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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.

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

The Canadian Grand Prix

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The Formula One Canadian Grand Prix has been held in Montreal since 1978, on the artificial island of Île Notre-Dame. Held every year at the beginning of June, the race is eagerly anticipated by the city’s residents, to whom it represents the unofficial start of summer.

It almost seems to perfect to be true, but the champion of Montreal’s first Grand Prix was a French Canadian: Gilles Villeneuve. A hero throughout Quebec, he died tragically a few years later, during a qualifying run for the Belgian Grand Prix, and Montreal’s track was renamed in his honor. Today, the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit is considered one of the most exciting tracks on the F1 calendar, with long straightaways that allow cars to reach 300 kph and a couple hairpin turns.

Jürgen and I aren’t exactly racing fans. In fact, if you’d asked me who I expected to win the 2016 Canadian Grand Prix, I’d probably have said “Michael Schumacher,” because that’s the only racing name that comes to mind. (In my defense, he is the all-time leader at Montreal…) No, the winner of this year’s race was Lewis Hamilton, who I’m pretty sure I’ve also heard of. The Brit edged out Germany’s Sebastian Vettel by five seconds to notch his second-straight victory in Montreal.

Formula 1 Montreal

Sadly, this year’s race was marred by ugly, cold weather. We didn’t get tickets, but went out in the old town to sample some of the atmosphere. And although we found some outdoor terraces decorated with checkered flags, they were all empty. Everyone seemed to be huddled indoors, watching the race at sports bars. Apparently, the real party is at Crescent Street, which claims to be the biggest Grand Prix festival in the world, drawing half a million people over three days.

Montreal has a love/hate relationship with the Formula One. The city estimates that the race brings in up to $90 million, but a lot of people complain bitterly about it. Why should anyone be glamorizing pollution-spitting race cars? And there’s not much to love about racing’s vulgar macho culture, with all the sexy model-type women posing next to luxury cars, and unsavory associations with high-end prostitution. As a general rule, Jürgen and I dislike any event that reeks of elitism, and the Formula One certainly qualifies.

Oh well, we were happy enough for the race to be held, because it meant that summer had officially begun. Congrats to Schumacher, Hamilton, Dick Dastardly, or whoever it was that won this year’s race!

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June 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm Comments (0)

The McCord Museum of Canadian History

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Established in 1921 on the grounds of McGill University, the McCord Museum of Canadian History boasts a collection of over a million historical documents, photographs and archaeological finds. The permanent exhibition is dedicated to Montreal’s history, but what makes the McCord Museum worthwhile is its examination of the clothing and customs of Canada’s native people.

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If there’s one thing Montreal has plenty of, it’s museums dedicated to the city’s history. There’s the Pointe-à-Calliére, the Centre d’Historie de Montréal, the Chateau Dufresne, and the Stewart Museum, just to name the ones we’ve already visited. Another thing Montreal has in abundance, is rainy days. And when it’s storming out, visiting yet another museum doesn’t sound too bad.

“Anyway,” we reasoned, “this is the McCord Museum of Canadian History, so it will be more than just another museum about Montreal.” But, basically it was just another museum about Montreal. The permanent collection is called “Montreal – Points of View,” and took us on the same tour we had seen countless times before: native life, colonization, French vs. English rule, independence, the roaring twenties, the World Expo and Olympics. And unfortunately, it’s not well-presented… the lighting is poor, the exhibits seem slapped together without much care, and we found the whole thing both confusing and boring.

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Luckily, the museum’s other permanent exhibit is much better. “Wearing Our Identity: The First Peoples Collection” concerns the clothing, style and self-expression of Canada’s native people. I spent nearly as much time examining a single amauti, or seal-skin parka, as I had visiting the entire “Montreal – Points of View” exhibition. These garments are individually-designed, and reveal much about the women wearing them, including their social status and whether they were (or had been) pregnant. And they’re decorated with a fascinating blend of traditional elements and those borrowed from Western culture, such as coins and spoons.

