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Boulevard Saint Laurent, aka “The Main”

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Cutting straight across the Island of Montreal, Boulevard Saint Laurent is considered to be the dividing line between the city’s French-speaking half on the east, and the English half to the west. Known colloquially as “The Main,” the neighborhoods which line themselves along the boulevard, from north to south, are home to various populations of immigrants.

Boulevard Saint Laurent

The Main’s total length is over ten kilometers, and walking the entire distance would take most of a day, so we decided to check out about half of it, starting at Rosemont Avenue and heading south.

The neighborhoods on the western side of Saint Laurent have historically been English, while those to the east have been French-speaking. Given the strife between the city’s two factions, Saint Laurent has taken on significant symbolic meaning as the “line” which divides them. And in the middle of all this drama have been the immigrants, waves of whom have settled along the Main… Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, and more.

Not only does Saint Laurent serve as a handy metaphor for Montreal’s bipolar nature, it’s also the literal dividing line between east and west. From here, the building numbers start at zero, and street names are appended with “East” or “West.” This means that, in Montreal, it’s not sufficient to say “2100 Rue Ste-Catherine,” because 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Oest is on the opposite side of the city from 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Est.

Boulevard Saint Laurent

During our walk down Saint Laurent Boulevard, we came to appreciate the extent of Montreal’s street art scene. We almost couldn’t find a wall that hadn’t been beautified with some grand-scale painting. At the Gallery Espace Go, an entire passageway has been converted into a single black-and-white work. Most of the paintings were of high quality, and look like they were commissioned. In fact, there’s a summer festival during which artists from around the world are invited to paint on St. Laurent’s walls.

From graffiti to more traditional forms of art, Montreal’s commitment to culture is evident on the boulevard. We passed a ton of galleries, and even the regular shops seemed somehow more artsy than normal. Whether you’re selling furniture, clothes or books, I guess you need some artistic sensibility to fit in here. Even the butcher shop, the Boucherie Lawrence, was the hippest butcher shop we’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t feel remotely cool enough to buy meat there. They’d be able to sense that I was planning on making something pedestrian, like hamburgers. “Out, you clean-shaven yuppie! Our beef is not for the likes of you!”

Boulevard Saint Laurent

But even more than the shopping, we appreciated the variety of food available on Saint Laurent, which truly reflects the boulevard’s diversity. Bagel shops and delis, fine Portuguese and Spanish restaurants, Irish pubs, Caribbean grills, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Greek and more. And I’m pretty sure all of them were serving some sort of twist on poutine.

By the time we had passed through Chinatown and reached the old port, we had been walking for hours, and felt like we’d seen the perfect cross-section of Montreal. And we had restricted ourselves to a single street! But of course, Boulevard Saint Laurent isn’t just a street like any other… few in the world have as much character and history.

Location of the Start of our Walk
Blvd St. Laurent – Website

Another City With Great Street Art: VALENCIA

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May 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm Comments (2)

Godspeed You, Montreal Music Scene

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As we were walking through the Underground City, near the Place des Arts, I spied a poster out of the corner of my eye. Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be playing in a couple days. They’ve long been one of my favorite bands, and I had completely forgotten they were from Montreal. Before Jürgen had a chance to protest, I raced over to the counter and scored us a couple tickets.

For years, I’ve wanted to hear GY!BE’s soaring, orchestral music in a live setting and the show, held in the Théâtre Maisonneuve, was as great as I had hoped it would be. The band teamed up with award-winning local dance troupe Holy Body Tattoo for a performance called Monumental. It was an inspired combo: GY!BE’s droning and emotionally-exhausting music paired with an intense, bizarre and brutally physical dance, which seemed to be about the insecurities and frustrations of modern life.

Montreal is famous for its indie music, but I hadn’t realized just how big the scene is. A couple days after the GY!BE show, I looked up “Bands from Montreal,” and was stunned by the list. It was like scrolling through my music library… a shocking percentage of bands I listen to come from this city. There’s Majical Cloudz, Ought, Patrick Watson and Tim Hecker. Remember the Unicorns and the Stills? And more recent acts include Half Moon Run, oddball Max DeMarco and Grimes, whose Art Angels was one of 2015’s best albums.

And Wolf Parade! They’re a band I’ve been deeply in love with for a decade, and who I’ve followed through all their various side projects: Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, Sunset Rubdown and Moonface. Also, did you know Leonard Cohen was from Montreal? I didn’t! But this godfather of indie rock was born in Westmount, an affluent English-speaking neighborhood of the city.

