Montreal Travel: Urban Skating, a Spa on the River and Upstairs Jazz

After a nice breakfast at our window seat at the Auberge Bonaparte, overlooking the historic stone townhouses of Rue Saint François Xavier, I got ready to brace a chilly winter day in Old Montreal. Montreal is known for its harsh winters, but with the right clothing and the right attitude, any winter day can be a delight. Dressed up in my down winter jacket with a nice warm hat, a scarf and warm gloves I embarked on my morning adventure: going skating on Old Montreal’s Bassin Bonsecours.

Rue Saint Paul was still quiet, and the city was slowly waking up, but on the water front of the port of Old Montreal, the sun was shining against a brilliant blue sky. The Bonsecours Basin features a public skating rink that provides a breathtaking view of Old Montreal and the St. Lawrence River. It costs a few dollars to go skating, but you get treated with a warm building where you can put your skates on, and some background music that will keep you entertained.

The Bassin Bonsecours is a great place to skate...
The Bassin Bonsecours is a great place to skate…

They even have musical theme nights here with alternative rock music, electronic, 80s and other genres on different days of the week. On this Monday morning there were only a few skaters, so I had most of the clean ice sheet to myself.  After a few rounds on the ice, I got nice and warm and didn’t even feel the cold any more. And the view towards the Marché Bonsecour and the skyline of Old Montreal was simply amazing.

By the late morning I headed back to our hotel and linked up with my travel partner and we headed off for lunch to the Plateau de Mont Royal area, to an eclectic eatery called Restaurant Rumi. Co-owner Jonathan Freedman filled me in on the unique menu that serves up traditional cooking found all along the Spice Road. Jonathan’s brother is a world traveller who has brought a predilection for exotic Asian and African dishes back with him to Montreal. From Mediterranean and Iranian dishes, to Bosnian and Oriental dishes, anyone with a longing for far- away exotic places will enjoy this restaurant.

Even the colourful decor of the restaurant was inspired by remote destinations  – one carpet is from Cashmere, some rugs are from Turkey, a table cloth hails from Uzbekistan while some of the lamps are from Morocco. Jonathan took me on a tour of his open kitchen where his chef, who is from Iran, was cooking dal (lentil) soup. Onions were roasting in a frying pan, various mezes – Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes -were waiting to be served: olives, baba ganoush, sunna – butternut squash, tahini and maple syrup, hodja – a roasted eggplant puree with a tomato and red pepper sauce, hummus and tzatziki were ready to start a good meal.

My friend and I sat down at the window table where we had a look out on a former synagogue that is now a Ukrainian cultural centre. Shortly after my soup arrived: a large Rumi Dal soup, made of red lentils with ginger, coconut milk and fresh coriander, followed by a colourful Layla salad  with Lebanese cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pomegranate dressing and fresh basil. My friend enjoyed tasty chicken kebobs with aromatic rice and grilled zucchini. With my vegetarian meal I ordered Bisap, a hibiscus flower infusion with mint and orange blossom water. All these exotic flavours combined well and created a filling and tasty lunch.

An exotic lunch at Restaurant Rumi
An exotic lunch at Restaurant Rumi

In the mid-afternoon we took the subway back to Old Montreal and got ready for a nice treat on a cold day: a few hours of relaxation at Bota Bota Spa sur l’Eau – a brand-new spa on the water. I met with Nathalie Emond, one of the co-owners who, together with her family, purchased an old ferry boat in the spring of 2008 and turned it into a state-of-the art spa. The boat was built in 1951  and became a showboat in 1967.

After the boat was purchased, it took more than two years to turn the boat into a fully functioning spa with five decks. Two saunas provide stunning views of the river and Montreal’s Old Port; a eucalyptus steam bath, several outdoor whirlpool baths; cold showers and baths, various relaxation areas; a gourmet snack counter, terraces and a garden are here for the enjoyment of the spa guests.

The spa opened in December of 2010, and Nathalie indicated that most of the clients have been local Montrealers. But she has already seen international clients from Europe and the United States come in for a much-needed winter break. Bota Bota offers massage therapy, various body and facial treatments as well as manicures and pedicures. I opted for a professional therapeutic massage in one of the comfortable treatment rooms, followed by some nice tranquil reading in one of the relaxation areas. From my comfortable deck chair I was watching the sunset as the sky got dark over the St. Lawrence River.

Bota Bota Spa sur L'Eau
Bota Bota Spa sur L’Eau

For our evening program we headed back out into the wintery streets of Montreal and took the subway downtown, just minutes away from the Concordia subway station. “Upstairs Jazz” is actually totally misleading since the jazz club is located downstairs in a historic stone building. With its long bar, stone walls, classic wood paneling and linen-covered tables, Upstairs Jazz is a popular meeting place where jazz music fans come to enjoy good music, good food and good company.

To learn more about this interesting venue I headed upstairs to talk to owner Joel Giberovitch. Upstairs Jazz came into being in 1995 as a simple piano bar and has evolved into a popular jazz hot spot in downtown Montreal, the city that hosts the world’s largest jazz festival every year. More than 2.5 million visitors partake of this multi-day event, and throughout the year, the Montreal music scene is known to be one of the most vibrant in all of Canada.

Upstairs Jazz is part of this lively setting by promoting jazz, and inviting people to experience a unique setting that combines an intimate live music venue with a welcoming atmosphere and great food. Tonight we were going to see an 45 minute performance by Jim Doxas, one of Montreal’s most well known drummers, and his brother Chet, followed by a jam session with musicians and singers from the audience coming up on stage and joining in for an improvised celebration of jazz.

Joel is very passionate about jazz music, and his jazz club has become a virtual incubator of jazz where new musicians get to participate in competitions that attract the attention of some major record labels. Upstairs Jazz holds talent shows for up and coming jazz musicians and the winning artist wins a recording contract. Although Joel is not a musician himself, he has a deep appreciation of jazz and plays an important role in Montreal’s music community in developing and promoting the next generation of jazz musicians.

Downstairs Jazz is really upstairs...
Downstairs Jazz is really upstairs…

Before sitting down I also interviewed Juan Barros, the chef at Upstairs Jazz who has been working here for more than 12 years now. Juan explained that this venue has a pretty broad clientele which ranges from a lunch crowd of business people to university students and older jazz music lovers. The cuisine is diverse and includes tapas, seafood appetizers, salads, grilled dishes and burgers as well. Juan only cooks with extremely fresh ingredients and does all the shopping. He adds that he orders very little very often, as fresh ingredients are much easier to work with.

I rejoined my travel partner downstairs and we enjoyed a large plate of nachos as an appetizer which I followed up with a Salade Billie, consisting of baby arugula with toasted walnuts, crispy bacon, fresh pears, blue cheese and cranberries, while my friend enjoyed a succulent Cajun Mahi Mahi, served with a tomato, onion, lemon and white wine sauce. After a long day we were now ready to take in a jazz session with some of Montreal’s musical talents – a great way to spend our last evening in Montreal.

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