Days 49-51 – Entering French Canada

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 (Muriel)

We checked out of our hotel in Toronto’s Markham neighborhood, where we saw many construction cranes as we had in Calgary.  Modern glass towers were rising there, most of them attractive.  One was an even uglier version of the office building in Westwood that looks like the top is going to topple onto Wilshire Boulevard.   We found the freeway and headed east to Montreal.  Well into the afternoon, we stopped for a very British lunch along the highway.

We detoured from the main highway to drive along the Thousand Islands Parkway for about 37 miles of the journey.  The Thousand Islands (actually there are 1,800 islands), are what separate Lake Ontario, the smallest and most easterly of the Great Lakes, from the St. Lawrence River.  The islands are billion year old granitic remnants of old mountains that were worn away over the eons by glaciers.  They are part of the Frontenac Ridge that connects the Canadian Shield in Algonquin Provincial Park north of Toronto to the Adirondack Mountains in ­New York State.  We stopped at most of the official pull outs where we read the informational signs, hence whatever sounds knowledgeable about the Thousand Islands in this journal.  It was a bit frustrating that the signs were set up for people traveling west, rather than east.  We kept reading about what we had seen and should have looked for.

Images of the Thousand Islands

Back on the main highway, we contended with increasingly aggressive trucks and crossed from the Province of Ontario into the Province of Quebec.  Suddenly all road signs and other signs went from being in English with French below to being only in French.  The truck drivers were more aggressive.  There was construction narrowing major arteries to one lane (not the first place in eastern Canada this happened).  We followed The Lady of The Dashboard through a maze of arteries and freeways into downtown Montreal as the sky darkened.  Houses and apartment buildings looked subtly but distinctly different from those we had seen in Anglophone Canada.  The neighborhoods became industrial, and then we were downtown.  The Lady got us to our hotel, where we had a bit of trouble finding the entrance.  After some block circling, a garage door automatically opened for us.  We parked in the bowels of the earth under the hotel and headed for the lobby.

There was a problem!  Our reservation for three nights was to have started the night before.  We had been no-shows.  We had been cancelled.  Normally this would only have cost us the forfeit of last night’s fee.  This was not a normal period.  We had lost our reservation.  There was an enormous medical convention in town.  The hotel was booked.  Andrew, the clerk helping us, had recently phoned about a dozen other downtown Montreal hotels for other people showing up at this hotel.  They were all booked.  Finally he found a fancy hotel where he booked us for tonight at an amazingly high price.  But wait….  Carmen, the assistant manager who was in charge for the evening, had an idea!  She went to check it out.  To shorten the story somewhat, we are spending the night in the model unit of the condos in the floors above the hotel.  It’s the 21st century version of the secret passageway in the castle.

Cefik, the Bosnian bellman, is the only hotel employee with a key to the elevators providing access to the condo floors and to the door of the model unit.  He and Carmen took us up to the unit to check it out.  It is a cute junior one-bedroom apartment-condo attractively furnished in Ikea modern.  As it happens, Allan and I like Ikea modern.  Even if we didn’t, this would have been much better than sleeping in the car.  We said “wonderful.”  Carmen fetched the few missing necessities, towels and toilet paper, and arranged for someone to bring light bulbs for the lamps that were missing them.  She recommended a couple of nearby restaurants.

After checking the restaurants in the AAA guide which confirmed Carmen’s recommendations, we walked about four blocks to one of them.  We had a wonderful French dinner, where we were told the restaurant was surprisingly busy for a Wednesday evening because of a big convention.  After dinner, we walked back to the hotel.  Andrew (from Italy) summoned Cefik of the key, who let us into the elevator that goes to the condos above the hotel.  So here we are, comfortably hidden away.  Carmen will phone us as soon as a hotel room is available in the morning.  We will then be able to move to a regular hotel room.  After that transfer, I expect we will get our own room keys, rooms we can get to on elevators we can access without Cefik’s help, a shower curtain for the bathtub, and somewhat fancier décor.  I’m not sure we will prefer the fancier décor, but we look forward to the other luxuries.

It’s interesting.  Finding our way into downtown Montreal was intimidating, even with the assistance of the GPS.  The truck drivers were extremely rude and aggressive.  Drivers were honking at us and just about everyone else.  Finding our way into the hotel parking was intimidating.  We were altogether alienated.  But the helpfulness of the hotel staff and their resourcefulness entirely disarmed us.  When the food server at the restaurant asked how we liked Montreal, Allan enthused “wonderful!”

