By Charlene Mixa
Royal defined as “befitting royalty, stately, or superior” and accurately describes the dynamic and exciting city of Montréal, Canada. Named after Mount Royal, a hill on Montréal Island in the St. Lawrence River, Montréal presents a majestic city. With over four hundred years of French and British heritage it is the only French speaking cosmopolitan city in the Americas. Today it is a major Canadian port as well as a cultural, commercial and industrial hub. A city that is alive with cultures from around the world all mingled in its rich past and exhilarating present. Always welcoming visitors to learn and experience the glorious and gracious, cosmopolitan Montréal.
Gray skies and a light rain greet us as we wind our way down the narrow roads to our hotel the Le Sainte-Sulpice in Old Montréal. Meeting our guide, Carol Chef, we discuss options for touring the city on this rainy day. We are so glad that Tourisme Montréal recommended the private tour with Carol giving us more flexibility on our visit. Born and raised in Montréal Carol knows all the famous, notable sites and history, as well as, the many nuances of this elegant city.
With Carol behind the wheel, we tour Montréal as she points out the World Trade Center, numerous museums, and churches. We stop to see the Underground City which is directly below the heart of Montréal and is comprised of 19 miles of pedestrian paths. Stepping into an entrance the brightly lit and scrupulously clean passageways of the Underground City are astonishing. It’s a phenomenal shopper’s paradise. Major buildings and multi-level malls are linked to thousands of boutiques, hotels, restaurants, universities, office building and attractions. A fantastic place to shop, dine or spend a day, as well as, get around the city while avoiding traffic or challenging weather.
Having selected specific sites to visit, Carol takes us to Saint Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal. We visit the original church for Saint Joseph with its warm chapel before entering the spiritually inspired Oratory for this patron saint of Canada, Saint Joseph. Carol explains Brother André, a religious brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross, realized his dream in founding Saint Joseph’s Oratory in 1904. Absolutely awesome! The modern designed chapel is massive with pristine white walls and a large central dome above. The largest shrine in the world dedicated to Saint Joseph, people from around the world come to visit the Oratory. Outside the front entrance are beautiful well-tended gardens and a magnificent view of the city from this high point. On another level there are numerous altars and statues of Saint Joseph where visitors light candles with prayers for cures and healing. Crutches are everywhere around the walls and altars, representing those healed or cured. We see the simple life of Brother André at a display of his office and his Spartan living conditions. The Oratory follows the example of Brother André being sensitive to all persons, their afflictions and their concerns. We leave this spiritual sanctuary better understanding Brother André’s devotion to Saint Joseph and the people seeking both physical and spiritual healing.
After a light lunch, we head to the Montréal Botanical Garden. Grabbing umbrellas and rain jackets, Carol gives us a whirlwind yet extremely informative tour of the Gardens. Encompassing a collection of 22,000 plant species, ten exhibition green houses and thirty thematic gardens, it is a place that requires more than a good map. Lucky for us Carol knows her way around as she also is a volunteer at the Garden. We wind along paths through the elegant and fragrant Rose Garden. Next is the Chinese Garden inspired by the private gardens of the Ming Dynasty and the largest garden of its kind outside of China. Walking through the Japanese Garden, Carol shares the challenges the Japanese architect, Ken Nakajima, faced creating a traditional Japanese Garden in a city with a different climate and vegetation than Japan. The First Nation Garden is designed to evoke the environment of the eleven First Nations in Quebec. It is set in a forest representing the close bonds the First People had with nature. We also stop in the Alpine Garden and the Ornamental Vegetable Patch before testing our senses at the Courtyard of Sense. Here we not only see but feel and smell these varietals. Before leaving its quick photo of Mali, a sheep dog built of all natural grasses.
Maneuvering through the streets of Montréal Carol takes us to St. Helen’s Island where the 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67 was held. Recognized as the most successful World Fair with over 50 million visitors, we admire the U. S. Pavilion designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller. A huge geodesic dome, resembling a “dandelion buff”, the building is formed of an enclosed structure of steel and acrylic cells. Today the Biosphere houses an environmental museum. Close by is Montreal Habitat 67, a model community on the St. Lawrence River of prefabricated connecting “boxes” that form 158 unique residences, all virtually self sufficient and with their own gardens. Very unique condos!
Returning to Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel Montreal, a Four-Star, Four-Diamond all-suite boutique hotel we check-in. Our one bedroom suite has a modern, plush décor. The separate living area features a comfy couch and leather chair for relaxation, a cozy fireplace, a desk and HDTV. Along the hallway is a kitchen area adjacent to a small dinette table and chairs. Uniquely in the middle of the suite is the enclosed bedroom. Double sliding wood doors with large opaque panels allow for privacy. A luxurious king bed has crisp white linens and there’s even another HDTV. The spacious bathroom has a granite counter and large bathtub shower combination. Wow! The stylish room has a special charm with modern décor and excellent use of space creating a cozy home away from home. Located in the heart of historic Old Montreal, Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel is adjacent to Notre-Dame Basilica, steps away form the Old Port, galleries, museums, restaurants and shops.
Checking the mass schedule at Notre-Dame Basilica, we have time to make the evening service. The Basilica is a magnificent church with its dramatic Gothic Revival architecture. Although the mass is in French, we thoroughly enjoy the beauty of the service while admiring the elegance of this church. With a lavish and grand interior, its ceiling is a deep blue and decorated with golden stars. The rest of this sanctuary is colorful with bright blues, azures, reds, purples, silver and gold. Hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues also decorate the sanctuary. After the service we chat with the Priest and he graciously gives us a special blessing. It’s still damp and cloudy so we locate a warm restaurant for dinner and return to our room at the Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel for an evening of relaxation.
