“How many good things in my life have I missed out on But not appreciated what I've got Sometimes it's hard to see your lucky break for what it is By only focusing on what it's not But now I'm starting to see That my happiness has always been up to me And now I'm starting to see That I've already got what I need”“Best Day of my Life” – Simple Plan
As we crossed into Quebec by auto. we felt as if we’d have to break our passports again at some border station a kilometer down the road. While that of course was not the case, the change from Ontario was fairly sudden: French dominated the highway signs as we started contemplating “Nord” versus “Sud”, and that we were now traveling “d’ouest en est” (from west to east.)
But thankfully confusion on our part was “ni ici ni là” (neither here nor there, best I can figure) or at least minimal – I imagined it would take a half-day or a day to get used to English not being the dominant language, based on my excursions to other countries like Malaysia and Syria, specifically.
After the experience of Toronto, which had hints of several cities I’ve been too but proved very much its own entity, I was surprised by how much Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, initially reminded me of the Oakland/Berkeley area back in the Bay Area of California. Some of this is obvious (both Oakland and Montreal are major shipping ports; road dimensions far closer to those in the US) and not so obvious (graffiti-laced buildings and a reputation for protests for and against various causes.)
But make no mistake – Montreal has very much its own unique identity, marked by things subtle (curse words in songs are perfectly acceptable, based on some English-language radio songs we heard) to forward-thinking (the signs warning incoming cars that right turns were forbidden on red lights, a nod to the city’s bicycle-friendly culture) to its very essence (like its home province, the idea of Montreal as one cohesive joining of its various municipalities has created much debate which continues even now.)
We did not know about Montreal’s biking culture until after getting there. If you love pedaling around on two wheels, this perhaps should be primary in terms of planning lodging. Much of the city is fairly flat, and plenty of bike parking exists throughout.
We heard from a friend we met in town that Montreal’s transit system is also quite good. On a future visit, we may just take advantage of that – Montreal’s freeway capacity seems lacking compared to Toronto’s and it showed congestion-wise (traffic at times was not unlike that I’ve encountered in the San Francisco/Oakland area.) In contrast, city traffic moved relatively well; much of that might be due to the reliance on bicycling/transit.
Otherwise, much of what applies to Toronto applies to Montreal – the same residential parking restrictions apply, and the city’s parking app may be even more vital here. An interesting quirk – our first spot actually was “P342” (or similar) and I assumed that was parking spot #342. Actually, all the paid parking spots have letters in front of the numbers, and they cover the gamut. In other words, plug in both letter and numbers into the app or kiosk.
Unlike Toronto, prices of hotels between the downtown core aren’t so dramatically different. If you haven’t considered something like Airbnb or Vrbo and are itching to bike/walk around a city, Montreal offers a prime opportunity.
We didn’t quite stay long enough in Montreal to warrant a purchase, but Tourisme Montréal has Passeport MTL, a customizable five attraction passport for $95 per person, plus discounts at other local businesses. Well worth a purchase if your personal itinerary takes you to the attractions listed.
A PLATTER OF APPETIZERS – Marriott’s Fairfield Inn brand hotels typically do not have anything close to a full-service bar and restaurant, but ours (located within shouting distance of Pierre Trudeau International Airport) did, and it was appreciated after a long day drive from Toronto. Food was respectable for a hotel, and it was nice to have a local beer (Unibroue) with our meal.
Beds here lean on the firm side of the ledger, which isn’t typical for most Marriott brand hotels we’ve stayed at. Also, we found out as Netflix subscribers and Great British Bake Off fans that our login gets you access to the Canadian version. We decided to chill in our room the night before our departure and binge watch, and some fast-casual eats from the local Lebanese fast-casual chain Boustan offered up some solid fare in the form of a Shawarma Pita and Fattoush Salad. The Chimichurri Za’atar sauce that came with the pita was one of the better sauces we’ve had in awhile.
We had some time to kill before dinner one night and decided to walk into the local Costco. In some ways, it’s not too much different than any other Costco, but anyone who is a regular shopper knows that the certain stores carry items that others do not. It wasn’t our goal to buy any bulk shopping products (our trunk was plenty full already) but we did have a little mild regret for not getting some regular items that proved far cheaper in Canada than the States.
Costco |300 Rue Bridge, Montréal, QC H3K 2C3, Canada | Ph: (514) 938-5170 | Website: https://www.costco.com/warehouse-locations/montreal-qc-515.html
Fairfield Inn by Marriott |700 Michel Jasmin Ave, Montreal, Quebec H9P 1C5, Canada | Ph: (514) 631-2424 | Website: https://www.marriott.com/en-us/hotels/yulfi-fairfield-inn-and-suites-montreal-airport/overview/
And now, the undercard of fun and yums…
THE ROYAL TREATMENT – Declared a provincial heritage site, Mont Royal and its associated park offers 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) of four season activities for residents and visitors alike.