Thursday, September 25 (Muriel)

After breakfast at the hotel, the hotel clerks advised we should sightsee and get located in a proper room later.  They reserved places on a Gray Line tour of Montreal.  We were picked up by a bus that took us to a tourist center where we boarded the tour bus.  The driver/guide was boring.  He told us much more than we could conceive about wanting to know about how much the various religious edifices cost and how the funds were raised, but little we could understand about the things we found interesting.  However, we did get a good overview of the interesting areas of the city and found our hotel was within walking distance of most of the sites we wanted to visit.

When we returned to the hotel, we were given keys for a real hotel room where we settled in and received our luggage.  Feeling much more relaxed about our near term future, we walked to Rue St-Paul, a major restaurant street, where we found lunch at an Asian-French fusion restaurant.  We walked along the park at the edge of the harbor to the ticket office for boat tours and got the schedule for boat tours.  Then we explored the Chateau Ramezay Museum, a restored early 18th century home of a French governor of Montreal, that is now a museum of the history of the area.

Back at the hotel, Allan spent a lot of time on business phone calls.  Eventually we went to an excellent dinner at the other restaurant Carmen had recommended.

Friday September 26 (Muriel,with a little help from Allan)

We spent the morning at the Pointe-a-Calliere Museum of Archaeology and History.  This museum is a very modern building built on remains of the original European settlement in Montreal.  After a slick and informative multi-media show about the history of Montreal, we wandered among the archaeological displays in the ruins of the earlier buildings on this spot.


Yes, this is as designed although the spectator was not sure and we did have to ask

Through a Sewer (abandoned) Darkly

Then we headed to the pier for an hour long tour boat tour of the shore and St. Lawrence River on Le Bateau-Mouche, a Paris style riverboat.  A huge flock of schoolchildren filled the lower level of the boat, while a dozen or so adults like us had a quieter tour on the upper deck.  We had excellent views of Montreal and a much livelier guide who explained what we were seeing in both French and English.

One of the fascinating aspects of the boat tour was seeing some of the then iconic elements of the 1967 Montreal Expo as they looked a forty years later.   Both Moishe Safdie’s Habitat for Humanity and the Calder Stabile had some elements of timelessness but Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the US Pavilion burned up a few decades ago and now servies only as a visual frame for buildings since built within it.


We had been told that smoked meat is one of the culinary delights of Montreal, and several people told us that Schwartz’s Delicatessen is THE place to get smoked meat.  So we took a taxi to the many-times recommended establishment.  Although our taxi driver did not know the restaurant, we had to wait in line on the sidewalk at 3:00 in the afternoon.  Within a short time we were seated at one end of a long table, where we ordered a plate of smoked meat, half-sour pickles, etc.  Two more couples were seated at our table.  The smoked meat was essentially pastrami with ryebread served on the side.  It wasn’t much different from food we could get at many of the Jewish deli’s at home.  What was different is that all three couples started gabbing happily.  One couple was from New York, the other from Culver City.  We traded information about our travels and the like.  We chatted with our waiter who raises a variety of small exotic songbirds and is trying to find the courage to go on a bird walk.  We assured him that birdwatchers are friendly, helpful sorts.

We decided to walk back to our hotel, having seen that our taxi ride from old town to Schwartz’s wasn’t all that far.  We walked faster than normally, as Allan had to be in our room by 4:30 for a conference call.  Even so, we walked through a fairly hip shopping area, several strip joints and Chinatown before returning to the city center and our hotel.  As we had already noticed many times, a lot of people on the sidewalks were smoking cigarettes.  Our noses told us that not all of the cigarettes were tobacco.

By 7:00, when Allan was finally finished working, I was exhausted despite taking a short nap, and neither of us was hungry.  We went downstairs for a glass of wine in the lobby, chatted briefly with Carmen, and turned in early.  Having napped earlier, I watched the first presidential debate before going to bed.

While we sipped our wine before retiring, we learned that Carmen was born in Romania.  We already knew one of the hotel clerks, Emelie, is Portuguese, another is Italian, and the bellman is Bosnian.  Although we saw fewer Asians in Montreal than we had in western Canada and in Toronto, Montreal is also quite a melting pot, one with a very French accent.

The central city and old town areas we had explored are filled with a mix of old buildings and modern highrises, as well as scatterings of squares with monumental sculptures or tiny parks.  Montreal feels quite European and, of course, French.  To us it felt very old, but we were told many times that it wasn’t really old like Quebec City, as Montreal was originally built of wood and kept burning down.  The last time it burned down was 200 years ago.  Then it was finally rebuilt in stone.  So the old buildings here are “only” 200 years old, although we saw foundations of much greater age at the museums.


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