Day 325: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 3: Things to do in Montreal; ‘Detonate’

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 inOldMontrealBagel.jpg 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 OldMontrealGuideteller’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 CirqueVoltatheir 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 KuriosVolta is…well, it’s an experience of identity. Like Turok and their Vegas production KaVolta 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 CirqueVoltaStagecompelling 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 BotaBotaSign.jpgjumping 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 BotaBotaSpastart 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 MontrealMuseumFineArtspermanent 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 MuseumPortraitsexamples 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.

Day 325

Man: 292 Loneliness: 33

Day 104: The Man and the Cabinet of Curiosities; ‘Urgent’

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The audience is closer to the stage than in any other Cirque show in history, with the stage being only two feet high.

If you are in the New York area any time between now and Nov 27th, you urgently need to go see Cirque du Soleil’s big top touring show, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities! If you miss out on it here follow them to Miami, FL; Dallas, TX; or Houston, TX where they will continue their tour because this is by far, hands down, one of the most incredible, exciting, gorgeous, and exhilarating Cirque performances I have ever seen.

Kurios features one of the 10 smallest people in the world. Antanina Satsura, who plays Mini Lili, is 3.2 feet tall.

Though my review and post comes to you late, I can assure you it is not for lack of sharing. I have made every possible effort to spread the love for Kurios whenever and wherever I can, with friends and family alike, and I absolutely had to make sure you all knew about it too. I saw Kurios on Friday at Randall’s Island Park in New York, the same place where I saw Ovo, another of their big top shows, back in 2010. The setting is gorgeous, a little island park getaway right outside of Manhattan. The Grand Chapiteau, with its brightly colored spiral tent, is, much like the show, a magical and fantastic setting seemingly out of place and straight out of one’s imagination running alongside the concrete jungle of FDR Drive.

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It takes six days to set up Kurios and two days to bring it down to get on the road.

I’ll be honest with you, I knew little to nothing of this show coming in. I was with my friend and her family, who are much more informed and follow Cirque’s productions a bit closer than I do. It was they who told me about Kurios and I was with them when I saw Toruk which I reviewed earlier [here]. I had this preview video to go by and my friend’s assurances that, after researching the show and following some of the performers on social media, Kurios promised to be one of the best productions in a while, harkening back to such phenomenal performances as Alegria (which in my opinion had some of the best music and clown acts) and Ka (which remains my favorite of all-time with its set and martial arts elements). I knew that the acts would be of a certainly high caliber, and my friend’s brother was particular excited to let us know about the acro-net, a very different performance than their trampoline tracks.

Kurios includes 426 individual props, the most of any show in Cirque’s history.

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From the very moment you enter inside the Grand Chapiteau you realize that this is way more than just talk and hype. For such a limited space Kurios makes use of every bit of valuable real estate. The set is gorgeous and members of the audience had an opportunity to get even closer to the action by walking on a suspended walkway that went over and through the stage. The steampunk element is gorgeously done with these fantastic set pieces that inspire the imagination and immerse you in the world of fantastic possibility. Truly I have to commend the designers of Kurios on the incredibly elaborate set pieces, the whimsical costumes, and the stage design. There was simply not enough time just to dedicate to taking in every little element and appreciating the worksmanship and contribution it gave to that feeling of being inside the mind of an inventor and all of his gadgets and machines.

An 8-person live band performs right on stage during the performances. You can often find the singer at the top of the tunnel and the musicians in various spots during the show.

Of course I must speak of the music, which incidentally I am listening to right now to help put me back at that performance on Friday. The 8 person band that plays for Kurios consists of vocalist Eirini Tornesaki, a drummer, percussionist, guitarist, violinist, cellist, accordion player, and band leader. The music is fantastic, especially if like me you are into jazz and/or swing. Almost reminds me of Caravan Palace, which is a French electro swing group. Live music always has a bit more life and energy to it and the pieces all reflect the mood of the acts and help to transition one to another. It is through music that we really get the most communication between the show and ourselves and the message is always delivered clearly, effectively, and engagingly. I could listen to the soundtrack, which is available by the way, all the time during my free time and feel the energy of the performance again and again in my blood.

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Kurios features 46 performers from 14 different countries, all of which are represented by flags displayed outside the Grand Chapiteau.

These acts are incredible, I’m telling you. Absolutely breathtaking. Each act ramps up the excitement and is just even more unbelievable than the last. We’ve seen certain elements of these acts before. Cirque shows commonly feature aerial straps like the ‘Siamese twins’ of Kurios. We’ve seen contortion acts, but perhaps none as flexible with as limited space as the four artists who use the base of a giant mechanical hand to twist and balance and support on top of each other. The clowns are of course always a wonderful feature in any Cirque production and in this more than most I’ve seen recently they are indeed wonderfully entertaining and essentially and critically humorous. The two clown acts, the ‘Invisible Circus’ and when a clown takes a member of the audience on a date at his ‘place’, were unforgettably funny. I was quite literally doubled over in laughter when the clown’s ‘cat’ plays with the audience member. But there are three acts in particular I would like to focus on.