Haha, I made it the fifth paragraph of an article about Montreal’s music scene, and still haven’t mentioned Arcade Fire. Easily the city’s most successful musical export, Arcade Fire have released one critically-acclaimed album after another, and have become one of the world’s most popular (and best) rock bands.

What is it about this city that produces such great music? Our theory has to do with the long winters. It’s an idea we first developed while in Iceland, another place with an outsized music scene. When you’re looking forward to long months of uninterrupted cold and snow, there’s nothing better to do than get together in a garage and create something.

Here’s a collection of videos featuring some of our favorite Montreal artists, and some we’re looking forward to discovering. Have we overlooked any of your favorites? What about some of the city’s French acts? As English-speakers, we’re naturally more familiar with the English-speaking bands, but there’s also a lot of great Montreal music being made in French.

Framed Photos From Montreal

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April 25, 2016 at 7:38 pm Comments (3)

A Concise History of Montreal

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Five hundred years ago, Western civilization didn’t even know about the existence of Montreal Island. The Renaissance was just winding down in Europe, as the first wooden houses were being erected in a settlement called Ville-Marie. So, in order to evolve into a modern-day metropolis, Montreal has had to cram a lot into its short history. Here’s a brief rundown of the highlights.

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2000 BC The first traces of human activity on the island of Montreal, including stone tools and evidence of campfires, date from about four thousand years ago. Before that, the island had been under the water level of the St. Lawrence River.
1142 The Iroquois form a powerful confederation. They and the Algonquin are the earliest settlers of Montreal, and each has a different name for it. The Iroquois call it Tiohtià:ke, while in the language of the Algonquin, the island is known as Moniang.
1535 The Island of Montreal is discovered for France by explorer Jacques Cartier, during his trip down the St. Lawrence River. He reports the presence of a large Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga at the base of Mont Royal.
1642 The first families arrive from France and establish a settlement called Ville-Marie (it’s uncertain when the name changed to Montreal). Although the Iroquois had abandoned the island by this time, the settlers are under constant attack from the Mohawk, who had been using it for hunting.
1701 Over 1300 Native Americans representing 40 tribes descend upon Montreal to sign a treaty known as the Great Peace and bring the Fur Wars to a close. The treaty is unique in relations with Native Americans, and most Canadian tribes consider it still active.
1760 As a result of the Seven Years War, France loses its North American territory. Montreal, along with Quebec, is ceded to the British. The island sees an upswing in immigration from Britain; by 1830, Anglophones outnumber French-speakers in Montreal.
1849 Tensions between the Crown and the independence movement finally boil over, as an angry band of rioters burns down parliament. Montreal’s short five-year period as the capital of Canada are over, and the government is moved to Ottawa. Alarmed English-speakers begin an exodus, and Montreal again becomes a majority Francophone city.
1920s Prohibition in the USA turns Montreal into a hot party-town. Nightclubs, casinos, bars, cabaret shows and strip joints gain prominence, as Montreal cuts loose to enjoy the roaring Twenties.
1960s Liberal leadership of Montreal brings about what has been called the city’s Quiet Revolution, transferring power to the people and secularizing society. The metro is introduced, utilities are nationalized, the welfare system is expanded, and the French-speaking population of the city begins to exert its influence.
1967 Montreal introduces itself to the world with the wildly successful Expo 67, which is timed to coincide with Canada’s centennial. Just nine years later, Montreal hosts the ’76 Summer Olympics, perhaps best remembered for the perfection of Romanian gymnast Nadia Com?neci.
1970 The Front de Libération du Québec sparks the October Crisis by assassinating Pierre Laporte, a member of Parliament, and kidnapping James Cross, a British diplomat. Canada sends special forces into Montreal, in its only domestic deployment of troops during peacetime, and order is soon restored.
1995 Quebec holds a nail-biting referendum on secession, which fails to pass by the slimmest of margins: just 50.58% of the province chooses to stick with Canada. The first referendum, in 1980, had been defeated by a more comfortable margin.
2016 and beyond… In December, Montreal celebrates its 375 birthday. The city has become a recognized leader in the arts, with a summer program full of events, including the world’s biggest jazz and comedy festivals. With its multilingual and cosmopolitan residents leading the way, Montreal seems certain to continue building on its status as one of North America’s most vibrant cities.
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April 23, 2016 at 9:34 pm Comments (0)

Le Centre d’histoire de Montréal

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If your thirst for history isn’t quenched after visiting the Archaeology and History Complex Pointe-à-Callière, then walk a few dozen meters down the Place d’Youville and into the Montreal History Center. I’m not sure we’ve visited another city which has two history museums in such close proximity to each other, let alone two as impressive as these.

