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Montreal: La Vie En Rose

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It has the largest French-speaking population outside Paris, but it's not Marseille; it has some of the most spectacular Oriental gardens in the world, but it's not Tokyo; and its gay village is the biggest in North America, but it's not San Francisco.

The longer you linger in Montreal, the more surprising it gets. Located on a triangular island beside the mighty St Lawrence Seaway, Montreal has come a long way from its origins as a 17th century fur-trading post. It's now the biggest city in Quebec, with a
population of over three million.

At first glance, the swaggering skyscrapers and grid-patterned streetscapes of Montreal could pass for any North American city. Closer inspection reveals the big difference: most of what happens in Montreal happens in French.

Language has long been a hot potato in this part of Canada, with the French-speaking community defending itself against the rising tide of English. But tourists rarely get caught up in the war of words, and even if your attempts to go native leave you tongue-tied, you can quickly drop back into English without penalty. In fact, you're more likely to receive an apology than a reprimand as soon as Montrealers find you floundering in French.

In any case, Montreal's French connection transcends language. You can hear it in the music, taste it in the food, and in the old town you can see it in the architecture.

The elegant city hall is a like an Hotel de Ville that's been transported from France. Perhaps that's why Charles de Gaulle was inspired to declare freedom for Quebec from its balcony. It overlooks Place Jacques Cartier, named in honour of the first European to explore this part of Canada. Lined with souvenir shops and restaurants, the square (actually more of an oblong) is a suitably spacious space for events all year round, from summer jazz concerts to Halloween horror shows. After years of neglect, the old town of Montreal is enjoying a renaissance. Its cobbled streets and stone buildings have been spruced up, and the Bonsecours market, with its distinctive silvery dome, has been transformed into a showcase for Montreal's most talented visual artists.

The old town is also home to Notre Dame Cathedral. Looking more like Westminster Abbey than its Parisian namesake, the neo-Gothic basilica is well worth a visit, whatever your religious leanings. The interior is a blaze of colour. Its stained glass windows depict the city's history, while the magnificent altar-piece is set against a star-spangled azure sky. A smaller chapel behind the altar is no less impressive, so it's hardly surprising that it was here that Quebec's patron saint, Celine Dion, took her wedding vows in 1994.

Divine they may be, but Notre Dame's delights can only go so far, and once you're ready to exchange Hail Marys for male hairies, you can take the fast, efficient metro over to Montreal's gay village in search of a different kind of heavenly body.

For a quarter of a century, the stretch of Rue St Catherine between the Berri and Papineau metro stations has been the focal point of Montreal's gay scene. In this compact neighbourhood you'll find more gay-oriented bars, clubs, saunas, shops, restaurants and hotels than in the entire city of Paris. Every taste is catered for, from fetish fanatics to dancing queens.

At Le Stud bar, near Papineau, the smell of leather is surpassed only by the essence of testosterone. Here you'll find bears, cubs, wolves and other forms of wildlife chatting over a beer or enjoying a game of pool. At the other end of the Village, there's Le Parking, a massive two-level nightclub offering house music from the best DJs on
Montreal's gay scene. Downstairs, amid a landscape of dismembered cars and industrial hardware, Le Parking's dimly-lit Garage club creates the perfect ambience for boozing and cruising.

The Village also has its share of karaoke bars, drag shows, and cabaret. A strip club called Campus is the place for close encounters of the muscular kind, while a reconstituted post office building is now home to Montreal's first gay sex club, intriguingly called the Backroom.

Montreal has over a dozen gay saunas, most of which are in the Village. Among the most popular are Sauna Centre Ville and Oasis, both on Rue St Catherine. During Montreal's brutal winters, the saunas offer a welcome blast of warmth. The climate here is one of extremes – blistering summers and Baltic winters. One response to this has been the construction of a 21-mile underground city beneath downtown Montreal. With shops, restaurants, hotels, cinemas and even an ice hockey arena, you could easily spend weeks in this subterranean, climate-controlled environment without venturing out to brave the elements.

With so much to do in Montreal, you'll need constant refueling. Fortunately, the city has over 5000 restaurants offering a world of choice, from Italian to Indian, haute cuisine to fast food. Conoisseurs of oriental cuisine will love Montreal's Chinatown, with its dizzying range of Cantonese, Korean and Vietnamesse restaurants. But if you're looking for a more authentic taste of Montreal, look out for restaurants serving poutine — a curious melange of fries, gravy, and melted cheese curds that's a lot tastier than it sounds.

In the Village there are eating places aplenty. La Strega du Village (the Village Witch) is a cosy Italian eatery offering reasonably priced food on Sardinia-sized plates, while nearby Donatella's manages to square the circle of affordable food and posh nosh. If you fancy an after-hours bowl of French onion soup, the bright and friendly Resto du Village is open 24/7.

If it's caffeine you're craving, Second Cup is your first stop. This Central Perk-style coffee shop in the heart of the Village has big windows, comfortable easy chairs and an overwhelmingly gay clientele. The coffee's good, the cheesecake's great, and the beefcake is pretty tasty, too.

Once you've had your fill, you can hop back on the metro at the rainbow-bedecked Beaudry station in the middle of the Village and take yourself off for some park life.

The Parc Olympique was the site of the 1976 Olympics, but when the Games opened the venue was only partially complete. The leaning tower intended as the mollusc-like stadium's crowning glory was just a stump. Happily, the completed tower is now open to visitors, and a cable car trip to the top is a highlight of any visit to Montreal.
The viewing gallery offers fine vistas of the city and its port. Further in the distance is Montreal's distinctively-shaped Casino. Not only a gambler's paradise, this stylish centre has bars, restaurants and stage shows, promising an enjoyable experience for all.

Back on the Olympic Tower, the eastern viewing gallery overlooks Montreal's glorious botanical gardens, including the biggest Chinese garden anywhere outside Asia. The gardens are open all year round, but if you're lucky enough to be here in the autumn, don't miss the magical Chinese lantern show, when the night is alight with hundreds of colourful dragon boats, human figures, birds and animals.

Whatever time of year you visit, you're sure to be seduced by this engaging city. Affordable and fun, safe and stylish, Montreal prides itself as being one of the most gay-friendly cities on the planet. No matter how fluent your French, you'll leave Montreal knowing the real meaning of joie de vivre.

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  • alessandro nicolo

    Nice piece. Montreal is indeed cool. Also in a second rate hipster kinda way. My city can be maddening. Best to stop here. There is a vie en noir to consider.