Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017
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The Montreal Mission

There's no rest for the wicked as we explore three neighbourhoods in three days

Anyone who's ever tried knows that despite the best-laid travelling plans, you simply can't see everything in a few days. Instead, you can get to know a few areas really well. Montreal has more than its share of such charming neighbourhoods to explore. From the historic highlights of Old Montreal to the depths of downtown and the pleasures of the Plateau, fill your eyes, your ears and your belly with this three-day guide to the city.

Day 1: Old Montreal
Start your trip where it all began, in the historic heart of one of the oldest cities in North America. A walk through the cobblestone streets and narrow passageways of Old Montreal is like a trip through time -- the Old World ambiance is so alive here that its many 18th- and 19th-century buildings are often used as backdrops for period film shoots.

Running parallel to the Saint Lawrence River, rue St-Paul was the city's original main street. At its eastern end, the shiny silver dome atop Marché Bonsecours beckons visitors to the area. Once a food market, this airy space has been redesigned to host boutiques and cultural exhibits and offers magnificent views of the water. Continuing west, you'll find the animated Place Jacques Cartier, where musicians, artists and street performers entertain the crowds. At the top of the square is Montreal's distinctly Parisian city hall. It was from one of the second-floor balconies that French president Charles de Gaulle shouted his now-infamous statement in 1967: "Vive le Québec! Vive le Québec libre!", boosting the independence movement in the province.

An imposing neo-Gothic structure, nearby Notre-Dame Basilica was built in 1829, though its most recent claim to fame was the baptism of pop princess Céline Dion's son in July, amidst much pomp and ceremony. The inside is worth a peek: the organ is one of the largest in the world, composed of 5722 pipes and four keyboards. The wooden interior of the church was entirely carved by hand and constructed without using a single nail!

Picnics, ports and Peregrine falcons
The grassy parkland around the Old Port provides the perfect spot for a picnic lunch as you watch your ship come in on the river. All the fixings for a meal can be found at Titanic (445 St-Pierre; tel: 514-849-0894), a little lunch spot sunken below street level. Get a sandwich to go on breathtakingly fresh baguette.

Once you've refuelled, explore the western end of Old Montreal. In recent years, this area has taken on a new vocation as a multi-media centre, with old warehouses converted into state-of-the-art high-tech offices. A few artists still have studios in the area, including the glassblowers at Espace Verre (1200 rue Mill; tel: 514-933-6849). This workshop provides a great opportunity to watch the craftsmen work their magic with molten glass. Guided tours are available, or you can make it down to the studio's vernissage on November 21, from 6pm to 8pm. The Pointe Callière (350 Place Royale) museum marks the spot where Jacques Cartier landed in 1535. You can really dig into history here: it's built atop the foundations of New France, including vestiges of the original settlement and tombstones from the first Catholic cemetery.

Heading north towards downtown, rue St-Jacques was once the financial centre of Canada, the country's Wall Street of the 1800s. The first Bank of Montreal is here (founded in 1847) and the stock exchange tower is just around the corner. Since 1984, a family of peregrine falcons have had a nest on the 32nd floor, which can be viewed from an information booth inside.

After-dark atmosphere
Old Montreal is the ultimate setting for an evening stroll. The street lamps cast pools of light onto the cobblestones and the shadowy bulks of the buildings take on a vaguely spooky demeanour, as the lively sounds emanating from the numerous restaurants echo off the stone walls.

A new gourmet hot spot, L'Epicier (311 St-Paul E.; tel: 514-878-2232) offers market-fresh cuisine reflecting the creativity of acclaimed chef Claude Beausoleil. The space doubles as a fine food emporium, featuring products like organic maple syrup flavoured with blueberry and lemon confit in red wine sold in square Mason jars. Take a seat on an old church pew and listen to the piano player at Stash's Café Bazaar (200 St-Paul W.; tel: 514-845-6611), a popular Polish restaurant. This friendly, low-key eatery offers Eastern European specialties, including roast boar, pierogis, latkes and of course, wodka, always wodka! Opened in 1754, Auberge Le St-Gabriel (426 St-Gabriel; tel: 514-878-3561) was the oldest inn on the continent and the first establishment to be granted a liquor license by the British. Colonial artifacts take you back in time as you dine, while a downstairs cabaret called Le Velvet offers intimate dinner shows.

