This was my first visit to Montreal, and I was so excited about it: both for the conference I'd be attending and the chance to explore such a historic and cosmopolitan city. Basically, the word was that Montreal is about as close to a European city as one could find in North America. I did some research and figured my group would spend most of our time in the Old Town, the historic district known for its Very Old buildings and cobblestone streets. I was lucky to be able to squeeze in exploring in the morning (on my runs), during the generous lunch breaks, and after conferences sessions wrapped up for the day in the early evening.
First, it is mega-easy to get around Montreal, at least the neighborhoods linked by the Metro. In the last several decades, Montreal has implemented a pretty extraordinary underground city with 19 miles (and counting) of a tunnel system over just four or five square miles. They're tunnels, but they're big: they include subway stations, boutiques, restaurants and offices. It feels basically like being in a mall, and it functions like Minneapolis' skyway system: you can get all over the city without going outside.
This is the interior of one entrance at night. It's a big decorative pool, and the windows you see are all offices.
We walked a lot because the Old Town historic district was only about 10 minutes from our hotel, but we did take two subway trips. Very easy and very convenient.
And now: my top five highlights from the trip!
1) Well, Old Town was really fun. (I heard it called Old Montreal, Old Town, and Old City while I was there, so I think they're interchangeable.) It was the natural sight-seeing destination, a must-see go-to collection of historic buildings, fun restaurants, and sweet boutiques.
And cobblestones. Lots and lots of serious cobblestones. High heels should never be worn in Old Montreal.
Like I wrote yesterday, it was especially easy to picture nineteenth-century Montreal in the morning, without too many cars on the streets. The evening had the same effect.
Actually, with the exception of our first visit to Old Town, the streets were so much quieter than I expected. My hunch is that the city's tourist season wraps up pretty completely at the end of September - some of the tours I investigated ran daily through September and then stopped altogether during the off-season. It looked like a wonderful place to visit in the summer, with rooftop patios all over. By mid-October, though, the crowds had definitely dissipated. Downtown, I should note, was another story entirely - at the start and end of the the workday, the commuters packed the streets like any major city.
Old Town had a charm for sure.
2) I got to try poutine!
Poutine is a dish that came out of Quebec and can be made in lots of different ways, but it's traditionally three items: French fries, covered in gravy and cheese curds. This combination sounds dicey, and I would never post a picture of it, because a photo obviously wouldn't do it justice. But it was good. Really good. Surprisingly good.
And it's all over Montreal at the city's cafes, too!
3) On my first run in Montreal, I passed a beautiful stationery shop: Essence du Papier. I went back later, and it was wonderful. I picked out my holiday cards (and had to leave about four boxes of next-best choices behind) and also ended up with a few new notebooks. It was inspiring and exciting to see all the different cards, papers, pens, and notebooks.
4) We walked by the Notre Dame Basilica on our evening walking tour and went into the cathedral later in the trip. Here's the outside at night:
It was the most magnificent cathedral I ever expect to see. It's gigantic in its structure and exquisite in its details, and the whole space is even more striking once you learn that it only took five years to build, from 1824 to 1829.
5) Finally, the French language, the city's official language. I didn't speak a word of French before I left, and I think it was the first time I've traveled to a place where the language wasn't one I spoke fluently or had studied. Even more interesting: how thoroughly bilingual the city and its people are. The street signs and menus and billboards and television stations are all in French, sometimes with English in a smaller type size below the French. Every waiters or storeclerk with whom we spoke could switch seamlessly, without fail, between flawless French and English. I kept thinking how impressed I was each time I saw this, but by the end of the short trip, it was clear that this bilingual model was simply the standard - which was almost even more impressive. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.
The days were so full, and I left Montreal yesterday with lots of ideas and inspiration - both from the conference and the city hosting it.