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Return to Montreal | www.ed-rex.com

Return to Montreal

The Ghost at the heart of Mont Royal

Young Geoffrey expounds on the nature of seasons. Image by The Phantom Photographer, colour manipulation by yours truly.
On top of Mont Royal, all covered with snow. Image by friendly stranger.

Note to friends and relatives in Montreal: We had only a brief time in town and decided we wanted to spend it intensely with each other, without making a schedule or committing to travels. Selfish, perhaps (selfish certainly), but psychologically necessary for both of us. Please don't feel snubbed; we'll be back.

It's been some years since I've been to Montréal. Since then, I've paid lip-service to its beauty, but the truth is, in memory that beauty had faded to a dull, sepia-tinted and low-resolution photograph on newsprint, all colour and detail blurred to mere words of which repetition had made mostly meaningless.

This weekend past, saw me see Montréal anew, as I did my best to show Raven (who has been to the city before) my Montréal, to see the one she knows through hers and, especially, to discover with her a city new to us both.

I'm very happy to say that barely more than 48 hours, we managed surprising successes on all three fronts. And if the city decided to see us off with a snow storm that saw a two hour bus trip become nearly five, even that seems somehow appropriate.

More than anything else — more even than eating, though there's no denying food (whose quality ranged from crap- to spec-tacular, with all-you-can-eat faux Chinese and Schwartz's smoked meat book-ending adventures in authentic Chinese, possibly authentic Tibetan and even a continental breakfast; after that, things blur. Suffice it to say, our digestive tracts (especially mine) took a bit of a beating — we took a walking vacation.

Much more to read and lots of photos too, click for more!



She ... walked with me and she talked with me ...

The Montréal Centrale, as the city saw us off in a flurry of snow. Image by The Phantom Photographer.

We started off by walking from the train station to our hostel, the Hôtel Montréal Centrale, on Rue St. Hubert, literally abutting the parking lot of the Greyhound bus terminal. The room was clean, the bed very comfortable and the staff friendly and helpful. My only complain was that the air was dry, but I would more than happily stay there again.

So, we came, we checked-in, we went back out again. South, towards Chinatown and the river.

South side of Sherbrooke at (I think) Rue Berri. Image by The Phantom Photographer.

Have I mentioned that Montréal is a magnificent, a beautiful city? If I haven't yet, be sure I'll be doing so again.

Briefly, Montréal is one of the oldest cities in North America and was arguably Canada's first major city. Where Toronto was a muddy outpost little more than a century ago, Montréal was a genuine urbanity two centuries back — and a remarkable amount of those old buildings are still standing, not as museums, but as working buildings — as homes, as offices, as markets.

So it is perhaps appropriate that we started our tour by heading towards the old port — once the heart of Canada's commercial and industrial might — passing along the way through the narrow, cobble-stone streets of Old Montréal, once the heart of Canada's banking and finance sectors.

For North America, this part of Montréal is truly old. The streets are horse-and-buggy narrow, the office buildings (I believe) dating from the late 19th century. It's true that the district is a tourist destination now, and that tony restaurants and tonier curio shops abound, but it is (I believe) still very much a place of commerce, not just of retail. Many of thee old office buildings are still in use as office buildings. (And coming in on the train, it looked to me as if many of the old 20th century factories — the likes of which have almost entirely vanished from Toronto during the course of my adult life-time — are still in use as factories. I suspect that Montréal still makes stuff, as embarrassing as that may sound to those still in thrall to the fantasy that economics can be entirely divorced from durable production. But I digress.)

Somewhere on the Plateau, west of St-Denis. Image by The Phantom Photographer.

As elsewhere in the city, Montréal's physical plant has benefited from its hard economic times since the 1970s, when it lost its place as Canada's pre-eminent city to Toronto.

At least in part because "inexorable" progress passed it by when the Anglo money fled down the 401 from the separatists, Montréal is a city of old stone and old dreams. Just as much of its core is composed of independent shops and restaurants, of small grocery stores and the ubiquitous Dépanneurs, whose tricycle delivery carts still trundle along making deliveries of groceries and beer and (no doubt) of cigarettes in the local neighbourhoods, so too are its buildings a marvellously motley collection of outdoor staircases and roccocco turrets, of sandstone and granite and brick, of tin roofs and slate.

A park just off St-Denis, image by yours truly.

And with the diversity (or due to it) is the constant reminder that Montréal was a true city a couple of centuries ago, dense and compact, squeezing in as many people as the extant technology (and financing would allow) and that that technical limit happened to create the sort of density I believe (thank you, Jane Jacobs) makes for an ideal urban environment. Dense enough for efficiency, but small enough to permit people on the same block to recognize one another, to develop a sense of community.

And everyone close enough to the street that it is not easy for crime to take over, there isn't enough anonymity.

Long story short, though there are few trees, the streets in the near east end of Montréal are things of beauty and (yes, if you're wondering), I would be o! so happy to return.