After supper, the always-lively Les Deux Pierrots (104 St-Paul E.) is the place to hear traditional chansonniers in a boisterous atmosphere. Singers belt out original tunes and renditions of Québecois folk and pop songs, while the crowd sings along and dances into a frenzy. L'Air du Temps (191 St-Paul West) is another institution for music lovers. Long known as a jazz hangout, it has expanded its repertoire to include Latin rhythms and blues in characteristically close, smoky quarters.

Day 2: Downtown
Montreal's morning scene has become almost as lively as its nightlife, and the popularity of socializing over breakfast has led to eateries entirely dedicated to the first meal of the day. Start your downtown discoveries at Eggspectations (1313 de Maisonneuve W.; tel: 514-842-3447), which offers generous plates of eggs, waffles and crêpes galore. Alternately, you can relive the glorious age of Art Deco with a multi-course weekend brunch from the mezzanine of Le Lutétia (1430 de la Montagne; tel: 514-288-5656), with views of the giant chandeliers and shimmering fountains of the Hôtel de la Montagne lobby.

The downtown core is shopping central and a subterranean network of malls known as the underground city makes it easy to get around even in the depths of winter. The glamourous Cours Mont-Royal offers an alternative to the big chain names, as well as a chance to check out the latest in Montreal fashion design. Boutique Space FB and Nevik showcase local talent, alongside Emporio Armani and one of Canada's two DKNY stores. While you're there, pick up a bottle of vintage wine from the exclusive SAQ Signature store to bring to one of the city's many BOYB restaurants.

 

Other retailers in the area spotlight local products. Look for top-quality leather accessories and clothing at Rudsak (1400 Ste-Catherine W.), the heady inventions of hat-maker Andrea Caroll at Salon Paradisio (2158 Crescent) and the sophisticated stylings of Marie Saint Pierre, nearby at 2081 de la Montagne. For one-stop shopping, see how Quebec City-based Maison Simons (977 Ste-Catherine W.) has reinvented the department store.

Tea and company
After a morning of shopping, there's nothing better than a hot cup of tea to restore your energy. Dating back to 1912, the stalwart Ritz Carlton Hotel (1228 Sherbrooke W.; tel: 514-842-4212) offers a truly traditional high tea. In the summer, this ritual takes place in the garden, complete with ducklings in the pond. In colder months, the tradition moves inside to the lobby. Expect a formal affair -- even the Rolling Stones had to wear ties when eating here! Less taxing on the wallet, Toman Pastry Shop is tucked away on a second floor of 1421 Mackay. Don't miss the apple and cranberry strudel at this Czech pastry paradise.

In addition to the Musée des Beaux Arts, there are a number of places in the downtown core to take in exhibits. Less well-known are the McCord Museum of Canadian History (690 Sherbrooke W.), which features an immense collection of Native artifacts and glass plates, and the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts (220 Crescent), which has a large collection of 20th-century design including prototypes from furniture names like Knoll and Eames. For a cutting-edge view of the art world, head to the Belgo Building (372 Ste-Catherine W.), home to several floors of galleries, all for free!

Refuelling and revelling
Rev up for the evening at Newtown (500 Crescent; tel: 284-6555), a trendy four-floor eatery opened shortly before the 2001 Grand Prix by local F1 racecar hero Jacques Villeneuve. If you prefer to take your meals with mellow music, Upstairs (1254 Mackay; tel: 931-6808) is an intimate hideaway located downstairs in a dark basement. It's a great place to enjoy live jazz and delicious southern-inflected food standards, too.

Once the sun goes down, head up to the very top of Place Ville-Marie for cocktails at 737. The view from the top of this 47-storey building offers a stunning panorama of the city skyline. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Crescent Street is overflowing with nightspots. Brutopia (1219 Crescent) is a homey pub that serves up a variety of brews made right on the premises, as the huge copper drums behind the bar attest. Games of chess, backgammon or darts are readily available to complete the true pub experience. You can relive the 1970s at Funky Town (1454 Peel), which boasts disco lights and a Saturday Night Fever-style dancefloor. Or do the hustle on ice at a year-round rink (1000 de la Gauchetière) that offers disco skating on Saturday nights in a stunning glass-covered atrium. Skates can be rented at minimal charge.

Day 3: The Plateau
Do as the locals do, and begin your day in the Plateau with a bagel hot out of the oven. Fairmount Bagel (74 Fairmount W.) and St-Viateur Bagel (263 St-Viateur W.) both claim to be the originator of this doughy delicacy -- decide for yourself which you like better. Then head down St-Urbain for a multi-faceted view of this multi-ethnic area: Portuguese gardens overflowing with flowers, Hasidic Jews in top hats and frock coats and young bohemians playing guitar on the front stoop. This is the old stomping ground of Montreal's literary lions, Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen.

