Here are our Montreal highlights:
Parc du Mont-Royal
For an overall view of the city, start with a bracing walk up the slopes of the lovely Parc du Mont-Royal (Mount Royal Park). Known with characteristic local irony as la montagne (the mountain), the crest was observed by Jacques Cartier on his historic journey up the St Lawrence River in 1535, and he named it Mont Réal in homage to his king, François I.
From the massive timber and stone Chalet de la Montagne, or the steel cross at the summit (illuminated at night), you can look out over the St Lawrence flowing from the Lac des Deux Montagnes past the city on its northeasterly journey to the Atlantic. For practical reasons, Montréalers consider that the river passes south of the city; the roads parallel to the river are designated ‘east’ or ‘west’ of boulevard St-Laurent.
Situated between the rue St-Antoine and the port and flanked by rue McGill and rue Berri, Vieux-Montréal (Old Montréal) is the site of Maisonneuve’s original settlement of Ville-Marie. All but a few stones of the 18th-century city ramparts have gone, but many historic houses have been restored to evoke some of the flavour of New France.
The picturesque Place Jacques-Cartier makes a good starting point for visiting the area. Once a fruit and vegetable market, the cobblestone square remains a favourite venue for flower vendors and itinerant artists.
Across rue Notre-Dame, the 19th-century Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) is a fine example of the French Renaissance style. It was from the balcony beneath the clock in 1967 that Général de Gaulle delivered his incendiary cry of ‘Vive le Québec libre!’, warming the hearts of local separatists. The general was not intimidated by the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson watching him from the top of Place Jacques-Cartier. Montréal’s oldest monument was somewhat provocatively erected in 1809, just four years after the British admiral’s devastating defeat of the French at Trafalgar.
The 19th-century neo-Gothic Basilique Notre-Dame was designed by James O’Donell, an Irish Protestant New Yorker so inspired by his assignment that he converted to Catholicism. It once took 12 men to ring the great bell in the west tower, a task now automated. The dramatically ornate interior was the work of a Québécois, Victor Bourgeau. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Chapel, behind the main altar, unites modern and traditional religious art in a more intimate setting for marriages and memorial services. A small museum displays church sculpture and painting, notably some almost surreal works by Pierre-Adolphe-Arthur Guindon, a Sulpician monk.
Next to the church is the Seminary of St-Sulpice, Montréal’s oldest surviving building, erected in 1685 to lead the missionary work among the Iroquois. The church also has North America’s oldest public clock (1710).
Place des Arts
Art and commerce come together at Place des Arts and Complexe Desjardins. Place des Arts is a modern cultural centre comprising a concert hall, two theatres and a recital room for chamber music. The Théatre Maisonneuve and the Companie Jean Duceppe are housed on top of one another in the step-pyramid style building, and the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, with elegant sweeping curves, is the home of Montréal’s orchestra. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) has won world acclaim, drawing rave reviews on tours, and prizes for many of its recordings. Its home in Place des Arts also houses Montréal’s modern art museum, the Musée d’Art Contemporain.
The elegant tone of the whole complex is set in the foyer, decorated with Aubusson tapestries and sculptures in bronze, aluminium, mahog any and ceramics. Notice above the concert hall doors the soapstone carvings of the Inuit sculptor, Yununkpuk. With a capacity of nearly 6,000, the concert hall is also a venue for L’Opéra de Montréal and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.
Dominating the skyline beyond Westmount, on the Côte des Neiges, Oratoire St-Joseph (St Joseph’s Oratory) receives up to two million Catholic pilgrims each year. The enormous, 124m (408ft) high sanctuary – the dome is second in size only to that of St Peter’s in Rome – was built between 1924 and 1955 in honour of St Joseph, the patron saint of workers. Today it commemorates the healing powers of Brother André, and holds 13,000 worshippers.
Born Alfred Bessette in 1845, one of a poor Québécois family of 12 children, Brother André was employed as gatekeeper at the monastic Congregation of the Holy Cross. He administered the ‘oil of St Joseph’ to the bodies of the sick in a small wooden chapel that he built with his own hands; it is still standing near the transept of the present oratory. More than a million of the faithful?attended Brother André’s funeral in 1937. His tomb is in the crypt, which is worth a look for the impressive rows of crutches donated by the miraculously healed, and the banks of devotional candles.
The best time to enjoy the oratory’s interior is at one of the occasional Sunday afternoon organ recitals, when the 5,811-pipe organ thunders through the vast church.