Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Montreal, QC, Part II (Canada)

Despite what it may seem from the previous post, there is more to Montreal than just eating. The oldest part of the city, Vieux-Montréal, is lovely to walk around. We wandered onto the grounds of Château Ramezay, the 18th century residence of the eponymous governor. The small, formal gardens create a tranquil spot right in the heart of the city.

Marché Bonsecours was a historic market and briefly housed Parliament under its shiny, silver dome. Today it has an arty cafe on one end and modern shops, including Hatley (the Quebec purveyor of adorable animal-themed pajamas) and a place to buy products that harken back to French Canadian history of fur trade (moccasins, coats, etc.)...  reminding me of the old Kids in the Hall sketches with fur trappers Francois and Jacques, but I digress.

A few blocks away the Basilica de Notre Dame draws big crowds. The façade of the Gothic Revival architecture bears a passing resemblance to the French Gothic one in Paris, but the interior in Montreal is much more colorful with blues and reds and silver and gold on every surface. Curiously, everyone has to pay 5 CAD (~3.50 Euros) to enter regardless. No exceptions for the devout except during actual mass times. We declined paying the upcharge though for an up close and personal concert in the balcony from the organist. Walking in, we quickly realized those 7000 pipes can be heard loud and clear from nearly any spot in the church. It's a wonder the paying audience wasn't deafened! General admission to the Basilica includes entrance on the back side of the altar to the also-ornate-but-in-a-completely-different-way Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur. The warm, wood tones and massive, modern bronze behemoth by Quebecois sculptor Charles Daudelin makes for nearly as jarring a contrast with the main church as the Subriachs's Passion Facade does on La Sagrada Familia. One strange sight I don't suppose I'd see in a European church, however, was a stained glass window depicting conversion of Native Americans... or First Nations folk, I should probably say since this is Canada, eh?

The Musée des Beaux-Arts near McGill University has different riches on offer. It sprawls into four-going-on-five pavillions, and the permanent collections boast 40,000 pieces. Our afternoon was a mere dip of the toe into these waters, and we waffled enough deciding between special exhibitions. In the end, we passed on the finale of an extended Fabergé visit, and instead, opted for opening day of Van Gogh to Kandinsky. There were fewer works by the headliners and greater emphasis on the lesser-known artists encompassed by the exhibit's subtitle "Impressionism to Expressionism 1900-1914." More fascinating than the pieces themselves was the section describing how World War I affected these passionate artists, breaking up the creative communities, and sadly, drastically cutting short many a young life. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Montreal, QC (Canada)

Our arrival into Montreal was a little dubious. It was very late. The street signs were difficult to read through the grubby windows of the airport shuttle, and the indifferent driver made no announcements about the stops. As each tired traveler came to this realization, there was a series of amusing French-English pantomimes, like some sketch out of The Fast Show, as visitors and Quebecois alike tried to puzzle out where we were, using the map that only Rich and I had had the foresight to pick up. We made it to our hotel fine in the end… only to be greeted by a slurring, glassy-eyed man at reception who, I’m afraid, was very, very drunk.

Our outlook was much improved in the morning with bright skies above and a crisp autumn breeze. Our strolls through Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End, and the Latin Quarter reminded us of the townhouses in D.C. and Chicago neighborhoods. The main difference is that, in Montreal, nearly every door has its own steep, external staircase to the sidewalk. Though all the styles and colors are pleasing to the eye, the sheer thought of the trip hazards over the long Canadian winter made me shiver.      

Jean-Talon in Little Italy is one of the oldest public markets in the city. While it’s not a great challenge to make fresh produce aesthetically appealing, the vendors here do a smashing job with beautiful vegetal arrangements like bouquets. We were fascinated by the different varieties on display: eggplants as big as your head, figs like tennis balls, and tiny plums the size of cherry tomatoes. The strangest by far though was an alien cauliflower whose pale green florets spiralled in mesmerizing fractals!

The city has some excellent cooked eats also. Like New York, Montreal is proud of its own take on bagels (handmade, boiled in honey water, and baked in a wood fire) and smoked meat sandwiches (beef brisket cured for days, smoked, and steamed, then sliced thinly and served with mustard). We also tried Quebec classics like poutine (pillowy cheese curds and rich gravy over fries) and tire d'érable (boiled maple sap on snow to make maple taffy… just like Laura Ingalls Wilder used to make!).

For serious stick-to-your-ribs grub, we headed to Au Pied du Cochon. Martin Picard’s spin on Quebecois cuisine is so extravagant that, along with standard sections like Starters and Sides, there is one dedicated to Foie Gras. Seared with a balsamic reduction, our choice brought back delicious memories of San Sebastian’s tapas bars. The canard en conserve (a literal duck in a can) was opened tableside to reveal duck breast, vegetables, and even more foie gras. Not to be outdone for gluttony, the melting pot had pork belly, roast pork, boudin blanc sausage, and black pudding over a heaping helping of mashed potatoes. The charming yet cunning waiter even convinced us (à la Monty Python’s “Finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint…”) to share a traditional pouding chômeur, Quebec’s maple-syrupped answer to a sticky toffee pudding. Rich & Julie: 0, Gout: 2.