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ON THE SCENE: Montreal, a city for all seasons and tastes

December 1, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Often when one looks for an urban fix, thoughts and plans turn to New York City about five hours to the south. But Montreal, Quebec, has an international flair and is only a bit over two hours to the north.

Montreal is known for its museums and restaurants, McGill University and that the established language and most of the signage is in French.

Good news is nearly everyone speaks English, and the great news is that's a terrific place to practice your French and that the French culture has enriched the city in countless ways, making a voyage to Montreal a rich and exciting adventure.

Article Photos

Fairmount Bagel bakery in Montreal
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Montreal was established as a trading post 370 years ago when the French built a mission on a large island in the St. Lawrence River. Now, a city of 1.7 million, Montreal remains a major center of trade and commerce on the North American continent. The earliest native inhabitants go back about 8,000 years with the St. Lawrence Iroquoian living there when Jacques Cartier, the first European, arrived in 1535.

Samuel de Champlain tried to establish a trading post about 70 years later, but Indian resistance prevented him from doing so. It was not until 1642 that France was able to establish a permanent base that grew into the city it is today.

Not surprisingly, many Americans visit Old Montreal and the adjacent Old Port, the historic section of the city southeast of downtown known for its cobbled streets, architecture, charming restaurants, small inns and B&Bs. I tend to hang out at Mile End, part of the Plateau where 8 percent of the city's creative class lives. Notably, the late Leonard Cohen once lived there. Indeed, a large mural portrait of him graces the side of a building near the Main steakhouse, a cafe he often frequented.

Also in Mile End are the Fairmount and bakeries, practitioners of the hand-rolled, wood-fired oven bagels that have established Montreal as the home of the best bagels in North America as re-confirmed in a May 2016 USA Today article. (New York came in second, the greatness of Kossar's Bagels Bialys notwithstanding.)

Montreal bagels are thinner and smaller with a larger hole than New York bagels, as well as being sweeter and denser, in part because they are boiled in honey-sweetened water before being baked. They also contain no salt.

Adjacent to Mile End is Mount Royal, the small mountain in the center of Montreal topped by a 103-foot-tall large white cross visible throughout the city at night. About half of Mount Royal has been turned into a park designed by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned New York's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Now one of Montreal's largest green spaces, the park is about half wooded and is laced with miles of baths, bikeways, cross-country ski trails in winter and also features ponds, sporting fields, skating rinks and a sculpture garden as the setting for many sporting events and cultural extravaganzas.

Also, adjacent to the park are McGill University, Universite de Montreal, such posh neighborhoods as Westmount and Outremont, two massive cemeteries, and St. Joseph's Oratory, the largest church in Canada with a dome that dominates the skyline. Living next door to St. Joseph's are Brad and Monica Bradbury, who moved to Montreal from Keene a year.

"I love the diversity and lack of pretense of Montreal," said Monica. "I like the genuineness of the people who live here. I think it's a much kinder environment which is reinforced by the impression that the government of Montreal works for the people who live in the city, way more than any city I ever lived in states. Living here is an extraordinary experience."

Monica also loves the many dog parks located throughout the city and the change of moving from a farmhouse to living on the 14th floor of a high-rise urban complex with its multitude of amenities.

Grand fun is the annual Go Bike Montreal Festival held at the end of May-first of June each year. About 40,000 people show up to bike in tours of varying lengths throughout the city, an event that often starts on Parc Avenue adjacent to the Mount Royal Park. On Friday, they have an evening tour that begins near dusk and meanders 20 kilometers through the city with the route blocked off for cyclists only. Over the weekend, they have several 50k loops on streets also closed off to traffic and two, on 65k and the other 100k that are a mix of closed-off and regular routes.

"Montreal is often a happening," said Kyra Lobert, who lives in Mile End. "If you are wandering around, all sorts of things can happen like an Indian parade or acrobats showing up at the metro station. The architecture of the city is charming and wonderful."

This past weekend, I came across a 30th annual Montreal Tibetan Bazaar, an example of the many myriads of ethnic-cultural events taking place in the city in any given weekend. A benefit for visitors is knowing that no matter when you come, something is happening somewhere.

Another something is the array of foreign films that rarely if ever make it to our region. This time, I saw "The Square," writer-director Ruben Ostlund's satire on the affluent that won this year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In Swedish with English subtitles, the film follows the director of an art museum's launch of a new installation exhibit where whatever can go wrong does in spades, both in his professional and personal life.

No trip to Montreal would be complete without eating at some bistro, this time I took in Briton Cafe, which specializes in bretonne crepes. My crepes were made out of buckwheat flour, water, and salt were super thin, light and filled with salmon, creme Fraiche and Roquette lettuce sprinkled with lemon zest. Fabulous!

The crepes were folded and served in a paper cone. The further down you got, the more intense the flavor. I finished it with a Sable Breton cookie, a small tri-spiral shortbread accompanied by cafe Americano.

"One thing I like about Montreal is when they had a cafe onto of Mount Royal it was not a MacDonald's," said Kyra Lobert after we finished our crepes.

"Whenever I get back to Montreal, I love that when I hail a cab driver is often Haitian, the news will be on, and they will tell me what's happening around the world," said Renee Cosgrove. "We will have this intelligent fun conversation all the way home. It's one of the many joys of Montreal. I also like the human scale of the city. By and large, everyone is very tolerant, kind, and present."

In Montreal, a short hop away and a terrific change of pace, there is something going on at any time of the year, and with our strong dollar, great meals and experiences are very affordable. While it's close enough for a day trip, B&Bs and Airbnbs are most reasonable. Treat yourself.



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