In­sider’s guide to Mon­treal

Vive la dif­fer­ence in Mon­treal’s land­mark year

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - HAN­NAH MELTZER

The first thing I no­tice is the pro­nouns. Mon­treal, which marks its 375th an­niver­sary this year, is the sec­ond-largest Fran­co­phone city in the world af­ter Paris, but where its sis­ter city over the pond favours the for­mal sec­ond­per­son plu­ral “vous”, in Que­be­cois French, strangers will greet you with the fa­mil­iar in­for­mal­ity of “tu”. In fact, Mon­treal is a very “tu” kind of city.

My visit be­gins, fit­tingly, with an over-spilling con­tainer of pou­tine, a messy pile of fries smoth­ered in gravy and dol­loped with chewy cheese curds. The Que­be­cois dish is ubiq­ui­tous and can be bought as fast-food or at trendy spe­cial­ist ven­dors such as Patati Patata, my cho­sen venue, where bearded hip­sters dis­cuss start-ups over the stodgy snack. The next thing I no­tice is the “franglais”; high­lights of the hy­brid lex­i­con in­clude “c’est vrai­ment nice”, “c’est chill” and, my per­sonal favourite, “mon chum”, which can mean “my friend” or “my boyfriend”.

As a some­time Paris res­i­dent, and a com­mit­ted Fran­cophile, my in­ter­est in Mon­treal was first piqued when I no­ticed the vol­ume of Frenchies de­cid­ing to leave the banks of the Seine in favour of the land they once mocked for its dis­tinc­tive ac­cent and ar­chaic ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal swear­ing — “calisse” and “tabar­nak” are both le­git­i­mate curse words. Most re­cent French emi­gres can be found in the densely pop­u­lated Plateau Mont-Royal dis­trict, the wide-rang­ing strip north­east of Down­town char­ac­terised by its colour­ful res­i­dences, criss-crossed with out­door iron stair­cases, and punc­tu­ated by splashes of street art. The area is over­looked to the west by the im­pos­ing cross of Mont Royal, a vast steel con­struc­tion that oc­cu­pies the spot where Paul de Chomedey, the city’s French founder, first placed a cru­ci­fix in 1643. The set­tle­ment be­came the trad­ing hub of “New France”, be­fore com­ing un­der Bri­tish con­trol af­ter the Seven Years War in the mid-18th cen­tury, and the two iden­ti­ties have tus­sled and over­lapped ever since.

French was made the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Que­bec in 1976, caus­ing swaths of the An­glo-ori­ented pop­u­la­tion to leave. In­dus­trial down­turn in the 1990s was fol­lowed by a knife-edge in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum in 1995. But as the 20th cen­tury drew to an end, an over­haul of the econ­omy, with a fo­cus on tech­nol­ogy and me­dia, ac­com­pa­nied a thaw­ing in ten­sions, with in­creas­ing num­bers of Mon­treal’s young peo­ple speak­ing both French and English. Th­ese days greet­ing peo­ple in English won’t ruf­fle many feath­ers, es­pe­cially not in the younger pop­u­la­tion.

It is in the Plateau dis­trict that my ori­en­ta­tion of the city be­gins. I am in the ca­pa­ble and per­fectly man­i­cured hands of Car­rie MacPher­son. Orig­i­nally from Saskatchewan in the Canadian Prairies and now a life­style blog­ger and guide, Car­rie has been an adopted Mon­trealer for 17 years. We start out where any tour of this bilin­gual city log­i­cally should be­gin — on Saint Lau­rent Boule­vard, also known as The Main, the wide seam that runs across the is­land bi­sect­ing its tra­di­tion­ally French-speak­ing con­tin­gent to the east and an­glo­phone res­i­dents to the west.

Th­ese days, the road bears signs of the many im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions who have come to shape its char­ac­ter; 60 per cent of Mon­treal­ers speak French at home, just over 20 per cent speak English, while 20 per cent speak nei­ther. The city is home to a thriv­ing Chi­na­town, as well as Por­tuguese, Arab, Haitian and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties.

Our first stop is the hip Mile End neigh­bour­hood and the warm bus­tle of open-all-hours St-Vi­a­teur Bagel, con­sid­ered one of the best spots to sam­ple the city’s sig­na­ture cui­sine. Ac­cord­ing to the af­fa­ble Morena fam­ily who run the place, their bagels are bet­ter than those you might find in New York. Pre­pared and cooked in an open kitchen, th­ese honey-boiled treats cost less than a dol­lar and are de­li­cious. The walls are cov­ered with 60 years’ worth of press cut­tings, tinged with sepia, and black and white pho­tos of fa­mous pa­trons, in­clud­ing lo­cal Leonard Co­hen.

Once we’ve fu­elled up on bagels, we’re back in Car­rie’s car and head­ing up The Main to the Mile-Ex neigh­bour- hood, an up-and-com­ing area where for­mer ware­houses have been trans­formed into so­cial hubs by young cre­atives priced out of the area we’ve just left.

We duck into Dis­patch Cof­fee, a garage turned into an es­presso bar and roast­ery that could be straight out of Brook­lyn, ex­cept we are greeted with a “hello-bonjour” rather than a “hey there”. Hip cre­den­tials are prom­i­nent in our next stop, too, Depan­neur Le Pick-up, a work­ing cor­ner shop-cum-hip diner serv­ing gourmet burg­ers and sand­wiches, in­clud­ing the clas­sic bagel, a ham­burger and even veg­gie pulled “pork”, made from bean curd. Fi­nally, we swing by play­fully ti­tled beer-bar Alexan­draplatz, founded by Depan­neur’s co-owner Ber­nadette Houde. “She’s awe­some,” Car­rie tells me. “She was in the band called Les­bians on Ec­stasy. Ev­ery­one knows her.”

