Walkabout Montreal / Se promener à Montréal

Recently, we were in Montreal for a few days. While it doesn’t seem like 17+ years have gone by, our son is entering his final year of high school, and since he wanted to check out McGill University, we arranged a short visit to the city so we could do a campus tour and get away for a short break.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon. We’d booked an apart-hotel on Rue St. Urbain, just a few blocks east of the University, and centrally located for exploring the city as well. Our plan was to do the campus tour on Friday morning, go for a walk and visit some of the nearby neighbourhoods, and then explore some more on Saturday before driving home Sunday.

Because we arrived in late afternoon, we had time for a short walk to pick up a few groceries before we headed out to Old Montreal for dinner. Our flat was near the area known as the Quartier des Spectacles, and there are some interesting sculpture gardens to explore, which made the stroll to the shops more than just a routine walk. I love that about Montreal.

For dinner that first night, we’d booked a place in the Vieux Portes area, and on a late summer evening it was packed with tourists and locals alike, sitting outside and enjoying a perfect evening.

the cobbled streets of Old Montreal

It was within an easy walk of our flat, and we were famished by the time we sat down at Bevo, a great pizza bar on Rue St. Vincent. It was worth the walk – the appetizers, pizzas, salads, and wines were excellent. “Good choice Dad!” – high praise from a teenager.

The next day, we strolled over to McGill, only about 15 minutes away along Rue Sherbrooke. It was another gorgeous day, and we passed a couple of the university residences where families were making piles of trunks and suitcases as they dropped off their kids – it looked like the Hogwarts departure scene at Kings Cross Station minus the owls and chocolate frogs. My wife and I glanced at each other and thought – just one short year from now, that will be us.

McGill is in the heart of the city, nestled on the south side of Mount Royal. It’s one of the oldest universities in Canada, coming up on 200 years, and is one of the top-ranked schools in the world. As parents, our impressions were of course different from our son’s. We saw a compact campus compared to some other downtown schools such as University of Toronto, with clean, well maintained facilities and gorgeous stone buildings. He saw dorms and libraries and lecture halls and kept quiet as the reality of university sunk in.

What struck all of us was the sense of the campus as a world unto itself, even though you’re just steps to the downtown core. The school is impressive – modern yet respective of its history, with a welcoming and confident atmosphere.

After the tour, we decided to walk east to Rue St. Laurent and then north to Schwartz’s Deli, a Montreal landmark for 90+ years and famous for its smoked meat sandwiches.

At 11:30 in the morning, there was a queue already for lunch, and once packed into one of it’s “cozy” tables, we devoured a mound of artery-hardening goodness along with classic coleslaw and the perfect pickle to cut through the richness of the brisket. If you’ve never had Montreal-style smoked meat, you’re missing a treat, and while many local places feature it on their menus, Schwartz’s has been making it on premises for decades and they have the old-school deli thing down pat. When we came out, the queue to get in stretched most of the way down the block – glad we got there early.

After that lunch, we needed a walk so we continued north up St. Laurent. This area, the Plateau, has seen waves of immigration over the past 100 years and the blend of cultures greets your nose as you pass Portuguese restaurants, Jewish delis, Italian coffee bars, and Indian roti houses. St. Laurent reminds me a bit of Queen Street in Toronto – it’s changing and gentrifying, and the hipsters have their haunts, but the old school places are still there too.

Since we were in an apart-hotel with a kitchen and a barbeque, we had invited our nephew, who lives in Montreal, to come by for dinner that Friday night. Exploring the Plateau after lunch, we found a great fish place and picked up giant prawns and smoked salmon for starters, then stumbled upon a fromagerie for bread and cheese. Our main course came from a local grocery that did whole Portuguese-style chickens ready to grill. Dessert was local Quebec strawberries and raspberries picked up at a little greengrocer. By the time we wandered back to our flat we’d hunted and gathered everything we needed (and then some), all within a few blocks along St. Laurent.

We had a merry dinner, and enjoyed some entertaining stories of our nephew’s recent trip to Ireland, which meant that we all wanted a lazy Saturday morning. It took us a decent amount of coffee before we decided to head off, this time to towards the downtown area.

One of the main shopping streets in Montreal is Ste. Catherine’s, so we headed west along that from St. Urbain. It’s changed a lot in the 25+ years since I worked in Montreal back in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, it was still changing when we were there, with most of the length of the street torn up to replace water and sewer lines. That was a little disappointing, but we found some shops that looked fun and kept walking east until before we knew it, we were all the way over to Rue Guy.

At this point, I had the thought of wandering south and west to Griffintown, a gentrifying hip area full of renovated old warehouses and coffee houses, so we started off in that direction. It proved to be farther than we wanted to walk (that is, my wife’s commanding royal “we”), so we turned around and walked back east along St. Jacques all the way to old Montreal.

There, on the north end of the Place des Armes, is the HQ of the Bank of Montreal, where my father in law had worked when they lived in Montreal (my wife is a native Montrealer). She and I met when we both worked for BMO in Toronto, so we had to snap a picture of the rather imposing building for old time’s sake.

BMO HQ in old Montreal

We kept wandering through the crowded-with-tourists-all-snapping-selfies cobblestone streets, and since we were famished, when we stumbled onto an inventive little place called Invitation V we piled in. We didn’t notice till we’d sat down and looked at the menu that it was a vegan restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves enjoying our plant-based “burgers”. Delicious food, and the interior is nicely decorated too, taking full advantage of the exposed brick and beams of an old office building.

Don’t look at the growing bald spot on the back of my head. Look at my half a head taller than me son – and I remember when I could carry him around!

Wandering around in the old part of the city, I was happy to see so many tourists enjoying the weather and the sights – Montreal has done a great job investing in this area to make attractive while retaining its charm. At the same time, you can only walk down so many cobbled streets past yet another shop selling tourist tat, before it gets old. Our enthusiasm waned and we turned our steps north back to the flat – it was time to chill out with a cup of tea.

That evening we capped off our visit to Montreal by walking a bit west and south, to the area around Concordia University. There, on Rue Mackay south of Ste. Catherines, we had dinner at the Beirut Garage, a modestly decorated but full-flavoured Lebanese restaurant. It’s small, packed, welcoming, and worth the journey – the food was fantastic. A proper Lebanese coffee after our meal meant that I needed the stroll home along Sherbrooke to burn off the caffeine, and on warm late summer evening there was no hurry – we could window shop, people watch, and meander.

The next day, we had to pile back into the car for the drive home to Toronto, but before we did we needed to make one last stop. North along Park Avenue on the north side of the mountain, the Mile End neighbourhood has been home to Montreal’s Jewish community for decades.

Near the Mordecai Richler library, we joined the out-the-door queue at the St. Viateur bakery for what are reckoned to be the best Montreal-style bagels in the city. We bought some to snack on during the drive home.

When I think of Montreal, I think partly of the food, partly of the history, and partly of the many visits we’ve made over the years. It’s a cultural melting pot, like most cities in Canada, and it’s also a gateway to Canada for tourists from around the world, who want to experience its old-world charms and blend of French and Anglo-Scottish history. It’s a 4-season city, though residents will tell you that spring and autumn are a lovely 2-week breaks between freezing and friggin’ hot. Late August is a great time to go, and September is even better. Whenever you go, walk around – it’s a city that lends itself to nosing through neighbourhoods. And when you go, bring your appetite.