Louise Lafrance guns the engine of her SUV and begins her ascent of Mount Royal, a squat mass of rock around which the city of MontrÃƒÂ©al’s central neighborhoods were built. As I fasten my seat belt, the name of the landmark conjures a memory from a previous trip: a hazy image of a surreal, barren bluff viewed from a hotel window on a winter’s day. But I quickly discover that “the mountain,” as locals call it, is full of life.
The professional tour guide maneuvers through the steep, winding streets of upper-crust neighborhoods, past the University of MontrÃƒÂ©al to Mount Royal Park, a vast expanse of rolling woods and lawns where outdoor enthusiasts hike, bike, even cross-country ski. Lafrance stops the vehicle at a scenic lookout point, and I gasp at what I see: a panoramic view punctuated by the futuristic stadium built for the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Mount Royal is just one of the surprises waiting for visitors in this island city in the St. Lawrence River, just an hour’s drive north of the New York-Vermont border. The metropolis of 1.8 million in Canada’s Quebec province boasts the largest French-speaking population of any city other than Paris, making it a practical alternative to a European jaunt. It is endowed with all the attractions and landmarks a sophisticated traveler would expect in one of the world’s great cities. And 20 miles of underground pedestrian walkways connect many of them, assuring ideal conditions for sightseeing if the autumn weather turns foul.
Lafrance’s four-hour survey of the town takes me past museums and shopping areas, along the river and over bridges to neighboring islands studded with the remnants of Expo 67, including the former French and Quebec pavilions that now house the Casino de MontrÃƒÂ©al (1, ave. du Casino, Notre Dame Island).
The next day, when I’m on my own, I hop into a cab and head straight to Old MontrÃƒÂ©al, a movie-set-worthy patch of narrow cobblestone streets and brick and stone structures, some dating back to the late 17th century, roughly bordered by rue St. Antoine to the north, the St. Lawrence River to the south, rue Berri to the east and rue McGill to the west.
My first stop is Notre Dame Basilica (110, rue Notre-Dame), a Gothic Revival masterpiece built in the 1820s with a breathtaking interior inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris — so breathtaking, in fact, that I decide to stay for Mass, the first I’ve sat through in more than a dozen years. One of the unexpected pleasures of attending a service in this city, I discover, is hearing it delivered in French — even if you can’t understand the language. Afterward, I buy an ice-cream cone and make the short trek to the lovely Notre Dame de Bon Secours Chapel (400, rue Saint-Paul Est), the oldest stone chapel in a city filled with them. Among the must-sees in other parts of town are Mary Queen of the World Cathedral (1085, rue de la CathÃƒÂ©drale), modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome right down to the baldachin overlooking the altar, and St. Joseph’s Oratory (3800, chemin Queen Mary), where pilgrims huff and puff their way up almost 300 steps from the entrance gate to the massive copper-domed shrine.
After hours of wandering in and out of shops and glancing over the menus posted outside various restaurants, I end up in Place Jacques Cartier, a pedestrian square that serves as a crowded forum for everyone from balloon-wielding clowns to guys giving out free hugs. I watch in fascination as a fire-eater prepares to perform in front of a gathering crowd, then think better of witnessing his first fiery mouthful and duck into another crÃƒÂ©merie for a scoop of lemon sorbet.
As the evening winds to a close, I drift back to the hotel through streets strategically illuminated to create romantic backdrops for hand-in-hand walks and horse-drawn carriage rides.
Where to Stay
Hilton MontrÃƒÂ©al Bonaventure
900, rue de la Gauchetiere Ouest
MontrÃƒÂ©al, Quebec H5A 1E4
(514) 878-2332 or 1-800-HILTONS
Rates are seasonal; average is around C$200
Located between downtown and Old MontrÃƒÂ©al, this 395-room hotel distinguishes itself with an outdoor heated pool open year-round.
Where to Eat
This busy French bistro in the ultra-hip Plateau Mount Royal neighborhood has been operating for some 30 years. The menu — with entrÃƒÂ©es priced from C$12.60 to C$21 — runs the gamut from individual quiches plated with a side of french fries and mayonnaise for dipping to homemade ravioli stuffed with veal.
|Life as a Puppet
Artist Tom Sarver hosts his own museum within a museum starting Sept. 10 at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, known for its expansive, room-size art installations. “The Tom Museum” exhibit brings Tom’s world to Mattress Factory visitors through puppets, sculptures and interactive exchanges (you might end up on Tom’s talk show!). The exhibit runs through early April — check www.mattress.org for a complete listing of dates and times. Admission is included with your ticket to the Mattress Factory. Tickets are $9 for adults, $7 for senior citizens, $6 for students and free for children younger than 6.
— Marissa Mikolak