Note: This story is not in the running for the competition of which story I should offer our travel editor, because this story already ran in our travel section. But after all the snow of the last two posts, I thought you guys deserved a little sunshine. This was our first trip to Montreal. You'll see the heavy influence of those Ulysses Guides.
When we got to Square Saint-Louis, I kicked off my shoes. Water from a tiered fountain splashed gently, and beds of white, violet and red flowers glowed in the afternoon sun. Across the tree-lined street stood old rowhouses with wrought-iron balconies and stained-glass windows. Classical music poured from the open door of the park's cafe, where we sat at an outside table. I shut my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. I was consumed with beauty and peace. I heard a foreign voice, felt a shadow. I opened my eyes.
A disheveled-looking young man stood at our table. He wore a scruffy beard and dirty jeans. "I'm sorry, we don't speak French," I said. "That's OK," he said, switching languages adeptly. "I can ask in English. Can I have 95 cents?"
Bilingual panhandlers. Only in Montreal. We had meant to go to France -- bought the guidebooks and checked the Web and consulted my sister, who has been there -- and then we found that our 90-year-old house needed a new roof. Two weeks in French Canada seemed like an inexpensive substitute for Paris, but it turned out to be much more than that. It was glorious: interesting, cosmopolitan, beautiful and fun.
"Foreign, yet familiar," was my husband's assessment, and for him -- he who loves both exploring and staying home -- it doesn't get any better than that.
Even hearing vivid stories of the ice storm of 1998, which left people shivering in the dark for weeks, it was hard to imagine Montreal in cold weather. All over town, restaurant windows were open wide; we saw hundreds of sidewalk cafes, thousands of bicyclists, flowers absolutely everywhere.
In mid-September, yards bloomed with petunias and geraniums; ivy and morning glories entwined wrought-iron railings. Potted begonias and marigolds crowded balconies just big enough for one chair. Nobody seemed to waste dirt on anything as boring as grass.
One morning, we set out on foot for Parc du Mont Royal, the huge greenspace in the center of the city. Along the way, we peeked in the windows of discos and outdoor-gear shops and chic restaurants not yet open for the day. A constant stream of bicyclists pumped past -- professional women in skirts; businessmen with briefcases strapped down by little bungee cords; biker dudes in Spandex pants and helmets. Bicycling in Montreal is eminently civilized. Two-lane bike paths run next to the curb, with the parking lanes farther out in the street, creating a buffer from traffic. Bike lanes have their own itty-bitty stop lights, and cyclists abide by them.
Long ago, Parc du Mont Royal was the site of an Iroquois village, and later it was where Montreal was claimed for France. It took us nearly an hour to reach the chalet at the top, trudging up steep paths that wound through verdant, muggy woods. The view of the skyline is vast but not beautiful: Squat modern buildings block the dignified old ones. You can't see the historic old port from here, though you can see some of the grand stone buildings of McGill University.
The sun was warm, but a strong wind swirled us into the chalet. Granite fireplaces, six chandeliers, beamed ceilings and more than a dozen paintings of important moments in Canadian history dwarfed the tables and chairs scattered about the empty, echoing room. We sipped bottled water and sneaked glances at the alarmingly huge plaster squirrels that stared unblinking from the rafters.
As we trooped down the west side of the hill, we had a stunning view of the immense Oratoire Saint-Joseph, "the largest dome outside of Rome," as Doug kept chanting. (It's second in size only to St. Peter's.) The building is visible for miles, its copper roof topped by an enormous cross.
At the bottom of the hill was Rue Sherbrooke. This neighborhood once was so wealthy that it was known as the "Golden Square Mile," and it was where captains of industry built their mansions. By 1900, a staggering 70 percent of all the wealth in Canada was in the hands of people who lived right here.
The neighborhood is still rich, though it has changed. Many of the big houses are either gone, have been turned into businesses and offices, or have been annexed by McGill University. But enough of the old mansions still exist -- especially along the shady side streets -- that we got a good sense of the genteel, old-money place this once was. We tiptoed up Rue Sherbrooke in a kind of awe.
While Mont Royal once was the wealthiest neighborhood in Canada, Little Burgundy, down by the river, was one of the poorest. So after lunch, tired of opulence, we caught the subway (called the Metro, as in Paris) and headed there. We started in Saint-Henri and walked to Little Burgundy. Once the adjacent neighborhoods were independent villages. Saint-Henri was built around a slaughterhouse and tannery, Little Burgundy around a textile mill. In 1905, the booming city of Montreal swallowed them up.
This part of town was where the workers lived who served the barons of the Golden Square Mile, and where Canada's Industrial Revolution was born. This was where Montreal's mills and factories roared; where the railroad chugged through, spewing smoke and cinders; where the Lachine Canal flowed and stank.
A century ago, this was a filthy place to live. Infant mortality was 10 times higher than anywhere else on the continent.
We came up out of the Metro at Rue Coursol, a tree-lined street of small frame rowhouses. Children played in the front yards and cast shy smiles at us as we walked past. In the 1950s, this neighborhood was primarily black, made up of families of railroad workers. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was born here, and a cabaret called Rockhead's Paradise roared on the corner for 60 years, bringing in the likes of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.
We walked a mile or so to Square Saint-Henri -- not as lush as the flower-filled Square Saint-Louis, but a peaceful greenspace in a part of town that needs beauty. The houses here were big, though close together; the mayor of Saint-Henri once lived at No. 846 Rue Agnes, now a bed-and-breakfast.
Gone are the tannery and slaughterhouse, which must have given this whole area a distinct fragrance (or, as our guidebook put it, a "putrid stench"). In their place a few blocks away is another public square, this one rimmed by rickety triplexes once occupied by slaughterhouse laborers -- one family per floor, three floors per house.
The farther we walked, the smaller the houses became until we got to Rue Saint-Ambrose, which runs right along the Lachine Canal. We were now in Little Burgundy, which was once one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of North America.
We stopped at a street corner. To our right loomed the mammoth old textile mill, its brick walls and staircase towers casting a medieval shadow over the neighborhood. The mill is closed now, but it wasn't hard to imagine how noisy it must have been, how its size and racket and economic power must have dominated the village.
To our left were the oldest houses in Montreal. Still poor but no longer slums, the tiny frame houses were painted Bohemian colors, and their yards were a tangle of autumn flowers.
Straight ahead, we could look right up the street, up the hill, to Mont Royal. We could see the soaring dome of Oratoire Saint-Joseph; we could almost make out the Scottish stone buildings of McGill University.
What a bitter view these workers must have had, walking to the dusty, thunderous textile mill every day, glancing up and looking square in the eye of the richest neighborhood in North America.
Music thumped from a boombox, a man in a tank top bent over the engine of his old car, children scattered and laughed and ran. Two young women, dressed up for the evening, giggled as they teetered along the sidewalk on high heels. The Golden Square Mile glowed before us in the setting sun as we headed up the street toward the Metro.
A note on the pictures: All from Montreal, and all taken by me, but on a completely different visit. The people walking through Parc Mont Royal are my brother, my sister, and my sister-in-law. I didn't have time to scan in the pictures from this trip, which are in a photo album in the basement. So these photos only fit the story in the broadest of ways.
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