“There’s no Canada like French Canada,
It’s the best Canada in the land.
The other Canada is hardly Canada.
If you lived here for a day, you’d understand.”
After another 30 minutes or so of riding through scattered, abandoned development north of the border and watching the distance count down in kilometer signs, the Saint Lawrence River and silhouette of Montreal finally came into view.
Taking a lesson from my inability to stay more nights in the hostel in New York, I had made reservations for my stay in Montreal at La Maison du Partriote for a fantastic price of about $15 per day. And, after making my way there through a refreshing misty drizzle, I found the location was unbeatable. Smack dab in the middle of the old city, it was only a few brick-paved steps away from the riverfront, art markets in alleyway courtyards, and a cobblestone plaza filled with daily activities and street performers.
Montreal is a beautiful city; there is no question to that. With the exception of an odd, seemingly half-finished, concrete park that played home to a surprising number of homeless, I hardly came across any area of the city that didn’t appeal in some way aesthetically pleasing. Granted, the entire island it takes up is a much larger
Having just come from New York, and Boston before that, and Toronto where I would be passing through in a few days, Montreal seems a much more low-key and subtle place. A random thought I had while wandering it was that Montreal has an odd feeling of always walking toward a large city, but never actually being in one. There are always tall buildings over the horizon of the nearer ones, but they never seem to encroach or overwhelm you.
I did little more than explore the old city my first night there. The hostel was mostly filled with Ontarians, whom I got into a discussion about Michigan-Ontario border crossings with (see last post). I also managed to embarrass myself by asking who Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, was when they mentioned him.
The next morning, after a walk along the waterfront, trying to figure out what all the buildings actually were (still not sure I figured them all out) I decided a Chinese meal was in order as the gates of the Montreal Chinatown shone red in the distance as if taunting we Mongols of the Old City to attempt a raid.
Going by the traveler’s rule of thumb that the restaurant busiest with locals going to be the best, I went into a large, buffet-style restaurant packed full of French-Canadian Chinatown-ese. This time that rule of thumb seems to have let me down, as I was not thoroughly impressed by anything I had there. It certainly didn’t measure up to the meal I had in New York’s Chinatown, or even the Vietnamese meal I would have nearby in a couple days.
As I became introduced to the wonderful joy that is bubble tea and walked around, I noticed a quant neighborhood charm that I would find repeated in a few areas of Montreal. This wasn’t the raw chaos of New York’s Chinatown, but a much more relaxed and community feel.
Later on that day, after taking a look through the financial district went north, further toward the center of the Montreal island (hadn’t known it was one until then), seeing a few intriguing areas and neighborhoods in my zigzagging of streets, one of the highlights being the Latin District.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’ve found that most cities have their token cheap snack food. In Grand Rapids, it was chili dogs. In New York, it was pizza by the slice. In Montreal, it is the poutine. In it most basic form, the Ontarians had told me, a poutine is a basket of French fries with some cheese curds and then poured over with gravy, soaking the fries and melting the cheese.
Most of the places I saw had variations with different kinds of meat on them. I got one with bacon from one of the highly recommended places, and had them a few times since. Even though it has a mix of a bunch of things I like, I can’t say a poutine has ever grown on me.
That night I went out with some of the people from the hostel. Down the street there was a microbrewery that also made some interesting beer cocktails. We ended the night playing pool across the street from the hostel with a couple native Montrealers who we completely convinced that I was from Toronto, and nothing I said would make them think otherwise. It wasn’t that I sounded like I was from Toronto, according to one; apparently I just look like a Torontonian.
My last full day in Montreal I spent near the hostel. Walking everywhere in New York for a week and then another couple days of here, well it does make you sore and tired after a while. The riverfront gave me plenty to occupy my mind, plenty of parks along it and pretty peaceful with great views of the rest of the city’s skyline.
Just a little ways to the east was Quebec City, someplace everyone from my father to other hostellers in Montreal were urging me to go to. “One of a kind. Unlike anyplace else in North America,” were among some of the things I was told about it. And it would have been simple enough to do. $50 round trip bus fare to Quebec City and back to Montreal.
Not only simple, but I would have loved to. But, something had been weighing on my mind since I had gotten off the Wanderbird, and it was reason enough for me to want to get back to Michigan sooner rather than later. So ticket in hand, 3 more cities, a border crossing, and a bus transfer in a cement and barbed wire fortified bus station, I had returned, only to find that it wasn’t going to end up the way I wanted it to be.