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Walking Across the Jacques-Cartier Bridge

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Built in 1930, the Jacques Cartier Bridge connects the Island of Montreal to both the Île Sainte-Hélène and the mainland shore of Longueuil. It’s one of Canada’s busiest bridges, on which traffic comes to a standstill during rush-hour, but a separate lane for pedestrians and bikes provides an incredible view of the city’s skyline.

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Plenty of bikers use the Jacques Cartier Bridge, but we were the only walkers when we crossed on a Friday morning. It wasn’t really a surprise: crossing the bridge by foot isn’t a practical solution for people who need to get places. Its total length is almost three kilometers, and the subway is more convenient for almost every conceivable situation.

Jacques Carier Bridge Montreal

But if you’re looking for a different view of Montreal, the bridge is an excellent option. With a maximum height of 104 meters (341 feet), you’re far above the water, allowing you to look over Île Saint-Hélène, La Ronde theme park, the Molson Brewery, and across to downtown Montreal. And although the noise of the traffic is aggravating, you might find that the photo opportunities are worth it.

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June 18, 2016 at 9:58 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

Biosphere Montreal

The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

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The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

Location on our Map
Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

Habitat 67

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Perhaps the most iconic piece of architecture in Montreal is Habitat 67, designed by Israeli/Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the city’s World Expo. The brutalist interlocking system of identical concrete living cubes still seems as outlandish and visionary as it must have in 1967.

Habitat 67 is what might happen if you were to give 354 identical blocks to a six-year-old, and ask them to create a building. I’ve chosen the age “six” deliberately. A five-year-old would make a mess of it, while a seven-year-old would come up with something more classically elegant. Habitat 67 is what a six-year-old would design: weird, chaotic, and just possibly stable. (You’d look at it for half-a-second, and say something patronizing like “Wonderful, darling.” But later that night, you’d consider the structure more carefully and wonder if you don’t have a little genius on your hands.)

The 354 blocks which comprise Habitat 67 are indeed identical, although the apartments found within the building are not. There are a wide range of apartment sizes and layouts, because the blocks can be purchased together and then interconnected. Safdie’s intention was to create a model for affordable, low-income housing… but that hasn’t exactly turned out to be the case with Habitat 67. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. This bizarre structure has become a recognized architectural landmark, and the prices of its apartments are astronomical.

Habitat 67 is always visible across the river from the Old Port, and every time my eye falls upon it, I think either, “My god, is that building ugly!” or “God, it’s so cool!” We couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Standing right in front of it, we were able to verify the wealth of the people who call it home… almost every single plain gray-brown concrete block had some fancy work of art displayed in the window. As if to pronounce, “Yes, I might live in a hideous container, but look at the ostentatious art I can afford!”

If you don’t have a car, it’s not easy to reach Habitat 67; it seems close, since it’s just across the channel, but you have to walk or bike a long way before arriving. So as long as you’ve made the effort, make sure to walk around the back of the building. You’ll find a little path along a chain-link fence that eventually leads down to the river. Here, the water hits a small set of rapids, creating an ideal “standing surf” spot. It’s popular among surfers and kayakers, as it allows them to ride an endless wave.

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June 15, 2016 at 10:44 pm Comments (0)

Patriots’ Day on Mont Saint-Hilaire

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Jürgen and I are really clever guys. Check this out: while planning our hike on Mont Saint-Hilaire, we decided against going on a weekend, and instead chose a Monday. Because the mountain would be less busy. Now that’s clever! But as it turns out, Quebec was celebrating Patriots’ Day on this particular Monday. Turns out, we’re not so clever after all.

Saint Hiliare Hike

Across Canada, Victoria Day is celebrated in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday… but not in Quebec. In 1837, while Victoria was being anointed Queen of Great Britain, the people of Quebec were embroiled in a bloody rebellion against the crown. It’s not like they’re going to celebrate the enemy Queen, now. Instead, Quebec calls the holiday National Patriots’ Day, in honor of the fallen heroes of the 1837 uprising.

So everybody in Montreal had the day off, and approximately half of them decided to go hiking at Mont Saint-Hilaire. Just to get to the visitor center’s parking lot, we were stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. That’s not an exaggeration. It was beyond crowded, and made even worse by the presence of a community “fun run.” We had planned to be hiking shortly after nine, but didn’t even start until well past noon.

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It could have been so wonderful! Mont Saint-Hilaire is beautiful, and perfect for hikers. The trails are well-marked, and there are several loops you can do depending on the amount of time you have. There’s a gorgeous mountain lake (Lac Hertel), a few breathtaking viewpoints, and even charming woodland creatures (we saw two deer and a dam built by beavers). And the weather was perfect; sunny and warm, but with a steady, cool breeze drifting in.

