Discovering Montreal: Arts, culture and history (Part 2)


Family Friendly City

Consistently rated as one of the world’s most ‘liveable cities,’ Montréal has been the unofficial capital of Quebec since the 1970s. Quebec City, some 236 km away, is the designated capital of provincial business, but Montréal is much larger and much more diverse, attracting industry and culture alike. In many Hollywood blockbuster productions, Montréal is often used for film locations, although in the movies it is depicted as being New York City. This is no truer than with the taxis, which speed ridiculously up and down the wide streets, often manned by Haitian drivers who have fled their homeland for a better life.

“Haiti is only a four hour flight away,” one driver advises us. “When I get tired of Montréal, I simply fly back home and take a break.”

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

Heading off to experience one of Montreal’s most popular attractions, we make our way to the Biodome, an enormous structure that houses 4,800 animals from 230 different species and 750 different types of flora and fauna from four ecosystems of the Americas. It is an awesome structure.

Walking into the first ecosystem, Tropical Rainforest, we are taken back by the slap of sweltering heat and raucous calls of colourful birds. It is amazing that they can create this environment as they do, with all of the intensely vivid smells and sounds. It is easy, if we close our eyes, to forget that we are in temperate Canada and not lounging beside the Amazon. Our son, however, is not amused and runs sweating through the nearby doors to the adjacent Laurentian Maple Forest. Here he is much happier as he stares in awe at beavers and otters. There is even a lynx. But without a doubt his favourite is the Sub Antarctic, with its family of gregarious playful penguins and the enormous underwater bulk of huge fish that casually glide past enamoured children (and adults), offering fantastic acrobatics as they go. The Biodome is a must for kids and those who love natural science. The venue is an extraordinary environment that reminds us that even in the midst of a modern city we are all part of the amazing circle of life.

Puttering across the street we make our way to the Botanical Gardens and Insectarium, a building that boasts of bugs. Many bugs. There is one exhibit that showcases over 16,000 little creatures in an ant farm, a bumblebee hive, a honeybee hive and many other fantastic vivariums. Thembi takes a liking to the spiders and is inspired by a creepy crawly with very long hairy legs to pretend to be a hissing spider. In the weird greenish glow of the room, the stare of the arachnid’s eyes seems unsettlingly menacing.

Subterranean to the Core

Montréal is built in such a way as to manage the cold winter days as well as the sweltering summer heat. Connected to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth and running for 32 km with a mind-blowing 120 entrances, the city has built a totally sufficient underground community that allows consumers to get away from the sun and dine or shop away from the natural elements.

The underground city connects shopping malls, apartment buildings, hotels, condominiums, banks, offices, museums, universities, seven metro stations, two commuter train stations, a regional bus terminal and the immense Bell Centre amphitheatre and arena. It is the largest underground complex in the world. Now I understand why Montréal is often referred to as the “double-decker city.”

It is pretty cool and we spend most afternoons below the hotel, moving from chemists, to shops to restaurants. My son’s favourite haunt is a little toy store that displays a model train set. He is in love. A man stops me in the food court to tell me passionately about his religious beliefs and an attempt to find a pair of swimming shorts utterly fails but not to worry, the hotel sells disposable ones. Certainly an interesting concept.

Heat of the City

Montréal in the summer has a vibrant nightlife, and we walk the busy streets that are pulsating with life even at this hour. It is uncanny to look at my watch and be faced with daylight at 9:30 p.m. The air is warm and balmy and everyone is wearing t-shirts and shorts, open footwear and a mood of relaxation. The night is very young and people feel the freedom to sing in the streets, stroll hand in hand, very much attune to their surroundings. Music blares from a myriad of eateries, each beckoning for diners to join their reverie. With so much energy and selection, every night is like a party. Summer in Montréal is a time of jubilation and laissez-faire.

We stroll down Crescent Street, which is the mecca for clubs, bars and restaurants. The truly international flavour here is evident in the numerous fine restaurants with cuisine from around the world. Another street that has an excellent dining variety is St. Lawrence Street, also known as “The Main” – a cultural divide between English and French Montréal.

We settle on Devi, an up market Indian restaurant on Crescent Street that was originally started in New York. The owner, an exuberant friendly fellow, discovers that we are from Kenya and showers us with fine Indian red wine (Sula) and a wide variety of tasty dishes. I have never sampled Indian wine before, but it is not bad. Around us, the drum of thumping music continues on, encouraging those slow on their feet to pick up pace or go hungry for the night.

To end your night on a high note and if you love theatre, The Place des Arts is home to five different theatres where you can see everything from ballet and symphony orchestras to rock concerts.

Vieux Montréal

After a fabulous breakfast at The Queen Elizabeth, we stroll down steep hills away from new Montréal, toward Old Montréal. This is an area that takes us by surprise. It is as if we have stepped back into an ancient European atmosphere. As one of North America’s oldest towns, Old Montréal’s architecture exudes an old world charm, full of history and memories. It is a reminder of yesteryear, a colonial existence that has long been over. But the essence of the period still remains through the quaint little shops and narrow cobble streets. In this section of the city, French is the language of the day, la langue de jour. Most of the streets are closed to vehicular traffic, so it is inspiring to wander down the cobblestoned streets taking in the history and architecture. We stroll along, practicing our French and admiring the horse drawn buggies that ply the roads.

We stroll to the Place Jacques-Cartier – one of the three main squares in Old Montréal – which today is bustling with activity, a normal summertime occurrence. Place Jacques Cartier was named in 1847 in honour of the French navigator who was the first European to sail up the St. Lawrence River as far as Montréal. There are painters, musicians and street performers all providing a bicultural and colourful flavour.

Useful Info

Fairmont Queen Elizabeth

Tel: +1 514 861-3511



Swiss International Air Lines Kenya

Tel+ 254 20 374 5404


Restaurant Devi

1450 Rue Crescent

Tel: + 1 514 286 0303

Website: www.deviMontré

The Place d’Armes, another of the squares, is the heart of the city’s historic centre. The square is bordered by architectural and historical masterpieces: the breath-taking Notre-Dame Basilica which was completed in the 1820s, the 1847 Banque de Montréal head office, the New York Life Building, which is the first skyscraper in Montréal, and the art deco Aldred Building. Right in the centre of the square stands the landmark statue by sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, founder of Montréal.

We wander on to Saint-Amable Street known as “Artists Row” – a tourist’s paradise. Here artists and crafts designers show off and sell their wares. We amble through boutique shops and marvel at paintings and crafts on display.

Huffing and puffing my way uphill, I turn to see how my family are faring, only to discover that they have disappeared. An intricate costume shop has pulled them in, my wife amazed by the old world fashion of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, while my son is enticed by the realistically designed pirate get-ups. Personally, I am more inclined to visit a nearby ice cream parlour for a bit of a breather.

Coaxing them with the thought of a refreshing treat, we plant ourselves down on a bench in one of the numerous public spaces available and entertain ourselves people watching: a group of young guys with a boom box break-dancing, a couple sitting closely together sharing lunch, another group cajoling spectators to join in an impromptu game of football, others still lying on the lush green grass, basking in the sun, book in hand or taking an afternoon siesta. A lone guitarist strums his instrument. It is invigorating to be surrounded by such liveliness and diversity.

Au Revoir

Our time in Montréal is over, and yet there is still so much to see and do. We prepare for our drive southeast, on a 1,200 km journey to Halifax where we will catch up with old friends and sample some of the history from the Annapolis Royale. But that is for another story. For now we bid Montréal au revoir, for she is surely a city to remember and return to.


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

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