An article on Montreal in Sunday's Travel section cited an air fare that is no longer available. The story should have said that nonstop, advance-purchase fares from Washington to Montreal start at about $337, with cheaper fares available from consolidators and Internet discounters. (Published 01/25/2000)
Several summers ago, a friend and I drove to Quebec and spent three wonderful days strolling through Montreal. Charmed by our memories of the city--lush, green, European--I thought of it again when I found a few days' vacation last month. With off-season air fares so reasonable, and the U.S. dollar so strong, Montreal would be an easy yet exotic getaway that wouldn't destroy my budget.
Even so, as I packed, I began to wonder about the weather. Confirming my reservation with our B&B host the night before my flight, I asked about the current temperature. "Well," he said, a little evasively, "lately it's been mild, but the weather is supposed to get colder this week." A little colder for whom?
Winter in Montreal creeps up in October and lingers into April, wrapping the city in temperatures that hover in the teens and single digits, driving natives into an underground labyrinth of stores and restaurants connected by footpaths and metro stations. The upside is that the city, swarmed by visitors in the late spring and summer months, opens with possibility for the off-season tourist.
Our first day in Montreal, I dressed, foolishly, as though for a Washington winter day: thin sweater, jacket, gloves in pocket, hat in backpack. As I walked up the Rue St. Denis, the wind whipped through my mild-weather wear. Within 15 minutes of setting out, I began a quest for long underwear, stopping into the seemingly ubiquitous outdoors stores, looking for a propylene shirt to layer under my underweight wool. My friend Ian and I became instant fans of the warm boutiques with their piles of gorgeous winter wear, deep cashmeres and merino wools, more turtleneck sweaters than I have ever seen assembled before. I began to crave heavy wool pants, thick fleeces.
But the cold--ranging from a comfortable 25 down to the severe single digits--did more than just fuel a shopping excursion, it seemed to make people more friendly. Bundled, rolling down the street wrapped in all the clothes I had with me, I garnered smiles from passersby. When we stumbled, relieved, into a shop or cafe, proprietors would nod appreciatively at my ruddy cheeks and reddened nose, striking up conversation, happily discussing their chilly city as I peeled off my outer layers. We were all in it together, this crazy thing, winter.
I finally found my long-underwear shirt in an outdoors store high on Rue St. Laurent. The clerk was eager to chat about skiing and camping, hiking, cross-country skiing and ice skating in and around the Montreal area. Montrealers, he explained, simply got used to the cold. In fact, every Wednesday night the store sponsored a ski trip to a nearby mountain. But, I asked, isn't it terribly cold at night? "Sure," he said, laughing, "sometimes close to 25 degrees Celsius--below zero that is," and turned to talk to another customer, this time in fluent, accentless French.
Once I got used to the layering system (tights, long underwear, jeans, turtleneck, thin sweater, heavier sweater, coat) walking wasn't so bad at all. It made my forays into cafes and coffeehouses all the sweeter--warming up with a cup of coffee, chatting, as often as not, with a waiter curious about tourists from the States arriving off-season.
In one cafe, opposite a glorious new French theater on St. Laurent, slow business made for a political conversation. It started innocently enough. "Why," I asked the barrista, "aren't there any movies at the theater with English subtitles? Isn't that a fairly strong political statement?" "Not political," he replied, smiling. "Artistic." He pulled up a chair, adjusted his glasses and joined our table, telling us about growing up in the French Canadian countryside. Happy to have learned English (more fluently than many we encountered), our waiter moved to Montreal to be a part of a more cosmopolitan culture. A strong supporter of French language laws, he defended their necessity in light of an endangered French Canadian culture.
English Canadians weren't as sure. Karen, a Toronto native staying at our B&B, exploded when she heard that. "People are thrown in jail for not having French signs on their stores!" she exclaimed, as we sat over French fries at Schwartz's deli. "Mom-and-pop shops that have been around for decades! That have always spoken English!"
But if the city clashes over language, schools and street signs, its citizens appear to bond over the universal language of food. Buoyed by our suddenly overvalued native currency--$1 American purchases about $1.45 Canadian, and prices are listed in dollars that look no different from home--we upgraded on some meals and took advantage of the savings on others. At Cali, a Vietnamese restaurant in the heart of Montreal's tiny Chinatown, a delicious bowl of steaming hot beef or vegetable pho was less than the price of a latte in the States. We tried a different restaurant each night, taking advantage of the cosmopolitan mix offered (French, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek, Jewish and Italian), from the cheap to the lavish.
When the tall buildings of modern, downtown Montreal began to look like other North American cities, we visited Vieux Montreal. The old city is composed of numerous interesting buildings and eateries (as well as hundreds of skippable tourist shops and an Imax theater). The 17th-century neighborhood is charmingly old-fashioned and walkable. The Basilica of Notre-Dame was built in 1672, but by the early 19th century it had become too small for its congregation. The building you can visit today was finished in the late 19th century and mimics the Catholic churches of Europe. Not far from Notre Dame is the Marche Bonsecours, an exhibition space filled with shops housed in the original City Hall built in the mid-19th century.