But it’s hard to concentrate on all the beauty, when the trails are so packed with other people. When you’re constantly listening to the inane conversations of the group of college girls walking two steps behind you. When the kid ahead of you is blasting Eminem out of his backpack. When you’re getting shoulder-checked off the path by a self-important trailrunner. When you have to stand in a line before seeing the Rocky Top Viewpoint. After a couple hours on the trails, we couldn’t get back to the car quickly enough.

This is a really unfair account of the trails Mont Saint-Hilaire. The mountain is gorgeous, and we only have ourselves to blame for the misery of our excursion. We’ll let our photos show off the park’s beauty, and leave you with a warning: only visit when everyone else in Montreal is working… and don’t forget to double-check the list of local holidays.

Location on our Map
Centre de la Nature Mont Saint-Hilaire – Website

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June 15, 2016 at 9:33 pm Comments (0)

The Parc La Fontaine

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Located in the neighborhood of Plateau Mont-Royal, the Parc La Fontaine is a popular place for picnics, strolls, and laying out in the sun. This is among the city’s largest parks, at 84 acres, and on summer weekends, you’ll find nearly every square inch of it occupied.

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During the course of a normal year, Montrealers don’t get to enjoy a lot of warm weekends. So when that rare trifecta of Sunny + Summer + Weekend hits, it’s not like they’ll be content to spend the day chilling on the couch and binge-watching television. Nope, they’ll be outside. And a healthy percentage of them will be at the Parc La Fontaine.

Originally named Logan Park, this green space has been a municipal park since 1874, when the city purchased what had previously been farmland. Because of its location in the eastern part of the city, it was mostly popular with Montreal’s French-speaking citizens, so in 1901, it was renamed in honor of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the first francophone Prime Minister of the Province of Canada.

Parc Lafontaine Montreal

Parc La Fontaine is certainly an attractive place. There are twin ponds connected by a waterfall, a cultural center, restaurant, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and a couple monuments, including one of a giant slingshot. But most of the park is just open fields and green spaces, where visitors can spread out their blankets and while away the afternoon hours.

Speaking of “attractive”… while Montreal isn’t necessarily better-looking than other North American cities, it seems to have a weirdly elevated percentage of acrobats, thanks probably to the influence of the Cirque du Soleil. And many of them seem to congregate in this park to practice. I wouldn’t suggest you visit La Fontaine to ogle these ultra-fit athletes… that would be creepy! But if you happen to be walking by… they don’t do any damage to the park’s aesthetic beauty, that’s all I’m saying.

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June 14, 2016 at 10:19 pm Comments (0)

The Old Port of Montreal

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In 1976, the same year as it would be hosting the Summer Olympics, Montreal moved its port a few kilometers downstream, opening up a significant section of prime riverside land in the historic center. The Old Port was redeveloped in the 1990s and has since become one of Montreal’s favorite hangout zones, with parks, museums, activities, cafes and even a beach.

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Over six million people visit the Old Port of Montreal every year. It didn’t surprise me to learn that, because during the day we spent walking around, I counted at least half that many. Of course, we were there on the first truly warm day of the year, which was also a Saturday. It had been a long and cold spring, and with the long-anticipated arrival of good weather, everyone in Montreal grabbed their picnic baskets, bikes and kids, and ran straight toward the water.

We started our exploration of the port district at the Montreal Clock Tower, which was built in 1919 and dedicated to the Canadian casualties of World War I. The tower marks the easternmost end of the park, and you can climb its stairs for a view of the area.

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During summer weekends, there’s almost always some sort of event at the Old Port. While we were visiting, a multimedia exhibit called Chromatic had occupied one of the old storehouses. Inside, we found interactive installations, sculptures and weird art. We spent probably fifteen minutes watching Guillaume Marmin’s project Hara: in a dark room filled with smoke, a geometric set of lasers burn intricate patterns into the air. Randomly discovering such a cool festival felt like a very Montreal type of experience.

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We continued walking around outside. Above our heads, people were zip-lining over the port. There were kids playing soccer, mountain climbers scaling an old tower, frustrated sunbathers lamenting that the Clock Tower beach hadn’t yet opened for the year, couples renting paddleboats, friends drinking at various beer gardens, and families heading into the cool of the IMAX theater and Science Museum.

Although these activities looked fun, we were content just to slowly walk south along the river, and take it all in. Elements of the Old Port’s former life as a shipping center were all around, from the store houses to docks, lending a authentic charm to the area. It’s nice to see that a formerly industrial zone like this can find such a great new purpose.

