Hello From Montreal Part 3 A Driving Tour As A Great Introduction To A Fascinating City

June 29, 2018

Shortly after my arrival in​ Montreal, right around 1 pm, I met Carole, a​ licensed professional tour guide from Guidatour in​ the lobby of​ the Holiday Inn and​ she was going to​ be my local expert on​ a​ driving tour through the centre of​ Montreal. I had only been in​ Montreal once before 10 years ago, so I really needed a​ quick overview of​ the city to​ familiarize myself with its layout. and​ although Montreal's downtown area is​ very compact and​ walkable, a​ driving tour would give me a​ great introduction​ to​ this​ metropolis.

From my hotel we drove south on​ St. Urbain​ Street and​ our first big sight was one of​ Montreal’s key tourist destinations: the Place d’Armes and​ the exquisite Basicilica of​ Notre Dame, Montreal’s largest and​ most beautiful cathedral. From there we passed by Montreal City Hall and​ then made our way up the Boulevard St. Laurent, also referred to​ as​ “The Main”, for​ generations the traditional path of​ successive waves of​ immigrants as​ they made their way north the port area to​ settle permanently in​ other neighbhourhoods of​ the city. We passed by the Hotel Godin, a​ former garment factory that has recently been converted into a​ boutique hotel, one of​ many revitalized historic buildings that has been turned into a​ modern hotel.

Prince Arthur Street further north is​ a​ pedestrian street featuring a​ variety of​ reasonably priced restaurants with outdoor patios. this​ area was a​ hotbed of​ hippie culture in​ the 1960s and​ today provides a​ great selection​ of​ family restaurants. a​ little further west we decided to​ have lunch at​ Chez Gautier, one of​ Montreal’s most well-known bistros, established in​ 1978. Chez Gautier’s Parisian-style décor features beautiful woodwork and​ a​ magnificent handcrafted glass dome ceiling in​ the bar area.

Right next to​ Chez Gautier and​ under the same ownership is​ la Patisserie Belge, a​ pastry shop offering a​ wide selection​ of​ beautifully designed cakes and​ baked goods. Carole and​ I sat down on​ the beautiful terrace where I satisfied my cravings for​ an​ authentic French onion​ soup as​ well as​ a​ salad with warm goat cheese and​ toast. it​ was a​ delicious light lunch that reenergized me to​ continue with my explorations.

Our driving tour continued with a​ trip further north, passing by the Parc des Ameriques, a​ park that celebrates the city's Latin​ American immigrants, until we reached the Mont Royal neighbourhood, just to​ the east of​ famous Mont Royal. this​ whole area is​ referred to​ as​ the “Plateau”, a​ reasonably flat area just east of​ St-Denis that is​ subdivided into several smaller neighbourhoods. this​ is​ one of​ Montreal’s trendiest neighbourhoods.

West of​ the Plateau is​ Outremont neighbourhood which covers the area adjacent to​ the mountain. The mix of​ ethnic groups was evidenced by the coexistence side-by-side of​ a​ synagogue and​ a​ Chinese church. Carole pointed out that some of​ the best bagels can be had on​ Fairmont Street. Cote St. Catherine is​ the main​ boulevard of​ Outremont and​ surrounded by a​ variety of​ parks and​ stately homes. Outremont is​ one of​ the most desirable areas in​ Montreal and​ used to​ be a​ Francophone stronghold, while Westmount, the neighbourhood on​ the southwest slopes of​ Mont Royal, historically used to​ the bastion​ of​ English speakers.

We passed by the University of​ Montreal, one of​ Montreal’s four universities, two of​ which are geared to​ Anglophones and​ two towards Francophones. The UOM is​ primarily French speaking and​ its campus was designed by famous architect Ernest Cormier who was one of​ the first to​ introduce Montreal to​ the Art Deco Style. We continued on​ Cote des Neiges, a​ multi-ethnic neighbourhood of​ recent immigrants.

The big attraction​ on​ the northwest side of​ Mont Royal is​ Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, topped by the second largest dome in​ the world after St. Peter’s in​ Rome. The oratory was built as​ a​ result of​ the efforts of​ Brother André (1845 to​ 1937), a​ man of​ very humble beginnings, who used to​ be the doorkeeper at​ the Collège Notre Dame across the street. Many miracles are attributed to​ Brother André and​ he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in​ 1982. in​ 1904 Brother André started construction​ on​ a​ small chapel on​ the mountain​ side, facing the college. this​ chapel became too small, so in​ 1917 a​ church with 1000 seats was built. in​ 1924 finally the construction​ of​ the basilica started and​ was finally completed more than 40 years later in​ 1967. St. Joseph’s Oratory is​ a​ magnificent building and​ one of​ Montreal's major landmarks. Driving into the city from the west you​ can see this​ glorious structure for​ miles.

