November 21 – December 19, 2018 (Winter)
Currency: Dollar ($)
Visa: 180 days
Cost of living: High
Few who visit Montréal have anything bad to say about it. Interpretations seem to range from “it’s nice” to varying degrees of raving about the place. After two months in Québec, prices in the province’s largest city cooled alongside the weather and we found ourselves rounding off our stay in Canada with a month in its storied second city.
Unfortunately we had more than a little trouble finding an upside to our particular stay. The depths of December were less “charming winter wonderland” and more “the air feels like it’s stabbing my lungs.” Dark nights might have brightened under the lights of a welcoming Christmas market… but they canceled it just days before our arrival. With just a handful of underwhelming satellite events left to shoulder the burden of lifting heavy spirits, our experience in the “City of Festivals” was decidedly lackluster.
But even so, Montréal worked hard to defy our lowered expectations. Lovely walks though the nearby Botanical Gardens capped off many of our evenings. And the downtown was both imposingly large and impressively clean for a major city. We hit what tourist sights were open and found them worthy, especially the world-class basilica. And our own excitement about the winter season picked up the city’s slack. Even though our haze of dashed hopes, we could see what makes this place so beloved.
Where we stayed
This month’s Airbnb↗ was situated well north of the downtown core, in the Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie area. Once again we found the streets lined with rows of two- and three-story walk-ups. Our neighborhood’s main boulevards were dotted with shops and restaurants, but the blocks in between remained quietly residential. A small mini-mart (dépanneur) usually bookends nearly every block. The street we lived on, for example, was bounded on both ends with little shops boasting big selections of craft beers, and even a Polish bakery.
Our building was just two stories: the owner/host on the first floor, and the second split into two Airbnb units. This made the layout unusually long and skinny. The thin walls let a lot of neighbor noise pour in when the unit next door was occupied. Thankfully, with our month stay we tended to outlast the noisy interlopers. The apartment did have everything we needed, except maybe a clothes dryer. Air drying tends to take a lot longer in cold weather, so our tiny home was always littered with laundry. Slightly more annoying was the studio-like arrangement of the front-half living space. There was no wall or door to separate the common room and bedroom, just a curtain. It wasn’t quite a studio, but it came a little too close for comfort. At least the cost savings were worth the discomfort in this instance. In any event, the walls kept out the cold, the heat worked better than last month, and the wifi was strong and reliable. So at least “lazy” days stuck indoors were cozy productive↗.
What we did
Montréal’s largest Christmas market, Le Grand Marché de Noël, was canceled just one day before we got to town. Québec City’s didn’t start until the day after we left. Needless to say, we were pretty let down. We chose Québec and Montréal in part for their highly-rated Christmas celebrations. Being in North America didn’t have to mean disappointment after last year’s spectacular markets in Germany↗ and Croatia. But a combination of poor planning and worse luck caught up with us here. With Le Grand Marché shuttered, the remaining options could hardly pick up the slack. Noël dans le Parc, a series of related events split across three park venues, offered small stages with live music and a booth with snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, their calendar of events was pretty sparse. Concerts mainly took place after dark when low temperatures precluded our attendance. The mulled wine options were minimal, but prices were not. All in all they were more like glorified Christmas tree lots. Even compared to the “worst” markets last year in Ljubljana↗, there was absolutely nothing of interest to us at Noël dans le Parc. We also tried the Nutcracker Market at the city’s convention center. This focused on local and artisanal products. We once again missed any semblance of sausages or mulled wine, but at least the vendors were generous with samples. We managed to find some nice local goodies to bring home as Christmas gifts. Tiny specialty markets like the Jewish market were nice for what they were (a few books, crafts, and latkes tucked in a small cafe) but didn’t fully scratch the itch. Hopefully the main market starts up again next year, because without its headlining attraction, the “City of Festivals” was rather disappointing in the festivities department.