Le Centre dHistorie de Montréal

The Pointe-à-Callière is the larger and more memorable of the two museums, but the History Center has a lot to recommend it as well, including the fact that it’s much cheaper. The museum occupies the old red-brick building of the Central Fire Station, which closed in 1972.

The permanent exhibition, found on the bottom floor, takes visitors on a well-organized tour through the centuries. Whereas the Pointe-à-Callière focused on the archaeology, here the emphasis is on the people of Montreal. A series of exhibits allows you to “meet” the different groups who have come to the island, from the Iroquois, English and French, to immigrants from Ireland and even a modern family from Chile.

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We also liked the short videos that accompanied every epoch of Montreal’s history. Using maps and old photographs, these demonstrated in a chronological fashion how the city has grown from its earliest days behind fortified walls, to the installation of tramways and metro lines, and its eventual expansion over the entire island.

On its upper floors, the History Center hosts temporary exhibits, most of which are probably pretty good, if the one we saw is any indication. The exhibition titled “Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal, 1940-1960” introduced us to the city’s famously seedy side. Underground gay clubs, secret casinos, Mafia bosses gunned down in broad daylight and a notoriously corrupt police force? I want to hear more about this Montreal!

Location on our Map
Centre d’histoire de Montréal – Website

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April 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm Comment (1)

The Underground City

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A vast network of tunnels leading to practically all of downtown Montreal’s shopping malls, food courts, office buildings, metro stations, museums and theaters, the so-called Underground City enables people to get around without ever having to step foot outside. And in this city, that can often be a real life-saver.

Montreal Underground City

When we arrived in early April, we expected to occasionally make use of the Underground City. But we hadn’t expected to depend upon it. On our second full day in Montreal, the city experienced a vicious cold snap, which sent temperatures plummeting below freezing and dumped inches of snow onto the streets.

Now, Jürgen and I might be from northern climes (he’s from Germany, and I grew up in northern Minnesota) but there’s a reason we chose Valencia, Spain as our permanent base. And that reason is: we don’t like the cold. The last time we saw snow was four years ago, and it’s not some kind of wild coincidence. We arrange things like that! So when this April storm hit, it was a surprise, and not one we appreciated. We whimpered and complained like children. We bundled up like Arctic explorers. And whenever circumstances forced us to step outside, we scampered like rats toward the nearest entrance of the Underground City.

Montreal Underground City

“Underground City” is certainly an evocative name, bringing to mind a sort of subterranean, alternative Montreal, populated perhaps by near-sighted mole-people. But the reality isn’t that exotic. Montrealers are often amused to learn that their elaborate maze of tunnels has become a bonafide tourist attraction… because that’s really all the Underground City is: tunnels which lead from one set of buildings to the next.

To long-time residents, these passageways are purely utilitarian; part of their boring, daily commute. But to newcomers like us, the Underground City is much more interesting. Many of the tunnels are decorated with art. There’s odd architecture, and an endless array of shops. The interior courtyards to which they lead are often beautiful. It’s fun to emerge from a random passageway into surroundings which are entirely new and unexpected. And the people-watching is great, especially when cold weather drives the city’s numerous crazies underground.

During the snowstorm, we dedicated an entire afternoon to the Underground City. It went something like this: Oof, it’s cold out there. Which way should we go? Check out that fountain! And there’s a piece of the Berlin Wall. And an ice-skating rink. This lobby is sweet… are we in a hotel? Can we go up these stairs? Okay, Mr. Security Guy, we get it; please calm down. The Tunnel Espresso Bar must be good, but that line is crazy. [Gasp] An entire store dedicated to board games… and there’s a comics shop! I’m gonna need an hour, Jürgen, go away. This tunnel leads from the Eaton Mall to the Cours Mont-Royal Mall. Malls interconnected to other malls: a stroke of evil genius. Oh, that poor Chinese woman is so drunk she can’t stand, should we help her? (No, Jürgen, I was joking!) How did we end up at a Barbie exhibition? Wait, I don’t believe it. Look at that poster: Godspeed You Black Emperor are playing next week. I forgot they were from Montreal. The booth is right there, I’m buying tickets. No, I shouldn’t, we’re trying to save money. Arrgh, but I have to!!!!!

