On four days acquaintance with Montreal, I like it quite a lot, but I’m not sure exactly why. Some kind of intangible quality, more than the sum of its parts? I don’t know.
Firstly, the weather. It’s been between -5 and -15 most of the time I’ve been here, and honestly I’m loving it. Makes me feel fresh and alive and so on. Plus, no rain. It’s either sunny or snowing. And it’s great to be able to appreciate the beauty of the snow without feeling guilty that it’s going to be causing economic and social meltdown, as happens when more than an inch falls in the UK. Here, they can handle it. But when you’re walking around, with the wind whistling into your face, and your feet looking down to make sure that the ice/snow/slush underfoot isn’t too treacherous dangerous, it isn’t conducive to properly appreciating your surroundings. So, while I never pretend to definitiveness in my statements, what follows is even more based on snap judgements than usual!
Architecturally, it’s all over the place. Some very nice buildings are scattered all over the place – the McGill campus around Parc Rutherford is lovely, as is Rue St Paul for instance, but there’s lots of plain buildings around too. There are weird juxtapositions like on Rue St Catherine where Christ Church Cathedral has a huge skyscraper right behind. If there aren’t many similar divergences of scale, there are plenty of style.
One common trait that I’m not keen on is buildings designed to look older than they are. These typically look pretty good from a distance, and bloody awful from up close.
Vieux Montreal has the highest concentration of prettiness and it is an agreeable neighbourhood to walk round in, but (and I’ve re-drafted this line multiple times in order to avoid sounding like some kind of eurosnob, and I just can’t do it) it wouldn’t be considered anything special in most of the great European cities.
Where Montreal does score big is with the Mont-Royal Park. I’ve gone on before about how much I think hills can add to a city’s attractiveness and Toronto suffers from only having man-made vantage points. By contrast, the hill that gives Montreal it’s name is not just a great view over the city, but like Montjuif in Barcelona or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh gives an easily accessible escape route from the city. 15 minutes from downtown, and I was walking for half an hour without seeing more than two people. Sure, it was a work day, out of season, but that’s still a great option. Snow-covered it looked gorgeous, but it’s also covered in trees so I’m sure it looks great all year round.
The best vantage point over the city is from the Chateau on the hill. It’s all a nice building, as well as a welcome warm refuge, though it’s decorated with some heroically bad paintings illustrating the history of Montreal. The accompanying text says that the commission was a welcome one for artists struggling with the economic climate during the Great Depression. I have to say, I’d have been surprised if they were well off in any circumstances. Nearby the Chateau is a big metal cross, which actually looks great.
From the other side of the hill the view is even better, with the colossal basilica of the St Joseph Oratory (second in size only to St Peter’s in Rome) prominent.
One thing that is often said about Montreal compared to Toronto is that it is a more egalitarian, less money obsessed society. Obviously I’ve not been here long enough to form any sort of a view on that, but one thing that is noticeable is that in January in Montreal it’s very difficult to ostentatiously display your wealth. The cars are all covered with dirt from the snow, while most everyone walking has to wear a big coat and sturdy boots, while the latest fashionable haircut isn’t going to survive for long even if you do bravely choose to go without a hat. Now, even Pop Sociology 101 might hesitate to suggest that there might be some correllation between equality in appearance and equality in society, but I think there might be something in that.
Only other thing I’ve done really is to go to the Fine Arts Museum, but will keep that for a separate post.