Montréal’s Botanical Garden, like most of its parks, lay under a thick cover of snow and ice during our visit. But at least the hefty admission fee was waived in winter. The large park made a great place for walking and the paved paths were reliably cleared. The collections of evergreens and annotated specimens stayed interesting even in the off-season. Even with a half-hour walk from our apartment, it was our favorite getaway. We tried to stop by any time the mercury crept above frost-biting. Across the street is the Olympic Stadium. Completed for the 1976 Olympics, it took another 40 years to pay off. Enormous cost overruns nearly bankrupted the city and caused widespread anger and resentment, especially after the pricey stadium fell into disuse. The odd UFO-like appearance is far from pretty, but at least it’s iconic.
One sunny afternoon, we ventured in the opposite direction to Mount Royal. Montréal is named after this low peak, and it provides decent views over the city. However, though the day we attempted our climb was “warmer,” the paths were coated in a thick layer of slick ice. We, along with plenty of others, tried the trek anyway and ended up flailing (and falling) too much for comfort. Deciding that continuing would likely bring nothing but more pain and injury, we turned around and wandered back through the city’s flatter parks instead, thankful for the salted and cleared sidewalks.
In the city center, the Notre-Dame de Montréal stands proud as not just one of the prettiest churches in North America, but anywhere in the world. The richly-decorated interior made us think of the beautiful ceilings of Kraków’s basilicas↗ or even Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Turns out, we were on to something – the architect did take inspiration from that glittering Parisian chapel. The vibrant stained glass and paintings here feature local scenes and subjects, including ministering to First Nations and other snapshots of religious history in the province. The main altar, dramatically lit and brilliant in blue and gold, is impossible to ignore. A semi-private chapel behind the main hall features another imposing altar, this one a more modern floor-to-ceiling bronze monolith. Perhaps less ornate than the main one, but starker and more somberly moving. We are certain this would have topped our list of favorite sights in Montréal even if we did have another to choose from.
On a less ostentatious (but no less impressive) note, the Grande Bibliothèque of Montréal is an ideal stop for book-lovers and non-book-lovers alike. The beautiful interior is welcoming with plenty of nooks for reading and researching. The vast collections were all easily accessible even without a library card. Though we stepped inside to warm up, it took no time at all to get lost in sprawling stacks of books, especially since there were plenty of choices in English as well as French. The mechanical book return in the entry lobby whisks books away on a conveyor belt that loops through the open basement, an entertainment all by itself.
Food & Drink
The cold weather kept us coming back to the comfort food recipes, even though we weren’t walking as much as usual and felt bad about stuffing our faces in retrospect. We whipped up plenty of baked mac & cheese, bacon-wrapped turkey legs, and stuffed peppers and squashes. A ridiculously good deal on ham kept us fed for days. Though we mostly did our own cooking as usual, we did make a stop at Schwartz’s Deli, a Montréal institution. The place is never not crowded, and for good reason. Their trademark smoked meat sandwich (similar to corned beef) is timeless and delicious.
We had a couple of decent but unremarkable grocery stores nearby to cover the basic needs, Maxi and IGA. Montréal luckily borrows a page from the rest of the world’s book and has some great public markets. A little south of the Olympic Stadium, Marché Maisonneuve had one of every important kiosk – fish, fruits & veggies, cheese, spices, jams, pastries – though with little choice within that framework. We did nosh on our first pastel de nata since Lisbon. It wasn’t as fresh as those at Belem, but the creamy filling still scratched a longstanding itch. The larger Marché Jean-Talon housed many more options, from seafood shops and eateries to a small Balkan grocery and endless produce stands. Though we only ventured there once, it was a worthwhile stop to pick up some local delicacies at good prices, like foie gras and even horse.
Once again, we found plenty of familiar snacks and brands. Canada may be the only nation other than the U.S. that universally stocks peanut butter. Some things are different though. There is definitely more maple flavor. The Nutcracker Market had at least a dozen vendors of maple goods, from syrup to mustard to salad dressings. Maple walnut pastries were perfect for breakfast on a chilly day.
