His portrait hangs in a prominent place in the reception area of the Hôtel Nelligan in Old Montréal. His dark and vulnerable eyes seem to look off into a distant landscape.
This archival image communicates a sense of an iconic young man who has been celebrated as the most famous poet in Québec — to some he is Québec’s Rimbaud. He was also a tragic and romantic figure who, at the age of 20, suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.
It may seem an odd choice of image and persona for a hotel; but if you understand the passion and sensibilities of the Québécois, and their struggles for cultural survival in predominantly English-speaking North America, you will also gain a new awareness of the concept of survivance, one of those terms that loses much in the translation.
Émile was the first-born son of an Irish immigrant and a Québécoise mother; a social reality that some consider rather incongruous given his time period. In addition he was considered a visionary, and yet an outsider in the contemporary society of his day, because he was the offspring of two individuals of disparate cultural and languages differences. This cultural conflict may have contributed to his sense of alienation — and to his posthumous romantic image.
Because of his highly sensitized appreciation of language, of words themselves, and of the music of poetry — and because he was trapped in an intercultural conflict — his solitary soul had little “room to manoeuver” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father was tyrannical, forbidding his wife and children to speak French whenever he was at home. It was also the father who insisted that Émile become, like him, a commercial success; and he therefore sent him off to England to work in the Merchant Marine. Needless to say, Émile was miserable the whole time.
Émile thus became closer to his mother and emulated her passion for music, Roman Catholicism, and the French language. It was no surprise therefore when, at the age of 15, he began to write poetry in French.
Nelligan was also befriended and nurtured by a Catholic priest, brother Eugène Seers, who himself adopted a nom de plume, that of Louis Dantin. But the legacy of this adolescent poet who produced only about 170 poems and then spent the rest of his life in mental institutions, has endured.
And when Émile published “Le Vaisseau d’Or” in the summer of 1899, it became the epitaph of a young man who represented all those for whom language and culture were formidable barriers; and which they could not transcend in the social realities of their time.
Nelligan’s life was indeed painful and short, but his brief days of illumination have had a significant impact on Québécois society. His poems have, for example, given birth to an opera by famed Québécois composer André Gagnon, but thanks to the efforts of his mother and friends, the poems have always been in print, especially in English.
One of the more curious events was a mass celebrated in his honour on the 60th anniversary of his death. It took place in Cardiff, Wales where there is a large population of people of Irish ancestry. The mass was conducted in English and included numerous guest participants such as: the Consul General of Ireland in Wales; the Honorary Consul of France in Cardiff; a representative of the Québec Government; a Californian scholar and lecturer of Theology and Religious Studies; and a music student from Frankfurt, Germany who sang one of Émile’s poems as set to music by André Gagnon.
In a commentary on Nelligan’s life and on the mass itself, John Sweeney writes:
“One may try to argue that languages are divisive forces, frontiers between the minds, barriers for the hearts. That languages prevent mankind from sharing a common space, from participating to the same reality, thus condemning multitudes of speakers to isolation, if not oblivion. Yet, the world‑wide domination of the English language has been accompanied with an astounding renaissance of the lesser‑used languages and a movement of affirmation for universal languages such as French, Spanish or Italian. For languages are not mere vehicles of a daily reality, computer‑generated translations for domestic markets, obstacles blocking the way to globalisation; language is the very definition of one’s own identity…. Let us Irish continue to remember Émile Nelligan. He was after all, in so many ways, one of us.”
Le Vaisseau d’Or
C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif:
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.
Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.
Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.
Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève?
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve!
The Golden Vessel
It was a great ship of solid gold:
Its masts reaching to azure skies in uncharted seas;
The Goddess of Love, hair streaming and naked flesh,
Displaying herself on the prow beneath a cruel sun.
But one night it struck the great reef
On a treacherous sea where sang the Siren,
And the miserable shipwreck consigned its keel
To the depths of the Abyss, a perpetual coffin.
The Ship of Gold whose diaphanous flanks
Revealed treasures over which profane mariners,
Loathing, Hate and Neurosis, quarrelled.
What remains of this brief tempest?
What of my heart, that abandoned ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the void of Dreams!
A poetic ambiance
The Nelligan is named after Émile in part because he lived and worked in this area of Old Montréal. Born into a French-English family, Émile was very much a wayward genius who was not understood by the conventional literary society and thus was not accommodated in the mainstream.
In many ways you will see that the hotel is a tribute to him, his art form, and to literature in general. Throughout The Nelligan, guests are reminded of his contribution to Québec culture by excerpts from his poetry inscribed in discreet fonts on hotel walls. This focus on a single and singular Québec artist also underscores the individualized and differentiated nature of many boutique hotels.
The poetic theme of The Nelligan is reinforced by the quiet attention to detail, rhythm, and balance. Whether it is the intricate but subdued floral arrangement in the lobby, the classic simplicity of chef Yann Turcotte’s cuisine in the aptly named hotel restaurant Verses, or the skilful harmonization of classical and modern design elements, a stay at The Nelligan is an experience of mutual understanding. Guest and host share the same appreciation for human language and aesthetics.
