10/04/18: Montreal; Canada’s Island Jewel- Part Three 

We woke early On Tuesday to another bright morning with few clouds, 55 degrees or so, with a light breeze. The plan: to explore Montreal’s Old Town neighborhoods and then venture downtown. The city has quite an impressive profile, with slim, modern office buildings piercing the sky. It’s the second largest primarily French-speaking city (after Paris) on the planet. We identified Hindi, German, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese. 

Later we came upon a restaurant called Eggcellent, tucked into a cobbled street, which specialized in breakfasts. With a name like that we had to check it out!
I ordered crisp bacon and avocado slices to set atop my (backpacked) gluten-free bread, which they were happy to toast. Joe had homemade sausage and eggs. The coffee was robust, tasty and black. We’d come back soon! 

Most shops weren’t open this early, so we biked on Old Town’s sidewalks. (People in cars tended to work their phones as they slowly navigated the ancient streets, making us nervous.) We looked into lots of little shop windows and constantly wove around construction. Big machinery, stacked cardboard boxes, portable barriers, piles of earth, sand, and displaced cobblestones made for tricky biking. 

The best place to travel turned out to be in the heart of the very busy downtown! 

Here’s a great promotional statement from GoBiking.ca of why Montreal is considered a world-class bike-friendly city: 

Major cycling publications and organizations have consistently rated Montreal as one of the top bicycle-friendly cities in the world during the past decade -for good reason. The creation of hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes, paths, and trails, and the establishment of the self-serve rental system with 5000 Bixi bikes, puts Montreal at the leading edge of what large cities can do to facilitate and promote cycling. 


Downtown bike lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard.  

The amazing thing about all of this is that a little over 20 years ago Montreal had the opposite reputation: it lagged far behind Ottawa and Toronto for being bicycle-friendly. Not long ago Mount Royal Park was the best Montréal could offer cyclists looking for an interesting place to ride. If you want to do some hill climbing, or get a fantastic view of Montreal’s downtown core, Mount Royal is still a great place to cycle. However, now the city has so much more to offer. 

One example is the recently completed bicycle lane, which transverses the entire length of Montreal’s downtown area. It’s not about painting a white line and a few bicycle symbols on a narrow strip of pavement. This bike path takes up a whole car lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard: it’s separated from the rest of the street by a substantial cement curb. Well thought out traffic signs help cyclists to safely navigate through busy downtown intersections. Moreover, Montreal is serious about keeping this bicycle facility open all year round. At one point motorists were actually complaining that the city was removing snow from the bicycle lane faster than the roads! 

Eventually, well past two o’clock, we were too pooped to pedal. A French meal, imaginatively served, would restore us. The Vieux Port Steak House’s prices made us pale- until we remembered we could whack off 25%. Much better!  

Revived, we biked to the Basilique Notre Dame, a Catholic Cathedral not far from our hotel. Built in the 19th century the magnificent, colorful neo-Gothic interior boasts a stunning pipe organ with 7000 pipes. Celine Dion was married here.  
Arranging one’s wedding, though, requires patience. Its wedding calendar is booked seven years in advance! 

There was a long line to get in as part of group tours of twenty, and a fee (around $10/person) to boot. As time was short we decided to forgo it. Do view the evocative videos offered on the net, though. 

We pedaled past a huge Observation Ferris Wheel located on a nearby island, which offers all-encompassing views of the city (for $25/person), its multiple bridges (lit at night) over the huge St. Lawrence River, and the smaller islands. Open from 10-11 p.m. the cabins are air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter.  
Next time... 

 

Not once did we see any sign of law enforcement. Large groups of cheerful young adults, most likely students from McGill University, Loyola College, Concordia University and The University de Montreal, just to name a few) never seemed over-boisterous or unruly.  Many smoked. 
Every evening soft pastel lighting enhances the huge Boulevard’s restaurants, shops, Cathedral, and other architecturally interesting buildings. It’s a great draw. Jazz and pop music inside and out enhances the scene.  

