Montreal, you surprised me

Montreal was not somewhere I’d expected to go on this trip.

Then again, well over half of what I ultimately ended up doing in North America fell into that category too. It’s almost like I really suck at sticking to plans, or something…

The original theory was to spend around five weeks in Seattle and Portland, a month flitting around between New York, Boston, DC and Toronto, and a month road-tripping round the southwest of the US. And then, well, things changed.

The Pacific Northwest summer was so great that we just had to stay another couple of weeks but somehow despite that, we still left everything far too late to book transport and accommodation to all of the places we wanted to go in the northeast and had to cut most of them out.  That did give us longer in New York – and that’s never a bad thing – but we figured that we should really try to make it to somewhere else as well.

For some reason I knew very little about Montreal except that it was French-speaking and, like many places in Canada, wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be in winter. Fortunately, this was the middle of August. All it took was a comparatively cheap train ticket and reading a quick guide to her home city by one of my favourite blogger friends , and I was convinced.

To Montreal we would go.

Montreal street

Say what you like about Amtrak (and I often have), but if you’re not in a hurry, it’s actually not that bad. I mean, yes, compared to services in western Europe, Japan or even China it’s incredibly slow, but I’ve been on trains that are a whole lot worse. Hello, Serbia.

We rumbled out of Penn Station right on time at 8:15am and pulled in a few minutes after our scheduled 7:06pm arrival, a mere 11 hours later. That’s an average of less than 35mph but hey, who’s counting? There were power sockets for each seat and wifi that worked occasionally, pretty views out the window for almost the entire journey and thermonuclear microwave pizza for when the hunger pangs set in. What more could a guy want?

Well, what this guy wouldn’t have minded was an ATM at Montreal’s Central Station that wasn’t faulty, so that his bank card remained in his possession. Yeah, that would have been nice.

Still, we were instantly smitten with our little Airbnb place in the Plateau area slightly north of downtown, and a cold beer coupled with a great hamburger at a neighbourhood cafe dealt with any lingering resentment towards Banque Nationale and their crappy equipment. Already, this was shaping up to be a great trip. Anything involving pretzel buns kind of had to, really…

Pretzel bun humburger at Les Belles-Soeurs
Bagel at St-Viateur

…and that was before the perfectly crispy bagels on offer the next morning at St-Viateur, which just so happened to have a restaurant near our house. Délicieux!

We’d only planned to spend three nights in this town, but that lasted until about halfway through my first coffee at St-Viateur. We were already loving the style and the architecture, the food and the fact that the place was just so damn French. Until we arrived, I hadn’t quite realised just how pervasive that aspect was – English really is reserved for tourists and expats, and I was happy to have to pull out my abysmal schoolboy French dozens of times a day. A lot happier than the people I was attempting to talk to, undoubtedly, as I quietly butchered their language in front of them…

After extending our stay for another couple of days, we headed towards one of the city’s premier attractions, the Old Port. It was a perfect summer’s day, and the half hour walk through the shopping precincts, university and residential neighbourhoods was at least as enjoyable as our bustling destination. Montreal apparently has a bit of a bohemian reputation, and the random street art that started appearing on every corner was testament to that. A city that encourages (or at least tolerates) great street art is usually the kind of city I want to spend time in, and this was no exception.

Montreal street art
Montreal street art
Montreal street art
Montreal street art

The Old Port area itself was scenic, in a touristy sort of way, and we spent a lazy couple of hours wandering around the cobbled streets, avoiding overly-enthusiastic street performers and lazing around on the grass people-watching.

There was a lot of that on this trip, actually – we relaxed and watched the crowds in the Old Port, amidst the sweet-smelling smoke and medieval battle re-enactors at the magnificently eclectic Tam-Tam drum circle and overlooking a lake near the top of Mont Royal, the large hill that probably gives the city its name. It all looked a little like this:

One of the stand-out highlights of our time in Montreal, though, was an accidental discovery as we were headed towards Schwartz’s. We never actually made it inside this deli that’s renowned for its version of Montreal’s famous ‘smoked meat’- the line stretched out the door and down the block – but instead, we stumbled across a massive outdoor market lined with bars, street food and thousands of Montrealers out enjoying the summer weather.

And, well, these guys.

Montreal street band

Parading up and down Saint-Laurent Boulevard, seemingly without a care in the world. Brass instruments, choreographed movements, matching costumes, they had it all. It was almost enough to make me grow a beard, enrol in French classes and move to Montreal just to join them. For now, though, I settled for ordering a bread roll stuffed with spicy BBQ chicken and a large mug of lemonade, devouring it all at a plastic table on the sidewalk as my future bandmates receded into the distance.

We’d turned up knowing little about this city, and left a scant few days later having fallen for its quirky style. Anywhere with food this good was always going to make an impression, but there was more to it than that. There was a mildly subversive undercurrent to Montreal, the street art and pot-smoking drummers just two of the more obvious manifestations. It didn’t feel like a buttoned-down North American city, not to this visitor at least, as it quietly sunk its hooks in and refused to let go.

Will we make it back there again for a longer period? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. The idea of renting a little place there for a couple of months is very appealing, and Montreal isn’t as expensive as (for example) Vancouver or New York if we decided to do so. There’d be a lot worse places to spend a summer, that’s for sure.

And now I want a bagel.

7 Responses to “Montreal, you surprised me

  • OMG Pretzel bun!!! what more could you want in life! (then I read the rest of this article with its foodie talk) Montreal is a place I have heard a lot about but never even considered it. I now feel like I need to read up on this city a bit more. Seems very “bohemian and hip” and foodie!!!

    • It really is all about the pretzel bun. 😉

      Montreal is definitely worth the trip – we’d happily have spent a few more days there if we hadn’t had a flight to catch back in New York. It’s just a fun place to be, at least in summer!

  • ah, Montreal was one of my biggest surprises this year. There’s just something appealing about this city that you don’t really know before visiting. And even now I have problems with describing what was it, probably this special, bohemian vibe. definitely a place to come back! glad you guys enjoyed it so much too!

  • I thought the same thing! I had no intention of going to Montreal, but I had a project up there and when I got there I was pleasantly surprised. Montreal has unique delicious foods, an awesome music scene, pristine parks and an art community that makes you want to stay.

  • Really hope to get to Montreal someday

  • Hi Dave – nice post, glad you enjoyed our city. Hope you made it up ‘the mountain’? It’s the highlight of any trip to Montreal. And yes, summer is a great time to be here (but autumn also great, lots of colours). I have tons of resources/photos on Montreal on my site, check them out if you ever plan on coming back!
    Frank (bbqboy)

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