By Sandra Hutchinson
During one of the unseasonably warm weekends we experienced this October, we headed north to Montreal with friends to enjoy some old world ambience and great food. Montreal is less than 180 miles north of our home in the Glens Falls/Lake George region of New York, and it’s an easy and scenic drive up the Adirondack Northway (Interstate 87).
With the exception of a few hours in Montreal’s busy downtown commercial district and walking on funky Rue St. Denis, all of our time was spent within a relatively small area in the oldest part of the city (“Vieux Montreal”).
For lodging, we chose Auberge du Vieux Port, translated literally, “Inn at the Old Port.” Said to be one of the oldest hotels in the city, the location can’t be beat for soaking up the charm of Montreal’s most historic neighborhood.
The first floor lobby is a bit cramped and dark, but once we got up to our room, we were happy with the exposed stone walls, a large, nicely appointed bathroom, and the best thing of all — the tall windows that actually opened, overlooking de la Commune Street! We had a bird’s eye view of the goings on in the street and sidewalk cafe below our windows, as well as the fun of seeing (and hearing) freight trains traveling along the track across the street. (In fact, speaking of bird’s eye, a bird did fly into our room after we opened the window, but quickly found its way out again.) Beyond the tracks are the quays, which extend out into the St. Lawrence River, and which house various structures for entertainment and recreation.
We didn’t arrive on Friday evening until nearly 6 p.m., and since our dinner reservation wasn’t until 7:30, we first enjoyed cocktails in Gaspar, the restaurant/cafe housed on the first floor of the hotel. The service here, and in every place we visited during our weekend, was extremely attentive, competent and friendly.
When we told our concierge that we had reservations at Bonaparte, she gushed about how much she likes the restaurant, adding “And I’m from France!” Located at 443 rue St-Francois-Xavier, Bonaparte is steps from the Centaur Theatre, the English language theater where in the past we have seen some memorable productions, such as The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum.
There are several dining rooms with Bonaparte, and we were seated in a room called the Verriere, which features two large stained glass windows at one end, and a glass ceiling which admits light during the day. On the table was a beautiful orchid floating in water in a small glass bowl.
We started with mushroom ravioli, with a thin pasta casing that allowed the mushrooms to predominate. For a main course, I chose the Dover sole fillet with fresh herbs and pine nuts ‘meunière’. My husband opted for the vanilla and Muscat wine flavored lobster stew with a swirl of pasta. Both the dishes were presented in unexpected ways. Instead of my sole being lightly floured and sautéed, the medallions were instead lightly sautéed, heavily seasoned and draped over vegetables with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. My husband’s “stew” was also along the lines of a composed plate, with the lobster and accompanying vegetables artfully arranged on the plate to suggest the shape of a whole lobster.
We appreciated the unobtrusive service, and the fact that the server did absolutely nothing to move us along. We spent several hours at the table in conversation with our friend who joined us for dinner, and never felt pressured to move it along so they could turn the table.
Our concierge back at the hotel had raved about Bonaparte’s dessert soufflés, so we opted for the Grand Marnier soufflé (other choices were either a Calvados or a chocolate chip version). The dessert emerged with a perfectly browned crown, and the interior was sublime. One soufflé was perfectly adequate to share between two of us.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the Auberge du Vieux Port, an additional friend arrived and we wandered around Old Montreal. First stop — Place Jacques Cartier, just a block or so from our hotel.
This large, sloping divided street (off-limits to vehicles during the summer tourist season) is dominated at the high end by a tall column with a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson atop. (Interesting in this French-speaking enclave to find a monument to Admiral Nelson, who died after the Battle of Trafalgar, which was a British victory over Napoleon’s French fleet.) On one side of the monument, we were surprised to discover that we were viewing the monument on the 212th anniversary, to the day, of the victory, on Oct. 21, 1805.
After checking out some of the artists selling etchings and photographs of Old Montreal, and listening to some street musicians, we headed into City Hall, an imposting Second Empire building at the top of Place Jacques Cartier. We saw a number of representations of the coat of arms of Montreal, which includes images of a beaver, a fleur de lys, the Red Rose of Lancaster, a shamrock, a thistle, and a white pine, which was just added this year to the coat of arms to represent the Indigenous Peoples.
One of the highlights of our time poking around Old Montreal was stepping into the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica. An admission fee is charged, but the $6 (Canadian, adults) is worth it to see the interior of this masterpiece of Gothic religious architecture. The admission fee includes a optional 20-minute guided tour, in either French or English.
The wall behind the main altar is a deep blue, and backlit. The effect is breathtaking. The center of the altar includes sculptures of Christ, Mary, St. John and Mary Magdalene. This is flanked by sculptures of saints and prophets; there’s also a sculpture of the Last Supper, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting.
The Basilica also houses the Sacré-Cœur Chapel, which was completely rebuilt after a fire in 1978. The altarpiece is made of 32 bronze panels, created by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin. It is modernistic and striking.
