For years now I’ve been badgered by people across the spectrum about how I need to visit Montreal. A little slice of Europe and so much closer, one Francophile gushed. Another friend raved how it was a city that took its food very seriously. A well-traveled mate boasted that the city’s gay village was the biggest in North America, while others insisted that a laissez-faire weekend of Quebecois culture made for an quick and easy escape. What finally hooked me, however, was the promise of an antidote to the occasional spells of claustrophobia that come from living in NYC: a civility to urban life – and plenty of sky.
So, I finally heeded the siren’s song and headed north this July, timing my visit to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the grandaddy of all jazz festivals, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.
That’s the best I can muster about underwhelming Montreal, which struck me as more of a poor cousin to Los Angeles than a continental city in miniature. Yes, there is a European influence: Quebecers, they speak French and the croissant are lovely, but a Mittel America aesthetic of big cars, big roads and big (happy) meals is more in line with the Montreal I found. (So much for urban civility.) Entre nous, I wouldn’t necessarily consider that synonymous with European unless we’re talking about – ouch – Eurotrash.
The little slice of Europe is a reference to Old Montreal and the cobbled streets and quirky buildings of the 17th century port. Squint your eyes and you might as well be at the South Street Seaport – any charm that might once have existed has been squeezed out by the blight of naff shops peddling kitsch. Serious about food? Yes, I will give the city that. But Paula Dean is serious about food, too; that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to eat what someone else is taking seriously. Two glaring examples are oddly enough bagels and smoked meat, which are attended to with an almost religious devotion in Montreal. After dutifully trekking to Schwartz’s, the Lourdes of Montreal’s smoked meat community, I left half of my dry, gristle-enhanced pastrami on rye in the rubbish. Starved for carbs, I got through two bites of a square, sweet, honey-boiled Montrealer bagel before it joined it’s friend in the bin. And while I am not one who delves too deeply into gay culture when I travel, I do like to look about and sample a bit of how my brothers and sisters live. Montreal may boast of a large gay village but there’s no reason to visit unless you’re looking for porn, dancing boys or a cappuccino. It’s a ghetto, in the worst, secessionist meaning of the word.
Now get ready to scratch your head: I can’t wait to go back next July.
That’s because the Montreal jazz festival is two weeks of aural heaven. A true festival of musical and cultural contrasts and counterpoints, it’s centrally located downtown and spread over a dozen stages – not including the random shows that pop up on street corners or in bars – within walking, if not spitting, distance from each other. You can hear music from dawn until the wee hours of the morning, and the vast majority of it is free. Stay at one of the hotels on or near the festival square and you won’t need to check your joie de vivre at the gate: you need never interact with the rest of the city if you don’t want to too. And that’s my plan for 2010.
In the course of four days I took approximately ten photos of Montreal: not exactly a ringing endorsement for visuals. However, in Old Montreal I found the spectacularly lit Basilica Notre Dame. I can’t believe I’m about to repeat this, but the factoid is repeated so relentlessly – and rapturously – by the overeager docents that if you leave Montreal knowing only one thing, you will know this: it’s where Celine Dion got married.