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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)

Cité Mémoire – Projections of Montreal’s History

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Montreal was founded in 1642, which means that in 2017, the city is celebrating its 375th birthday. That’s a long stretch of history, and people can’t be expected to remember everything that’s happened. To help jog our memories, Montreal has created a multimedia exhibition called Cité Memoire (Memory City), transforming the old town into a living tribute to the past.

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Eighteen spots around Old Montreal have been selected for Cité Mémoire. At each one, there’s a projection, or “tableaux,” which brings a significant moment from Montreal’s history to life. In order to understand each clip, you have to download a free app that allows you to listen to the audio. And the projections don’t just play on a loop. Using the app, you’re the one who starts them.

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If it were just short movies projected against the sides of buildings, Cité Mémoire would be cool, but not all that memorable. However, each of the eighteen tableaux has been produced with the utmost artistry. They’re the work of some of Quebec’s most renowned multidisciplinary artists. The projections are poetic, haunting and beautiful, and each one makes perfect use of its individual location.

For example, the tableaux about the 1849 burning of the Parliament is found at the old firehouse in the Place d’Youville. The projection uses a walled-up window on the building to create the illusion of a concerned couple peering outside. You watch along with them as protesters gather in front of the building across the street, which has been illuminated to resemble the Parliament. As it burns, the effect is stunning.

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“Foundlings Quay,” located in a narrow alley off the Rue Saint Paul, is an artful tribute to the Grey Nuns who cared for so many of Montreal’s orphans. A series of babies in swaddling appear on the ground, while the nuns step out of the shadows on the side of the alley and against the far wall. Perhaps the most photographed tableaux is the “Face of Montreal”: a series of faces reciting poems, displayed across the trees at the old port.

The coolest facet of this project is the level of interaction required by the viewer. You could just show up and watch the pictures, but to get much out of Cité Mémoire, you must become a participant by downloading the app and wearing headphones. And when you’re the one to press “play” and set one of these tremendous projections into motion, you feel somehow more invested in it.

Cité Mémoire runs every evening after dusk, and for the next few years will be a permanent fixture in the Old Town. It’s rare that such a cool idea meets with such perfect execution.

Cité Mémoire – Website

Framed Montreal Photos

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May 28, 2016 at 8:24 pm Comments (2)

The Château Ramezay

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Constructed in 1705 as a private residence for the Governor of Montreal, the Château de Ramezay has withstood the previous three centuries in an excellent state of preservation. Today, it’s the oldest private museum in Quebec, offering visitors a glimpse into Montreal’s earliest days.

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Born in Burgundy, Claude de Ramezay came to Canada as an army lieutenant when he was 26 years old. An ambitious man, he rose quickly through the ranks, and was named Governor of Montreal in 1704. A year later, he ordered the construction of a grand residence for himself and his family. The fledgling city didn’t have funds for such enterprises, so Ramezay paid for the construction himself… and wound up bankrupt, as a result.

The Château has changed hands a number of times in its long history. Ramezay’s family eventually sold it to a fur-trading company, and it also served as the Faculty of Medicine for the University of Montreal. At the end of the 19th century, the building was slated to be demolished, but it was saved by the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal, who converted it into a museum in 1894.

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Perhaps the most curious occupants of the Château Ramezay were a contingent of American diplomats, who included Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold. In 1775, Montreal was captured by the United States’ Continental Army, during a short-lived invasion of Canada. Before their assault on Quebec City, the US diplomats based themselves in this chateau, from where they organized efforts aimed at persuading the city’s French population to join their rebellion against the British.

Because Claude de Ramezay had the foresight to build his house in stone, it survived the fires which claimed almost all of Montreal’s earliest buildings. It’s a straight-forward home, a two-story structure divided neatly into about a dozen rooms. The museum which today occupies the house is nicely arranged, leading visitors on a tour through the history of the city, its relations with the First Nations, the fur trade, and strife between Montreal’s British and French residents.

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Audio clips in each room introduce a “character” from the history of the chateau, including the stonemason who built the house, Ramezay himself, the servant who brushed his wigs, and Benjamin Franklin. On the bottom floor is the kitchen. Here, next to the fireplace, was a contraption I’d never seen before: an elevated running-wheel for a dog, which would turn the roasting spit for the pig.

A visit to the Château Ramezay can be rather quick; it’s neither as large nor as time-consuming as the nearby Pointe-à-Calliére Museum. Once you’re done inside the chateau, don’t forget to check out the restored French-style garden around the back.

