Montreal, Canada – September 1999

This is my first dispatch for BootsnAll, and unfortunately it comes at the end of the summer (summer being the best time to be here). Regardless, this city is alive and well year ’round, so here goes.

September Festivals

Bonsecours Market, Old Montreal

Bonsecours Market
© Jean-Marc DiBattista

Montreal is the land o’ festivals. With the first sign of spring, Montrealais fill the sidewalk cafes, often bearing scarves and mittens against the retreating winter, in anticipation of the upcoming festival season. While festivals of one sort or another run year-round, summer is the official season of festivals, ranging from the very large International Jazz Festival and International Film Festival, to the small Fringe Festival and the Nuits d’ Afrique festival of African music.

By the time September rolls around, most festivals have run their course, and Montrealais are preparing to hunker down for the winter. A few late-bloomers remain, however, including Cinemania in November, a unique festival of French-language films with English subtitles. In the meantime, here’s the lineup of September festivals:

Cream

Cream is a music festival that runs September 3-12. More than 70 DJ’s and bands are on the lineup for this year’s event. It’s roots are electronic and urban music, but it has been expanding in recent years and now features punk and alternative sounds as well.

GospelFete de Montreal

September 18-19. A new (but short) festival of gospel music.

Image&Nation Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

September 23-October 3.

Mois de la Photo

Through September. Galleries throughout Montreal show various works of photography.

Festival International de Nouvelle Danse

September 28-October 9.

Along with these festivals, there is the usual bevy of cultural events, ranging from poetry slams in smoky bars to Gerri Halliwell (Spice Girls breakaway) at an as-yet undisclosed location. There’s never a dull moment in this town. For the latest listings, check the three primary local cultural rags online:

Montreal Mirror, the traditional Anglo alterna-paper.

HOUR, the Mirror’s biggest challenge.

Voir, the French-language cultural tabloid.

ed’s Quick Tour of Montreal

For this, my first dispatch, I’ll give you my very biased tour of Montreal. I’ll focus mostly on one part of town, the Plateau, but will give some comments on a few other areas as well.

*The Plateau*

Plateau Street Scene

Plateau Street Scene
© Tedd Church

In its December 1997 issue, Utne Reader Magazine declared the Plateau Mont-Royal (or simply the Plateau) to be one of the fifteen hippest places to live in North America.

The area, bounded roughly from ave. du Parc on the west, rue Papineau on the east, rue Sherbrooke to the south, and rue Laurier to the north, is a vibrant area containing three of Montreal’s primary shopping/ entertainment/ people-watching streets, and a large residential sector, primarily in three-storey brick and greystone row houses with their characteristic outdoor staircases.

One of the many notable things about the Plateau is an almost total absence of chain restaurants. Even though this is “the place to be” in Montreal, there is not a single Pizza Hut or Burger King in the entire area, and only recently a McDonald’s opened on the very edge of the Plateau, amid much placard-waving and protestation.

The Main runs north from Old Montreal and cuts through the western end of the Plateau. Immediately above rue Sherbrooke, you find an intermingling of high-end über-hip fusion restaurants interspersed with low-end provisionists and by-the-slice pizza joints. At the north end of this two-block section is “le Bifteck”, which despite its name is not a steak restaurant. Rather, it is the watering hole of choice for Montreal’s underground (and slightly above-ground) music scene denizens.

Although not actually a music venue, this is the long-standing home of cheap microbrew, coin-op pool tables, and countless bass players, drummers, and other music hipsters and hangers-on. Dread-heads, the tattooed, software designers, bus-boys, and lawyers all mix it up seamlessly in this noisy post-grunge den of individuality. Get sloppy with cheap pitchers of Boreal Rousse, always on special.

Not far from the Bifteck, rue Prince Arthur is worth a stroll. The part of the street that runs between the Main and Square St. Louis is pedestrian only, and is awash with sidewalk cafes, buskers, a few bars, and other street activities.

Farther up the Main, one encounters a plethora of good but cheap eats, odd shops, and lots of other notable watering holes. The Copacabana, for example, serves up cheap microbrews and delicious Asian food. The Copa is known as a hangout for students from McGill and Concordia (Anglo) universities, and for the Anglo alternative media crowd.

