The annual comedy festival Just for Laughs sparks a raucous parade along rue St-Denis. Photo by Seth Taras
I t would be a theoretical challenge to create Montréal, Quebec, Canada, if it didn’t already exist. How many of us would dream up a place where you can hear 80 languages?
Or make French the official language in a major city in North America? Would that city show off four centuries of architecture and then conceal 200 restaurants, 1,700 shops, 37 movie theaters, and two train stations in a 20-mile underground maze? Would it tie its neighborhoods together with an excellent métro system of quiet, rubber-tired trains? And for extra credit: Would you have the good sense to make it the tango capital of North America?
Happily, no one planner had to create Montréal because it evolved so well on its own. You can walk two blocks and hear conversations in French, English, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Creole, and Vietnamese. French is the official language, but English is so prevalent that exchanges started in one language may finish in the other, depending entirely on the comfort of the speakers. Montréal is the most fluently bilingual city in the hemisphere.
There are two seasons in Montréal: winter and construction. Montréal takes its restorations seriously and is undaunted by major projects. In addition to building an underground city (and creating an island in the St. Lawrence with the debris), it rerouted expressways to dip underneath, rather than interrupt, the city. It honors its historic architecture, and when a building comes down, the new one pays architectural homage to it and its neighbors.
It has many of the features of Paris: It’s a walkers’ paradise, it has top-tier restaurants, and it has a bracing antiquity. However, Montréalers quickly point out their difference from Parisians – against whom they are comparison gainers.
This is all to say, of course, that Montréal is an extraordinarily apt choice for the 2010 RI Convention, 20-23 June. It is poised to welcome the expected 20,000 club members from around the world, and Rotarians – no matter where they’re from – will likely find familiar bits of culture and cuisine. Mayor Gérald Tremblay (who, on paper, is referred to as His Worship) emphasized at a May meeting of the Rotary Club of Montréal, of which he’s an honorary member, how pleased he was that Rotary had chosen Montréal to be the site of the convention and how eager the city is to welcome Rotarians.
As for the convention itself, Montréal presents a concentrated location. The host hotels are clustered largely in the commercial center of the city. The two main sites, the Centre Bell and the Palais des congrès, are within easy walking distance of each other – and two métro stops apart. You can even walk underground without taking the métro between the two venues.
The Centre Bell – where the Montréal Canadiens play, and where major musical acts appear – is the location of the convention’s plenary sessions. It can seat 20,000 comfortably while providing excellent sightlines. The Palais des congrès is a modern, multilevel convention facility whose paneled facade playfully changes color during the day. The first floor is a mall with shopping and food areas; the second floor, which will accommodate the House of Friendship and breakout sessions, has meeting rooms of infinitely elastic size.
After 100 conventions, Rotarians know well what Rotary brings to the table. Let’s look more specifically at how Montréal sets that table.
First, the city has many generously proportioned centerpieces. Each immigrant ethnic group wanted to establish its native culture; this desire was often expressed by building churches. The exaggeration goes, “In Montréal, there’s a church on every corner.”
That’s no longer as true as it might once have been, but there are a lot of them, and several are world-class. The Basilique Notre-Dame in Old Montréal, built in 1829, is a neogothic celebration of controlled excess. Its 228-foot twin towers beckon the faithful, and inside tens of thousands of 24-carat gold stars punctuate the ascendant celestial blue ceiling.
The awe it inspires is often accompanied by a collective sucking-in of breath. The interior is largely carved wood – a project that itself took 40 years. Its stained-glass windows are from Limoges, France, and chronicle stories from Montréal’s history as well as from the Bible. The basilica will reward hours of attention.
More than one Montréaler pointed out that local diva Céline Dion tied the knot here in 1994, a fact that makes perfect sense. Next to the basilica is the Vieux Séminaire de St-Sulpice, erected in 1685, said to be the oldest building in Montréal. It’s still in use by the Sulpician fathers who also run the basilica. Its craggy facade is made from native gray stone – a signature of very early French construction. The elongated S-shaped ironworks are not decorative: They connect to rods going the width of the building and help keep the whole thing standing.
