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Old Meets New in Montréal

- By Pierre Home-Douglas

Although the city takes some of its cues from cosmopolitan Europe, it stands on its own as a place of great charm and style.

Take two parts of France, add another part of Great Britain, and let it simmer for a couple of centuries. Then toss in a hundred or so nationalities from Peru to Pakistan. Mix them all together and you're ready to dish up one of North America's most chic, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities. Some people say that Montreal is the Paris of North America, but this is no mere European wannabe. Montreal is a city all its own, a captivating combination of the Old World and the New, as vibrant and sexy as a Ferrari, with an irrepressible joie de vivre that is on daily display, from restaurants and bistros to jazz clubs and sidewalk cafés.

Like all great cities, Montreal is a place of contrasts—soaring cathedrals and some of the hippest nightclubs this side of Berlin, caleches on cobblestone streets—a few miles away from an aerospace company producing some of the world's most popular regional jets, bakeries that still use wood-fired ovens, and high-tech industries housed in renovated hundred-year-old foundries. Spend a few days here and you'll just scratch the surface. Spend a lifetime and you'll never stop being entertained.

A good place to begin getting acquainted with Montreal is where the city itself started—the Old Port, or Vieux-Port. This is where Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, landed in 1642 and christened his new settlement Ville-Marie, more than a century after fellow French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first European to set eyes on this island in the St. Lawrence River. Ships still land at this spot—Montreal remains an important inland port and a popular summertime cruise destination—but today the Old Port is best known to Montrealers for its mile-long promenade that runs the length of the waterfront. Stand here on a warm summer day and watch bicyclists, pedestrians, and in-line skaters passing by, framed against the backdrop of the 19th century warehouses on nearby Rue de la Commune and the imposing Bonsecours Market. The tin-domed building includes 15 boutiques that showcase work by some of Quebec's finest craftspeople.

The recently opened iSci Centre at the King-Edward Pier includes interactive science displays for the whole family and an IMAX theater. Across the street on de la Commune, energetic visitors can rent a bicycle at Velo Adventure and head west on the Lachine Canal bike path, which leads for miles along the historic canal to Lac St. Louis. The more adventurous can board a jet boat at the Clock Pier at the eastern end of the Old Port and brace themselves for a rollicking ride through the Lachine rapids. June is an ideal month to be outdoors in Montreal. The temperature normally ranges from a low of 56 degrees to a high of 73 degrees.

The Old Port stands at the southern end of Old Montreal, a 95-acre collection of cobblestone streets and venerable limestone buildings that help make this perhaps the best-preserved, most coherent historic quarter in North America. (Small wonder Hollywood film makers flock here when they want a stand-in for everything from 19th century London to the New York of the 1920s.) At its heart stands Place d'Armes, where founding father Maisonneuve fought a pitched battle with the Iroquois in 1644. Today, Place d'Armes is best known for Notre-Dame Basilica, a neo-Gothic masterpiece with two soaring towers and an opulent interior that features elaborate woodwork and a row of stained-glass windows crafted in Limoges, France. This is where Celine Dion got married and where Luciano Pavarotti taped his oft-watched Christmas special. Across the street stands the domed Bank of Montreal building, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis stored his papers after the Civil War when he lived briefly in Montreal. There is usually a line of caleches parked in front of the Basilica ready to take the foot-weary on a serpentine route through the area and along streets like Rue Ste-Paul, with its 20-plus art galleries and numerous boutiques.

Place Jacques-Cartier, a few hundred yards to the east of Place d'Armes, is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions—some would say too popular. It's still worth a quick peak for its outdoor cafés and restaurants with terraces, not to mention the street musicians, jugglers, and artisans who ply their trade on warm summer nights. A tourist information center near the northwest corner of the cobblestone square is a good place to stop to pick up travel literature on Montreal, including a free guide booklet that includes a self-guided walking tour of the area.

If all this history has made you a little nostalgic for 21st century life, head uptown to Rue Ste-Catherine. It's only a 15-minute walk away but it seems light-years distant. This is the main shopping street in downtown Montreal, a bustling strip that pulses with energy pretty well around the clock. Here, starting at Rue Atwater and working your way east, you'll find department stores like the Bay and Simons, plus lots of specialty shops selling everything from secondhand books (Westcott and Argo bookstores) to authentic Basque berets (Henri-Henri). If you're passing by Ogilvy building at the corner of Rue de la Montagne at noon, step inside and be serenaded by the bagpiper bedecked in a kilt. Ste-Catherine offers a curious combination of the sacred and the profane: One of the city's most beloved churches, the neo-Gothic Christ Church Cathedral, stands almost directly opposite the best-known strip joint in town, the Super Sexe, which figures in at least one story by Hunter S. Thompson.

