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Holiday, Vacation & Tour


Hello From Montreal: Exploring Montreal's History

Every time I go to a new city, the spirit of adventure and discovery heightens my energy level and 6:10 am I was already awake. I read my guidebook for a while and then doze off again, only to be awakened by a major thunderstorm that drenched the city with a downpour. So I got up and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and by 9:30 or so things had calmed down again, just in time for my explorations of the city. The Old Montreal Ghost Tour last night had already given me a bit of an...

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, History, Notre, Dame, Architecture

Every time I go to a new city, the spirit of adventure and discovery heightens my energy level and 6:10 am I was already awake. I read my guidebook for a while and then doze off again, only to be awakened by a major thunderstorm that drenched the city with a downpour. So I got up and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and by 9:30 or so things had calmed down again, just in time for my explorations of the city. The Old Montreal Ghost Tour last night had already given me a bit of an overview of the old historic centre of Montreal and introduced me to some interesting characters.

Five minutes from my hotel is the Place d’Armes, one of Montreal’s most famous squares. The old part of the city was still quiet, and I enjoyed a peacefull stroll through the cobble-stoned streets. I headed into one of Montreal’s Tourist Information Office, located right at the southwest corner of Rue Notre Dame and Place Jacques Cartier to stock up on maps and ask various questions of the helpful staff.

Old Montreal in the morning has such a European feel to it, with the little cafés just setting up shop and local residents getting ready to walk to work. The calm relaxed atmosphere contrasts quite sharply with the usual frenetic hustle and bustle that we are so used to in our North American metropolitan cities.

After a relaxing walk that allowed me to admire the architecture and the narrow streets and alleyways I returned to Place d’Armes where my Old Montreal Walking Tour, provided by licensed tour guides from Guidatour, would be starting at 11:00 am. The meeting place was just outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral and our two tour leaders were already waiting. Our English-speaking group would be handled by Louis while the French-speaking group was entrusted to another guide, Bruno.

Eleven of us tourists congregated around Louis and in his charming French accented yet perfect English he started to educate us about the history and architecture of Old Montreal, adding a dose of subtle humour. Naturally our tour started with the Basilica of Notre Dame, probably Montreal’s most visited building. Louis took us inside the basilica and we discovered that the C$15 admission ticket for the walking tour actually covers the $4 that the Basilica charges for admission.

The Basilica of Notre Dame is a magnificent Gothic revival church, designed ironically by the Protestant Irish-American architect James O’Donnell who had also designed churches in New York City, and built between 1824 and 1829. In addition to a stunning Gothic revival exterior, Notre Dame features a dramatic interior, with a deep blue ceiling that is decorated with golden stars. It is one of the most unusual churches I have seen and its visual impact is stunning.

Louis explained to us that for about Can$2000 you can get married in this church, but obviously there is a waiting list of at least two years. Celebrities like Quebecois singer Celine Dion and hockey great Mario Lemieux got married here. Notre-Dame Basilica was also the location of former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s funeral, Canada's most well-known prime minister. Louis then took us through the side chapel out into the wedding chapel, officially called “La Chapelle Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur” which unfortunately was seriously damaged in a fire in 1978. Much of the woodwork has been reconstructed in a more modern style, but the chapel is still an impressive space.

After our first introduction to Montreal architecture we walked westwards just a few steps on Rue Notre-Dame and had a look at Montreal’s oldest building: the Old Seminary or “Vieux Séminaire Saint-Sulpice”. Built in 1683 by Sulpician priests, this building used to be a manor from which the priests managed their vast land holdings. During the early years of Montreal’s history, the town’s citizens were exposed to frequent attacks by the Iroquois, and the Old Seminary represented a refuge in a place that was still mostly wilderness. The characteristic public clock was installed in 1701 and is among the oldest such timekeepers in all of North America.

We then stopped to admire Place d’Armes, right in front of the Basilica, so called because it used to be a location for military manoeuvres as well as for religious processions. Place d’Armes is a veritable collection of architectural history. The New York Insurance building, dating back to 1888, was the first building to install the newly invented elevator, at the time making it the highest building in all of Montreal. The Hotel Place d’Armes just north, originally five stories high, actually had three stories added once the building was retrofitted with an elevator.