Location on our Map
Château Ramezay – Website

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May 22, 2016 at 2:56 pm Comments (0)

The Marché Bonsecours

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Constructed in 1844, the Bonsecours Market borders the old port of Montreal and the Notre Dame de Bon Secours church for which it’s named. For most of its life, Marché Bonsecours was the city’s main produce market. Today, you’ll find clothing stores, restaurants and craft shops inside, as well as a textile museum.

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A regal building inspired by the Custom House in Dublin, the Marché Bonsecours looks more like a place for governing than for shopping. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that’s exactly what it was built for. Bonsecours served for one year as the seat of Canada’s legislature, and later as Montreal’s city hall. But after 1878, it became a farmer’s market and remained so for nearly a century, until being marked for demolition in the 1960s.

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Luckily, the Bonsecours Market was saved from the wrecking ball and, in 1984, it was declared a national heritage site. Today, it’s found new life as an upscale shopping hall. There are about a dozen shops inside, including fashionable clothing stores, along with those selling souvenirs like maple syrup and Eskimo statues. On the bottom floor, there’s the small Museum of Costume and Textile of Quebec.

Unless you’re in the mood to shop, or fascinated by the history of textiles, you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time inside the Marché Bonsecours. It’s such an impressive building when seen from the outside, the interior comes as something of a disappointment.

Location on our Map
Marché Bonsecours – Website

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May 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm Comments (0)

A Tour through Old Montreal

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As its name suggests, Vieux Montréal is the oldest section of the city, occupying roughly the location of the original 17th-century settlement of Ville-Marie. With many of Montreal’s most historic buildings tightly packed in close proximity to one another, it’s a rewarding place to take a self-guided walking tour.

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We started our tour in the southwestern quadrant of Old Montreal, among the towering edifices which line St. Jacques, also known as the Wall Street of Montreal. Most of the buildings on this street date from the nineteenth century, and each is a work of art, with emblems and statues adorning the cornices and Roman columns protecting the entryways. The epicenter of this architectural grandeur is at the corner of St. Jacques and St. James, where five banks were once headquartered.

Turning to the south, we walked down the small Rue de les Récollets. The Récollets were a religious order who had served the French Army. But with the arrival of the British, the order was dispersed and their convent replaced with greystone Victorian residences. At least their name lives on.

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Continuing south, we reached the Place d’Youville, named for Marguerite d’Youville, who founded Canada’s famous Grey Nuns in 1738. Some of the sisters still live in the massive old convent, although that might not be the case for long. Concordia University recently bought the building, although the nuns will be allowed to stay until 2022. Nearby the Place d’Youville is one Montreal’s most popular streets, St. Paul, which runs parallel to the old port and transforms into a major tourism thoroughfare on summer weekends.

We walked up to the Place des Armes, found between the Notre-Dame Basilica and the old headquarters of the Bank of Montreal: Canada’s first bank. You can find a small, one-room museum inside. Continuing east, we soon found ourselves at the Champs de Mars, a small park behind the City Hall, where remains of Montreal’s former fortifications can be seen. Our tour then continued down the wide, sloping Boulevard St. Laurent, lined with souvenir shops and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalk.

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It would require a heroic undertaking to catalog all the individual shops, sights and highlights of Old Montreal. There are quaint delicatessens, fancy French restaurants such as the gorgeous Les Filles de Roy, parks, plazas, lovely old banks, monumental office buildings, churches and museums galore. Every step seems to reveal some fascinating new historical tidbit. At the corner of Rue Sainte-Hélène and Récollets is the building in which North America’s first YMCA was founded, for example. Just north of Place Jacques Cartier on Saint-Paul is the former Rasco Hotel, where Charles Dickens once stayed. And next to the Notre-Dame is the Old Sulpician Seminary, which dates from 1684 and is the oldest standing building in the city.

The official website of Old Montreal provides an excellent self-guided walking tour, which introduces the highlights of the neighborhood and some of its history. You can either follow the tour exactly, or wander randomly about at your whim. It almost doesn’t matter where your journey in Old Montreal takes you; every street is interesting, and any time spent here is going to be worth your while.

Locations on our Map: Place d’Armes | Former Convent of the Grey Nuns | Champ de Mars | Place Jacque Cartier

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April 27, 2016 at 11:00 pm Comments (0)

The Notre Dame de Bon Secours

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Known as the “Sailors’ Church,” the Notre Dame de Bon Secours is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, originally built in 1771. Its founder was Marguerite Bourgeoy, a woman of deep faith whose life story is celebrated within a museum attached to the church.