A couple of blocks to the north, running parallel to Ste-Catherine, is Montreal's most elegant thoroughfare, Rue Sherbrooke. A few nondescript high-rises are a modern day blight, but Montreal's version of Fifth Avenue still boasts an impressive array of stately churches (Mark Twain once said you couldn't toss a brick in Montreal without breaking a church window), old gray stone buildings, and charming apartment buildings, like the pre-World War I Linton Apartments. In a dozen or so blocks between Guy and Université you'll pass the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Canada's oldest art museum; the stately Ritz-Carlton hotel, where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton tied the knot (for the first time) back in 1964; two of the city's top art galleries, Galerie Claude Lafitte and Walter Klinkhoff; McGill University; and the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Stop at one of the ever-present Van Houtte cafés, pick up a cappuccino and a croissant, and listen to the patter of conversations around you. The majority of Montreal's 3 million residents are French-speaking, but many of them are bilingual.

The city's subway, the Métro, is a great way to get around. It's clean, efficient, and safe. The rubber-wheeled cars can whisk you to more than 60 stations throughout the city. If you're looking for a good day's entertainment, take the green line toward Honoré-Beaugrand and get off at Viau. Follow the signs to the Biodôme. This is one of Canada's most popular natural science museums—and with good reason. The Biodôme offers a fascinating re-creation of four ecosystems found in the Americas, from a tropical rain forest to a polar region complete with four species of penguins. The Biodôme is a baseball-toss away from the Olympic Stadium, an immense clamshell-shaped building. Sure, it cost close to $2 billion to build (Montrealers have dubbed it the Big Owe), but it still ranks as the most distinctive-looking sports facility in North America, utterly different from the usual box-like domed stadiums. If you're a baseball fan, the Expos are in town on June 15, 16, 18, and 19. For a bird's eye view of the stadium, take the cable car that rides to the top of the 556-foot-high inclined tower adjoining the building. Across Sherbrooke from the stadium, accessible by a pedestrian path, you'll find the Botanical Gardens, which has 21,000 species of flora on display. The 182-acre site also includes the Insectarium, a museum with thousands of creepy-crawlies on display, everything from colorful butterflies to giant walking stick insects, including several live exhibits.

Take at least some time during your visit to Montreal to wander around the Plateau Mont-Royal, or the Plateau for short. Throughout the 20th Century, this is the place where many immigrants raised their families before moving on to the suburbs. In the last 10 years or so it has emerged as the hippest place in town, with many of the city's most sought-after restaurants, bars, and night spots (see sidebar on page C7). Boulevard St-Laurent (also known as the Main) is the busiest commercial street, but this is also a neighborhood where many people live—professionals, artists, students, immigrants, and everyone in between. Rue Laval from Avenue des Pins to Sherbrooke is a particularly fine stretch with 19th Century limestone buildings that line the wide sidewalks. The outdoor staircases that lead to the second floors of many of these buildings serve as a reminder that this is more a city of apartment renters than homeowners. The street intersects with a favorite summertime hangout of locals—Carré St. Louis (or St. Louis Square). The park-like square is surrounded by imposing French Second Empire homes that once housed some of Montreal's most affluent.

If you're looking for more respite from the hurly-burly of city life, head up to Mont-Royal Park. This 500-acre oasis of greenery was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect also responsible for New York's Central Park. Here you can share tree-lined paths with bicyclists, bird-watchers, and walkers out for a stroll. The lookout in front of the Mont Royal Chalet provides a panorama of the city laid out below, with the St. Lawrence River in the background and the Monteregian Hills stretching toward Vermont 60 miles away. Stand here for a few minutes and wonder what this vista first looked like to Jacques Cartier when he climbed to the top of Mont Royal almost 500 years ago and gazed out on what was then a vast, unexplored, uncharted land.

No matter what your taste, be it for Old World charm or modern cosmopolitan vibrance, Montreal offers something for everyone.

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal. He can be reached by e-mail at