The Aldred Building is a fine example of Art Deco skyscraper architecture and for many years it was the highest building in Montreal. Louis quite appropriately referred to the stepped back skysraper design as the wedding cake architectural style. The centre of Place d’Armes is watched over by a statue of Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maissoneuve, who founded Montreal in 1642.

The north end of Place d’Armes holds another architectural marvel: the Bank of Montreal building. Founded in 1817 as the first bank in Canada, the Bank of Montreal decided to build an impressive headquarters in 1847 and created a neoclassical exterior modeled after the Roman Pantheon. The interior was completely redesigned in 1904 to 1905 by the famous New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White with a magnificent banking hall modeled after a Roman basilica.

Heading west of St. James Street (or rue St-Jacques), Louis explained that this used to be Canada’s business centre during the 19th century. Many Canadian banks had their headquarters here until they were moved into downtown Montreal or later to Toronto. Railway and shipping companies also had their head offices here, many of them founded by immigrants from Scotland.

The architectural mix on rue St-Jacques is impressive and Louis pointed out one example that has recently been renovated and reincarnated as the extremely upscale St. James Hotel. This trendy boutique hotel offers a penthouse suite that can be rented for around $5000 a night (in low season) and it is a favourite hangout of celebrities. To mention just one example, Madonna just stayed at the St. James recently at the end of June during her Montreal concert stop.

Another truly impressive architectural jewel came into view: the former head office of the Royal Bank, whose construction began in 1928 according to designs by famous New York skyscrapers experts York and Sawyer. For a long time this building was the largest in the British Empire. The design is influenced by a Florentine palazzo and the impressive high ceilings of the Great Hall feature the coats of arms of eight of Canada’s ten provinces.

Unfortunately no photography was allowed in either the Bank of Montreal or the Royal Bank buildings, but they are astounding examples of architectural styles of different eras. Louis then took us through the narrow streets of Old Montreal towards the city’s waterfront and the birthplace of the city. As a major port town and shipping centre, many of the buildings in Old Montreal were warehouse buildings featuring large windows to let in a lot of natural daylight. This was to reduce the risk of fire that would have been caused by artificial lighting at the time, putting at risk the precious cargo that these buildings were storing.

I kept asking Louis numerous questions about the architecture and social history of Montreal. His knowledge of architecture was impressive, and to compare architectural styles, he was referencing numerous other well-known buildings in other cities such as New York City, Toronto, Boston and Chicago. He mentioned that a lot of historic buildings were torn down in Montreal during the 1960s as in so many other North American cities, but fortunately the architectural preservation movement gained strength and today all of Old Montreal is protected.

Old Montreal languished for a number of decades since most of the action had moved downtown, but in the last fourty years Vieux Montréal has experienced a revival that started with the major international event of Expo 67. Today, many of these former warehouse buildings have been converted into upscale condos and Louis informed me that even a small studio apartment will probably fetch a price tag of at least half a million dollars. Old Montreal has made a successful transition from a former commercial district to a vibrant tourism, entertainment and residential area.

Close to the waterfront we arrived at Place d’Youville, an elongated public space that is located on the former riverbed of the Rivière Saint-Pierre that was canalized in the 1830s and eventually covered over and dried out completely. The History Centre of Montreal is a former fire station and a rare example of Flemish architecture in Quebec.

Just a few steps east is Montreal’s Museum of Archeology and History at Pointe-à-Callière. It is very rare to know exactly where a city was founded, but Montrealers know exactly where their city first came into being: on a narrow strip of land between the St. Lawrence and the Saint-Pierre River. Right there the first settlers built Fort Ville-Marie, using earth and wooden posts. As a matter of fact, on May 17, 1642, Father Vimont held a mass celebrating the founding of Montréal, attended by Sieur de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and some of the other founding colonists.

Today, the museum consists of six buildings and introduces visitors to the city’s history in the most innovative ways. There is even an archeological dig here, unearthing further knowledge about the city’s history. Various festivals including a multicultural festival and a historic market weekend are also held a Pointe-à-Callière.

Our route then took us back up to Notre Dame Street. The former Palais de Justice, built between 1849 and 1856, is a fine example of Canadian neoclassicism. Today the building houses the Quebec Court of Appeal. Across the street is the Ernst Cormier Building, opened in 1926 and named after the famous architect that also designed the main pavillon of the Université de Montreal as well as the doors of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

Our tour through Old Montreal appropriately came to an end at Place Jacques-Cartier, the gently sloping grandest public space of Old Montreal. Numerous restaurants with outdoor terraces line both sides of the square and the centre holds a variety of wooden stalls selling flowers, artwork and souvenirs. The north end of the square is overlooked by a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who curiously faces away from Montreal’s port area. The statue is a testimony to the power of the merchants of British descent who wished to commemorate the British defeat of the French and Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar.

