If you like food, go to Montréal. Seriously. From the moment I arrived I’ve been relishing every bite I’ve had, starting with poutine at Patati Patata, and fresh bagels bought at 1 a.m. from a 24/hour bagel shop on Rue St. Viateur – and that was just my first night here.
I’ve been staying with my friend Eve and her roommate Gabrielle in Outremont, an area of town just north of Mount Royal. Eve is a real night owl, so we’ve seen a lot of the city at night, walking through Old Montréal in the rain, through the Plateau where all the classic winding metal staircases lead to second-floor brick apartment blocks, and riding Bixi bikes through the McGill University campus to a popular hole-in-the-wall Japanese fusion restaurant where we lined up for half an hour on the street, everyone drinking beer out of paper bags.
Travel tip: If you’re spending more than a day in Montréal in the summer, definitely rent a Bixi bike. There are stations all over town, and all you need is a credit card to swipe, then you grab a bike and cycle all over town for up to 24 hours for just $7. The only downsides are that the bikes are a bit cumbersome, and you have to keep exchanging them every half hour to avoid paying a higher fee. They’re a great way to get around town and see the sights; just don’t take them on the cobblestone streets of Old Montréal. I made that mistake and it was a very bumpy ride.
There’s so much going on here. This weekend there was the International Freeski Film Festival (where we caught a flick yesterday afternoon) and the cycling grand prix (which I saw while hanging out in Mount Royal park with the Tam Tams). In the last five days I’ve spent time in coffee shops, antique stores, produce markets (Atwater is overwhelming with its abundance of goodies), hung out at the shop where Eve works on Notre Dame (trying on clothes I could never afford) and on St. Laurent at a club where Chet Faker was thrilling the crowd with his groovy tunes. I’ve walked up Mount Royal – a beautiful hill right in the middle of the city – been inside the basilica of Notre Dame, and had many opportunities to practice my French – most interestingly at a house party where few people spoke English but wanted to talk to me anyway.
The people here seem genuinely friendly. At least, that’s been my experience in the time that I’ve been here. There’s not the reservedness or formality of anglophone Canada. Last night I was standing talking to a group of people outside the back door at this apartment, Eve somewhere inside, and a man I’d never met before walked up and introduced himself with a kiss on both cheeks. And I thought that only happened in the movies.
Montréal is a sensual city, with something to satisfy the senses at every turn. It’s Canada’s most European city (besides Quebec), and as such, pleasure is a serious business here. The art, music, shopping, street life, architecture, festivals and of course, the food, all seem to be set to a higher standard than what I’ve experienced elsewhere. Meals aren’t just eaten, they’re savoured. At any time of day or night you can get everything from a high-class sit down dinner at a table with a white cloth and sparkling glasses to take out at a greasy little corner stop. It’s all here: poutine, crepes, fresh bagels, smoked meat sandwiches, Portugese chicken, all kinds of bread, cheese, meat, wine, espresso, chocolate, fruit, and, yes, deserts. Last night we had custard tarts and milles-feuilles after dinner. The night before we had warmed tarte de pomme with oka cheese. I’m not drinking coffee these days, but I had a caffé latté at Café Olympico the other day and it was heaven.
Yesterday morning I was up before Eve so I walked down the street to buy chocolate croissants for breakfast (from la boulangerie) and saw a woman carrying a baguette and chatting on her phone in French. There were planter boxes along the sidewalk full of bright flowers. There were church bells ringing somewhere. There were about five pairs of shoes I found in a shop window I know I won’t find anywhere else. This city is like a ripe piece of fruit, bursting with flavour, just begging to be tasted.
Of course, it’s not perfect. Driving is a nightmare and you’ll be forced to take up smoking, even if it’s just second-hand. But with so many other attractive elements, Montréal is definitely worth a visit, and not a short one.
Tomorrow, I’m leaving for Quebec City. There, I shall eat crepes. Crepes! I’m in food heaven.
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