Sunday, March 2, 2014

On the Road: Montreal

This past week was school vacation for my daughter and me.  My Wife also took a few days off of work so that we could make our first family overnight trip to Montreal.  The city is less than two hours from our home in northwest Vermont but most of the time you'd never know it.  Despite the prevalence of French last names in our area, folks around here are more likely oriented toward Boston or New York even though both cities are further away.  Particularly with more frequent visits over the past few years, we've grown quite fond of Montreal.  Small town living is great but what it lacks is variety.  Montreal's got that in spades.

Each of us got to pick one activity for the trip.  My Wife's was dinner at Au Pied de Cochon on Wednesday night.  One of the city's most famous restaurants, Au Pied de Cochon specializes in the finest Quebecois cuisine.  Our reservation was for 6 o'clock, a good choice as it turned out as the place was quite crowded when we left two hours later. 

Our hand towels, before and after saturation.  Our waitress, noting our curiosity when they were first set on the table, warned, "Please don't eat them!":

The food is indeed fabulous.  All of our choices were excellent: the duck wing special, foie gras 'tout nu', beef tartare (a sentimental favorite for My Wife and me) and poached pear with vanilla ice cream for dessert.  Our Girl found a winner for herself, too: a tortellini special.  We skipped the restaurant's most famous dish: canard en conserve or "duck in a can."  The duck is cooked in an aluminum can, then opened and served at the table.  Apparently, it's fabulous but also expensive - next time.  I want to try the duck carpaccio, too.  Service was excellent.  The restaurant was certainly noisy but it hardly mattered as we were so busy eating.
via Pointe-à-Callière
My choice was "The Beatles in Montreal" exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band's only public concerts in town.  As written previously (here), the Beatles are an essential part of my own musical journey.  In addition to a few multi-media displays, there was plenty of memorabilia on offer.  The centerpiece was John Lennon's Rolls Royce, tricked out psychedelically. 
via Wikipedia
There were also plenty of old record covers, concert posters and such.  The instrument room was disappointing: all replicas.  One display was set up like a teenager's bedroom with loads of old junk: Beatles wigs, trading cards, figurines, etc.  I say junk but in pristine condition, each trinket was probably worth thousands.  There was also an amusing section on the French-language imitation bands of the era.

Overall, I found the exhibition underwhelming, though I'm not entirely certain what I was expecting.  It occurred to me afterward that part of my problem is that, as much as I love them, the Beatles' story always leaves me a little sad.  The band broke up before I was born so nostalgia is not the right word for what I feel.  As a kid, hoping that I might someday be as good at anything as the Beatles were, I couldn't understand why they would have wanted the dream to end.  In the last room was a looping film of the band's very last public performance, not in any huge stadium or grand concert hall but on the roof of their recording studio in downtown London.  The Let It Be recording sessions were the height of dysfunction in the band's history but they played one day on the roof just for the heck of it, to the delight of some and the annoyance of others going about their daily lives on the streets below.  My daughter and I sat for a while happy as clams watching the film - the best part of the exhibit.
via Tourism Montreal
Our Girl's choice was the Montreal en Lumiere festival at the Place des Arts downtown.  In addition to open air concerts and the like, there was some free stuff for families.  The ladies convinced me to overcome my fear of heights to join them on the Ferris wheel - TWICE!  The ice flume was fun, too.  Apart from the seriously bitter cold, the festival was most enjoyable.  Predictably, both my wife and daughter made better choices than I.

In my experience, the most annoying part of visiting any city is driving and, worst of all, parking.  So our plan for this trip was to find a hotel where we could leave the car for the entire visit, then explore the city via public transit.  The Auberge de la Fontaine suited our needs almost perfectly, though as My Wife pointed out, a spot closer to a subway station would have been nice.  I love city subways and Montreal's is excellent.  Negotiating the system in French was a little tricky at first but we got the hang of it quickly.  We'll have a better sense of what to do next time. 

Visiting in winter was humbling.  Montreal really isn't much further north from where we are but it sure felt a lot colder.  Even so, if you want to know a place, I believe visiting at different times of year is important.  The area where we stayed was not touristy at all - at least not in February - so most of the people we saw were just going about normal business, walking their kids home from school and such.  Staying in town for more than a few hours, I did start to develop a strong sense of otherness not knowing the language.  Montreal is genuinely bilingual so most people - and certainly those in the service industry - speak both French and English fluently.  Still, most start with French and only switch once they realize you're not understanding.  They're nice about it but I'd feel better if I could meet them halfway.  That said, I think Montreal would be a great place to learn French.  With most signs in both languages, one would build vocabulary in a hurry with minimal effort.

Even with the stresses of winter and city traffic, it was a fun trip.  I hope we'll do it again sometime soon.


  1. Loved Montreal when I visited a long time ago. I thought it a very friendly and wonderful city.
    You are so lucky to live so close.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. It is friendly, as cities go. There are parts of town where people are less tolerant of anglophones. Quebec City is tougher along those lines.

  2. WHat a nice recap! And you are all far more adventurous than me!

    1. Thank you, sir. Was it the Ferris wheel? the steak tartare? the French?

  3. I think I had more to say or, actually, something to say, but I got interrupted and, now, it's time for bed, and I've lost whatever it was. However, it seems like a cool (no pun intended) to visit, though I might have to choose a different place to eat.

  4. It sounds like a great trip that you all enjoyed.

  5. I would love to go there one day!
    Whenever I call Montreal for work, they ALWAYS answer in French, but switch to English when they hear me speak. They're usually really nice.. :)