Whenever the sun chases away the last grim bits of blackened snow the lyrics of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City ring through my mind:
Hot Town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head
But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright
And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city
If there’s any city dedicated to grabbing someone to dance all night it’s Montreal. On an average year they host back-to-back events, concerts, exhibitions. But for 2017, Montreal is celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial
AND the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding. It’s fun on steroids. They scheduled 375 events for the anniversary, which mean expanding their calendar and starting in 2016.
With 9.5 bars and 64.9 restaurants per square km, Montreal is right up there with New York, LA, London and Miami for nightlife. The city has 200 theatre companies, 50 dance groups, and, curiously, is the tango capital of North America. Montreal is also home to three circus companies, including Cirque de Soleil.
I think of Montreal as Canada’s big apple. It’s been home to both massive fortunes (in its heyday, the residents of The Golden Square Mile owned 80 percent of Canada) and an uncharacteristic boldness for Canada. These two factors impacted the city by bequeathing great architecture and cultural amenities. Fifty years after hosting Expo 67, this Olympic city does not shy away from grand schemes or big ideas. And given the massive back-to-back redevelopment which took place for both Expo and the Olympics like the underground city, artificial islands, and reinvention of whole neighbourhoods someday Montreal may well be studied as a prime repository of mid-20th century architecture.
But for now, let’s focus on fun. Montreal is French, so it has that focus on food and fashion. And to flush out the alliteration, let’s not forget festivals. For its 375th anniversary, Montreal is the epicenter of fun.
Montreal is the one of only six cities – with Rome, Paris, London, San Francisco and New York – that Gourmet magazine ever devoted an entire issue to. Editor Ruth Reichl said Montreal is “an absolutely extraordinary city. Here, it seems all the best aspects of the French, English, Greek, Italian, West Indian and Jewish traditions that have gone into the making of this city are treated with equal reverence. No wonder the markets are so rich, the restaurants so pleasurable. No wonder so many artists and musicians have chosen to live here. And no wonder Montreal is now becoming a tourist mecca. The fact that it is so affordable is another big bonus.”
Reichl added, “spending time in Montreal was perhaps most exciting of all. Everyone knows that these other cities are great places to visit; you have a good idea what you’ll find there. But Montreal is filled with surprises.” She concluded by quoting one of Gourmet’s other editors who says, “These people have really figured out how to live.”
Traditionally my visits to Montreal have included a Saturday morning at the Atwater Market for killer pastries at Boulangerie Premiere Moisson and salivating at the 750 cheeses on offer at la Fromagerie Atwater. I wanted to broaden my experience, so on my most recent visit I went to the Jean-Talon Market. Montreal’s markets are amazing because the vendors turn vegetable displays into art works. They make a cluster of cauliflower look like a great centerpiece. And they are manage to support specialists, like the Olive & Olives shop where the olive addict in me happily loaded up on so many cans of olives in lemon and olives in red pepper that I risked going over my airline baggage limit.
These markets are worth a visit for the colour, spirit, a late breakfast or lunch or to get the fixings for a picnic either on the Mountain or Expo islands.
I didn’t get to Expo 67, so the artificial islands created when the underground city was dug fascinate me. They’re great, green spaces close to and easily reached from downtown. If the city closes in on you or gets hot and gritty, a bus or a subway can whisk you to this watery countryside in minutes. There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome rise over the treetops on Ile Sainte-Helene. I find the idealism of that period and setting calming. The islands are home the La Ronde amusement park, treed lanes and restaurants and places to picnic which overlook the city. Another option is to cross over to Ile Notre-Dame for a flutter at the Casino de Montreal, which is housed in the old French pavilion from Expo.
What I appreciate about Montreal is its small footprint, which is something else it shares with Paris. Both cities are big, but for what a visitor wants each has a relatively compact geography. Centre-Ville, Quartier Latin, Le Village, Quartier International and Vieux-Montreal are all cheek-by-jowl and serviced by 16 metro stations. So with a metro pass, and maybe the odd cab, you can easily explore the city without the need for your own vehicle.
For more animated experiences, I took in four festivals in four nights: the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, the Festival of Fire, an African music festival and circus festival!
Lots of people were out for these events, but the only time it was crowded was going to La Ronde for the fireworks festival. The subway, buses and park were packed, but it was a short-term experience and even then people were orderly. And if you are an out-of-towner looking to avoid the crowds many downtown hotels host fireworks watching parties on upper floor lounges.
On my first night I attended the opening night of International Nuits d’Afrique Festival at the Metropolis Theatre. I came expecting tribal music, but was entertained by exciting African jazz artists with a type of calypso under-beat.
It was interesting because the crowd wasn’t enslaved to silence. They chatted, drank and enjoyed the music, but treated this as a cabaret not a concert.
My second night was back at Metropolis for the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival’s Nasty Show.
My third evening took me to the Olympia de Montréal in the gay village for
Festival Montréal Complètement Cirque. It was like Ed Sullivan meets Cirque du Soleil. It’s a witty evening marrying art, music, circus discipline and story telling. Alas, for unilingual me, it was mostly in French and while the audience howled with laughter at the dialogue I had to make due with the physical acts, which were astounding. It is a prime example of how vibrant, inventive and interesting Montreal is.
My final night was at the International Fireworks Competition. Over nine nights during the summer pyrotechnic artists from around the world present an evening where they use the night sky as their canvas to paint a picture of their homeland. These are great nights because rather than just seemingly random ooo-and-aaahh-inspiring explosions, they present a theme built on national identity. My first exposure was a decade ago in Montreal when I saw Spain’s night. The sky was washed in vibrant reds and yellows exploding to flamingo music. This visit I saw Australia’s night. The fireworks, like the country, were brash, bright and bold, and accompanied by the didgeridoo.
The nice thing about summer evenings in the city is that it was warm enough to sit outside for a late meal and/or drink and people watching. At a cafe next to the Musee Contemporary Art I sat under a Mountain Ash watching children, out with their parents, happily squealing as they cooled off running into the changing coloured lights of a fountain.
It was also then I realized that because so many downtown streets were closed to traffic to facilitate performances, the city was astonishingly quiet. The primary sounds were splashing water, children, conversation, laughter and music.
Montreal is a complete package when it comes to a city holiday. It has style, surprise and fun. And since it hosts more events than any other community in Canada so you’ll never be bored and always find something targeted to your taste and interest.
For current information on Montreal’s 375th anniversary events, click on: http://www.375mtl.com/en/