And the design features of The Nelligan constitute a kind of language through which the guest can easily read the intentions and purposefulness of the owners and management. The Nelligan is an aesthetic experience in itself which is neither extravagant, overpowering, nor contrived. As former General Manager Kevin Gillespie explained it to me on my first visit, it is the collaboration of a team of “critical analysts”: owner, architect, builder, and designer.
And in Québec all members of this team work under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and its urban preservation bylaws.
Like other boutique hotels, The Nelligan has many added-value features in its common areas as well as in its individual rooms. From a practical point of view, I especially appreciated the high speed Internet access in my room, which is provided at no additional cost.
But on the personal comfort and aesthetic appreciation level, the décor of the room with its original stone and red brick walls, the fireplace, the goose down pillows, and the CD player that is set to soothing symphonic music after housekeeping staff perform their daily unobtrusive magic, really set the tone for my stays at The Nelligan.
Like many historic and heritage boutique hotels, The Nelligan is perfectly situated in Old Montréal, within easy walking distance of important cultural and historic institutions such as the imposing Notre Dame Basilica, Place Jacques Cartier, the Montréal Science Centre and (my favourite) the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History.
Old Montréal with its cultural amenities and distinct style is of course a destination in itself — and it is just outside The Nelligan’s front door.
A family business
Boutique hotels are often family projects. In The Nelligan’s case, it is the result of two visionary and entrepreneurial brothers, Tony and Costa Antonopoulos. The brothers immigrated from Greece to Canada 30 years ago and eventually established a number of quality restaurants. This led eventually to a venture into the boutique hotel business, of which The Nelligan is one of five: Le Place d’Armes; Auberge du Vieux-Port; Le Petit Hotel; and the Lofts du Vieux-Port.
The Nelligan was built into the façade of two historic 19th century properties, a restoration project that cost $8.5 million. Its prime location can best be appreciated from the rooftop terrace that overlooks the old port, the St. Lawrence, and old Montréal — especially during the General Manager’s complimentary wine and cheese every evening between 5:00 and 7:00.
The passion of The Nelligan
Québec culture is also renowned for its commitment to the historic roots that are the legacy of the French régime in the Americas. As the province’s motto Je me souviens (I remember) attests, a respect for history and the past is integral to the culture. This is also a fundamental element of The Nelligan in Old Montréal.
The boutique hotel movement: something old is new again
In these boutique hotels of Old Montréal, guests are very much au beau milieu des choses — at the heart of things — their needs and senses satisfied and enhanced in an historical context unique to each establishment and to the communities in which they are located.
In these graceful hotels there is much to please the eye; but there is also much more than meets the eye.
Examples of the boom in this expanding area of the hospitality industry, these boutique hotels — on the banks of the longest inland waterway in the world — are not only purveyors of genuine service, but they also epitomize traditional principles of the hotel industry.
It is their subtlety of design and fine integration of art, architecture, history, and functionality that give these boutique hotels their discrete “feel”; the guest feels secure, relaxed, gently stimulated, and at home. If grand hotels such as Montréal’s Ritz-Carlton or Québec’s Château Frontenac are triumphant symphonies, these old quarter boutique hotels are lyrical concertos.
Serving the wayfarer
Despite our predilection for a home base, we are a nomadic species. We travel of course for many reasons and our journeys have generated numerous important industries, in particular the hotel business.
As a colleague said to me during a press trip to Québec City, it is only when people “break bread together” that they truly understand who each other is. The result can be a common understanding and peaceful co-existence.
And by providing a haven for wayfarers from disparate backgrounds, the hotelier has been throughout history a principal catalyst for peaceful social interchange and civility.
Other cultural needs
Some guests want a hotel that is out of their realm of experience, a brief escape from the mundane. For others — business travellers in particular — it is an extension of their day to day lives and a tool of the trade. Hotels are also public venues in which the outside world is accommodated and encountered, and in which community rituals and events occur.
As a public service industry, which is interdependent with the human need to move from place to place, the hotel is a way station where the commerce of civilization is conducted. As demonstrated by novels, plays and films like Grand Hotel, Hotel, Plaza Suite, or Separate Tables, the hotel is a microcosm of human social behaviour.
A serious business, the hotel is also a cultural and business phenomenon — especially the boutique hotel.
The community connection
In large urban centres, hotels are often civic centres and points of reference for the traveller, as well as for locals. Hotels are mini-communities of relative strangers and even though part of the thrill of travelling is to encounter the unknown, they also serve as comfort zones.
In some of the more exotic hotels throughout the world, travellers experience opulence, architectural grandeur, class structure, and in some cases a surrealistic diversion from reality. In most categories, however, a good hotel offers a multi-dimensional environment that accommodates diverse people and special events with efficiency, professionalism, and value.
And hotel design — an architectural genre in its own right — is an integral part of the business of accommodating travellers. In fact every new hotel that is built or every hotel that is refurbished is a laboratory of hotel design.
Urban renewal and redesign
Hotels have also achieved civic goals that may have been overlooked. They have often been the key element in the urban revival of large metropolitan centres, and the catalyst for other leisure industries.
