I knew this day would come. There had been too many perfect places I had visited, and my list of “Places to go back to” kept growing, as did my “New places to travel to” list. I knew that not every place I traveled to was going to be that breathtaking, never-want-to-leave destination, but I never thought I would find a city in Canada that I would say “Check” to and move onto the next item on my travel bucket list.
A few weeks ago I packed up my weekend bags for a trip, in the dead of winter, to Montreal, QC. I had always thought that the first time I would see Montreal it would be around Christmas time, with lights and decorations all throughout the streets of the old part of the city. But as Christmas’s passed and no trip to Montreal was planned, I realized that perhaps the holiday’s are too crazy for travel plans in the first place.
Jump to a few weeks ago and I was having something of a panic attack as I realized that once I graduate from university and get a job, I will have, if I’m lucky, only two weeks of vacation a year. All of those trips I had mentally planned for the next few years seemed to melt away as I realized that a 10 day trip to Iceland and a week long trip to Costa Rica may not be so reasonable once I start my career.
With spring break coming up, I didn’t want to miss too much of school so I decided to go ahead and book a weekend getaway to somewhere that was on my list. New Orleans was one of those cities that I had been to and wanted to go back, but the timing couldn’t have been worse with Mardi Gras just happening and hotel rooms still sky high in the French Quarter. Savanna was another city I had looked into but was deterred when I saw the prices for just a few nights stay. Montreal was next on the list and although it wouldn’t be Christmas time, it was still winter up in the true north which meant ice skating and going to a Habs game in the city. My friend, Hannah, agreed to go with me and within a week of booking the trip we were on a plane to my fourth province I would visit: Quebec.
One of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was the food. When I was in Vancouver a few years ago I met a husband and wife from Montreal who just raved about the smoked meat and bagels they had back home. They even went as far as to pull out a piece of paper and pen from their bag and write down the addresses of places to eat in Montreal for whenever I travelled there. As someone who greatly appreciates any type of travel recommendation, I admit that I still have that piece of paper with “Dunns Famous Smoked Meat” written on it in my desk at home. Of course that little slip of paper made the trip with me to Montreal.
As soon as we arrived in Old Montreal we realized that food wasn’t a quick meal to satisfy a grumbling stomach; no, it was an art just as much as the the gallery’s filled with canvas paintings were. If you ordered a bagel, you also received fruit and vegetable accents to “brighten up the plate.”
I guess there is no denying that Quebec is a “French” province, and while we had brushed up on our French before we travelled here, we were not quite prepared for the total immersion into the language. I had heard that between Montreal and Quebec City, the latter was the “more French” of the two. Montreal, I had always been told, was more accommodating to English speaking visitors. Well… we were very ill prepared for the language barrier.
French. was. everywhere.
The road and directional signs, mostly in both languages elsewhere in Canada, were solely French here. I was surprised, however, by how much French I had absorbed in just my two semesters of the class at university. Reading the language wasn’t the problem: speaking it was. I know that I may sound like an “ugly American” when I say this, but I was glad to get back to the states and hear English after my weekend in the French province.
One of the things that I had been keeping my eye out for while walking the streets of Montreal was a sugar shack. They have become synonymous with “Quebec” and I couldn’t wait to try one and check the experience off of my “mental Canadian bucket list.” I guess I should start by explaining what a sugar shack is. Basically it’s a stereotypical Canadian shack that sells maple syrup poured over snow. To my surprise the sugar shack was not a tourism scheme; There were men in suits on their lunch break that had just come out of their offices that were busy rolling maple taffy on the snow set up for them! These professionally dressed men were honest-to-goodness eating maple syrup for their lunch.
Of course we had to get in on this snack break, and the next thing you know we are rolling a strip of maple syrup onto a lollipop stick. Fun? yes. Messy? absolutely. Canadian? 100%.
Being the hockey fan I am I couldn’t travel to Montreal and not go to a Habs game. It just so happened that the game we got tickets to was against the Nashville Predators which is who PK Subban now plays for. The welcome home chants for PK were incredible and it was amazing to see a city have so much devotion towards the former Habs player.
Just like the game I went to in Toronto, the fans cheered the loudest when their national anthem played. Habs score: happy, cheering fans. O Canada starts playing: LOUDEST FANS IN THE WORLD. There is a lot to be said for the pride that Canadians have for their country. And their country’s anthem.
