Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer in Montreal: Week Two

This is the 2nd in what will be a five-part series of posts from our summer in Montreal.  If you want to see the first post click here: Summer in Montreal: Week One.

This morning we woke to a clear blue sky and lots of sun. In the last 30 minutes clouds have rolled in and we are expecting thunderstorms. That pretty much sums up the changeable weather of the last week. Mostly sunny with a day or two of sometimes rain.  We had one day of Florida weather: really hot, humid, ending in a thunderstorm. But mostly it's been in the 70s and low 80s. Perfect weather for walking. And that's what we do a lot of...walk.

Favorite Walks of the Week. On our one day of hot and humid Florida weather we took to the "Underground City."  Underneath downtown Montreal is a rabbit warren of climate-controlled passageways that connect office buildings, metro stations, food courts, the main train station, shopping malls, and public spaces.  In the winter, this Underground City is well used to escape the frigid winter winds.  In the summer, it isn't as busy...but we find it a great place to still get in an explore while not sweating like we were home in Florida. 
Jerry in the Underground City

On a milder day, we walked along a portion of the Lachine Canal from Old Montreal to the up and coming (former working class neighborhood) Griffintown. 

Stadning at Lock 2 on the Lachine Canal looking back towards the Old Port of Montreal

The Story of the Lachine Canal. Montreal sits on the St. Lawrence River which drains the Great Lakes (Lake Ontario) and flows northeast to the Atlantic Ocean. 

Before the Lachine canal (built in the mid 1800s) the great Lachine Rapids was a major hazard to boats on the river. It was simply impossible for large boats to get through safely on a regular basis. 

 So in the mid 1800s, industrious Montrealers dug an 11-mile long canal from the Port in Old Montreal to Lachine (a former fur trading town.)  Over the next century the canal (and it's lock system) was enlarged and improved a number of times.

By the 1920s Montreal was the 5th largest inland port in the world and was the largest grain shipping port in the world.  All that wheat grown across the heartland of Canada was shipped by train to ports along the St Lawrence. It was put on canal barges in Lachine and taken down the canal to Montreal where it was loaded onto large ships for transport to cities all over the world. 

The building that our apartment is in was built around 1850 arond the time the Lachine Canal opened and Montreal was rapidly growing as a port city. The building would have had shops on the first floor to serve the shipping trade and warehousing on the upper floors. This engraving is of Montreal in 1889. Our building is in the center directly facing on the port. 

Ships got bigger and eventually the Lachine Canal was too narrow and the locks too short and shallow for the big "lakers" that hauled grain and other goods to and from the Great Lakes. So in the 1950, the St Lawrence Seaway (built on the other side of the river from MOntreal) was built.  The Lachine Canal closed and decayed over a number of decades.  In the late 1990s/early 2000, an effort was made to restore a portion of the locks and canal to be used for pleasure boaters.  It was very successful and once again, the Lachine Canal lives. (Along with a walking and biking path that runs the entire length of the canal).

We Love Montreal's Nature Parks. Our two favorite parks in Montreal are the Parc-des-Rapides (which sits on on of the many "legs" of the Lachine Rapids) and the Parc Bois-des-i'lle-Bizard. We visited both last week.  The Parc-des-Rapides was filled with blooming day lilies, red-winged black birds, terns fishing along the shore, herons and egrets standing amidst the reeds, and a wonderful cool breeze coming in off the river. 

Look closely and you can see a tern hovering and fishing over the rapids. 
At Parc Bois Bizard we love the long boardwalk across the wetlands filled with painted turtles, frogs, ducks, herons, rails, swallows, dragonflies, little fish, and egrets. Sometimes we'll spy a beaver dam but not this visit. 

After Walking Comes the Eating. All the walking built up an appetite.  This week's highlights were Montreal's famous smoked meat, fresh oysters and mussels, crepes, pie, and, of course, more ice cream. 

Montreal is famous for their style of smoked meat (like what we call pastrami south of the border).  The most famous spot is Schwartz's on St Laurent which we've been to many times. But this time of year (festival season) the lines out front are huge. All. Day. Long. So we slipped across the street to Le Main which has really good smoked meat sandwiches as well (and no line). 