Stick your head into Blizzarts for the cheap side of chic. DJ’s spinning vinyl in a tiny post-lounge boozer where no one seems to be older than 20 and everyone is dressed in Fripperie Chic (a “fripperie” is a funky used clothing store).

Just around the corner, technically on rue Duluth but in spirit a Main hangout, is Nantha’s Cuisine, a two-storey Malaysian/Indonesian/Thai restaurant and bar. The downstairs is mainly for eating, and the upstairs bar has perhaps the best terrace in town, although it’s fairly small (You can also eat upstairs). The best Mee Goreng in town, good microbrews on tap, and a friendly crowd of locals and visitors eat, drink, and chat it up into the wee hours.

Rue St. Denis runs parallel to the Main and has a stronger Francophone influence than the rather Anglo Main. The part of St.Denis that runs through the Plateau consists of sidewalk cafes, bars, and somewhat up-scale and quirky shops. A walk up and down St. Denis is a must-do on a bright and sunny weekend afternoon.

South of rue Sherbrooke (and technically beyond the Plateau), rue St. Denis enters the Quartier Latin, which is alive with bars, cafes, and restaurants catering largely to the Francophone crowd. The Universite du Quebec’s main downtown campus is nearby.

Back up in the Plateau, Rue Duluth runs east/west from the Main to St. Denis and beyond, and is the home of the Montreal institution of inexpensive “bring your own wine” (apportez votre vin) restaurants. Duluth is a one-lane street that has a village feel to it. A great place to stroll, eat, and check out small independent shops.

Avenue Mont-Royal runs east/west through the heart of the Plateau. Once described as one of Canada’s most walkable streets, it is abundant with restaurants and small shops of every flavour and variety.

*Downtown Montreal*

Place des Arts Square

Place des Arts Square
© Sylvain Pare

Downtown Montreal is alive with pedestrians at all hours of the day and night. Rue Ste. Catherine, the city’s main shopping artery, has a number of malls as well as street-level shopping. This is where you find the various mega-stores, such as HMV and Sam The Record Man for music, and Chapters and Indigo for books.

The area around Crescent street (including MacKay and Bishop) is where you find the city’s main “downtown” nightlife. Unfortunately, the downtown nightlife is fairly generic in that it could be more-or-less “anytown”. The bars are large and noisy and some have a “meat market” feel (particularly on Crescent). Most of the bars serve only domestic beer and trendy Mexican imports in bottles. It is this writer’s opinion that downtown nightlife appeals more to the frat-boy crowd that the booted traveller.

The exceptions are a few notable Irish pubs (McKibbins, Hurley’s, and Vieux Dublin) which serve up good imported UK and local microbrews on tap, and have live Celtic music. McKibbins in particular stands out for a Saturday afternoon quaff, as an impromptu band of non-amplified musicians usually start up at around 4pm. This is a great alternative to the very loud stuff that comes blasting out of loudspeakers later at night. Imagine being able to talk in a normal tone of voice while across the room a handful of people are sawing fiddles and strumming guitars.

“Upstairs”, on MacKay, is another notable exception, with a decent menu, a good selection of beers and wines, and live jazz nightly.

*The Village*

Montreal’s gay village is centered around the part of rue Ste. Catherine west that runs roughly between rue Beaudry and rue Papineau. A lively quartier filled with an ever-increasing variety of decent bars and restaurants, the area thrives on diversity of all kinds. It is very “straight friendly”, although gawkers and phobes of all types are frowned upon. Many of the city’s most popular dance bars are located in and around the village.

*Old Montreal*

Place Jacques Cartier

Place Jacques Cartier
© Sylvain Pare

Place Jacques Cartier is the touristic hub of Old Montreal. A pedestrian square bursting with outdoor cafes and filled with buskers and temporary tattoo artists, this is a nice place to pass a bit of time on a sunny day, although you will see very few locals. This is probably the most touristy spot in town.

The rest of Old Montreal is good for a day’s stroll, with plenty of old buildings and churches to see (consult your guidebook). The Old Port is the part of Old Montreal that goes along the river, and is also good for a stroll and a look.

While there are plenty of places to eat and drink in Old Montreal, keep in mind that the area caters primarily to tourists, and judge accordingly. Also, Old Montreal essentially shuts down at night, in contrast with the rest of the city. Fortunately, the Plateau is only a bus ride (or a $6 taxi ride) away.

