I thought I'd start in Montreal, a city that I've had an odd obsession with since childhood. Growing up I rooted for the Expos (as my #2 team behind the O's of course) and always found it odd that there was a French city in North America. I still hadn't quite yet grasped the whole French Canadian thing.
So in October 2006, I talked my wife into driving to Montreal for our anniversary. We drove up and spent the night in the Catskills, since the drive alone is around ten hours each way. And by doing this, the drive went by in a breeze. I also have to admit, since Montreal has had a hold on me since childhood, it was a pretty surreal experience to drive there. Flying into a city is one thing, but driving to a city is another. Especially a city as foreign as Montreal. It's been called "the Paris of North America" and here I was, essentially driving to Paris. Once we crossed the border and I started to see signs on the highway, it hit me: I am going to Montreal. And when I saw the skyline in the distance, I couldn't help but feel like I'd accomplished something.
So did Montreal live up to my self-created hype?
1. Arts & Culture --7-- Montreal has the benefit of taking the best of Francophone and Anglophone Canada and claiming it as its own, which is why it feels like such a European city. The sculptures throughout the city are decidedly modern, which are a stark contrast to some of the old town decadent Catholic churches. McGill University is one of North America's most prestigious colleges, and Montreal's mid-2000's indie-music scene was on par with Seattle's grunge revolution of the early 1990's. Case in point is the Arcade Fire's recent Grammy win for Best Album of the Year. Other bands such as Stars and Wolf Parade also put Montreal on the map, not to mention dozens of other smaller independent bands which draw inspiration of such a culturally rich city.
2. Food --7-- It's obvious that Montreal is going to have a heavy French-influenced cuisine, which alone gives it very high marks. But on the Anglophone side of things is an old Canadian trapper tradition as evidenced in restaurants serving game meats such as Que de Cheval, Gibby's and the Beaver Club. Poutine (french fries, gravy and cheese curds) is probably the city's most popular and recognizable native dish, which is disappointing despite poutine being delicious, since Montreal is so much more culinarily rich than just gravy fries. As for beverages, Canada is known for its beer, and while the French are more about their wine, Montreal thankfully defers to beer as its drink of choice as evidenced by Molson, North America's oldest brewery.
3. Mass Transportation --8-- The comparisons to Paris are very much alive on the city's metro subway, as the Montreal metro has rubber tires, just like Paris. The city boasts a very well laid out metro system that offers good circulation within the city. The headways were 5-10 minutes, which means short waits for trains. Montreal's metro allowed me to leave my very tired car at the hotel and navigate through the city as the locals do.
4. Look & Feel --9-- Montreal's old town is the city's most charming section, and is where one is most likely to be reminded of Paris. Shops and restaurants housed in old stone buildings line cobblestone streets. The view from Mount Royal offers a different view of the city, this one highlighting its central business district and sprawling downtown grid. And across the St. Lawrence River at the Parc Jean Drepeau, one can take in beautiful water views of the city.
5. Overall --8-- Montreal may get higher marks from me because of my odd obsession with the city from childhood, but it stacks up to most North American cities in every way. I had a wonderful time there, and it met and exceeded the hype I had created for it. One night, my wife and I took a carriage ride through the old town, and someone called out to no one in particular, "Happy Montreal"! I think that would make a great slogan for the city.