(For a great discussion of the "war between the meats" or "what the heck is the difference between smoke meats and pastrami" check out this great blog post by Ben Jay on What's the Difference Between Smoked Meat and Pastrami?)

I love Oysters, Jerry loves mussels.  So Maestro SVP on St Laurent is the perfect ticket for us.  They will usually have about 20 different types of oysters on offer (most from the Canadian maritimes and a few from the U.S. Northeast and Canada's British Columbia.)  On Mondays, they have "all you can eat" mussels and "happy hour" Beausoleil oysters for a great price.  So that's where we headed last Monday. I tried 9 different kinds of oysters. All were great, but I once again confirmed that I'm a Northwest Oyster gal at heart...the Kuushi and Valentine oysters from British Columbia were spectacular! Yum!

And let's not forget the sweets. We made a pilgrimage to Bilboquet 
ice cream shop in the Outremont neighborhood of Montreal. FANTASTIC caramel and dark chocolate scoops.  But they didn't have strawberry that day to taste test.  Will just have to return. Darn! 

And then there was pie.  You knew I'd have to eventually get around to pie, didn't you? My favorite pie place in Montreal is Rustique Pie Kitchen in the St-Henri neigborhood. The specialize in "tiny" pies (although they offer full size pies, cookies, bar cookies, and meringues as well).  I had the meringue citron (lemon meringue), cerises (cherry), and banana split pies.  Delish!

Murals, Murals, Murals.  We've taken to getting on a bus and taking it about 2 to 3 miles away from our flat and then getting off and walking back home. Trying different routes or revisiting old favorites. What they all have in common are murals.  Big ones, little ones.  Old ones, new ones.  "Official" ones and really great graffiti. Here are some of this weeks finds: 

A Little Shopping. We continue our search for cool bookstores. Will update on the next blog.  This week we found THE COOLEST STORE for pencil, pen, and paper junkies like me.  It's called Papeterie Nota Bene on Avenue du Parc.  We found it on one of our walks after dinner.  It is one of the coolest, retro paper stores ever.  I was practically hyperventilating over the pencil, pencil sharpener, and eraser offerings (yes, I'm a bit of nerd.) Of course they had the collection of quality pens and fountain pens, but the collection of hundreds of different notebooks of all sizes, types, and colors left me almost speechless.  And don't get me going on the brightly colored portable typewriters...yes you heard me...TYPEWRITERS. Love. This. Store. 

Old and New.  Montreal is a living, breathing, modern City built on the bedrock of over almost 375 years of history.  Next year will be the City's 375th birthday and the City has got projects going everywhere to be ready to celebrate (so NEXT year's blogposts will be full of all that fun!) But it is the mix of old and new that we like so much on our walks. 

The Old Walls. In the early days of Montreal (375 years ago), the original city/fort had a wooden blockade built around it for protection.  Later that wooden wall was replaced by a stone wall that enclosed a much larger town.  It got taller and bigger as the town grew into City. Eventually the City grew far past the old walls and was no longer needed.  So the walls were torn down or built on. There are only two places you can see remnants of the wall. One is underground at the nearby Pointe -a- Calliere Museum and the other is in the grassy park of Champ-de-Mars. This photo shows what would have been the foundations of the stone walls in the early 1700s.

(side note: when they were renovating our building and enlarging the subterranean area for more parking spaces, they came across the remains of the early wall.  So we sit right on top of where the wall once was) 

More recently there was a major new hospital built not too far from us.  It was a much needed hospital associated with the University of Montreal.  There was an old church that had been vacant for many years. The Eglise St Saveur was originally built in 1865. It was demolished for the hospital construction but the portion of the church that had served as the entranced (topped by a steeple) was carefully "deconstructed" and then rebuilt on the corner of Rue St Denis and Viger. 

Whew...what a great week. Tomorrow we're off to the Eastern Townships (a rural, lake-filled countryside between Montreal and Vermont).  We're going to spend a couple of days at Lake Wassiwippi...or is that Wissiwappi?... Will come back with photos of Quebec countryside for next week's blog. 

