PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
The landscape in southwestern Quebec province is beautiful. The weather, however, can be less than lovely, even in the middle of August. As we drove toward Montreal, we were visited with intermittent rainstorms. The temperature had also cooled substantially. We stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts, and reverted to pants and long sleeve shirts.
We were fortunate that the weather was beautiful on the day we visited Montreal. We signed up for a walking tour of the Old City. If the appealing part of a city is not overly large, a walking tour is a great way get a feel for a city. What's kind of funny was that we had never made the connection before that Montreal is an island, which made it so similar to Paris with it's urban islands.
During the walking tour we saw the actual site where the city was founded in 1608. This was well before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620. It's quite rare to find that a city can identify its exact starting point. A famous landmark in the city is the large hill at the center named Mont Royal. Slur the pronunciation of Mont Royal and you'll discover the origin of the word Montreal.
Our walking tour started at the Notre Dame Basilica. It's a cathedral rivaling the best of those in Europe. While it's peers are the best in Europe, it isn't quite as elegant as it's namesake in Paris. The flying buttresses of the original add a grace and lightness that the Notre Dame in Montreal lacks. The interior of the cathedral features gorgeously stained glass windows and an intricately carved two-story pulpit located halfway along the length of the church. An interesting story was that they had to alter the spectacular front pulpit stained glass windows because they would blind the congregation when the light shone through them. The interior seats 3500 congregants and was the site for Celine Dion's wedding.
Notre Dame is a prime example of both the social and architectural culture of French Canadian Montreal. The buildings are traditionally made of gray stone with gray metal roofs. The gray on gray color scheme makes photography particularly challenging. Most of the buildings in the old section of downtown date from the mid 1800's. The old city has a distinctive feel to it that makes it easy to imagine streets filled with horses and carriages.
Most of the population of the province of Quebec is French speaking and Catholic as befitting their ancestry of the original French settlers. We were fascinated to learn that so few Francophones (French-speakers) leave the area that this has made for terrific genetic studies. Montreal was our first stop in Quebec where there was literally no English on street signs, store fronts, etc. Ontario had been a very friendly bilingual province so it was a bit of a shock to jump straight into an exclusive French environment. This was particularly challenging when there were road construction conditions and those phrases weren't the ones you learnt in high school French or on language CDs. As always through, we muddled through it all with a sense of humor and a profuse use of s'il vous plait (please) and merci beaucoup (thank you very much).
Montreal was the first city in Quebec that we had a chance to sample the local French style cuisine. While the crepes were tasty, the bill was a bit hard to swallow! Of course we did try them in the touristy downtown core so we weren't so na´ve as to be terribly shocked. After lunch, Carissa and Ian tried their hands at navigating in a strange town.
One highlight of our visit was our bus driver Christian, who drove us to and from our campground in the downtown core. The route through along the southern mainland campgrounds took almost an hour each way so we sat up front and had plenty of visit time. He translated the classic French song, Alouette, as a song whose chorus described plucking a bird! The verses were the bird's body parts that were next being plucked; head, shoulder, arm, etc. We had no idea!
We tried to explore the Olympic stadium area which also boasted the city's botanical gardens and the Biodome. Unfortunately, we never got near enough to see the area because they were hosting a children's exclusive all day party. The idea of the party was cool but it was a huge area to cordon off. With the weather being uncooperative we decided to head east to Quebec City after only two days of exploring.