Open season’s great outdoors
Andrew Fenton finds Montreal is a seriously cool city that comes out to play after the annual underground hibernation
balding accordion player belts out 1950s-style rock ’n’ roll to a huge crowd. It’s as if your dad was hired to play the main stage at Big Day Out.
Montreal is a stylish city but, as with their favourite dish poutine (chips, gravy and cheese curds), sometimes there’s no accounting for taste. Montreal’s laid out on a 50km by 16km island, divided by Saint Laurent Boulevard, which locals call The Main.
The trendy west side is predominately English, the more touristy east side, French. It doesn’t matter where you stay though, as language provides little barrier with 70 per cent of people bilingual.
While it has a wonderful, European-style old centre, the majority of the city is modern, vibrant and cosmopolitan.
Residents like to think of it as New York’s cool little French sister. “Often you’ll see all the downtown street signs change to New York colours and the street full of yellow cabs,” says Jeremie Gabourg from Tourism Montreal, explaining how filmmakers use the city to double for the Big Apple to save a few bucks.
Quebec has a more relaxed stance on vice than the British parts of Canada, with liberal licensing laws, the aroma of marijuana often in the air (illegal but not strictly policed).
Strip joints are dotted throughout. Even these don’t spoil the family-friendly atmosphere. “It’s Friday, sir, let the sin begin!” the world’s most cheerful strip-bar spruiker says as men walk by.
Sooner or later, most visitors end up in Old Montreal with its cobblestone streets. Place Jacques Cartier puts you in mind of Paris – it’s a large square full of trinket sellers and dozens of caricaturists drawing tourists with enormous heads and big toothy grins. There’s a festive atmosphere tonight, helped out by the warm weather and the obligatory pan pipes and guitar combo, now franchised in every public space in the world.
Across the road in winter they hold IglooFest, where thousands of dance music fans go off in -22C temperatures. Tonight, the Old Port is host to Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, which contains some of the most mind-bending tricks I’ve ever seen. Founded in Montreal three decades ago, Cirque premieres all of its shows here first before sending them out to crisscross the globe.