Upside Down World.jpgUpside Down World – Not to be confused with the nightmarish setting of one of my favorite new series Stranger Things, the Upside Down World in Kurios is perhaps the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring act of the entire production in my opinion. A dinner party turns into a fantastical acrobatic balancing act when one of the guests is tasked with reaching a seemingly out of reach chandelier. Meanwhile, completely mirroring their acts, another dinner party takes place above the audience’s guests upside down as the upside guest races to reach the same chandelier. A beautiful ballet of balance and wiring. The very inspiration and spot on execution of such an elaborate piece deserves special commendation.

Acro Net – Past Cirque Acro net.jpgperformances have used  trampolines and trampoline tracks before to show incredible feats of flips and jumps but the acro net in Kurios is of a completely different caliber. Whereas traditionally trampoline track acrobats would use their own weight and the tension of springs to catapult themselves into the air, the performers in Kurios’s acro net act use the combined weight of almost ten separate acrobats synchronizing their jumps to send one poor unfortunate soul flying so high up you fear they’ll pierce the roof of the Chapiteau itself. How they manipulate the air with such ease and confidence is not only exciting it’s also terrifying. I didn’t know whether to cheer or to scream but I knew I was absolutely enjoying every minute of what I was watching.

Hand Puppet.jpgHand Puppetry – I remember as I was watching the performances I would sometimes be distracted by the shadows cast on the tent’s walls. See one of the interesting aspects of a big top setting is how close you are to everything and how intimate each act becomes. You are never so close to the performers as when you are all under this giant tent. As the spotlight followed the performers it would cast these larger than life shadows on the wall and sometimes I was just mesmerized by watching the shadows dance on the wall. I wondered if this was perhaps intentional or just a happy by-product of our setting. Then I saw the hand puppetry act and I knew that someone somewhere definitely realized the artistic and aesthetic value of playing with light and shadow in this setting. There were no big dangerous or exciting aspects to the hand puppetry. No one was flying ten feet in the air or displaying any particular level of physical strength or baffling flexibility. But still, there was magic in this act. In the delicate way the music framed the scene, the focus and elegance of each puppeteer’s movements, and in the way they played with and manipulated the camera and distance and space, this act, perhaps most of all, spoke to me on a deeply personal level. It’s such a risk to take all this amped up energy and adrenaline and excitement and suddenly punctuate it with this intimate and surreal theatre piece. But Kurios did not disappoint and did not take this risk needlessly. Such grace and skill and deftness, to portray so much emotion and life through just the hands. There is not a single moment during the entire show that you are not surrounded by beauty.

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Kurios is Cirque du Soleil’s 35th production.

In the Seeker’s attempts to create a machine to manipulate time and space, in the steampunk retro elements of the set, in that 20s era jazz and swing music, and in the variety and caliber and dedication of each act, Kurios is definitely sending a very strong message not only of the history of Cirque du Soleil but also of its promising future. I’m not going to lie I definitely love certain Cirque shows more than others and there are a few I could live without. But I could never live in a world without Cirque at all. Productions like Ka, Alegria, Kurios, these speak to me on so many levels. There is a sense of community and possibility when you see how artists and performers from all over the world come together to make these incredible productions that highlight the best of what we have to offer. In focusing on going back to Cirque’s roots Kurios achieves a level of production that will stand triumphantly on top for a very long time looking forward. I cannot sing its praises with enough enthusiasm or eloquence. I just sit wide-eyed and marvel at what the show has accomplished. And when it is done and the performers come out on stage to take their bows, you can be assured I will be one of the very first, urgently rushing to get up, to give them a standing ovation.

Day 104

Man: 84 Loneliness: 20

Day 75: The Man and the First Flight

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The first time I saw a Cirque Du Soleil production was in 2010. It was at Randall’s Island Park in New York. I saw Ovo, which was one of their touring shows, under a big circus tent in summer and I was in awe. No people flying out of cannons. No motorcycles. No lions, tigers, or elephants. Just a marvel of acrobatics and human strength, skill, grace, and flexibility. Since then I’ve been a huge fan catching most of their permanent residency shows in Las Vegas. Mystere at Treasure Island. Zarkana at the Aria. Ka at MGM Grand. O at the Bellagio. Didn’t get to see it in person but I also have La Nouba and Alegria on DVD. Alegria still gives me shivers.

