Fun has a French accent in Montreal

Forget what you think you know about Montreal, that laid-back, European-feeling city within a day's drive of just about any urban center in the northeastern United States.

The real Montreal, as I found during a weekend visit, values tolerance – between French and English, native and tourist, worker and student.

Montrealers are a cheerful lot, happy to greet American tourists, happy for any reason to go out in their short May to September summer season.

The other eight months, much of Montreal lives underground, in the city's famous network of shopping malls, entertainment centers, subways, and apartment complexes.

If your stay in this city is going to be brief – perhaps just a weekend – a good place to start is at one of the many food markets.

One of the largest, the downtown Faubourg Market on rue Ste-Catherine is like a food court on several stories.

It offers everything from special thin Montreal bagels with local cream cheese to Mexican food.

The Atwater Market, one of the city's oldest, is alive with flowers any day of the week. Inside, bakeries fill the air with the smell of sweet pastries. But don't overlook the pâtés of veal or beef – a throwback to the hardy breakfasts of Montreal's dockworkers and lumberjacks.

After filling up, the best way to get an overview of the city – Canada's second largest – is from the riverfront. The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to turn an abandoned industrial area into a green space for locals and tourists to walk.

The Lachine locks – so named because early St. Lawrence explorers were looking for a waterway to China – have recently been restored for pleasure boats to use (and tourists to watch). It's also the site of the popular 7-mile-long Lachine Canal bike path.

While you're on the river, get your bearings: See where Montreal's permanent attractions are and how they relate to one another by taking a ride on the Bateau Mouche.

This flat-bottomed boat is the only thing bigger than a motorized dinghy that can ply the "non-navigable" waters of the St. Lawrence. The city sprang up here because big ships could travel no farther upstream before the Lachine locks were built in the early 1800s.

Going under one bridge, the water level drops four feet as it races around the bridge pilings. The triple-engine, 1,200 horsepower boat makes almost imperceptible headway upstream.

From here, the city has a fascinating skyline, which includes Mont Réal, the mountain after which the city was named. City laws prohibit any skyscraper from being taller than the summit – 764 feet above sea level.

Don't miss the famous Biosphère, Buckminster Fuller's giant geodesic dome built as the US pavilion for the World Expo in 1967. Also interesting architecturally is Habitat 67, an apartment complex of randomly overlapping blocks like Legos, built by architect Moshe Safdie for the 1967 Expo.

The skyline also includes the 350-year-old buildings of the walled city and several industrial monoliths, including a defunct grain elevator and a cold-storage warehouse being converted to condominiums. You'll also see the Montreal Tower, which looms like a giant praying mantis over the stadium in Olympic Park.

Finally, along the river, are the Formula One racetrack named for native son Gilles Villeneuve,;and iSci, Montreal's state-of-the-art science center.

So many choices and so little time. Take another look at the skyline and decide what to see during your brief stay.

One great way to see the sights close-up – and like a native – is by bicycle. Maison des Cyclistes provides brand-new 24-speedmountain-bike hybrids, complete with water bottle, lock, helmet, back rack, and sometimes a front basket.

Montreal has more than 250 miles of bike trails, and many residents don't own cars, so getting around – and finding a place to leave the bike – is easy.

After a ride, it won't be hard to find some French cuisine. There are more than 4,500 eateries in Montreal.

Two areas worth checking out are the trendy Plateau neighborhood and the up-and-coming Maisonneuve. Both feature a variety of small restaurants that serve traditional French fare at very reasonable prices.

For dinner, head to the old city. There, elegant people cruise in fancy cars down cobblestoned streets – mostly looking for parking. And partygoers dressed to the nines line up down the sidewalk for admission to trendy jazz and dance clubs or fine dinners.

You'd understand their revelry if you felt the biting winter wind they do eight months of the year.

New exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

Since its founding in 1860, Montreal's Musée des Beaux-Arts (www.mbam.qc.ca/a-sommaire.html) has assembled one of North America's finest encyclopedic collections, comprising more than 30,000 objects dating from antiquity to the present day.

These include old-master paintings, modern and contemporary art, decorative arts, Canadian art, prints and drawings, ancient textiles, English porcelain, and the world's largest collection of Japanese incense boxes. In addition to showing selections from its permanent collection, the Musée des Beaux-Arts has an active schedule of major temporary exhibitions.

Until Aug. 4, the museum is hosting anexhibit of masterworks by such artists as Filippino Lippi, Raphael, Sassetta, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Annibale Carracci, Tiepolo, and other leading Italian painters. It is on loan from the renowned Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

"Italian Old Masters From Raphael to Tiepolo: The Collection of the Budapest" is a selection of 43 paintings, many never before seen in North America. It encompasses virtually all of the major schools of Italian art from the 15th through the 18th centuries, and ranges from intimate devotional paintings to monumental altarpieces and mythological paintings.

Among the most famous works in the exhibition is Raphael's Esterházy Madonna (named after the aristocratic Hungarian family that once owned the picture). Painted circa 1507–08, this presentation of the Virgin with the infant Jesus and the infant St. John the Baptist is set in a landscape of surpassing beauty.

Scheduled to open Sept. 18 is "Cardinal Richelieu," a major exhibition exploring how the legendary French statesman Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) employed the visual arts to gain his political objectives. This exhibit will bring together for the first time nearly 200 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, architectural plans, tapestries, and other decorative objects drawn from international collections.

Included in the exhibition will be masterworks by Poussin, Vouet, Bernini, La Hyre, La Tour, Le Nain, Callot, Le Brun, Guercino, Lemercier, and other leading seventeenth-century artists.

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