MONTREAL’S LIGHT FESTIVAL MORE THAN LIGHTS
The food also makes the experience a delight
Q What’s this festival you keep nattering on about?
A You must mean Montréal en Lumière – or, in its less lustrous English translation, the Montreal High Lights Festival. MEL’s 16th edition is Feb. 19 through March 1. My wife and I like its ebullient mix of outdoor entertainment, lively cultural attractions and, above all, culinary events that range from over-the-top (with prices to match) to, well, free.
Q It seems a lot happens, perhaps, but why go this year?
A Because UNESCO has dubbed 2015 the International Year of Light. The festival – with light in its very name – is one of the few Canadian entries on the agency’s international roster of light-centred events. But, frankly, do you need an excuse to attend something that’s akin to Winterlude on steroids?
Q What’s the festival all about?
A At its heart is food. Some 50 restaurants mount special menus, tied to the culinary traditions of another country, a U.S. city or a Quebec region. These vary each year; this time, honours belong to Switzerland, Washington, D.C., and Lanaudière respectively. A passel of Swiss chefs, including six who head Michelin-starred restaurants back home, will be in town.
Q So what memorable meals have you had?
A We’ve scarfed back a six-course lunch at Europea, where renowned chef Jérôme Ferrer began with dried prosciutto hanging from a miniature clothesline — an amuse-bouche before the first course — and ended with post-dessert treats of wee madeleines and cotton candy. At Bistro Apollo Concept, last year’s dinner by Claude Le Boyan included beautiful ravioli of crab, mussels and piquillo peppers in a Tonka bean emulsion (there were five other courses).
Q But I don’t want to spend a lot of money on food.
A It’s possible to find everything from light snacks to a Swiss wine tasting that’s accompanied by a small snack plate. (Who knew the Swiss make wine?) But how does free sound? A personal favourite is the annual Fête des fromages d’ici, where 17 Quebec producers will dish out samples. Among them: Fromagerie F.X. Pichet, which took cheese-of-the-year honours last April at the Canadian Cheese Awards in Toronto. Just head to the Complexe Desjardins, across Ste-Catherine Street from Place des Arts, until Feb. 21. Like us, you might buy a chunk or two of your favourites.
Q When I’m stuffed, what should I do?
A Hit the festival’s diverse cultural programming. Name acts like Bryan Adams and the Tragically Hip are on tap this year, along with popular Quebec talent. But I recommend spreading your wings. Last year, for example, we caught Haiti’s most famous rock band, the high-energy Boukman Eksperyans; Nick Waterhouse, a young rhythm and blues guy whose name has popped up seemingly everywhere since; and a Sunday afternoon with classical pianist Marika Bournaki, whom Huffington Post dubbed “the Celine Dion of classical.”
We attended The Book of Bob, a world premiere by Montreal playwright Arthur Holden. And we toured a free exhibit by acclaimed artist René Derouin. I wouldn’t have missed any of it — though I knew nary a one.
Q But what would you recommend this year?
A Switzerland spills over into the entertainment roster, so catch some Swiss acts — ranging from Stefan Eicher, that country’s best-selling artist, to Mama Rosin, a Geneva-based band that fuses Cajun and Caribbean rhythms. Music choices range widely, though — gospel to classical, Juno winner Dan Mangan to Brooklyn guitarist Kaki King.
The range of other disciplines is just as impressive: a play (with English subtitles) staged by Robert Lepage; a tango evening by England’s Sadler’s Wells; the nostalgic musical Forever Plaid. And there’s Montreal’s Nuit Blanche on Feb. 28, where about 350,000 visitors will enjoy 200 activities, almost all free and connected by shuttle.
Q This doesn’t sound like something for kids.
A Au contraire! Families will revel in the free outdoor stuff around the festival hub in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s pedestrianized festival space that takes over Ste. Catharine Street around the Place des Arts and Museum of Contemporary Art. Enjoy free rides, such as a Ferris wheel and urban slides for young and old (think psychedelic luge run, and you’ll get the picture). Attend free concerts, watch fireworks, see interactive exhibits, catch street performers, grab hot chocolate. And just revel in the lively crowds.