Notre Dame de Bon Secours

Because of its location on the port, the Notre Dame de Bon Secours has long been a place of pilgrimage for sailors passing through Montreal. After having survived a particularly dangerous journey, many of these sailors would return with votive offerings in the form of model ships, twelve of which are now hanging from the church’s ceiling, suspended a few meters above the floor.

The church was the brainchild of St. Marguerite Bourgeoy, a deeply spiritual woman who had arrived in Montreal along with the first settlers. She’s known for founding one of the Catholicism’s first communities of uncloistered nuns. It was controversial at the time, but Marguerite reasoned that she and her sisters could better help their vulnerable settlement by actively engaging with it, instead of sequestering themselves away. She took it upon herself to educate both settlers and native children, and established the fledgling town’s first schools.

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In honor of her remarkable life, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1983, becoming Canada’s first female saint. Her tomb can be found within the church, and it’s worth touring the small museum dedicated to her. In one room, Marguerite’s life has been reconstructed in a comic-book-fashion, with nearly a hundred small panoramas that detail everything from her birth in Troyes, France, to her transatlantic journey, her works in Canada, and her death, at peace among her followers and loved ones.

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Even if you’re not interested in Marguerite Bourgeoy, there are other reasons to visit the museum. Not only can you see the crypt underneath the church, but a ticket also allows you up into the tower, from where there’s an outstanding view over the Old Port of Montreal. Also included in the ticket price is an audio guide, which brings certain details of the church to vivid life.

Location on our Map
Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours – Website

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April 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm Comments (0)

The Montreal Science Centre

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A huge complex located within the Old Port, the Montreal Science Centre introduces children to the worlds of science and technology with hands-on workshops, experiments and games. The focus of this center is almost entirely on kids, but we were drawn by a temporary exhibit called “Animal Inside Out.”

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Adults aren’t going to get much out of the Montreal Science Centre’s permanent exhibits, but kids will have a blast. The museum’s main attraction is called “Human,” and explores the human body with a wide-range of activities that exercise all of the senses. Another permanent exhibit is the “Creative Factory,” which is basically the high-tech playground of every child’s dreams, although it’s questionable whether any scientific knowledge seeps into their brains as they spin themselves around on a disc, play with derby cars, or forge two-meter whirlwinds in a chamber.

Luckily, the Montreal Science Centre also has awesome temporary exhibits, and “Animal Inside Out” is probably one that should carry an NC-17 rating. If I’d seen this as a kid, I’d have nightmares for a week! The title was accurate: it features real animals (including humans) displayed from the inside out. They’ve been peeled back layer-by-layer, revealing the muscles which lay under the flesh, the capillary systems, the internal organs and the bones.

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It’s the work of German scientist Gunther von Hagen, who sparked controversy years ago with his famous Body Works exhibit, which used the same embalming technique (called “plastination”) on humans. We never had the chance to see Body Works, but “Animal Inside Out” was fascinating. You don’t realize just how similar humans are to other species until you start stripping back the layers.

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The Science Centre also has an excellent IMAX theater, which shows both nature documentaries and mainstream hits like Star Wars. And nearby, there’s another outdoor attraction that kids will love. Voiles en Voiles is a pirate-themed aerial adventure park where children can harness up to climb ropes, crawl across logs and speed down ziplines. It looks like a blast; if I were twelve again, I would try to spend every day here.

Locations on our Map: Montreal Science Centre | Voiles en Voiles
Montreal Science Centre – Website
Voiles en Voiles – Website

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April 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm Comments (0)

Museum of Archaeology and History Pointe-à-Callière

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Before doing anything else, newcomers to Montreal might want to check out the Archaeology and History Complex Pointe-à-Callière. Located at the site where Montreal was born, this museum takes visitors on a journey through the life of the city, from its earliest occupation into the present day.

Pointe-à-Callière Museum

The tour starts in a small auditorium overlooking a set of ruins. Pointe-à-Callière is more than just an archaeology museum; it’s also an archaeological site. Before the museum opened in 1992, scientists had spent a decade here, digging into the city’s past and revealing over six hundred years worth of artifacts. This is the spot where the first settlers came ashore about four hundred years ago, and where some of the city’s original buildings were erected.

