48 hours in Montreal

My job took me to a conference in Granby, Canada last week, so I took the opportunity to stay on for the weekend and visit Montreal. It was my first visit to Quebec (and indeed to Canada, other than a stroll across the border at Niagara Falls in 2002) and it took a while to tune into the strange nasal pronunciations used in the local French. But it was really fun to be in North America but also, somehow, in Europe.

Buses on stilts in Montreal

Airports seem to blend into one these days, so I was pleasantly surprised to have a new experience on arriving at Pierre Trudeau International Airport. Leaving the airplane through the rear doors I was confused to find myself walking straight onto what seemed to be – and was – a bus on stilts. Straight off the plane, down to ground level, drive to the terminal, back up on the stilts again, and into the terminal, without stepping outside at all.  And they look funky!

I stayed with Caroline and Simon, in a cosy little flat in the Plateau area. (I met them at the wedding of Caroline’s brother Richie in New Zealand earlier this year.) The Plateau is a cool part of town, with loads of restaurants and cafes. Actually, getting around Montreal is really easy, with a good public transport system and, most importantly, the Bixi bikes. At $5 for 24 hours, you have the freedom of the city on two wheels. Brilliant.

Some quick research online pointed me towards the Jardin Bontanique, apparently second only to London’s Kew Gardens in terms of importance. I spent three hours wandering around and could easily have spent the same again if I had the time. Lots of opportunities for testing the macro function on my camera…

…a 270 year old bonsai juniper tree…

…and a garden full of toxic and poisonous plants were just a few of the highlights. I was surprised to learn that the humble buttercup can wreak havoc if mishandled. (And there I was thinking it was just a means of finding out whether somebody likes butter or not.)

It’s always important to sample some of the local culinary delights. At Chez Claudette on Av. Laurier, Simon brought me for my first poutine, a dish consisting of chips (or fries, if you prefer) in gravy with lumps of a white cheddar-like cheese. Very tasty! It was accompanied by a steamed hotdog, which was less appetising.

This was washed down by a coffee at Cafe Olimpico (corner of Waverly and Saint Viateur), apparently one of the two best places in town for coffee. A little further west along Rue Saint Viateur we bought bagels fresh from the oven – the real deal, which is what you’d expect in a largely Jewish neighbourhood.

Later we sampled a tasty brew at the local microbrewery Dieu de Ciel (also on Av. Laurier). They have a big selection that changes daily.

Still on the culinary theme, earlier in the week on a conference-related trip to the historic quebecois village at Drummondville I had a chance to sample a tire d’érable, which is basically semi-frozen maple syrup on a lollypop stick. Traditionally the syrup is poured on snow, but here they used a block of ice. You have to eat it quickly as it starts dripping off the stick as soon as you lift it from the ice.

Not too far from Simon and Caroline’s flat they have an allotment or city garden. With it being so hot and sunny we detoured there on Sunday morning for some quick weeding and watering. (Actually, they did the weeding and watering. I supervised.)

Then it was on to the Parc du Mont-Royal for what’s known as “the tam-tams”, a weekly summer Sunday gathering of Montreal’s many cultural tribes that has grown up around the aging hippies, young crusties and various other chilled-out souls that spend the whole day drumming non-stop. (Check out the guy in the top left corner of the photo!)

The park is filled with people pursuing every pursuit under the sun: punks, poets, hacky-sackers, hula-hoopers, tightrope-walkers, frisbee-flingers, and random exhibitionists. By far the most entertaining, however, are the warriors and warlords that battle it out with their foam-padded weaponry and crazy costumes.

Up to fifty people at any one time line up on opposing teams (not sure how they decide who’s with who) and proceed to attempt to slay their victims by striking them on the body, head or limbs with swords, clubs, hammers, lances and various other curious weapons. Anyone who is hit gets down on their knees to indicate that they’re out of the current battle. Each battle lasts about two minutes, and then it’s just a couple of minutes until the next one starts.

Costumes varied in terms of effort and entertainment value. There was a pirate, a couple of knights in shining armour, a kind of crusader in a white sheet, and, above, “teen wolf”. Not only is the whole thing good clean, entertaining fun – it also gives the dungeons and dragons geeks a reason to come out from behind their screens and into the sunshine!

A trip to the tam-tams is not to be missed if you find yourself in Montreal during the summer. And finding yourself in Montreal during the summer isn’t a bad idea either.