My wife Carla is an ardent motor racing fan. When we attended the Grand Prix of Monaco on our honeymoon, it was one of the highlights of the trip. Our fifth anniversary coincided with another race in a city we hadn’t seen for some time and which was much closer to home. This year’s race gave us the opportunity to visit Montreal.
Montreal is situated on a large island (and several smaller ones) in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. It is connected by a network of giant bridges, as well as tunnels and subway lines. Just 37 Miles north of Lake Champlain in New York State, it’s a reasonable day's drive from Toronto (344 mi.), Boston (310 mi.) or New York City (382 mi.).
By air, the traveler will arrive at one of Montreal's two airports, Dorval or Mirabel. Dorval is the closest (about a twenty minute cab from downtown) while Mirabel is a good fifty minute cab ride away. Via Rail passenger trains run on a regular schedule and Central Station, in the heart of Montreal, is a hub of passenger traffic.
We chose to drive, traveling along the north shore of Lake Ontario, a fast trip on Highway 401, passing pleasant farmlands noted for cheese production. After crossing from Ontario into Quebec, we stopped at one of the many Tourist information kiosks and found the information officer we spoke with to be friendly, well informed and exceedingly helpful.
We were provided with a free map of the Montreal area, the city itself, and a detailed map of the "old city"... as well as transit stops, and historical sites of interest. She outlined a fool-proof route to get us through the city’s rush hour to our hotel and armed us with booklets of tourist information. These included special events being held in conjunction with the Grand Prix. On a parting note she asked who we would be cheering for. When I said “Jacques” (Villeneuve, a Montreal native) she of course beamed her approval and wished us “bon voyage”.
Back on the road we wove through the knots of freeways and overpasses to arrive at our hotel relatively unscathed. As in Europe, Montrealers like to drive fast and aggressively and the “French-Only” road signs can make it a little tense for anglophones trying to decipher the on and off ramps “on the fly.” We were very thankful we had stopped for directions.
Our reservations were at the Ramada-Longueuil Hotel, in the suburb of Longeuil -- (pronounced Long-Gay). We chose it because of its proximity to public transit, and the race track. This Ramada is a comfortable 208 room hotel standing just across the river from downtown Montreal and commanding a view of the river as well as the city lights and the weave of bridges and elevated autoroutes that twist in and around the city. The hotel itself is moderately priced (Double Room: $92.50 Cdn./about $65 US) and offers such amenities as a pool, sauna, rooftop terrace, easy parking and generally speaking "few surprises" either good or bad.
The Ramada-Longueuil was fine for our purposes, due particularly to its locatcation. If you're looking for something with a little more romantic character, I would recommend L'Hotel de la Montagnes right downtown. This hotel has been converted from an elegant, century-old apartment building and still retains the charm of wrought iron and dark woodwork throughout.
All the suites are furnished with antiques and reproductions that nicely compliment the character of the hotel itself, adding to the romantic ambience. Not opulent but rich in the style of turn-of-the-century Montreal. (Double Rooms run $100-$200 Cdn./$65 - $130 US)
Montreal’s subway system "The Metro" can be described in one word -- Fantastic! -- and without a doubt the only way to get around in Montreal. With four lines that criss-cross the downtown core, it is extremely efficient, clean and (by all appearances) safe. Riding on rubber tires, the cars are smooth, quiet and comfortable. Six tickets will cost $7.75 Cdn (about $5 US) and well worth it. You can even buy an unlimited, three-day tourist pass for $12 Cdn ($9 US). How can you beat that?
Since we arrived in Montreal in the early evening, we headed right for the Grand Prix festivities. Grabbing the “Metro” which is right outside the door of the Ramada Longueuil, we made it all the way to the heart of downtown in ten minutes.
The two city blocks in front of Place des Arts (the city’s concert and theatre complex) were turned into a huge street-party with a full stage set up at one end and video screens for those who preferred a little distance between themselves and the (very orderly) mosh pit in front of the stage. A number of beer tents were providing fuel for the revelers who were throbbing en masse to a full marquee of French and English-Canadian as well as American talent.
