The One With a Weekend in Montreal

It’s a lazy Sunday in September and we are 3 full days into Fall (I’m just about getting used to this North American lingo at this point.) The leaves are definitely starting to change now, and there’s a slight chill in the air that threatens a new cold front.

That being said we’ve had a couple of beautiful sunny days this week, which has meant a fair amount of sitting outside around on campus soaking up the vitamin D while I still can. Classes have been cool, from the obligatory Brit-bashing crash courses on colonialism in my Indigenous studies class, to lectures on the development of 19th century psychiatry and asylums in my Medicine and Modernity course. I celebrated my month anniversary of being here in Canada with a Birthday Cake themed ice cream from my fave shop, and finally bought all those random useful things I’ve been meaning to get for a while (wash basin, nails to hang up my mirror, stamps, etc.) I’ve Skyped family and friends and managed to keep the homesick moments to a minimum. Most importantly, I had a private meeting with the basketball coach about the year ahead and I honestly feel so much better about the whole thing. He took a lot of pressure off while also giving me a much needed confidence boost about my ability as well. And then, to end the week I got to watch our first pre-season game win against a very strong cegep side from Montreal, and headed home to co-host with Natalie our first flat party (90s themed) – during which I heard that my good friend from home had given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy!

All in all, it’s been a pretty busy and pretty good week.

Which was appropriate, as it followed a pretty fantastic weekend.

Montreal was always on the ‘must-see’ list, and, being well aware of the unsociable nature of Canadian winter, Emily and I were keen to get up there as soon as possible in the semester. So we took the plunge and booked two nights in a hostel and our Greyhound tickets just two weeks in advance (which I think might be the height of spontaneity for us.)

So come Friday afternoon we power-walked along the river to the bus station directly after Emily’s last class of the day, and hopped on the same bus as one of Emily’s flatmates who was going to see her family for the weekend. Turning off onto the highway with the road ahead of us I experienced a very distinct thrill of ‘holy cow, this is the year abroad adventuring I always imagined doing.’ The quote “I remember the days I used to dream of all the things I have now” has never been more relevant in my life, and on the down days I make sure to try and remember it. Even for the hard times, it’s worth it, to be here and doing so many awesome and incredible things.

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Our first evening in Montreal was wonderful. After a perfectly pleasant bus journey (Emily and I caught up on a lot, to the extent that when the bus stopped the driver turned round and said, “had time to chat did you?” in slightly pained sarcasm, while the lady who’d sat behind us piped up, “non-stop, the entire way.” Opps) – we were thrown into the metro system (currently under construction, gotta love Canadian summers) with no idea what we were doing. Thank goodness for Theresa, Emily’s flatmate, who is a Montreal native and was incredibly generous in giving up her time and showing us where to go. We bought a $13 weekend metro ticket that we definitely got our money’s worth for, and headed to the hostel to dump our stuff. From there, we wandered into downtown and through McGill’s campus to Emily’s vegetarian restaurant find – Lola Rose.

And what a find. By the time we hit dessert there was a queue down the street waiting to get into the very small restaurant, and I could totally understand why. The food was gorgeous, (I had an incredible sweet potato curry but the nachos looked out of this world), the atmosphere distinctly ‘Friday night freedom’ and the restaurant itself adorable. About halfway through our meal Emily accidently caught her sleeve on tiny draw situated in our table, and we each opened ours to find them full to bursting with hand-drawn letters, notes and drawings on scraps of paper or old receipts. They were fascinating and heart-warming and hilarious and the very human nature of them honestly was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

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Stuffed full of veggie goodness we hopped onto the Metro again, this time with Mont-Royal’s Park lookout in mind. I was pretty tired at this point after a long week, and it wasn’t the simplest of journeys, so I honestly don’t think we would have made it without Theresa leading us the entire way on and off metros and buses. But the view was so so worth it. A beautiful balmy evening and the city lights of Montreal stretching out beneath us. Not even the weird guy dressed as Jesus who really, really wanted me to take a photo with him could mess with my evening. It was honestly one of my highlights of Canada so far.

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But to the rest of the weekend. With my awful rambling habits we could easily be here for 3,000+ words, so I’ll break it down.

