Montreal: Canada's Paris

CYCLES: The Bixi city bike system makes wheeling around Montreal a breeze.
CYCLES: The Bixi city bike system makes wheeling around Montreal a breeze.

Perhaps it's because their winters are so long that Montrealers throw themselves into the summer season with such fervour.

Downtown pavements are crammed with city dwellers eating, drinking and shopping. Outdoor spaces overflow with free events. There are more festivals in this vibrant city than there are weeks of the year. Jazz, comedy, theatre, dance, design - you name it, it's celebrated during the summer.

The week of my visit is the First Peoples' Festival, an event celebrating the indigenous people of the Americas and beyond. From its roots as a local film event 20 years ago, the festival has grown into an international spectacle, celebrating indigenous peoples of the Americas and beyond, including the Pacific. Polynesian performers travelled here last year and the late New Zealand film-maker Merata Mita once attended for a retrospective of her films.

There are about 16,000 indigenous people in and around Montreal, and they are struggling for a voice in this traditionally French city.

Montreal is divided between the Francophiles in the eastern part of the city and the Anglophiles in the west, but the lines are becoming blurred, with the arrival of immigrants from around the world. Italy, Scotland, Vietnam, China, India and Pakistan are all represented in this cultural melange of a city.

Thanks to its compact size and gridded streets, exploring Montreal is easy. The metro and the buses are cheap and efficient, but the best way to explore during the finer months is on two wheels. Montreal is a cyclist's paradise, with wide, flat streets and more than 500 kilometres of cycle paths. The city is the birthplace of the bicycle rental company Bixi, which has spread to London, Paris and the United States, and you can rent one of 5000 bikes positioned around the city for $5 a day.

Riding a Bixi is a little like pedalling an airport trolley with three gears and no suspension. But the city is flat enough to ride around without breaking into a sweat and the drivers are courteous and tolerant.

"You're going the wrong way, lady," calls a driver cheerfully as I slowly cycle the wrong way down a busy one-way street. "You got a licence to drive that thing?"

The cycle paths take me north to Little Italy's homely eateries and colourful fruit and vegetable market. On the return trip, I coast through the chic Plateau Mont Royal and park up in the Jewish neighbourhood of Mile End to check out the local delicatessens and bagel shops, where Canada's first bagels were baked.

A quick turn out of the city centre and I'm coasting along Mount Royal's wide, leafy avenues. The hushed streets are flanked by enormous houses ranging in style from quietly wealthy to ostentatious. It's a stiff ride up to the lookout and then to Mount Royal Park, one of the city's largest green spaces. During the winter, you can skate on the park's lake, but sub- zero temperatures are a distant memory for the families and couples dotted around the water, picnicking and dozing in the midday sun.

Heading south towards the river takes you through Old Montreal, where I stop to watch a group of well- dressed women totter along the cobblestones in impossibly spindly shoes. Tourists tip their heads back to wonder at the imposing Notre Dame Cathedral, and then traipse around the upmarket boutiques tucked away in the winding streets. Just beyond is the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the gateway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

The people I encounter on my wanderings are friendly, helpful and quick to make deadpan comments intended to fool tourists.

One man I ask for directions tells me with a straight face that the canal I'm looking for has evaporated. At least three times I pick up free maps or brochures and get told, "Those are 50 bucks today".

I'm always addressed first in French, but most switch easily to English, which is just as well, because the only high-school French I can remember is: "This is a pencil".

After dusk, the summer crowds slowly migrate to the city's drinking holes. The Francophile part of Rue St Catherine, the city's main shopping artery, is a colourful, slightly seedy area in the heart of the gay village. At night, the street becomes a parade of men in muscle T-shits, or no Ts at all.

The sweet smell of marijuana wafts from doorways, and men of all ages, shapes and sizes drift in and out of the bars.

A rumpled man approaches me and murmurs something in French. His dirty T-shirt says, "I'm a sex machine". I reply in English and he wanders away. I watch him walk down the street, bending over every so often to pick up cigarette butts.

Unemployment is high, and the city's charities struggle to deal with the large number of homeless, who sleep on doorways or on the footpaths.

Elsewhere around the city, the more fortunate of Montreal's citizens eat and drink on the wide boulevards. Revellers overflow from the bars out onto the footpath and the streets are filled with music.

If you are discerning about beer, you are in the right place. The city is awash with microbreweries. In one watering hole, I ask the cheerful waitress what's on offer. She gets right to the point: "Our cheapest tap beers are Boreal blonde, red, copper or stout". In the spirit of research, I sample a few and leave impressed with the brew and the service.

Like in the US, you are expected to tip for service in Canada. Even bad service is recognised, with a meagre tip. On the subject of money, bear in mind the price you'll pay at the till will be different than that displayed on the price tag.

GST and provincial sales tax usually aren't included in the original price, and together add 12.5 per cent to a purchase. If you forget this fact, you'll get a sobering shock after buying a few rounds of drinks.

A night out in Montreal is rounded off with a hearty serving of the Quebecan dish poutine. Chips smothered with cheese curds and gravy doesn't sound like haute cuisine, but it's really pretty good washed down with more local beer.

Back at the festival, two Inuit throat singers provide entertainment for the crowds who ebb and flow around the square. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful.

The mesmerising sound of the singing echoes around the urban space and somehow seems right, in this city where everyone is welcome.


Known for its range of international boutiques, Montreal's Underground City is possibly the most famous shopping aspect of the city.

Flight Centre has Montreal holidays, including return airfares flying Air New Zealand, four nights' four-star accommodation and a greater Montreal tour, from $3399 ex Wellington or Christchurch a person, twin share. Ph 0800 427 555 or visit before September. Travel from October 13-31.

The Dominion Post