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A Night at the Casino

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Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal’s state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.

Montreal Casino

The last couple casinos we’ve visited haven’t been so great; sad, dingy places with chain-smokers joylessly feeding machines and lifeless tables, where you leave feeling bad about yourself even if you happen to have won. But I’m happy to report that Montreal’s Casino is not like that. This is the fun type. It’s the kind of place you go to have a good time, and where gambling is almost an afterthought.

We started enjoying ourselves the moment we stepped inside. Just past the entrance, a band was rocking out in front of a large crowd, most of whom were dancing. The bar area was packed, the machines were ringing, the noise level was insane, and everything was lit up by a massive LED-backdrop the size of a tennis court which extends from behind the stage all the way up to the top floor.

Montreal Casino

Unlike in most casinos, there are plenty of windows and a real sense of space; in Montreal, they’re not trying to confuse you with a maze of slot machines, or make you forget the time of day. The floors of the casino are interconnected by an open central atrium, so that even from the top, you can look all the way down to see the band jamming. And the views are beautiful… the casino is mostly surrounded by water, and the skyline of downtown Montreal is visible in the near distance.

The main building of the casino is the former French Pavilion, built for Expo 67, and it’s also connected to the neighboring gold cube of the Quebec Pavilion, where you’ll find yet more floors of games, as well as the poker tables. This was perhaps the only place in the casino that I would characterize as “quiet.” The people seated around these tables were concentrating so intensely, it was intimidating. If we hoped to one day be able to take a place here, we were going to need some lessons.

Montreal Casino

Luckily, we knew where to go. Jonathan Duhamel, a world poker champion, was on-hand at the casino to give free lessons. He’s a native of Quebec and often makes appearances. The game we learned with him was three-card poker, a variation which I’d never heard of before. We played a few hands and, within fifteen minutes, went from total newbies to totally overconfident. Time to hit the tables!

Montreal Casino

We wandered over to the a room called “The Zone”, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a casino. This was more like a dance club, with a set of four DJs on the stage. Except, instead of dancing, we were sitting at terminals playing blackjack, and instead of spinning records, the DJs were flipping cards over. Everyone in The Zone was playing the same hands, and it was all live-projected on the screens behind DJ Croupier… so if he busted, everyone won.

After playing there and at a couple more traditional tables, we gathered up our winnings and went to the casino’s restaurant on the top floor. Even though it was late at night, this place was packed, and for good reason: the food is excellent and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Plus, from so high up, you get a great view over the city.

Montreal Casino

We had an awesome night out at the Montreal Casino, although I’m not sure that’s good news. Our last casino experiences had been so miserable, that we had started to lose our love of gambling. But now it’s been rekindled! Even as we were leaving the casino, I was plotting how to justify a return trip.

(Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered twenty dollars worth of chips still in my pocket. “Oh my, I forgot to cash these in. We’ll have to go back at some point.” Jürgen regarded me suspiciously… I’m not sure I fooled him. And I’m not sure I care!)

Location on our Map
Montreal Casino – Website

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May 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm Comment (1)

Boulevard Saint Laurent, aka “The Main”

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Cutting straight across the Island of Montreal, Boulevard Saint Laurent is considered to be the dividing line between the city’s French-speaking half on the east, and the English half to the west. Known colloquially as “The Main,” the neighborhoods which line themselves along the boulevard, from north to south, are home to various populations of immigrants.

Boulevard Saint Laurent

The Main’s total length is over ten kilometers, and walking the entire distance would take most of a day, so we decided to check out about half of it, starting at Rosemont Avenue and heading south.

The neighborhoods on the western side of Saint Laurent have historically been English, while those to the east have been French-speaking. Given the strife between the city’s two factions, Saint Laurent has taken on significant symbolic meaning as the “line” which divides them. And in the middle of all this drama have been the immigrants, waves of whom have settled along the Main… Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, and more.

Not only does Saint Laurent serve as a handy metaphor for Montreal’s bipolar nature, it’s also the literal dividing line between east and west. From here, the building numbers start at zero, and street names are appended with “East” or “West.” This means that, in Montreal, it’s not sufficient to say “2100 Rue Ste-Catherine,” because 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Oest is on the opposite side of the city from 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Est.

Boulevard Saint Laurent

During our walk down Saint Laurent Boulevard, we came to appreciate the extent of Montreal’s street art scene. We almost couldn’t find a wall that hadn’t been beautified with some grand-scale painting. At the Gallery Espace Go, an entire passageway has been converted into a single black-and-white work. Most of the paintings were of high quality, and look like they were commissioned. In fact, there’s a summer festival during which artists from around the world are invited to paint on St. Laurent’s walls.

From graffiti to more traditional forms of art, Montreal’s commitment to culture is evident on the boulevard. We passed a ton of galleries, and even the regular shops seemed somehow more artsy than normal. Whether you’re selling furniture, clothes or books, I guess you need some artistic sensibility to fit in here. Even the butcher shop, the Boucherie Lawrence, was the hippest butcher shop we’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t feel remotely cool enough to buy meat there. They’d be able to sense that I was planning on making something pedestrian, like hamburgers. “Out, you clean-shaven yuppie! Our beef is not for the likes of you!”

Boulevard Saint Laurent

But even more than the shopping, we appreciated the variety of food available on Saint Laurent, which truly reflects the boulevard’s diversity. Bagel shops and delis, fine Portuguese and Spanish restaurants, Irish pubs, Caribbean grills, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Greek and more. And I’m pretty sure all of them were serving some sort of twist on poutine.

By the time we had passed through Chinatown and reached the old port, we had been walking for hours, and felt like we’d seen the perfect cross-section of Montreal. And we had restricted ourselves to a single street! But of course, Boulevard Saint Laurent isn’t just a street like any other… few in the world have as much character and history.

Location of the Start of our Walk
Blvd St. Laurent – Website

Another City With Great Street Art: VALENCIA

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May 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm Comments (2)

Butterflies and More at the Greenhouse

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Included in the ticket to the Insectarium is a free entrance to the neighboring Botanic Garden. With two dozen thematic zones like the Chinese Garden, Rose Garden and Courtyard of the Senses, the Botanic Garden is huge… but we wouldn’t be seeing much of it. It was freezing in Montreal, and snow was still covering the ground. So we decided to delay a thorough exploration of the garden, and instead scurried straight into the greenhouse.

Greenhouse and Butterflies

Every year, from February to April, the Main Greenhouse of the Botanic Garden hosts an exhibition called “Butterflies Go Free,” during which hundreds of butterflies are set loose. The variety is astounding; along with the familiar species like monarchs, there are some massive and bizarre butterflies to be found. And they’re everywhere, munching on plates of fruit, sucking the nectar from flowers, flapping past your face, or resting on a leaf. If you have sharp eyes, you’ll also be able to spot caterpillars and chrysalises.

Greenhouse and Butterflies

The butterfly exhibit was the highlight, but it’s just one section of perhaps a dozen in this incredible greenhouse. We spent an hour walking from one end to the other, checking out ferns, orchids, palms, cacti and more. Set inside a boomerang-shaped hall, it’s all beautifully designed, with waterfalls, raised platforms, and even a mock hacienda in the cactus section.

Location on our Map
Jardin Botanique – Website

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April 25, 2016 at 1:31 pm Comments (0)
A Night at the Casino Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal's state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.
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