Tails of a Travelling Cat
The Canada Edition
Bonjour à tous! I'm in the French province. What an amazing day! It started very early as the train’s curtains weren’t very light proof. We were passing through the countryside of Québec Province, differentiated from Québec City, it was mostly open farmland, interspersed with some trees of course and large grain silos and the odd town. Or at least collections of houses. The train gave an excellent view of the city as we approached Montréal and we arrived after crossing a big green bridge right on time. This was by far the biggest station I’ve been in on my Canada trip so far, but it’s still smaller than most London stations.
For a $6 fee, I could leave my giant hiking bag in storage and pick it up later. Believe me, it was worth every penny to not have to carry it around all day. Not that Canada uses pennies anymore, the cent has been removed from circulation and purchases are now rounded up or down to the nearest five cent, the smallest unit of currency.
It was now time to head out into the city, following my trusty travel guide's supplied walking tour. I made my way to Rue Notre Dame via Victoria Square, walking passed the Basilique Notre Dame de Montréal then along Boulevard St Laurent, Rue St Paul and Place Jacques Cartier, admiring the architecture before rejoining the Rue Notre Dame to see Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) which may once have had a green roof but was now brown and Château Ramezay, once the city’s council building. I then took to the Rue St Claude to investigate the amazing architecture of the Marché Bonsecours, now a market, once Canada’s parliament building. Next door was the Chapel Notre Dame de Bonsecours, more fine architecture and from here it was a short walk to Vieux Port. This is Montréal's nineteenth century Old Port, once one of the most important North American harbours. Now there’s a pirate ship themed kid’s play area, but also amazing views of the St Lawrence River.
Back to the Rue Notre Dame, almost at its very end, was the Sir George-Etienne National Historic Site, the rather long winded place name houses lots of information about this influential French-Canadian politician (I think he might have been prime minister at one point), in the 1800s.
Next it was on to the bustling Chinatown framed by pink pagodas at either entrance on Boulevard St Laurent. On Rue Clark, there is a garden named after Chinese leader Sun Yat-Sen, I’m rather disappointed it was closed, but there is another Sun Yat-Sen garden in Vancouver so hopefully that’ll be open. Then I trekked through the streets of Plateau Mont Royal, apparently the most Montréal-esque of all the city’s neighbourhoods. The houses and apartments were certainly very stylish away from the towering skyscrapers, the houses in an eclectic array of colours and styles. From here it was only a short walk to the Parc du Mont Royal, from which the district gets its name. En route I met a lovely Vancouverite, who noticed the Berlin patch on my bag and from here we struck up a conversation. She was visiting Toronto via Montréal, we had a great conversation about travel, took a few pictures together and then went our separate ways.
Although I knew it would be a hill – Montréalers call it la Montagne or the mountain – I hadn’t expected it to be quite so steep, my guide book does say it’s 234m tall, maybe I should have paid more attention to it. Anyway I climbed the slopes which in some places really were quite steep, to be surprised by a road almost at the top of the hill. There was even a shuttle bus, I didn’t realise la Montagne was so popular! I made it most of the way to the top at which point I was distracted by a panorama spot of the city north and east of the Parc. It was Jacques Cartier whose street we visited earlier who named the hill Mont Royal and from here the city got its name. In fact, the landscaping was done by Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York. After enjoying this view, I headed to the summit, marked by what appeared to be a phone mast, where I had lunch. The sun had come out perfectly and I was wearing a t-shirt and sunglasses by this point. After a relaxed lunch, I headed down the hill a little way to the cross, which for reasons I don’t understand is 30m tall and seemingly covered in light bulbs so I can only presume it is illuminated at night. A bit more down the hill and on the south side, facing downtown was the Chalet du Mont Royal pavilion, a viewing area in front of which gave spectacular views of downtown. I stood here a long time in what was clearly a tourist hotspot just looking at the city. Every time I looked on a different direction, I saw something new and spotted a few of the buildings I had visited earlier as well. Although an arrow pointed in the direction of the Hôtel de Ville, I couldn’t see it.
Having seen as much of the city as I could from above, I returned to street level. This time I walked along the blocks of Rue Sherbrooke Ouest (West) between Guy and University. This area is known as the Golden or Square Mile as it was where the city’s rich industrialists and traders built their houses in the 19th century when Montréal was an important part of the British empire, interspersed with more modern buildings. A few of these buildings still remain, including the Ritz Hotel (I don’t think it was the Ritz originally). With McGill University, which surprisingly was on Rue University, the Golden Square Mile ended although confusingly University became another street after Sherbrooke, but my so far trustworthy guide book claimed University ran all the way back to Notre Dame. Anyway I followed the street that wasn’t University along until I found Christ Church Cathedral which as cathedrals go seemed quite small and like most other places, including the roads surrounding Mont Royal, renovation was underway ahead of the summer season. It had a nice green roof though which actually was green unlike Hôtel de Ville.
From the cathedral, I walked along the commercial Rue St Catherine Ouest to Square Dorchester and Place du Canada. Square Dorchester had been visibly reduced as this was also being renovated but Place du Canada, next to the fancy Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Mode, was whole. Besides Square Dorchester was the Sun Life Building, a building big enough to rival the cathedral and which housed the British crown jewels during WWII, seems like the Tower of London wasn’t safe enough for them. There was also a statue of Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and a horse and soldier memorial to the Boer Wars, or the Wars in South Africa as the inscription read.
From here it was onto the Underground City, a huge subterranean metropolis. Ok I know I’ve just used fancier words to describe it, but it grew from its humble beginnings as the city’s first Metro system in 1966. Now there are thirty kilometres of shopping malls under the city on multiple levels; shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and even an ice rink so Canadians can ice skate all year round – I’m pretty sure that can be achieved above ground too - it took a long time for me to find the City and only then after asking information. I’ll admit I was a little underwhelmed by it, mostly I think because it looked like every other shopping centre I’ve ever been in, just subterra. Still, I can’t complain, I suppose, I got a postcard souvenir and a carton of excellent mango juice.
It was now time to return above ground to the station, the Underground City spans under this station and around the Peel, McGill and Bonaventure metro stations. I collected my bag and putting it back on, it seemed to be lighter than I remembered it. Well, it should be with all the food I’ve eaten. Then I boarded my third train and soon I was off to Toronto.
In the tradition of British place names in Canada, we are currently stopped in Cornwall station. I’ll get into Toronto at 11:30 and then it’s half an hour by subway or whatever they call it there to my hostel, I’ll let you know later how that went.
But as we’re speeding away from Montréal towards Kingston, Ontario, let me relate what I’ve learnt about Québec and Montréal. Montréal was founded as a religious city, yet today it’s reputation is for its night life. Most of the population have French roots, but the majority of people are bilingual at least. Québec is both Canada’s largest province and the biggest French speaking area in the world. Québec has twice held a referendum for independence but both times it was close with the population voting to remain. Unlike Halifax and Miramichi in bilingual provinces, the majority of signs in Montréal are French only. While train announcements are still bilingual, French comes first in Québec, whereas it was English in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I have been informed French becomes less widely spoken further west, I’ll see how true that holds.
Well, it was quite dark when I arrived in Toronto, it being 11:30pm. I just wanted to go to bed. I took the number 1 then the number 2 subway where I got off two minutes from my hostel. Here I was in the British Columbia room appropriately enough. All the rooms are named after provinces in this hostel which I really like. I fell asleep almost straight away. Tomorrow I’m off to Niagara Falls!!
Until then, folks,