A great taste of what's yet to come.
As we headed from Quechee to the Great White North, ay, we stopped in Waterbury, VT at one of the place I have always wanted to go: Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory.
Alas, it was but a Griswald moment because (1) we were in a hurry as we left late from Quechee, (2) the lines were long for the factory tour and just to get ice cream, and (3) they weren't actually making ice cream that day. So it was a quick picture moment and an ice cream pop (no line at the outdoor vendor), and back in the car.
We left the mountains of Vermont, and were surprised when we crossed the border (uneventfully) into Canada how the terrain flattened out, and looked more like Iowa cornfields than what we expected Canada to look like. Did we just pass into Kansas or Canada? Oh wait, all the signs are in French. Must be Quebec. Soon enough we came into Montreal and found our hotel, Le Place d'Armes, in the heart of Old Montreal across from the Notre-Dame Basilica, right on the border of the Old City and the newer, modern part of Montreal. Cobblestone streets and neo-clasical old-world 19th century architecture (composed actually of 3 buildings) welcomed us on the outside, and beautifully appointed modern rooms greeted us inside, including a fireplace (albeit electrical) in the room. You know you must be well located when the name of your hotel, Le Place d'Armes, is also the name of a plaza, a street and a Metro station.
Since it was fairly late when we got there, we headed straight out for dinner and searched out one of the top rated restaurants in Trip Advisor. Walking away from Old Montreal, I was amazed at the hordes of people. Crowds in every direction. Everyone was out on the streets. We got to the restaurant, which was small, concrete and not particularly inviting, also, they were fully booked and not taking any walk-ins. We decided to walk down the famous Rue Saint-Catherine and just find something. More crowds and this being the modern part of the city, there was no charming architecture. I have to admit that at this point, I was not terribly impressed with Montreal. I could have been in New York or any other very large anonymous city, with nondescript urban architecture and tons of people everywhere. Where was the old world architecture (other than our hotel)? Where were the boulevards of Paris? I was getting a little worried.
As we continued to walk, we finally came to the "proper" pedestrian zone of the Rue Saint-Catherine, with strings of pink baubles hung crosswise over the streets; row after row for as far the eye could see. Sidewalk cafes lined the boulevard, and people strolled up and down the rue. This was looking better already. We stopped at a random restaurant and had a good meal, surrounded by people speaking French. We were starting to feel a little more cosmopolitan. As we continued the evening and on into the night, we even ran into some of the same people we had been dining next to. I guess you never know who you might bump into later. The big city was starting to gain some intimacy.
The next day was Saturday, and we went looking for lunch, but our first choice of restaurant, L'Arrivage at the museum, was only serving brunch. So was the next restaurant, and the next. We soon learned the first of many lessons that Montreal had to teach us: (1) Montreal is a "late" city, with everything shifted about two hours later than we were used to in the US and (2) that every restaurant in Montreal only serves brunch and dinner on the weekends. In fact, later that day as we were walking the streets around 4:00pm, brunch was still being served in the restaurants. At the sidewalk cafe that we chose, we were a little taken aback that Eggs Benedict cost $22, but as we deciphered the menu a little more, we realized that it actually came with: fresh orange juice, coffee, a bread basket, fresh chèvre cheese, homemade marmalades, fruit salad, sautéed spinach, grilled tomatoes, salmon gravlax, duck confit (Montreallers really love their duck confit -- it's everywhere!), and more. Now we're talkin'!
Add a glass of champagne and it was perfect! I think we're starting to get used to and get the feel of this cosmopolitan city. We were starting to like the way Montreallers live.
Over brunch, we reviewed things to do in the city. It became apparent that Montreal isn't really a city full of attractions, but instead, it is a city to be explored and experienced. Lesson 3: Do as the Montreallers, and stroll through the city. No wonder everyone was on the streets the night before. It was a beautiful day and we decided to go to the Botanical Gardens. As we walked to the Metro station, we sauntered through the streets of Old Montreal and started to get a real sense of the old city and we found what we had been missing our first night: more cobblestone streets, art galleries, 18th century architecture, performance artists and musicians in the squares, and one sidewalk cafe after another. This was it! This was the European feel we had been expecting. Montreal was looking better and better.
