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The Pinnacle of Human Cuisine: Poutine

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We figured that Quebec’s food scene would be strongly rooted in the fine culinary traditions of France. And to a point, it is. You can certainly find French-style bistros and boulangeries in Montreal, as well as market stalls offering a selection of pates and cheeses. But the dish for which Quebec is most known definitely does not hail from France. No, this is a New World invention, through-and-through. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet poutine.

In case you aren’t familiar with Quebec’s contribution to world cuisine, allow us to describe the classic poutine: a pile of French fries, topped with cheese curds, and covered in thick gravy. This is the basic version, although there are countless variations on the theme, including Italian (with bolognesa sauce), Chinese (with black bean sauce and tofu), and Pizza Poutine (with mozzarella). We’ve had Japanese-style poutine, smoked meat poutine, and sweet potato poutine. “Potatoes, sauce and cheese” is a base which lends itself well to improvisation.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that poutine is at least partially derived from French cooking. I mean, it uses French fries. And thick gravy is a common feature of French cuisine. And many of Montreal’s poutines use a red-wine based gravy… ooh-la-la! And, yes, the topping might be cheese curds, but still: cheese. Cheese equals French.

Jürgen and I have eaten in roughly 0.04% of the restaurants which serve poutine in Montreal, totally qualifying us to judge which is the best. The top poutine we had was at a restaurant called Poutineville, on Rue Ontario close to the Parc La Fontaine. That name sounds like a joke, but this really was excellent poutine, with the richest gravy, and crispiest chunks of potato. I ordered a Greek Poutine, with feta cheese and gyro meat, and it was incredible.

But we’re not exactly experts; we ordered poutine maybe half-a-dozen times. This simply isn’t a plate you’ll want to consume daily, unless you’re a serious slob. There’s nothing healthy about poutine, and usually, after finishing a serving, I feel bloated and gross for the rest of the day. But once in awhile, a big, slopping plate of gravy-drenched, cheese-topped potatoes sounds too good to pass up.

Location of Poutineville

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June 28, 2016 at 8:45 pm Comments (0)

Saint-Louis Square and Rue Prince-Arthur

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Like most cities, Montreal can be ugly and noisy, with its constant construction, heavy traffic, plain gray skyscrapers, chain restaurants, and cloudy days. But it can also be surprisingly beautiful… and nowhere is that more apparent than around Saint-Louis Square, in the neighborhood of the Plateau.

One way to approach Saint-Louis Square is along Rue Prince-Arthur, a pedestrian street that leads from Boulevard Saint-Laurent. This used to be considered one of the top streets in Montreal for dining and nightlife, but its fortunes have taken a downward swing in recent years. It was cool, then gentrified, then known as a tourist trap, then avoided even by tourists, and today most of its buildings are vacant. And all this happened within a couple decades.

Square Sainte Louis Motreal

Today, walking down Prince-Arthur isn’t going to make you swoon with delight, but it’s interesting to see the potential for growth which Montreal still has. I mean, there’s no reason that this pedestrian street, right in the middle of such a cool neighborhood, shouldn’t be able to succeed. I have a feeling that the next phase in Prince-Arthur’s story is coming soon: post-gentrification-regentrification. Savvy investors, get in now!

If Rue Prince-Arthur’s atmosphere is one of lost glory, Saint-Louis Square’s is one of enduring charm. This is possibly the single loveliest square we’ve seen in Montreal. A small park filled with towering trees and crowned with an elegant central fountain, Saint-Louis is surrounded by stone Victorian-style homes with polygonal turrets and brightly-colored friezes.

We’d been in this area numerous times before, whether walking down St. Laurent, getting a drink in the Latin Quarter, or relaxing in the nearby La Fontaine Park. But somehow, we’d never stumbled upon Saint-Louis Square. It feels deliberately tucked away, not quite on any of the main thoroughfares. But it’s worth seeking out, especially if the constant noise and grime of downtown Montreal are getting you down. Grab a coffee and a book, and find a bench; a few minutes in Saint-Louis Square will make you feel better about the city.