And a mountain pierces her heart

Speaking of beauty, on Sunday Raven was determined to show me one of Montréal's landmarks, one I had somehow never seen for myself, that in truth was nothing more than a name to me — Saint Joseph's Oratory. I was determined to show her the Plateau and Mont Royal, which burst from the centre of the city like, well, like the small mountain that it is, breaking up the city's grid and imposing a rural heart upon the urban body.

I convinced Raven we should walk to the Oratory. I probably wouldn't have made the argument had I realized just how far from us our destination was. We're both glad that in my ignorance, I convinced her to make the attempt.

So it was that we bundled ourselves against the early winter cold and dusting of snow and set out north, up steep St. Hubert until we came to wide Sherbrooke, where we turned west and into the wind and blowing snow.

Climbing Mount Royal. Photo by The Phantom Photographer.
An alley on the Plateau. Image by The Phantom Photographer.

We were cold, but not too cold. Exhilarated, Glove-in-glove, but stopping to take pictures (especially Raven) nevertheless.

And Christ-a'-mighty! but it seemed that every street and alley had new surprises, new variations on a theme of a-utilitarian beauty to show us. Ornate cornices, turrets and bright paint-jobs. Wrought iron staircases, old stone-work well-maintained and, of course, the looming Mountain growing ever-larger as we approached it through the blowing snow.

I won't bore you with the beauty of the Parc. At least, I'll try not to; it takes a poet to do so without boring their readers and I know poetry is not my strength.

But I will say that Montréal is not a green city. It's narrow streets, with their side-walk abutting buildings leave little room for trees or lawns. So the sheer expanse and relative wildness of Mont Royal rising above the urban centre comes as even more of a shock than it otherwise might. Mont Royal is a dominant park, always a presence in the city below it, a land-mark and beacon.

It's also a hell of a climb to reach the top, and so all the more satisfying because of it.

We rested awhile at the summit then, wondering among one another how far we had yet to go, for the second time that afternoon, a stranger started talking to us, and provided directions to The Oratory.

This phenomenon of talking to strangers is another characteristic of Montréal I had nearly forgotten. In other cities, your first response to being approached by a stranger is a cautious recoil, a low-level flight-or-fight preparation. It is a response one ought to unlearn when in Montréal, or at least, to set to a lower threat-level.

People talk to each other hear, they strike up conversations with strangers just to be friendly. To offer help, to pass the time of day, whatever. It happened to us three or four times in the two days we were in town, possibly as often as in the entire time I've been in Ottawa.

Anyway, the Oratory was quite a bit further than we (or at least, than I, had figured), but Raven was game to carry on, and so was I. We passed over the crest of the Mountain and trundled alongside an enormous cemetery to reach the near West Island.

Wealthier, newer, uglier. More chain stores in view, fewer small independent shops. If even I return to Montréal, I know which side of the Island on which I will want to live, and it will be French-speaking.

But never mind politics. There was beauty on the West of the mountain, too, and the heart of a Saint.

The Saints of Montréal

Saint Joseph's Oratory, photo by The Phantom Photographer.

For decades now, I've said that my dream vacation (one of them; the Arctic in winter is another) would be to do a tour of European Gothic cathedrals. The accidental fractal scale of those buildings, even in pictures, nearly makes me weep with joy at the sight of such beauty.

But a building needn't trip with age to move me, nor be festooned with filigrees and gargoyles, much as I love them. The grand hall of Douglas Cardinal's Museum of Civilization in Gatineau manages to evoke that same sense of awe as do cathedrals such as Montréal's Notre Dame — and as the much more modernist Oratory.

Accidental ghost, with the preserved heart of Brother (now Saint) André. Photo by The Phantom Photographer.
Montréal's other saint (no, not me!, but Guy! Image by The Phantom Photographer.

In truth, I've seldom if ever seen such sublime use of plain concrete and blocks. As churches are meant to do, the Oratory is a joyful, uplifting celebration of Life, symbolized in this case of course, by the Christian sky god.

As that last expression might suggest, I usually feel a bit like an intruder in any church, non-believer that I am. Tourist destination it may be, but Saint Joseph's Oratory is also a working church, where believers come to kneel and to pray, to make offerings and to be healed by the miracles of its namesake saint. (Raven told me that in summer supplicants climb the long stairs to the Church upon their knees. But I digress.) In such places I find myself at once scornful of beliefs I find ludicrous but at the same time my own scorn makes me feel that my very presence is an insult.

So when we came upon the preserved heart of Brother (Saint) André, how could we not take a photo? We were tourists in an alien world (and my appearance in the glass was, honestly, an accident).

Beauty, beauty, beauty ...

We eventually left the Oratory and walked until we came to a Metro station, which led to more pointless beauty below ground. Every Metro station in Montréal is different, with walls tiled or bricked, painted or patterned; even underground, a Montréaler can expect to have his or her eyes stimulated and entertained.

I think I should stop now. If I sound like I have re-discovered a lost love, I suppose it's because I have. I had come to love Toronto's own utilitarian virtues, but I had forgotten just what a powerful virtue it is to live with beauty for beauty's sake.

Enough. I neglect my (utilitarian) duties and must return to my labours.

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