Saturday August 10th –
Around an hour or less before we left, Marie was quietly getting ready in the bedroom. I thought she was taking a while, but when she came out it seemed she had been doing essential research on the tinterweb, and paid for travel insurance for us. Despite a free health care in Canada, apparently they charge heavily for health care to foreign visitors if anything happens so that was some great, last-minute work from Marie and worth the $150 or so for peace of mind.
At Newark Airport we got an Earl of Sandwich, er…sandwich (the name sounds silly but there really is a historic reason for the “Earl” name) for the plane. It was a tiny plane to Montreal, but comfortable enough. I played a War on Drugs album on the mp3, Marie did the crossword in the flight magazine I think, and the flight took just about an album and half’s worth.
At Montreal Airport, we bought 3-day bus and subway passes (a kindly young chap offered us his day pass, as he’d already done with it for the day, but we passed that on to an Asian girl).
There was light rain, as we got the 747 bus into Montreal central. We could tell already that French would be the predominant language spoken. Of course we knew that already, but it was perhaps a tad more than we’d expected. Of course you can speak English to the majority too though.
We walked with our luggage to the hotel from Berri Bus Station. The giant library looked nice, and in the small park opposite there was an “electronic picnic” going on, which Montreal does on a regular basis…kind of karaoke and dance music outdoors!
The last bit of our walk was up a sharp hill to our hotel on Rue Sherbrooke. The Hotel Manoir was striking inside and we immediately loved it. It’s old and charming, light and bright. The friendly bloke on reception sounded French-French rather than French-Canadian. He showed us up to our room, and we came back to reception to get our luggage. The hotel has no lifts/elevators because of its protected, classic heritage but there are only 3 floors. Our room was old-fashioned, ornate, delightful and we loved it. Some older fixtures but we don’t mind that. Marie was concerned that the window wouldn’t lock and that we were next to the fire escape, but slotting a bar and a tide-pen (!) into the window frame meant that it couldn’t be opened from the outside.
Our traditional key was also attached to a “wine” key (credit card type), which you could swipe to get a glass of wine from a classy kind of vending machine next to reception.
We plopped on the bed, then went out to explore. We’d got a dinner reservation at a tapas place called Sorocco later, but had a few hours to spare until then. The walk was on a fair incline ahead to the Old Town. We thought we’d stroll that way, down as we went and up coming back. Coming to one of the main shopping cross-streets, there was a lively procession going on. Groups of people representing their own cultures were dancing and performing to their native music: Brazil, Chile, India, Japan etc etc. We stopped to watch and take photos.
Next on our walk we passed fun sculptures (some above) street art and then happened upon Chinatown. Chinatown is quite small, but lots of variety and clearly popular. We bought some snacks at Patisserie Harmonia that were delicious, and a can of Thai iced tea. We passed some other fascinating eateries too, such as Dragon Beard Candy and a restaurant advertising Chinese ravioli. We carried on into the elegant, old part of town that included Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and of course quite a lot of tourists. We then rambled on towards the Port, and stopped for quite a long time to watch one of those fire-juggling performers. You have to say he was fantastic, and very funny but he was slowly honing his act by getting passers-by interested and swelling his crowd. He’d deserve the tips later though, but we couldn’t wait that long for the main part of his act because our dinner reservation was soon. Just after he got some of his volunteers to dance to a James Bond tune he played on his electric guitar we had to branch off. We got the subway to a section of the beautiful and lively Rue St Denis, and found Sorocco. There were a couple of tables of people outside. Inside looked nice, warm pastel hues and nicely old-style. There was no one inside apart from one side table occupied by a woman and her elderly mother. Our booking was for 8.30pm, and we were sat at the bar to wait for our table. Clearly it was due to get busy soon, and the staff were running around hurriedly. After we were sat, the place did indeed fill up. Great, bustling atmosphere and the tapas portions were giant (for tapas) and very delicious. We chatted to the Moroccan co-owner, about 40 ish, who was very affable and liked to talk. Apparently it’s called Sorocco because the other owner is Scottish! Morocco+Scotland…Sorocco. But Spanish inspired of course. A great opening meal for the holiday, we shared tapas of date-stuffed meatballs, chorizo, lobster croquettes and fish and chips.
Marie had a cocktail and myself a local beer. It was the best chorizo either of us had ever had and we had the remaining slices wrapped up for the hotel room.
We walked back, and Rue St Denis seemed like an endless parade of great-looking bars and restaurants. Though many people were walking the streets, naturally on a Saturday night, everyone was well-behaved and well dressed. Montreal buoyant and very attractive so far. It’s also only an hour or so flight for us, but feels very European!
Day 2 –
Breakfast at the hotel, mostly a delicious variety of fresh breads, and we then walked down towards the Port area. Some beautiful houses along the way. When we walked across a four lane street, the crosswalk countdown went to zero as we were almost three lanes across. No matter, because pedestrians have a right of way when that happens. But a king of all assholes almost ran me over anyway! Marie held me back and he honked and zipped past me at about 40 miles an hour, two or three feet in front of my toes! It was not at all indicative of the courteous drivers we encountered everywhere for the rest of the holiday.