Location on our Map

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June 27, 2016 at 9:20 pm Comments (0)

The Mont Royal Tam-Tam Festival

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Every Sunday, a curious gathering takes place on the slopes of Mont Royal, near the statue of Sir George-Étienne Cartier. Men and women bring their tam-tams, grab a seat, and spend the entire afternoon pounding out impromptu rhythms, smoking and dancing. You might be thinking, “This sounds like it’d be popular with hippies.” And you would be right.

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We showed up to the Tam-Tam Festival on a sunny afternoon, partly expecting to hate it. Not that we have anything against tam-tams; we’re just not the kinds of guys who “feel” this particular beat. There was absolutely zero chance of us hearing the bongo, and being overtaken by the primal desire to shake our bodies to the rhythm. There was, on the other hand, a very good chance we’d spend the day making fun of those who did.

The festival was everything we hoped and feared it would be. Think dreadlocks, hacky sacks, marijuana and barefoot dancing. But it was also much more fun than we expected, and we had soon dropped our snarky attitudes. Everyone was hanging out with friends, playing games, smoking, drinking and dancing, and there was a great energy to the whole event.

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Oh god, a “great energy?” I’ve been infected! But I mean it, man, there must be something about the rhythm of the tam-tam. After a few minutes of laying on the grass, with the sun warming my face, I kicked off my shoes. I could feel something inside me (was it my ka?) itching to get out and dance. In a delirious semi-trance, I shimmied over to the biggest group of drummers, and jumped into the middle of the circle, twirling and howling like a wolf.

Alright, that’s a total lie. Like I said, there was zero chance of such a thing happening. I did, however, spend almost an entire hour watching others dance, and could have happily stayed for even longer. The dance area had its own complex ecosystem, and it was fascinating to watch it evolve. There were cute girls hopping about, older hippies who still had enough energy to spin, guys doing strange movements with their arms as though they were trying to tell an epic story, and at least one shirtless creep flirting shamelessly with every woman in striking distance. And the drummers were just as fun to watch: a mix of every conceivable type of person. Tam-tam playing apparently doesn’t discriminate on age, gender or race (… or ability).

We had expected to show up, take a few pictures and leave this hippie-fest in a matter of minutes. But we ended up spending most of the day here, and were immediately talking about returning the next week. Our time in Montreal was coming to a close, but we still had one Sunday left, and spending it at the Tam-Tam Festival seemed a smart way to use it.

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June 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm Comments (0)

The View from Place Ville-Marie

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Built in 1962, the Place Ville-Marie was Montreal’s first skyscraper, and signaled the start of the city’s vertical construction boom. Its unique cruciform shape made an immediate architectural splash, and the building is just as impressive today. We visited its 46th-floor observation deck, shortly after it had re-opened to the public, following a period of renovation.

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If downtown Montreal could be said to have a heart, it would almost certainly be the Place Ville-Marie, the city’s most distinctive architectural landmark. Seen from above, its cruciform shape even resembles a big “X” marking Montreal on the map. The building is right in the center of the main business district and borders the massive downtown cathedral: Mary, Queen of the World.

At the time of its construction, the Place Ville-Marie was one of the tallest buildings in the world, and helped cement Montreal’s status as the metropolis of Canada. It has been the headquarters for major companies like Air Canada and the Royal Bank, and around 10,000 people work there today. The building’s height is 188 meters, making it slightly smaller than Mont Royal; a city ordinance prohibits buildings from surpassing the mountain in height.

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We visited the Place Ville-Marie’s brand new, 46th-floor observation deck, just after it opened. From the top of this tower, one of the highest and most central buildings in Montreal, the view was predictably incredible. We were able to spot many of the parks and sights we’d spent time at over the course of our 91 days in the city, and Mont Royal looked especially impressive from here. And the full-sized glass windows provide incredible panoramas of Montreal from every direction.

An interactive exhibition on the 45th floor introduces some aspects of Montreal’s culture and heritage, from its hockey obsession to its famous nightlife, and a restaurant on the 44th floor serves up dinner with a view. But it’s the observatory where you’re likely to spend the most time; from up here, Montreal is absolutely stunning.

Location on our Map
Place Ville-Marie – Website

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June 26, 2016 at 11:49 pm Comments (0)

The Islands: Île Sainte-Hélène

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Visible across from the Old Port of Montreal, Île Sainte-Hélène is home to the Jean-Drapeau Park, and many of Montreal’s favorite summertime activities. With nature trails, weekend festivals, an amusement park and a pool, not to mention the Biosphère, there’s plenty to on the island. We spent the day there, and made sure to swing by the Stewart Museum, located in an old British fort and dedicated to the history of Montreal.

