A Tale of Two Cities

French-speaking Montreal is vastly different from any other Canadian city.

French-speaking Montreal is vastly different from any other Canadian city.

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As a person who revels in exploring new places and discovering new cultures, tying the knot with a man whose family is scattered across the globe was something of a bonus.

I was particularly excited when my husband, Josh, suggested that we visit his family in Toronto and Vancouver, breaking up our Canadian odyssey with ten days in Montreal. After all, the city is home to 1.9 million people, and part of Quebec, making it the second-largest French speaking city in the world.

Studious Pursuits

Josh and I decided to rent a private villa in the downtown Ville-Marie neighbourhood as a base to explore the surrounding area. We wanted to do most of our touring on foot, and were particularly keen to soak up the academic atmosphere at nearby McGill and Concordia university campuses. As something of a shopaholic, I was also pleasantly surprised by the wealth of excellent shops scattered across the Ville-Marie borough, and managed to make a significant dent on my holiday budget within the space of a few hours.

We quickly lost ourselves exploring the picturesque streets of Old Montreal, including the charming riverfront Old Town and port. The days began with a leisurely breakfast of coffee and croissants every morning in our Ville-Marie villa, and I could happily have relocated there permanently if it wasn’t for my husband’s wunderlust.

Josh cannot stay put in one place for more than a few days at a time, so I wasn’t overly surprised when he announced that as we were a short seven-hour bus journey from the ultimate shopping Mecca – New York City – it would be a shame to skip it.

Border Run

Back in the 1920s, prohibition in the USA meant many Americans flooded across the border to enjoy a tipple in quaint Montreal so we decided to revive this tradition in reverse. While I looked forward to some shopping at Macy’s Josh planned on snapping some shots of the Statue of Liberty to impress our Facebook friends. After a couple of hours’ research online however, we realized we wanted to squeeze in as much as possible, so we booked onto a two-night sightseeing coach tour of the Big Apple. The package even included a professional guide – from Montreal.

Tour de Force

After a rapid cross-country jaunt (with a surprisingly short delay at the US border), we arrived in New York City and even years of watching Friends and Sex in the City had not prepared me for the enormous expanse of shimmering lights that greeted us as we crossed the Hudson River from New Jersey. Our guide, Emilie, though hailing from Montreal, was a mine of New York factoids, and our three-hour sightseeing tour passed by in the blink of an eye.

Before heading back to the hotel on the first evening, we stopped off at a traditional American diner somewhere near Times Square for what turned out to be an enormous bite to eat. As a proud Montrealer, Emilie informed us that her home city had recently been ranked second, behind San Francisco – yet ahead of New York – as the most impressive culinary destination in North America. I kept this rating in mind as I sunk my teeth into a giant, juicy, New York burger and fries, but struggled to decide whether it lived up to the Poutine (a traditional Quebecois dish comprising fries, cheese curds and gravy) I had gorged in Canada the night before.

Walk in the Park

The following morning we were up early to enjoy more of the Big Apple’s greatest treasures. The day began with a trip to the Ground Zero monument, where we paid our respects before heading off on a boat-tour around Manhattan Island. What began as a breezy, grey day eventually faded into a pastel pink dusk just as we arrived at the Strawberry Fields in Central Park West. As an avid Beatles fan, I had insisted that we visit the park’s monument to John Lennon, then forty minutes’ stroll across the park led us onto famous Fifth Avenue, where we took in the wares on  street stalls and the Tiffany’s window.

In some ways, strolling the streets of New York wasn’t so different from our experiences of exploring Montreal. The quaint architecture, theatres and diverse mix of cultures and languages spread across the streets of both cities meant that despite belonging to different countries, they didn’t feel worlds apart.  We ended the evening with the glittering view from the top of the Empire State building, situated at the intersection of West 34th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Back to Relax

The following morning, I was sad to say goodbye to New York – although we did have time to stop off at Macy’s department store, where I managed to burn through another large chunk of my holiday money.

As I slowly nodded off on the bus, I realized how glad I would be to indulge in another plate of Poutine before settling down to a relaxing evening in the quaint and quiet surroundings of our wonderful Ville-Marie villa back in Montreal.

Tips for the Trip

Montreal is a cornucopia of new experiences waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the trip:

  • The unique cuisine in Montreal is something all visitors should try – particularly at breakfast time. French-inspired croissants are the ideal start to the day, and don’t forget to taste Poutine.
  • Montreal boasts a number of outdoor spaces for visitors to enjoy. The Parc du Mont-Royal is a must-see for all visitors.
  • As French is the primary language in Montreal, it is worth learning a few basic words and phrases to get by in shops and restaurants. Even if you only know how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in French, the effort and a smile will always stand you in good stead.
  • Despite the French influence, Montreal is culturally diverse. It is worth making time in your itinerary to visit areas like Chinatown (Le quartier chinois) to soak up the atmosphere.
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