Right around the corner is​ the École Polytechnique where a​ deranged Marc Lepine killed 14 women in​ December of​ 1989 in​ what has become known the “Montreal massacre”. a​ permanent memorial has been erected to​ commemorate this​ infamous incident and​ to​ keep the memory of​ all female victims of​ violence alive. The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, begun in​ 1855, is​ Montreal’s largest cemetery and​ holds many of​ the city’s most prominent citizens. More than 800,000 people are buried here and​ many exquisitely carved gravestones bear testimony to​ many prominent residents. While Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is​ the city’s largest French catholic cemetery, the Mount Royal Protestant Cemetery right next to​ it​ is​ the last resting place for​ many of​ Montreal’s most prominent Anglo residents.

Mount Royal is​ Montreal’s highest point at​ 223 m and​ presents a​ huge green space for​ the city dwellers. The park dates back to​ 1870 when local Westmount residents were concerned about deforestation​ on​ the mountain​ due to​ the cutting down of​ firewood. Famous landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of​ New York City’s Central Park and​ many other American public green spaces, was commissioned to​ design the Parc du Mont-Royal.

Our first stop in​ Parc Mont-Royal was at​ Castor Lake, an​ artificial lake created in​ 1958 in​ what was formerly a​ swamp. The lake is​ surrounded by meadows and​ trees and​ used as​ a​ skating rink in​ the winter. We then parked our car just a​ bit further up the mountain, right next to​ the Maison​ Smith, the last remaining former farm house on​ Mont Royal which today offers various exhibits and​ activities. The basement of​ this​ building houses a​ very large gabbro rock which is​ an​ example of​ the igneous rock that makes up Mont Royal and​ several of​ the mountains in​ the Monteregie region​ of​ Quebec. Contrary to​ popular belief, Mont Royal is​ not an​ extinct volcano but the result of​ magma intrusions.

After a​ brief hike through a​ forested pathway system we arrived at​ Montreal’s famous lookout, the Belvédère Kondiaronk (named after a​ Huron​ chief) overlooking the downtown skyscrapers. Incidentally, Montreal's skyscrapers are not as​ high as​ those in​ some other cities, since according to​ local stipulations, none of​ the buildings is​ allowed to​ be higher than the mountain. The view from this​ lookout is​ astounding and​ I wish every city had a​ lookout point like that. Just beside the lookout is​ the Chalet du Mont Royal, a​ large structure built in​ 1932 that houses concerts and​ special events.

Our brief tour of​ Mont Royal concluded with a​ tour of​ the Westmount residential area, an​ independent city of​ about 20,000 residents fully enclosed by the City of​ Montreal. Westmount has long been the traditional residential area of​ Montreal’s Anglo-Saxon​ elite and​ many Neo-Tudor or​ Neo-Georgian residences attest to​ the wealth of​ this​ area. Greene Avenue is​ one of​ the commercial streets in​ the area and​ features many of​ Westmount’s trendiest shops.

Further east along Sherbrooke Street, one of​ Montreal’s thoroughfares, is​ the Golden Square Mile, once the enclave of​ the Canadian upper class between about the 1850s and​ 1930s. Most of​ the residents were of​ Scottish descent and​ acquired their wealth in​ the furtrading business. During that era about 70% of​ Canada’s wealth was concentrated among the residents of​ the Golden Square Mile. Today only a​ few of​ the Victorian houses remain​ and​ many of​ the buildings house retail stores. Part of​ the Golden Square Mile is​ McGill University, Montreal’s oldest university, founded in​ 1821 as​ a​ result of​ a​ generous donation​ by Scottish-born fur trader John McGill. on​ our way back to​ my hotel we also passed UQAM, the Université de Quebec à Montreal, the city’s youngest university, founded in​ 1979 and​ a​ thoroughly modern addition​ to​ the city.

No doubt this​ was a​ whirlwind tour, but at​ the same time these 3 hours were a​ great introduction​ to​ this​ fascinating city. Something I would be able to​ mull over during my dinner at​ Modavie, accompanied by a​ little jazz….

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