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Although its sister island, the Île Notre-Dame, was artificially created in the 1960s, Île Sainte-Hélène has been a part of Montreal’s history since the very beginning. It was named after the wife of Samuel de Champlain, who “discovered” it in 1611. Sainte-Hélène was private property until 1818, when it was purchased by the British government for defensive purposes. After the War of 1812, the Brits had feared an American invasion and wanted a fort to protect Montreal. The invasion never came, and today the Fort de l’Île Sainte-Hélène is the site of the Stewart Museum.

We’ve talked before about the ridiculous number of museums which Montreal has dedicated to its own history… and the Stewart Museum is yet another. We breezed through it, as the exhibits were largely similar to those we’d seen in the city’s other history museums. But it’s not a bad museum, by any means, and if you’re new to Montreal’s history, you should enjoy it.

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The Stewart Museum is just one of many things to see and do on the Île Sainte-Hélène. This is also where you’ll find the Biosphère, the popular municipal pool and Alexander Kalder’s 1967 giant metal sculpture entitled “Man.” Visible from Montreal, this sculpture is the scene of the Piknic Festival, which is a weekly electronic music event held every Sunday of the summer.

There’s also a network of trails which snake through some attractive woods. We followed one at random, and ended up at the Tour de Lévis, built in 1930 as a water tower. Normally, you can climb to the top of the tower for a view over the park, but it was closed during our visit.

From the tower, it was just a few more minutes to walk to the gates of La Ronde, Montreal’s Six Flags amusement park. But it had already been a long day, and we weren’t about to drop $64 apiece on tickets, so we took a rain check on the roller coasters, and headed down to the ferry station. Île Sainte-Hélène is also served by the metro, but during the summer, it’s more enjoyable to take the express ferry that runs between the island and the Old Port.

Locations on our Map: Jean-Drapeau Metro Station | Stewart Museum | Tour de Lévis | Man Statue / Piknic Festival | Ferry Station
Stewart Museum – Website

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June 26, 2016 at 10:37 pm Comments (0)

The Islands: Île Notre-Dame

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An artificial island created for the 1967 World Expo, the Île Notre-Dame is found in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The Notre-Dame and its sister island, the Île Sainte-Hélène, together make up the Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is among Montreal’s most popular summertime hangout areas.

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Jean Drapeau was the mayor of Montreal for nearly three decades, and presided over some of the city’s most exciting years. In the 1960s, during his second term, he brought a World Expo to town, and initiated the underground metro system. The rocks and dirt unearthed during excavations for the metro were used to create an artificial island along the side of the existing Île Sainte-Hélène. The park which spans the two islands was named in his honor in 1999.

For the Expo, more than sixty nations built pavilions on the two islands. Although most of them have since been demolished, a few of Notre-Dame’s pavilions have survived into the present day: the Montreal Casino is housed inside the former pavilions of France and Quebec, while both the small Jamaican Pavilion and its much-larger Canadian counterpart (known as The Tundra) can be rented for weddings and special events.

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The Île Notre-Dame was also a venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics, when a giant two-kilometer rowing basin was carved into the land: still the largest artificial rowing basin in North America. And the island is also home to the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit, which has been the scene for the Formula One’s Grand Prix of Canada since 1978. For most of the year, this 4.7-kilometer track is open to the public, and its flat, smooth surface is popular with bikers and rollerbladers as well as motorists who want the thrill of completing the same loop as their favorite racers (although, because of the bikes and pedestrians sharing the track, thrills are restricted to 20 mph).

Most of the people who visit the Île Notre-Dame, however, aren’t here for the rowing basin or to take a lap around the F1 circuit: they’ve come either to gamble or to tan. We’ve already written about Montreal’s fantastic casino, but also popular is the Jean-Doré Beach, which opens in the summer months. The beach consists of a decent stretch of sand next to an inland lake, whose water is apparently clean enough to swim in. For Montreal’s heat-exhausted citizens, it’s as good a “day at the beach” as they’re going to get.

