Honestly there really is so much to do and see in Montreal and Quebec that to try and do both cities in one post would be just too much of an undertaking. So today’s post is specifically just what I did and saw in Montreal.
Although Quebec City is the capital of the province, Montreal is very clearly the metropolitan center. Much like Quebec, Montreal was built and first founded on the banks of the St. Lawrence river, but as the years went by and the city began to rapidly grow into a major hub, the businesses and homes slowly began to work their way up the mountain to where most of Montreal’s downtown area is now. Old Montreal stands where the city was first founded, at sea level with the St. Lawrence. The city proper, with its downtown area, major shopping, and incredible dining, are further inland, and Mount Royal Park stands at the peak of the city, commanding an incredible view and vast, beautiful nature trails and grounds.
Getting around the city is very easy. It never feels as congested or busy as New York City, and a leisurely walk around most major areas won’t take as long as it would in New York. The city is a bit smaller but still has a convenient easy to navigate grid layout. Buses run regularly and charge a flat fare regardless of destination and the metro connects all the major areas of the city with plenty of different stops. What I did, and what I would highly recommend, is to get a multi-day pass. $18 CAD gives you unlimited rides on the bus and metro for three days. I only used a cab (Uber) once, and that was because I had gotten caught in an unexpected shower on my way to a place I would have normally walked.
Old Montreal Walking Tour
There are plenty of walking tours of Old Montreal, but I highly recommend Local Montreal Tours. Our guide was a real local, having grown up in Toronto but living in Montreal for the past ten years. He was very knowledgeable, friendly, and did I mention it was a food-centric walking tour? In the span of three hours you’ll cover 1 1/2 miles of Old Montreal with 6 food stops, including a brewpub. I actually learned quite a lot, like how almost nothing in Old Montreal is actually old. Most of it has been redone to look old because the original buildings were replaced and moved further up on the city. The weather was great for our walking tour and we got to check out some incredible locations. We met at Crew Collective Cafe, which is a collaborative work space and cafe in the former headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. It was so cool to order your food at an old fashioned bank teller’s booth and the building, having such an important history, was clearly built to impress with the marble floors and the giant brass doors with the ornate arches. The tour goes in a large loop, passing through Place d’Armes, the Basilica, the old port, and some of the few remaining original structures from Montreal’s inception. I enjoyed every food spot they picked, which they touted as being some of the most popular and authentic locations that local Montrealers went themselves. It was a wide variety of dishes too. We started with a twist on the traditional bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese, a vegan carrot cake (it was surprisingly better than it sounded, but it’s not gonna convert anyone anytime soon), an upscale version of a traditional Quebec convenience store for a corn and meat pie, a Portuguese deli for soup and salad, a brewpub for locally brewed beer and locally made cheese, and it ended with an incredibly delicious, rich, warm, and satisfying French bread pudding with maple syrup cream. All in all a great way to introduce yourself to the city’s history and quest for reinvention.
Cirque du Soleil: Volta
Montreal is Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters, so I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to catch a show straight from the source before it headed out to the rest of the world. Volta is their newest big top production and the stage is set on a port in Old Montreal with the St. Lawrence river and Montreal Biodome in the backdrop. You would know from past posts my love affair with Cirque du Soleil. Most recently I’ve seen their stadium production Turok and their other current big top production, the incredibly impressive over the top back to the roots Kurios. Volta is…well, it’s an experience of identity. Like Turok and their Vegas production Ka, Volta is much more plot-driven than their usual productions. There is a pretty clear and defined story to follow which creates the framework and context for the acts. Because of that though, Volta is notably milder and tamer than say, Kurios. A few acts are definitely less than memorable, but the story, about creativity and expression and self-identity, is compelling and inspiring and their second act performances, especially the BMX finale, is freaking ridiculous. It’s like they saved all the adrenaline and energy for this wild finale that honestly took my breath away and had me at the edge of my seat. I would also note that the music of Volta is one of the best I’ve heard. The instrumentals have a very heavy techno-rock energy as it was created in collaboration with French electronic band M83. Though Volta might not be under the big top when you visit, if you are in Montreal and have the time and luxury, I’d highly recommend catching a Cirque show.