If that isn’t among our most action-packed days in Montreal, I’ll be surprised.

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We made an effort, but it’s impossible to see all of the Underground City in one day. And the truth is, you wouldn’t really want to. Although we had fun during our excursion, much it was boring… mall after mall, Starbucks after Starbucks. (At least there were plenty of places to re-up on caffeine.) And while some tunnels have been beautified with art, many others are just boring old tunnels. Still, the Underground City is an impressive feat of urban engineering, which deserves to be seen. It comprises over twenty miles worth of passageways and, during winter, is used daily by over half a million people.

It seems unlikely that you wouldn’t visit the Underground City at least once during your visit to Montreal, even if you don’t realize it. But if the weather’s bad, it’s worth making an effort. Grab a map, plot a course, and dive underground to see a totally different side of Montreal.

Map of the Underground City

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April 15, 2016 at 10:54 pm Comments (3)

Let’s Go Habs!

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Established in 1909, the Montreal Canadiens are the world’s oldest still-active hockey team, as well as its most successful, having won more Stanley Cups than any other. We arrived in Montreal at the tail end of the 2015-16 campaign, and snatched up tickets for one of the final matches of the year. How could we ever claim to “know” Montreal, if we hadn’t seen the Canadiens take the ice?

Montreal Canadiens

Le Club de Hockey Canadien, as the team is officially known, was one of the “Original Six” of the NHL, but actually predates the league’s formation by eight years. It was originally part of the National Hockey Association, a small league which operated in Quebec and Ontario.

The team was founded to represent Montreal’s French population, perhaps explaining the intensity of their support. The Canadiens are an integral aspect of the city’s identity, and even when they’re playing poorly, they sell out every game. For nearly eleven years, the Centre Bell sold-out 422 consecutive matches; the streak might have continued indefinitely, but the club broke it intentionally in December 2014, to honor the passing of Jean Beliveau, who had been one of their biggest stars.

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Which brings us to the puzzle of their nickname. Throughout the match, the fans around us weren’t screaming for the “Canadiens,” but for the “Habs.” Try as we might, we couldn’t figure out what this meant. Haberdashers, because their threads are so sweet? Habaneros, because the team is so hot? We learned later that it stands for “les Habitants,” a term referring to the original French settlers of Quebec.

The weekday match we saw didn’t go well for the Habs, who went down in a humiliating 4-1 defeat to the first-place Florida Panthers. But despite their poor performance, we had a fun night at the arena, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of the fans. Consider: this was a meaningless Tuesday-night match at the end of another bad season, after the Habs had already been eliminated from playoff contention, and it was still sold out. Win or lose, the people of Montreal will support their club through seemingly anything.

The Centre Bell has been home to the Canadiens since 1996, and many old-school Montrealers blame it for the downturn in the team’s fortunes. We liked the stadium, though; it’s right downtown and has the atmosphere is incredible. Even from our seats in the very back row of the Molson Fan Zone, we were able to see all the action. And we were even able to spot Youppi, the team’s mascot… who looked immediately familiar to me. Turns out, Youppi had been the mascot of the Montreal Expos until they moved to DC. He apparently wanted to stay in Montreal, and so became the first major-league mascot to switch sports.

We had shown up well before game-time to get drinks and dinner at La Cage Aux Sports, a rollicking bar built into the Centre Bell, accessible from both inside and outside the arena. The place was packed to the gills, and we were nearly the only patrons not sporting Canadiens gear. If you want to go to La Cage, plan at least an hour to get in and eat. There’s no better way to warm up for the match than with a plate of poutine and a pitcher of Molson.

Location on our Map
Montreal Canadiens – Official Website

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April 12, 2016 at 6:09 pm Comments (2)

A Beginner’s Guide to Montreal

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The day after we arrived in Montreal, a freak snowstorm hit the city, stranding us indoors. We would have rather been outside exploring, but the bad weather provided an excuse for us to sit down and read about our new home. Here are the facts and figures that jumped out at us.

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Size: With a total population of just over four million, Montreal is the largest city in Quebec, the second-largest in Canada, and just beats out Seattle as the nineteenth-largest city in North America. Although it’s not the capital of Quebec (that would be nearby Quebec City), Montreal is the undisputed center of the province’s culture and commerce.

Layout: Montreal occupies a large island roughly in the middle of Saint Lawrence River, which connects the Northern Atlantic with Lake Ontario. In the center of this island is a large hill called Mount Royal, which provides the city with its name. The Island of Montreal is the world’s most populated fresh-water island.

