Charming Montreal Serves Up a Taste Of France and History

Graced by the lovely Mt. Royal for which it is named, Montreal sits on an island surrounded by rivers and lakes of magnificent proportions - with the St. Lawrence the chief waterway.

One of the oldest cities in North America, Montreal has always been an important port town, and its 350-year history as a fur-trading center and later as an industrial center has seen its share of drama. Cosmopolitan, rich in a variety of ethnic traditions, and safe, Montreal is as close to Paris as you can get without crossing the ocean.

A buggy ride on the Rue La Commune is a terrific, romantic introduction to the city.

If you are fortunate enough to find a history lover among the drivers, he'll point out the intriguing museums that provide an overview for the stranger. Le Centre d'Histoire de Montreal, for one, is a well-equipped storehouse of information housed in a charming 19th-century fire station. Even more exciting, the Pointe-a-Calliere Museum introduces you to 1,000 years of area pre-history and history with a fabulous multimedia show in either French or English.

Much of Old Montreal was torn down before civic-minded preservationists stopped the destruction in the 1960s. A few 17th- and 18th-century buildings survived and are worth visiting. Luncheon or dinner at many of the sidewalk cafes (be sure to visit Place Jacques Cartier) in Old Montreal are delightful roosts for people-watching. But for sheer atmosphere, nothing can beat the patio at the Auberge St. Gabriel on Rue St. Gabriel, established as an inn in 1754, though the house itself was actually built in 1680.

The magnificent old inn still offers a sampling of Quebecois dining along with the lighter French nouvelle cuisine. Quebecois is strong stuff, heavy on meat, light on vegetables, but worth sampling. A meat pie called a tortire is stuffed with ground beef and pork, savory with herbs and spices, and is served with a delicious chopped fruit catsup reminiscent of a chutney. Boiled pigs knuckles were too much for me, but the golden pea soup is hearty and soothing. A better choice, soup-wise, is the French onion: With rim-to-rim toasted bread topped by Gruyre cheese, it comes piping hot and delicious. The version at the Auberge is less salty than one finds in the United States, and the flavor more complex. Fresh seafood is another Montreal specialty, as are Greek and Chinese delicacies.

After a leisurely lunch, stroll up to the impressive neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica (1829) on Rue Notre-Dame and then on down to Rue Saint Paul, where stands the imposing Bonsecours Market, a public market since the 19th century that also accommodates concerts, art exhibits, and government functions.

The silver dome of the classical structure is one of the major landmarks of the whole city. Next door is the quaint "Sailor's Church," Notre-Dame De Bonsecours Chapel, where miniature replicas of ships hang from the ceiling in token of thanksgiving for safe voyages.

Close to the harbor, Saint Paul street is one of the most beautiful streets in Old Montreal. Narrow as a cart path, the street is lined with 19th-century buildings attesting to its British heritage. One street over and parallel to Saint Paul is Rue de la Commune, which runs along the harbor front and features a series of long narrow parks with fountains and pools, grassy gardens, bike paths, and the handsome Clock Tower, from which one gazes out at the Ile Ste. Helene where Montreal's world famous Biosphere sits.

Besides the many sites to see, don't forget to listen. Montreal speaks French, and its pride in its French heritage is one of its most noticeable characteristics. It is part of what makes the city attractive to US travelers.

French falls on American ears like music - colorful, variable, and elegant, like Montreal itself. Even the most common courtesies, the daily greetings from shopkeepers and waiters make an unusually pleasant change. But a little deference from the US visitor - I learned to begin with "bonjour" or "bonsoir" and to say "Pardon, je ne parle pas francais" - is an appreciated courtesy.

In overwhelmingly English-speaking North America, Francophones come by their love of heritage naturally enough.

Montreal was "discovered" by Jacques Cartier, who first visited the Iroquois village of Hochelaga in 1535. The Societe de Notre-Dame de Montreal in 1642 gave the task of founding Ville Marie, as Montreal was then named, to a dashing young officer, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve.

He was joined by Jeanne Mance, a nurse whose philanthropic care of the poor, native Canadians, and others, predates Florence Nightingale's heroic efforts. You'll find their names on street signs, theaters, and other public places all over the city.

In 1760, the British invaded and conquered the city and the British population grew - even extending its hospitality to loyal British subjects who fled the American Revolution.

Over time, British and French inhabitants maintained their own institutions. Until recently, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches controlled social services, such as schools, hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and other charitable organizations - each church serving its own faithful.

In the late 19th century, as industrialization took over, French-speaking peasants from the surrounding countryside flooded the city, and Montreal returned to French as its primary language. Today, there are ordinances in place to keep it French-speaking.

But a few afternoons and evenings in Old Montreal, the enchanting historic district, are enough to convince skeptics that the French language should stay.

Once you've experienced Montreal's history, take the Metro to Olympic Park, where the world's highest inclined tower offers an incomparable view of the city and where one of the world's largest botanical gardens gives a peaceful experience of cultivated nature - no matter how many visitors share the experience with you. Particularly breathtaking is the Chinese Garden.

Close by, you'll find the Biodome - four complete ecological systems that include animals and plants in the cleanest, most carefully designed combination zoo/botanical gardens imaginable under one roof.

Tips for Travelers

The rate of exchange is good - one US dollar is worth about $1.36 Canadian. But prices tend to be slightly inflated, too, particularly in tourist traps. Still, a good dinner in Montreal costs no more than a comparable dinner in the United States.

* The bad news is the 15 percent tax on everything. But the good news is that travelers can get their tax dollars back on certain things (like the hotel bill) simply by filling out a form you can obtain at the airport or at your hotel's front desk.

* The subway system is clean and safe.

* There are literally miles of underground city connected by walkways and the Metro. Montrealers can avoid the outside during the worst of winter, and the traveler can enjoy the unique experience of going from shopping mall to theater without touching a sidewalk or fighting traffic.

* Montreal has many fine museums. The Muse Des Beaux Arts, for example, offers fabulous changing exhibitions and a Canadian Art collection that can open the viewer's eyes to the rich aesthetic history of Canada.

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