By: Ximena de la Pava
Fotos: Javier Pinzón
I arrived in Montreal well into September to fulfill a promise I’d made to my daughter several years earlier: if ever we should meet in that city, it had to be in autumn.
She has spent time in Montreal in each of the seasons, not in order, and not continuously, because her doctoral program at McGill University required her presence at different times of year. But from the first time she walked alone down the colorful trails of Mount Royal in autumn, slipping and sliding among the mattresses of maple leaves, she made me promise that one day we would take the same walk together.
The time came in September 2013. Cata and her husband, Javier, picked me up at the Toronto airport, because Copa Airlines still had no direct flights to Montreal, and we spent a few days there before traveling the 330 miles between the two Canadian cities.
In my blue notebook, I noted that the glass facades of Toronto’s skyscrapers in the sunset, the buzz of cranes pulling the city up toward the sky, and the chimneys spewing smoke reminded me of the city’s industrial history.
We left Toronto and headed for St. Helen’s Island, or Île Sainte-Hélène, where Montreal is located, aware that in just a few hours our journey would take us from English to French-speaking North America. There we would find a meeting place for cultures and histories separated by the St. Lawrence River, stretching beyond the limits of language. We crossed the bridge and entered this enclave, famous for its language and customs, and its reception of immigrants from around the world. The city is home to more than 120 different ethnic groups.
Upon reaching the island, tourists are quick to observe Montreal’s unique dual nature: it is francophone, but more than half the population also speaks English, and at least 25% speaks a third language. The city is undeniably American, but retains a discreet European charm. The port is ancient, but the city is modern and vibrant enough to have been recognized by UNESCO as a City of Design —the third to receive such designation after Buenos Aires and Berlin— in honor of its avant-garde contributions to the fields of modern design, art, and architecture.
My daughter and her husband live in a small apartment on the Avenue du Parc, very close to the university, Mount Royal, and the Plateau neighborhood, which meant we could walk to most of the important sights and avoid using the car they had rented in honor of my visit. But the best thing about the apartment’s location is its balcony, where we could watch marches going by, like the one in which demonstrators argued for the right to wear the burka in the classroom —a serious debate in this country marked by cultural openness— or the folk or historical parades on North American Friendship Day, Canada Day, or National Quebec Day. The balcony is also a great place to enjoy the countless colors that characterize each of the markedly different seasons in this city. Stepping onto the balcony, I knew that this was the vantage point from which they used an ordinary little camera to shoot the beautiful photographs of Montreal that they posted on Facebook each month.
Once in Montreal, we began with the obligatory visit to Mount Royal. Cata loves this place because she can run there with her dog every afternoon, and she thought it would be the best way to show me the autumn colors. She was right: a yearly transformation takes place when temperatures drop and the leaves stop producing chlorophyll; a kaleidoscope of colors begins to shine, bringing life to this landscape, which from our side of the world is seen only in beautiful puzzles or calendars.
The hill located in the city center, from which the city gets its name, spreads out over two hundred hectares of reserve rising up in three peaks, each of which towers over two hundred meters high: Colline de la Croix (Mount Royal), Colline d’Outremont (Mount Murray), and Colline de Westmount. The park surrounding it was designed in 1876 by Frederick Law Olmsted, hailed as North America’s best landscape architect, with a resume that boasts none other than New York City’s Central Park. The site takes advantage of the city’s topography and extreme seasons by offering infrastructure for both winter and summer outdoor sports.
Cata says that in summer the park is incredibly crowded. At the top, people enjoy the view from Beaver Lake, picnicking under the maple trees or enjoying the panoramic view of the city from the Smith Mansion, an architectural landmark dating back to 1858 that provides a reference point within the park. Cyclists and packs of children surge down the paths, and the stairs flow with rivers of people working out. Down below, where the trails widen a bit and traffic on Avenue du Parc can be heard in the distance, you can begin to hear the sound of tom-toms from the now traditional drum circles, where people play and dance happily to the free-flowing rhythms. And, on a “battlefield” in the park, the air fills with smoke as children, youth, and adults dressed as warriors and armed with sledgehammers, swords, and cardboard shields face off in a scene worthy of any comic strip. On the heels of these summer activities come the fall colors we are now witnessing.
Our second hike took us to the Plateau Mont-Royal in Cata’s neighborhood, located near the city center, within walking distance of McGill. More than 100,000 people live in five square miles on the Plateau, making it the most densely populated area of the vast, mostly wild country of Canada. The neighborhood originated in 1792, with a decree that extended the city limits one mile beyond its colonial fortifications.
