Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Montréal: Francophone Festival City and Paris of North America

A city of villages

Montréal is a city of villages; distinct communities (or quartiers) that each reflects a different aspect of the city’s unique personality. These communities also flow seamlessly one into another creating a unified whole. As a result, this large metropolis has maintained a village-like lifestyle and a quality lifestyle.

It is true that all cities have their particular character, but Montréal is the urban personification of joie de vivre. The term joie de vivre is well-known to most English-speaking travellers, but according to the American tourists I spoke with during my recent visit to Montréal, the term really “comes alive,” and is fully internalized once you are actually in Montréal. The most common reactions I heard from Americans I spoke with are: “It’s like being in Europe.” “The city is so clean, safe, and accessible.” “The people are genuinely friendly.” “There is so much to do here.” “We’re surprised we never came to Montréal before.”

Multilingual, multicultural Montréal

It is of course important to emphasize that Montréal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris). However it is equally important to emphasize that it is a bilingual city, and this is the principal reason why non-French-speaking visitors have no difficulty finding their way around. Furthermore, although the majority of the population have French as their first language, Montréal is very multilingual due to the many immigrant groups who have arrived here over the centuries and have also contributed to its international flavour.

Montréal is a highly accessible destination. You can walk just about anywhere and its excellent public transportation system (especially the clean, safe métro system) will take you all over the city with little stress and strain. It is a city that is built on a human scale. This is reflected especially in its urban planning policies (height restrictions, strict regulations about the preservation and renovation of historic buildings) and it is the result in part of history and geography.

Montréal is a city built on a large island (with connecting smaller islands) in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence River. Surrounded entirely by water and “centred” visually and topographically by Mount Royal (Montréal = mont royal), it is a model of people-friendly urbanization and the antithesis of the kind of out-of-control urban sprawl that has been the fate of other large North American cities. The geography and topography of the city not only control the “flow” of life in this city but also unite it. Montréal’s various villages/communities blend with each other and as a result the entire city has a village feel.

At the same time, however, Montréal is also (in my opinion) the most international, cosmopolitan, and European-style capital city in the Americas. It is a city of passion, sophistication, haute couture and cuisine, style, and panache. Architecturally, it is one of the most eclectic, significant, and beautiful cities on the continent. A walk through Montréal takes you through centuries of architectural artistry, and like a walk through Paris, all this is free. Montréal may be the most “added value” city in North America.

Historical Montréal

And also like Paris, Montréal makes history come alive. Originally inhabited by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the area was first visited by the French navigator Jacques Cartier in 1535. By the end of the 16th century Samuel de Champlain had founded Québec City (1608). In 1642 Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve founded Montréal as a missionary colony. However, the all-important fur trade soon became Montréal’s main raison d’être.

As the great fur trading centre of North America, Montréal was strategically placed at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers and therefore became the home base and point of departure for explorers who methodically reconnoitered America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Rockies and north to Canada.

Americans are sometimes surprised to know that names such as Duluth, Radisson, and Cadillac belong to Montréal in the sense that these explorers were based here. Detroit (détroit = the narrows) was of course a French settlement. And if England had not triumphed over France at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Québec City 1759; Montréal surrendered the following year), and if Napoléon had not been distracted by other pressing matters, and the Louisiana Purchase had not slipped by relatively unnoticed by the great colonial powers, we in North America might all be speaking French today. History can turn on a dime.

Montréal soon became a diversified commercial metropolis and continues to be so today, enjoying a healthy economy that is reflected in the city’s services, amenities, look, and feel. As an international city today it is home to many Quebec-based international corporations as well as important international organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Society for Aeronautical Telecommunications. It is still a key seaport on the St. Lawrence Seaway which penetrates to the heart of the continent.

Above all, Montréal is the main centre of French culture in North America. It is also the meeting place of the cultural heritage left to this continent by France and the cultural heritage of the “New World” of America.

Fast facts about Montréal

Montréal is 45 miles from the U.S. border. The closest border crossings from the states of New York and Vermont are only an hour from downtown Montréal.

New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington are an hour’s flight away.

Ever year Montréal is host to more than 40 festivals and major international events. Montréal is a music (jazz), opera, dance, and art capital. It is also a must visit destination for antique aficionados and dealers. The greater Montréal cultural industry employs about 75,000 people in more than 2500 companies, including nearly 250 production houses. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the Opéra de Montréal are world-class arts organizations.

Montréal ranks third in North America and first in Canada as most popular city for international conventions.