College students who like soccer, American football and hockey (the world-class Montreal Canadiens are based here) visit bars with wall-hung screens featuring these games. Brassiere Sportive was good for a glass of wine- and it offered free popcorn. We ‘wrinklies’ stuck out a bit, but nobody minded. 

In the twilight, almost all the people gathered on the great pedestrian Jacques Cartier Boulevard itself were over 50. Most, in fact, were over retirement age. 

 
There was one ‘monumental’ curiosity. 
Right at the top of the Boulevard, which slopes gradually to the mighty St Lawrence, stands a 50-foot high statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, erected here in 1809. To me, it looked almost exactly like the one in London’s Trafalgar Square. Great Britain’s premier sea warrior died fighting the Battle of Trafalgar.  
It’s the oldest monument in Canada. 
Curiously, Nelson is positioned looking inland, not out to sea.  
(But I think I read somewhere that the British Admiralty headquarters used to be up that way...) I didn’t know he’d lost an eye and a good part of his right arm in various battles. The statue depicts this. 
Anyway, just after the turn of the 20th century, the original 8-foot-high Nelson showed signs of deterioration, and so was moved to a local museum. This one’s a replica. 
Wikipedia adds its own comment: [* signifies my own comments] 

As a monument which may be seen as celebrating a British victory in a city that is predominantly French-speaking, it’s garnered its share of controversy. In 1890 a Quebec sovereigntist faction plotted to blow up the column. In 1930 [*as a clever, non-confrontational compromise] francophone Montrealers responded to Nelson’s presence by erecting a statue in a nearby city square (now known as Vauquelin Square) commemorating Jean Vauquelin, a French naval officer who valiantly fought during the Seven Years’ War. [*The two statues glare stonily at each other from a safe distance; so far, neither man has blinked.] 
Still, many French Canadians continued to object to Nelson’s presence. In 1997 the city proposed moving the monument to a distant Anglophone district, but public opposition has kept Montreal’s oldest monument in its original place.

On Wednesday morning we awoke to heavy rain, predicted to last all day and throughout the night. But at 6:30 a.m. it stopped; local radar showed we had a few hours to zip around town, so we wheeled our bikes to the huge gate, unlocked it, and were off. Up and down the avenues, along the river, through the streets, around the old clock tower, and finally, back to Eggcellent for coffee and a hot breakfast. YUM!  


We’d barely returned to our hotel before the heavens opened again. Rain drenched everything. Alas, I’d brought no raincoat. The rain intensified.  
Before lunch, the room cleaner knocked. When I answered, that kind man offered me a brand new foldaway raincoat in its own pouch, left behind by another guest. It was posh! He’d been saving it for a small guest without adequate rain gear. It was perfect for dashing outside and directly across the street to explore Marches Bonsecours, a huge, beautiful Palladian style two-story domed building finished in 1847.  For many years it housed Montreal’s City Hall, a 3700-foot meeting room and the Farmer’s Market, as well as accommodating banquets, exhibitions and other festivals- until 1878. 

{Wikipedia comments that] The building continued to house the farmer's central market, an increasingly multicultural mix of small vendors with business mainly conducted in the French language until the building was slated for demolition in 1963. [*However, calmer heads prevailed; it] was later transformed into a multi-purpose facility, with a mall that houses outdoor cafés, restaurants and boutiques on the main and second floors, as well as a rental hall and banquet rooms on the lower and upper floors, and municipal office space. 

Bonsecours Market was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.
We strolled through the main floor’s many separate shops that house attractive, often pricey merchandise, like clothes, jewelry, and fine memorabilia. But the second floor was dark and empty.  

This splendid building is safe from the wrecking ball, though. 

We left our snug digs very early Thursday morning, drove through nearly constant rain to the Canadian border, zipped through Customs and found ourselves back in Saginaw that evening. It had been an uneventful 13-hour drive. 

As our younger daughter may move there, we’ll enjoy returning to this appealing city in future, knowing the territory much better now.

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