Before the pandemic: A reminder of romantic Montreal

These days, as we’ve stopped traveling due to the pandemic, all that’s left, I’m afraid, is to look back nostalgically on memorable excursions.

A COLORFUL horse-drawn carriage waits outside Montreal City Hall.  (photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
A COLORFUL horse-drawn carriage waits outside Montreal City Hall.
(photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
 I remember it like yesterday, that warm summer day when my wife and I were walking hand in hand on leafy Saint-Mathieu Street in Montreal.
These days, as we’ve stopped traveling due to the pandemic, all that’s left, I’m afraid, is to look back nostalgically on memorable excursions like our visit to Montreal and dream about once again being able to explore the world.
Looming high above us during our walk was Montreal’s very namesake, Mount Royal, the beloved wooded mountain and today a popular park named by the French explorer Jacques Cartier, whose ship arrived here in 1535 on behalf of the king of France.
As my wife and I continued on our way, I looked up and saw an old woman watching us from the balcony of her apartment.
Suddenly and without warning, she tossed us a rose – an act that I knew could only happen in a city with such a contagious joie de vivre.
On that memorable visit, we had mapped out a plan to find the “essence” of Montreal: Good walks and good food, and we also made sure to include Old Montreal, the cradle of the city by the port whose narrow streets and historic buildings date from the 17th century.
Old Montreal, like many big cities with a rich past, also showed signs of gentrification: art galleries, boat rides on the St. Lawrence River, stylish boutique hotels under mansard roofs, and gaily-colored horse-drawn carriages making their way on cobblestone streets. And on Rue Sainte-Helene, the city had even installed 22 gas lamps to link up with the past.
One of our memorable stops was the Marche Bonsecours, which has attracted visitors since 1847, when it was the city’s popular marketplace. Now it displayed a new incarnation as a showcase for Quebec designers and artisans – a place where we saw distinctive hand-woven rugs, watched glass-blowing, and bought a doll for our granddaughter that moved its head to the melody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
By noon, we were getting hungry, so we decided to visit Place Jacques-Cartier, a broad square with restaurants and the imposing Montreal City Hall built at the end of the 19th century.
On the way, we were pleasantly distracted by International Flora Montreal at Parc des Ecluses. Montrealers, it seems, are passionate about gardening, perhaps as a welcome relief from all the winter’s snow.
And talking about the outdoors, it’s also nice to visit Mount Royal Park, whose modern design was crafted in 1876 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned Central Park in New York City.
I think the highlight of Mount Royal Park is Beaver Lake at the top, where one finds boating in the warm months and ice skating in winter.
But I digress. We were about to have lunch in Old Montreal. And what a lovely lunch it was, at an outdoor café whose courtyard was filled with live jazz and spreading hibiscus plants. And I could practice my French when chatting with the waiter!
There is something else really neat about Montreal: its farmers markets. These offer fresh produce from April to October, and one of the most popular is Atwater Market, where an art-deco Depression-era tower hovered above indoor stalls of produce, cheese, meats and wines. Outside, vendors were selling beds of flowers ready for planting.
The market’s neighbor, the Lachine Canal, is an 8.7-mile pathway near which we joined cyclists and families with small children and relaxed at a bakery, enjoying café au lait in big cups paired with warm croissants. Besides the croissants, by the way, were also scrumptious cakes of every description: raspberry-blueberry, raspberry-lemon, almond and red fruit, blueberry-yogurt tart, and raspberry-lemon mille-feuille.
A final note: Our visit to Montreal wasn’t complete without the nearby Saint Lawrence River islands, where Montreal, in a kind of coming of age, hosted the World’s Fair in 1967.
I remember attending the fair, where I think the most stunning pavilion of all was the multi-level housing complex known as “Habitat 67,” designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as his master’s thesis at McGill University. This magnificent work appeared as daring and imaginative as when I first saw it during the World’s Fair – a time when Montreal was the place to be, and has remained so across the years.