Hurray! Clear blue skies and sunshine greet us this morning! First is a scrumptious continental breakfast of a variety of fresh fruits, assorted cheeses, and flakey French pastries in the relaxed Garden & Terrace Restaurant at Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel. Putting on our walking shoes and our maps in hand we are off to explore this glorious city. A fantastic walking city, we stop at Victoria Square, a large town square and public space with a beautiful statue of Queen Victoria and elegant fountain.
After an easy walk, we arrive at Montréal’s Cathedral-Basilica Mary Queen of the World and St. James the Greater, Québec’s third largest church and a scaled-down replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Locating a pamphlet with a detailed layout and explanation of each area of the Cathedral, we wander through the various chapels, the Baptistery, the large sanctuary and view the spectacular great organ. In each area we admire the craftsmanship of the paintings, sculptures and detailed carvings. Beneath the cupola is the stunning reproduction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s celebrated Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Rome. Made of red copper it is fashioned by hand and decorated with gold leaf and carved angels, garlands and the papal insignia. Historical paintings give the religious history of Montréal providing us an education on the Catholic Church’s influence in its early settlement. Truly spectacular, we enjoy the history, art, décor, craftsmanship and spiritual inspiration of the Cathedral.
Returning along a different route to Old Montréal we see more of this grand city and continue to be impressed. Next stop is Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, a museum that rises above the birthplace of Montréal. Starting with the multimedia show, “Montréal, Tales of a City,” the history of Montréal unfolds giving us a better understanding of its rich history, deep French roots and British influence. Roaming the Museum, we have a fascinating trip seeing the underground remains from 10 years of archaeological digs, as well as, the numerous objects and artifacts found on the site during the digs. Taking the elevator to the Lookout, we have a fantastic panoramic view of the Old Port, Old Montréal, and the St. Lawrence River.
Lunch at a café in Old Montreal is a nice respite from our busy morning of walking. Gathering at the Notre-Dame Basilica we meet our group and guide for a ninety-minute “Old Montreal Walking Tour.” Guiding us through the fascinating city, we discover its amazing art, intriguing history and spectacular architecture. Personal insights from our guide are especially beneficial as his forefathers were among the original colonist of Montréal. Admiring the detailed wood carvings in the Notre-Dame Basilica, he shares that the people of Montreal wanted more elaborate decorations in the Basilica. The French were wood carvers resulting in the carvings being done in wood. Unique to a church the stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary are of the religious history of Montréal. The Basilica is the most lavish of the churches we visit.
The Walking Tour has numerous stops with our guide pointing out the significance of each. At the Royal Bank he explains the influence of the British and the Scottish in the growth and commercialization of Montréal plus their impact on Montréal’s architecture. Actually, Old Montréal was to be demolished but architect and city planner, H. P. (Sandy) van Ginkel, convinced the city of the value of saving this old area in time for Expo 67. Through his efforts Old Montréal was saved and is now a thriving business area while preserving the city’s heritage. At Bonsecours Market are shops, numerous café’s and restaurants all bustling with tourists. Each step of the Old Montréal Walking tour brings new insight into this superb city. Ending at the Gardens of City Hall we walk back through Bonsecours Market and rue Saint Paul street, checking out the shops and locate a casual eatery for an afternoon beverage.
Now it’s time to see this fascinating city from the St. Lawrence River. Ready to rest our feet, we look forward to a one hour Maritime Excursion on AML Cruises aboard the Cavalier Maxim. Sitting on the top deck we so have great views of Old Montréal, the beautiful city of Montréal, and the islands in the St. Lawrence River. Our guide, Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve, a historic character dressed in period attire, welcomes us as the boat pulls away from the port. The stunning scenery provides a better perspective of the size and scope of this enchanting city. With humor and intrigue, Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve points out places along the river and their relevance and historical impact. We pass Olympic Stadium with a wonderful view of the Olympic Tower. Moving out of the channel, we feel the change in speed as the boat enters into the rapid waters of the St. Lawrence River. Seeing St. Helen’s Island from the river, the Biosphere stands out in all its impressive glory. The cubed condos of Montréal Habitat 67 look even more unique from this perspective. We agree that seeing Montréal from the River is one of “the best views of the city.”
Wonderful experiences and unforgettable moments are in store for visitors to Montréal. A stately, dynamic and exciting cosmopolitan city, it offers a wide variety of activities with its diverse cultures and deep French and British history. So very much to do from shopping the Underground, strolling the Botanical Gardens, exploring Expo 67, seeing Olympic Stadium, to the inspirational churches, cathedrals, Oratory and the Basilica. Tour the city by car, bus, walking or by boat as each give a unique view of glorious and gracious Montréal.
If you go:
AML Cruises, QC H2L 3S,Canada 514.82-9300; www.croisieresaml.com
Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel, 414, rue Saint-Sulpice, Montréal, QC H2Y 2V5, Canada; 514.288.1000; www.lesaintsulpice.com
Montreal Botanical Gardens, 4101 Sherbrooke East, Montréal, QC H1X 2B2, Canada 514.872.1400; www.museumsnature.ca
Old Montreal Walking Tour, www.guidatour.qc.ca/en/
Pointe-à-Callière, 350 Pl Royale, Montreal, H2Y 2C9, Canada 514.872.9150; www.pacmusee.qc.ca
Tourisme Montréal, 1555, Rue Peel, Montreal, QC H3A 3L8, Canada; 514.844.5400; www.tourisme-montreal.org