The people we met around the city were, of course, an international mix. Take, for instance, one Quebecois cabbie we met, who chattered away in French, English and Spanish and back again. He was married to a Dominican woman. The separatist movement was ridiculous, he told us. He was a Canadian. A French Canadian, to be sure, but a Canadian. Really, more than anything, he was a resident of the Western Hemisphere. To prove this point he put in a salsa tape, singing along loudly in off-key Spanish.
Then there were our B&B hosts, Bob and Mariko Finkelstein, an expatriate Bronx native and his Japanese-born wife. Bob came to Montreal as a tourist in 1974 and never left. "We just love it," he said in his still-heavy New York accent. Located on Square St. Louis, the Finkelsteins' small B&B is on a quiet side street steps from the main thoroughfare, Rue Sherbrooke, and the aforementioned St. Denis and St. Laurent. Bob administers a network of 50 rooms around the city. Ours included a full continental breakfast each morning, a shared bath and somewhat undesirable acoustics (the hall phone was right outside our door). But our hosts were gracious and eager to share their intimate knowledge of the city.
They were especially good at directing us toward the free and cheap activities around town. ("Buy a pack of eight bus tickets!" Bob said in his exclamatory way more than once. "You save 60 cents each trip!") It was he who told us that, on Wednesdays, the temporary exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts were open and half-price in the early evenings. It was a brilliant suggestion. Going to the museum at night was a treat (we saw an excellent, and extensive, exhibit on Mexican modern art), and we had the building to ourselves. The museum is split into two buildings (connected underground so you can leave your coat on either side). The original structure, the neoclassical Benaiah Gibb Pavilion, opened in 1912; its sister, the gorgeous, light-filled Jean-Noel Desmarais Pavilion, opened in 1991 and houses the majority of temporary exhibitions.
We visited the downtown network of museums more than once, trudging gamely down Rue Sherbrooke, trying to work off some of the food we kept eating. Once past McGill, we realized, there was no one on the street. A lone figure here and there darted into stores, or bus stations. But where was everyone else? We investigated, slipping into a door on Rue McGill, and discovered thousands of Montrealers, bustling about in a gigantic underground city filled with shops, restaurants, movie theaters: everything necessary to survive until the April thaw.
Sarah Wildman is a Washington writer.
DETAILS: Exploring Montreal in the Winter
GETTING THERE: Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) is offering an Internet special of $164 from Reagan National to Montreal.
WHERE TO STAY: The Tourisme Montreal Web site (see below) provides information on a variety of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We used the Downtown B&B Network (1-800-267-5180, www.bbmontreal.qc.ca), which administers 50 rooms around the city, ranging from basic (around $38 a night) to deluxe (approximately $69, close to the price of full-service hotels). At $45, our room (at 3458 Laval Ave.) included a continental breakfast and a shared bath. The enthusiasm of our hosts, coupled with the prime location on Square St. Louis, made for an excellent stay.
WHERE TO EAT:
* Il Sole (3627 Blvd. St. Laurent), with a Mediterranean-Italian menu, is warm, inviting and charmingly decorated, with warm yellow walls and soft lighting. The service was excellent, and our waiters had a good command of the extensive wine list. Entrees $8-$16.
* Cali, a small Vietnamese restaurant (1011 St. Laurent), has savory, cheap ($3.50) entrees. No English spoken.
* Schwartz's (3895 St. Laurent) is a Jewish deli with a French twist: Its surly service and smoked meat sandwich was touted by nearly everyone we encountered.
* Caf'Etc (68 Fairmount West), a four-table eatery, offers gourmet dishes at around $4 for an entree, $1-$2 for appetizers.
* Laika (4040 Blvd. St. Laurent), a coffeehouse/bar with light snacks, has a friendly, if smoky, atmosphere.
WHAT TO DO:
* Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke St. W., 514-285-2000, www.mbam.qc.ca). Metro: Peel or Guy-Concordia.
* Museum of Contemporary Art (185 Sainte-Catherine St. W., 514-847-6226, http://media.macm.qc.ca). Metro: Place des Arts.
* McCord Museum of Canadian History (690 Sherbrooke St., 514-398-7100, www.musee-mccord.qc.ca). Metro: McGill.
* Biodome (4777 Pierre-De-Coubertin Ave., 514-868-3000, www.ville.montreal.qc.ca /biodome/bdm.htm). An "environmental museum" housing four ecospheres, from the tropics to the arctic.
INFORMATION: Tourisme Montreal, 514- 844-5400, www.tourism-montreal.org. Old Montreal also has a Web site, www.old.montreal.qc.ca.