More than 80 ethnic groups are represented in Montréal. The largest (in order) are Italian, Jewish, Muslim, Greek, and Chinese. Visible minorities make up 12 per cent of Montréal’s population.

Each year Montréal organizes the longest running Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Approximately 300,000 Montréalers are of Irish descent. Montréal’s Sainte-Catherine Street has the highest concentration of stores in Canada as well as the largest collection of fashion boutiques and ready-to-wear shops in the country. It is recognized as a major fashion centre and is one of only two North American cities (the other is New York) listed in the prestigious Cities of Fashion guide.

Montréal has four universities; two French and two English. It has more university students per capita than any other city in North America.

Montréal is at the same latitude as Venice, Geneva, Lyons, and Milan. The Montréal region is an urban archipelago of more than 400 islands. The Montréal aerospace industry is ranked third in the world for number of jobs. Montréal has a booming film industry and rivals other Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver for being “Hollywood North.”

One hundred and fifty airlines fly in and out of Montréal airports, serving 47 cities in Canada, 76 in the U.S., and 92 international destinations.

In Greater Montréal about 70 per cent of the population are native French-speakers. About 50 per cent are bilingual. Twenty per cent are fluent in three languages.

With the highest number of tango dancers and dance halls on the continent, Montréal is the tango capital of North America. Montréalers love eye contact, especially with strangers. The customary way to greet friends in Montréal is to kiss them on both cheeks. And you start with the right cheek! Canadians in other provinces tend to keep a distance of about three feet and simply shake hands. The Port of Montréal is the largest container port on the east Coast, is 994 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and is open all year round. Montréal has four daily newspapers (three French and one English). It has 33 radio stations (including 14 English ones and 3 multilingual ones). It has 17 television stations and 30 specialized and pay-TV channels. Montréal has 15 foreign banks. The City of Montréal has approximately 1,800,000 people. The Metropolitan area (the second largest in Canada after Toronto) has approximately 3,400,000 people. Montréal’s Métro is the safest in the world. The homicide rate in Montréal is twice as low as Frankfurt, eight times lower than New York, and 13 times lower than Atlanta.

Gardens, parks, and green spaces cover more than 10 per cent of the land in the Montréal area. There is one tree per every two inhabitants. There are more than 1000 parks and green spaces. There are more than 5000 restaurants and 1600 bars in Montréal. You can choose from 80 different types of national and regional cuisines. Montréal is one of the most gay-friendly cities in North America. In Montréal’s promotional material, “The Village” (the gay community) is always included. The Montréal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 24 times. The Air Canada Grand Prix, the first Formula 1 race in North America, is held every year. (The second was held in Indianapolis.) Bicycling magazine ranked Montréal number one on its list of “Ten Best Cycling Cities in North America.”

Montréalers have access to more than 45 downhill ski resorts, 80 golf courses, and 90 marinas, all within 62 miles of the city.

In a small lane called ruelle des Fortifications stands a portion of the Berlin Wall presented by the latter city to Montréal to mark the 350th anniversary of its founding.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their “Bed-In” from May 26 to June 2 in 1969 in suite 1742 at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel. In attendance were such celebrities as Tommy Smothers, Timothy and Rosemary Leary, and Petula Clark. While in bed, John and Yoko composed the peace anthem, Give Peace A Chance.

Outside Montréal’s Olympic Stadium you will find a prominent sculpture of Jackie Robinson who spent the 1946 season playing for the Montréal Royals of the International League—a minor league affiliate of the Dodgers. Calling him an “excellent symbol of courage and perserverance,” the inscription on the monument commemorates his role in desegragating baseball.

Some of my favourites

Montréal, Quebec City, and Paris are my all-time favourite cities. Choosing my favourites in Montréal is almost an impossible task but here are a few.

1. The pedestrian and restaurant-lined Prince Arthur Street which leads to Carré St. Louis, the most beautiful square in Montréal lined with graceful and typically Montréal homes and wrought iron staircases.

2. Vieux Montréal of course. Just wandering anytime. (Note the absence of excessive horn-blowing in this city.)

3. Rue Saint Denis and its restaurants.

4. The Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts)

5. People watching anywhere. And it always ends up in a conversation with someone.

6. Touring the harbour by boat. You really get a sense of Montréal’s strategic location.

7. The boutique hotels of Vieux Montréal!

8. Downtown Montréal’s seemingly endless underground city.

9. The Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History in Vieux Montréal.

10. Living en français in Montréal.

Recommended reading

Montréal is a literary capital. It is well-known for its internationally-renowned French and English authors such as Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Gabrielle Roy, Émile Nelligan, and Neil Bissoondath, to mention just a few.

