Magnificent Montréal

Founded on an island by the French in the 17th century on the confluence of the Rivers Ottawa and St. Lawrence is the Canadian city of Montréal. An incredible amalgamation of cultures cut a new identity in this modern Canadian landscape. What was once an economic powerhouse Montréal is now associated the harmonising of English and French speaking communities despite their obvious cultural differences. You’d think that there would be rigid divisions between these communities, but they’re one proud city.

 

I won’t focus on the cultural aspects but on old and new Montréal. I will be brief on the new as it is not my cup of tea. It possesses many of the issues seen all too frequently around the world -pollution, waste, drugs, ignorance, commercialisation and globalisation. I don’t know what the problems were when the new Montréal was built, but to be digging most of it up illustrates that planning and wastefulness is not a modern phenomenon. So lets put to bed my disdain of this area and focus on the area I loved.

Old Montréal has somehow managed to retain its character. The old town was established as a catholic village along the banks of the St. Lawrence river. Missionary efforts failed to flourish meaning it needed a new way to survive. That came, as so many places in Canada, through fur-trading. The wealth and prosperity that particular boom brought meant that fine stone buildings and houses were built. Montréal also established one of the most important inland harbours in North America by the 19th Century. Booms don’t and can’t last forever – world history testifies to that. Montreal was no exception. By the 20th century the city had fallen into decline. From 1980 the city has had its own renaissance. Many of the 18th century buildings were saved and given a new lease of life for what was built back then no longer fitted in with what is needed today.

What there is now is a remarkable combination of old and new, as restaurants, bistros and boutiques merge with wonderful architecture. Yes, you still have your tourist shops, littered with ‘Canadian’ products made in China. My suggestion is to search for and buy the authentic Canadian goods that may be found on the shelves. A conversation ensued with the shop keeper, but I soon ran out of what little French I know though not before he had accepted payment from my credit card. It was then that he changed to English to say something about his wife once working for English speakers.

Canada doesn’t do the “pubs” to which I am accustomed. Invariably the establishments that exist are bar/restaurants with the main focus on food. I had some puzzled looks as I would just enter and only want a beer. One must indulge in some of Montreal’s cuisine, poutine and (a recommendation) a smoked meat sandwich.

The architecture is similar to that in Quebec City (French influence) and was a pleasure to study. The Notre Dame Basilica is worth the entrance fee. As you step into this cathedral, be amazed by the almost ocean looking sanctuary and altar piece. The cathedral probably survives on those entrance fees and not from contributions from regular and faithful attendees. It is the same the world over but aren’t we glad that these places are preserved even if they resemble museums and sometimes even mausoleums. Down the rue Notre-Dame (one could be mistaken for thinking one was in Paris) the Hôtel de Ville captures your attention before Montréal’s own Nelson’s column takes your eye. Ignore the wonderful street entertainers, (for a second you might think you were in Covent Garden in London) and question why it is that one of England’s most famous seamen has a statue there. This evidence confirms the sense of intertwined cultures that have shaped this city.

The aforementioned harbour is no longer the trading post it once was. Now it has undergone serious modernisation as the entertainment features that the youth of today crave have sprung up to ensure its sustainability. A railway line runs parallel with the river and splits the glorious old town from this modern hub of craziness. An entrance to Chapelle Notre Dame-de-Bonsecours provides a view of this divide between the harbour and old Montreal. As you stand there and look across old Montreal you could be mistaken for thinking that you are looking across a city in Europe, as spires, domes and religious buildings dominate the skyline.

Before I left this city, there were still two places that I felt must be visited. A walk to Mont Royal and Oratoire Saint Joseph. I’d been to both before, but both places should be considered on a first visit to the city. On arriving in the city in glorious sunshine I dumped my bags and hiked up “la montagne”. This urban escape provides Montrealers with some much-needed green space in the city. Standing at only 234m high, nature manages to provide the city’s best view point. Oratoire Saint Joseph is perhaps the perfect spot to watch the sunset in the city. After climbing the 283 steps to the top I sat amazed as the sun set. Witnessing behaviour that perhaps wasn’t in tone with the location, it was still a romantic end for my visit to the city.

I’d been before, but Magnificent Montréal, you were worth the second visit.

History at Hughenden

View from the main garden

I’m finally starting to take full advantage of my National Trust (NT) membership. Living my manic lifestyle, finding the time has been difficult to use it to the full. With the long Easter weekend there was an opportunity to get out and explore should the weather had been kind. Who would have thought that I’m becoming fascinated with history! In England we’re blessed with an abundance of history that we really shouldn’t ignore.

Memorial in church

Until today I had never heard of Disraeli so this trip to Hughenden Manor was worthwhile. The house and grounds (though disappointing on first appearance) were crowded as there was an Easter Egg hunt under way. I will not go off on one about commercialisation of religious festivals as there was much to learn about an illustrious, though, to my way of thinking, stomach churning, creepy, former Prime Minister. There is much evidence on display to confirm my impressions. Evidently Queen Victoria thought that he was wonderful, and this is seen in a memorial in the church. And yet, in a perverse way, it is the TV series covering young Victoria’s life that has sparked my interest. It may well be, based on the numbers in the house and grounds, that I am not alone.

The house didn’t have the wow factor that some of the NT properties have that I have visited but it did have some interesting things going for it. The inside of the house was well maintained; the ground floor was mainly family pictures; in certain rooms there were inscriptions printed on the blinds. There was also a lot of information in the house regarding politics and Disraeli.

Portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Disraelis’ Bedroom

On the upper floor there were more pictures; these were different though as they were gifts from the queen. These could be spotted by the crown crowning the frame. The first room on the top floor has a timeline of his life. When we were there a passionate West Indian man spoke about Isaac Disraeli (his father) falling out with his fellow Jews at the synagogue and getting his children baptised into the Church of England. At the time this was a vital decision that enabled Benjamin to become Prime minister in adult life. Look around at the walls to see Disraeli quotes. Two of these appealed to me as a traveller, “Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen” and “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes”.

Springtime

The final stop was to look downstairs to see how ‘Hillside’ was used in the construction of maps used in World War 2. Tight, congested and overcrowded it was time to leave. It was then time to witness an adult playing stuck in the mud by parking his car on some wet ground rather than the huge amounts of kids running around. The building and gardens looked dank but then so has been the weather of late. Wait for the summer as the gardens will look tremendous.