Locations on our Map: Canadian Pavilion | Olympic Basin | Jean-Doré Beach

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June 26, 2016 at 3:21 pm Comments (0)

The Mansions of the Golden Mile

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There’s nothing rich people enjoy more than lording it over the rest of us, especially when they can do so literally. Montreal began life as a provincial fur-trading village, but as it grew in wealth and prestige, the richest and most powerful members of society started to build fabulous mansions on the slopes of Mont Royal, in a neighborhood which would eventually be coined the “Golden Square Mile.”

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The Golden Square Mile is found north of downtown, between Rue Sherbrooke and Mont Royal. The neighborhood’s fortunes have mirrored those of the city; when Montreal was a wealthy industrial powerhouse, roughly between 1850 and 1930, the Golden Square Mile was grand beyond belief. But after the Great Depression, WWII and the ensuing deindustrialization, Montreal lost much of its prestige, and its Golden Mile was hit hard. Today, less than 30% of the neighborhood’s original mansions have survived.

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Luckily, there’s still plenty to see. We walked up Rue Peel, and explored the roads which lead onto the mountain. Streets like the Avenue des Pins and Docteur-Penfield are studded with one magnificent residence after the other. Most of the homes are built with stone (sandstone or granite), and designed in a wide variety of styles, from Gothic to Romanesque.

Some of the best houses are found on a circular road called Redpath Crescent, which is about as high up the hill as it’s possible to build. Each building on this street is unique, and each enjoys a fabulous view over the city. We noticed one stately manor with a “For Sale” sign, and let out a sigh. We’re starting to accept that we’ll never be able to afford such a place. Youthful hope has been replaced in our hearts with resigned envy. And that’s okay. It had to happen at some point.

Location of Redpath Crescent on our Map

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June 26, 2016 at 12:52 pm Comments (0)

McGill University and the Redpath Museum

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Founded in 1821 on a royal charter from King George IV, McGill is today considered to be Canada’s leading university. Its original, downtown campus located at the foot of Mont Royal is a thing of beauty, and among its Victorian-era buildings, you’ll find the Redpath Museum of Natural History.

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McGill University has an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students, roughly half of whom are from Quebec. Twelve Nobel laureates studied here, as well as three of Canada’s prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau. Oh, and William Shatner. McGill is Canada’s most prestigious place of higher learning, and its incoming students have the highest average test scores of any school in the country. The school is primarily English-speaking, although students are expected to have a working knowledge of French.

Living in Montreal, it’s impossible to escape the shadow of McGill University. Its facilities are spread throughout the city, and its alumni seem to have their hands in everything. In most museums we visit, we read about discoveries made by McGill researchers, studies initiated by McGill teams, theories offered by McGill professors, etc. Habitat 67 was the master’s thesis of McGill student Moshe Safdie. Arcade Fire met while studying at McGill. And the drunk kids shouting and laughing outside our apartment every Thursday night at 3am are almost certainly McGill undergrads — in addition to its sterling academic reputation, McGill is known as a party school.

Since we’d heard so much about it, we figured we should at least see the campus. Located between Sherbrooke Ave and Mont Royal, and bounded on the east and west by Rue University and Peel, McGill’s main campus is gorgeous, with old limestone school buildings and small grassy parks where you’ll almost always see students studying or taking naps. The Royal Victorian Hospital has recently moved to a more modern facility, but its former home, a Gothic building on the foot of Mont Royal, is now part of McGill.

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It’d be fun to explore all these old buildings, but we limited ourselves to one: the Redpath Museum of Natural History. This museum dates from 1882, and features exhibits that range from fossils and minerals to anthropological items from around the world. The centerpiece of the collection of the full skeleton of a Gorgosaurus. But the best part of the Redpath Museum is the atmosphere of the building in which it’s housed. It looks exactly how you’d expect an “ancient university library” to look, with the scintillating layers of dust and mystery that go along with it. While examining the exhibits, I kept expecting some old professor to suddenly appear and slam shut one of the cabinets, admonishing me not to look inside. “You may examine any of the cabinets, but not this one!”

The Redpath Museum is free to visit, although they do suggest a small donation to keep the museum going. And obviously, the campus is free to visit as well. Both are well worth seeing during your time in Montreal.

