The drive to Montreal seemed too long; anticipation made time drag. I finally rolled up into a ball on the front seat and went to sleep, something I rarely do. It helped enormously to hurry time along. Joe drove well, sipping hot chocolate and munching a cookie while listening through his earpiece to a good story. When I woke we’d began to nibble at the edges of the big city. Its population numbers nearly two million souls.
The traffic was reasonable, as it was Sunday. Our GPS lady was mostly unruffled. After just one mistake she took us off the Big Road and into the old city. The island of Montreal (named after Mt. Royal, a small mountain in the island’s middle section) from which the city is named, is huge.
Here are some thumbnail statistics:
192.74 miles in area
31 miles long
9 miles wide
Official language: French.
Ancient Rue St. Paul, just a couple of expansive blocks away from the St Lawrence River, is elevated almost 100 feet above it. This part of Old Montreal boasts original cobblestone and brick streets, which wind appealingly through the neighborhoods’ side streets. Our tiny hotel, Auberge BonSecours, was set well back from that old thoroughfare. We turned off St. Paul Street to immediately face a very tall, arched, long brick and stone tunnel into which were built two 12-foot-high ornate iron gates dating from the 17th century, which are still swung closed and locked every night at 8. Every resident has a key, should they want to stay out later for the nightlife.
From relative darkness, the tunnel opened into a longish, ancient open courtyard. Long, very high stone/brick walls framed a charming little seven-room hotel at its far end, which is, in fact, a converted stable. It is reached by climbing up three steps to a generous cobblestone patio set outside its front door which offers a couple of little iron tables with chairs to enjoy morning coffee and croissants. So French. So charming! Three ‘stalls’ on the courtyard’s right side had sheltered carriages centuries ago... and now, cars.
The warm brick and stone façade outside was decorated with black iron hayracks planted with thriving, vividly red geraniums, to stunning effect. I rate picturesque scenes like this in terms of ‘sigh value.’ (My scale moves from 1 to 10, with ten being tops.) This one earned a firm 7. Keeping designs simple, with lots of ‘POW!’ value, makes a most satisfying first impression.
The concierge, who spoke quite reasonable English (far better than my abysmal French), escorted us to our pleasant, simply furnished room on the second floor. A glass-paned door at the sun-filled end of our boudoir opened onto a huge roof patio with a fine view of the cobblestone courtyard one story below. This roof patio was much bigger than our quarters.
Inside, pale yellow walls set off two double beds and a smallish hand-painted, very French red armoire. A small chair sat snugly against a tiny tri-corner table holding a little telly set against the wall. The small bath was equipped with a square porcelain toilet and sink and a glass-door ‘phone booth’ shower with excellent water pressure. The towels were thick and white.
We relaxed happily into our nest.
Having spent nearly all our time indoors investigating the Royal Toronto Museum’s treasures, we decided to explore Old Montreal’s outdoors for most of our three full days here, as the weather, though rather cool, was sunny and a bit breezy, perfect for biking the area. Also, the huge, main pedestrian boulevard, only two blocks away, offered cheery pubs and restaurants featuring wonderful food. We never ate a mediocre meal. French food, imaginatively presented and freshly flavorful, rarely disappoints.
The first day, Monday, after our free continental breakfast (fresh coffee, fresh o.j., fresh baked bread, an assortment of cheeses, olives, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, thin ham slices, fresh berries and other fruit), we unlocked the huge iron doors just after 7 a.m. and wheeled out to bike the length of the St. Lawrence River as far as we could, using the wide paths lining its edge, which was brightened in spots by lots of small trees planted in long lines. Later in the morning people walked up and down its green swath eating baked goods and sipping coffee, enjoying the sun. There was plenty of room for bikers. We stopped frequently to explore the various jetties and structures that line the river.