This exhibition also includes the feathered shaman headdresses, jewelry, beaded friendship sashes, and old photographs of Inuits involved in body modification, as well as a large totem pole. One of my favorite exhibits was a timeworn picture of walrus hunters, who wore large white studs on either side of their bottom lips, in order to better resemble their prey.

The McCord Museum isn’t cheap, and its modest size in no way justifies the price. In fact, were it not for the presence of the “Wearing Our Identity” exhibit, we’d recommend skipping it entirely. But here’s a tip: after 5pm on Wednesday afternoons, the museum is free. It will be more crowded, but this is almost certainly the best time to check it out.

Location on our Map
McCord Museum of Canadian History – Website

Our Framed Montreal Photos

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June 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm Comments (0)

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.

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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.

Location on our Map

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

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.

Location on our Map

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

The Views from the Olympic Tower

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Built in 1976 for the Summer Games and attached to the Olympic Stadium, Montreal Tower’s height of 165 meters (541 feet) makes it the tallest inclined tower in the world. We took the funicular up to the top, where there’s an observatory that provides views of the Olympic Park, Mont Royal and downtown Montreal.

Montreal Olympic Tower

With its 45-degree incline, it would be an understatement to call the Montreal Tower “slightly tilted.” For comparison, the Tower of Pisa only leans at five degrees. However, Montreal Tower doesn’t exactly seem in danger of falling over. It’s solid, with a massive underground concrete base that’s the weight of three aircraft carriers.

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The funicular climbs the tower every ten minutes, whisking you to the top for one of the Montreal’s best views. The Olympic Park is in the eastern neighborhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; from here, you can see the entire downtown district in one incredible panorama. And you get a great sense for the true size of Mont Royal — it takes up nearly the same area as the downtown and is the same height than the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

Although you can’t step outside, the observatory has windows in every direction, with views of the St. Lawrence to the south, the industrial neighborhoods to the east, and the Botanic Garden to the north. And of course, right underneath, there’s the Olympic Stadium. Formerly home to the Expos, the stadium is now mostly unoccupied and is known as the “Big O” for the doughnut-shaped hole in its roof. Many Montrealers, however, think of it as the “Big Owe.” Its astronomical construction cost of $260 million was finally paid off in 2006, thirty years after the games themselves.

Location of Montreal Tower on our Map
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May 20, 2016 at 2:39 pm Comments (0)

Lunchtime in Little Italy

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If you follow St. Laurent north, past the train tracks and Rosemont Boulevard, you end up in the neighborhood of Little Italy, which has long been home to Montreal’s Italian expat community. With espresso cafes, pizzerias, upscale restaurants, and pastry shops, Little Italy is a place you should visit when you’re hungry, and not leave until you’re stuffed as full as a cannoli.

Little Italy Montreal

The motherland’s influence is strong in this neighborhood, but you’re not going to mistake the streets of Little Italy for those of Rome or Palermo. This is still Montreal, through and through, with its grid-like layout and winding exterior staircases attached to squat three-story residences. But close your eyes, listen, and inhale… now, you’re in Italy! The sounds of the marketplace, the smell of coffee beans and pizza crust… Mamma mía, siamo a casa! Mangiamo!

The food will come, but first let’s take a walk and build our appetites. Jürgen and I started our day at the Marché Jean-Talon, and headed south. Italians have been part of Montreal’s story since the 17th century, and were some of the first immigrants to arrive in the city, working mostly on the railway. The biggest wave, however, came after World War II. Today, a quarter of a million Italians live in Montreal.

Little Italy Montreal

The neighborhood’s most important church is the red-brick Madonna della Difesa, which was built in 1919. This was prior to the war, so the church’s famous fresco of Benito Mussolini isn’t quite as offensive as it might be. All of the paintings inside the church are by Guido Nincheri, an Italian immigrant to Montreal also responsible for the frescoes of the Château Dufresne.

Alright, that’s twenty minutes of sight-seeing, good enough. It’s lunchtime! We grabbed tables at the Pizzeria Napoletana, a classic restaurant near the Madonna della Difesa. The place was crowded, and as we waited for our pizzas, I noticed our fellow diners pulling bottles of wine out of their backpacks. In Montreal, many restaurants allow you to bring your own wine, and they don’t charge you any sort of corking fee.