History: The city was founded in 1642 by French settlers, and quickly became the center of New France’s fur trade. Before the arrival of the Europeans, it had been home to various tribes of the First Nations, the indigenous people of Canada, particularly the Iroquois and Algonquin. The British took Quebec in 1760, after the Seven Years War, and Montreal became part of Canada.

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Language: Les Montréalaise parlent Français, s’il vous plâit! But that’s not the whole story. French is definitely the dominant language in the city, but nearly 20% of residents are native English-speakers, while another 20% have another primary language (Italian, Arabic and Spanish are the most prominent, each at around 3%). Montreal is nothing if not multi-cultural, and you’ll also hear Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Vietnamese and Greek in various pockets of the city.

Economy: Montreal boasts one of the world’s largest inland ports, and has traditionally been one of North America’s main railroad cities. Canada’s largest oil refinery was based here, though it closed in 2010. Important industries today include film and television, videogames, finance and the aerospace sector.

Culture: Approximately 72% of the city’s population have at one time been a member of the Cirque du Soleil, and you can’t walk down the sidewalk without getting kicked in the face by some clown flipping around on a curtain. But the city has a lot more to offer than acrobatics, including a seemingly endless supply of theaters, concert halls, festivals and clubs. Montreal has a legendary indie music scene, and is home to both the world’s largest jazz festival, as well as its largest comedy festival.

Sports: You might be shocked to learn that the most popular sport in this Canadian city is hockey. The Montreal Canadiens have won more Stanley Cups than any other NHL team, and are massively popular… although they’re currently in the midst of a long drought. Baseball had been popular here until 2004, when the Expos moved to Washington. In 2012, Major League Soccer expanded to the city with the Impact, who have proven popular. And Montreal is also home to one of the world’s most-watched televised sporting events: the Canadian Grand Prix, held on the Island of Notre Dame.

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April 11, 2016 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)

Bonjour Montréal!

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For the sixteenth edition of our “For 91 Days” travel project, Jürgen and I chose Montreal: the second-largest city in Canada, and a multilingual hotbed of culture and the arts. We arrived at the beginning of April with no prior knowledge of the city and no expectations. So we were excited to see what Montreal had to offer us, and would be giving the city 91 days to impress us.

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Before landing in a new destination, Jürgen and I normally do a lot of research. We buy travel guides, study maps, and pore over whatever information we can dig up on the internet. By the time we arrive in our new 91-day home, we’ve usually got lists of things to do, and a basic understanding of the culture, currency, language and layout of the city or region we’re visiting. But we didn’t do any of this for Montreal.

Part of it was a lack of time. After finishing 91 days in Curaçao, we spent the next few weeks on a whirlwind tour of the USA, visiting friends in DC and San Francisco, catching up with family in Ohio, and returning to Savannah, which had been one of our first destinations. Given all this activity, we simply didn’t have a chance to read the Montreal guidebooks we had ordered. In fact, we never took them out of the box in which they’d arrived.

Another reason for our negligence was the fact that Montreal is just over the border from the US. We’re not talking about Sri Lanka or Korea, here; I didn’t need to brush up on cultural etiquette or prepare myself for any bizarre customs. I’m from the States, and Canada is my good buddy to the north. We share sports leagues and even an international dialing prefix. And so, despite never having spent any time in Montreal, I didn’t feel much need to research.

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And then we arrived in the city, and it’s like… for a long time, your good buddy has been inviting you over to his house, but you’ve never bothered, even though he lives just up the street. One day, you finally stop by, and are immediately surprised by the differences between your house and his. His parents are speaking French and there are European paintings on the walls. They have plastic bags of milk in their fridge. Everyone is so polite, and for dinner they serve you this delicious pile of french fries smothered in gravy. From now on, you’ll have a different appreciation for your buddy. The truth is, you don’t really know anyone until you hang out at their house.

So here we are, Montreal… let’s see what you’ve got. We’re excited to get to know you, and somehow sorry that it’s taken so long.

List Of Montreal Hotels

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April 10, 2016 at 8:00 pm Comments (8)

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Boulevard Saint Laurent, aka "The Main" Cutting straight across the Island of Montreal, Boulevard Saint Laurent is considered to be the dividing line between the city's French-speaking half on the east, and the English half to the west. Known colloquially as "The Main," the neighborhoods which line themselves along the boulevard, from north to south, are home to various populations of immigrants.
For 91 Days