Two weeks and a rental car is all it takes for experiencing Canada in a very intimate way. I was able to do almost 3,000 kms and four provinces all by myself — solo. There is more to this humongous country than just Niagra falls and Toronto. I had no plans or a fixed itinerary when I left New York.
I headed out to Montreal and all I knew was I wanted to proceed in that general direction after that. Two days in this vibrant city had been anything but perfect. Glorious weather welcomed me. I decided to jump on the ‘Hop on Hop off’ bus to take me around the city. Driving my rental, a Jeep Wrangler was not a good idea, because parking is a nightmare, like in most big cities.
In front of the main altar inside the Notre-Dame Basilica.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal had been on the top of my list for many years and I made a beeline to see this spectacular Cathedral. It is surreal. I had seen so many pictures of this place, but nothing that you see or read will be anything close to actually seeing it for yourself. Much like the Taj Mahal, you have to see it to believe it.
The Gothic Revival style interiors of The Notre Dame.
While the church’s facade is a work of grandeur, it’s the multi-colored interior that really amazed me. It is the most visited spot in Montreal and tourists come in busloads to view its beautiful stained glass windows, the Casavant Freres pipe organ and the Gothic Revival architecture. Construction was said to have begun in 1824 and completed in 1843, but the interior took longer to finish and it was finally done only in the year 1888. (Trivia: Celine Dion got married here to René Angélil where his funeral also was eventually held!)
I decided to stay in Airbnb’s on this entire road trip. I found myself an eclectic Airbnb apartment in the heart of the Gay Village. Montreal has the second largest gay community after San Francisco. The very next street to my apartment was Rue St Catherine, a pedestrian street lined with bistros, cafes, quirky shops etc. It comes alive at night, pulsating with tourists and locals at the same time.
Montreal is one of the safest cities in the world. No need to worry about safety at all. It is safe and friendly and I’ve never heard so much French being spoken, not even in France. After two days of exploring China Town, the Jewish quarter and the underground city, I feel like I know the city like the back of my palm.
Art is everywhere. Rue St. Paul’s is full of galleries, museums and buildings and art is in all of them. I found an outdoor open air museum on Rue St Catherine that I found pretty interesting. Mount Royal is a small mountain in the city of Montreal, not far from downtown. The City of Montreal takes its name from this mountain. It has a park and the lookout has sweeping views of the city.
Another not to miss place is ‘Old Montreal’, so different from the new city. It was founded way back in 1642 by French settlers and has lovely buildings dating back to the era of New France. The best way to see the city is take to take the ‘Hop on Hop Off’ bus and they pretty much cover the city and the main spots.
The must-try food in Montreal is Poutine. It is a dish native to Quebec, consisting of French fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy. My Airbnb host gave me the top three places to find the best Poutine in Montreal. Top of the list is ‘La Banquise’ and I went straight there and, believe it or not, for breakfast.
The place is open 24 hours and was very quiet when I went. I tried the Classic with a veggie gravy. There are many veggie options like a guacamole topping as well. There are at least 20 other choices for meat eaters. It is just divine.
The other two recommendations are Patati-Patata (super pricey and uppity place) and Poutineville, a very run of the mill, very average chain food type place found all over Montreal.
Another must-try are the famous Montreal bagels. I decided to taste them before I left for Quebec. They are a little different from the New York ones. Both cities claim that they make the best bagels in the world. Fairmont Bagels is the best bagel place in Montreal, where the locals buy them by the dozen. It is a tiny place and the store dishes out bagels by the hundreds. There is no place to sit and eat but a steady stream of local people comes and takes them away by the dozens. I sat out in the crispy morning, it was rather early, eightish I think and downed the best spongy, sesame coated bagels in the world.
There are a few others in Montreal serving bagels, but Fairmont is where the locals go to and it is open 24 hours. Montrealers eat their bagels au natural when they get them fresh right out of the oven. You can’t beat that smokey taste. Slightly smaller than their New York buddies, Montreal bagels are a must. I know this is a ‘loooooong’ story for a humble bagel but I love them. I could go on to tell you that the origin of the bagel is the Jewish quarter at Vilnius, Lithuania, as opposed to some people saying it’s from Poland.
I headed to the second thing on my list before I left the city —Habitat 67. Well, this building is historical and I’ve been waiting to see it for many years now. Moshe Sadie’s is the architect of this powerful iconic residential complex. His work somehow reminds me of the works of Roark in Fountainhead.
Habitat 67 is Zen, Habitat, monochromatic art, a sculpture. The guide on the bus said yesterday that they might have tours but I couldn’t find one. I would have loved to see it up close. So I stopped the car and gawked at it, drove past it 3 times to take it all in. The beauty was also featured in Leonard Cohen’s “In my secret life” video as well.
I wasn’t ready to leave the city yet and so I found myself at the Nespresso bar, getting my favourite caffeine fix, looking up at this huge Leonard Cohen’s mural. This immense 10,000 sq foot mural rising 21 storeys high is a befitting tribute to this singer who was born in Montreal.
The drive to Quebec City was uninspiring and bland after the Habitat experience. Quebec City beckons.
(Meenakshi S is a travel and car enthusiast who did a road trip from Coimbatore to London in 2017)