Montreal, QC, Canada, 16-18 July 2012

Long, leisurely drive up and out of NH and into the Green Mountain State of Vermont then onwards and upwards into Canada. I was quite interested as the language changed to French with English second, and the road markings changed to metric, confirming we has chnged to a metric and bilingual country. The flag of Quebec County, with it's white cross on a blue background, four fleur-de-lys in each corner, reminded me so much of the pre revolutionary French flag. Arrive Montreal. Words cannot describe the hotel we were booked into. The only ones that fitted the situation were "Get me to the InterContinental and make it snappy!"
The Intercontinental was much better, although with a certain bohemian touch that you rarely see in such hotels. We were on the 25th floor and had an excellent view of, well, of a pretty grimy drab expanse of rooftops, a flour mill and some grey buildings. We went to explore. We were on the cusp of the Financial District and the Vieux Port, the original port area that like most city wharves are being revived as a trendy cultural area. The Financial District is full of tall grey buildings, but no surprise there. The Vieux Port is half way between cultured, quaint, colourful and just plain not finished yet. We had an explore in the humid night, had ice cream and beer and vodka and tonics and it mellowed. (Or we did.) Jacques Cartier Square is nice with pubs and restaurants on the square and in the side streets.
The next day we got up early and had a swim, I had a great sauna, and then we went to a truly excellent breakfast deli called Le Cartet, where I had a very healthy meal of yoghurt, poached egg, salad, cheese and figs. Ann had the "sucre" breakfast of pancakes and French toast etc. when the waitress brought it to the table she automatically gave the sugary one to me and the healthy one to Ann!

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After that we went to the Centre d'histoire de Montréal, three floors of permanent and temporary exhibits offer a rich experience of the eventful and sometimes turbulent adventures of Canada's first metropolis. I have to say that the first floor, the story of Montreal, was interesting but oddly didn't address the key points of the city and region, the Anglo-French relationship. First the colony was French and then, with no explanation, it's British. It is said that one can only write of history when it ceases to be politics… The second floor was an excellent exhibition of the effect of 1950s and 60s top down town planning of mega projects and the communities that were destroyed with no consultation with or thought of the citizens that lived in them. the top floor was about the experiences of refugees and immigrants in Montreal, where 1 in 10 are immigrants and 1 in 2 are children of migrants.

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Then we went along the streets to the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal, which is the 1829 cathedral built on the same spot as the first church by the Catholic missionaries that settled the original city. It is a spectacular church, both modern and richly Catholic in style at the same time. A wonderful piece of architecture that is spoilt by the fact that you have to pay to go in. No, not a donation or a suggested donation, just an entry fee We then called it a day on culture and took a taxi to the Downtown shopping district, had a nice sandwich at the Nickel diner and did some shopping in the underground city. We only saw the wider city when we went up Mont Royal on the last day and saw how vast it is, and then drive thru the McGill University area which is more upmarket.

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We never really gelled with Montreal and yet it may have been a combination of the poor quality hotel we first met, the poor weather, or the grey drabness. The city, especially near us, has been blighted by 60s concrete buildings of no merit, there are still empty buildings, vacant lots and other problems caused by failed town planning. On the other hand we found the Montrealers 100% friendly and welcoming, quite relaxed to use French or English as appropriate, and helpful at all times. The city is Francophone, and it is clear that effort has been made to enforce a "French first" approach, but I can see the reasons for that, and I have no problems with a community adopting bilingualism. We also heard some very negative comments about Francophone Quebecois from people, that they refused to speak English, and also that they didn't speak proper French but some obscure patois. I have a problem with that on two levels, first who is to say which is the correct 'French' [and don't say the Academie Francaise], and secondly, everyone we spoke to in Montreal spoke very canonical straightforward French. Ann spoke to people happily and even I, with my dreadful French, could understand a lot more than I let on. The Montreal flag is also interesting, in that it is clearly a mix of the English flag, the lily of France, the thistle of Scotland, the rose of England and the shamrock of Ireland. Even the Quebec motto 'Je me souviens", translated as "I remember" has a lovely ambiguity in that Quebec is a Francophone society, but one that had fought for the monarchy against the American invaders in 1812 and has prospered within the Empire and Commonwealth.

 

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