One in particular, the Science Building, rose above the St. Lawrence. We love science exhibits! Closer examination, though, revealed zero activity inside. What? We locked our bikes and tested the big glass doors. They were open. Inside reflected the outside; all gray steel, stone and cement. There were no carpets. There was, in fact, nothing at all. Well, almost nothing. Two people, looking busy, manned a nearly barren desk against the right wall of the huge lobby, but no other souls, save we two, were about. This building was empty- of color, of people, of any softness (like comfy lobby seats, or maybe some large potted plants, which would thrive in all this natural light).
Then we heard faint, canned music. A large, round, candy-stuffed carousel, manned by two young men, was recessed well away from the traffic that should be flowing through this big entryway. A huge gray cement pillar had made it effectively disappear. There were lots of soft drinks, too- and even croissants and some sandwiches under glass. The candies’ bright wrappers provided visual relief from the gray that gloomed the interior.
This kiosk made no sense.
The two ‘greeters?’ in the lobby seemed didn’t mind our wanting to climb to the second floor. Surely there’d be something to look at up there! But, no. Floor-to-ceiling windows did display the fast-flowing river. Otherwise, only two colorful 50s-style movie posters and closed, unlabeled doors broke up the long walls.
Silent emptiness reigned. Baffled, we descended.
The building felt vacuumed of everything that would give it purpose. Most tourists had gone, but still...I found its nakedness exceedingly odd. What ‘science?’ Where? We looked at each other, shrugged, turned, and left. The desk jockeys, still at their posts, didn’t meet our eyes. The whole thing was unsettling. If there was nothing to see, why have it open? We didn’t feel like asking them for clarification.
The wind had picked up; biking now was a challenge, as the temperature had dropped to the high 40s. We pedaled on, though, wanting to view the Old Port’s docks, and maybe even see some interesting boats.
There was just one- a huge, gorgeous yacht. I’ve never seen anything like it. Her beauty and clean, elegant lines enchanted us.
Blue Moon would stand out anywhere. Pure white, she is privately owned, cost over $75,000,000, is just over 175 feet long, has a captain, a crew of 15, and can accommodate 12 lucky guests. Her graceful lines are arresting. We stood in the late morning sun for a long time, talking about, for example, how very tricky it would be when the captain eventually must back her slim length out into that fast-moving river before turning one way or the other. What a feat that would be to witness!
Nobody seemed to be inside. Blue Moon sat there quietly, awaiting her next adventure.
Go to Google and ask for ‘Montreal’s huge yacht at Old Port.’ The short video shows her in late summer, when lots of much smaller boats were moored nearby, costing a mere million bucks or so. Moon’s arrival had apparently created a local sensation. The nattily dressed TV announcer reporting on her stood amid a crowd of summer-casual folks who had gathered at the docks to admire her and speculate about the beautiful boat’s background.
Old Port officials declined to say who owns her.
After biking up and down the swiftly flowing St. Lawrence we’d worked up quite an appetite, and were now shivery cold. The wind, quite gusty at times, was increasing every hour. So, round about two o’clock, six hours after we began, we pedaled wearily home, shed our wheels and walked to a restaurant our concierge recommended. Jardin Nelson is located right at the corner of Rue St. Paul and Place Jacques Cartier, the huge pedestrian boulevard. Flowers gushed from very large planters attached to its open patio, completely enveloping the five-foot-tall wall. Inside, a slim female vocalist sang popular French music, accompanied by a fine small band just behind her. Appreciative people ate and clapped. The singer, well known locally, can really deliver a song. Even in mid-afternoon the big indoor lunchroom was packed. Our salmon salads were delicious!
After exploring some of the little souvenir shops that line the boulevard we returned home at twilight and settled in for the evening. It had been a long, interesting day.
Auberge BonSecours is set so far back from the street that, for me, time seemed to slow, and then- reverse.
Nearly asleep, I fancied I could hear carriages and horsemen clip-clop in and dismount, spurs and gear clinking. They’d stable their steeds before resting somewhere close by for the night...
We fell asleep quickly, enveloped in Old Town’s deep quiet.
Tomorrow would prove to be very informative, and a bit strange.
Tune in next Sunday for the final report on our adventure.