Locations on our Map: McGill Campus Main Entrance | Redpath Museum

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June 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm Comments (0)

The Woods of Île Bizard

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A small island found just off the foot of Montreal, Île Bizard is named after one of New France’s original settlers, Jacques Bizard. The island has been largely spared from over-development, and a healthy percentage of it is today protected in the Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard Nature Park. We spent a beautiful summer day there, exploring the park’s diverse ecosystems, which include swampland, plains and forest.

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Montreal might be a big, dirty city, but you don’t have to travel far to escape into nature. While we were walking through the woods of Île Bizard, it seemed surreal that just forty minutes ago, we had been moaning about the noise and construction in our neighborhood. Here, the only sounds we encountered were those of birds and bullfrogs.

The various trails in the Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard permit a hike of about two hours, though you can make this much shorter if you just stick to the main path. The crown jewel of the park is a gorgeous marshland, which a long wooden bridge will take you across. We paused here for a few minutes, remaining quiet to better appreciate the scene. The bullfrogs were putting on a concert, surrounding us with the strange music of their calls, like muted plucks on a slightly-flat guitar.

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Past the marsh, the park remains just as peaceful, if somewhat less spectacular. I wasn’t complaining though — after spending too much time in downtown Montreal, a quiet walk through the woods with sunlight filtering through the branches feels like a revelation. We continued along the path until reaching the northeastern point of the island, where the Prairies River meets Île Brigas and forms some minor rapids.

Although you can reach Île Bizard with public transportation, it’s a lot easier to get here if you have a car. But as far as escapes from Montreal go, this is probably one of the closest and most beautiful options.

Location on our Map

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June 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm Comments (0)

The Exporail Train Museum

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Found in an old maintenance yard near Canada’s first railway line, the Exporail Museum introduces visitors to some of the country’s earliest trains. With dozens of refurbished models, many of which you can enter and explore, exhibitions and movies about the railway culture, and even a miniature train which you can ride, this is a much more impressive museum than we had been expecting.

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Our low expectations were due to the museum’s promotional materials, which feature grinning toddlers and slogans like “Awaken Your Inner Child!” We had the distinct impression that the Exporail was primarily a museum for kids, but that’s not really the case. Kids are going to love it, of course, but the exhibits are equally geared to adults, with in-depth descriptions on each of the trains and overviews on technical topics such as how steam engines work.

In the main exhibition hall, the Angus Pavilion, there are twelve maintenance tracks that hold around forty refurbished trains, each one representing a different era or function. Starting at the far end of the shed, you see some of the trams that crisscrossed the city between 1892 and 1959, including “the Rocket”, which was Montreal’s first electric car, as well as an open-roofed “observation car” designed for sight-seeing trips.

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As you weave around the tracks, the exhibition moves into the golden age of rail, during Canada’s push to the Pacific, when lines like Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific were offering luxury trips across the country. We loved the giant rotary snowplow car, which could handle even the deepest snows with its spinning blade, as well as the “School Car,” which brought its ambulatory classroom to remote communities in northern Ontario. All of the trains have been freshly painted, and are in wonderful condition.

The Angus Pavilion is the biggest section in the museum, but there’s a lot more to see on the rest of the grounds. Montreal’s last tram is still in service at the Exporail, and runs a loop around the premises. The first stop is at a miniature model train — this attraction is designed for children, but that didn’t stop Jürgen and me from hopping aboard and enjoying a five-minute ride through the woods. Other areas in the Exporail include an old ticket booth, and another large maintenance shed filled with refurbished railway cars.

We had planned for our visit to the Exporail to be a quick one, but ended up spending hours here; there was simply too much to see. If you don’t have a car, you can easily reach the museum with the commuter rail: it’s nearby station Saint-Constant, on the Candiac line which starts at Gare Lucien-L’Allier. And really, arriving at this museum by way of train is probably the correct way to do it.

Location on our Map
Exporail – Website

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June 24, 2016 at 9:58 pm Comments (0)

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The Pinnacle of Human Cuisine: Poutine We figured that Quebec's food scene would be strongly rooted in the fine culinary traditions of France. And to a point, it is. You can certainly find French-style bistros and boulangeries in Montreal, as well as market stalls offering a selection of pates and cheeses. But the dish for which Quebec is most known definitely does not hail from France. No, this is a New World invention, through-and-through. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet poutine.
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