By its very nature fall is a fleeting thing. It is a season of turning and movement as long summer days fall into darker winter ones. Temperatures and leaves fall. We trade hot winds for brisk mornings. We harvest and stockpile. We prepare for the cold.
That being said, the feeling of fall can be just as fleeting. Sometimes summer hangs on and the leaves barely have a chance to hit the ground before the snow does. Sometimes they hit the ground together when winter can’t wait. Other times, special times, we experience pure fall, reveling in its unobstructed glory. Sometimes we luck out.
Montreal is the perfect place to meet fall. Consider it for your next last week in September. I hope you will be as lucky as I was to happen upon Montreal and its surrounding areas in the peak of autumn foliage – bright yellows and reds spattered with greens and burnt oranges.
But first we should not ignore the urban: Montreal is a port town sitting on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. With a population of 1.6 million it is the second largest city in Canada and the 9th in North America. “Montreal” comes from Mount Royal, the triple peaked hill the city encompasses. Montreal was originally named Ville-Marie or “City of Mary.” (Hence its Notre Dame basilica – more on this later). The city is comprised of Old Montreal, Vieux-Montreal – first established as a trading post in 1611 – and the modern city now surrounding it.
We arrive late Friday and immediately walk down old Montreal’s main artery Rue Saint Paul in search of food. This happens at Gandhi. If you haven’t guessed, it’s Indian. If you go, they do exceptional Indian staples. Tikka Masala, naan, done deal. Montreal’s food scene is surprisingly international with numerous ethnic options alongside traditional French cuisine – think London. “What about Canadian?,” you ask, “What is Canadian?,” I say. (I’ll explain later.)
Saturday morning. I have one word: crepe. As we head to Crêperie Chez Suzett, this is beginning to feel Parisian. As I take my first bite of a cheese-baked crepe stuffed with chicken and ratatouille (See picture.), I’m certain we’re there. It helps that the crepe-eating occurs in a second floor room at a table next to an open window with sunshine streaming indoors. Look at me, I’m romanticizing pancakes.
On to a self-guided walking tour, simply because I love few things more. This takes us up to Rue Notre Dame, which, naturally, leads to Notre Dame Basilica. I might be hallucinating from the crepe, but this is feeling more like Paris. Until we walk inside. The interior is like no church I’ve seen before. Its blue backlit altar appears eerie and magical and glowing. Stunning. It’s about to close to the public for the day for a wedding. I’m pretty sure you have to be “somebody” to be married here. Celine Dion, basically Canadian royalty, had here wedding here in the 90s. Back outside to Place d’Armes, a main square of old Montreal that blends architecture from the 1800s with deco and modern buildings.
Next we linger in Place Jacques-Cartier, the largest square in old Montreal, named for the explorer who claimed Canada for France in 1535. Then Hôtel de Ville de Montréal. “Hotel” means “hall” in French. This is useful to know. This makes several buildings seem much more important. Then the old Bonsecours Market next to the river. Buildings along Rue Saint Paul feel French – big central bay window begging you to ask who lives behind the panes, ground floor store fronts and art galleries, corner restaurants with open doors and windows. The buildings side the narrow-ish street so that at almost all points of the day the light streams in at a slant and casts long shadows.
Dinner at Venti Osteria. Sitting at the kitchen counter for wine we talk with the chef and then move to a table for dinner. It’s a little loud and my pasta amatriciana isn’t quite right, but, then again, this is Paris, or Canada. Yeah, Canada.
Sunday we mass at Notre Dame, inadvertently sitting through what may have been a beatification service for a soon-to-be saint. Don’t know. Lot’s of nuns, children, and bishops involved. I do not speak French, so this will be forever a mystery. But fingers crossed for sainthood.
Another city walk, this time through new Montreal. We meander through Chinatown to downtown Montreal. The skyscrapers are glass-sided and spaced out in a way that reminds of Chicago. Air and light reach the street. We walk northwest to McGill University, a campus that feels like Harvard. Then down to Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, a one-fourth scale model of St. Peter’s in Rome. This sits next to the hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent their 1972 “bed-in.”
We dinner at Bonaparte back in the old part. If you didn’t surmise, it’s French. Take your pick of 3, 5, or 7 courses. The fireplaces in the dinning rooms make even white tablecloths feel cozy. French bread, soup, haddock, and chocolate mousse later, I couldn’t be happier.
Montreal is in French Canada. This creates an identity crisis. It feels like Paris in the old part. People speak first in French and then easily switch to English. They speak without an accent. The new part feels commercial like Chicago and academic like Boston. In the tiny St. Peter’s it feels like the Vatican. But the whole time it is not quite all or any. It’s this compilation that assembles character, but doesn’t create something entirely its own. What is Canada? I don’t know.
Well, that is, not until Monday when we drive north to Mont-Tremblant. This feels like “Canada.” Maple leaf Canada. Now we can get back to fall. The foliage is outstanding. Somehow, completely by luck, we’ve timed the leaf-changing perfectly. The two hour drive is a joy. I say that as a non-octogenarian. A joy. Mont-Tremblant is a little ski-village. Perched on the side of a hill, its one street offers outdoorswear shops and a few restaurants. There isn’t snow yet, so right now it is a tree village. We opt for a nature walk on one of the beautiful trails. We take a confusing map. We get confused. Our cheeks grow a bit flushed in the crisp, almost cold, air. We appreciate nature and color and true fall. We return to the village, opt Thai, and eat curry. We are warmed from the inside out.
Tuesday, we drive back to Montreal and board a flight south towards home to await the falling there.