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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.

McGill Redpath Museum

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.

McGill Redpath Museum

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)

A Day in Mile End

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Situated around Boulevard Saint Laurent, immediately south of Little Italy, Mile End has become synonymous with Montreal’s indie music scene. And bagels. And hipsters. We spent a sunny day exploring the streets of one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.

Montreal Mile End

No miles actually end in Mile End; the name is thought to have been inspired by London’s Mile End neighborhood, in the same way Montreal’s Quartier Latin is a nod to Paris. For much of its history, Mile End was an independent town known as Saint-Louis; it didn’t change its name officially until 1982. The stately former town hall of Saint-Louis, built in 1902, is today Montreal’s most attractive fire station.

Years ago, Mile End became the unofficial capital of Montreal’s burgeoning indie music scene, when bands like Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor started to take off. Musicians flooded in, setting up indie labels, performing at local clubs like the Casa del Popolo and la Sala Rossa, and recording at places such as the “thee mighty hotel2tango.” A glance at the list of the artists who’ve worked at this legendary Mile End studio reads like a who’s-who of indie music.

Montreal Mile End

Rue Bernard is the most iconic street for the young Montreal hipster, and is where you’ll find some of the neighborhood’s most popular shops, such as Drawn and Quarterly (which publishes as well as as sells comics and books), the artistic mecca of Le Dépanneur Café (which has live jazz all day), and a number of cool stores selling vintage clothes and second-hand vinyl.

What’s the opposite of a hipster? A Hasidic Jew? That’s not a bad guess. Somehow, this is the second-most prominent group in Mile End… and I doubt many of them are Arcade Fire fans. As we walked along Rue Hutchinson, on the west of Mile End, almost every single guy we passed was sporting a long black gown and curly black sideburns. After WWII, both Mile End and neighboring Outremont became a place of major resettlement for ultra-conservative Jews.

We had already fallen in love with one of Mile End’s Jewish establishments: St-Viateur Bagels. And today, we decided to check out Fairmount Bagels, their long-time competitor. Since the 1950s, there’s been a battle for dominance between the two shops, and Montrealers are strictly loyal to one or the other. We’ve been warned not to wade into the war between them, since choosing a favorite will alienate approximately half the city… but we like to live dangerously. In our view, St-Viateur is better. There, we said it!

Montreal Mile End

Near Fairmount Bagels, we found Wilenksy’s Light Lunch. Founded in 1932 by Moe Wilensky, this tiny shop has become an institution with its simple sandwiches, pickles and soda frappes. It’s a weird place; just a large empty room with a few stools around the bar. Our Wilensky Specials (salami, bologna and mustard on a toasted bun) arrived fifteen seconds after we had ordered them, and were gone fifteen seconds after that. Luckily, the prices are low enough that a second round wasn’t an outrageous idea.

After lunch, we stood in line for ice cream at the ridiculously popular Kem Coba. Normally, I will avoid long lines for things like ice cream; I hate it when specific shops with hipster names manage to become trendy. There’s a million other ice cream shops in Montreal, but no, everyone has to go to Kem Coba, because it’s Kem Coba, man! It’s the only place I ever eat ice cream, man! But we were still hungry after our Wilensky Light Lunch, so decided to see what the fuss was about. The ice cream was, of course, really good. Not worth the wait, certainly, but if the line happens to be small when you walk by, go for it. (Kem Coba’s Line is so ridiculous, that it has its own Twitter account.)

Montreal Mile End

From here, it was just a few minutes to the next stupidly popular Mile End institution: Café Olimpico. Crowned the “best cafe in the city” by a few publications, this is the neighborhood’s top spot to see and be seen, and has welcomed stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Will Ferrell. But one glance inside was enough for us. Here was a line in which we wouldn’t be waiting. Anyway, how is it even possible to proclaim which is the “best cafe” in a city the size of Montreal?

In truth, it feels like Mile End’s coolest days are behind it. We saw hipsters, of course, but not as many as I had expected. And while there were a lot of great shops on Rue Bernard, the street didn’t have the energy I’d read so much about. But then, hip scenes are fickle, and I could just imagine some snob snuffing that “Mile End is so 2008.” Overall, though, we enjoyed our time here. With so many unique stores and restaurants, it would have been hard not to.

Locations on our Map: Drawn and Quarterly | Le Dépanneur Café | Fairmount Bagels | Wilensky Light Lunch | Kem Coba | Café Olimpico
Websites: Drawn and Quarterly | Le Dépanneur Café | Fairmount Bagel | Wilensky’s Light Lunch | Kem Coba | Café Olimpico

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June 13, 2016 at 2:28 pm Comment (1)

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)
McGill University and the Redpath Museum 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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