Mavis Gallant, who is considered a “writer’s writer,” is also well-known for her Montréal connections and themes. I recommend her collection of short stories titled Montreal Stories (McLelland and Stewart, 2004 ISBN 0-7710-3277-3).

In his Introduction to the book, American writer Russell Banks (an author in his own right, resident of upper New York state, and descended from Canadian ancestors) praises Gallant’s stories and perspective:

“Many of the stories take place in Montreal, the city of Gallant’s childhood, and its suburbs. Born there in 1922 to English-speaking, Protestant, middle-class parents, she was an only child who, at the age of four, was sent for several years to a French Catholic boarding school; whose father died early, and whose mother quickly remarried. She was, as she says, ‘set afloat.’ Consequently, from the beginning she has been situated simultaneously inside and outside her given worlds, a person forced to navigate her way on her own along the straits that lie between children and adults, men and women, and family and strangers; between French language and English, provincial Catholic culture and urbane humanism; between Canada and the United States, and North America and Europe. Gallant’s life has placed her at the Borderlands, the ideal site for a writer of short stories.”

A visit to Montréal is like a narrative that allows you to experience a multi-dimensional world.

Other recommended websites and resources

Tourism Montréal A la Montréal

Like the travel and tourism industry in general in Québec, Montréal Tourism provides travellers with everything they need to know. Be sure to check out the last minute deals and the inclusive packages offered through this site.

Vieux Montréal (Old Montréal)

This is the most historic part of Montréal. You could spend your whole visit to Montréal here as it is a treasure chest of splendid historic sites, art galleries, museums, restaurants, and right next to the old port which in itself has many activities and amenities. However, you will also discover that Vieux Montréal is an excellent point of departure (point de départ) for all of Montréal. When you come to Montréal be sure to pick up a copy of “Vieux-Montréal: quartier historique,” an excellent mini-guide to the area.

Muséo Montréal: The magazine for people hooked on museums and culture!

This excellent, traveller-friendly magazine and guide is a great introduction to the 30 museums in the city. Be sure to check out the Montréal Museums Pass. Combined with the Tourist Métro Pass, it is excellent value. You can purchase the Museum Pass at any of the museums or tourist offices and the Métro Pass is available at any Métro station.

Montréal Official Tourist Guide

This very portable and comprehensive guidebook is your major hands-on resource. Outlining the major tourist areas of Montréal, it is practical, informative, and easy to use. It also contains other excellent tips such as how to get a tax refund on goods purchased in Montréal when returning home. It is available from any Tourism Montréal outlet. A companion guide, What to Do in Montréal, is also helpful as it is a current calendar of events taking place during your stay.

To Montréal by train

If you are coming to Montréal from some other Canadian city or from New York (combined VIA-Amtrack service), you might want to consider travelling by VIA, Canada’s passenger rail service. I especially recommend the VIA 1 First Class service which is fully inclusive, comfortable, and relaxing. For more information, visit VIA’s website at www.viarail.ca.

Québec City: 400 Years of Distinct North American History

The year 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of Québec City and the first permanent settlement in North America. Québec is always “a moveable feast” but 2008 will be something very special. We at Travelosophy highly recommend that you save room in your travel schedule for this wonderful event.

NEWS BULLETIN…

From CBC News Thursday, November 13, 2008

A map of Eastern Canada drawn by French explorer Samuel de Champlain has sold at auction for $286,570 Cdn, three times its estimated price.

Sotheby’s auction house in London said the work sold to a private collector, but did not give the home country of the new owner.

The rare map of the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada, including what is now Newfoundland, was originally estimated to sell for $75,000.

Drawn in 1612, it includes four figures of First Nations people, illustrations of fish, seals and vegetation the French explorer encountered on his voyage to the new world.

Sotheby’s called the map “the most important single map in the history of Canada” adding that Champlain had used it in a political struggle to get resources for further voyages and eventual settlement.

“Champlain is more than a cartographer,” said a Sotheby’s expert. “He is also Canada’s first exploration artist. The great map of 1612 shows for the first time the diversity of Canada ‘s wealth.”

By the time Champlain drew this map and wrote his Les voyages du Sieur de Champlain, he had explored the Fundy Coast, Cape Cod and the St. Lawrence region and established Quebec as the site of a settlement.

The London auction house said several bidders, calling in from different continents, bid up the price of the rare document.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy of the Champlain map, one of several copies that survived from a 1613 print run of his map and travel accounts.

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