I am dreaming of my summer vacation. I am sure the entire Northern Hemisphere daydreams of summer this of year. Last year, close friends decided to pack up for Montréal, in the Canadian province of Québec for six months, and invited their friends to visit, and we jumped at the chance. The view above is earned by hiking up Mount Royal in the park of the same name, where it's easy to see that the city of Montréal is really an island surrounded by rivers.
We were there during the end of June, and it felt like everyone was on the street making the most of the long, warm days, appreciating them with fervent enthusiasm after Quebec's cold, dark winter. I loved visiting in summer.
Then again, with a city full of rivers and lakes that freeze beautifully for skating, amazing and affordable food scene which Bon Appetit rightly pegged "part Paris, part Portland", and francophone culture without the cost of flying over the Atlantic, I would love visiting in winter, too.
We were there during the brief fresh red currant season.
Also, I have no photo of the best thing we ate in Montréal, because our nose led us there after getting in at 7:30am and walking our bags from the Mont-Royal metro station. You MUST have the Koiugn-Amman at Patisserie Kouing-Amman. Yes, that Kouign-Amman .
The above was snapped on the way down the "mountain" (to this Californian, it looks like a large hill at best) at the entrance to the park; the park was teeming with people, including a massive drum circle and a historical reeanctment society engaging in combat with swords and shields fortified with duct tape.
We timed our visit during the Montreal Jazz Fest (or the far more glamorous sounding Festival International de Jazz de Montréal) which is the biggest of its kind, and I got to scratch seeing Herbie Hancock in concert off my life list! What I find funny about the scheduling of the Jazz Fest is that it usually coincides with Moving Day. What's Moving Day and why would I capitalize it? Since 1974, all leases in the province of Québec begin on July 1 (Canada Day) and end on June 30, so everyone Moves on the same Day. Just as visitors flood into the city, tens of thousands of renters are moving house, often with appliances and all, up and down spiral metal staircases.
I may be trained as a historian, but getting down to the bottom of why the metal staircases in the land of icy winter? Would require more time. While some attribute them to a way to comply with an ordinance for green space in the front of the building while maximizing living space, others claim that they allowed for individual entrances to each flat in a the unbiquitious plexes, but the one that makes most sense to me is simplest. Warmth.
Why waste coal and money heating an indoor stairwell during the winter with average high temperature of -5°C?
If you are wondering where to stay, I don't have a whole lot of advice because we were spoiled by staying with friends in the heart of the Plateau. If you can stay in this neighborhood, I highly recommend it, but the Montréal metro (and it's public bike stands, which I cover below) will get you wherever you need to go easily.
Back to jazz. Some of the Montréal Jazz Fest concerts, of which there are many, some are ticketed and pricey (like the Herbie Hancock show) and many are free street shows where you can nose right up to the instruments like this Jetson-esque pistachio pedestal Fender Rhodes electric piano. For those of you who don't know, I played the keyboards and sang in a band for years, and one of my favorite sounds in the world is the bell-like tone of a Fender Rhodes.
What did we eat? My summer vacation inadvertently turned into a tour of Jewish deli food of the Northeast (we continued onto NYC via the all-day, once-a-day train - Amtrak Adirondack - and made the pilgramage to Katz's et al) as we started at St-Viateur Bagel for Montreal's chewy wood-fired version of a bagel followed up with a Schwarz's Deli (Montréal Hebrew Delicatessen) with a huge smoked meat sandwich later that day. Right near St. Viateur we walked by dozens of young Orthodox Jewish men walking to study. I had no idea there was such a large estabished Jewish community there, nor did I expect to eat such wonderful Jewish food there.
If you speak a little French, but have been rebuffed in Paris, be not afraid of Montréal! People will actually let you practice your French! Bonus: they speak much more slowly than the French do, especially Parisians.
I had to show this to you. Just to illustrate how much these people love the summer, there were several murals being painted around town. We passed this guy on a walk....
...and here he was 30 minutes later.
Being used to San Francisco, with its $8-14 glass of wine and dropping $100 for dinner for two at any white tablecloth restaurant, the Apportez Votre Vin restaurants in Montréal BLEW MY MIND. Essentially, many restaurants let you bring your own wine with no corkage due to government regulations on wine disallowing the markup we get in the States, and French fine dining is downright affordable. There are many of these places, especially around the francophone parts of town, and you cannot go wrong. Prices are equivalent to the Dine About Town (sometimes better) specials in San Francisco. Just look for Apportez Votre Vin/Bring Your Own Wine (Lonely Planet and other restaurant guides are full of current recommendations). Sadly, my favorite restaurant of the trip, where we had five-course meals for $40 with filet, may have gone out of business.
The restaurant with the most buzz is undoubtedy Au Pied de Cochon, a nose-to-tail restaurant in the Plateau that celebrates pork and goes through an astonishing 50 kilos (110 pounds) of foie gras a week. Chef Martin Picard has a show called the Wild Chef . Our group did not have enough pork or red meat eaters to justify a visit, but it looks fun.
