Montreal: day one

The view down the aisle.

Hurrah for sleeping in until 8am. If I’d known how difficult it would be to find breakfast, I would have stayed in bed until 11. Hungry, we set out towards Marché Bonsecours, which was in Vieux Montreal. A recommendation, I thought it would be like a proper market with food stalls where we could sample the local fare.

We walked there as it wasn’t too far. It was closed and wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes or so. Nevermind though, the streets were oldy worldy and French-looking, which added to the disorientation. I had to remind myself we were in Canada, not France. The streets were cobbled, the buildings grand, and the restaurants closed.

We walked to Place Jacques-Cartier which was a bit more promising, with a couple of restaurants with al fresco seating and—hurrah—breakfast. We went into one place which had a bunch of people eating. The place next door was empty and we felt sorry for them as people kept coming into the one we were at. Mind you, the birds kept coming to eat bits off the croissants that were so carefully arranged to be enticing near the entrance. I had an omelette and Glen had a breakfast combination thing with the works.

Without realising it, we were already next to Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) so we stood outside it for a bit, took some photos, but the thought of looking through museum type exhibitions was a bit much so we walked down to Marché Bonsecours again. Not really a market, it was just a long building with shops that sold high priced items from artisans and designers. Not all that interesting to us. However, Vieux Montreal was a definite highlight.

We walked along more cobbled streets, passing restaurants that were opening up for brunch, and then arriving at the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal. We paid our entry fee and went inside, joining an English speaking guided tour that went for half an hour. The basilica is impressive, the decoration is amazing and the altar just takes your breath away.

Here are some facts I picked up:

  • the stars painted on the roof are 23-carat gold
  • the organ has 7000 pipes in it, with four keyboards and 90 stops
  • the basilica was built in the 1800s but it didn’t look the way the inside looks now until 1929
  • unlike Notre Dame in Paris (which this Basilica looks nothing like), it isn’t a cruciform, which is unusual for a Catholic basilica
  • the basilica was designed by an Irish Protestant called O’Donnell, and it was built for the Roman Catholic French (who were a minority at the time)
  • Montreal was founded by French, Irish, Scottish and English (which surprised me considering how French it is yet there was that “British” presence).

The tour guide was interesting and made learning fun. She also showed us a few of the stained glass windows which depict the founding of Montreal (within its religious context), rather than a religious story of Christ etc.

Afterwards we went in search of crepes but bought maple sugar instead (and coffee and a milkshake). We walked down to Vieux Port to see what was going on down there. This was also where the Divers/Cité outdoor event was being held (though it didn’t kick off until 4pm). We hired one of those peddle cart things with four wheels, a seat and a steering wheel. We cycled up to the Clock Tower and then back again and down towards another bit of port. It was hard to pedal and to steer and the half hour we booked on it suddenly seemed too long. We completed the circuit and then returned the bike.

As part of the ticket, we also got half an hour on a pedal boat, which you could navigate through a little enclosed pond area. When asked if we wanted a life jacket, we asked how deep it was. “Three feet.” We laughed and declined. We took on water pretty quickly though as it started to dribble in through the rudder handle that sat in between us. We got about halfway around the pond then decided to head back. All that exercise! We’re on holiday!

After returning to dry land we walked back up towards the hotel, stopping for lunch along the way. When we got back to the hotel we had a nap for a little while then got ready to go out for dinner and return to the Basilica for a light show called Et La lumière fut. We had dinner in Vieux Montreal at a pizza restaurant (we had lobster pizza and a margherita pizza) then walked around a bit more before getting to the Basilica in time for the show to start at 7.

I was expecting something impressive done with the interior of the basilica. Lights illuminated certain aspects of it, accompanied by a moving sound track that, even if you don’t believe in God or follow the Catholic faith, you would nonetheless be moved to experience something of the divine or contemplate another’s faith.

Instead, when we went in, they had erected five pieces of white cloth, four on each side with one central screen. They completely obscured the magnificent altar and most of the church. When it started, the central screen wasn’t illuminated, and we were listening to a historical account (yet not a documentary) of the founding of Montreal. Some lights moved, then there was some video, and then there was nothing. Let there be darkness.

It had broken down. We waited and eventually someone came out the front to say there were technical difficulties and the show was cancelled. We could get a refund outside. We rushed to beat most of the people but the shop next door which would give out the refunds wasn’t prepared for the sudden appearance of all these people (in fact, I think they’d closed for the evening) so there would be at least a ten-minute wait.

We decided we didn’t really need a $20 refund ($10 each) right then and didn’t want to miss the show at Divers/Cité so we left. Occasional drops of rain landed on us as we walked but then it seemed to clear. It had been threatening to rain most of the day but it seemed to hold off for a while. We got to the party, went in and headed to the stage at the end.

Tonight was Mascara, la nuit des drags, and was really all we wanted to see. We got a good position, not too far from the front, the show started and the crowd rolled in. Hosted by Mado, a well-known drag queen from Montreal (who has her own Cabaret lounge it seems), there were about 20 performances from different drag queens and their backup dancers. Mado herself had 24 costume changes throughout the show.

We stayed for about an hour, then the rain started and we decided to go. Our legs were sore too. It was a good show, some performances better than others though. It was really obvious when a drag queen didn’t know the words to the song, or forgot the choreography, even more so when they floundered instead of just going with it, turning the mishap into just part of the show. The backup dancers were pretty good though and knew their stuff.

We missed seeing the fireworks that went off over Ile Ste-Helene at 10pm. We heard them when we got back to our hotel and unfortunately could only see a few of the edges from our window as the building in front was blocking them. They looked to be very big and impressive. Shame we didn’t see them.

We were wearing these blue wristband things that we’d bought in Toronto. They’re “Friends of the Festival” wristbands and gave us entry into the outdoor event stuff happening on the Quay. Problem was, once you put it on, you couldn’t take it off. When back in the hotel room, Glen tried to undo his using a pen he had wedged between his teeth. The wristband didn’t come off but a bit of his tooth did. Silly boy.

After a quick costume change, we went down to Rue Ste-Catherine to find a club to go to. We eventually settled on Apollon, which was just about empty when we went in but gradually filled up as the hours passed. We had a few drinks, I danced a bit but it’s not quite the same without friends and I wasn’t quite in the friend-making mood. We left about 1am, considered going elsewhere but eventually went home. We’d been out though, that’s what mattered. I crashed into bed straight away, falling asleep to the click-clacking of Glen updating his blog.

A successful first day in Montreal.


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