As I was driving out of Montreal last month in a rental car, a local radio talk show host was posing a query to listeners.
“There seems to be a disconnect going on. 11.2 million tourists are coming to Montreal this year and according to past surveys, 95% of them say that they love spending time here. What do they know that we [Montrealers] don’t know? We love to complain about all the problems in the city and the difficulties living here, but maybe we should take the lead from visitors to Montreal and realize that, hey, maybe we have a pretty nice city.”
It’s a conundrum that faces residents of most of the world’s high-profile cities, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: how to appreciate the evident charms when you’re stuck in traffic or saddled with a huge property tax.
Luckily, tourists only need to see the positive side, and there’s plenty of that in the Canadian city known La Belle Ville. The way to get there for Israelis has been streamlined with the inauguration of twice-weekly nonstop Air Canada flights between Tel Aviv and Montreal (leaving Israel Mondays and Fridays at 12:50 p.m.) The new route couldn’t have been launched at a better time, because this year Montreal is hosting major celebrations in honor of its 375th birthday, the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation and the 50th anniversary of Expo ‘67. That’s a lot of partying and extra added attractions for a city that is already awash with activities, sites, attractions and great restaurants.
The downtown area is easy to maneuver and abuts the gorgeous Old Montreal area, full of nightlife and eateries and making way for the port along the St. Lawrence River, another area bustling with life all hours of the day.
A great Montreal feature that many cities (including Tel Aviv) also provide is the metro bicycle sharing program. Dozens of stations located throughout the city offer well-maintained bikes, which on Sundays, at least, are free for up to a 30-minute ride. Just find another station to return the bike, wait a minute and take out another one. Free biking for the whole day! The other days of the week, there’s a modest charge for the 30-minute ride.
Of course, in Montreal, where half the year only the warm-blooded can survive, biking is not recommended. They know how to compensate however – a huge and extensive underground city that enables humans to continue functioning downtown during the frigid Canadian winters – you can walk for kilometers among hotels, office buildings, malls and restaurants without putting on a ski jacket.
Go above ground if you can or you’ll miss museums like the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, with its riveting extensive exhibition “Revolution” that delves into the heady 1966-1970 period that saw the rise and fall of the counterculture.
Be sure to search out the annual Mural Festival, which features 80 works of art painted throughout the city.
Montreal’s reputation as a foodie’s heaven is well deserved, with upscale bistros and cafes offering world-class fare. But don’t pass up visiting two Jewish-oriented Montreal culinary landmarks, St. Viateur’s Bagels and Schwartz’s Deli.
Both are located outside the tourism comfort zone in multi-cultural neighborhoods, still pricey and desirable for upwardly mobile Montrealers, but full of second-hand shops, ethnic food restaurants and a more bohemian atmosphere.
It may be jarringly non-Jewish by name, but St. Viateur’s Bagels in the city’s Mile End neighborhood has produced the quintessential Montreal bagel for 60 years. No matter when you go to the modest store front, dozens of people are lined up to buy the chewy and slightly sweet delicacies served in brown paper bags.
Denser and less fluffy than their New York counterparts, it was hard to say which is better. Have you ever had a bagel made with care, hot out of the oven, that didn’t taste perfect? They are even better with the whitefish spread sold from the refrigerator next to the cash register.
At 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, the line outside Schwartz’s Deli is 50-strong – a mix of locals, tourists and regulars waiting patiently for the smoked treasures inside.
“Just order the smoked meat sandwich with a little fat, and some French fries with gravy and you can’t go wrong,” said a mature Francophile in broken English who was standing in the line that progressed speedily, thanks to the Houdini- like talents of an experienced seater who deftly paired off couples with singles, filling the limited number of tables inside.
The interior still bears the vibe of a bustling city diner with a bevy of frantic waiters balancing plates, opening bottles of seltzer and posing for selfies with customers.
A Montreal institution since 1928, Schwartz’s, like most of the other delis in Montreal, doesn’t offer corned beef, pastrami or the other standard sandwiches, but simply the local specialty ‘smoked meat’ – which to this palette tastes like a slightly spicy corned beef.
The dining suggestion proved perfect, with the stuffed sandwich and fries complemented by a black cherry soda and a plate of crisp half-sour pickles. Was it better than New York deli? I’ll leave that to the experts. But suffice it to say that the bike ride back toward the hotel district took a little extra time.
My 48 hours in Montreal only cracked the surface of what there is to see and do.
With Canadian hospitality and old European charm, the city indeed provides the best of two worlds. Hopefully Montrealers will learn that from the continuing influx of satisfied tourists.
The writer was a guest of Air Canada and the Montreal tourism bureau Tourisme/ Montreal.