The Oratoire St-Joseph, on Mont-Royal, started out as a hillside chapel that Brother André (1845-1937) dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s husband. It became a stop for Montréal’s sick and halt, then became a religious magnet once accounts of miraculous cures started circulating. Now the church, built to replace the chapel, has one of the world’s largest domes (second only to St. Peter’s). Every year, pilgrims travel to the oratory on their knees in hopes of having their prayers answered.
Mont-Royal, from which Montréal takes its name, is a sorry geological excuse for a mountain. At 760 feet, it became a basalt speed bump for glaciers of several ice ages. However, Montréalers have the same sort of affection for it that Pike had for his peak. It is an oasis that’s easy to get to, where you can stroll, climb, run, or simply view the city below.
The Parc Mont-Royal is 500 acres of meadows and wooded areas designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. He believed in the healing powers of nature, and he left much of the park alone, building small paths that pick their way through majestic clusters of maples and red oaks.
Old Montréal is within easy walking distance of the palais and is everyone’s first recommended stop. It looks and feels like an Old World city, but with lots of postcard shops.
The people who founded Montréal, notably Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, built the settlement of Ville-Marie on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1642. The Catholic zeal of the founders didn’t travel well, but the village became a commercial success, especially with fur trading.
The Place d’Armes sports a glorious statue of M. Chomedey, clutching a flag-bearing lance. In 1644, during a battle at the site, he killed an Iroquois chief but got himself wounded for his trouble.
Old Montréal underwent a facelift in 1980 after years of neglect. The 18th- and 19th-century buildings that remain have morphed into restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and antique shops. Stroll down rue Notre-Dame and rue St-Paul to get a sample.
A tour of Old Montréal should also include visits to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), Marché Bonsecours (formerly Canada’s Parliament, now a lively vegetable market), and the Château Ramezay. Claude de Ramezay built it in 1705 when he was the city’s 11th governor. He missed his home in France and so ordered himself an excellent example of an 18th-century Normandy château with thick stone walls, dormer windows, and a steeply sloped roof.
Later, it changed hands, during which time Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin both slept there, though on different occasions. The château now houses a museum of military and cultural artifacts of the era.
It’s worth stepping out into the restored garden in back of the museum: It maintains the 18th-century belief in the reassuring and underlying order of nature. Sit for a while, and you may be able to pick up the tangled scents coming from the herb garden or the orchard.
Try to bypass the postcard and souvenir shops on rue St-Paul, the area’s main artery, where it might seem you’re condemned to negotiate the narrow sidewalks unarmed while everyone else is wielding an ice cream cone. Instead, follow the gas streetlamps of the side streets, lined with centuries-old limestone buildings. It’s there you’ll find the shops, galleries, and boutiques that are unique to Montréal.
To get an overview of the city, have a drink at Le 737, a bar-lounge-patio-restaurant complex on top of one of the skyscrapers near Victoria Square. The number 737 refers to its height, not its address (which is 200-1 Place Ville-Marie). To avoid a wait at the elevator, arrive before 5 p.m. It’s popular with the after-work crowd. If you want to see the sunset, arrive appropriately later, and you may eventually find yourself dancing well into the night in the club area.
It is dangerous to characterize the nature of a city, especially one as diverse as Montréal. However, that doesn’t stop anyone from giving it a go. Some contend that Montréalers live their lives outdoors (except, perhaps, in January). These people point to the vast areas of the city devoted to recreation, to the snaking mass of bicycle riders whizzing through the parks and the Ile Ste-Hélène, to the cascade of world-class festivals (notably jazz and comedy), to the way Montréalers take their open-air cafes (referred to as terraces) seriously – even in temperatures that would drive the rest of us indoors.
You can’t always dismiss as an enigma something you just can’t figure out. You can declare Montréal a city where everyone’s at home, which is true enough to satisfy everyone. However, there was a time when Montréal was on the front lines of the sometimes violent struggles promoting Québec’s separation from the rest of Canada. Residents, English speaking and French speaking, severed into what’s poetically referred to as “the two solitudes.”
The separatists’ aspirations are now virtually moot, and Montréal is alive and vibrant, thanks to its ability to adapt and its abiding sense of acceptance and welcome. And that is likely something you’ll feel on your first day.