We didn’t even come close to covering the park’s expanse, but came into contact with that seasonality throughout – trails which cater to pedestrians and bikers offer snowshoeing paths in the winter. A pond which held fishes and plants, ducks, and a small fleet of row boaters acts as an ice skaters paradise in the winter (a whole host of what appear to be ice skate lockers can be found in the building next to the pond.) Artistic sculptures offer visual candy whether you’re strolling along gentle grass slopes or tubing them after a nice snow. Also, the mountain offers some of the best views of the surrounding city. Definitely a must visit for the first-timer.
Parc du Mont-Royal| 1260 Remembrance Rd, Montreal, Quebec H3H 1A2, Canada | Ph: (514) 843-8240 | Website: https://montreal.ca/en/places/parc-du-mont-royal
RINGING IN THE OLD
Montreal is a great walking town, and a walk through Old Montréal is a must for the first-timer. This neighborhood also marked where we started a quest for regional food specialties, and Pub BreWsky inside the Bonsecours Market (a market geared toward both the tourist and the slightly upscale) knocked off two in one bowl with their Poutine with Montréal Smoked Meat. Throw in some very good beers, some Veggie Bites (croquettes made of fried rice and beans with buffalo sauce), outdoor patio seating, and a great wait person, and count this as a great first exploration.
Of course, Old Montréal is simply great for walking around and admiring the old architecture. Even as lapsed Catholics, we felt the need to visit a church, and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (now known as Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum) proved to be a lovely visit which missed out on a lot.
The chapel itself is beautiful in its own right, but we somehow missed out on some of the more historic parts of the site, including an actual saint’s tomb and an archeological dig that revealed roughly 2500 years of history at that site. Best of all, admission is free, but donations are encouraged (and appreciated.)
FINAGLE THE BAGELS
Perhaps even more than poutine and smoked meat, what we had on our minds foremost was the Montreal Bagel. Unlike its New York cousin, Montreal’s take is distinguished by their hand-rolling, boiling in honey water, and then baking in wood fire ovens, resulting in a crispier and flatter disc with a larger hole.
We had heard about the cross-border rivalry from various shows between Montreal and New York, but had not heard of the in-town rivalry between St.-Viateur (the bakery we had seen on many a food show and where we were going to grab our bagels to bring home) and Fairmount, which we had not heard of before. Accounts I’ve read afterwards (such as this BBC article) show that Fairmount seems to be the older bakery; while owners have marked the rivalry as amicable, not all of each bakery’s fans see it that way.
Interestingly, we got to sample the bagel from Fairmount first in a sandwich from Le Cartet, a shop that combines a restaurant, coffee bar, and a small market, including pre-packaged items from the restaurant itself. Great service plus a solidly good breakfast, and from what we could tell, the Fairmount bagel was delicious. Hmmm…
We ended up dropping by St.-Viateur’s flagship location on the day of our departure. While it wasn’t quite like catching fresh hops arriving at Deschutes Brewery a decade or so ago, but there was something seemingly special seeing see pallets of flour arriving at the shop during our visit.
While other locations in the city do offer up sandwiches and similar, their flagship store is geared to picking up mass quantities of bagels, along with other items one would typically assemble with their baked rings. Also, this location is cash only; we had to scramble to find a nearby ATM for cash.
While we don’t normally eat more than one bagel at a sitting, the scent of those freshly baked rings was too much to resist. We figured the drive back to the states would be better fueled with one each of their Sesame (their most popular variety) and one All-Dressed (Everything) bagel, each enhanced with the small slabs of cream cheese we picked up.
A RETURN TO DAMASCUS
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Old Montréal reminded me of what I saw in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, Syria a decade or so ago (the French didn’t just stick to Quebec in their colonial days – the French had brief control of much of what became Syria after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I until 1946.)
One of the highlights of that brief work trip was the ice cream I had at Bakdash, located in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq in Old Damascus. Watching the workers taking what are essentially long wooden mallets and pounding a batter-like liquid containing mastic (something you’d find in bubble gum) into the stretchy, milky bouza proved mesmerizing. Dipped into chopped pistachios and served in a bowl, that base ashta flavor was something I’ve been looking for ever since.
And yes, Montréal is where I found it, at the appropriately named Bouza. Founded in 2019 by two Syrian brothers, their flagship shop in Laval features both bouza as well as gelato, in a variety of flavors for both.
I had mentioned to the owners that I had been to Bakdash, and they smilingly said they hoped their version was just as good. I’m happy to say that I’ll definitely be by for a return next time we’re in, and maybe this time we’ll venture into the more western flavored variations like Oreo, Peanut Butter and Banana Chocolate Chip.
Next post: Our very own trois grands (big three) of Montréal