Montreal : The Canadian Paris


When my eldest brother and sister-in-law came calling, how could we miss a trip to the great city of Montreal – even though it was my third trip to the city.  Montreal, a Canadian city in Quebec province is the third largest French speaking city.  The first would surely be Paris, but the second, you would not guess it in your wildest dreams!  It is Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It seems virtually everyone speaks French in Kinshasa.


In 1603, explorer Champlain made his first of many voyages across the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence and planted the French flag here in 1603. Then the British and French fought over this land with the British victory in the 1760’s, Montreal was under British control. The French and Brits lived together but anger and warring was never far from the surface.

French was declared as  Québec’s only official language in 1974 when Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101 was passed by Canadian Parliament.  The primary purpose of the bill  was to encourage non-French-speaking immigrants to integrate into the francophone community.  For a traveller it gets trickier to read the road signs as they are only in French and most staff at hotels and restaurants tend to speak only French.  These were two handicaps I suffer whenever I travel to Quebec province, but has still not managed to learn French.


We set off from Toronto early morning and after seven hours of drive reached  Montreal’s old town, Vieux-Montreal.  Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets with lot of pedestrians, spotted with Victorian lamp posts, accompanied by horse-drawn carriages transported us into a different world, but driving through these narrow roads was bit uncomfortable for me being used to multi-lane roads of suburban Toronto.. Once Montreal’s financial hub, Vieux-Montreal is now home to hotels, restaurants, pavement cafes and art galleries.


How did these Scottish cobblestones came to be paved on Montreal’s streets?  They came over as ballast in the late 1700s in ships that returned to Montreal after unloading its cargo of fur and blubber.


We parked our car and set off on foot to explore Vieux-Montreal like most tourists.  We headed straight to the Place d’Armes square -said to be the heart of the city, though it mostly consists of office buildings.


The square is always bustling with activity, with musicians playing.   The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal


In the Place d’Armes square, two tall bronze sculptors caught my attention.  These sculptors have been inspired by two snobs in the novel ‘Two Solitudes’ by Hugh Mac Lennon.  The two snobs depict the cultural distance between English and Francophone Canadians.  On the left is an Englishman holding his pug, staring at the Notre-Dame Basilica, a symbol of religious influence on Canadians.  On the right, two hundred feet away, stands a French lady with her poodle in her hand, giving an offended look at the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal, symbol of English financial power.


On the Eastern side of the Place d’Armes is the majestic Notre-Dame Basilica – built between 1824 and 1829 with two  towers reminiscent of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.  At that time,  the church was the largest in North America and remained so for over fifty years.


Entry into the church costs $5 – a token to help maintain the Basilica in pristine condition.  You will not repent paying $5 for a glimpse inside.  The interior of the church, based on Gothic Revival architecture. is decorated with golden stars, reds, purples, silver, and gold – all on a blue background.  It is filled with intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues.


The stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary do not depict paintings from the religious history of Montreal.


Rear top of the church houses a pipe organ, built in 1891.  The organ comprises four keyboards, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.


Adjacent to the Basalica is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, a U-shaped building.  The building was completed in 1687and the clock added in 1713.


As we walked out of the Basilica, on our front left, across the Place d’Armes square, stood the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal,  Canada’s first bank –  Bank of Montreal  was founded in 1817.  This building was built in 1847, designed by British architect John Wells, resembling the Pantheon. On the bottom left,you can see the French lady with her poodle.  The building is in operation today as BMO’s main Montréal branch.


On to our right stood two classical buildings.  The white building called the Aldred Building built in 1931, designed by Ernest Isbell Barott, with a height of 96 metres or 23 storeys.  The building’s setbacks at the 8th, 13th, and 16th floors to allow more light on the square and create a cathedral-like effect, like the adjacent Notre-Dame Basilica.

The red building with a clock tower is Montreal’s New York Life Insurance Building (also known as the Quebec Bank Building) and was built in 1887. It was the tallest commercial building in Montreal at the time.


We now set out to explore Old Montreal on a horse-drawn carriage ride (calèche).  In recent years calèche has drawn the ire of animal rights activists and lobby groups.  The calèche will not be there with the turn of next year as the city has banned them from 2020.