*Parks*

There are a number great parks around town in which you can hang out and people-watch. Here are a few notable ones:

Square St. Louis has a marvelous French-style fountain, around which people of all sorts gather. Novels have been written about this park, and it’s no wonder. Spend a few Sunday afternoons here and you’ll see just about every eccentric this town has to offer.

At one end of the park you will find duelling harpists and operatic singers and at the other, metal-faced street kids bathing their dogs in the fountain. There’s a definite buzz here in the evenings, for the most part it’s a fairly quiet and restful place during the day, with plenty of families and dogs and people reading books.

Parc Lafontaine is quite large, and quite reserved. Lots of rolling grassy hills and benches and people pushing baby strollers around the large man-made pond. The Theatre Verdure is an open-air performance venue that features free shows every night in summer, ranging from the symphony to ethnic dancing to French-dubbed screenings of “Titanic”.

Parc Mont-Royal is the big green thing you see in the middle of any map of Montreal. It is dubbed “the mountain”, although anyone from the Alps would be offended at this use of the word. Regardless, it’s at least as high as any downtown skyscraper, and was landscaped by Frederic Law Olmstead (who also did NYC’s Central Park).

In summer, the mountain is resplendent with forested walking trails, which serve as cross-country ski runs in winter. There is also a larger pedestrian (and bicycle) road that leads to the top of the mountain, where you will find the man-made Lac au Castors (Beaver Lake) and a chalet overlooking downtown and the St. Lawrence river.

At the east-side of the bottom of the mountain, at the Georges-Etienne Cartier monument, is the weekly not-quite-impromptu drum jam referred to as the Tam-tam. This weedy event is a wide-open banging of drums that attracts people of all types but is heavy on the neo-hippy end. Kiosks sell incense, bongs, Asiatic handcrafts, etc.

Several thousand people show up every Sunday afternoon (until about the end of September) to sway to the rhythms, pecuss upon anything that makes a thumping noise, check out the merchandise, and otherwise just lay around in the sun. Dreadlocks, sarongs, bare feet, Frisbees, hacky-sacks, you get the picture. Definitely worth a look.

ed’s Cheap Eats Pick o’ The Month

You can’t beat Amelio’s Pizza in the “McGill Ghetto” (a bit west of the lower Plateau). A small and unpretentious pizza and pasta restaurant that has been serving the neighbourhood and McGill students for years. I first discovered it in 1989 and then and there declared it the best pizza I’ve ever had (as yet unchallenged). With wood floors and brick walls, it’s cozy enough to be a “date” place.

Pick up a bottle of wine or a couple of beers at a corner store, and off you go. A medium pizza will stuff two people easily and is in the range of $11. Included in the price is a small salad as a starter. (One salad for a small pizza or pasta dish. Two salads for a medium pizza. Three, maybe four salads for a large pizza.)

Be warned, they close around 10pm (which is insanely early by Montreal standards) and there may be lineups around 6pm.

Location: Corner of rue Milton and rue Ste. Famille. 845-8396.

(No advertising fee was paid for this Cheap Eats blurb.)

General Info On Montreal

I could write a book just to fill this section, but here are the basics. Check this section every month for new info.

Quirky Facts

Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city on Earth (after Paris). People from Montreal are called “Montrealais”.

Geography

Montreal is actually an island. The main water frontage is the St. Lawrence River, which wraps around the west/south/east sides of the island, with a smaller river along the north shore. Montreal is about 65 km (40 miles) from the U.S. border, where the northern-most part of New York state and Vermont meet. Here’s a MapBlast! map of Montreal.

Note that when Montrealais indicate “north” they are really pointing north-west.

Accommodation

Montreal has a wide variety of hotels, from the boxy downtown “business” hotels to smaller European-style hotels. There is also a nice selection of B&B’s all over the city, most of which are charming and cozy. B&B’s tend to be in the $40-$80 price range.

Montreal also has a few interesting youth hostels, including:

The Montreal Youth Hostel (Downtown) and the really cool and eco-friendly

Alternative Backpacker’s Hostel of Montreal (Old Montreal)

Transport

You can get in from the airport using the local transit system (STCUM), but there are just enough quirks that I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, grab an airport/downtown shuttle bus for about $10 (one way) or take a taxi, which will cost about $25.