Things We Done Did

  • St Catherine’s Street. The shopping street in Montreal, we really enjoyed just walking all the way along it into the old town! More of your modern commercial shops, but with Montreal’s iconic outdoor steps architecture thrown in too.
  • Churches. We must have popped into at least three churches in and around the centre and they were all a lovely momentary escape from the bustle of the city streets. I generally make a habit of nipping into religious buildings; there’s always something to see. In one we even found a plaque dedicated to the bombing of Coventry cathedral in WW2, with two nails in a cross from the original building. It’s a funny, small world sometimes.
  • Notre Dame. Wow. The jaws literally did drop. This is one stunning altar. And ceiling. And just church in general. Only $5 with a free guide as well if you fancy and definitely, definitely worth it. Make sure to pop into the Wedding Chapel at the back too!
  • Rue Saint-Paul. The oldest street in Montreal and now slightly touristified, we had a great time looking into restaurants, wandering around the Indigenous Art Gallery and buying some truly terrible shot glasses in those awful tourist shops that I LOVE. It’s definitely one of the most French-feeling places in the city, with all the old buildings and cobbled roads.
  • Place Jacques-Cartier. The centre of the old town really, with lots of (pricey) outdoor eateries, street performers and greenery in front of the town hall. We had an incredible ice cream from the Ben and Jerry’s shop here and took some lovely photos and that was enough for us!
  • World Press Photo Exhibition. This was in a gallery in Marche Bonsecours, an old shopping walkway and obviously isn’t there all year round as exhibition travels around the world. It’s an ambition of mine to make the most of more seasonal events and exhibitions in cities I visit as opposed to just plodding through the Tripadvisor top 10, and this was definitely a worthwhile visit. We popped in as the rain started early evening Saturday, and in the midst of all this privilege and travelling it was very humbling to be reminded of what’s really going on in the world through some truly stunning photos.
  • The Botanical Gardens. Definitely a warm weather activity, but these gardens were so beautiful! Emily and I both loved just wandering through the different styles of garden, the Japanese and Chinese ones especially were stunning. In the summer months there is a the Jardin de Lumieres show, where the Chinese garden is lit up at night but unfortunately we couldn’t go due to bad weather. There’s galleries and a cool insectarium too if bugs are your thing.
  • The Olympic Stadium. A pretty iconic building over near the botanical gardens, now the stadium is mostly deserted and has a very cool (and slightly creepy) dystopian feel to it. Peering through 70s tinted glass into the entrance hall it looks like nothing has changed, with chairs and bars and turnstiles left exactly as they were when the olympics hit. Apparently you can travel up to the top of the weird leaning tower holding the roof up, but we didn’t get round to this.
  • Pointe-à-Callière Museum (or the Museum of Archeology). Right in the old town and practically on the water this museum is definitely a must-see for history students.
  • Latin Quarter. We didn’t get to spend long here as we were literally on our way out of town and needing something to eat near the bus station, but I would love to visit it properly! There were so many outdoor eating places and just generally a really nice, hipster-ish vibe.

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Hostel Vibes

  • Auberge L’Appero. Okay, so our hostel experience wasn’t bad exactly. I think it was more a case of getting exactly what we paid for i.e. not a lot. The wifi was terrible, we didn’t have personal lights, the whole place smelt like feet and was above a dodgy Chinese, the kitchen was a tip and the reception staff were never there. But, it was the cheapest place in town and in a great location so. Plus, the free breakfast (never say no to cereal) and the huge lockable lockers were definitely appreciated. Such are the highs and lows of hostel life – and honestly, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Food Recommendations

  • Restaurant Jardin Botanique – Honestly one of our highlight meals; nutritious, tasty, and fab value! It’s a simple cantine style of sandwiches, soups and some hot meal options but the quality was fantastic. Very reminiscent of a National Trust style restaurant if I’m honest, with beautiful garden views to boot.
  • Café des Arts – Set in the ground floor of Marche Bonsecours it’s about as cheap and wholesome as you’re going to get in the middle of Old Montreal! I had a fab pear, walnut and brie panini as a quick lunch.
  • Paris Crêpes – It was near to our hostel so we made the trip, and proper Nutella crepes were a wonderful way to start our weekend proper. Especially as we ate upstairs with the windows fully open as though we were on a balcony.
  • Lola Rosa cafe. SO GOOD. Just go. Veggie or not it was superb food and a super cool atmosphere.
  • Bonny’s. Very good veggie food but it is a bit further out of town and I’m not sure it’s necessarily worth the trek, so maybe only bother if you find yourself nearby.
  • Resto Vego. Our final meal, Resto is an amazing vegetarian and desert buffet. The options and food itself was incredible – the price, less so. It’s costed by the weight, so make sure to check your plate halfway through before you really load it up.
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In my happy place in Paris Crêpes

Top Tips

  • Mont-Royal Lookout: you just gotta. It’s the best view of the city and although I didn’t get to see it in the day I would have loved to – go for your night shots and a good weather hike!
  • Don’t let yourself get caught up in the idea that the only things ‘worth seeing’ in Montreal is the old town and the port. If I’m being brutally honest as a European these aspects of our trip were not exactly as mind-blowing as I think they might be for North Americans, and we possibly enjoyed ourselves more downtown and a bit further out.
  • Really consider the weekend $13 Metro ticket. We must have spent close to triple or quadruple that on our journeys, so definitely a good deal.

As cool as Montreal was though, both Emily and I agreed it also reconfirmed that Ottawa was becoming home. We missed it a little, the walkability, knowing where we were and just looking for the tip of the Peace Tower if we weren’t as an orientation, the bilingualism as opposed to just French, the compact capital city vibe.

If anything this past week I think I’ve really started to genuinely appreciate the city. I’m writing this having just come in from a walk around Strathcona park, in which I passed a group of ladies painting the river, and a small play park with children shouting ‘slide!’ and ‘glissez!’. On a rainy Thursday evening, Emily, Theresa and I went to a tiny veggie restaurant in Sandy Hill, where you had to take your shoes off, a little old lady served two types of indian curry buffet-style apparently the sole employee, and after banana cake for dessert we paid just $5 each as students. Climbing the Social Sciences building to the 14th floor, I found an empty classroom with incredible views over downtown where I could work in blissful silence for nearly 2 hours and look out over the city and surrounding countryside, as far as the eye could see.

Sure Ottawa isn’t as big or brash as Montreal; but it’s home now, and that means a helluva lot.

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