Explore historic Montréal – the 4th largest French-speaking city in the world.
May 19, 2016
Separatists, French history and jazz festivals. My adventures in Montréal where culture, history, and politics rule the day.
My first night in Montréal set the mood for my whole week in this cultural mecca.
I flew in somewhat jet lagged (my leaving party in Vancouver was pretty epic and I hadn't slept, in at least 48 hours when we touched down.) I stumbled through the city to the home of a kindly Couch surfer who had agreed to take me in for a few days.
He was an intense Francophone with a fierce passion for his city and before I knew which way was up, I was on a borrowed bike heading for a whirlwind tour of the city.
We flew through ancient rich neighbourhoods, past separate universities for French and English speakers, dodged cars and skyscrapers downtown, glided through ethnic districts, and up over a busy bridge with a sprawling view of the river. All the time my attentive host kept up a commentary of awesome info- history, attraction’s, and politics (lots of politics you see he was an active separatist, a person who believed that the province of Québec should separate from Canada and become its own country - a concept that I knew relatively little about).
On our way home we stopped at a rally at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. The whole concept of a person younger than myself being so actively involved in politics and so proud of his city was fascinating to me - from New Zealand a country famous for its apathy. The lectures given were an absorbing insight into the cultural position of the city but by then I was struggling through a fog of exhaustion and my high school French was only scraping the surface of what was being said. I floated through the rest of the evening, meeting French politicians with my limited French and rode home in a haze, more feeling than understanding my surroundings, it felt like a different country, a whole different world than the Canada I had come to know and love.
The next day dawned hot and grey, walking through cobbled streets that had been there for literally hundreds of years, (old things impress me, my country is still so sparkly and new) toiling through the damp heat, my dream-like state continued to intensify as I explored the historic district. I wandered through historic homes and the Pointe a Calliere Museum, with its subterranean excavations and living history demonstrations it was easy to imagine early settlers building the square I was sitting in, bustling about in long dresses and high boots.
This trance-like state of almost being part of an ancient antiquated European culture set the scene for my entire visit. I settled into a routine of exploring by day and coming home to my couch surfers for French lessons in the evening. My host was happy to help me embrace the French culture and though my French started coming back to me, I felt a keen sense of disapproval from the locals when I would get lost enough to ask for help in English.
Montréal is easy to navigate and between the metro, easy bike hire, and walking, I followed my feet through miles of city streets. Culture is embraced in this city, with its European history and multicultural population and the arts are well celebrated. While I was there, there were both a circus and a jazz festival going on and one afternoon I stumbled on the route of a parade, waiting in the hot sun to see what this fabulous little city might throw me next, Latin with Samba, and Brazilian street dance as it turned out.
I took long walks up Mount Royal to see the city spread out before me and to Saint Helens Island where I admired the biosphere but my feet always drew me back to the city with the history and deep culture of the place. Between museums and art galleries I would pop into an ancient church for a break from the sun and meditate in a back pew or admire the ancient detailed artwork adorning the altars. Before heading out to soak up more culture or grab a glass of red and a seat on a grassy knoll to listen to some of the greats of jazz and blues, as part of the free jazz festival.
A mixture of the isolation from the foreign language, the living history feel and the embracing of culture and politics had created a wondering, floating feeling, like being the ghost of Christmas past and my week in Montréal passed as quickly as the dream it felt like. I awoke on a bus to Toronto, full of peace and with a slight case of cultural envy. Though the politics is complex, the melting pot of culture and history make Montréal a great place to explore. Whether you are after a relaxing holiday or a more upbeat adventure of culture and history, hand in hand with modern city living including luxury hotels, amazing eats and a thriving nightlife rivalling any North American city.
Have you visited Montréal? Did you get caught up in the living history of the place? Please share your experiences in the comments below.