|We drove to Montreal on Sunday, about an hour and half drive from our campground. Crossing the border into Quebec was a much more enjoyable experience than it had been when we waited for well over an hour to enter into British Columbia. The line was short and quick and we were across the border in a matter of minutes.
Despite the warnings we had received about the French only highway signs (which is true) we found it relatively easy to negotiate the roadways of Quebec. There was very little traffic when we initially crossed the border and cornfields covered every square inch of land on either side of the road for most of the ride into Montreal (or Mais Suchre, as the signs advertised). After a short time on the road we started to familiarize ourselves with certain French words to help guide us into the city – Nord (north), Sur (south), Est (east), Quest (west), Fin (end), Arrete (stop). See, this French stuff isn’t so hard!
As usual, we decided to take a guided tour of the city so we headed for the Tourist Information Center in downtown Montreal. Our timing was perfect as we were able to book on the last tour of the day which began a half hour after we arrived. We had just enough time to choke down a quick salad topped with the driest chicken we had ever tasted before hopping aboard our Gray Line bus. Unfortunately, this tour was the absolute worst one we have done during our sabbatical (I would not recommend the Gray Line tours to anyone – no matter what city you are in!). The guide was difficult to understand and extremely boring - pointing out sites with no explanation or historical context. The tour had advertised that it passed by 200 sites and it seemed like they had a difficult time actually compiling 200 sites to point out. In addition (and worst of all), the bus that we were on had a huge advertisement for the Ottawa Senators which covered much of the bus windows, making it impossible to actually see the sights that were being pointed out to us. Nothing is more frustrating to me than to take a tour and not be able to actually see what is being described. We were given very little history of Montreal, Quebec or Canada during the tour. But we do now know where their police station is!
The island of Montreal was originally discovered in 1535 by Jacques Cartier when he was exploring the St. Lawrence River. The Indians took Cartier to the summit of a mountain which he named Mount Royal, or Montreal as it later became. In 1611, Samuel Champlain cleared a tract of land that he named Place Royal and it was here that Montreal was founded in 1642. At one point in time Montreal was completely fortified, surrounded on all sides by stone walls to prevent against invasion and attack. Those walls have long since come down and the stones from that fort were used to build houses and buildings that continue to stand. Today, Montreal and the surrounding areas have a population of 3.5 million people, while the entire province of Quebec has over 8 million people.
Taxes are high (about 50%) in Canada (in order to fund the social services). Our bus driver said that, although we may have read differently on the Internet, the health care system in Canada does not work well. Doctors are in short supply, they are often overworked and many times they make mistakes. There are one- and two- year long waiting lists for surgical procedures, both critical and non-critical alike. Apparently Michael Moore did not speak to our bus driver when he did his documentary on the health care system in Canada.
Our tour started at the Sun Life Building, which, when it was inaugurated in 1918 was the largest building in the British Empire. The building was used as a safe for the gold reserves of many European countries before the company moved its headquarters to Toronto. Our tour took us through Old Montreal near the port, 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, where the city was originally built, until sewage and drainage issues forced people to move further uphill. We stopped at the Notre Dame Basilica which was built in the 1840s. The interior of the church was gorgeous, painted with blues, reds, and purples which were bathed in a soft light that gave the alter an almost whimsical appearance. Aside from the Basilica, the rest of Old Montreal was tourist shops, Starbucks, art galleries, and restaurants. Street performers and artists plied their crafts along the streets.
The tour continued east of the city where we saw the Molson plant (which was, as our tour guide said, “acquired by Coors Light”) and apartment buildings that had been built with the staircases to the upper floors on the outside in order to conserve space (pretty smart, except in the winter for those postal workers who had to go up and down the stairs when delivering the mail). We also drove by the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Village which had been constructed for the 1976 Olympics. The tour guide wryly commented that the Olympic Stadium is not used for much any longer, foreshadowing things to come for Beijing. The still lit Olympic flame and the rings adorn the outside of the stadium. Next to the stadium is the Olympic Tower, which was constructed 10 years after the 1976 Olympics to raise and lower the roof which was later added to the stadium. The Olympic Tower sits at a 45 degree angle and is the highest inclined tower in the world. For a fee you can ride the inclined elevator to the Observatory.
We drove past Montreal’s Chinatown, McGill University, the Biodome (which, as our tour guide said incredulously, “houses live animals”), the church where Celine Dion was married the first time (she renewed her vows in Vegas; Celine Dion is from the Montreal area), the Montreal convention center (which I believe our guide said was the third largest in North America – but I find that hard to believe or perhaps I misheard him), the Latin Quarter, the Insectarium (the only one in the world – gee, I wonder why. I have no desire to see insects), and we stopped for pictures at the top of Mount Royal Park which stands about 700 feet above sea level and is one of 450 parks in the city. The park area was designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame).
In addition, we drove by a huge cemetery that our tour guide said was the second largest in North America behind Arlington, and we drove by the University of Montreal, which hosts the second largest number of French students in the world (and, in fact, Montreal is the second largest Francophile city next to Paris). Not content to show us sites in which Montreal is “second best”, our last stop was St. Joseph’s Oratory, Canada’s largest church. St. Joseph’s Oratory was built by Brother Andre, a man who was known for his miraculous healing powers. The Oratory was completed in the 1960s and pilgrims continue to flock to the shrine, climbing on their knees up the 99 wooden stairs set aside specifically for them. The Oratory’s dome reaches 97 meters and is second only in height to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
After our tour ended we headed out on foot to see the underground city, which is a huge mall that links a large part of the downtown area together underground (‘cause the winter is very long in Montreal, as our tour guide reminded us more than once). We walked to Old Montreal, thru Chinatown, and back to the Tourist Information Center where we inquired about a place for good Italian food nearby. We were sent to Crescent Street, where we found several restaurants to choose from in a touristy neighborhood. As we perused the menu of one restaurant a man sitting on a stoop inquired “French or English”? Once he knew which language to use on us, he convinced us that his restaurant had the best Italian food on the block. Happy to oblige we climbed up to the deck and settled in for a good dinner. And we were not the only ones that this quietly persuasive man lured into the restaurant. We watched him ply his trade as we ate, talking to those who stopped to look at the menu and convincing nearly 80% of those he talked with to dine at his restaurant. It was masterful to watch and we complimented him on it as we left. He said he had been doing this for 13 years and that yesterday they had 180 patrons in the restaurant. His wife, who had sat and learned from him over the years, now practiced this same craft at another restaurant across the street. She gave us a friendly wave as we glanced over at her.
Our stomachs full and with sunset approaching, we headed back to the border where we crossed easily back into the good ole USA (nothing like a quick trip across the border to once again reaffirm how wonderful our country is). Other than almost hitting a coyote who thought it was a good idea to cross the highway at night (ugh!) we made it back to the campground safely.