Montreal offers winter visitors a lively mix of new, old

Destination Canada

December 18, 2005|By CARY DARLING | CARY DARLING,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

There's something distinctive about Montreal, a city that sets itself apart from the rest of North America -- and it's not just that the Body Shop reinvents itself as Le Body Shop.

It's in the architecture, an urban whip of Italian Gothic; French graystone; Victorian rowhouse; and modern, global glass and steel.

It's in the food, a casserole of influences from all over Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond. It's in the people, not just sons and daughters of France and England, but from all over the Gallic universe (Haiti, Vietnam, French Africa) and the rest of the world.

It's in the sachet of urbane sensibilities that make Montreal emotionally as much a part of Europe as it is geographically the United States' northern neighbor.

But it goes deeper than that. The city's celebrated pop-music scene -- ranging from feisty rap en francais to English-language alt-rock (Arcade Fire, the Dears, Wolf Parade, Sam Roberts) that last year had the media rushing to dub it Seattle without flannel or London on ice -- is alive with the constant tussle between English and French.

There's even a clash of real accents and fake swords as hordes of (mostly) young men, on sunny afternoons in Parc du Mont Royal -- the city's mountainous answer to Central Park -- re-create medieval battle scenes with all the fandom fervor of a Lord of the Rings movie.

In short, this is Europe without the financial headache of an ever-inflating euro, the time-zone trauma of overseas air travel or the haute attitude, even if some of the waiters speak only French.

And though it might seem counterintuitive to visit Montreal when it's at its most climatically challenging -- the average winter temperature ranges from a nippy minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit to a balmy 14 degrees above -- in some ways, this is the perfect time to appreciate what it has to offer.

From the efficient Metro system and the Underground (a network of shop-lined tunnels between various buildings) to festive holiday celebrations and skiing and snowboarding just minutes away, it's possible to enjoy wintertime Montreal without necessarily getting frostbite or feeling like you're missing the soul of the city.

Old Montreal

The first thing to do is to stay in the heart of Montreal. That way, you're close to the city's patchwork of intriguing neighborhoods without having to navigate the snow-clogged streets or encounter one of Montrealers' European tendencies: anarchic driving.

Chinatown, Little Italy, the French Quartier Latin, the gay-oriented Village, the bohemian and increasingly yuppified Plateau, the historic Vieux (Old) Montreal and the traditionally Jewish Mile End (the setting for much of the work of novelist Mordecai Richler, most famous for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) all add to the cosmopolitan flavor.

Le Square Phillips Hotel and Suites, where I stayed, proved to be a central location. Downtown and set just off busy Rue St. Catherine - a boulevard that's equal parts high-brow and homeless - Le Square Phillips is an older building that has been renovated into pleasant modernism. And even my less-expensive room (around $150 U.S. a night) was a spacious suite.

St. Catherine is home to the sprawling, upscale Eaton Centre mall as well as the Place des Arts (a five-theater complex for theater, classical music, dance and jazz) and Musique Plus, the studio for French Canada's answer to MTV. Stroll by, and you might even end up on camera.

It's an easy walk from St. Catherine south to Old Montreal, the city's original brick-and-stone heart, built in the mid-1600s. The area has rebounded to become a prime tourist draw, thanks to such beautiful buildings as Basilique Notre Dame, a city landmark.

If winter winds are whipping too furiously, there's a Metro stop near Old Montreal's Place D'Armes, and from there the subway can whisk you east and north to Rue Saint Denis, the traditional heart of French-Canadian street life. Transfer to Rue Saint Laurent, which comes alive at night with the noisy flirtations of youth culture. Cars crawl, horns honk, and the party crowd dips in and out of clubs and cafes.

A good place to catch music acts is the long-running Club Soda (though you quickly discover that it's just as annoying to have concertgoers ruin a show by babbling around you in French as in English).

Although everyone should at least try such down-home French-Canadian fare as poutine (poo-TEEN), french fries buried in cheese curds and gravy, there's much better grub to be found in the ethnic neighborhoods. Two of the better ones I was taken to by local residents were Piatto della Nonna, a homey Italian place on Saint Laurent, and Au Tarot, featuring Franco-Moroccan fusion in the cafe-choked Plateau.

A large part of Montreal's youthful feel - there are times when it seems like everyone over 35 has left town - comes from its four universities.

In addition to UQAM, there's Concordia, Universite de Montreal and McGill, dubbed "the Harvard of Canada."

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