The main sanctuary is known for its brilliant stained glass windows, which were installed in the late 1920s. We found one that depicts Kateri Tekawitha, the first Native American to be canonized a saint. Baptized as “Catherine,” she was from New York’s Mohawk Valley but spent the last years of her life living in a Jesuit mission village south of Montreal.
While walking around Old Montreal, we stumbled upon a crew filming a movie about the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to be titled “On the Basis of Sex.” We didn’t see any movie stars (actress Felicity Jones will play the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg) but we did walk down a street lined with vintage cars from the 1960s and early 1970s, all with fake Colorado license plates dated 1971. An imposing building with a columned front had signs applied to the front, that read “United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit” (which is in Denver).
For dinner on Saturday evening, we had made reservations at Gibbys, a classic steak and seafood restaurant housed in an atmospheric building, the Youville Stables. We had been here a few times years ago, and wondered whether it would live up to our expectations.
The restaurant was packed, but the service and quality of the food were excellent. It’s not a bargain choice (New York cut sirloin, $56.50 Canadian) but it’s an experience. The salads come already dressed, and are a Gibbys staple, as are the huge dill pickles that are set on each table (a nod to the owners’ Jewish heritage, our waitress told us.)
Each our party of four chose a different entree. Mine was rack of lamb – Youville, marinated in herbs and garlic. Perfectly done (medium rare) and it even came with a side of mint jelly — my heart be still. No complaints.
Our waitress told us the restaurant does 600 to 700 dinners on a typical weekend night, and 300 to 400 during the week. The popularity of Gibbys seems as strong as ever. Lots of folks like meat!
Walking around Old Montreal at night, we discovered several locations where images were projected onto walls of buildings, and even, on the ground. Turns out, these were part of “Cité Mémoire,” an interpretation of Montreal’s history through projected images. Particularly evocative was “The Creation of the World,” a mesmerizing moving “tableaux” projected onto the brick pavement of a pedestrian alley off Saint-Paul Street.
Remarkably, at times the images would “shadow” pedestrians who ventured through the alley. This photo shows deep red that trailed the path of these people walking through the space.
Sunday morning, after another hearty breakfast at the Auberge, we stored our luggage at the hotel and ventured, via Uber, to the main shopping district of Montreal. We had wanted to check out a couple of stores, including Ogilvy, a high end department store on Saint Catherine Street that we had particularly liked years ago for its stationery shop and English-language bookstore in the basement. (There was also a surprisingly affordable cafe down there as well.) To our disappointment, the shops in the basement were closed due to construction, and the interior of the store has been redone to transform it into an expanse of white, modernistic style. While my friend and I headed to the Canada Goose Down brand section of the store, the two guys gathered intelligence from the store staff, including learning of a wealthy woman from China who had just purchased 42 coats (for herself) at the store. What?
We decided to check out something more plebeian, so we went into the Roots store, also on Saint Catherine Street. This Canadian company, with its beaver logo, sells clothing for all ages, and leather goods. They’re known to many people because they outfitted the Canadian Olympic teams for a number of years. With a 25% off storewide sale, we managed to find a few Roots items to bring home, including a cozy pair of sweatpants and a flannel shirt.
We then walked a fair piece to Rue St. Denis, stopping on the way to check out Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. My family had once attended a beautiful Palm Sunday service here, where we went outside and paraded around the city block with our palms. To describe the interior of the church as simple in comparison to the Notre-Dame Basilica is an understatement. It is a beautiful, sacred space and the church has a strong musical program of choral singing, organ music and concerts.
On Rue St. Denis, there’s a plethora of bars, restaurants and cafes, and interesting boutiques. I particularly like Arthur Quentin, a home and kitchen store that has a lot of European brands, like Peugeot salt and pepper mills, and Mason and Cash bowls.
After all our trekking around Montreal, we needed a refreshment, so we headed across the street from Arthur Quentin to Brûlerie St. Denis, a cafe with an astonishing number of choices of coffee.
There’s so much more to see and do in Montreal; I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg in this blog post. We were pleasantly surprised at how welcome we were made to feel in virtually every place we entered. In past years, we’ve enjoyed the Pointe-à-Callière museum in Old Montreal (archaeology and history); the Biodome, the Montreal Botanical Gardens (especially the Japanese garden); and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As I said above in this post, we also rate the English language Centaur Theater high on our list of things to do in Montreal. We’ve stayed in several hotels in Montreal over the years, including the Queen Elizabeth (formerly a Canadian Pacific hotel but now owned by Fairmont). We liked the Queen Elizabeth when we had our kids with us, since there’s an indoor pool in the basement, and the hotel is connected to Montreal’s underground “city” of shops and restaurants.
Note: for reference, the value of the Canadian dollar at the time of our visit was approximately US $0.76. A $50 meal in Canadian dollars would therefore equate to around US $39.
Please leave your comments below and suggest your favorite spots in Montreal — old or new!