Getting the Lay of the Land in a Driving Tour

Shortly after my arrival in Montreal, right around 1 pm, I met Carole, a licensed professional tour guide from Guidatour in the lobby of the Holiday Inn and she was going to be my local expert on a driving tour through the centre of Montreal. I had only been in Montreal once before 10 years ago, so I really needed a quick overview of the city to familiarize myself with its layout. And although Montreal’s downtown area is very compact and walkable, a driving tour would give me a great introduction to this metropolis.

From my hotel we drove south on St. Urbain Street and our first big sight was one of Montreal’s key tourist destinations: the Place d’Armes and the exquisite Basicilica of Notre Dame, Montreal’s largest and most beautiful cathedral. From there we passed by Montreal City Hall and then made our way up the Boulevard St. Laurent, also referred to as “The Main”, for generations the traditional path of successive waves of immigrants as they made their way north the port area to settle permanently in other neighbhourhoods of the city. We passed by the Hotel Godin, a former garment factory that has recently been converted into a boutique hotel, one of many revitalized historic buildings that has been turned into a modern hotel.

Prince Arthur Street further north is a pedestrian street featuring a variety of reasonably priced restaurants with outdoor patios. This area was a hotbed of hippie culture in the 1960s and today provides a great selection of family restaurants. A little further west we decided to have lunch at Chez Gautier, one of Montreal’s most well-known bistros, established in 1978. Chez Gautier’s Parisian-style décor features beautiful woodwork and a magnificent handcrafted glass dome ceiling in the bar area.

Glass dome at Chez Gautier

Right next to Chez Gautier and under the same ownership is la Patisserie Belge, a pastry shop offering a wide selection of beautifully designed cakes and baked goods. Carole and I sat down on the beautiful terrace where I satisfied my cravings for an authentic French onion soup as well as a salad with warm goat cheese and toast. It was a delicious light lunch that reenergized me to continue with my explorations.

Our driving tour continued with a trip further north, passing by the Parc des Ameriques, a park that celebrates the city’s Latin American immigrants, until we reached the Mont Royal neighbourhood, just to the east of famous Mont Royal. This whole area is referred to as the “Plateau”, a reasonably flat area just east of St-Denis that is subdivided into several smaller neighbourhoods. This is one of Montreal’s trendiest neighbourhoods.

Cakes at la Patisserie Belge

West of the Plateau is Outremont neighbourhood which covers the area adjacent to the mountain. The mix of ethnic groups was evidenced by the coexistence side-by-side of a synagogue and a Chinese church. Carole pointed out that some of the best bagels can be had on Fairmont Street. Cote St. Catherine is the main boulevard of Outremont and surrounded by a variety of parks and stately homes. Outremont is one of the most desirable areas in Montreal and used to be a Francophone stronghold, while Westmount, the neighbourhood on the southwest slopes of Mont Royal, historically used to the bastion of English speakers.

We passed by the University of Montreal, one of Montreal’s four universities, two of which are geared to Anglophones and two towards Francophones. The UOM is primarily French speaking and its campus was designed by famous architect Ernest Cormier who was one of the first to introduce Montreal to the Art Deco Style. We continued on Cote des Neiges, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood of recent immigrants.

Historic church in the Plateau area

The big attraction on the northwest side of Mont Royal is Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, topped by the second largest dome in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome. The oratory was built as a result of the efforts of Brother André (1845 to 1937), a man of very humble beginnings, who used to be the doorkeeper at the Collège Notre Dame across the street. Many miracles are attributed to Brother André and he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. In 1904 Brother André started construction on a small chapel on the mountain side, facing the college. This chapel became too small, so in 1917 a church with 1000 seats was built. In 1924 finally the construction of the basilica started and was finally completed more than 40 years later in 1967. St. Joseph’s Oratory is a magnificent building and one of Montreal’s major landmarks. Driving into the city from the west you can see this glorious structure for miles.

Right around the corner is the École Polytechnique where a deranged Marc Lepine killed 14 women in December of 1989 in what has become known the “Montreal massacre”. A permanent memorial has been erected to commemorate this infamous incident and to keep the memory of all female victims of violence alive. The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, begun in 1855, is Montreal’s largest cemetery and holds many of the city’s most prominent citizens. More than 800,000 people are buried here and many exquisitely carved gravestones bear testimony to many prominent residents. While Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is the city’s largest French catholic cemetery, the Mount Royal Protestant Cemetery right next to it is the last resting place for many of Montreal’s most prominent Anglo residents.

Mount Royal is Montreal’s highest point at 223 m and presents a huge green space for the city dwellers. The park dates back to 1870 when local Westmount residents were concerned about deforestation on the mountain due to the cutting down of firewood . Famous landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of New York City’s Central Park and many other American public green spaces, was commissioned to design the Parc du Mont-Royal.

Maison Smith on Mont Royal

Our first stop in Parc Mont-Royal was at Castor Lake, an artificial lake created in 1958 in what was formerly a swamp. The lake is surrounded by meadows and trees and used as a skating rink in the winter. We then parked our car just a bit further up the mountain, right next to the Maison Smith, the last remaining former farm house on Mont Royal which today offers various exhibits and activities. The basement of this building houses a very large gabbro rock which is an example of the igneous rock that makes up Mont Royal and several of the mountains in the Monteregie region of Quebec. Contrary to popular belief, Mont Royal is not an extinct volcano but the result of magma intrusions.

After a brief hike through a forested pathway system we arrived at Montreal’s famous lookout, the Belvédère Kondiaronk (named after a Huron chief) overlooking the downtown skyscrapers. Incidentally, Montreal’s skyscrapers are not as high as those in some other cities, since according to local stipulations, none of the buildings is allowed to be higher than the mountain. The view from this lookout is astounding and I wish every city had a lookout point like that. Just beside the lookout is the Chalet du Mont Royal, a large structure built in 1932 that houses concerts and special events.

View from the Kondiaronk lookout

Our brief tour of Mont Royal concluded with a tour of the Westmount residential area, an independent city of about 20,000 residents fully enclosed by the City of Montreal. Westmount has long been the traditional residential area of Montreal’s Anglo-Saxon elite and many Neo-Tudor or Neo-Georgian residences attest to the wealth of this area. Greene Avenue is one of the commercial streets in the area and features many of Westmount’s trendiest shops.

Further east along Sherbrooke Street, one of Montreal’s thoroughfares, is the Golden Square Mile, once the enclave of the Canadian upper class between about the 1850s and 1930s. Most of the residents were of Scottish descent and acquired their wealth in the furtrading business. During that era about 70% of Canada’s wealth was concentrated among the residents of the Golden Square Mile. Today only a few of the Victorian houses remain and many of the buildings house retail stores. Part of the Golden Square Mile is McGill University, Montreal’s oldest university, founded in 1821 as a result of a generous donation by Scottish-born fur trader John McGill. On our way back to my hotel we also passed UQAM, the Université de Quebec à Montreal, the city’s youngest university, founded in 1979 and a thoroughly modern addition to the city.

Typical homes in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood

No doubt this was a whirlwind tour, but at the same time these 3 hours were a great introduction to this fascinating city. Something I would be able to mull over during my dinner at Modavie, accompanied by a little jazz….

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