in which this (very briefly) becomes a travel blog.
it surprises literally no one to learn that i am not at home in a city. i’ve lived most of my life in the country. not in a small, rural town, but out in the sticks, in the back of beyond, where self-sufficiency is key. there were a few years when we lived on the edge of a small village, but mostly in the woods and on the hills, on islands and up against rivers. sometimes i feel that a whole life lived in the savage garden hasn’t really prepared me with the skills i need, but i possess a hell of a lot more skills for dealing with wayward bears and encroaching forest than i do for navigating public transportation or determined panhandlers.
and so it was with a mighty dose of trepidation that i made my way from the green hills of vermont to the grey pavements of montreal last week to meet up with a bunch of nerds i met on the internet 12 or 15 years ago. i had visited the city before as a teen and young adult, but only for day trips, school trips, an evening at age 19 to visit my first bar in a country where the drinking age is 18.
what i discovered is that montreal is a small city, a green city, a comparatively friendly city that was formidable, but manageable. it is a city of parks and forgiving francophones, impressive street art and homely food. i had a marvelous time and it wasn’t just the good company that made it such a memorable week. i think everyone should visit this beautiful, vibrant, messy city and i know for sure that i will be back.
take some advice from your aunt gumshoe and pack appropriate shoes. i am one of those douches who wears the shoes with the toes. i’ve been wearing them for five or six years from april to october, so my feet are used to thin soles and supportless footwear. i thought my feet were strong and capable and i guess they are at home. i can run, walk, and do day hikes with my toe shoes, but they will not cut the endless concrete of a city. within a couple days of 5 to 8 miles of city walking daily, my soles were bruised and aching. so bring some sneakers, eh?
i hopped aboard my first greyhound bus and touched down four hours later at berri-UQAM, a decidedly sketchy place to start an epic urban adventure. the first person i interacted with asked me for a light for her cigarette. the second person was a guy on a bicycle who told me i was the most beautiful woman in the world (demonstrably false) and then hit me up for money.
we managed to see most of the major sites in just seven days. one of our number is a local, so we had a great guide for vieux-montréal on our first day. we strolled the narrow streets, were brought low by the tacky interior and uncomfortably racist tchotchkes of bonsecours market, got the inside scoop on the notre-dame-de-bonsecours chapel, drank up the ostentatious beauty of the notre dame basilica, got a view of the old port from the tower of the pointe-a-calliere museum, and ate ice cream in a park. in the evening, in our own neighborhood, three of us set off on foot to find la banquise, the hippest poutine joint in the city. i’m not a huge fan of poutine, but when in quebec. and the double line out the doors at la banquise is there for a reason.
on the second day, we took to our feet again and walked up through the mile end neighborhood to little italy, had lunch and wine at restaurant corneli, and ended at marché jean-talon where the fruits and vegetables looked too beautiful to eat. footsore, we took the metro home. i learned to like the metro a lot and not just because the soles of my feet were on fire every moment of the day.
mile end was chock full of extravagant murals, political graffiti, and urban dirt.
my wishlist of things to do in montreal basically began and ended with the jardin botanique, so that was on the menu for our third day. as the only gardener in our group, i felt a little guilty all day that we were potentially doing this thing that only i would enjoy, but it was a success. everyone had a good time at the garden. the chinese garden was unfortunately closed for renovation, but the rest of the gardens were open and most of them in their summer peak. there were plenty of benches sitting invitingly in the shade alongside a stunning garden or two or three, which was welcome on a hot day. my sore feet were soothed by the lawns and gravel walks and even a sunburn felt like a gift that day. i doubt that i saw even half the gardens, which is reason enough to go back, right? we finished our day with a fantastic one hour puzzle fest at ezkapaz and an amazing dinner at burger royal on rue st. laurent. i had the best onion rings of my entire life and a frosty cold coca-cola in a glass bottle. flawless. make time for this gem. the food was good, the service was good. it was good.
after our whirlwind urban hiking, we had earned a rest day. our group was halved due to work obligations, so those of us remaining spent the morning in our flat gossiping, playing card games, and eating. by early afternoon, we were ready to go, so we took a leisurely walk to lush on rue st. denis, then on to la banquise for more poutine. two of us wandered further to the edge of parc la fontaine where we stopped at bar le lab and had heavenly designer cocktails (for a hefty, but worthwhile, fee). we meant to have just one, but somehow had two. it was quiet on a wednesday night and the bartenders were friendly. and skilled.
thursday we went back to the old city, walked down the boardwalk at the old port, had lunch at a chic vegetarian place called LOV, and went to musée de pointe-à-callière where we got to walk through a historical sewer (it was cooler than it sounds). unfortunately, we got back to the champ-de-mars metro station at rush hour, which meant the trains were so crowded that the passengers literally had their faces mushed up against the windows. zut alors. we let a few trains pass, hoping that the crowd would lessen, but it didn’t, so we boarded the sardine can from hell and rode it the three stops back to mont-royal station, at which point my rural roots began to show. i toppled off the train and collapsed on a bench with a minor panic attack. i’m not made for that kind of togetherness. after a cold soda and some chocolate to sooth the hayseed nerves, we boarded the number 11 bus for the summit of mount royal. the evening couldn’t have been more hospitable for a sojourn at the chalet looking over the city. the crowd was young and laidback and there was a talented pianist playing the piano installation on the terrace.
most of the group was headed home on friday, leaving me and my dear friend in montreal for the last day and a half. we stayed at hôtel de l’ITHQ, which is a working hospitality and culinary school. we had a nice corner room with a balcony looking out over downtown. the room was small, but clean, comfortable, and dripping with amenities. the sherbrook metro station is right underneath the hotel, so we left our bags and hopped aboard for some yarn shopping at mouline yarns. i did not need yarn. i didn’t need even one skein of yarn. reader, i got a skein of yarn.
we walked back to the metro in a light rain, checked into the hotel room, then jumped back on the train for dinner in the city.
we had an early night on squealingly comfortable beds. we slept in, had complimentary breakfast at the hotel, then checked out and brought our bags to the bus station lockers at berri-UQAM. from there, we caught the yellow line to jean drapeau station and spent the rest of the day at the biosphére.
the biosphére is really cool! go there! but go there on your first day in the city. they had an exhibit called planet MTL that would’ve been really helpful to have seen before we saw all the sights of the city instead of after, with the history and importance of many of the city’s landmarks. there was an amazing interactive panoramic film that rained and snowed on you. it was unforgettable.
the greyhound bus took me back to the border, where i was treated very well by CBP because i’m a middle-aged, english-speaking white lady. the francophones and persons of color were not so lucky. after more than two hours, we were finally set free. a few hours later, i was back in the clean, cool air of home.