenhouse, Jardin BotaniqueBy this point I was pretty well exhausted. A free mini-train makes a loop around the property, the north half of which is a large arboretum. I didn't think I'd manage a tramp through the arboretum so I took the mini train for a bit of a view and a rest. I finished off at the spectacular series of greenhouses, which range from tropical to desert. I learned that bananas never ripen on the tree. Interesting!

For dinner I headed to vegetarian institution Le Commensal. There is a buffet of hot and cold foods (and dessert!). You fill your plate and pay by weight. I got a full (but not unreasonably so) plate and a bit of dessert and it was around $13. I went to the location on Rue Berri and found a secluded little table where I could observe the busy street without feeling exposed and self-conscious about eating alone and heartily enjoyed my food and the view.

Saturday, 19 June

Oratoire de St. JosephFriday I was at my sewing conference, and went fabric shopping Saturday morning, but I snuck off to do one final bit of sightseeing on Saturday afternoon. I didn't want to miss the Oratoire Saint-Joseph, which was luckily located in the vicinity of U de M and the dorms.

I decided to save myself some time and rent a Bixi bike from the stand conveniently located at the dorm. There are tons of bike racks in the trendy and tourist areas (not so much in the working class areas), you pay $5 for 24 hour access, and can use the bikes for 30 minutes at a time. If you exceed 30 minutes, it's $1.50 for the next 30, $3 for the next 30, $6 for the next, etc. This is meant to be an extension of the public transit system and the rentals are for transportation, not leisure. DC has a similar but not as user friendly system called Smartbikes DC. The only way to use them is to pay a $40 annual membership and get a special card. On the flip side, you can keep a bike up to 24 hours (at which point you are charged a $550 replacement fee). The Bixi model is so much better! A person is much more likely to sign up for the program if they can test it out first on a 24 hours basis, and the Smartbike is no good for tourists who won't want to pay an entire annual membership.

Well, I really should have taken into account my inability to read maps or navigate! I got lost several times, each time involving bicycling up and down very large hills, and when I finally found the Oratoire I sailed past it down down down a large hill looking for a Bixi rack, couldn't find one, cycled back up up up the large hill and was afraid I was going to have to ride all the way back to the dorm to drop it off. Finally found a stand. Had I done all this smoothly with no getting lost and finding the stand immediately (it turns out at the stands where you rent the bike there is a map with all the stands in the vicinity clearly marked) it would have taken about 12 minutes. It took me about 50.

However, I had plenty of time to climb up to the oratory, visit Brother Andre's tomb and view the interior of the main chapel. There is a lovely garden with (I think) the stations of the cross, but it continued on uphill and my enthusiasm for hills had waned. Brother Andre, the founder, was known as a healer and many people seeking cures visit the Oratory. There is a large display of canes that have reportedly been left behind by the healed.

Cimetiere Notre Dame des NeigesI walked over to the Cimetiere Notre Dame Des Neiges and just had a moment to pop my head in before it started raining. I raced back on the Bixi bike through the rain and managed to arrive back at the dorm before it really started to deluge.

Sunday, 20 June

I had just enough time before I needed to leave for the airport to take the metro to Mount Royal and ride a Bixi Bike over to the Mountain to try to catch the beginnings of the weekly Tam Tam festival. This time I was well and truly foiled by my inability to navigate. I picked up a bike at Parc La Fontaine and knew I needed to ride along Rue Rachel to get to the Mountain. So I rode and rode and rode and then eventually the Olympic Stadium came in view and I realized I'd gone several kilometers in the wrong direction. When I turned around I realized that I could clearly see the Mountain and the direction I should have gone. Oh well. I picked up a pain au chocolat to console myself and returned to the dorm to head back to the airport and come back home.

It was a wonderful visit and I hope to return someday and have a little more time to enjoy the city. All photos are here.

Montreal, June 2010: Accommodations and Food

Here is where I stayed and ate in Montreal!


As the Pattern Review Weekend activities were held on the campus of the Universite de Montreal it was recommended that we stay at Les Studios Hotel, a dorm that converts into a hotel in the summer. This option is not for everyone. The rooms are small, very small. My room was quite dusty/dirty and had an unpleasant dank smell (luckily the window could be opened and that took care of the smell). The bath is shared and there is only one toilet per sex per floor (10 rooms). The beds are rubber futon-style mattresses and the single plastic-coated pillow is rather small. Do NOT try to share one of these rooms. However, it was very cheap at $40/night (internet extra) and nicely situated at a five minute walk from either the Edouard-Monpetit or the Universite de Montreal metro stop.


Vegetarian Poutine at La Banquise

Poutine at La Banquise, a classic spot for a vegetarian version (rare) of this classic local specialty. $7.

Punjab Palace for cheap, metro accessible, perfectly-acceptable-but-nothing-to-write-home-about Indian food. $9.

Lola Rosa for mid-priced vegetarian fare in a quaint restaurant in a cool part of town with great service and good food. $12.

Premiere Moisson, a small chain of bakeries with locations at Atwater and Jean Talon markets. I don't particularly care for sandwiches, but their mozzarella and tomato on olive baguette was delicious. $8.

Pullman for wine and small plates. The giant olives were delicious and the goat cheese divine. The atmosphere is a little snooty and the prices are quite high. I didn't recognize any of labels on the by-the-glass list and there was no info on the varietal so I just had to guess. I could have asked but I didn't feel up to it in French (the staff spoke English and I'm sure would have helped with only a little attitude). I ended up with something cabernet-ish, which I don't particularly care for. It was good to feel civilized, though. $8 for a glass and around $5-8 per small plate.

Le Commensal for a huge variety of tasty vegetarian food at a pay-by-weight buffet. Had I eaten here earlier in the week I probably would have come back. $13.