The latter is certainly true of the Antonopoulis group.
And hotels serve as municipal centerpieces for a multitude of community functions that increase the economic and cultural viability of the municipality. Containing intricate unseen mechanisms that support the social, economic, and political life of a community, hotels have also been showcases of urban architecture and icons of a city.
Hotels are big business, but they are also repositories of history.
As an essential part of urban renewal, boutique hotels are often found in historic districts of cities that have undergone a regeneration. But instead of levelling existing structures and creating a new milieu, boutique hotels revive what was originally there, thus having their distinctive and exponential effect on city centres.
As low-rise, low-density housing for travellers they also interact with many other small businesses and amenities that are also partners in the hospitality industry: restaurants, art and antique shops, and local museums to mention just a few.
A social service
Students of urban studies, geography, and sociology will recognize that hotels are both process and product of a larger infrastructure. For example, one only has to consider the historical connection between hotels and railroads — this is especially true in Canada — to understand the interaction between hotels and transportation systems, and how this combination accelerated the economic growth of cities.
Both are people-focussed businesses, and both can evolve into profitable national networks.
But in Canada, we also now have a growing network of “small is beautiful” boutique hotels each of which is an individual expression of some aspect of Canadian culture. They tend also to be businesses that are family-owned and -operated, all of which emphasizes and validates the local community experience that they engender. And this is why the guest of the boutique hotel feels an immediate sense of belonging to the chosen destination.
The boutique hotel as a sociological phenomenon
No longer a tiny niche market for upscale guests, boutique hotels have become the differentiated choice for discerning travellers who want a total experience and not just a place to sleep. They have now become mainstream.
According to Llewellyn Price, General Manager of the Auberge Saint Antoine in Québec City, “It is an indication of the evolution of business in a global environment in which you have to differentiate … become differentiated in order to attract clients who are much more aware as consumers.”
In the boutique hotel part of that differentiation lies the question of scale — a higher ratio of guests and “hosts.” This of course allows the hotel to place much more emphasis on personalized service.
The boutique hotel is a genre hotel and an alternative to the large chain hotels, many of which provide an excellent product but a product that is often a predictable, as opposed to an original, hotel experience. And those who have discovered the benefits of a boutique hotel are intensely loyal guests who see the hotel as a reflection of themselves. They usually speak in terms of returning to “our hotel” or “The Nelligan” as opposed to “the hotel.”
Authenticity not just versimilitude
Because of their increased knowledge of the world, travellers today also want a more experiential and authentic form of accommodation that truly integrates them into the destination. Boutique hotels can give this sense of place and of history as they themselves are fully integrated into the local communities. Emphasizing authenticity and a respect for the local environment, the artistic and architectural design elements of a boutique hotel — and its management policies — reflect this small scale cohesiveness.
The boutique hotel is reminiscent of the traditional European inn or relais but it takes the essential elements of that culture of hospitality even further. Unlike the grand hotels that dazzle and astonish clients with their beauty and design, the boutique hotel is also accessible on many other levels. Guests can easily relate to the rationale behind the business; it is an intimate yet private travelling experience.
Essence and elegance
Boutique hotels are among the best examples of a renewed commitment to the ideals inherent in the hospitality industry, ideals that go beyond commercial considerations. They are also examples of true “value-added” service, to their guests and to the communities in which they do business.
I recall a day spent wandering on foot throughout Paris and the realization at the end of the day that, except for the purchase of a croque-monsieur sandwich and a bottle of mineral water, I had spent nothing — but gained a great deal. Most of what I experienced on that day was contextual.
It is this contextual value that is difficult to estimate when staying at a boutique hotel, but it is real value. Although boutique hotels are not inexpensive, the real value-added benefits need to be taken into consideration. Their location and therefore reduced transportation costs are significant benefits. Inclusive services such as a healthy buffet breakfast, the personalized service, and numerous other amenities that are never added to your bill should be taken into consideration.
And of course the art and history inherent in many of these establishments are complimentary.
If considering a stay in a boutique hotel, be sure to check out its inclusive packages as well as its shoulder season and low-season rates. In all-season cities like Montréal and Québec low-season rates can be quite attractive.
And remember that as a “treat yourself” getaway, a stay at a boutique hotel has all the ingredients of a spa.
Boutique hotels are often referred to in travel media as being “chic.” I do not disagree with this designation but I would amplify on that descriptor. The word is borrowed of course from the French. Although in English the word does suggest elegance and sophistication, it can have a connotation of adherence to a contrived “fashion.”
In French, the word is rather more complex; it has many shades of meaning suggesting, among others, elegance, charm, art, skill, aesthetic refinement, virtuosity, and character.
This is the essence of boutique hotels.
For more information
To learn more about Montréal and these boutique hotels in Old Montréal, visit the following websites:
Other stories in this series
Coming soon in the series “The Catholic Arts and Architecture of Montréal”:
Other Montréal Stories from the Philosophical Traveller
This story is part of the series
“The Catholic Arts and Architecture of Montréal”.