By Caitlin Kelly
My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.
I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)
Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.
Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.
Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.
It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.
Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!
I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)
I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.
On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m., before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.
We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.
The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.
Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.
I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.
Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837
I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.
I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!
Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)
Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat
I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.
It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.
And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.
If you’ve never visited, allez-y!