Silver Bells in Montreal

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Q. We are planning a trip to Montreal for the week between Christmas and New Year's. Considering it will be the middle of winter, will there still be enough things to do to keep us occupied?

Abigail Jones, Washington

A. You're kidding, n'est-ce pas? Are we being punk'd? Given Montreal's love of the season, not to mention its deep French Catholic roots, you'll be stumbling over buches de Noel at every turn. Okay, it's true that the city's beloved Canadiens won't be in town (no home games until Jan. 3), but there are non-hockey compensations, which is an unfantastic way of describing what Marie-Jose Pinsonnault of Tourisme Montreal ( declares an "absolutely fantastic" event: "Christmas at the Garden" at the Jardin Botanique (Dec. 7-Jan. 8; Montrealers and tourists alike crowd the main exhibition space every year for the giant poinsettia trees and other hothouse Christmas fantasies.

Also an indelible part of the city's Christmas scene, Pinsonnault says, is an exhibit called "Who Is the Real Santa Claus?" at the Museum of Archaeology and History (Dec. 8-30;, in which chubby gift-giving icons from around the world are celebrated and scrutinized in equal measure. The spiritual side of things gets its due at Notre-Dame Basilica, especially at 11 a.m. on Sundays. It's then that you'll hear the church's famous Casavant organ, a massive 7,000-pipe instrument that dates from 1891.

Then again, perhaps you'll have had enough of both Christmas and the cold by that time. "If it's a bit crisp," Pinsonnault says, "remember, you can spend the whole day underground. . . . There are 20 miles of a pedestrian network linking hotels, 900 stores, 300 places to eat" and more. And the tunnels don't lead only to merch. Burrow your way to the Place des Arts and you'll find the Grand Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" (Dec. 15-30;, or to the Bell Centre, which plays host to Cirque du Soleil's "Saltimbanco" Dec. 19-30 (

I am thinking about traveling to Buenos Aires next year. As I don't speak Spanish, should I worry?

Rose Chambers, White Plains, Md.

Don't cry for me, Rose Chambers. The truth is, Argentina shall not leave you, Spanish or no Spanish. In fact, you could hardly pick a more English-happy destination in South America; most Buenos Aireans, from lowly shopkeepers to the country's glamorous, Evita-evoking new president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, appear to speak at least some English.

That said, you'll find a higher percentage of fluency among workers in the tourist trade: waiters, airline employees, hoteliers. When venturing out of these bubbles, ask your hotel for help; cabdrivers' command of the language, for example, can be unpredictable. And if you're still nervous, look into one of the many U.S.-based "tango tour" operators targeting American aficionados of the dance. Thanks to network TV's embrace of all things ballroom, this English-friendly niche is booming. Buenos Aires's official site ( has its fair share of tango tips as well.

Send queries by e-mail ( or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company