Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Quebec, August 5-6 - Montreal


Montreal greeted us Sunday afternoon with a perfect day. After an infusion of coffee at an outdoor cafe near Rue Ste. Catherine, we set off to explore the city on foot. First we headed east toward the Latin Quarter and the Village. This part of Montreal seems like a Francophone version of any American city, but with more ethnic food businesses, and more murals.

Summer is festival season in Quebec, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the middle of the last day of the FrancoFolies Francophone music festival, watching Pierre Lapointe rehearse for his headlining concert. A few blocks later, we found ourselves at the Divers/Cite gay music festival, where we met a unique Toronto Dominion advertisement: a man wearing nothing but glitter, a body paint logo on his chest, and some green short shorts. He was happy to pose for a picture.

We picked Au Pied de Cochon, based on amazing internet reviews, for an early dinner. In our foie gras poutine appetizer, the foie gras blended nicely with the french fries (cooked in duck fat), gravy, and cheese curds. For our main, the "pied de cochon" lacked exoticism (no hoof) but was incredibly tender and swimming in a tasty oniony, garlicky, mustardy sauce.

After dinner we strolled through Little Italy and Mont Royal the Plateau and turned in for the night at the W downtown.

In the thunder and rain of Monday morning, we explored the shops and disorienting walkways of the Underground City looking for a store selling umbrellas. By the time we had breakfast, bought the umbrella, and emerged, the rain had stopped. Fearful of more rain, we took the subway to Olympic Park and the Biodome, a sort of indoor zoo, but found the Biodome too crowded to get into. So we set out on another food expedition, this time to get fresh wood-fired Montreal Bagels, known for their flatness, and to stop by the venerated Schwartz's Charcuterie.

The Fairmount Bagel bakery in Mile End was a longer walk and a smaller business than we had imagined. We waited in line in the tiny room, ordered our bagels from the counter overlooking the kitchen, and ate on park bench outside. The garlic bagels had about ten times the amount of garlic that we expected, and the insides were deliciously warm and fluffy. An analogy: fresh Fairmount Bagels are to ordinary American bagels as fresh Krispy Kremes are to old grocery store doughnuts.

Schwartz's was so crowded that we moved through about 5% of the takeout line in 15 minutes, so we gave up on them. At least we have the souvenir photo. Determined to make the most of our subway passes, we next visited Jean Drapeau Island, a large, empty, and underwhelming park featuring an EPCOT-like sphere from the 1967 World's Fair and a Formula 1 racetrack. We climbed the grandstands to get a good view of the city over the St. Lawrence river and amused ourselves chasing down the dense marmot population.

We saved the biggest tourist attraction for last, visiting Vieux Port and Vieux Montreal in the afternoon and evening. The buildings were attractive, and the antiquated 1900-era financial district interesting, but the throngs of tourists and souvenir shops made for an inauthentic ambiance.

Tonight's dinner was french: duck with orange risotto and buffalo steak with anchovy sauce. Mmmm.

By chance, we walked by a fountain and park behind our hotel at the right time and saw an amazing show of mist and fire. It became our favorite Montreal attraction. (Take a look at the pictures.)