When I was in High School I took a trip to Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I loved the city. Then about ten years later I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and it was my new favorite Canadian city. I thought that it would be tough to top Vancouver, but I recently returned from Montreal, Quebec, Canada and I find it even more intriguing than Vancouver.
Now, it is quite difficult to compare any two places based on trips of less than a week in duration. And, it is especially difficult to compare cities when most of the time spent in the city is for business. Basically my comparison of the cities is based on what could be done for a few non-working hours, including eating and entertainment. And, of course I also base my attitude toward the city on the rudeness of the people that I run into along the way.
I arrived in Montreal on Saturday night and I immediately checked into my hotel got comfortable and fell asleep. The trip was about 10 hours of travel time from door to door and there was a three hour time change between California and Quebec.
I thought that if I were to work out in the morning I could get my blood to flow and perhaps I could get used to the time change a bit quicker. The Hotel had a health club, and so I ran eight miles on the treadmill. I may have overdone the workout a bit, or it might have been dehydration or caffeine withdrawal, but I didn’t feel very good for most of the day. I normally drink coffee everyday, but because of the logistics of the flight I hadn’t had coffee on Saturday, or Sunday. After working out I got together with a couple of guys from my company and we worked until mid afternoon, only pausing for lunch. But because we kept at it we finished with plenty of time to take a hike of the city before the sun went down.
Up until this point there wasn’t really anything different about Montreal and any other big Midwestern city that couldn’t accommodate us. So, the hike outside to check out the city was the first opportunity to see what Montreal was all about. Of course, a hike through a city is mainly filled with looking at typical building that occupy most cities. And, of course the route that one chooses dictates what one sees and what conclusions one may draw on that experience. But, there are special differences that every city uniquely offers. In Montreal we chose to walk to Mount Royal, a small hill by California standards that offers a view of the city from the mount. The route from our hotel was simple, travel straight up University until it ended at the Mount Royal Park. We didn’t quite know what to do once we got to the park, but we figured that there should be paths around the mount that would allow us to walk through the park, and perhaps even to the summit.
The walk up University took us through the heart of McGill University. The architecture of many of the buildings displayed imagination and attention to detail. I’m not an architectural expert, but I know how to appreciate the form as well as the function. And, as it turned out, much of the culture of Montreal appeals to the senses while keeping in mind the practical as well.
When we reached Mount Royal we found it difficult to actually enter the park. There were fences as well as gates. There were steep muddy slopes as well as gradual inclines with wheel chair accessibility. And we finally managed to find a main path that encircles the mount. Unfortunately the temperature had begun to drop while we were hiking and it had begun to sprinkle a light but steady rain. And as the cold intolerant Californians realized that they needed heat soon we aborted our mission and turned back toward the hotel. And, when we arrived back at the hotel we were drenched. But, the hike was a successful first look at this interesting city.
While we were in the city we experienced a wide range of very interesting food. I won’t go into the details of every meal that I ate, but I did have walleye, venison, duck, and salmon. I experienced maple pudding and pancakes with maple syrup. No matter what the mean price of the restaurant meals I found a very close attention paid to detail. Even when we ate at a place that specialized in BBQ ribs and chicken I found that the food was displayed with attention paid to the details. In fact, the food and the architecture have that in common - they both pay attention to both form and function. In the case of the food, it looked as good as it tasted in every case I witnessed.
If you look at the city of Montreal on the surface, or from the 27th floor of the hotel we stayed in, it would be difficult to tell the difference between Montreal and another Midwestern US city - Cleveland for example. There is quite a bit of industry. There is its port on the St. Lawrence seaway. Montreal, however, is further north than many Midwestern American cities, and therefore needed to deal with the practical problem of cold weather for more than half of the year. (At least that was before Global Warming.) And, in order to battle this practical problem a huge network of tunnels have been constructed under the city. These tunnels connect buildings and Metro stations. But, in addition to this practical application there are stores and shopping areas in these recesses below the surface of the city.
Now, if these tunnels had been constructed for the merely practical application of connecting the buildings together, one could imagine cinder block passageways, the smell of urine in a parking garage, rats running around, and waste piled knee deep. But, these passageways are clean and well kept. In certain areas the passages have carpeting, although that idea may contribute to a moldy smell. In other areas there are quite creative and artistic themes. There was an entire hallway that seems to have been lifted from “The Matrix.” Another passageway was lined with marble. And, still another looked like it once resided in a medieval castle. No matter where one walked the tunnels were safe and clean. Specific spots were labeled for use by street musicians, and they were. Like I noted above, Montreal seemed to have a good balance of both form and function. The tunnels connected most of the places anyone would want to go throughout the downtown area of Montreal. And, it connected these places to the Metro lines that could take people out into the suburbs of Montreal as well. It was a keen combination of both form and function working together.
As visitors from a far off land we found these tunnels a curious and interesting exploration. If you have ever played Dungeons and Dragons and enjoyed the exploration aspect of the game these tunnels might offer many hours of entertainment. One night we decided to take the tunnels beneath the city to a special event. We could have taken a bus, but for shear entertainment purposes we explored the tunnels and eventually found our way to the event. And, the experience was well worth the time.
These are the differences that stand out above other cities that I have been to. Every city has more or less unique aspects that come across to a visitor. Not every visitor is going to discover every aspect. But the pervasive extent of a good balance of form and function is a theme that seems to run through all of these.
Before I finish, however, I need to mention another great discovery that we found in Montreal. This was the “Maison de Jazz” Or “House of Jazz.” This place offered a very pleasant experience of Jazz, drinks and food that is difficult to find in many places other than maybe New York, Chicago or New Orleans. This particular establishment does not set Montreal out above these places, but the existence of it says a lot about the underlying culture of music and sensibilities. These places need enough people in the audience to support the musicians and there also needs to be enough musicians of a high enough quality to populate a nightly entertainment calendar. There needs to be a critical mass of both musicians and those who appreciate the art form for a place like this to succeed. And, “Maison de Jazz” is able to offer an interesting menu of BBQ ribs and chicken as well as items for those not so taken by BBQ. If one considers the population of Montreal, this is truly a unique gem that may be hidden from the typical visitor.
After this trip, Montreal has now popped up to the top of my Favorite Canadian City list. However, my list actually means very little in the grand scheme of things. It isn’t scientific. I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to study any of the Canadian Cities that I visited. All I can say is that it was very easy to find good food and entertainment in the few number of hours that I had for food and entertainment. And, that alone was all I ever want when I’m on a business trip.
Don't forget what Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
Cross Posted @ Bring It On