Montreal Favorites, Old and New
"It is a place not to be forgotten or mixed up in the mind with other places, or altered for a moment in the crowd of scenes a traveller can recall."
- Charles Dickens on Montreal
January 1, 2012, Washington, DC: In four short days, we didn’t come close to seeing it all. It takes years to discover new and old restaurants, to stumble upon less obvious neighborhoods, to participate in seasonal traditions, to get to know the shopkeepers and the bartenders who invest in cities like ours. Today begins another year during which we will learn more about our surroundings and we enter 2012 inevitably influenced by recent memories of our favorite things about Montreal.
Read on for favorite architectural features, food and more found back in hometown Montreal.
Favorite Architectural Element: Montreal's Stairs The stairs of Montreal are a defining visual feature of the city. They grace the front of urban homes and rise twice as high as the stairs in other cities, to a true second story. I loved wandering through the Plateau neighborhood and seeing these stairs color the neighborhood.
Favorite Food Finds: Faberge (breakfast) and Fondumentale (dinner) The Mile End neighborhood was not on the radar for my parents in the 1970s. Today it is a hip, spirited and creative area abutting the Plateau neighborhood near the northeastern edge of Mount Royal Park. Mile End is full of unique boutiques, friendly people, and an upbeat neighborhood breakfast spot called Faberge. Faberge’s tables were full of large groups of friends on a snowy day. It's the kind of place you could linger for hours and the eggs were as good as the name implies.
The Plateau neighborhood, another that has up and came considerably in the last few decades, is likewise home to artists and writers as well as several shops and restaurants along the corridors of Saint-Denis and Saint-Laurent between Saint-Joseph and Roy. The Plateau also includes Fonduementale, a restaurant on Saint-Denis located inside an old stone rowhouse. Up the stairs out front, you enter into an old home with dark moldings, hardwood floors and rich red walls. The front former living room with a large window overlooking the street is the perfect setting for traditional swiss fondue, pink peppercorn cheese fondue, or one with cider and a hint of Dijon.
Favorite View of the City: Quais du Vieux-Port de Montreal One of my favorite spots in the city was the area along the river behind Vieux-Montreal and the Bon Secours market, called the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal. Still an industrial area back in the 70s, the working port moved east in 1976 and the government announced plans to redevelop the area in 1977. Transformation was underway throughout the 1980s and the "New Old Port of Montreal" was officially inaugurated in 1992. The area now includes a large, crowded ice rink, a science center, and walking paths and bike lanes alongside the old railroad tracks; we followed the music and the voices coming from the ice rink to stumble upon this view of the city, a great perspective from which to see Montreal.
Favorite Park: Mount Royal Park Frederick Law Olmstead, the man behind Central Park, designed Mount Royal Park, too. His creations share that incredible ability to make you forget you’re smack dab in the middle of a world-class city. Mount Royal Park has the added perk of elevation. Lookout points on the drive above Montreal are reminiscent of the mountainside overlooking Boulder, Colorado. I loved how crowds gathered by the park’s Beaver Lake on a snowy night for ice skating, and I'd love to experience this park and its many trails in the summer.
Favorite City Feature: Bike Lanes & Winter Cycling Unlike many cities, Montreal did not strike me as a place with a congestion problem. Perhaps it was because we visited during the holiday season, but traffic was light and in true European style, cars were small, with few SUVs on the roads despite the snow and ice. In short, there seems to be room here for the city's extensive network of bike lanes, and Montreal’s two-way bike lanes are indeed wide and well-designed, with a cement median frequently separating them from a busy street. In 2009, Montreal's bikeshare program, BIXI, entered into the fray of an already strong city bike culture and is now considering offering bike rentals year-round (BIXI currently closes for the winter in mid-November.) To be sure, I was amazed by the number of people pedaling in the snow. According to a study released last week by researchers at Montreal's McGill University, the next step is keeping the bike lanes clear for the city's increasing number of avid winter cyclists.
Favorite Getaway: Dorval Island Closed in winter and accessible only by ferry when the air is warm, this carless island still transports people back in time to the 1950s, according to our waiter at Nick's on Greene Ave. Like Westmount, Dorval merged with the city of Montreal in 2002 only to reassert its independence again a few years later. The ferry to the island leaves from the Lac Saint-Louis waterfront just minutes from Trudeau airport. My parents owned a tiny cottage on Dorval Island in the 1970s. Here's my brother arriving there circa 1978ish, incidentally one of my favorite photos from old-time Montreal!