Continued..Day 2… The monotony of the bus ride and three-language monologue is broken by emotive swathes of autumnal hues out of a Van Gogh canvas, bold, vibrant tree-strokes against a dull sky as we speed towards Montreal, another flip-flop between antiquity and modernity.
Montreal, located at confluence of Petite River and St. Lawrence, is the second city on our itinerary and we take AutoRoute, 20 or 40 (too busy admiring the scenic view) to shorten travel time by 3/4 hours. The Route follows the original King’s Highway or Chemin du Roy, south of St. Lawrence River, and if traveling independently then an ideal way to savour the picturesque historical sites and villages along St. Lawrence River. Our Guide compensated for the detour by giving us a brief history of the route and how it connected the major cities of New France along the charismatic river.
Vistas of cultivated land, once home to Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, greet us on both sides of the route. The Iroquoians lived in fortified villages on the foothills of Mount Royal, nearly 4000 years ago, till arrival of Europeans, via St. Lawrence River, forced them to move on or were decimated due to inter tribal wars and European diseases. This was an all too familiar ‘conquering’ pattern… setting up trading posts and then slowly gaining control of the entire land. The Frenchi-zation of the Island began with a settlement, a chapel, hospital and a fort, as protection against Iroquoian raids. The settlement was named Ville-Marie or ‘City of Mary’ after Mount Royal, the triple peaked hill in the heart of the city.
The British soon followed and in 1689 Britain-allied Iroquois committed the worst massacre in the history of New France. From then on it was a tussle between the two European powers with the English gaining upper hand. Montreal or La Place Royale, was the capital of the Province of Canada from 1844 to 1849 till the burning down of the parliament building. Ottawa, across the River, piped it to the post and has remained the capital city to the present.
The in-motion history lesson was synced to our arrival in the city and we are in Olympic Park, in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, where the doughnut-shaped Montreal Stadium is located. The ‘Big O’, the site of the 1976 summer Olympics, is refered to as the ‘The Big Owe’ for the wastefulness and huge debt it incurred. The tour included a climb up to the leaning Montreal Tower, along the north base of the stadium, and visit to the Biodome, and 5 families, including us, preferred to explore the surroundings. It was windy and cold but entertaining, watched a football game and our flag toting Guide trying to herd the listless members through the complex.
Lunchtime and Downtown Montreal: A flip-flop between antiquity and modernity as glinting green church spires, originally copper and oxidized, reflect the unique dynamism of the city. I would have loved a flânerie through the cobbled streets of Old or Vieux- Montreal with its Anglo-French artistic and culinary flavours, imbibing the joie de vivre of Jean-Talon Market (opened in 1933) one of the oldest public markets in the city or be in the centre of activity of Place d’Armes, the heritage city square bordered by a mélange of ancient, the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice dating 1684 and Basilique Notre Dame (1824), and the modern… the 20th century skyscrapers looming over the statue of Montreal’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve.
The 30-minute stop at Basilique Notre Dame was insufficient to fully explore the Gothic splendoir constructed in 1824. Since photography is supposedly disallowed inside, one could only memorize the stunning medieval architecture accentuated with intricate walnut wood carvings, the exquisite stained glass windows depicting Montreal’s religious history, the blue ceiling with 24 carat gold stars, highlighted by the largest Casavant organs and the impressive Chapelle du Sacre-Coeur behind the altar. A national historical site and an important landmark of Montreal, the Basilique has it’s fame tagged to two events; The eulogy by Justin Trudeau, present Prime Minster of Canada, from the steps of the High Alter during the state funeral of his father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th Prime Minister of Canada and the more newsworthy, according to our Guide, the wedding of Canadian singer Celine Dion in 1994.
Another must visit church is St. Joseph’s Oratory on Westmont Summit, one of the three peaks of Mount Royal. It is an impressive monument and in the words of Bernard Avishai in the NEW YORKER …‘Towering over both our neighbourhoods, impressing itself on our senses, was the dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Quebec’s great basilica, the dream palace of ( now canonized) Brother André Bessette, who healed the body and spirit of pilgrims—the place we simply called the Shrine’.
The impressive entrance, if one can climb up the stairs from street level, the devout do on their knees, and the view of the city is enough to make you want to stay in the environs as long as you can. Even on a hazy day, we could see McGill University tower, busloads, carloads of tourists, some walked up, were streaming to the Oratory to worship or admire the buildings and its surroundings, the famous Mt. Royal Park.
Certain places are for exploring and Montreal is one such city, but our tour itinerary was a killjoy with its back-to-back stops. One plus point was the frequent washroom breaks, much-needed on the long bus drive. There was a cubby-hole toilet on bus but then no one wanted to contribute to a foul-smelling bus.
Dinner was in another Chinatown restaurant and again we decided to be on our own. Chinatown, on La Gauchetiere Street, Saint Urban Street and St. Lawrence Boulevard, is a pedestrian thoroughfare and popular tourist destination for its Asian ambiance of street merchants selling everything under the sun; gift shops and mom-and-pop stores selling kimonos, lingerie, crafts and china; fortune readers for the gullible or adventurous…. a scene straight out of China, Hong Kong or surrounding countries. The alleys are lined with restaurants, Vietnamese and Chinese, as over the years Hong Kong Chinese and ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam settled here opening Cantonese and Dimsum restaurants and Vietnamese Pho eateries. It was crowded, Saturday evening, and after a 30 minute wait we managed two seats in a Vietnamese eatery. The fast turnout ensured that you gulped down your food before the dishes are whisked from the table.
Back on bus and to our hotel, across St. Lawrence River, for an early morning journey to Ottawa, Kingston and return to Toronto.