Cooling misters…what an amazing idea!
It was quite hot, and we enjoyed a feature of a nearby pavement: they have water misters that were refreshing, and a lot of fun.
And to the Port and a boat trip on the Petit Navire. A small boat that holds about two dozen passengers, it was great. We even bought glasses of white wine each to drink onboard (clever slot in the table in which to place your glass)! A very nice, and lightly bobbing tour along the St. Lawrence River lasting around 45 minutes, with the history of the port, the shipping and architecture. Expo 67 in Montreal brought an upturn in the city’s fortunes. A giant ferris wheel always add a striking feature to a city’s waterfront too. We didn’t know that Leonard Cohen was from Montreal. We passed a beautiful old building, Musee Margeurite Bourgoeys, a 300 year old chapel and museum which has a dome with a figure of her atop. She lived in the city in the 17th century, and Cohen’s well-known song ‘Suzanne’ is a celebration of her (though I forget why the song is called ‘Suzanne’, and not Marguerite!).
After disembarking, we noticed a poutine-fest nearby. We knew that poutine is Canada’s national dish (or one of them), but the idea didn’t inspire us. Chips (or French fries, whichever way you want to say it), a variety of other chosen components and gravy in a carton or bowl?! Anyway, we tried it from one of the many vendors, and have to say we enjoyed it very much. Ours also had cheese curds, both deep fried and natural, plus crispy bacon and bits of spring onion. Quite delicious in its own way. And in Canada we’d find French fries/chips to be absolutely capital everywhere!
And next, we decided just to go for it and paid to board the huge ferris wheel!! Marie is afraid of heights, hence the double exclamation mark, and I am in certain circumstances. Though a ferris wheel didn’t seem so bad. And this one had completely enclosed cars, glassed in, and it turned very slowly. We enjoyed it, Marie too, and we took a lot of photos and chatted to a friendly Columbian couple. I practiced my Spanish, but I do need to work on it again at home. Marie is quite keen to improve her French too.
A good experience, and we’d do it again!
Then we got temporary, air-brushed tattoos. I chose a maple leaf and Marie had a cat and moon.
To cool off, we went into a supermarket on the way back to the hotel to buy drinks. Strange, but you enter through a tight turnstile and have to exit out the back of the supermarket. You can’t exit from whence you came! The exit at the back lead us into a really attractive and relaxed shopping mall. It had a coloured fountain and the fountain had this feature where it gushed up to the high roof once every few minutes, and this especially delighted kids. We had an ice cream each, Marie chocolate and I strawberry sauce toppings.
Both the supermarket and mall felt very European.
A hotel re-group. Then we set out for our evening meal. We got a bus to the district of Mile End where our restaurant reservation was. It was a Mauritian restaurant that Marie had found online, La Khaima. It would be a lot like Moroccan and would be a fascinating choice because we’d seen photos of the tent-like interior and it had very good reviews. We were a little early for our…I think it was a 6.30pm booking, and sat on a bench outside. It looked very authentic-earthy, and next door is a hibiscus tea café also owned by the same restaurant. On Khaima’s window is the famous quote from the William Blake poem: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”
The staff – an older geezer and son, in traditional attire – were very welcoming. This was the most hardcore restaurant Marie and I have ever been to together! It reminded me of the intrepid places I’d been to with Chris in Tangiers and Lebanon, and could easily have been next to a rambling alleyway in a souk. We knew you were to take your shoes off and sit on a low mat, observing Islamic custom, but with the exotic tent slightly dark interior, lack of air conditioning (a few flies around us simply because they keep the door open, not lack of cleanliness) and gently wailing, traditional music – and the fact that no one was yet there, just us – made it feel slightly strange. We thought we were being very adventurous. The staff were very nice, as I say. The son came out to explain the food for today. There is no menu, and you eat what they have on for today. It would be a chicken and beef stew, a vegetarian dish and couscous. With lots of herbs and spices, naturellement! We were brought pita and hummus, sprinkled with lashings of paprika, to start. The main dish is brought on a big platter, and food is excellent and unlimited.
After about fifteen minutes a young couple came in and were seated near us. Then an Indian woman and her mother arrived, and then a family of four and then a group of students and….before we knew it the place was full!
Oh, we shared a bottle of hibiscus too. A really alternative dining experience!
The 55 bus back was taking too long, so we opted to take the longish walk back to the hotel. We decided to go for a cocktail, and set out for another place we had noted before the trip, Big In Japan. It was next to a very busy, corner creperie and is a speakeasy behind a completely inconspicuous door with a small ‘bar’ sign. Inside is very atmospheric, with hundreds of tea-light candles and subtle lights. It felt very late-night, quite posh and secretive, but popular and half full today. We had a concoction each. It wasn’t expensive either. The two overworked waiters wore bow ties, and the music was mostly old classic crooning numbers and soft jazz. It felt a bit Twilight Zone!