In this area, it seems ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one. De­spite be­ing Que­bec prov­ince’s most pop­u­lous city, Mon­treal’s more mod­est size has given it a dis­tinc­tive vil­lagey feel. But if it is a rel­a­tively pe­tite me­trop­o­lis, Mon­treal punches above its weight in culi­nary of­fer­ings and boasts the most eater­ies per capita in North Amer­ica af­ter New York City, which makes for a fast-mov­ing and com­pet­i­tive restau­rant scene.

“There is a high turnover — if a restau­rant lasts more than a year, it’s do­ing all right,” Car­rie tells me.

If a year is a good in­nings, then Toque!, con­sid­ered by many to be the best place to eat in Que­bec, is pos­i­tively geri­atric. Opened in 1993, its owner Nor­mand Laprise is cred­ited with cre­at­ing a new kind of Que­be­cois haute­cui­sine, char­ac­terised by a close re­la­tion­ship be­tween chef and lo­cal pro­ducer (pre­vi­ously, high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents would be im­ported from France). The fresh­ness is ev­i­dent in the taste of pan-seared mush­rooms driz­zled with the most in­tense of smoky sauces, as well as creme brulee cheese­cake ac­com­pa­nied by a sor­bet made from blue­ber­ries that taste just-picked fresh.

Af­ter din­ner, Laprise, a chatty and down-to-earth chap in a sweater and train­ers, takes me on a tour of the kitchen, which he de­liv­ers with a bouncy open­ness. The Que­bec na­tive has sin­gle-hand­edly cre­ated a din­ing scene in his im­age, with Toque! alumni go­ing on to es­tab­lish hugely suc­cess­ful restau­rants in their own right. Mon­treal Plaza, the cre­ation of Laprise’s for­mer chef de cui­sine Charles-An­toine Crete, is booked most nights, while for­mer Toque! staffer Martin Pi­card’s Au Pied de Co­chon “sugar shack”, out­side the city in ru­ral Mirabel,

Mon­treal punches above its weight in culi­nary of­fer­ings and boasts the most eater­ies per capita in North Amer­ica af­ter New York City

has months-long wait­ing lists for its in­dul­gent maple and pork spe­cial­i­ties, fresh from the farm.

If the city’s gourmet stand­ing is rel­a­tively new, its rep­u­ta­tion for the arts is long-es­tab­lished. From rock band Ar­cade Fire to Cirque du Soleil, via the power bal­lads of Ce­line Dion, Mon­treal has proved it­self a hot­bed of cre­ativ­ity. The city’s cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, an­chored in the ul­tra-mod­ern Quartier des Spec­ta­cles dis­trict, are pulling out all the stops for the an­niver­sary year. At the newly opened cul­tural cen­tre Au Som­met Place Ville Marie in Down­town, sight­seers can view the city across 360 de­grees from a 180m-high, glass-walled ob­ser­va­tory; af­ter tak­ing in the sun­set from the view­ing plat­form, vis­i­tors are in­vited to an in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibit where they can gen­er­ate a per­son­alised tourist itin­er­ary based on their in­ter­ests, “col­lected’’ on a lit­tle elec­tronic card.

The hi-tech ap­proach con­tin­ues into the city’s Old Mon­treal with Cite Me­moire, a se­ries of pro­jec­tions on the side of build­ings telling the story of Mon­treal via video and sound in­stal­la­tions. Nar­ra­tion is pro­vided by a free app, which vis­i­tors can down­load on their phone; lovers meet to the sound­track of Co­hen’s Suzanne, while a set of lo­qua­cious beavers ex­plain the 17th-cen­tury fur trade. I re­cu­per­ate from ex­plor­ing the area with a visit to Bota-Bota Spa-Sur-L’eau, a for­mer river ferry hous­ing a sauna, ice bath and on-deck hot tub over­look­ing the port.

Fi­nally, I head to Place d’Armes, the his­toric heart of the city, and an­other mon­u­ment to de Chome­day. On one side of the square sits Notre-Dame Basil­ica, an im­mense neo-gothic struc­ture, and op­po­site it the sturdy grandeur of the for­mer Bank of Mon­treal head­quar­ters. Two stat­ues — an el­e­gantly dressed man and woman with com­i­cally up­turned noses — sit on two of the plaza’s cor­ners. The woman, who I learn via a small plaque is French, looks dis­dain­fully at the bank, sym­bol of English power, while her male equiv­a­lent, who is English, gives a su­pe­rior look to the church, a sym­bol of the in­flu­ence of

French Cana­di­ans. Mean­while, each holds a small dog, look­ing ex­cit­edly over at its coun­ter­part, want­ing to play, which seems a bit closer to where we’re at th­ese days.

Jacques Cartier Bridge lights up for Mon­treal’s 375th an­niver­sary, top; Place d’Armes in Old Mon­treal, above; Bota Bota float­ing spa, above right; street life in Plateau Mon­tRoyal, right

View­ing deck at Au Som­met Place Ville Marie, left; Saint Lau­rent Boule­vard, above

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