Little Italy Montreal

I looked longingly at Jürgen, who said, “Go, Michael, go,” and I was off; out the door and into the depanneur across the street. Minutes later, our beefcake Italian waiter was uncorking the bottle. The pizzas, by the way, were perfect. I had a simple margherita that was to die for. After eating, we made a beeline for the nearby Patisserie Alati-Caserta, where we had seen cannolis in the window. This was turning into a gluttonous day, and we couldn’t have been happier.

We walked west along Calle Dante, passing a bar named Inferno (naturally), until finding the Quincaillerie Dante: an awesome little shop selling espresso machines, kitchen gadgets and … shotguns? Looks like we’re still in Canada, after all.

By now, we had reached Boulevard St. Laurent and the famous Milano Supermarket. We had heard a lot about this place, and wondered how a simple supermarket might achieve such popularity. But now, we understood. True to its name, Milano is as Italian as supermarkets come. Right after entering, you encounter bags of homemade pastas. This store has as many varieties of olive oils, as other supermarkets have cereal brands. The wines, and the sweets and the sauces and the cheese … I will dream of you, Milano!

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We finished off our tour of Little Italy with espresso at the Caffè Italia, next to the supermarket. All of the tables were occupied, mostly with retired Italian men who probably meet here every single day, and we grabbed the last two stools at the bar. We sipped our coffee as slowly as possible, and listened to the old guys grumble about politics and sports. It seemed like the perfect way to end a perfect day in Little Italy.

Locations on our Map: Marché Jean-Talon | Madonna della Difesa | Pizzeria Napoletana | Patisserie Alati-Caserta | Milano Supermarket | Caffè Italia

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May 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm Comments (2)

The Château Dufresne

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A mansion constructed in the early twentieth-century for two brothers, the Château Dufresne is found on the border of Montreal’s Olympic Park. Although it looks like one massive residence from the outside, the chateau is actually comprised of two separate houses, one for each of the siblings, Oscar and Marius.

Chateau Dufresne

The chateau was built between 1915 and 1918. Oscar (a shoe magnate) and Marius (an architect) were French-Canadians, in a day when the great majority of Quebec’s wealth was firmly in the hands of the British. But the brothers were proud of their heritage, and made no secret about it. Inside the house, you’ll find numerous nods to French culture, including a table with Napoleon’s portrait and items which belonged to the likes of Joan of Arc and Louis XV. The chateau itself is based on Versailles’ Petit Trianon, in which Marie Antoinette once lived.

In 1948, the Dufresne family sold the chateau to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who immediately got to work covering up all the “lewd” frescoes featuring naked bodies. After the city of Montreal had bought the property, the paintings were re-discovered in an excellent state of preservation. On the ceiling of Oscar’s ballroom, for instance, there’s a stunning set of twelve frescoes that detail the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

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The ballroom isn’t merely an exquisite exception; every room in this three-story Beaux-Arts home is gorgeous. There’s a reason this building has become unofficially known as Montreal’s “castle.” The tour begins in Oscar’s half, where highlights include the dining room, library and solarium. And after crossing into the other half of the chateau, you realize his brother Marius might have had even better taste. His family’s residence is stuffed with furniture and accouterments from around the world. There’s a Turkish smoking room, and the attention to detail is incredible, as is the state of preservation.

The tour of the Château is fun; each visitor gets a tablet, which acts as a guide through the various rooms, providing audio commentary and detailed information about the decoration, furniture and architecture.

On this side of the ocean, we don’t have all that many palaces; mansions like the Château Dufresne are about as close as it gets. But we were just as impressed by this chateau as we have been by many of the princely estates we’ve had the chance to visit in Europe. Since it’s found right next to the Olympic Park, with its over-abundance of attractions, you might be tempted to skip the Château Dufresne… but that would be a mistake.

Location on our Map
Château Dufresne – Website

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May 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm Comments (0)

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 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.

Cheap Flights to Montreal

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April 11, 2016 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)
Saint-Louis Square and Rue Prince-Arthur 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.
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