The northeast end of Place Jacques Cartier is the location of Montreal’s City Hall, built in the Second Empire Style and opened in 1878. A fire destroyed the roof and the interior of the building in 1922 and the roof was reconstructed in 1926 along the lines of the city hall in Tours, France. Today, Montreal’s City Hall is still located in this historic building.

Place Jacques-Cartier was a fitting place to end our tour of Old Montreal and everyone in the crowd thanked Louis profusely for sharing his local insight and knowledge. By this time it was almost 1 pm, and my stomach was telling me what it was time for: lunch at the Café du Chateau.


Hello From Montreal: Neighbourhood Connections In The Park On Lovely Square St. Louis

After an enjoyable late lunch at Mañana and after learning about the interesting life story of its owner, Angel Broncales, I was ready for enjoying a little bit of afternoon relaxation and right across from Mañana is a beautiful urban park called Square St. Louis. Its history goes back a long way, all the way to 1848 when the City of Montreal installed a water reservoir on top of a hill. 31 years later the reservoir was taken down and the entire site was converted into a publ...

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Square St. Louis, tour, adventure

After an enjoyable late lunch at Mañana and after learning about the interesting life story of its owner, Angel Broncales, I was ready for enjoying a little bit of afternoon relaxation and right across from Mañana is a beautiful urban park called Square St. Louis. Its history goes back a long way, all the way to 1848 when the City of Montreal installed a water reservoir on top of a hill. 31 years later the reservoir was taken down and the entire site was converted into a public park.

The centre of the park, situated in Montreal’s popular Latin Quarter neighbourhood, features a classic Victorian fountain, surrounded by a large number of benches that attract local residents, university students, artists and tourists in search of a shady spot to relax. Someone had brought a guitar and was strumming folk songs, children were playing, and a dog was swimming in the water of the fountain. A peaceful atmosphere imbued this urban green space. Surrounding the park is a collection of eclectic Second Empire townhouses and some people say that this square might be the closest thing to a European neighbourhood square.

As I was sitting and just taking in this picturesque environment, a young man sat down next to me and we started chatting. He said that he is originally from Antigua and grew up in Oakville, Ontario, just outside of Toronto. He went to university in Virginia, did his graduate degree at McGill in Montreal and finally a PhD at Cornell University. He told me that today he runs a biotech company located in Boston and occasionally he has to travel up on business to Montreal.

Since he lived in Montreal while taking his graduate degree, he had a chance to get to know the city up-close and says he loves Montreal, especially because of its bohemian character and its European flair. He actually lived around the corner from Square St. Louis, and he is always drawn back to this neighbourhood whenever he comes back to Montreal.

Curious about his experiences studying in different parts in the United States, I asked him what his experience was like, particularly as a visible minority. He indicated that issues such as race, religion and sex are taken much more seriously in the US than they are in Canada. He added that Montreal is a very relaxed place and racial background is not much of an issue. In his opinion, language is a much more important topic in Montreal.

As we chatted, two young ladies, one from California and from Washington, D.C., came by and requested us to take a picture. We chatted for a while and they told us that they were visiting a friend who lives here in Montreal. The atmosphere in Square St. Louis was so open and relaxed, people just felt comfortable approaching complete strangers to sit down and chat. I was having a great time.

Shortly after, the young man said goodbye and I continued my exploration of the Latin Quarter on foot. Montreal’s stone townhouses represent a very unique and beautiful architectural style that you will not find in any other city. As I got ready for my next item on the itinerary, a visit to Montreal’s Islands and the Casino de Montreal, I relished this neighbourhood encounter between total strangers, inspired by the serene surroundings of Square St. Louis.


Hello From Montreal: One Final Walk Through Downtown, Admiring Its Architectural Beauties

My exciting long weekend in Montreal unfortunately had to come to an end. After an exciting day of exploration yesterday that ended with an absolutely delicious dinner at Nuances, the fine dining restaurant at the Casino de Montreal, capped by an impressive pyro-musical performance at La Ronde, I rested up so I would be able to squeeze in a few more hours of discovery this morning. One more exploration of the city before I would have to had back to Toronto on the train before...