A Bientot!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Summer in Montreal: Week One

Rue St Paul in Old Montreal 

As much as we love our home in St Pete, the heat of a Florida summer can be a bit overwhelming. So every year around the end of June, we fly north to our apartment in Montreal to escape the excessive heat and humidity. We call ourselves "reverse snowbirds." This year we're up for 6 weeks.  We have all sorts of plans most of which involve long walks and eating. We're checking out all the English Language bookstores, trying to find the best falafel, taste-testing ice cream for the best strawberry, visiting farmers markets, and exploring neighborhoods on foot. We also plan to spend 3 days in the Eastern Townships (an area between Montreal and the Vermont/NH/Maine border) in a small hotel on a lake. 

So how's it gone so far? RELAXING and delicious! First, it's a delight to be in weather that is an average 10 to 20 degrees cooler than at home.  Weather has been mostly sunny with one day of humid weather and a couple days of rain. I love to sit in my reading chair and look out my window to watch the changing sky above the St Lawrence. And I REALLY love, love, love being able to have the windows open with no screens.  The occasional fly comes in for a visit...but NO MOSQUITOS!!!

So...our favorites from our first week. 

In Search of Falafels.  We've hit three falafel places. Two we really liked. One we didn't.  Falafel Avenue on Robert Bourassa Street near McGill University was a brightly lit spot that offered four different kinds of falafel either as a plate or sandwich. They were fresh, not greasy, and quite tasty. Sumac Restaurant is our favorite so far. It's in Little Burgundy around the corner from Atwater Market. The falafel was fantastic and the pita was plump and fresh.  What set this spot apart from the pack so far was the variety of salads and side dishes. The next time I'll try the shish tawouk which looked equally as yummy. The third spot we tried was a small storefront in Old Montreal on rue Notre Dame near St Denis.  The falafels were like little hockey pucks. I forgot the name of the place as I'd like to forget that lunch all together. 

Falafel Plate at Sumac Restaurant 

Books and Books. We're primarily looking for used bookshops but have found that English bookstores tend to be a hybrid in Montreal. With the demise of the Chapters bookstore chain, all the English bookshops are independents and by necessity serve a wide variety of needs. Our favorite so far was the first we visited,  The Word Bookstore on rue Milton just off the McGill U campus.  It was a small used bookstore with fantastic values and wide selection although it's oriented primarily to literature and philosophy. The shop has operated in it's small two story building for 41 years. I laughed when a went to the desk to buy our treasures.  The desk looked as it must have looked on opening day 41 years ago. Crammed with books, a pen and paper ledger, a rotary dial phone, no computer, no credit card reader. Needless to say, it's a cash-only store. We bought 7 books for 17 dollars.  We were almost giddy with our carryall stuffed with new books to read. 

The Word Bookstore

A few days later we stopped at the Argo Bookshop on St-Catherine. The shop is about the size of a shoe box.  But we found a few treasures there as well.  The store sells new and "old" new (meaning discounted older printings) books. There is a comfy chair in the middle of the small box room perfect for browsing. They had a great shelf of travel related books, mainly memoirs, which I really liked. Jerry found a Dennis Lehane book he hadn't read yet. 

The third store we stopped at was S.W. Welch Books on St-Viateur West (just about a block from St-Viateur Bagels). This used bookstore was a little lacking on travel books but had a really good children's books section, an interesting couple of shelves on Canadiana, quite a large mystery and sci-fi collection, good literature offerings, and a great cart of "dollar" books...where Jerry found his next purchase. 

Tasting Ice Cream Thank heavens for Lactaid! My summer goal is to hit all the "must-go" ice cream shops in Montreal and maybe discover a few not yet on the map. We picked a flavor to comparison test across the board when possible. We decided on strawberry as this is strawberry season in Quebec. It there was ever a time to produce really good strawberry ice cream, this would be the time. Our fall back flavors in absence of fraise/strawberry is maple or chocolate. 

My favorite so far is La Diperie although it isn't comparable to the rest as it's style is an incredibly thick and creamy soft serve vanilla that is then dipped into one of many dipping sauces and then covered in your choice of topping(s).  The dark chocolate dipping sauce is really thick and doesn't melt too fast. I like it with crushed almonds and caramel sauce swirl on it. It's heaven. 

