The International Writers Magazine
: Summer in Canada

Habeeb Salloum

"Bienvenu B Vieux Montréal!", our driver beamed as we sat down with an American couple in his horse-drawn carriage. "Listen! He's speaking another language! It's as if we're in Europe!" The man's wife appeared excited at hearing a foreign tongue. Seemingly uninterested, her husband mumbled, "You know we are in French Canada!"

Our fellow passengers were a sample of the some 10 million tourists who yearly travel to Montréal, in the main, to feel the throb of Europe without leaving the North American shores. Here, in Old Montréal where history is encased in a modern halo, they find it possible to enjoy the Europe of long ago in the comfort of our times. Touring its boutiques, outdoor cafes, bistros, galleries, souvenir shops, and countless restored buildings while moving amid an endless stream of people, they can spend an entire day and more, engulfed in culture, history and romance.

Old Montréal, which has been turned into a magnificent recreation and tourist centre, was founded in 1642 by a small group of French colonists. Thanks to its location at the junction of the St. Lawrence, Ottawa and Richelieu rivers, it quickly became an important commercial and trading centre. When the British took over New France in 1760, Old Montréal, at that time a walled town of some 5,000, was the richest urban centre in what is today Canada.

After the conquest, many industrious Scottish soldiers settled in town. They soon controlled commerce and made the city prosper, turning it into the economic capital of Canada. In the ensuing years Old Montréal deteriorated and was ready to be torn down. However, in the 1960s the Quebec government designated it as an historic district and a long process of restoration began. The Vigour Commission was set up and under its watchful eye and both the inside and outside of the most important structures were renewed. Fresh life was injected into the area and soon inhabitant and visitor rediscovered the rich cultural heritage of Canada's first commercial capital.

Today's Old Montréal, bordered by Rue McGill on the west, St. Antoine on the north, Berni on the east and Rue de la Commune on the south, contains one of North America's most remarkable collections of 17th to 19th century structures which are a medley of old and new architecture – a 40 ha (100 ac) of tourist delights.

This original Montréal corresponds closely to the area covered by the original fortified city. Its cobbled streets, superb old public squares, some 30 art galleries and five museums, more than a dozen boutique hotels, renovated old homes, boutiques and other shops, sidewalk cafes and fine restaurants, and churches are a provocative blend of commercialism and history. Visitors come to sightsee by day and dine in the evening, then enjoy the nightly illumination of the streets and buildings or take part in the lively nightlife.

Visitors should begin their exploration by stopping at Infotouriste, located on the corner of Notre-Dame and Place Jacques-Cartier, dominated by a statue of Nelson - the heart of the old city. Here one can pick up a pamphlet with a suggested walking tour and information about the historic sites.
Some of the important sites, not to be missed, are: to the east, at the corner of Jacques-Cartier, the Montréal City Hall from whose balcony General Charles De Gaulle in 1969 uttered his famous ‘Vive le Québec libre’ and further on, two complete historic houses built in 1749.

Nearby, is the home of one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation, Sir George-Etienne Cartier, now housing a museum. Around the corner, the 17th century Notre-Dame-De-Bonsecours Chapel, towers above Rue Bonsecours with its lampposts and evocative paving stones - the only remaining example in Montréal - dating from about 1700. High above in the steeple is a chapel, overlooking the St. Lawrence, which was used to bless ships and their crews before long and difficult journeys.
A few minutes stroll away, the rebuilt 1847 Bonsecours Market, now a place for exhibitions, is a fine example of Neo-Classical architecture. The most striking feature of this former farmer's market is its silver dome, which was for years a landmark for ships entering the harbour.

Past the reconstructed Rosco's Hotel, once a meeting place for the local elite, a right turn and one is on Rue de la Commune, edging attractive waterfront parks. Beyond, is the old harbour, one of the largest restored old ports in the world reconstructed for peoples’ activities. Eating places, a flea market, movies, ship tours, theatres and numerous other activities are to be found in and around these former docks.
Montreal is also a favourite place for honeymooners.

To the west of Jacques-Cartier in the once financial part of Old Montréal, there are a whole series of renovated, ornamental buildings. Around Place d'Armes are found the city's most remarkable structures. These include Notre-Dame Basilica, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival and, when inaugurated in 1829, the largest religious edifice in North America; the eight storey New York Life Building, the city's first skyscraper built in 1888; and the 23 storey AIfred Building with its stylized floral motifs.

To the west and south of Place d'Armes there are a great number of prestigious structures, which include banks, insurance companies and other commercial buildings. The two most interesting are the Caverhill Building with its Renaissance Revival façade, the most exuberant structure in Old Montréal; and the Montréal History Centre, housed in a former fire station - erected in 1903 in Flemish style. Nearby, a renovated former customs building housing souvenirs is connected to the Pointe-B-Calliére, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History which offers six centuries of history - from indigenous peoples' times to the present.

There are two ways of exploring the old city - by foot or horse-drawn carriage. To experience the flavour of history to its utmost, a leisurely stroll of about four hours is ideal. The inhabitants, in the main, speak both English and French and are friendly. The only drawbacks are the noisy autos - never ending in the narrow streets.

On the other hand, a visitor can explore the old town in comfort by hiring a horse-drawn carriage for one hour at the cost of some $60. The driver will point out all the important sites and stop for photographs. For those with little time to spare, this is an ideal way to see Old Montréal.

Important Sights to see in Montréal:
Besides the old city, Montréal has a great number of other tourist sites. Some of the most important are:
Casino de Montréal, the city's number one tourist attraction - besides its 120 glittering tables and 3,000 slot machines, its cabaret features one of the top musical shows in the world. The Casino sparkles like a polished jewel on the city’s skyline and inside it exudes a welcoming atmosphere.
Olympic Stadium with its famous 175 m (575 ft) tower, the world's tallest inclined tower.
The Montréal Botanical Gardens - a maze of tropical forests, it is one of the largest and most beautiful gardens in the world.
Mount Royal Park with its panoramic view of the city.
Biodome, an unusual environmental museum.
St. Joseph's Oratory, a world renowned pilgrimage centre.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of Canada's oldest museums, and one of the best.
Montreal Planetarium, a memorable introduction to the secerts and wonders of the universe.

Must See and Must Do in Montreal
1) Relish a hot and delectable smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz Delicatessen.
2) Enjoy a fresh crisp bagel at the Fairmount Bagel Shop or St. Viateur Bakery.
3) Walk or jog atop Montreal*s majestic Mount Royal.
4) Dine at some of Canada*s trendiest restaurants on St. Laurent Blvd.
5) Sip a drink in some of the best nightlife pubs on Crescent Street.
6) Spend an afternoon of shopping in the amazing Montreal ‘Underground city’.
7) Buy a Montreal Museum Pass. It gives at very low entrance fees access to some 30 art galleries and museums and to public transportation for 3 days.

Montréal Eating Places:
Besides the countless eating-places in Chinatown and Old Montréal, the city's 4,500 restaurants, cafes and bistros offer a sophisticated international cuisine. Some restaurants even allow you to bring in your own wine. Try a dinner aboard the Cavalier Maxim, departing from Old Montreal’s King Edward Pier every evening for a fine dinner while cruising the St. Lawrence River.
For Further Information. Contact:
Montréal Tourist Bureau,174 Notre-Dame St. East, Champ-de-Mars, Montréal, Québec.
Tel: 1-877-266-5687. E-Mail:
© Habeeb Salloum July 2005

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