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.
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.
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.