See Montreal's Cool Side During Fall and Winter Festivals

By Michael Kaminer
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From Arab culture to Brazilian movies to Chinese lanterns, Montreal hosts a wildly diverse slate of festivals year-round. The best known, Just for Laughs and the Montreal International Jazz Festival, turn the city into a giant party every summer.

Which is exactly why I love visiting in fall and winter. I'm a transplanted Montrealer who spends regular weekends in my home town. Summer can bring glorious weather, but high season also delivers big, bland cultural events and endless busloads of tourists.

The city turns much cooler -- in every sense of the word -- once October rolls around. I also find it much more beautiful, with spectacular Mont Royal foliage, carefully layered outfits replacing shorts and flip-flops, and a feeling that the city's exhaling after several months of overload.

Likewise, it's the quirkier autumn and winter festivals that reflect Montreal's true spirit: open-minded, globally aware, polyglot, culturally vibrant and gleefully impudent. Some of these happenings couldn't exist in any other city, and many are worth a trip on their own.

For me, the fall festival season kicks off with Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal (Montreal Photo Month, Sept. 10-Oct. 11), a photography biennale that unfolds in public spaces and in such galleries as Darling Foundry, a colossal converted factory in Old Montreal. It's a thrill to see giant photos transform downtown streets; this year's theme, "The Spaces of the Image," explores the interplay between display techniques and picturemaking. A highlight: "From Hand to Mouth," a 22-meter-long installation by American Jeff Guess at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac in the city's east end.

A day after Photo Month's launch, Montreal's Botanical Garden unveils what has become a hot franchise for this once dowdy local institution. The 17th Magic of Lanterns festival (Sept. 11-Nov. 1) displays 700 glowing tchotchkes, some on a massive scale, that the garden's Web site claims are designed in Montreal, produced in Shanghai, shipped to Canada and "painstakingly arranged" on the garden grounds. Sound kitschy? Get there at dusk; I guarantee a speechless moment. This year's theme: "Traditional Chinese Astronomy."

At the end of September, time your trip with Pop Montreal (Sept. 30-Oct. 4), arguably one of the world's best-curated rock festivals. Hype? Check out this lineup, banging it out at more than 40 venues citywide: the first-ever Canadian performance by Krautrock legends Faust; the return of ageless provocateur Lydia Lunch, fronting reunited no-wavers Teenage Jesus and the Jerks; a serious don't-miss date by seminal British punks the Homosexuals; and such younger acts as Jay Reatard and Japandroids. I love Leonard Cohen as much as the next Montrealais, but this slate really does blow the jazz festival's away.

Three richly diverse film festivals round out the season. Festival du Nouveau Cinema (Festival of New Cinema, Oct. 7-18), dedicated to indie, digital and avant-garde films, will open with "Les Dames en Bleu" ("Ladies in Blue"), a biopic of French Canadian crooner Michel Louvain by Quebec director Claude Demers. Cinemania (Nov. 5-15), quintessentially Montreal, is the world's only festival dedicated to French films subtitled in English; "Lorna's Silence," the Dardenne brothers' latest, had its world premiere here. And the second annual Festival du Film Bresilien de Montreal (Brazilian Film Festival of Montreal, Dec. 5-11) will bring never-screened-in-Canada Brazilian flicks to the downtown art house Cinema du Parc.

Along with rarefied cultural offerings, colder weather means rock-bottom rates at car-rental counters and downtown hotels. But I urge friends to seek out smaller, independent properties that provide a sense of place. It's the same reason I stay at an inn near the Castro, not Union Square, when I'm in San Francisco.

A brand-new standout: Le Petit Hotel, a converted leather tannery tucked into Old Montreal's Rue St. Paul, whose 24 stone-walled rooms -- size "S" to "XL" -- exude charm and cool, with stylish contemporary furniture and amenities such as chichi Elchim blow-dryers. The top-floor XL feels like a hip friend's loft; it's now my favorite room in the city. A cafe, spa and bistro are coming soon, manager Patrick Huynh told me.

Nearby, you'll find a budding restaurant row on Rue McGill, along Old Montreal's western edge. Newish places such as gargantuan bistro Holder, all-white food boutique Le Cartet and cool, calm Boris Bistro -- all within a couple of blocks of one another -- draw execs from Montreal's thriving multimedia businesses by day, post-work revelers at night.

Where to eat, by the way, is the question I get most often about Montreal. The city has the most restaurants per capita in Canada, but also more tourist traps. For authenticity, I send friends to casual-chic French-Mediterranean power-dining spot Leméac in fashionable Outremont, north of downtown. Think Montreal's version of Cafe Milano or Bistro Bis. Quebec Premier Jean Charest is a regular, along with local TV celeb Julie Snyder and Francophone screen idol Patrick Huard. Floor-to-ceiling windows make it people-watching central.

Finally, if you're hunting for souvenirs: Put down that maple syrup bottle, back away slowly and head for the tony Westmount district, home of James Perse's first shop outside the United States. The coolest Montreal memento I've ever seen is its limited-edition T-shirt, about $45, with Montreal neighborhood names emblazoned on the back in Perse's signature sans-serif typeface. The pricey beach-fantasy label designs a local-themed tee wherever it opens a store. Another exclusive: Long-sleeved, butter-soft black or white cotton tees with a contrasting maple-leaf print, also about $45.

Next door, at upscale kitsch emporium Ben et Tournesol, you'll find more cool take-homes such as charm bracelets from local jewelry designer Karine Peillon for about $45 and the hard-to-find vegan Samsara bag line from Montreal darlings Matt & Nat, from around $100.

And about the city's notorious weather: Maybe it's the genes, but I really think it doesn't get seriously bad until January. Until then, you can take advantage of a few months when Montreal shrugs off the tourist guise and reveals its real soul.

Michael Kaminer is a New York writer.

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