Five Degrees Colder – A Montreal Travel Log
Craving a change of scenery in the midst of the sludge of winter, I planned a long weekend to Montreal. It’s become my default reaction over the years, that when I feel a little out of step with myself or my head needs clearing, I take a trip somewhere. There’s enough to be said about solo travel that it could fill a post in itself but, even if just for a weekend, it can often be restorative to my mind in a way that little else is.
Around this time last year, I took off on a similar foot, hopping the Channel to a spend a weekend in Brussels. Perhaps that venture came to mind, or perhaps I just needed a sight somewhat more familiar, but the promise of the older European-style architecture in Montreal was enough to have me boarding a five hour train north.
Montreal instantly struck me as being one of the strangest places I’d ever seen. Old European cities tend to be split very much into their older and newer parts: the Old Town/New Town divide of Edinburgh, for example, or Stockholm’s Gamla stan, separated from other parts of the city by bridges. Montreal, while emulating a very European style of architecture in many ways, doesn’t conform to this principle. Instead, new and old are chopped together side by side – you just about get a sense of what it might have looked like before, before the new buildings began to be dropped in between like Monopoly pieces.
Montreal is, in many ways, a city of conflicts: between the older and newer architecture, with Mount Royal rising in the midst of it all; between the use of French and English that seems to vary so much street to street that I never quite knew which language to use. To turn a corner could feel as though you were walking from one city into another entirely.
Having arrived late and crashed out in my pretty fancy hotel room (this will become relevant later), I took off in search of the Old Town the next morning. I was blessed with a gloriously sunny weekend that took the edge off the persistent chill. Something in the air there is crisper than it is Toronto, and the cold feels that much more bitter against your skin, if only a five degree difference in actual temperature.
After several wrong turns down endless streets, I turned one more corner and stopped still. The street signs a little more rustic, the streets themselves cobbled. It felt delightfully familiar. I visited Notre-Dame Basilica and marvelled at the breathtaking interiors. I lit a candle, as I do in every church I visit – despite not being religious myself, it’s a custom I’ve picked up from my mother. Most of my earliest travel memories involve exploring beautifully old European towns with her by my side.
I ate lunch in a quiet cafe on the square before continuing on to the Museum of Fine Arts. I got lost in the permanent collections for a while and finished up at the Alexander Calder exhibit.
I had planned to have a quick rest at the hotel and then go in the search for food. Another thing I’d had recommended to me constantly in the weeks leading up to my trip – of how great the food in Montreal is. Another thing I will have to return for.
Despite the fact that I ended up getting knocked out by the flu and then, shortly after, a busted up ankle, I did manage to make it further yet that weekend. But evenings were largely spent eating bananas in a pile of pillows in my hotel room. I had dithered between booking a nice hotel for a change or just a bunk in a hostel like I often would when travelling. Clearly, I made the right choice this time around.
Ankle aching and unable to breath through my nose, I set off determinedly up Mount Royal. Under the winter sun, children sledged down hills, and cross-country skiers zipped across the pathways. Some snowshoed through the mounds of snow while others, like me, walked penguin-like across the icy paths and hoped for the best. Having taken in the view, I warmed up with a coffee inside the Chalet and then went on an unnecessarily extensive walking tour from Downtown up to Mile End.
Monday, I had planned ahead: a day at Bota Bota, the spa on the river. The hours I spent floating on the water, between scorching steam rooms and soft thermal waters, staring out over the frozen river and the edgings of the port, were the culmination of a weekend that did exactly what I needed it to do. I came away with a clearer head and a more focused and settled feeling in my body.
At last, Monday evening, I made it further than my bed after five o’clock. I enjoyed a custom cocktail at the Cloakroom, a minute space hidden away beside a tailor’s. I got talking to the incredibly talented bartender who, being from near where I am, picked up on my accent immediately. In desperate need of some food by this point, having sustained on a diet of hotel boiled eggs and bananas for several days, I devoured a steak and some light jazz at the Upstairs Jazz Bar. At the point at which I was getting chatted up by a dairy farmer, it felt time to call it a night.
Seemingly as ever, the trip I took was not necessarily the one I had planned. Usually, however, my plans are derailed more by the likes of eating waffles with members of the U.S. airforce in town squares late at night than by prolonged illnesses and twisted up ankles that I got diagnosed for me over FaceTime by a friend.
Montreal, let’s try again another time. I’ve got a lot more food to eat and at least one more speakeasy to find.
P.S. Since the turn of the year, my two-week posting streak has gone a bit haywire. In the hopes of getting back into something slightly better than the once-a-month of late, regular posting is now going to be every three weeks. She says, optimistically.