In the area of Old Montreal we enjoyed the many restaurants and shops within walking distance of our hotel. With it being only 6 degrees out (that’s fahrenheit, by the way) we tried our best to spend as little time as possible outside. Old Montreal does have some of the underground city in it so we did use those indoor streets in our journeys, but there were times where the frigid outside could not be avoided. Lucky for us our hotel was right beside the heart of Old Montreal, the Notre Dame Basilica. Around the area was the hustle and bustle of the city but with the charm of an old French-style town.
The restaurants and cafes in Old Montreal were incredible. We found an amazing Italian restaurant near the river that served a pasta dish with pine nuts, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and a lemon-olive oil sauce. We also stumbled upon the cutest cupcakery (is that a word, cupcakery? If not, it should be) where we had fresh herbal tea and the most delicious cupcake you will find. I got the dark chocolate caramel sea salt cupcake that melted in your mouth. Amazingly enough we did not try any poutine while we were in Montreal. The first and only time Ive ever had poutine was in Halifax and I quickly realized that its a rather heavy dish; one that I can only take a few bites of. However, every restaurant we went to had their own signature version of poutine. There was even one place that had a “poutine pizza.”
Even though it was a whopping 6 degrees out, I still wanted to ice skate while I was in Montreal. I had heard that Mont Royal had a pretty good ice skating rink and also offered some pretty spectacular views of the city. It took a ride on the metro and hopping onto a city bus to get there, but we somehow managed. Even with signs strictly in French we never had an issue figuring out what stop we needed to get off at.
Once we got to Mont Royal we realized that the cold of the winter had completely iced over the mountain that overlooked the city of Montreal. It took us a good 10 minutes to walk only a few yards because the ground was completely frozen. At one point I did video our struggle trying to walk across the length of a few feet just so that people would believe me when I said: “The city was covered in ice!” We should have just put on some skates and used that as transportation; It would have been easier than walking.
Finally, after a very hard stroll through the frozen park, we made it to the ice rink that sat beside a frozen lake. The location of the rink and the “chalet” that had a skate rental and a small cafe in it made me think of an isolated town in the Swiss Alps. Once we got to skating we warmed up little. At least with us constantly moving we could try to think of things other than the constant cold.
What counted as a pretty good grasp on skating back in Pittsburgh was labeled as “amateur hour” up in Montreal. Kids 15 years younger than me skated circles around us. They even managed to propel themselves out of the rink limits and onto the frozen lake right beside the rink. How safe that was, I’m not sure, but they made jumping over barriers and skating up inclines seem like a piece of cake.
Truth be told, ice skating outdoors was my favorite part of our trip to Montreal. It was the first time I had ever ice skated in Canada before so it felt like I had crossed another item off of my “mental Canadian bucket list.”
Looking back now it seems like I had a pretty great trip to Montreal. When I came back from Quebec I wanted to never think about a 6 degree day again and hop on a plane to my spring break destination of Florida to warm up. I wish that I had waited until a warmer time to travel to Quebec because I think the weather played a pretty big part in me not really liking the city too much. Perhaps in the summer when we could have been outside more and hiked around the forested parts surrounding the city I would have fallen in love with the province of Quebec. In all honesty, my impression of Montreal has made it less likely that I will travel to Quebec City in the future as well. While the city looks beautiful, especially with how much history there is, I don’t know how comfortable I would be trying to navigate in a Francophone city again, especially one that has a reputation for their distaste of English speaking American travelers. Nevertheless, my opinion on Montreal has not clouded my love for the country of Canada.
With only 4 days in Montreal I would say we did quite a bit and got around the city rather well. I don’t think we ever rested that much during the day which explains why we were able to see and do so much in so little time. One thing I can say about Montreal is that it is the hub of Canadian stereotypes. Maple syrup obsessed? Yep, sugar shacks for lunch and maple flavored everything. Frigid cold all the time? YES. We even saw a school holding recess outside when it was only 6 degrees. Hockey fanatics? Ehh… Pittsburgh more so. 😉 Language? French everywhere and a lot of “eh’s” and “aboot’s” in passing.
In all seriousness though, I still have a love for the true north and I am so glad I had the chance to cross a forth province off of my list. I can’t wait to travel back to my favourite country again sometime soon. Where to next? I think I hear British Columbia calling me back…