Montreal Stories and Tips

Montreal impressions

Old Montreal Photo, Montreal, Quebec

Montreal, pretty much as expected, appears more European than Toronto. It's not just the fact that it's very French spoken, but also the old town – Vieux Montreal – with some buildings dating as far back as 17th century, and quite a few from the 18th century. It's also the lively and cosmopolitan area of Plateau Mont Royal, with the varied mixture of ethnic – mostly European – delis, restaurants and other stores, on the background of pretty convincingly French patisserie, boulangerie and charcuterie, and that is despite the fact that the best-known Quebecois contribution to cuisine is poutine, a quintessentially fast-foody combination of chips, squeaky cheese and gravy, about which the Canadians are as snobby as the Brits about pork scratchings. The coffee might be the standard North American dishwater, but the pastries, sausages and bread are all very Parisian.

But there is also shabbiness about Montreal, with a noticeably higher number of the visibly homeless and down-and-out people, including some sleeping rough, around the centre and in the metro. Toronto was big-city-lights-slick, with relentlessly smiley, friendly people who pretty much all looked prosperous: from heavily painted, hijabed, dripping with gold Asian mothers to preppy, blond, be-suited, chiselled-jawed Anglo-Saxons.

Montreal appears less American, less slick, more European, more humane, perhaps. More grumpy, too. People on the Metro (more crowded than Toronto's subway system) are similar to those on the London tube. Girls wear skirts (and are noticeably prettier).

Architecturally, though, the distinct Francophone, cosmopolitan, old-world core is surrounded by a very New-world sprawl. We stay with a lovely family in Laval – apparently the second largest city in Quebec, but unknown to most visitors – on a suburban estate that has no pavements, tenuous public transport connections and shopping areas in which you need to drive from one big-box store to another.

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