In lieu of other holiday festivities we spent an evening engineering a gingerbread house with lots of candy trim. A small grocery-store kit came with proper-looking walls and candy accoutrements. We added our own trip-inspired touches and then proceeded to demolish it over the following week.
Overall we didn’t find a ton of new favorite beers here. The local craft selections were just a bit too in love with the Belgian style, which is fine in moderation but gets tiring when it’s practically the only thing on shelves. We had a few seasonal beers to celebrate the holidays, but there weren’t as many to choose from as we hoped. Neither Les Trois Mousquetaires’s Réserve de Noël nor Le Trou Du Diable ‘s La Grivoise De Noël impressed us much. Le Bièrologue Montréal, near to Maisonneuve Market, had the best craft selection and offered tastings of wine and beer. There we found our favorite beer of the month: Petit Détour by Dieu du Ciel! Turns out a Belgian-style IPA aged in red wine barrels was the exception that proved the rule.
Our other big disappointment came when our Boréale variety pack was missing half the promised “special edition” beers, replaced instead with double the number of plain lagers. The brewery promised to send us some replacements but then blew us off until we had already left town. I guess we’ll never know if that Scotch Ale du Nord was worth the wait! Of course, we still had to hold on to our empties – like Québec, Montréal has bottle deposits. Feed containers of plastic and metal to machines (found in just about every supermarket), but glass bottles need to be returned at the counter.
We mulled more wine, usually cheap bottles from grocery stores. Nothing we had this month was particularly impressive, and it was all either imported as a finished product or imported in bulk and blended in Canada. One stand-out was the Portuguese Reserva we picked up at SAQ (along with a Super Bock) to round out our month of
appreciating out time in Montréal wishing we were back in Lisbon↗.
We arrived from Québec City↗ on an Orléans Express bus. The departure from Québec brought us again to the city’s bus terminal, which also meant we finally got remembered to take a picture of the classy Gare du Palais ceiling. As usual, people started queuing before the bus even arrived at the platform, but we waited patiently. It turned out a second bus, departing for the Montréal Airport from the very next platform, also stopped in downtown Montréal! The driver happily accepted our tickets, the bus was 1/10th as crowded as the main one, and with fewer passengers at each stop we actually reached the city center before the earlier bus, so our patience really paid off!
Once in Montréal, our apartment was too far to walk, so we grabbed an Uber↗. Though rush hour meant higher fares and a longer ride.
STM↗, Montréal’s transit network, runs buses and three busy metro lines. Most passengers use an OPUS card. A single trip costs $3.25, but multiple trip tickets and passes are available. OPUS cards can be bought at plenty of shops and Metro machines or ticket windows, as can single tickets. Be a little careful, though. We somehow bought bus tickets for RTL (neighboring Longueuil’s transit network) from a machine under an OPUS sign. It was utterly useless on the Metro and we are pretty sure the woman at the Metro kiosk thought we were idiots. Oh well. Also note that the Metro can be crammed at rush hour with long lines of those waiting to board in the downtown stations.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs carried over from the United States↗. AT&T offered the best deal for coverage in the US and Canada, providing talk, text, and a few gigs of data for about $39 (US) per person/month.
Walking around the city brought us past lots of Little Free Libraries, though most were not registered on their website↗. Naturally most of the volumes inside were in French, but Danielle was thrilled to happen across an English copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Montréal, like the rest of Québec, embraces its Francophone past and operates day-to-day in French. But it much larger and more metropolitan than Québec City. English is commonly heard and rarely noticed, and we had no problem getting by with just the most basic French phrases.
This city stood out to us as having some of the best street art we’ve seen in some time. It definitely sends a message that the city has a creative side and doesn’t take itself too seriously. We just wish we saw more of that side of the city during our stay.
What we learned
We had high hopes for Montréal, but found our hearts hardened a bit by the biting winter weather and an unfortunate lack of festivities. Still, we found enough to like that we’d be willing to give it another chance. Maybe in the summer, toasting wine over a picnic in the park, we’d catch a few of the charms that always seemed just out of reach this time.