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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.”

Golden Mile Montreal

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.

Golden Mile Montreal

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

Mont Royal’s Lac aux Castors and Maison Smith

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After visiting the Kondiaronk Belvedere and taking in the view of downtown Montreal, you can continue your exploration of the mountain by heading west toward the Lac aux Castors. On the way, you’ll pass a sculpture park and the Maison Smith, which was built in 1858 and today is home to a small exhibition about the park.

Lac du Castors and Maison Smith

Because it’s spread across the dips and ascents of a mountain, it’s easy to forget that Mont Royal is also a carefully considered park. The design is the work of Connecticut-born Frederick Law Olmsted, who’s most famous as the landscape architect of NYC’s Central Park. He was brought to Montreal in 1874 to create plans for what would become this city’s defining park.

Without changing the essential character of the hill, Olmsted created an intricate network of trails that would take visitors to all its corners. The Chemin Olmsted is the most significant of these paths, and leads from the monument of Sir George Etienne Cartier to Mont Royal’s various summits, as well as the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the Maison Smith.

Lac du Castors and Maison Smith

The Maison Smith is next to Mont Royal’s largest parking lot, and serves as the unofficial entrance to the park. Inside, you’ll find a cafe and an exhibition about the flora and fauna of the park, as well as some archaeological artifacts which have been unearthed here. The exhibition is small and free, so even if you just have a couple minutes, it’s worth popping in.

From here, it’s a short walk along the Chemin Olmsted to the Lac aux Castors. On the way, you’ll find a sloping field studded with strange gray monuments. These are the remains of the International Sculpture Symposium, which in 1964 invited twelve artists from around the world. Over fifty years later, most of the works are still visible… how impressive you find them depends on how generous you’re feeling.

Past the sculptures, you’ll see the Lac aux Castors, or “Beaver Lake.” This is as good a place as any to finish a day on Mont Royal. In the summer, you can rent paddle boats to take out onto the lake, which was created in 1938. And in the winter, you can ice skate. There’s a simple cafe here, where you can stretch out your legs, and appreciate a final view of one of Montreal’s most relaxing spots.

Locations on our Map: Maison Smith | Lac aux Castors

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Lac du Castors and Maison Smith
Lac du Castors and Maison Smith
Lac du Castors and Maison Smith
Lac du Castors and Maison Smith
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June 20, 2016 at 8:46 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)

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.

History Montreal
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)
The Mansions of the Golden Mile 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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