We sat down in the theater, put headphones on, and spent the next twenty minutes watching a show which brought Montreal’s history to life, with scenes illuminated atop the exposed ruins. The story started centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, with the Iroquois and Algonquin settling the island. We learned about the founding of the French city, the struggles and successes with the native population, the switch from French to English dominion, the city’s experience during the Great Depression and the World Wars, and how Montreal has grown into the modern age.

Pointe-à-Callière Museum

Once the show had finished, we moved downstairs into the archaeological site to examine some of the ruins uncovered at the Pointe-à-Callière, including the Royal Customs House and the old Catholic Graveyard. We saw the remains of the Little Saint-Pierre River, which was swallowed up and used for sewage by the expanding city. And we learned about Montreal’s tumultuous relationship with the Iroquois, which came to an end in 1701 with the “Great Peace,” when a massive delegation of forty tribes declared a ceasefire with the settlers.

Other sections of the museum are more geared toward children, including a permanent exhibition about pirates, and sandboxes where kids can conduct their own archaeological digs. There are also wide-ranging temporary exhibits in the neighboring Mariners’ House. The show which happened to be there during our visit was dedicated to Agatha Christie. That might at first seem like an odd fit for an archaeology museum, but the exhibition concentrated on the famous author’s second marriage to Sir Max Mallowan, an archaeologist. With him, she traveled to the Middle East, and participated in excavations which had a great influence upon her writing.

Pointe-à-Callière Museum

After finishing with the exhibits in the Mariners’ House, we returned to the Éperon Building and ascended to the top floor, where we enjoyed views of the Old Port and Old Montreal from the outdoor platform. And then, having fully earned a big meal, we descended to the third floor and sat down at L’Arrivage, the museum’s restaurant. A fancier place with ultra-correct waiters and a reasonably-priced lunchtime menu, this is a popular place and requires a reservation.

Location on our Map
Archaeology and History Complex Pointe-à-Callière – Website

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April 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm Comments (0)

The Notre-Dame Basilica

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When it opened in 1830, Montreal’s Notre-Dame was the largest church in North America, and it would remain so for fifty years. Today, this French Gothic Revival basilica is one of the top attractions in the city.

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In 1640, during the earliest days of the French colony, the Sulpician Order built the first church of Notre-Dame across from the Place d’Armes. But after a couple hundred years, there were far too many worshipers for the humble church. To reflect its growing power and influence, Montreal required a much grander place of worship.

So the decision was made to tear down the old Notre-Dame, and build something new. James O’Donnell was the architect in charge of the project. This Irish-American protestant was a curious choice for a cathedral in French-speaking Montreal, but it turned out to be an inspired one. Apparently, you don’t need to be Catholic to build catholic churches. Hoping to be buried in his finest architectural creation, O’Donnell converted to Catholicism shortly before his death, and is still the only person entombed in the basilica’s crypt.

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With its two Gothic towers and ornate facade, the Notre-Dame strikes a fine figure when viewed from the Place d’Armes, which it faces. But it isn’t until you step inside that its true beauty is revealed. Bathed in blue and gold, with vaulted ceilings, colorful stained glass, intricate pine carvings and a massive altarpiece, there’s not a corner of the Notre-Dame which fails to impress.

The basilica’s stained glass windows provide a unique touch. They don’t depict religious scenes, as would normally be the case for a church, but moments from the founding of Montreal. Instead of Jesus on the crucifix or the assumption of Mary, we see events like the arrival of the French at the Pointe-à-Callière, the construction of the church, and the re-education of the natives.

The windows will pull your attention to the side, the magnificent altarpiece will bring it to the front, and the blue vaulted roof will compel you to look up, but don’t forget to turn around. At the back of the church, you’ll find another highlight: a giant organ dating from 1891 and made of 7000 individual pipes. It’s recently been tuned (a process which took weeks), and according to our guide, sounds better than ever before. The organ is played during Sunday service.

Behind the altar, we found the Sacré-Cœur Chapel. After an arson attack in 1978, this chapel was completely rebuilt by a team of master carpenters, who used only linden wood. With natural light pouring in from above and illuminating the wooden statues and modern altarpiece, this chapel feels entirely different to the rest of the cathedral; warmer and more rustic. More Canadian, somehow.

Location on our Map
Notre-Dame Basilica – Website

Framed Montreal Photographs

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April 13, 2016 at 3:46 pm Comments (0)
The Canadian Grand Prix 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.
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