|Bienvenue à Montreal! Now that's hospitality
with a distinctly French flavour; and what could be more appropriate for
the third largest French-speaking metropolis in the world? But French is
only one of 35 or so languages you'll hear on the streets of this
international island city of close to 2 million inhabitants (more than 3.3
million if we include Montreal's suburban neighborhoods).
Montreal demographics boast that its residents come from 80 countries to form an urban mosaic of vibrant ethnic communities and neighbourhoods safe to walk in day or night. Visitors will detect a distinct British influence, inherent in the culture since the days when English merchants controlled the city's trade. All in all, it's easy to see why "cosmopolitan" is the adjective most used when talking about Montreal.
Characteristically, there's the famous "joie de vivre"'the ineffable combination of spirit and ambience Montrealers exude without even trying. You'll see it in the summertime cappuccino-sippers cramming sidewalk cafes, in the long queues outside Schwartz's, ready to stock up on the best smoked meat in the city, and in the lovers holding hands on Mount Royal, the city's parkland mountain rising 264 metres. The same spirit can be felt even on outdoor skating rinks in the dead of winter, with the tuxedoed crowd listening raptly to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and when, at Molson Centre, hockey fanatics scream and pump their fists in unison with every Montreal Canadiens goal.
What makes Montreal one of the world's truly great cities?
It starts with its location. The island sits at the confluence of three west end rivers'the mighty St-Lawrence, the Rivière des Prairies and the Ottawa, with the St-Lawrence and the Rivière des Prairies on the east. Montrealers talk of their streets as going north-south and east-west, but the island itself is askew, tilted to the northeast.
The Main Splitting the city in half, both physically and psychologically, is St-Laurent Boulevard, 'The Main', as it is affectionately known. It is here that waves of immigrants first settled upon their arrival in the New World's promised land. Reminders of the past still abound, in family-run Polish delis tucked beside haute cuisine restaurants, and in the dollar bargain stores next door to swank billiards emporiums. This is Ground Zero for the city's addresses and, for a long time, this was the demarcation line between English and French, with the French predominating to the east of the street and the English to the west.
These days, the dividing line is no longer completely rigid, but there are still distinct English and French areas. You'll find the English restaurant-bar scene concentrated on Bishop and Crescent Streets; the French on St-Denis and points east in the Quartier Latin and in the Gay Village. The traditional French residential areas are tightly-packed districts that stretch all the way to the Olympic Park and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; English becomes more noticeable as you move west, culminating in the affluent suburb of Westmount.
Old Montreal At the south end of St-Laurent, past Chinatown, lies the historic district of Old Montreal, now a major tourist attraction with its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn calèche rides and Vieux Port activities. This is where, in 1642, the city's first European settlers staked their claim to a land they thought was theirs by divine right. You can still see the remnants of their original fortifications, and you can check out artifacts from the period at the Montreal History Centre and the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History. Here are also found the oldest buildings in Montreal including some, like the Sulpician Seminary, that date back to the late 17th century.
Montreal Islands Across the St-Lawrence River, the "Expo '67" islands of Ste-Hélène and Notre-Dame still glitter more than 30 years after Montreal hosted the World's Fair. Today the site is home to the La Ronde amusement park, the Gilles Villeneuve Racetrack and Montreal's world-class Casino.
Le Plateau On the other end of 'The Main' can be found the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, unique in that it encompasses both ethnic shops and restaurants on Parc Avenue and the hip Francophone crowd along St-Denis Street.
Little Italy Just a little further north and it's "Viva l'Italia!"'the original home of the first Italian immigrants and now one of the liveliest areas in the city with its espresso bars, boutiques and authentic Italian cuisine.
Subterranean City No visit to Montreal is complete without a visit to our Underground City. Montreal-above-ground has been described as the tip of the urban iceberg. Beneath it lies the world's most extensive system of interconnected pedestrian and Metro (subway) networks, linking buildings, boutiques and restaurants, and even residential apartments. You could spend an entire winter in this subterranean city without ever once having to face the cold or snow.
Worth a mention is the Metro System itself, with lines running east-west and north-south (albeit, askew) to just about every part of the city. While you're down there, check out the 62 architecturally-unique stations, each one created by a different designer.
- Michael Mirolla