Lavender: The Flower of Purity


On August 07 we visited Terre Bleu lavender farm in Milton, Ontario with my brother and sister-in-law.  Terre Bleu farm was started by Ian and Isabelle Baird who were enchanted by the spectacular fields of purple and the fragrant air that swirled all around, while vacationing in Quebec.  They moved from downtown Toronto, with their young children William and Madeline, to rural Milton and began farming organic lavender.


In 2011 the Bairds planted their first 10,000 lavender plants. After years of careful planning and cultivation the farm opened to the visiting public in 2014. Today, this is the largest lavender farm in Ontario and is home to over 50,000 lavender plants and many other herbs and flowers spread over 160 acres. Thousands of visitors throng Terre Bleu every summer to share the experience of sustainable organic farming.


Lavender is believed to have originated from the Mediterranean, dating back some 2500 years. It is a flowering plant of the mint family known for its beauty, fragrance and its multiple uses.  Today Lavender is cultivated across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.

Lavender is amongst the world’s most ancient documented plants. Hieroglyphic texts from Ancient Egypt mentions the use of lavender in embalming and cosmetics.  When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, jars filled with ointments resembling lavender were found.


The ancient Greeks called Lavender Nardus (commonly called Nard), after the Syrian city of Naarda. Nard, or ‘Spikenard,’ its Greek name, is referenced throughout the Bible.

“While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof” (Song of Solomon 1.12)


Lavender derives its name from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. The Romans used lavender to scent their baths, beds, clothes and even hair. They also discovered its medicinal properties.  In ancient times, bundles of dried lavender were given to women in labour for squeezing during contractions as the fragrance released was known to alleviate the pain and facilitate an unencumbered birth.


On reaching the farm we embarked on a farm tour.  Our tour guide was a smart enthusiastic young lady pursuing her university degree in life sciences.  She said she loved working on the lavender farm for the fresh scented air she could breathe as it rejuvenated her and also that she could put into practice what she learned at school.  Obviously, it did provide her monetary benefits, especially during her summer vacation.


Walking through the farm we saw women harvesting lavender flowers.  At Terre Bleu, they harvest the flowers manually.  Here they grow the French and English lavenders. Both are lookalikes with the French lavenders a bit taller than their English counterparts.  English lavender in comparison produces less oil, but is more in demand due to its aroma.  French lavender has more camphor in its oil which has a soapy taste. Hence, English lavender oil is preferred over French lavender oil in cooking.


Enjoying the aroma filled air of the farm as we walked a few minutes, we entered the distillation plant.   Lavender oil is distilled here by steam distillation.  This copper still (pot) distillation plant was imported from Portugal to facilitate distillation through the age old European traditions.  The still is packed with lavender flowers to the top avoiding air pockets between the lavender and water at the bottom.  The top of the still is connected to a condenser.  The still is heated and the water boils to form steam.  The steam rises and passes through the still stuffed with lavender flowers.  As the steam passes through the lavender, the pressure inside the sealed kettle along with the high temperature of steam causes the buds of the lavender to release its oils.  The lavender buds hold most of the oil and not the actual flowers.

In the condenser, the steam gradually cools down and turns to liquid that drips out.  As oil and water do not mix, oil floats on water because water is denser.  Oil is drained out from the top spout of the condenser and lavender hydrosol (mixture of oil and water) is removed from the bottom spout.  Hydrosol is used for removing makeup, and in the manufacture of body sprays, deodorants, linen sprays etc.


We then walked to the Apiary being maintained by the farm. The relationship between flowers and bees is only too well known.  Terre Bleu promotes organic cultivation, free from pesticides that are harmful to the bees.  This ensures many healthy bee colonies in the farm.


Lavender is definitely more than just a pretty purple bloom. It has many health and wellness benefits.  Lavender is a good sleep aid and can calm your stress and anxiety.  It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-bacterial and can cure dandruff.  It fights congestion and can relieve sore muscles and headaches.

Our farm tour ended at the farm-store where we enjoyed lavender flavoured ice-cream.