Spring Break is a time for travel, and my immediate family sprang at the opportunity to (finally) whisk me off to Montreal. It’s criminal that this was my first time there, I know. My only possible excuses are how difficult it can be to organize college students and my apparent inability to navigate a city labelled almost entirely in French. I’m not sure what my disconnect is—I do fine with Spanish. Perhaps I’ve just had too little experience with the language. Excuses are only worth so much, though, and it did take me until Spring of my fifth year in Burlington to get there.
It’s a shame, too, because Montreal is a city that lends itself well to college students while evading the “college town” vibe. Situated the better part of two hours north of Burlington, Vermont (it’s a simple drive, too) and closer to an hour from Plattsburgh, I understand my Dad’s frustration with the fact that this was my first time.
My parents had booked a two-bedroom Airbnb on Casgrain Avenue, in the part of town called “Villeray.” The kids’ room sported a bunk bed. I was given the top bunk (which is normally what I’d have wanted), much to the chagrin of my left knee. I injured it skiing at the beginning of February; a partial ACL tear and LCL sprain have been making walking a challenge since then. Luckily, my recovery was far enough along that, for the bulk of the weekend, all it did was slow me down.
And slow me down it did, unfortunately. One of the great things about Montreal is how easy it is to get around without a car. I would feel no reservations about flying in and not renting a car, because the public transit system covers the entire island. We only had to walk about three blocks to the nearest Metro station. Even on my injured knee, three blocks was no problem, particularly since it was flat ground. Living in Burlington, hills are my life. It changes a person’s thinking when they live on foot in a hilly city for a few years.
Day One was walking. Specifically, we took the Metro to the Old City and walked around there. Unfortunately, we got kind of a crappy day: it rained off and on for the whole time. On the cusp of Spring, this isn’t a surprising thing, but it’s still inconvenient to have a day in the fifties after a couple weeks of sixties and seventies—and a damp one at that. In addition to the discomfort of the chilly and the damp, bad weather stiffens my knee. As I’m sure you can imagine, all this worked together to make me an absolute bundle of joy as we trudged over the wet cobblestones, taking in the sights of the city. Montreal’s Notre Dame is one such sight and has a charming square in front of it, just up a little hill from Metro Station Place-d’Armes. The basilica has a six dollar admission fee, and once inside, visitors have the option to follow a twenty minute guided tour or explore by themselves. Additionally, three afternoons a week, the organist-in-residence puts on a concert. Live organ music is an absolute treat, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to witness it for yourself.
Past the basilica, down the other side of the hill we went, turning onto Rue Saint Paul. The street is home to several restaurants, art galleries, and distinctive little shops. We went into one that was all Native American traditional art and handicrafts; another had giant, extremely detailed sculptures of zoo animals. We ate lunch on Rue Saint Paul, at a sports bar themed around rock music. To their credit, I don’t get the sense that lunch is their specialty; I wasn’t all that impressed with our dining experience. We did, however, get a nice table by the window overlooking Montreal’s Old Port on the St. Lawrence River.
Dinner that night was at an Irish Pub downtown. It was crowded, noisy, and dark: the perfect place to spend a Friday night drinking with your friends. We started with an order of curry fries, an apparent specialty of the place. “McKibbin’s” didn’t strike me nominally as the place for curry, but the fries were delicious, as were the beers and burgers I put away that evening. We stuck around until that night’s band had played a couple of songs, an enjoyable jazzy alt rock type band, complete with saxophone and three guitarists.
During the walk back to our car, I was able to peek in on what everyone else my age was doing, and it looked like fun. Bars were full of young, attractive people, music emanated from open doors. Lights were strung across the street, illuminating murals painted on the sides of buildings. Had I been confident on my bad knee (and had the money), I’d have had my family leave me behind to further explore the wonders of Montreal’s bars and find a cab home, but that just wasn’t an option this time.
Our next day started at Tim’s. Three of us had been cranky because our day didn’t start with coffee (and my Dad didn’t want to deal with it again), so a pit stop at the nearest Tim Horton’s was the only logical beginning to our second morning. Having spent a considerable amount of time in eastern Michigan, I know well the wonders of Tim Horton’s, and am low-key furious that we don’t have one in Burlington. A little caffeine boost at the beginning of the day was just the thing we needed to enjoy our Saturday.
“Montreal” is the name you get for the city that develops around a hill called “Mont Royal,” and the next day we climbed it. Well, to be honest “climb” is a bit generous; we drove up the bulk of it. There’s a parking area roughly three quarters of the way up, and from it one must walk for a short five minutes to a lovely viewing area from which visitors can take in a gorgeous view of Downtown. It’d probably take a healthy person about fifteen minutes to get from the overlook to the summit. Unfortunately, there’s nothing much at the summit, though when we were there, a couple more overlook viewing areas were under construction.
I witnessed a strange thing on the mountain. Canadian squirrels don’t seem to fear humans like their cousins in the States. As we walked from the parking area to the first overlook, we passed a group of what looked like tourists. Some were kneeling, others standing in a small cluster around something; several had cameras hanging from their necks. At the center of the throng was a little gray squirrel, enjoying pets and snacks at the hands of the humans, who were not speaking English and were not speaking French. I almost felt bad for the little guy, but he seemed to be having a good time, and it wasn’t our place to intervene. Later, though, I was walking around Parc Jarry, two blocks from our apartment, when another squirrel came right up to me, totally unprompted. Boy Scout that I am, I tactfully ignored the little one, and she scampered back among the trees when she realized I wasn’t going to pay her any attention.
Despite my sour attitude for what probably seemed like the bulk of the trip to my family, I really enjoyed my time in Montreal. Everyone speaks English; there’s no need to worry about language barriers. If you like the bar scene, it’s definitely a city for you. The population seems quite young and vivacious, with plenty of city to explore whether you’re into history, nature, night life, or any combination thereof. If you’re planning a trip to Montreal, don’t feel the need to bring your car (if it makes sense not to), don’t forget your water bottle (if you don’t like hangovers), and don’t feed the squirrels.