Location on our Map: Old Clock Tower
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June 14, 2016 at 12:49 pm Comment (1)

The Montmorency Falls

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More from Our Three-Day Trip to Quebec City:
Intro and History | Fortifications and Citadel | Two Views of Quebec | The Château Frontenac
Old Quebec | The Plains of Abraham | Two Great QC Hotels | Final Images

Located just north of Quebec City, the Chute-Montmorency provides a perfect half-day excursion. This waterfall has a height of 83 meters, taller than Niagara. And by following an exciting trail which includes a suspension bridge and a gondola, you’re able to admire it from every conceivable angle.

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If you have a car, the drive from downtown Quebec to the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency is just twenty minutes. But even if you don’t, you can still easily reach the waterfall; Bus #800 takes a lot longer, but gets you there without any hassle. We bought tickets at a convenience store, and an hour later were standing in front of the falls.

Montmorency isn’t the largest waterfall we’ve ever visited, but its height and power are impressive, and the trail which circles it has been thoughtfully developed. We started our visit by crossing a suspension bridge which hangs just over the initial drop. In the summer, you also have the opportunity to fly over the falls on a zipline.

Montmorency Falls

On the other side of the bridge, we followed a well-worn path that leads down the side of the cliff, providing views of Montmorency with Quebec City prominent in the background. And at the base of the falls, you’ll find a gondola which will whisk you back up to the top, sparing you a serious amount of exercise. Walking fast, the whole loop could be completed in 30 minutes, but you’re likely to need a lot longer than that. This is the kind of nature you’ll want to take your time with.

Location on our Map
Parc de la Chute-Montmorency – Website

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June 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm Comments (0)

Mont Royal’s Twin Cemeteries

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Mont Royal is a lot larger than we expected. Sure, we figured that the hill which provides the city its name would be big, but we didn’t know this hill would be roughly the same size as the city itself. So it came as a shock to learn that the northern side of Mont Royal is nothing but cemeteries… half the mountain, dedicated to the dead.

Mont Royal Cemeteries

We spent a gray Sunday morning walking around the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and the Cimetière Mont-Royal. Well over a million souls have been laid to rest in the two cemeteries, and with the seemingly endless network of trails, there’s no way you could hope to see all the gravestones. Unless you’re weirdly obsessed with gravestones.

We started in the Roman Catholic cemetery of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, which is by far the larger of the two. In fact, this is the largest cemetery in Canada and third-largest in North America. With tens of thousands of tombstones and nine mausoleums, the Notre-Dames covers an area of over 343 acres and has over 55 kilometers of paved road. It was founded in 1854 in response the city’s booming population, and has remained a mostly Catholic place of rest, although today it will accept anyone of Christian faith.

Mont Royal Cemeteries

Sticking to the main route, we walked past some gorgeous and ostentatious monuments, often adorned with crosses or weeping angels. We saw fields of gravestones dedicated to the heroes of the Crimean War and World War I, and went inside the stunning Pietà Mausoleum, which seems to be mostly occupied by Italian families.

Walking around such opulent tributes to past lives, I realized that I don’t have a plan for when I die. So, should whoever’s in charge of arranging my funeral be reading this, here’s what I want: a marble gravestone featuring a statue of me, which should be slightly larger-than-life and shirtless; feel free to exaggerate the musculature of my physique. I should be consoling a weeping angel, or feeding an orphan or something. Make me look good, you get the idea. (If there’s not enough cash to pay for all this, you can burn me and bury my ashes in a shoebox. I guess it’s all the same.)

Mont Royal Cemeteries

Our tour through the the Mont Royal Cemetery was somewhat shorter, but just as impressive as the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. This cemetery dates from 1850, a few years earlier than its larger neighbor, and has around 200,000 interments. It started as a Protestant place of rest, although it’s now non-denominational. We saw English names, as well as German, Chinese and Greek, among many others.

The most impressive monument we saw here was the crypt of John Molson and his family. The founder of the Molson Brewery, he was one of Montreal’s most important entrepreneurs, and also active in politics and banking.

A visit to the two cemeteries of Mont Royal is the perfect “chilly weekend” type of activity. Walking around all this death, reading all the forgotten names, and reflecting on the fleeting nature of our lives, seems like something best appreciated when the wind is cold and the sky is gloomy.

Locations on our Maps: Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery | Mount Royal Cemetery

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May 29, 2016 at 8:15 pm Comment (1)

The Parc des Rapides

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As the St. Lawrence River winds its way from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, most of its journey is smooth sailing. However, just before it reaches Montreal, the river hits a rough patch. Jürgen and I hiked to the neighborhood of LaSalle to check out the Lachine Rapids.

