My mom is always fretting about what she can and cannot bring through customs on returning legs of international trips (there was a bad experience in the Atlanta airport with a food-sniffing Beagle and a smuggled sandwich from Pret a Manger). As we departed Canada from Montréal's Trudeau International Airport, the customs officer asked us what we were declaring and she quickly answered "just three cans of maple syrup! That's it! Just some cans of maple syrup."
Customs officer: O___o, ok lady relax.
Needless to say, we safely entered the country not only with our cans of maple syrup but a whole new sense of what the Canadian province of Quebec is all about. Canada, an area of the world often skimmed over by history books, has a deep and fascinating past that runs parallel to America's early history. We visited Quebec, one of the ten provinces in Canada, which is notably the only one that is entirely French speaking. The French language is written into the laws of Quebec, and it's mandated throughout the province that French is the first language on all public signage and that it is taught as the primary language in all schools. Our first stop in the province was the city of Montréal, nestled along the St. Lawrence river, and second only in size to Toronto.
Day (1): We arrived in the afternoon and got settled into our lovely Airbnb, in the heart of downtown and just blocks away from Old Montréal. It's quite interesting to be in a French speaking city just a two hour plane ride away from Atlanta (for the record, this was my second not-France, French vacation in the past three months as St. Martin kicked off my summer in May). We walked to one of the many rooftop terrace bars and restaurants that are so popular during the mild summer months. The Terrasse Place d'Armes is located inside the Hotel Place d'Armes. The Brussel sprout and green apple salad and the veggie flatbread are both a must-try!
Day (2): Something I always look forward to is a good private walking tour on the first day in a new city. We booked a private tour with the well-respected tour company, Fitz and Follwell, who specializes in biking and walking tours throughout Montrêal. Our outgoing tour guide Frédéric (possibly the Frenchest person to ever exist) met us at the Pointe-á-Calliére museum for a little pre-tour video screening (we were in the theater with about 75 little French-Canadian kids and their teenage chaperones -- adorable!). Frédéric took us through Old Montréal, basically the historic city center. He gave us the lowdown on how Montréal came to be, from the arrival of Maisonneuve, the first governor of Montréal, and Jeanne Mance, a French nurse who established the first hospital in Montréal in 1642, to the "Quiet Revolution" of the 70s which called for a secular government, increased nationalism, and economic reform.
Post-tour, we grabbed lunch and rested up a bit. My mom and I had our sights set on seeing the Horst exhibit at the McCord Museum on McGill University campus (a major English-speaking university in Montréal). We were lucky enough to catch the "free entrance after 5 pm on Wednesdays" deal and only had to pay a separate fee for the Horst exhibit. Horst Bohrmann (who later became known as Horst P. Horst, believe or not) was a German-American photographer who worked for Vogue for years, photographing models, actresses, and society figures in the fashions of the time. It's a magnificent exhibit, and it's presented by my favorite museum in the world, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the V&A). Elegant snapshots, couture gowns, and vintage Vogue covers dating back to the early 20th century were all on display. The exhibit also touched on Horst's personal life, his travels, and his relationship with icons such as Coco Chanel, Condé Nast, and Harry Truman. Unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed inside, but I snapped a few of the front. This exhibit runs until August 23, 2015 and the rest of the museum is dedicated to Canadian history and culture.
Day (3): We got up early the next day to explore Mount Royal and the park that sits atop it. Lush flora and well-groomed paths make this a fantastic place to get some fresh air (and possibly some exercise if you don't take a cab like us). We actually got dropped off halfway up and hiked the rest of the way, stopping at beautiful lookouts and soaking up the mild Canadian temps. According to legend, Maisonneuve erected the cross to fulfill a promise to the Virgin Mary if Montréal was protected from deadly flooding.
After our amble through the park, we made a huge mistake. A huge, noisy, screaming mistake. Montréal hosted the Olympics in 1976 (the scene of the record-breaking Caitlyn Jenner decathlon) and a huuuuge Olympic Park was built for the event. Located around the Olympic building is the Biosphere, Insectarium and the Botanical Gardens. We first walked into the Biosphere thinking it wouldn't be bad on a Thursday at 2 pm because the rest of Montréal is eerily quiet and nowhere is truly crowded to the point where you'd have to stand in line. WRONG.
Children everywhere. Line wrapped around the building. Some weird, stale fish-stick stench wafting through the building. We cut our losses and decided to head to the Botanical Gardens. After much walking ("If this were Disney World, we'd be on moving sidewalks right now. Americans just know how to move people"), we reached the Botanical Gardens only to have to enter through the Insectarium. One of my worst nightmares: dozens of rambunctious children, loads of strollers and several "clawed centipedes" just waiting for an overturned enclosure for their escape up someone's pant leg.
I snapped this one cool picture (scarab beetles) and fled for the Botanical Gardens.
By the time we got to the Botanical Gardens, we were tired, hungry, and a little burnt out on the Olympic Park. We took a very slow meander through the gardens and saw some baby ducks (BEBE CANARD!).
That evening, we went out for drinks and dessert at one of Montréal's famous jazz clubs. Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill is an all-brick, candlelit underground jazz club that has alternating performers every night of the week. We caught a cute ginger lady singer, Roxanne Roy, doing covers of Frank Sinatra.
Day (4): I was determined to use the Metro at least once to get a feel for public transportation and it was probably one of the simplest Metros I've ever been on. Super cheap, easy to use, and stations near all points of interest. We took the Metro to Marché Jean-Talon, an outdoor market in a residential area of the city. I looove visiting farmers markets everywhere I go -- there is nothing like picking up fresh, local produce and sampling from all the vendors. This was a good one, almost rivaling La Boqueria in Barcelona. We bought blueberries. cherries, and cucumbers for a fraction of the price of what they cost at home. It was rainy and dreary, but I could've stayed here for hours. Definitely a must-see when in Montréal!
My mom and I went from the market to an area known as "Gay Village" via bus (also very easy to use). Gay Village is apparently home to one of North American's oldest gay establishments, Moise Tellier's Apple and Cake Shop (euphemism? maybe), dating back to 1869. Strands of pink balls were hung from building to building across the street and rainbow flags flew high. Despite it being well-populated and completely safe, there was a very gritty vibe about it -- the main street itself had many restaurants and shops but also it's fair share of colorful characters that makes it a bit of a seedier area. It's worth a stop if you have a free afternoon and the area has tons of potential, but I wouldn't add it to the top of the list.
We just happened to be in town during the annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, and we bought tickets for the Ellie Kemper Gala. There were several different galas hosted by a comedian or public figure (this year included big names like Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Cumming, Trevor Noah and Jane Lynch) and each gala had around 10 comedians doing a short standup routine. Ours included Michael Che (SNL), Pete Holmes, Margaret Cho, Chris Hardwick (@midnight with Chris Hardwick), Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show), and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley). There were points where I thought I would suffocate from laughter and tears were rolling down my face. Great performances and a memorable night.
Montréal was an all-around unique city. Everything was extremely mellow and Canadians seem like a pretty content bunch. For a population so ensconced in their French-Canadian culture and so rigid in their spoken language of choice, they were surprisingly helpful and pleased when I blundered through what minimal, small-talk French I know. Everyone speaks both French and English and not broken English but English with an American accent. Sitting next to a party of young professionals at a restaurant, I overheard them order in French, talk about their day in English, take phone calls in French and then greet their arriving friend in English. It's a completely bilingual city and it's honestly amazing. Montréal was thoroughly enjoyable -- it doesn't have a glamorous pull, but it has it's fair share of interesting facets that make it unique.