The subways were a bit of a surprise as they roll on rubber tires, not steel wheels on tracks. Much cushier and no squealing! The Botanical Gardens are located next to the Olympic Park, and are an absolute must-see. We have never experienced such beautiful and extensive gardens anywhere else like these. While the initial rose gardens were a little "off-the-bloom", we were soon enchanted by the Water Garden, the Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden, the First Nations Garden, and especially the extensive Ornamental Vegetable Garden and the "Flowery Brook". Too bad the lilacs were not in season, because they have a huge lilac "orchard". You could still smell the lingering sweet scent in the air. The Vegetable Garden was enormous with every kind of vegetable you could think of, and many I had never heard of. The "Flowery Brook" was a small meandering brook with little arched wooden bridges criss-crossing it, all nestled in vast fields of lilies of every variety and color combination you could imagine. It was probably the size of two football fields and it was breathtaking. We sat among the lilies and enjoyed a bottle of white wine. It was a perfect afternoon.
We decided to eat at one of the two restaurants in the hotel, Suite 701, which is not on the 7th floor, but on the ground floor. We were greeted by pink lights and the heavy beat of dance music, and led to a table right by the front door, where we could watch the people go by as they peered inside wondering what they were missing. Chic-dressed patrons came in, but then seemed to disappear. Where did they go? Dinner was quite good although we kept it light before heading back to Rue de Saint-Catherine for some more night life.
The next day we decided to follow the advice of a friend of ours, and visit the Marche Jean Talon, an expansive outdoor (but covered) market, with stall after stall offering the freshest fruits and vegetables, fromage (cheese), charcuterie, fish and seafood, wines, a french bakery full of baguettes and pastries, chocolates, fresh flowers, prepared foods, and much more. Most of the produce stalls have platters of cut-up tomatoes, cherries, oranges, peaches, grapefruit, melon, and on and on, all for you to try to entice you to purchase from their stall.
We went round and round, picking up a baguette, cheese, fruit, tomatoes, wine, macarons, cookies, etc. and headed back to the subway for a trip to Mont Royal, the "mountain" (really a big hill) in the middle of the city, from which the city gets it's name, which is one giant park. Lesson #4 learned: take the #11 bus or a taxi from the Mont Royal subway station to actually get to the mountain top. We walked to the base which is a long walk, and then decided to cab it to the overlook. We never would have made it walking the whole way. Once at the overlook, we walked through the wooded paths quite a ways to find a grassy park area (at the very top) where we felt very European indulging in our glorious pique-nique.
We took the very steep, but relatively short route down the mountain toward the old city, which consisted mainly of stairways clinging to the steep rock face.
When we returned to the hotel, we discovered that there is a Terrace bar on the roof of the hotel with a wonderful overlook of the city. So this is where all those people were going when they came into the restaurant the previous night. This would be a cool night-time hangout! For dinner, we decided to return to the Old City and really get a feeling of the old world at night. This is where the Old City really shined. People slowly strolling down the streets, the old-world architecture highlighted by strategically placed uplighting, galleries and cafes aglow, people sitting in the cafes conversing in French. It reminded me of Van Gogh's nighttime painting "The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum". Just beautiful. It really felt like you had left our continent and landed on The Continent. It was a great taste of what we were expecting for the second leg of our Epic Vacation, when we explored Spain, France and Italy.
For dinner, we went to Jardin Nelson, adjacent to the Hotel Nelson, and discovered a beautiful outdoor courtyard, with lush foliage and these enormous inverted white patio umbrellas, shaped like tulips or trumpets with the "ribs" on the inside and lit from within. Truly charming.
We had heard that this was a place to go for atmosphere and not necessarily the food, and the critics were right. The live jazz band contributed to the amazing ambiance and it was well worth a visit, even if the food was mediocre. I had a crepe (which is their specialty) with rabbit (hey, it's French, and when else am I going to have it?) The crepe was rather "waffle-y" in flavor and texture, and the rabbit, while good and not at all gamey (tasted like pork), was in a heavy creamy sauce that could have used some freshening up with some herbs and acid. If we were to return, I would suggest eating dinner elsewhere, but definitely come here for a drink and to soak up some ambiance.
The next day we decided to skip the next couple of scheduled stops (Thousand Islands and Niagara Falls), and start heading south back towards home.
That was the nice thing about our trip -- it was unscheduled and we could do as we pleased. Overall, Montreal was one of our favorite stops of this trip, and we would definitely love to return some day.