Montreal presents a lovely scene at night. (Patrice Lamoureux, Tourisme…)
On an afternoon in early October, I sat in a pew in an old church and took in Mass. A woman dressed all in white sang a soothing hymn, and then a priest in an intricate, green robe read from a prepared sermon; behind him, an imposing pipe organ dominated the sparsely-crowded room.
I didn't understand a word. The service, the song, the Bible — everything was in French.
This was the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, a nearly 200-year-old gem that's been the site of state funerals and, perhaps as notable, Celine Dion's wedding.
A very lapsed Catholic, I only go to church on Christmas, but to leave Montreal without stepping inside this landmark would be like leaving Disney World without riding Space Mountain.
The hour I spent there, pretending to listen to the service, while I really just gazed at the stained-glass windows, the towering ceiling and all the immaculately preserved religious icons, was a welcome respite.
Montreal is a city that moves at ten different speeds — you can stroll around Old Montreal, casually dine on foie gras at one of the locavore-friendly restaurants in town, or you can go dancing and stay up past 4 a.m.
It's an ideal fall vacation. While the city has a reputation for hipness and sensuality, I found that it appeals to both the history buff and the restless urbanite, the big spender and the traveler on a budget.
Motivated by affordable railway fares — until Nov. 23, Amtrak is offering double-reward points on all travel — I went on a bit of a Canadian expedition this month, taking the train from Baltimore to Toronto for $140, and then to Montreal. I stayed four nights in the city, and for the return trip snagged a $78 direct train ride back home.
Toronto has its pockets of curiosities, but it ends up being a reminder of many cities in the Northeast. It's not for nothing that it often doubles for New York in movies. It's the no-fun house to Montreal's love shack.
Canada's second-largest city, on the other hand, offers historic architecture, exceptional dining, nonstop music and all that … Frenchness. In Montreal, you don't need to remember your high school 'je m'appelle's'; everyone, except maybe bus drivers, speaks English too. But the vibe, from the food to the nightlife habits, is distinctly Gallic.
The club scene
I arrived in Montreal on a Friday night and went directly to L'Addresse du Centre-Ville, a handsome, spacious and affordable ($90 a night) bed-and-breakfast listed on a handy travel site (www.bedandbreakfast.com). With a convenient location near the Beaudry metro station on Saint Catherine Street, it is close to any number of attractions — the Montreal Botanical Gardens, which from September to late October is decorated with hundreds of traditional Chinese lanterns, or a late-night screening of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the Cinema Imperial (showing through Oct. 31).
But after five hours on a train, what I needed was a beer.
In the Mile-End neighborhood, the Royal Phoenix was throwing a party by an American expat who specializes in arcane house music. I walked through graffitied streets — "Well Come to Montreal" was scrawled under one bridge — past some ominous-looking warehouses and cut through train tracks to get to the nondescript but hip bar.
The neighborhood reminded me of Baltimore's Station North district. Though scruffy-looking, it's an area known as a hub of artists and filmmakers.
Phoenix was roomy enough for an open dance floor and a full-service bar; my beer was $5 Canadian, or about $4.93. It also had a better-than-usual bar grub menu, with items like tofu po'boys. The night was early, though, and on the dance floor, only a few stragglers swayed to the music.
For more high-end — read "pricier" — bars, try the martinis at Reporter, at the Westin Hotel downtown, or KoKo, which Lady Gaga is said to have visited. Flashy and exclusive, KoKo boasted an epic line of well-dressed, patient patrons waiting to be let into the inner sanctum. I wasn't as patient and left to try Vauvert, an equally clubby, dimly-lit restaurant in Old Montreal that turns into a bar after dinner and hosts dance-music DJs.
For some serious dancing, I went to Unity, which is located in the gay district, itself one of the best spots in town for people-watching. Clubgoers and drag queens outnumber the taxis, and the sidewalks are their runways as they try to outdo each other with ever more exaggerated ensembles.
The club was a labrynth that spread over three smoky, hard-to-make-out-the-person-next-to-you floors. There was even a patio on the top floor that overlooked the village. The music, of course, was predictably relentless, and left me beat.
Montreal's gay clubs boast indefatigable DJs who succeed in being inclusive; their true audience is anyone craving an over-caffeinated rave.