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, architecture, downtown

My exciting long weekend in Montreal unfortunately had to come to an end. After an exciting day of exploration yesterday that ended with an absolutely delicious dinner at Nuances, the fine dining restaurant at the Casino de Montreal, capped by an impressive pyro-musical performance at La Ronde, I rested up so I would be able to squeeze in a few more hours of discovery this morning. One more exploration of the city before I would have to had back to Toronto on the train before noon.

With all my suitcases duly packed I went off for one more urban adventure. Fortunately checkout wasn't until noon, so I was able to leave my luggage at the hotel and just head off with my camera and my backpack. I started walking west on Rue De La Gauchetière Ouest which starts off as a fairly small street surrounded by five or six story high older buildings. The first major sight I came across was St. Patrick's Basilica.

This gothic revival building, a designated Canadian heritage site, is one of the most magnificent examples of this style in all of Canada. The massive arrival of Irish immigrants in the early 1800s created the need for more houses of worship and construction of St. Patrick's was started in 1843 with the first mass being celebrated in 1847. The interior of this church features 150 oil paintings of saints and is known for the "St. Patrick's Chimes", a chime system composed of ten bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1774.

I continued west past increasingly modern buildings until I happened across a major urban square: Dorchester Square, formerly known as Dominion Square. This wide open public space is a former cemetery which held the victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic. Today it holds several statues, including a monument commemorating the victims of the Boers War, a statue of Robert Burns - a Scottish poet, and another statue of Sir Wilfried Laurier, a former Canadian prime minister.

The south side of the square is called Place du Canada, which is the setting for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony which honours Canadians that were killed in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean War. Dorchester Square is surrounded by several magnificent buildings. The north end holds the Dominion Square Building which is also the location of the Centre Infotouriste, Montreal Tourism's headquarters.

The east side of Dorchester Square is adorned by one of Montreal's most astounding buildings: Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. This impressive church is one of two surviving local churches from the era before 1875. It illustrates the power that the church wielded before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. One of Montreal's catholic bishops, Ignace Bourget, devised a grandiose plan to outshine the Notre Dame Basilica.

He decided to commission a church that would be a replica of Rome's St. Peter's Cathedral with a location right in the middle of a Protestant neighbourhood. Construction lasted from 1870 to 1894 and the copper statues of thirteen patron saints of Montreal's parishes were installed in 1900. The church underwent extensive modernization in the 1950s. In recent years there has been significant reconstruction and the statue of Bishop Ignace Bourget outside the cathedral was restored in 2005. Mary Queen of the World was named a National Historic Site of Canada on May 14, 2006.

Further north on Place du Canada is the Sun Life Building which was finished in 1931 after three stages of construction. It was built exclusively for the Sun Life Assurance Company and measures 122 meters in height and counts 24 stories. Although the new head office of the Royal Bank of Canada at 360 Saint Jacques Street in Montreal was taller by several floors, the Sun Life Building was at the time the largest building in terms of square footage anywhere in the British Empire. The Sun Life Building has historic significance: during World War II the basement vaults of the Sun Life Building were the secret hiding place of the Crown Jewels of England and the gold bullion of the Bank of England. Today it stands as Montreal's 17th highest building.

On the West side of Place du Canada are also several historic buildings, starting with St. George's Anglican Church, a Gothic Revival-style church, which was opened for worship in October of 1870. Its main features include the magnificent double hammer-beam roof, one of the largest of its type in the world. The unique column-free interior combines elements of both English and French Gothic plans, and the church features magnificent wood carvings in the chancel.

The original bells of the church had to be sent out to a country church since the sound of the 13 bells was considered too loud for a city church. A new set of 10 bells of a lower tone was installed in 1901 and the new sound was deemed to be beautiful. The original architect considered to include a clock in the clock tower but was concerned about a clock spoiling the appearance. In addition, with the church facing Windsor Station, the architect was afraid of the wrath of railway passengers in the event that the clock was going to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, the clock was installed, only losing 6 seconds a year. A public clock was extremely important to people at the time since wrist watches had not been invented yet and pocket watches were difficult to access under thick winter apparel.

