Road Trip! Destination: Montreal
If you need a vacation that’s really different — like “foreign country” different — but don’t have the time or money or wherewithal to cross an ocean, your best option is Montreal.
It’s a pretty great option, too. Sure, Toronto is closer, and, technically, in a foreign country, but it can feel like a calm, polite Canadian version of Chicago, at times. Montreal, however, can never be mistaken for anything but Montreal. In no time at all, you’re aware of the difference, and not just because everyone’s suddenly speaking French. Montreal is like a major European capital city, complete with a unique and fascinating local culture that somehow got lost at sea and floated up the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Montreal is a big city, with a metro area of 3.8 million people — an odd mix of diverse, cosmopolitan hub and provincial, inward-looking cultural cul-de-sac, proudly out of step with the rest of Canada.
It’s got a unique cuisine, a performing-arts tradition somehow both weird and accessible to create Cirque du Soleil, and a music scene vital enough to spawn Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In the warm months (which go by fast), it seems like there’s a festival going on every week.
Best of all, that high-school French that you may or may not remember is very useful here. It’s not necessary — pretty much everyone is bilingual (at least), another reason you may think you’re somehow in Europe. But they like it when you at least try to speak French, and don’t get offended if you bungle it somehow. They’re Canadians, after all.
Old Montreal/Old Port
Wait, are we suddenly on the coast of France? Montreal suffered its share of urban-renewal disasters, starting in the ’50s, like just about every other North American city. But a very large part of the old city preserves much of Montreal’s dignified character, some of which dates to the 17th century. Narrow brick lanes and Victorian-era commercial buildings (now filled with cafes, art galleries and chocolate shops) are dominated by the massive, domed Marche Bonsecours (1847), which is full of made-in-Quebec food, clothing and jewelry — an obvious place to start.
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
From June 26 to July 6, Montreal is host to one of the best music festivals in North America. Now in its 35th year, the “jazz” part is a bit misleading. There’s plenty of it, like Canadian torch singer Diana Krall and piano legend Keith Jarrett, but jazz is just a part of it.
This year, there’s hip-hop supergroup Deltron 3030, R&B crooner Maxwell, country legend Emmylou Harris, indie-rock singer-violin virtuoso Andrew Bird and plenty of people who need no description: Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Diana Ross, Elvis Costello, Earth Wind & Fire, Tony Bennett.
It’s held in venues all over the city. The most spectacular of these is outdoors in the Quartier des Spectacles, which can fit tens of thousands of spectators comfortably.
The Plateau/Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
Montreal is certainly big enough for more than one hip, artsy district. At this point, it may actually be trickier to find evidence of the city’s blue-collar industrial past.
The Plateau is the neighborhood that everybody knows, even if it’s quite gentrified by now, far from its working-class Quebecois beginnings. Now, it’s the most densely populated place in Canada — full of galleries, cafes, sleek clothing boutiques (watch out for that Canadian tax on clothes, though), coffee shops, bookstores, theaters and other signs of new-economy vitality, like video-game companies (such as Ubisoft). It’s known for brightly colored Victorian buildings, wrought-iron stairs and extremely diverse inhabitants and their foods.
You can get a good meal on almost every street corner, but the true taste of Montreal includes the smoked meats from Schwartz’s Deli (Charcuterie Hebraique du Montreal), an 80-year-old Jewish deli selling giant sandwiches overflowing with freshly-sliced, smoked, marinated-for-10-days meats.
Just For Laughs Festival
How does the biggest comedy festival in North America end up in a city where they speak a different language? Well, English may be the main language of stand-up, but humor is universal. Two million spectators, 1,700 performers from 19 countries, 1,200 free outdoor shows (theater, street art, clowning, etc.), and even the most jaded humor connoisseur can find something to laugh at, at the festival that runs July 9 to 28.
It’s almost fruitless naming the headliners, as just about everybody in comedy who’s still trying to reach the top (and some, like Don Rickles, Lewis Black, Ron White, Seth Rogen, who already have) will be there. The best strategy is to take some chances on lesser names or unknowns who seem interesting. This is where they come to get discovered, and many of them will be. Then again, if you get the chance to see Nick Offerman, Mike Birbiglia or the “Broad City” girls (Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson), you should probably take it.
Lots and lots of food
Montreal claims the largest number of restaurants (per capita) in North America, and a reputation for combining the culinary history of France, with the farm-and-field bounty of Canada, and a sort of je ne sais quoi all their own.
You can get Canada’s magnificent signature junk food poutine (cheese curds and gravy over French fries) anywhere, but Frite Alors (www.fritealors.com) is appropriately quick and cheap and in several locations, with 17 different sauces to dip your frites in.
For something a little higher-end, Joe Beef (www.joebeef.ca) is famous for its playful, unique takes on the freshest meats, produce and seafood available, and is beloved by the locals and celebrity chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain. Reservations are recommended.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.