City Portrait: Ah, Montreal

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

Museums, great expanses of greenery, cobblestones, fine shops, soaring architecture, Old World cuisine ...What a wonderful place to cruise. It's France without the attitude.

Soaking up the heat from the spring sun, I lean back against gray stone, sip my first cappuccino of the day, and enjoy a flaky croissant. Listening to the sibilance of French and the click of shoes on cobblestones, I gaze across the street. The upper decks and smokestacks of an ocean-going vessel define the horizon as white gulls trail, circling on motionless wings in a flawless blue sky. Early Saturday morning, with little traffic on the street, I'd been able to park my bike directly in front of the café - something that would be nearly impossible a couple of hours on. I feel I'm back in Europe, but in fact it's only a three-hour ride home.

Montreal is the third-largest French-speaking city in the world and only 13 percent of the slightly fewer than two million inhabitants consider English their primary language. Despite their diverse ethnic backgrounds, residents of Montreal are fervently French in language and culture.

It's also an island city, situated in the middle of the St. Lawrence River at the mouth of the Ottawa River. Nine hundred and ninety-four miles from the Atlantic Ocean, it was nonetheless one of North America's greatest ports until the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535, while he searched for the elusive Northwest Passage, its strategic military and trade location played a pivotal role in the burgeoning development of Canada and the United States. That rich history remains very tangible in Vieux (Old) Montreal.

Cobblestoned Rue de la Commune is the main street in the old city. On one side lie the reclaimed docks of the former port - Alexandria and King Edward piers - while on the other, cobblestoned streets slope up the ridge to Rue Notre-Dame. This very small section of the city presents the distinctive feel of old Europe: narrow streets flanked by imposing gray stone buildings, filled with restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Place Jacques-Cartier, a steep, double street closed to traffic with a wide median strip that becomes center stage for street performers of all types, is a popular destination for the Saturday-morning brunch crowds. On weekends the restaurants are busy and motorcycles line the Rue de la Commune at its foot. Across the street the promenade of a communal green (opened a decade ago) is packed with thousands of Montrealers lounging on the grass, strolling, bicycling, and rollerblading. Here the King Edward and Alexandria piers jut into the St. Lawrence River. Once derelict, but reclaimed from their former roles as major international docking quays, they now support an IMAX theater, food vendors, and the city's science center. It's just one of the city's many "green zones," but definitely a favorite of mine for people watching.

From Rue de la Commune I manage to find my way across the Lachine Canal to Mill Street and through the winding maze of streets underneath the elevated Autoroute Bonaventure (Route 10) to Avenue Pierre-Dupuy. I stop to take a close look at Habitat '67, the ultra-modern apartment complex designed by architect Moshe Safdie. The prefabricated abodes are ranged in seeming disorder, like a stack of children's blocks, but positioned so that each window and balcony is completely secluded from adjoining neighbors.

Exiting the Concord Bridge onto Notre-Dame Island, I find myself on the closed-off route of the annual Grand Prix event. Ironically, surrounded on all sides by a dense, moving crowd of Montrealers on bicycles and rollerblades, I'm forced to inch slowly along in first gear. Spying Buckminster Fuller's immense geodesic dome, now the world-famous biosphere, I make my escape, crossing the Moyne Channel on an unnamed bridge. Obviously I chose the wrong set of wheels for touring the park today!

I take time to ride around the city, cruising between towering skyscrapers, exploring the old streets at McGill University, and winding my way up Mont-Royal between the Cemetery of Notre-Dame and the park. There, at the only observation point set up for vehicles, the expanse of the eastern part of the city spreads before me. In the distance I see the tower of the "Big O" and it becomes my next destination.
Headed toward the Olympic Stadium, I cruise down Avenue du Mont-Royal. The sidewalks are teeming as residents of this culturally diverse area browse the trendy shops and run their Saturday errands at grocers, pharmacies, and specialty stores. I take the hint to enjoy the ambiance and run a couple of personal errands myself.

The Olympic Stadium boasts the tallest inclined tower in the world and forms a landmark to guide fans to the home of the Montreal Expos. There's no game today, but several busloads of high school students are here on a school field trip and one of the upper parking lots is being used to conduct a motorcycle safety course. The complex is huge, but its one-billion-dollar price tag seems excessive, even for this much concrete. Next-door is the Biodome. Containing four complete North American ecosystems, it's unique in all the world, and I plan to make a special trip just to spend the bulk of a day exploring it.
Busy afternoon traffic means it's now impossible to sightsee and ride safely. Parking places have become scarce, so I'm fortunate to find one on Boulevard St. Laurent that's only half a block from the red-and-gold gateway leading into Chinatown. The narrow sidewalks are crowded and the small grocery stores packed. Asians from all over the city come to shop in this small quarter.

I park illegally the next time, squeezing in alongside a Honda VFR, in a space reserved for taxis across from the plaza for the Museum of Contemporary Art on Rue St. Catherine. Acquiring a window seat at a local café, I order a double cappuccino and a big slice of raspberry cheesecake. After a delightful half hour of people watching I return. A police officer tries to explain in English and French that I'm parked in a reserved space. I blithely answer in Italian and indicate my intentions to leave. That satisfies him - no ticket.

Riding down Rue St. Denis, I pass St. Louis Square, another of Montreal's beautiful tree-filled parks. It intrigues me to such an extent that I loop around to approach it from the other side. In doing so, I pass through a lovely neighborhood and cross a pedestrian-only street that catches my wandering eye. Parking beyond a row of townhouses, each of which has its window frames and door painted in a different color, I stroll down Rue Cote d'Arthur to Boulevard St. Laurent, on the northern edge of the Latin Quarter, the center of Montreal's noted restaurant and nightclub district. I'm not ready for a full meal so I duck into a shop and order a falafel pita with all the fixings to go - it costs an inconsequential $ 1.71 Canadian.

I feel like I've spent a day in Europe, but with the orange glow of the setting sun reflecting from the city's glass towers, I head home on two wheels - simple, easy, and so much more fun than being cooped up on a long plane ride!