Parc de Rapides Montreal

We started our day at the Parc Arthur-Therrien, across from the Île des Souers (or, Nuns’ Island), so-named because of the Sisters of Notre-Dame who owned it for 250 years. From this park, it would be a five-kilometer trek south to the Parc des Rapides. There’s a popular bike path running along the the St. Lawrence, but we stayed on a smaller dirt trail closer to the water, and enjoyed the riverside walk.

The path stretches along the base of a tall embankment, behind which Montreal’s buildings were hidden from view, and we found it hard to believe that we were still in the city. The weather was beautiful, and our only companions during the journey were birds, reeds, trees, and the occasional jogger. The five kilometers went by in a flash, and soon enough we could hear the rumbling of the rapids.

Parc de Rapides Montreal

These white water rapids have long been a source of adventure for Montrealers. As far back as the nineteenth century, thrill-seekers would pack onto steamboats to navigate them. Even the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, wasn’t able to resist a ride during his visit to Canada in 1860. While in the park, we saw a few rafts full of modern-day adrenaline junkies trying their luck. These rapids aren’t the world’s most treacherous, but they look like a lot of fun.

Less adventuresome are the hoards of people who visit the Parc des Rapides for birdwatching. This is a sanctuary for migratory birds, most importantly the great blue heron. There were dozens of birders in the park, equipped with cameras and gigantic zoom lenses. While they were watching and identifying new species, Jürgen was watching them, jealously identifying their expensive photography equipment. If they’re “birders”, I guess that makes Jürgen a birderer (a word which, incidentally, seems to be impossible for Germans to pronounce).

The Parc des Rapides isn’t large; it’s about 800 meters in length, on a narrow strip of land which lays between the rapids and a tranquil inlet. You can walk up and down the entire thing in about twenty minutes, and we recommend you do so. The further south you go, the less crowded the park becomes, since not many of the birders bother to carry their heavy camera bags all the way to the park’s end.

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May 26, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (2)

The Biodôme at the Olympic Park

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Not to be confused with the Biosphere on the Île Sainte-Hélène, the Biodôme is a small zoo housed in the former Olympic velodrome. The zoo is organized into five distinctive ecosystems found in North America, introducing some of the plant and animal life found in each.

Biodome Montreal

Dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium to which it’s adjacent, the Biodôme doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, an illusion of immense space has been created, and each of the five ecosystems are surprisingly spacious. After leaving the Biodôme, I looked back on the building in confusion. How did they manage to fit everything into that little cycling dome?

Walking through the Biodôme is surreal. It feels like you’re in one of those films where life on earth has ended for whatever reason (global warming, nuclear apocalypse, the whims of Herr Trump), and the remnants of our planet’s various ecosystems have been preserved in a bubble. “Look, monkeys! Remember those? Oh, the Earth used to be so wonderful.”

You start in “Tropical Rainforests” ecosystem, where you can see animals like alligators, monkeys, parrots, snakes, bats, and if you’re lucky, a family of sloths. (We weren’t lucky.) From the rainforests, you move into a zone a little closer to home: the “Laurentian Maple Forests” of Canada. It’s not as exotic, but this was actually my favorite zone inside the Biodôme. Monkeys and alligators are standard zoo fare, but you don’t often get to see a beaver swimming around.

Did you know that when beavers poop, they dive underwater and do a little flip? Well, actually, I’m not sure if all beavers do that, or just this particular one. He was a bit of a scatological show-off. Talented, though, I’ll give him that.

Biodome Montreal

Next up is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where a 2.5-million-liter basin holds fish like the massive Atlantic sturgeon, dogfish and salmon, as well as starfish and mollusks. You can watch the action in this tank from both above and below. On the side of the basin, the Labrador Cliffs have been recreated, with guillemots and puffins diving into the water. The final zone in the Biodôme is dedicated to the Antarctic; you’ll get zero points for guessing that penguins are the stars of this show.

We enjoyed the Biodôme more than we had expected to. Somehow, the concept of a “zoo inside a former cycling hall” doesn’t ring with promise, but they’ve done a wonderful job with it. The Biodôme can be visited on its own, or in combination with any other of the Olympic Park’s sights (the Planetarium, the Insectarium/Botanic Garden and the Olympic Tower).

Location on our Map
Montréal Biodôme – Website

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May 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm Comments (0)

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Walking Across the Jacques-Cartier Bridge Built in 1930, the Jacques Cartier Bridge connects the Island of Montreal to both the Île Sainte-Hélène and the mainland shore of Longueuil. It's one of Canada's busiest bridges, on which traffic comes to a standstill during rush-hour, but a separate lane for pedestrians and bikes provides an incredible view of the city's skyline.
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