Now you're ready for a walk on Mount Royal, 200 hectares of wilderness right in the middle of town. Montrealers are very proud of their mountain, so don't call it a hill, as Oscar Wilde did when he visited the city in the 1880s. It was designed in 1874 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also responsible for Manhattan's Central Park. Its base just off Parc Avenue is the scene of soccer games, multicultural festivals and the Sunday afternoon tam-tams. The observatory at the top of its winding paths offers a stunning view of the city. Walking tours are available through Les Amis de la Montagne (tel: 514-844-4928).

Smoked meat and sainted streets
Stop for lunch at Café Santropol (3990 St-Urbain; tel: 514-842-3110) and relax with a pot of herbal tea and a massive triple-tiered sandwich. Feel like something a little less healthy? Try Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen (3895 St-Laurent; tel: 514-842-4813), where the philosophy is "smoke it and they will come." The briskets are marinated and smoked on the premises, resulting in that distinctive rich, peppery taste of Montreal smoked meat.

Continuing north or south on St-Laurent Boulevard, you'll find old Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Eastern European establishments next to trendy bars and shops -- a juxtaposition that creates the unforgettable charm of "the Main." Further south, the area near Sherbrooke is a harmonious mix of fine dining, modelling agencies, the cutting-edge Ex-Centris (3536 St-Laurent; tel: 514-847-3536) movie complex and many trendy shops that cater to a well-heeled and hip clientele. It's a prime people-watching destination, the first stop for celebrities and wannabes. From here, head east on the pedestrian section of Prince Arthur and take a peek at Plateau side streets for the Victorian turrets, brightly painted triplexes and iron staircases so typical of Montreal architecture. You'll notice that the stairs are on the outside of the houses, a design quirk that harks back to the days when the city decided it could collect more taxes if one triplex was counted as three separate addresses.

Finish your pre-supper expedition with a promenade down St-Denis, traditionally the strip for the French fashionistas. Its many terraces spill onto the sidewalks at the very first signs of spring. Stores like Zone, Couleurs and Côté Sud show off housewares new and retro, while the wide, treelined sidewalks and casual cafés make it as picturesque as Paris.

Meals and malts
No mention of Montreal dining would be complete without a word about Toqué (3842 St-Denis; tel: 514-499-2084), the ultimate epicurean experience. The restaurant uses regional products from small farms, such as "Mr. Leroux's Barbarie duck magret roasted with liquorice and caramelized kumquats" or "Mr. Daigneault's Jerusalem artichokes." Fonduementale (4325 St-Denis; tel: 514-499-1446) is the city's premiere fondue house. Start with the classic Swiss concoction of Gruyère and white wine, continue with a Chinese fondue of meats and sauces and finish by coating fruit in melted chocolate. Casa Tapas (266 Rachel E.; tel: 514-848-1063) serves authentic Spanish cuisine. In true tapas tradition, create a shared meal from a variety of small dishes, including shrimp croquettes, chorizo sausage and chicken with sherry.

A number of BYOB restaurants (no corkage fee) abound in the neighbourhood, particularly on the cobblestoned sections of Prince Arthur and Duluth. Try fisherman-fresh Basque cuisine at Les Vents du Sud (323 Roy E.; tel: 514-281-9913), French food with a hint of the exotic at La Colombe (554 Duluth E.; tel: 514-849-8844) and funky dishes like lamb Lamborghini at Bazou (2004 Hôtel de Ville; tel: 514-982-0853), housed in a converted garage.

At night, the Plateau hops with live music, lounges and late-night snacks. Light up in style while sipping a single malt and smoking a Cuban at the upscale Whisky Café (5800 St-Laurent). Things were shagadelic at Jello Bar (151 Ontario E.) long before Austin Powers made his groovy entrance. Its kitschy décor and more than 50 variations on the martini have earned it a fan base of locals and out-of-towners like Nicolas Cage and Bette Midler. The trendy Tokyo (3709 St-Laurent) boasts an ultra-modern Asian influenced décor, a rooftop terrace and various theme nights. Further south, L'Ile Noire (342 Ontario E., just off St-Denis) offers almost 150 varieties of Scotch, from $5 to $500 a glass. Raise one last glass in a toast to Montreal, a city that will leave you with memories you just might not remember in the morning.

 

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