During the three nights of the Grand Prix, the entire city was treated to the these free concerts featuring Little Richard, The Spin Doctors, The Presidents of the United States, Ashley McIssacs and more. The crowd represented a broad cross-section of young and old and was, of course, this being Montreal, remarkably well behaved.
First thing the next morning we jumped back on The Metro for the three-minute ride to the racetrack, (just one stop along the line), on the island of St. Helene. From there it’s a fifteen minute walk over a bridge to the track itself which encircles the island of Notre Dame.
The sun blazed down as twenty one comets blistered past us at more than 200 mph. Seven hundred horsepower strapped to a fiberglass shell, and held to earth by a few square inches of rubber -- with one human being defying physics. The French word for driver is "pilot" -- obviously for good reason.
Six hours of intense time trials later, and sharing our race fever with 30,000 other ardent fans, we ventured back to the heart of downtown Montreal. After all, the race was to be only part of the experience.
Our destination tonight was the Old City (“Vieux-Montreal”), where the history of the area comes to life in a restored section of this venerable old inland port city.
Montreal was originally an Indian village named Hochelega. In 1642, at the base of “Mount Royal,” named by the French adventurer Jacques Cartier, the original French settlers established the town of Ville-Marie. Three and a half centuries later, the once-simple fur trading port has burgeoned into the largest inland shipping-port in the world not to mention being the second largest French speaking city in the world.
Today, Monreal is a vibrant multi-cultural metropolis with significant populations of French, English, Italian, Greek, Chinese and Afro-American heritage. The city is a mosaic of numerous “quarters,” such as the Latin Quarter and the Chinese District where culinary diversity abounds -- but, as visitors to a French speaking city, we were interested in feeding our love of rich French cuisine, (“damn the colesterol, pass the heavy cream and hollondaise, please”).
The Old City’s museums, impressive architecture, parks and sites of historical significance make an on-foot search for a unique culinary experience a delightful, romantic quest. Evening, especially, amplfies the quaint character of these twisting narrow streets and lanes.
Block after block of 200 year old greystone buildings front a tight network of cobblestone streets and alleyways lit by pseudo gas-light lamps and filled with the aroma of exotic foods, harmonizing with the visual music of three hundred years of history. As we wandered through the dim narrow streets of the Old City we were far from alone. The sidewalks and pedestrian streets were filled with tourists and locals, all enjoying the rich aromas of cooking, mingled with the cool breezes off the river.
Creating casual entertainment, the street buskers are unique to Montreal. City-licensed jugglers, singers, and musicians are everywhere. As we strolled from one block to another, we moved gently from the strains of traditional French folk music, through South American acoustic rhythms and past the hip-hop and club music that filtered out to the street from the nightclubs. No wonder this city is the birthplace of the world-renouned Cirque du Soleil!
As we strolled through the pleasant evening air, growing shadows and the clatter of horse-drawn carriages known as "Caleches" painted deeper textures. We walked along streets that are framed by softly-lit stone buildings; housing for artists and craftspeople.
We removed ourselves from the tourist crush (and tourist prices) of the open air terraces lining Place Jacques Cartier and headed down a small side street that was particularly rich in the character of the old city. Here we came upon a small creperie that seemed perfect for our adventure in local cuisine.
This tiny establishment appropriately named "Aux Delices Du Vieux-Montreal" (“Delights of Old Montreal”) was tucked discretely into a marvelous old stone building. We read the menu posted outside. It announced their specialties of crepes and quiches but they also offered a fine selection of appetizers.
Inside the decor was simple, even plain and certainly not as quaint as the exterior, but we were greeted warmly by our waitress and invited into the small two room restaurant. Since the little place billed itself as a “creperie” that was what we would try.
