Exotic Montreal lies just a rail ride away

March 29, 1992|By Karl Zimmermann | Karl Zimmermann,Contributing Writer

Culturally, architecturally and gastronomically exciting, Montreal is tailor-made for a weekend rail trek. Though close at hand, it offers a hint of the exotic -- a foreign destination where you can brush up your high-school French.

Amtrak operates a pair of services to take you there from Baltimore. One is the daylight Adirondack, which connects with Northeast Corridor trains at New York and then runs along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain over one of the East's most scenic lines.

The other is the overnight Montrealer, which takes a more easterly route through Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. This night train makes it possible for Baltimore residents to pack a train trip to Montreal into a weekend, without significantly chipping away at the work day on either side.

Here's one scenario: Board the Montrealer at Baltimore for a 4:55 p.m. Friday departure for the North Country. Spring for a roomette (for one) or bedroom (for two), replacing the overnight marathon of trying to sleep in a coach seat with the nostalgic adventure of your own bed on rails. One-way sleeping accommodations add either $85 (roomette) or $148 (bedroom) to a round-trip rail fare of $99 to $147 (depending on when you book); dinner and breakfast are included in the sleeper package.

The first leg of the journey is a high-speed sprint to New York. Then, just minutes after departure from Penn Station there, the Montrealer emerges from a tunnel under the East River and swims up a long elevated approach to Hell Gate Bridge, offering a dazzling panorama of Manhattan at night -- an intricate tapestry of a million lights.

The dinette is the train's social center, both for meals and congeniality late into the evening. Somehow a train rumbling through the night is just the setting to foster easy conversation among strangers -- friends for the evening that you're unlikely ever to see again. No reason to keep secrets on a train.

Depending on whether you tarried long in the lounge, you may want your sleeping-car attendant to wake you early the next morning to see some Vermont mountainscapes slide by your window. At whatever time you designate, he'll bring juice and coffee to your room, along with the morning paper.

A 10:45 a.m. arrival at Montreal's Central Station, right in the heart of that very French city, leaves a full day ahead for sightseeing and plenty of options to fill it.

If the weather is inclement, you might explore Underground Montreal, a network of subterranean development -- shops and restaurants -- begun nearly three decades ago. Today pedestrian walkways total 13 miles, linked by the city's excellent Metro, a spic-and-span, rubber-tired subway system serving 65 stations, each designed by distinguished artists and architects.

Centuries away from the city's futuristic underground development, yet a walk of just 20 minutes from Central Station, lies Old Montreal. This historic district, which many find the city's most charming sector, is rich in buildings from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Centered around Place Jacques-Cartier, a broad plaza, Vieux Montreal has narrow, crooked, cobbled streets lined with commercial buildings of distinctly human scale. It's a wonderful place to wander, walking-tour map in hand.

City Hall, with a Second Empire facade dating from the 1870s and a mansard roof and cupola of oxidized copper, is among the district's most distinctive structures. But it's the whole texture of Vieux Montreal more than any individual building that's most memorable, that and the abundance of fine, cozy places to dine -- cafes, bistros, brasseries, restaurants. (That all these words

are French shows something about the Gallic interest in food.)

At the western end of the old city is the Montreal History Centre, opened in 1983 in a handsome turn-of-the-century brick fire station. Here a synchronized, continuous sound and light show leads visitors through 11 rooms of exhibits chronicling the city's growth from a tiny colony founded in 1642.

Just a few blocks away is the Old Port, which in the past decade has been transformed into a waterfront park, punctuated at the far eastern end by the striking Sailors' Memorial Clock Tower dating from 1922. In the warm months, a variety of sightseeing cruises of the St. Lawrence River and Port of Montreal leave from the Old Port's piers.

On Sunday, back at Central Station, the Adirondack waits to take you home. Departure is at 10:10 a.m. with arrival (if the train is on time, which it often isn't) in New York at 8:12 p.m. Sunday evening trains down the Northeast Corridor leave New York at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., with corresponding Baltimore arrivals at 11:12 p.m. and 1:08 a.m. (A different schedule applies in winter; see box for details.)

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