Discovering Montreal: Arts, culture and history

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A great philosopher once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with but one step. This may well be true, but this famous saying did not take into consideration two very long plane flights and a rather dull layover with a three year old. It also did not take into thought the impossibly tedious queues for security checks or waiting in anxious, crowded rooms prior to boarding. But in truth, all jests aside, our trip to the city of Montréal did begin rather smoothly – what I can remember of it. I am a nervous flyer and not terribly excited at spreading my celestial wings. My son Thembi on the other hand has been reincarnated from a past life as an eagle and takes to the skies like an old pro. As I slumber (thank God for sleeping tablets, strong anti-anxiety meds and Swiss Air’s fully flat beds), he, without skipping a beat, calls out to the Swiss Air staff – who are quite excellent and indulgent to his requests – for more chocolates or a pillow fluff.

Touted as the Canadian version of New York City, the city of Montréal has it all. From shopping, art, culture, theatre and history, this double-decker city is one that you will definitely remember and want to return to again and again

By Brennen Matthews

Originally published in the Dec 2011/ Jan 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

New Experiences

A warm wind blows past, soothing our dry skin as we emerge from the airy terminal at the Montréal Airport. It feels great to finally be out of the terminal and on solid ground. We make a beeline for the taxi stand and pass a pair of policemen walking towards a group of dishevelled Native Canadians who are smoking furiously, directly under a ‘No Smoking’ sign. I chuckle as one of the police officers admonishes them in an exasperated tone, “I can’t believe you are smoking right under a No Smoking sign!” The Native Canadians offer a sheepish grin and quickly move on.

We locate a taxi big enough to carry our numerous pieces of luggage and exclaim in horror when the driver starts the meter off at $4.50. Culture shock number one: here, there is no negotiating on the price.

The Place to Be

Looking out the taxi window as we speed off to our hotel. I can literally feel the excitement and energy that permeates this city. It is summertime and Montréal seems to be awash with activity; the sights and sounds of civilization overwhelm our jetlagged ears.

Everything in the city seems so foreign and well planned. Our home during our stay in Montréal is the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth – an amazing place to stay in the heart of Montréal. The hotel is in a great location, right in the middle of everything. Once inside the hotel, a cool calm – an obvious contrast to the exuberance that is outside its doors welcomes us.

A Place of History

The Queen Elizabeth is an amazing venue for many reasons: its location, granddame style and its offering of 1,037 rooms. But perhaps top on our list is the history. Opened in 1958, the Queen Elizabeth started her journey in style, entertaining royalty, dignitaries and celebrities. Some of the hotel’s more famous personalities have been the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, Jacques Chirac, Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, US President Jimmy Carter and even Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Famed Beatle, John Lennon, held his famous ‘bed-in’ in 1969 in Suite 1742, where the song “Give Peace a Chance” was written and recorded. This hotel sings history and class, and it feels romantic, even for a short period of time, to be a part of it.

True to Fairmont standards and culture, we are quickly checked in, signed on for the complimentary President’s Club and ushered to our suite on the 15th floor. Our suite is well furnished and spacious, and after two very long flights and delays at the airport, we readily kick back and enjoy chocolate covered strawberries that have been waiting for us in our room. It is nice to see that some things are the same as back home.

Street Walking

Three year old in tow, we head down to Rue Saint-Catherine, the main shopping street. It is 11.5 km long, and with it comes a myriad of shops, cafés and old world churches; from the very upscale to the low end, from Ogilvy’s to Simon’s – a department store with three floors of clothes and accessories – The Bay, The Eaton Centre and much more. Anything that equals fashion can be found here. It is also the linguistic melting pot of Montréal, where both English and French are spoken almost equally and the shopkeepers are happy to serve you bilingually. My wife comments that she should have put on her running shoes to conquer this shopping highway. I on the other hand am fearful for my credit card.

The “joie de vivre” walking down this street is tangible and infectious. People are sipping exotic looking drinks at outdoor cafés, women – arms loaded with shopping bags – swagger by and street performers are wholeheartedly entertaining passers-by. A tattooed young man walking past with a studded dog collar around his neck being led by a young woman holding the leash barely gets noticed. This is a wild city – one that offers so much visceral stimulation. We make our way through crowds of international tourists, each snapping away on cameras with dangerously long lenses. Refined locals strut purposefully ahead of us, moving quickly to meetings or appointments. It is still a workday for them.

Another notable street is Sherbrooke Street, which runs east to west like St. Catherine Street. It is a charming street, lined with refurbished brownstone homes and some upscale shops, art galleries and professional offices. Here you will find the world-renowned McGill University campus as well as the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Upbeat music booms from McGill College Avenue – between Maisonneuve and St. Catherine West – which has been closed to vehicular traffic. The street’s centre is graced by beautiful models moving up and down raised runways for the annual Festival Mode & Design Montréal, which is on for four days. Cameras flash away as throngs push gently forward for a better view. It is all so glamorous and chic with a pure cosmopolitan feel to it, truly buzzing with life. This must-see, must-do event combines Montréal’s many loves: fashion, design, music and al fresco living. My wife would die to stay and blend in with the festivity but I am weary of crowds and my son is desperate to find a McDonalds. Not sure how – as he has never been to one – but he is adamant that they are giving away toys –

Ben 10 toys to be precise. Although none of us has ever eaten at this world famous fast food joint, or seen this infamous cartoon, it is now a must-do.

“Discovering Montreal” continues tomorrow…

Originally published in the Dec 2011/ Jan 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Brennen Matthews.

For more articles like this one, check out Destination Magazine and on Facebook – Celebrating our unique culture and fascinating history while investigating issues pertinent to East Africa.

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