Mon­treal – c’est vrai­ment nice!

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - CANADA -

As this French-speak­ing Cana­dian city turns 375, Han­nah Meltzer tunes into its colour, cui­sine and some quirky col­lo­qui­alisms

The first thing I no­ticed was the pro­noun. 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 sec­ond-per­son plu­ral vous, in Québé­cois French, strangers will greet you with the fa­mil­iar in­for­mal­ity of tu. In fact, Mon­treal is a very tu kind of city.

My visit be­gan, fit­tingly, with an over-spilling con­tainer of pou­tine – a messy pile of fries smoth­ered in gravy and dol­loped with chewy cheese curds. The iconic Québé­cois 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 chat start-ups over the stodgy snack. It’s all very tu, all very re­laxed.

The next thing I no­ticed was 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 which they once mocked for its dis­tinc­tive ac­cent and ar­chaic ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal swear words: câlisse and tabar­nak are both le­git­i­mate curse words. Most re­cent French émi­grés can be found in the densely pop­u­lated Plateau Mont-Royal district, the widerang­ing strip north-east 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 sole of­fi­cial lan­guage of Que­bec in 1976, caus­ing swathes of the An­glo-ori­en­tated 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 lo­cal econ­omy – with a fo­cus on tech­nol­ogy and me­dia – ac­com­pa­nied a thaw­ing in ten­sions, with in­creas­ing num­bers of Mon­treal’s young pop­u­la­tion 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, on Boule­vard Saint-Lau­rent, 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 that have come to in­habit it and shape its char­ac­ter. Now 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 sig­nif­i­cant 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 south of the bor­der in New York. Pre­pared and cooked in an open kitchen, these hon­ey­boiled treats cost less than a dol­lar and are com­pletely 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 neigh­bour­hood, 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 come from. We duck into Dis­patch Cof­fee, a garage trans­formed into an espresso bar and roast­ery, which could be straight out of Brook­lyn, ex­cept that we are greeted with a “hello-bon­jour” rather than a “hey there”. Hip cre­den­tials are prom­i­nent in our next stop, too, Dé­pan­neur Le Pick-up, a work­ing cor­ner shop-cum-hip diner serv­ing gourmet burg­ers and sandwiches, in­clud­ing the clas­sic bagel, a

La Pe­tite Bour­gogne district, right; a cy­clist passes some street art, left; a Cirque du Soleil per­former, be­low; and the city’s spe­cial­ity pou­tine, in­set

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