Northern Exposure – A Trip to Montreal

WHEN MATT NEWBURY WENT TO MONTREAL IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

It’s easy to fall in love with a place when you go on holiday and decide while mellowed by the local tipple that you’d like to live there. After all, you’re not working, you’ve got plenty of money in your pocket, your days and nights are filled with unadulterated pleasure and everyone is being nice to you… mainly because they are expecting a tip.

But I did fall head over heels for Montreal and since returning to the UK I’ve been researching everything from work visas and immigration to work prospects and rental properties. And apparently this isn’t an unusual reaction. Tanya Christchurch from Tourisme Montréal told me that she often has journalists expressing similar sentiments and every year a handful move to her beautiful city.

My affair with the city begins when I arrive at The Gault, a luxurious boutique hotel in located in Old Montreal’s booming west end. Influenced by the Haussmann architecture of contemporary Paris, the landmark building houses 30 spacious loft-style suites that are minimalist, tasteful, comfortable and stylish. Our room also boasts vast French windows flooding the room with light, a ridiculously comfortable bed and a very funky bathroom complete with a heated floor.

More importantly there’s a bottle of ice cider (the apples were squeezed when frozen) and a fruit plate waiting for us, as we have booked through the Preferred Pride Group. This is basically a worldwide collection of hotels and resorts that are either TAG-certified or a member of the IGLTA. This means that not only are you welcome as a gay traveller, you’ll also get a welcome treat as well.

street-view
After a delicious chocolate brioche and coffee in the legendary Olive et Gourmando café (351 Rue Saint Paul Ouest, oliveetgourmando.com) around the corner for breakfast, we meet up with our quite wonderful tour guide, Ruby Roy. As we begin the tour in Montreal’s historic quarter we learn that the city isn’t really French, because more than 100 nationalities help create the rich cultural patchwork of the city.

We also discover that the island city is divided into a series of diverse neighbourhoods (recognisable as each area has its own unique lampposts), each possessing their own butcher’s, cheese shop, bakery and a selection of independent boutiques, as well as a healthy number of residential properties. I love the typical Montreal houses, with staircases on the outside and charming leafy balconies.

monreal-stone-faces

Apparently most people rent in the city and we learn that Canada Day (1 July) is also known as Moving Day. Basically most leases are a year long and run from 1 July. As only 36% of residents own their own home, and people in the city like to move around a lot, each year around 225,000 households move on this day. As quirky and chaotic ideas go, this one is hard to beat.

Our tour takes us from the cobbles of Place d’Armes and the Gothic spires of Notre-Dame Basilica Cathedral (where Celine Dion got married) through various neighbourhoods. Along the way Ruby shares a few bits of trivia about the locals. You’ll never catch them drinking a takeaway coffee in the street… they take the time to sit in cafés. And you won’t catch most locals driving. “People use BMW to get around. That’s Bike, Metro and Walk!”

Some of her other insider titbits really start selling the city to me. Apparently people never work after 5pm. And if the weather is nice on a Friday, people will even start the weekend early at 2pm. And forget paying for expensive drinks in restaurants. There are more than 500 BYO establishments in the city. Now, how civilised is that!

motreal-sunset-skyscrapers

Just when I think that things can’t get any better, we pass a park where people are tango dancing under the trees. I am amazed to discover that outside of Argentina, Montreal is the tango capital of the world and that free dance lessons are provided in parks throughout the summer. It’s a hint at the city’s amazing passion for the arts, which sees free classes in various artistic pursuits offered across the city, as well as free gallery spaces for people to display their work.

As the home town of both Cirque du Soleil and Arcade Fire, Montreal boasts a thriving creative class, very much supported by the government. There are a staggering 250 theatre and dance companies in the city, as well as over 90 festivals each year including the Montreal Jazz Festival, Just For Laughs and a gay Pride that attracts around 300,000 participants each year.

Thanks to a groundbreaking public arts policy there are around 300 public works of art spread across the whole island, including 75 that are integrated into architecture. Remarkably any new build in the city must give the equivalent of 5% of the cost of the building to public art, which is an amazing idea that would be brilliant to introduce into the UK.

After all this food for thought, it’s time for some proper food. The city has got to be the cuisine capital of North America boasting everything from patisseries to food markets and sidewalk cafés to 80-year-old Jewish delis selling the best bagels on the planet. We stopped for a delicious lunch at Café Sardine (9 Fairmount Est, cafesardine.com) before continuing on a tour around the surrounding Mile-End Neighbourhood.

The area is a magnet for creative types and definitely where I’ll try and find somewhere to live if I do eventually make the move – and I can afford it. The super cool neighbourhood is packed with fun and funky shops, trendy bars and cafés, walls covered in street art and is a hot bed of creative talent attracting musicians, photographers, painters, filmmakers and animators.

dj-montreal

In the evening we decided to check out the Village, which is North America’s largest gay and lesbian enclave. It runs along the length of rue Ste-Catherine and in the summer months is pedestrian-only for the entire summer. Bars and restaurants build ad-hoc terraces into the street, giving the whole area a summer-resort atmosphere. Again something that would be wonderful in some of our UK gay villages…

We are not in the city over a weekend when clubs like Unity (1 Ste-Catherine Est, clubunitymontreal.com) and Apollo (apollonmtl.com) are at their decadent best, so instead opt for a bar crawl finishing at Cabaret Chez Mado (10181 Boulevard Pie-IX,, mado.qc.ca ). The venue is modelled after its iconic owner, the fabulous Mado Lamothe and we arrive at the start of their drag idol competition. Things that we learn on the night: a) there are a lot of fit men in Montreal; and b) drag acts perform in French and I really need to revise my GCSE listening comprehension to have a clue what is going on.

My partner’s biggest reservations about moving to the city are the cold winters. However even this shouldn’t be a problem. The city has a famous underground city, a staggeringly large network of corridors, tunnels and plazas, which mean you can arrive at the train station, check into a hotel, shop and eat for days (there are over 1,000 retailers and eateries in or connected to the network) all without seeing a single flake of snow.
build-architecture
Personally I would rather embrace the winter. Our guide Ruby tells us that the locals have learned to make the best of the cold, watching ice hockey, skiing in the surrounding resorts, tobogganing in Parc du Mont-Royal and building ice hotels by the St Lawrence River. I especially like the sound of Igloofest (igloofest.ca), which is held over four weekends each winter and involves 10,000 party animals, dressed up in the most retro bad taste ski suits they can find and dancing in the snow.

We are only in the city for 48 hours, but it has left a real lasting impression on me. It’s a place that really seems to care about the happiness and quality of life of the people living there. It’s also a beautiful looking city that celebrates diversity and the richness of colours, sounds and flavours this can bring to a community. Best of all, everyone we meet seems to love where they live and are really passionate about sharing why the city is so special.

Right I’m off to start my French lessons and who knows, maybe one day in the near future I’ll be Pride Life’s Man in Canada!