If the South of France is out of the question, Montreal will serve nicely

March 27, 1994|By Doreen Carvajal | Doreen Carvajal,Knight-Ridder News Service

It is evening and our car is colored three shades of grit when we finally reach the squat booth defending the bureaucracy and border of Quebec, Canada.

"Passports," snaps the mustachioed border guard in the nasal French accent of the province. (My Parisian companion's response -- "French" -- to the question of our nationalities no doubt has prompted the request to see passports, rather than the simpler proofs of residence usually required.)

He studies the slender documents with the concentration of a rare-stamp collector, flicking his eyes between the pages and us. Each pastel-colored seal from some Asian or South American country seems to increase his suspicions.

"Occupations?"

"What's the purpose of your visit?"

We glance at each other with the edginess of the usual suspects. In neighboring Ontario, the Canadian border guards are usually so casual they rarely bother glancing at documents before waving tourists on toward neat, polite Toronto. But this is French Canada, a place and mind apart.

We don't confide to the border guard that our real purpose is to explore a province that actually feels like an exotic country instead of a well-mannered U.S. neighbor with fabulous Boxing Day shopping bargains.

We submit to the bureaucratic small talk because ahead lies Montreal, an unabashedly French city that, at least some of the time, acts suspiciously more like Casablanca than Canada. For long-weekend trips, we couldn't spare the air fare for the South of France, but we could regularly swing the 400-mile drive rTC through the lush countryside of Upstate New York to Montreal.

When the city was blooming with window-box petunias and impatiens, we took up residence in a $40-a-night Victorian bed-and-breakfast in the Latin Quarter, where our second-floor wrought-iron balcony had a sweeping view of blocks of outdoor-cafe society.

When the city was wearing its winter coat, we trudged through ankle-deep snow in search of delicate escargot and French food to usher in the new year. The five-course meal cost about $15 in U.S. dollars; the kisses at midnight from slightly tipsy French Canadians were free.

In any season, snow or shine, Montreal is a walker's retreat, with its mix of shiny steel and pink-glass towers, mighty neo-Gothic churches and narrow 17th-century houses that echo Brittany, France.

Montreal prides itself on being the largest French-speaking city outside Paris, and its culture has an accent so well-defined that local newspapers are crammed with advertisements for the latest movies from Paris and the women and men roam the immaculate subway in clothes with the cut and label of France.

Even the street signs say ARRET instead of STOP -- unlike France, where English-language traffic signs are common. But this city caters to its tourists; the hotel clerks and waiters seem desperate to reassure English-speaking visitors that they have also mastered English. They may ask for your order in French, but when they hear a drift of English words they switch languages like a shortwave radio.

A horse-drawn caleche or some sturdy walking shoes are the best transportation for savoring the city's ancient walls and picturesque churches -- such as Old Montreal's little Notre Dame de Bonsecours Chapel, which is known as the Sailors' Church and has several model wooden ships dangling from its high ceilings.

During balmy weather the focus of outdoor activity in Old Montreal is Place Jacques-Cartier, once the site of the Marquis de Vaudreuil's gardens. This lively two-block-long square was once a 19th-century municipal market, but this century it's a flower market bordered by outdoor cafes.

Dozens of outdoor cafes also spill onto the sidewalks of Rue St. Denis in the Latin Quarter and nearby Rue Prince Arthur. The latter is like one long, rambling street restaurant, where performers will do anything for spare change -- swallow fire, sketch portraits, annoy diners with tuneless harmonica concerts.

Montreal has more than enough nighttime attractions and distractions to fill a guidebook. On our most recent visit, we stumbled onto Aux Deux Pierrots, 104 Rue St. Paul East. It's one of Montreal's most popular "boites-a-chansons" (literally "song boxes"). The walls and makeshift stage reverberate until 3 a.m., and some of the local songs are so beloved that, after the first three words or so, the audience leaps up to dance and shout the lyrics.

Don't be embarrassed to bob along. In this city, there's always somebody around to interpret Montreal -- and to turn that dour border guard into a fading memory.

IF YOU GO . . .

Staying there: If you don't want to bother looking through guidebooks to find a hotel, you can call the Montreal Reservation Center at (800) 567-8687.

More information: Tourisme Quebec offers free guidebooks and maps. Call (800) 363-7777.

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