We thought about a second drink somewhere else on our long walk back, but opted just to get not-too-late a kip.
Day 3 –
After breakfast at the hotel, we got a bus into town. We took a couple of photos by Notre Dame Cathedral, and Marie went to get money from the atm (cashpoint) at Bank of Montreal. And what a bank! The building is from 1847, all marble inside. People go in just to take photographs.
Then, to the Archeological Museum. This got great reviews, so we’d decided to do this before setting out on the holiday. Once in the museum, we started by watching a presentation film, which was visually arresting and beautifully done over lots of screen panels. So it felt like 3D.
You then go down a level, and can view three archeological sites ( Pointe-à-Callière, Place Royale and 214 Place d’Youville), as well other archeological dig findings like their first Catholic cemetery, the William collector sewer (below) and an archaeological crypt. The museum only opened in the early 1990s, and I think that the sites were only discovered not all that long ago.
The rest of the museum is all about Montreal’s history, and is very quirky and random at times! There’s a display dedicated to the city’s gastronomical obsession (a lot of exhibits from rich households). There is even a section focusing on recent, personal collectors of objects like dolls, stuffed animals, toy cars etc.
It was a cool place, and was a happy way to spend a couple of hours or so. In-between we branched off for lunch, and found a modern café in a pastry school. We shared a great quiche, a gazpacho soup and asked to see the pastries tray. A dazzling array was brought forth and we chose…I think it was a chocolate hazelnut slice and a caramel mousse reminiscent of a finer quality version of butterscotch angel delight!
We had a few minor aches and pains, most especially that our “dogs were barking”. Holidays are wonderful, of course, but being a tourist also means a lot of walking around (unless you’re beach or pool people, which we’re not). We sat down for a while to rest our feet. I drew a picture of Marie and I, pointing out our various aches. We can walk for ages without jips, but it’s the standing still parts of the day that bring the aches and pains in the feet.
Talking of food, again, we wanted to try Montreal bagels. We’d tried them in Philly years ago, but wanted to try them actually in Montreal. We got a bus out to Fairmount, and tried three bagels (take-away only) from Fairmount Bagels. Unlike in New York where customers always want cream cheese, in Montreal you typically eat the bagels plain. And not cut. Though you can buy the little individual containers of Philadelphia cream cheese if you want. So it’s best to get the bagels warm and fresh, seeing as they’re are mostly no fillings. They were really good, as we sat on a nearby bench, but needed some salt!
We planned to go the park next. It was quite hot and sticky, and we liked the look of a tea and coffee house just a few doors down from where we were sat on that bench. Marie proposed going to the café instead of the park. What would I like to do? I said let’s do the park. We got back on a bus. The park looked interesting through the trees and into the lusher hiking trails. The front of the park, flanking a main road, was plainer. I took photos. We fed squirrels. Now, we’re pretty sure that this is where I got the majority of my mosquito bites. We weren’t to discover them until we were in Prince Edward Island. I knew I had one bite near my left arm pit, about half the size of a golf ball, but in a couple of days’ time in PEI I took my shirt off and noticed a larger, double one on my left shoulder and Marie exclaimed an ‘OMG!” as I had another four of five spread over my back, large and getting quite sore. In the meantime, Marie had a got a painful heat rash on two or three of her fingers and fingertips. Anyway, right now we were mostly blissfully unaware!
In the park, brief heavy rain started and we made for the bus stop back.
Back at the hotel again, we asked one of the very helpful staff for tips for a French-Canadian restaurant. We were recommended a street called Rue Prince Arthur only a couple of minutes’ walk behind the hotel. We’d had no idea this really delightful, pedestrianized area existed! We checked out the two little restaurants we were tipped off about, and later went back out to try one: Le Deux Gamins. It was a comfortable temperature out now, and the restaurant had the front open to the street. The waitress was very nice. We ordered escargot to start! Spanish style, apparently. I quite liked them and surprisingly Marie liked them more than me! I would have preferred the snails marinated and softened with white wine, but they were quite nice. And we shared delicious pan-fried hangar steak slices over a parsnip puree.
On our walk afterwards, we passed Juliette Et Chocolat. This is a decadent café in which you choose from a host of chocolate products, and is waiter-waitress service. Shall we?! The angel on our shoulder was saying, “don’t do it!” but the devil was urging us on. It was busy, service was slow and we almost walked out it was taking so long to get served. But here it came…and we thought we were getting traditional hot chocolate with lavish trimmings (Marie fresh whipped cream and chocolate chips, me melty marshmallows) but the ‘hot chocolate’ was more like liquidized pure chocolate! Very enjoyable, very rich, but a little later we were, like, “why did we do that?! What did the world feed me”!