Rambling around Montreal
A decade of living in the Big Apple has taught me the joys of urban hiking, so I always look forward to pursuing my hobby in a new locale. Montreal sounded like an ideal destination: an old, compact city, rich in history and culture. It's exactly the sort of place that makes city walking a stimulating counterpoint to the wilderness trekking we otherwise enjoy.
My wife Diane and I have a pattern to our urban strolls one we follow whether we're wandering the familiar streets of New York or the exotic districts of Katmandu. During a recent long weekend in Montreal, we fell into the same familiar routine, which involves three steps to understanding the culture and context of any new metropolis:
1) Find the historic sites that unveil the past on an introductory walk.
2) Take a cross-town ramble through the neighborhoods that give many a city its cosmopolitan flavor.
3) Then hike the open spaces where the locals escape the bustle of their urban surroundings.
Our rambles in Montreal covered the gamut of sights and secret hideaways, and by the time we left we had a good sense of both the layout and the personality of this great city.
In May, 1642, four boats cruised up the St. Lawrence River. The three dozen French settlers aboard had spent a cold winter downstream at Quebec, and with spring at hand they were anxious to establish a mission on the site discovered decades earlier by Samuel de Champlain. Paul de Chomedey led the party ashore near a small stream, and the pioneers quickly began constructing a stockade and cabins. They named their settlement Ville Marie. Present-day Montreal was born.
Today the excavated remains of that original settlement are visible at Pointe-a-Calliere, a small park in the heart of Old Montreal. Bounded roughly by rue McGill, rue Saint-Antoine, rue Berri and rue de La Commune along the St. Lawrence, the old town is a fascinating blend of pioneer, colonial and Victorian architecture that traces through centuries of Montreal life.
Our walk began in the old port's southwest corner at rue McGill and rue St. Antoine. From there, one can wander at random through the old streets for several hours. We chose a route heading along rue Notre Dame, parallel to the river. This walk passes Montreal's oldest remaining building, the Sulpician Seminary. Built in 1683, the Seminary housed the Sulpician order, responsible for the Seigniory of Montreal Island. In this role, the order effectively controlled the land of the city and pervaded city life for almost two centuries.
Across rue Notre Dame lies Place d'Armes. The site of early battles between the settlers and the Iroquois Indians, Place d'Armes now houses of statue of Montreal's founder. De Chomedy was wounded here in one of those struggles. Notre-Dame Basilica rises magnificently beside the Seminary, its twin towers, Temperance and Perseverance, standing 200 meters above the Old Town. The Basilica can seat 3,800 people in a stunning neo-Gothic chamber designed by Victor Bourgeau and opened in 1829.
Proceeding farther along rue Notre-Dame, we were treated to sharply contrasting views of Vieux Montreal. To the right lies Chateau Ramezay, reminiscent of the early settlement. Built in 1705 as the residence of Governor Claude de Ramezay, the Chateau is now a museum offering a glimpse into colonial life for the city aristocracy. Across from the Chateau rise monuments to the prosperity and vitality the city experienced during the nineteenth century. The ornate Hotel de Ville, City Hall, was built in 1878 as a majestic example of Second Empire architecture. Beside it stands the Palais de Justice, the Courthouse, its imposing colonnade now fronting a dramatic arts and music conservatory.
On rue Bon-Secours, we turned right toward the river, intending to make our way back to our starting point along rue St-Paul. This proved less straightforward than we imagined, as attractions in the side streets of the Old Town drew us from our intended route. The beautiful Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1657. Beside that sits a fieldstone home that once belonged to Pierre du Calvet, a leading Montreal proponent of the American Revolution. Further on, Pointe-a-Calliere sits behind the Old Customs House. The Museum of Archaeology and History is situated here also, on the original landing point for the early settlers.
For a final stop on our Old Town tour , we visited the Promenade du Vieux-Port, along the St. Lawrence River. This bustling port is a fitting reminder that the river is what made Montreal a booming transportation crossroads and led to the prosperous metropolis we know today.
As the second largest French-speaking city in the world, and with a further cultural mix from English, Asian, and Caribbean residents, Montreal is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in North America. On the second day of our visit, we planned a walk that would encompass the grand sweep of the city, taking us miles from the edge of Parc du Mont-Royal to the Jardin Botanique de Montreal .
Around 1850, a pedestrian along rue Sherbrooke (at the base of Mont-Royal) might have watched the city's aristocracy bustling to the latest party during the height of the social season. The street was lined with baronial mansions, homes to the Scottish and English families who made their fortunes in the early fur trade and subsequently moved into finance, shipping and industrial interests. This was the heart of the Square Mile, Montreal's most prestigious neighborhood.
We began our walk along rue Sherbrooke to see what remained of that lost age. Like New York's Fifth Avenue, most of the mansions have fallen victim to progress and urban renewal. But enough remain standing to remind visitors of past glory. Maison Corby west of rue Stanley, was built in 1882 and has been resurrected as the offices of Corbis Distilleries. Moving east, we passed Maison Alcan, the headquarters of Alcan Aluminum which is lodged in the former home of Lord Atholstan, publisher of the now-defunct Montreal Star, once the city's largest English newspaper. Institute Allan, now a psychiatric center, was originally called Ravenscrag, a limestone castle built by shipping czar Sir Hugh Allan. Elite city clubs, the Club de Mount Royal and the United Services Club, occupy other notable buildings along the way.
Passing through the Roddick Gates, we entered Universite McGill. Bequeathed by Scotsman and fur trader James McGill, the university opened in 1839 in the founder's manor, Burnside Hall. Proceeding through the Gates, up McGill College Avenue and jogging right on University Street took us through the heart of the campus. The university has grown to some 60 buildings, set in a tranquil green setting of academic life.
We exited onto Prince Arthur Street to resume our walk through a neighborhood of stone townhouses. The neighborhood developed in the second half of the nineteenth century as the increasingly prosperous citizenry sought more space on the fringes of the city. Since then, the area has had its ups and downs, with many buildings converting to rooming houses in the 1920's and 30's, then transforming to a bohemian student enclave in the 1960's and 70's. Now the convenience and housing stock have been rediscovered, and the neighborhood has become a gentrified blend of students, families and professionals.
Prince Arthur eventually reaches St. Louis Square. Established as a park in 1876, the square attracted the leading French citizens of the day. They built elaborate Victorian homes, which surround the square and its charming gardens.
Beyond the square is Parc Lafontaine, a large neighborhood park where the locals bike, play tennis or ice skate, depending on the season. The neighborhood continues onward, with modern buildings increasingly melding in with the old. A train line eventually divides the neighborhood, so we followed along rue Sherbrooke to our next destination, the Jardin Botanique.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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