Most international and domestic flights land at Dorval airport. Some charters land at Mirabel airport, which is a really bad idea. Avoid Mirabel, as it is more than twice as far as Dorval.

Montreal has a pretty good subway (Metro) and bus system. A single ride is $1.85 (bus drivers carry no change), but you can save a bit by buying a pack of six tickets for $8.25 (at Metro stations and some stores). You can also buy 1 and 3 day passes, or a weekly pass (around $12).

Note that daily and weekly passes can only be bought at the Berri/UQAM or McGill Metro stations, or at the downtown Info Tourism office.

Transfers on tickets are good for 90 minutes. Get your transfer as you get on the bus (or at the automatic dispenser at Metro stations). Check the STCUM website for details.

Alternatively, rent a bicycle at JR’s on the Plateau (151 Rachel, corner du Bullion). (514)843-6989. Full-day rental is about $18 (second day for $12).

Money

Canadian money comes in basically the same format as American money (dollars, divided into cents), but the Canadian dollar is worth less – roughly two-thirds of an American dollar.

Canadian money is colourful, which makes it easy to spot what a bill is worth from far away, or when it’s dark (unlike American bills, which are strangely all the same colour).

We also have $1 and $2 coins, instead of bills. The $1 coin is unofficially (but ubiquitously) called a “loonie” because of the picture of a loon on it. The $2 coin is called a “two-nie”.

All dollar values mentioned in this Montreal guide are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated.

If you stay in a hostel, and eat over-the-counter food and self-cater, you can scrape by on about $25/day. Montreal, is, however, a joyous and happy place to be (particularly in summer), with loads of great pubs and bars and inexpensive restaurants, so a more realistic budget would be about $40-$50.

That assumes a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of transit rides, a cheap slice-of-pizza type lunch, a modest dinner ($20) in a restaurant, and two pints of local microbrew in a pub. “Civilized” travellers should budget at least $100/day (B&B, moderate restaurants, etc).

Watch out for the nasty taxes we have here. Most items do not have taxes included on the sticker price, so be prepared to pay an additional 15% at the cash register. That applies to hotels, restaurant meals, and any goods you buy in a store. It does not apply to most grocery items. Beer and wine you buy in a corner or grocery store is taxable. Oddly, beer and wine you buy in the government-run “SAQ” liquor stores does include the taxes in the sticker price.

Automatic tellers (cash machines) are everywhere and are very well networked (Canada was miles ahead of the rest of the world in automatic teller banking). Most “Bureau du change” places are downtown, on rue Ste. Catherine.

Night Life

Can be cheap or expensive, depending on where you go. Imported draught beer runs in the $6/pint range. Local microbrews go for about $4.75/pint but are hard to find downtown.

On the Plateau and Quartier Latin, go for microbrew by the (60oz) pitcher if you’re with a group. Chic places will charge you about $14 a pitcher, but the truly hip places have non-stop specials in the $8-$10 range.

The markup on wine in restaurants is high, so keep an eye out for bring your own wine restaurants, particularly on the Plateau. Note that such places do not carry their own wine, so if you show up empty-handed you’re out of luck (although you can usually dash across the street for a bottle of not-bad Chilean wine from a corner store for about $10).

Tipping in Montreal is basically as follows: 15-20% on restaurant tabs. 50 cents to $1 on drinks in bars. About $1 on short taxi rides ($5 range) and about $2 on longer ones ($10 range).

Note that the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18.

Internet Cafes

Galerie Fokus, 68 Duluth east, has a small internet service.

Cyberground, 3672 St. Laurent Blvd. is an internet cafe on “the Main”, right in the middle of the action.

Centre d’affaires Montréal is farther up the Main at 4117A St. Laurent Blvd. It’s basically a business centre that has web access.

A few words about ed

Originally from the east coast of Canada, I’ve been living in Montreal for 12 years, and frankly, I think it’s the best place in Canada to live.

Despite the fact that I lose almost half of my income to taxes, the low rents and the lifestyle keep me here. Montreal is culturally diverse, hip, easy-going, affordable, politically frustrating, informed, and very much alive.

It’s the kind of place that allows me the annoying affectation of dropping the initial cap on my name (“That’s ed, not Ed”) without too many people rolling their eyes. I’m still shopping for the perfect boot.

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