I was surprised to find out that the Cirque team had paired up with the team behind James Cameron’s Avatar to create Toruk: The First Flight. But even more surprised that a) it would be touring at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ for only two days and b) that absolutely no advertising was done for it. In fact if it weren’t for my other friend who’s actually even more into Cirque than I am, I wouldn’t have caught the show with her and her family.

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But I’m glad I did.

Toruk takes place before the events of the first Avatar film, and it tells the story of the very first Toruk makto, a Na’vi who is strong enough and pure enough to ride the great toruk, the largest and most powerful predator in the skies of Pandora. It is a time of great danger to the Na’vi, the Omaticaya clan’s shaman foresees a great fiery disaster falling on the sacred Tree of Souls. Their chief sends his two sons, one by birth and one adopted, on a quest to retrieve five talismans from five Na’vi clans that will aid them in their quest to find the toruk and save the Tree of Souls, their connection to Eywa. During their journey they, and we, will encounter some of the animals and landscapes that captured our imaginations in the movie and witness some incredible feats by the people of many tribes.


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Toruk’s Pandora is just as awe-inspiring as Avatar‘s. Using a very minimal set design paired with some high-level CGI and camera mapping the designers of the show transport us to Pandora in a very real and immediate sense. I watched the Omaticaya dance and celebrate with drums and singing at the initiation of two young men into adulthood. On the very same stage not ten minutes later they turned the ground into a flowing roaring river with turtles and a canoe. They can make lava pour from the ground and they can create earthquakes so realistic you grip your chair. As the set pieces move the images projected onto them flow and change with it so you never lose that immersion. The set and costume design were absolutely terrific. I am impressed by how far we’ve come with mapping technology and so excited to see its future use in more productions. It is a bit bittersweet for me though as, while I do not take anything for granted in the skills of the programmers and designers, I hope I don’t lose the physical artistry and craftsmanship of the old-school sets. The costumes were bright and colorful (blue, mainly) and their tails seemed alive and springy, not just limp fabric or stiff tubing.


Even more impressive than the set and costume design, for me anyways, was the puppetry work that brought the wild animals and majestic beats of Pandora to life. The first ones we saw were the direwolves running in a pack chasing our protagonists. Each direwolf was controlled by one person. They ran together in unison like a real pack. They circled our heroes with that predatory sense of ferocity. When they ran the puppeteers were able to recreate the wave like motions of the direwolves’ bodies. You could almost see the ripple of muscle and sinew controlling their powerful legs as they raced across the stage. I also loved how adorable the turtles were in the river scene. Absolutely adorable. Flippers moving back and forth. Sliding across the stage floor with ease. But the toruk itself…the legendary ‘last shadow’…it was a behemoth of wonder that took five people to control. This is the show’s centerpiece. The journey and the reward. If the toruk didn’t invoke power, grandeur, strength, fear, and nobility then it just wouldn’t be the same. When the toruk puppet first appears it takes your breath away. Large powerful wings flapping. Fierce jaws snapping. We are witnessing the king of the sky in person. I was half-focused on the size and scale of the creature, in admiration of the design and colors, and half-focused on the team of highly skilled puppeteers orchestrating each movement and pulling the puppet along.

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The music, as always, is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Powerful deep drum pieces. Lots of woodwind instruments to create the illusion of lightness, swiftness, and flight. I don’t speak Na’vi. And I don’t really plan on ever learning it. So I have zero clue what the hell anyone was saying or singing the entire time. But it was still just so good. I don’t care, I’ll hum or make guttural noises to sing along. The soundtrack is on Spotify and most probably YouTube so I highly recommend checking it out. The acts are…appropriate. This is more of a story and plot driven piece and the acrobatic acts incorporated into the story are exactly that. Just parts of the story. They could never stand alone in comparison to other productions but they add a wild Na’vi sensibility to the story. So be wary, those of you who are Cirque fans and are accustomed to a certain level of act. These are markably tamer but still fun nonetheless. But control expectations in terms of aerial acrobatics. (Take note though that Kurios, Cirque’s other touring production, promises the best acts of all, going right back to the true high-flying roots of the human acts.)

I enjoyed this production very much. I would recommend those of you who have the opportunity to definitely watch it. If it came down to this or Kurios (which I have not yet seen but plan on attending in October) I might tell you to reserve yourself for Kurios but if you want to see amazing set design, incredible puppetry, a plot-driven story, and moving musical pieces, then fly to Turok.

Side note: HOW AWESOME IS THIS. CIRQUE LIKED MY TWEET!

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YEEEEAH!

Day 75

Man: 57 Loneliness: 18