We ordered a half-litre of house white wine which was a touch sweet for our taste, initially, but turned out to complement the crepes perfectly. (The menu offered a selection of authentic micro-brewed beers as well).
Carla decided on the “Laurentienne Crepe” (ham, cheese, asparagus and béchamel). I opted for the Poulet Supreme Crepe, with chicken, cheese and mushrooms, -- and it truly was Supreme! Large morcels of tender chicken tucked into two perfect crepes, blanketed with a generous layer of gruyere and other melted cheeses complimented by a rich, multi-flavored sauce.
Carla was equally impressed with her selection. By now the wine was providing a pleasing caress to the delicious meal. The portions were so generous and unexpectedly filling that we were left with no room for either salad or desert. A cup of coffee was all we could handle to complete the experience. Total bill: $29 Cdn or about $20 US. I recommend "Aux Delices" highly. The simple atmosphere is more than made up for by the food and the value.
After our dinner in the heart of the old city, we continued our romantic moonlit stroll. We crossed to the port and walked along the piers that run out into the river. The area is very safe and there are numerous other passers-by.
The piers are an excellent environment to roller-blade as well, and many do. The uncommon respect by the skaters for people on foot comes as a refreshing surprise. The pier is the actual home of Cirque du Soleil and a mecca for many.
Sated, contented and relaxed, we enjoyed the night with hundreds of strollers drifting through this warmly romantic environment... an environment where lovers of all ages wander hand-in-hand, unashamed of sharing a tender kiss in the soft, twinkling city lights that dance across the waters of the St. Lawrence.
But the hour was late and morning would come early for us. We boarded the Metro and in ten minutes we were back in our hotel on the opposite side of the river. We stood at our window and admired the fairyland of downtown lights among which we had just been strolling.
Race Day! We got up early and slipped into the crush of 100,000 spectators heading to the track. The Metro was jammed and we were thankful that we had only one stop to ride. As we exited the station the scalpers were screaming for tickets -- buying or selling, it didn't matter. Flags, hats, T-shirts were on sale everywhere (Formula One fans love their souvenirs). Race fans flying the flags of Canada, France, England, Germany, Italy -- wearing the colors of Ferarri, Benetton, Williams Rennault -- honoring the names of Damon Hill, Michael Schummacher, and of course Jacques Villeneuve. This was like some New Millennium homage to the ancient sport of kings. The knights mounted their exotic low-slung steeds, the owner-princes shared the spoils of their position, as we commoners thirsted for the thrill and challenge of the contest.
During the deafening hours that followed, there were plenty non-injury spills and chills. Favorite Jaques Villeneuve fought hard but came in second. The race finally over, the “pilots” soaked by sweat and the obligatory shower of chapagne, the fans began steaming back to the metro. We remained on the island for an hour or so, enjoying the sun and watching the exodus. By the time we reached the station we were happy that the return to our hotel was only a one-stop subway ride.
Our room overlooked the river and the old site of Expo 67. That evening, we had a perfect view of the “Symphony of Fire”, an annual international fireworks competition, choreographed to music. It was spectacular, and the Ramada-Longueuil provided a panoramic view -- A fitting close to three days of thrills.
A thought crossed Carla’s mind as we stood watching the blazing star-shells shatter in the velvet night-sky and cascade toward the shimmering river: “Only three hundred and sixty one days to the 1997 Grand Prix of Montreal,” she murmered.
GRAND PRIX MOLSON DU CANADA
Succ. Place des Armes
Montrel, Quebec H2Y 3G7
(the above URL is the tourist board, the Grand Prix URL has a shot of the race).
999 de Serigny
Longueuil, Quebec J4K 2T1
L’HOTEL DE LA MONTAGNE
1430 de la Montagne
AUX DELICES DU VIEUX-MONTREAL
3 St. Paul E.
VIA Rail Passenger train Home Page: http://www.mcs.net/~dsdawdy/Canpass/via/via.html
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