Ripples Ice Cream Shop on St-Laurent

We've also tried Ripples on St Laurent (across from Schwartz's smoked meat). Very good strawberry and excellent maple nut. Delices Erables on rue St Paul in Old Montreal had a decent but not stellar strawberry.  They used to have fantastic selection of gelato.  Their offerings are now more limited and more traditional ice cream than gelato style. A new spot on Place d'Armes is Xavier Artisan which offers coffee, soups/salads, pastries, and ice cream. It's a comfortable airy space and they had a good strawberry ice cream on a really nicely crispy cone. 

Good Eats.  We've eaten at home quite a bit with fresh produce, cheeses, and pates from Atwater Market and Jean Talon Market.  We also stopped by Schwartz's and picked up some smoke meat to go (as the line outside was probably an hour long) and Coco Rico's for Portuguese Rotisserie Chicken. 

Chinatown (which is really Asiatown now) is about 1/2 mile from our apartment. We really like the tiny Nouilles de Lan Zhou restaurant where they make the long delicious noodles in a storefront window and serve them in a delicious been broth with lots of vegies. Yum. 

Braised Beef Noodles at Lan Zhou in Chinatown

The MUVBOX Homard is a short walk from our apartment along the waterfront in Old Montreal.  They serve excellent lobster roll (or lobster salad roll is you are a pursuit because there IS celery in the roll) and clam chowder. Muvbox is located in a converted shipping container near Locks 1 and 2 of the Lachine Canal.  If you can't make it to Cape Cod for a lobster roll, this is a pretty excellent second choice.

Yesterday it rained all day.  We slept in and read in bed much of the day.  But finally hunger (and the need to stretch our legs) got the better of us. So we pulled out our McGill University and Cirque du Soleil umbrellas and wandered off down rue St Paul.  We were not the only people who thought sitting in a cozy restaurant on a rainy day was a good idea.  But we managed to find a quiet corner table at Les Pyrenees and enjoyed a fabulous late afternoon lunch/dinner. Jerry had mussels and I had the fish soup. DELICIOUS.  This is one of our favorite local restaurant.  They have a really excellent selection of Catalan inspired dishes.  There are a number of vegetarian items that we've tried in the past, but mainly we seem to gravitate towards the fish selections. 

FUN! Most years in late spring/early summer, the Cirque du Soleil raises their Gran Chapeau (Big Top) on one of the quays in the Old Port of Montreal.  Whenever the Cirque produces a new show, it premiers here.  Like this year.  We had the good fortune to see "Luzia" a magical show inspired by the folklore and music of Mexico. 

The Magic of Luzia

Shops.  We found a great shop, Swell Fellow on rue Notre Dame which has a great selection of  neckties, bowties, cufflinks, and purses. Some are conservative, some quite quirky, all are very well made.  Neckties are made at a sewing station in the front window and designed by one of the owners. (Reminds me of the cigar stores in Tampa where you can watch someone roll cigars in the front windows)  Almost made me wish that Jerry and Jason were wearing ties these days. 

Handmade neckties at Swell Fellow in Old Montreal 

Cats. As always, we miss our little furpals when we travel.  Fortunately in Montreal there is a cat cafe where we can get our feline fix. Cafe Chat l'Heureaux on rue Duluth is a wonderful spot to grab a bit to eat, drink a cup of coffee, read a book and play with KITTIES!  The Cafe is run in cooperation with a cat rescue organization and besides the "resident" senior cats they socialize kittens and young cats for adoption. There were four very energetic kittens the afternoon we visited. It was so much fun. 

Walking. So far we've walked all around Old Montreal, along much of Boul St Laurent, down St Catherine, on St-Viateur and Parc.  We wandered through the high energy of the Place d'Artes during the Jazz Festival and though the Gay Village during MTLenArt. We've got ourselves a Metro/STM pass, so we take the subway or a bus to distant spot and then walk back to our apartment picking different streets. St Laurent is one of our favorite streets partially for the great group of murals that are found along the route.  The street is also home to an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. 

After 13 years of coming to Montreal we finally walked around the Mont Royal Park . The park was designed by Olmsted (of Central Park fame) and is a fix of natural areas/trails and large landscaped parkland.  It was a delight.  And we walked to the Kondiaronk Belvedere (overlook) which looks out over downtown Montreal. Frankly, I'm not sure how we never knew about this spot until a few months ago. It was a beautiful day and the belvedere was filled with happy people. 

Sunny Day at Mont Royal Park on the Kondiaronk Belvedere