Right across the Street from St. George's is Windsor Station - one of Montreal's historic railway stations. Cornelius Van Horne, the famous chairman of Canadian Pacific, asked well-known architect Bruce Price to draw up plans for a modern railway station in 1887 to serve Canada's transcontinental railroad. Price had already gained lots of experience from constructing skyscrapers in Manhattan, he had also built the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Banff Springs Hotel and other chateau-style buildings across Canada and was the prime candidate to build this project. The railway station opened in 1889 and was enlarged in 1916 with a 15-story main tower. Windsor Station, built in a solid Richardson Romanesque revival style, witnessed a big expansion in rail travel in the early 20th century. In 1979 Windsor Station was abandoned in favour of Montreal's Gare Centrale for transcontinental passenger traffic, but continued to house local commuter trains until 1993. Today it holds a hotel, a variety of stores and offices and the beautifully preserved central concourse still features the original arrivals and departure board and is used as a venue for major events. A major beer festival is also held at the Station annually. In recognition of its historic and architectural significance Windsor Station was named the first heritage train station in Canada in 1990.

After my explorations on Dorchester Square I strolled to the north-east end of this grand public space to enter one of Montreal's most popular streets: Rue St-Catharines. This street stretches for a length of 15 km and is Montreal's main commercial artery. Hundreds of stores and fashion retailers are located along this busy street and it also is the main location of the Montreal Jazz Festival. Since the 1960s several shopping centres have sprouted up and replaced some of the older townhouses that used to flank this historical thoroughfare. Montreal's Eaton Centre is the most recent addition to the shopping centres on St. Catharines.

This street also features a wealth of historic buildings including Christ Church Cathedral. This impressive Neo-Gothic church was built in 1858 and consecrated in 1867 in the growing Gold Square Mile area. The architect Frank Mills used the cathedral of Salisbury, his home town, as a model for this building. The church features a beautiful stained glass window and surprisingly, the church itself rests on the roofs of an underground mall. Prior to the construction of the mall, the church was actually sinking into the soft ground. Indeed the original steeple had to be removed in 1927 due to its heavy weight and a much lighter steeple made of aluminum was constructed in 1940. Today the underground shopping centre, whose 1987 excavation required the church to be supported by concrete beams in mid-air, provides adequate structural support for the church. The 34-story office tower behind the church is topped by a crown of thorns and makes for a popular photo motif.

I continued to walk east on St. Catherines and happened upon Phillips Square, a beautiful urban space where the retail trade began in Montreal. Rue St. Catharines had formerly been a purely residential area. Henry Morgan, a Scottish immigrant with excellent connections in the dry goods retail trade in Glasgow, had moved a retail store to a new location at St. Catharines and Phillips Square after the old city , location of most of the retailers warehouses, had suffered a devastating flood in 1886. This store, built in the solid Richardson Romanesque style, later became "The Bay", for the "Hudson's Bay Company", which is a chain of about 100 fashion department stores operating throughout Canada whose origins date back to the fur traders of the 1600s. The centre of Phillips Square is home to a monument of King Edward VII, and a Birks jewellery store, located in an attractive sandstone building, flanks the square on the west side.

It was getting close to departure time so I speeded up my walk back to the hotel. There was one more major architectural attraction on my way: St. James United Church. Completed in 1889, the present St. James Church is the fourth home of the St. James congregation and due to its impressive size it used to be known as the Cathedral Church of Methodism. The two towers anchored around a central large rose window are reminiscent of great French Gothic cathedrals. As a matter of fact, St. James United Church was hidden by commercial storefronts from 1926 onwards in order to raise revenue. The church remained concealed for more than 78 years and after the demolition of the commercial buildings it was finally uncovered again in 2005 and is currently undergoing some exterior renovations.

On my way back to the hotel I thought what amazing architectural wealth and beauty Montreal has to offer. From Old Montreal and the Old Port, first and foremost led by Notre-Dame Basilica, to its stunning Second Empire City Hall area to the historic centres of commerce on Rue St-Jacques or St. James Street to the magnificent public and religious buildings that can be seen all over the downtown core, Montreal dazzles with its architectural heritage.

Any architecture and history buff can't help but love this city and I realized that three and a half days in this city are barely enough to scratch the surface. As I settled into my comfortable seat in the Via Rail coach back to Toronto I concluded that this trip was just an introduction, a mere overview, a brief taste of a diverse, multi-faceted city, with so many more places to explore in detail next time I come back.


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