In the 1980s, the neighborhood began to take on a bohemian character, attracting artists, gallery owners, chefs, and their specialized environments. This, coupled with its proximity to the university, adds to the area’s appeal, and today it is teeming with high-quality restaurants and trendy shops, especially along the Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Saint Denis. We walked down Prince Arthur Street, which my daughter cycles daily, and I stopped to take pictures here and there of the staircases climbing up to the buildings’ façades and the autumn colors on the vines enlivening stone and brick walls. Cata pointed out the charming French cafes where she goes to enjoy chocolate chip croissants. Some of the businesses are local institutions, like Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, famous since 1928 for its Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.
There are famous Greek-Canadian bakeries on Park Avenue as well as Vietnamese and Portuguese community bakeries (the Portuguese community is so large that the city now boasts a “Little Portugal”). And so, story by story, we come to McGill, one of the four universities in the city and the most universally acclaimed. Founded in 1821, it features more than a dozen beautiful buildings in Gothic and modern styles. Ranked among the best universities in the world, McGill counts nine Nobel laureates among its alumni. We visited the laboratory where Cata conducts her research in the company of young people from places as diverse as Jordan, Korea, and México. She tells us about the daily chats with fascinating personalities, including Nobel Prize winners from around the world, which are hosted by the university. She also lets us in on one of the best kept secrets in Montreal: the concerts in the Music Department, with music as beautiful as the building where they take place.
Our next stop is Old Montreal, the town built inside colonial fortifications that were demolished several years ago. This is really the American Paris: narrow winding streets, old buildings with characteristic French mansard roofs (metallic in color here), landscaped squares bustling with activity, cafés with tables outdoors even in late autumn, bistros with exquisite food, sophisticated bakeries, and even street artists like those in Montmartre, all of which add to our enjoyment in the Place d’Armes and Place Jacques Cartier. Even at this time of year, the place seems lively, but they assure me that in summer it really buzzes with activity.
An obligatory stop on any tour of Old Montreal is the Marché Bonsecours, a market opened in 1847 and became one of Canada’s top ten architectural landmarks. The place is now a wonderful arts and crafts market filled with handcrafts, clothing, accessories, jewelry, furniture, and more. The outside of the building, with the St. Lawrence rolling by, offers a beautiful postcard view.
Next, it’s time to move on to the old port and the former velodrome, which was built in 1976 for the Montreal Olympic Games and fell into disuse until Pierre Bourque, Director of the Montreal Botanical Garden, thought of turning it into a biodome. Inside the biodome, four of the continent’s different ecosystems cohabit under a single roof: the North and South Poles, the Amazon rainforest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the mixed forest of Quebec. This is one of the city’s four nature museums. Very close to the Olympic Stadium is the Montreal Botanical Garden, which has been compared to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England. This National Historic Site is home to 190,000 plants, 24,000 of which are housed in the garden’s ten greenhouses, and the others outdoors.
Notre-Dame Basilica is another must-see destination in Montreal, making visitors feel even more as though they are in Paris than the French language or the crepes served on every street corner. Although construction of the Basilica began in 1672, the building we see now opened in 1829 and remains true to the Gothic style of the famous Parisian cathedral of the same name built centuries earlier.
Autumn in Montreal is full of choices. Apple-picking in Mont Saint-Bruno Park and a stroll past the Chinese lanterns in the Botanical Garden are both very popular. You can also enjoy the Halloween preparations, well under way thanks to a huge harvest of orange pumpkins adorning public markets and shops. Everything is full of color and joy, but the days gradually grow shorter and the sun becomes increasingly shy. Eventually, the trees will lose their leaves in a prelude to the long winter ahead.
Then it’s time to remember the other city lying below Montreal: a maze of tunnels, supermarkets, malls, restaurants, and shops where life goes on as normal, even in flip flops and shirt sleeves, while above ground temperatures descend to -30C. But these survival tactics are reserved for only the coldest days. When it’s “just -10” snow sports are the order of the day and the views out my daughter’s windows in the Plateau resemble a Christmas card. When winter passes it will be time for the colorful flowers, especially tulips, which in the blink of an eye invade boulevards, public gardens, and parks, officially announcing the coming of spring. These colors will be replaced by the intense green of summer, when people spill into the squares and parks in a riot of joy and spontaneous art. Festivals and drums are everywhere until the seasonal cycle comes to a close with the endless color of Mount Royal in autumn, the subject of my favorite calendar photo, now occupying a prominent space in my home.