Also, I know I really need to say something about poutine, because it's the quintessential Montréal dish, but I am not sure what needs to be said. It's french fries covered with cheese curd and gravy, done a million different ways around town (Au Pied de Cochon has a foie gras version), often enjoyed while nursing a hangover, and people have strong opinions on where to get it. I don't. Fried potatoes with cheese and gravy is going to taste good.
Do you need another reason to visit? Well, Montréal has a brilliant system of bike rental racks (above) called Bixi. Spring, summer and fall, you can pick up a bike for a small fee and a key card at any of these bike racks around town, ride free for 30 minutes (the fee starts after that) and drop off your bike at another rack close to your destination. If the bike needs repair or air in the tires, just press a button on the rack, so no one else gets a lemon before the Bixi folks come by to fix.
Bixi is a genius idea, and I wish we had it here in the Bay Area. After all we do it with cars (City Carshare and Zipcar), and bikes seem a whole lot less complicated than cars. Imagine: No worrying about your bike getting stolen!
Okay, any serious cook, or hungry person, must go to the Marche Jean-Talon. There is a giant Bixi stand out front, and the hubby and I got ready for the adventure of shopping and bringing our goods home in the bike basket.
Vermont gets a lot of play here in the States for its maple syrup, but the province of Québec actually produces 97% of the world's supply. Accordingly, there is an alarming amont of maple-related stuff to buy. I prefer the original product.
If I hadn't accepted the challenge of carrying everything for my summer vacation in a 17" carry-on, I would have snapped these up.
Praise be to college French, I conducted a business transaction with the vendor of this stand without using English. Incroyable! I also noticed how different the Québecois accent was (and yes, those of you in the know, I realize it is mocked in La Belle France.) The word for sixteen, which usually sounds about like "sehz" was drawn out like a luxurious bath to "saayyyyyzeh".
Produce ran about 5-6 weeks behind California, so I was delighted to see things that had gone out of the markets back home. We made a farewell feast for our friends who were so wonderful and generous to let us stay at their apartment with them.
I will leave with you this image of the old port, as close to Europe as you can get on the North American continent, but for a whole lot less. Vieux Montréal is a bit touristy but well worth it for the wonderful architecture and cobblestone streets. If you are a francophile who cannot get to Paris, you are in for a treat in Montréal.
Things to Read Before You Go:
Lonely Planet Montreal Guide - What I love about Lonely Planet is that is has all the chapters to its guides avaiable online as PDFs. Some are for purchase and the overview chapters are free. This is great for saving paper, and only getting what you need. What I used to do when travelling as a teenager was buy several guides & then rip out just the chapters I needed (per a tip from Rick Steves), but this is much easier.
Rose Levy Beranbaum's Montreal Post - Au Pied de Cochon, Appetite for Books and Il Mulino covered.
Bon Appetit Magazine Montreal Travel Guide - This is a very short but sweet little guide based on an article in December 2010 Bon Appetit, and it has a PDF version you can print with a map.
A few links around town:
Appetite for Books - All manner of books on food with a professional kitchen for classes, demos and tastings.
Montreal Jazz Fest or the far more glamorous sounding Festival International de Jazz de Montréal will be held from June 25 to July 4, 2011 this year. Book early for the big shows!
Ouzeri (Greek mezze restaurant; good vegetarian options) 4690, Rue Saint-Denis, Montréal (Québec) H2J 2L3, +1 514-845-1336
Boulangerie Kouign-Amann (best French pastry) - 328 Avenue Du Mont-Royal Est, Rue Drolet, Montréal (Québec)
Schwartz’s Deli - 3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard · Montréal (Québec)· H2W 1X9 · +1 514-842-4813
Marche Jean-Talon - Greenmarket with tons of local food vendors. 7070 Avenue Henri Julien, Montréal (Québec) H2R 1T1, +1-514-277-1379
Open Mon-Wed,Sat 7am-6pm; Thu-Fri 7am-8pm; Sun 7am-5pm
Au Pied de Cochon - (Closed Mondays) 536 Duluth Est, Montréal (Québec), H2L 1A9 +1.514.281.1114
Il Mulino (best Italian restaurant in town) 236 Rue Saint Zotique East, Montréal (Québec), H2S 1L2, +1 514-273-5776
Strøm Nordic Spa-1001 boul. de la Forêt, Île-des-Sœurs, Montréal (Québec), H3E 1X9 +1.514.761.2772
Check out this cool spa (photo from their website) on a lake in the Île-des-Sœurs. This place was utterly stunning and private. The location was reason enough to go, but the spa facilities were spotless with multiple hot and warm pools, and the largest saunas I have ever seen with large windows that look out onto the lake. The massages were wonderful, and their have great midweek specials. Well worth it. I almost don't want to tell you about this place because it felt like a magical discovery in the wilderness, and such a great deal.