Bota Bota Spa
One of the most important things I wanted to stress with this trip was the need to destress. I’d finally freed myself of the shackles of one unsatisfying job and before jumping into another, I thought I would give myself the chance of a longer fuse before feeling like I’d detonate. So I did some research on some spas in the area and decided to visit Bota Bota Spa in Old Montreal. Bota Bota is in fact, a boat…boat. A permanently docked former St. Lawrence ferry boat converted into a luxurious oasis of floating relaxation on the banks of Montreal. Never really had a full spa day experience before so not entirely sure what to expect but I booked a Monday afternoon ‘For the Sailor’ package of a Swedish massage and a men’s facial. The entire boat smells like orange incense and there is only the sound of relaxing, gentle, bossa nova covers of pop songs. Conversation is strongly discouraged so as not to disturb other guests, though if you are with someone else you can chat in one of the many heated outdoor whirlpools or in the separate pool area for socializing. Most though are perfectly content to snuggle into a warm fluffy robe with some herbal tea and a book. Between treatments you can do a water circuit, which is a real shock to the system in the best way possible. Spend fifteen to twenty minutes inside their sauna, sweating out toxins and opening the pores. When you’re completely drenched, immediately step outside and submerge yourself completely (meaning head under water also) into their chilling ice bath. You’re gonna feel your heart race, your skin will tighten and pores will start freaking out, and your breath is gonna get really shallow. But if you’re like me you’ll start laughing at how freakingly painful and cold it is and you’ll feel your system start rushing the adrenaline and endorphins. Try to dip yourself a couple times and stay in for at least five minutes before running to the safe and warm embrace of one of those whirlpools. After the bubbles get you back to normal, dry off, find a nice sunny warm spot to relax, and read or rest as your heart goes back to normal and you reacclimate. I arrived early enough to do one circuit before my massage, and had time to do it twice more before my facial. The massage was super relaxing and at times, because I requested it, a bit painful as they really worked some high stress areas. The facial, which was really a first for me, was a learning experience. The scrubbing and the exfoliating and the weird stinging feeling of whatever the hell she put on to open up the pores, I mean my god, she was trying to convince me that normal human beings are supposed to do this two to three times a WEEK. Who would have time to do anything else?! Bota Bota is an incredibly luxurious experience and the facilities are clean, comfortable, and super relaxing. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle but still be close enough to view it from the whirlpool jets, definitely book a day here.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Here’s something great: at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, admission to their permanent collections is always free. The day I went I had only about three hours to peruse, but even that was just barely enough to visit every one of the permanent exhibits. The Museum has an incredible collection of paintings, sculptures, and even some artifacts from Canadian settlers and First Nations peoples. I’ll be honest with you, the only time I ever became super hyperly aware of how alone I was, was when I was browsing the collections at the Museum. There was a deep and profound moroseness to walking among some of the greatest examples of art completely alone. But it was a beautiful and unique moroseness. The kind that just reminds you and affirms in you that desire to be with someone and why all of this is worth it. There’s this one particular section on the third floor, there’s a wall of classical portraits and landscapes and it’s wall to wall floor to ceiling all mashed in together. And across from it are a few benches and I just sat there, staring, and there was this real visceral emotional response that caught right in my throat. I had to remind myself why I was doing all this, what I was looking for and working towards and hoping to find again. I can’t say you’re all going to have some weird mental emotional connection, but I can say, if there’s any place you can have it, it’s going to be here.
There’s still so much more to do in Montreal, this was just the sampler platter I gave myself in the four days I was there. I had three days in Quebec, and that’s up next.
Man: 292 Loneliness: 33