The Allure of
by Joseph Pedro
My alarm sounds too early, and it's blasting a commercial in French for Dormez-Vous mattress, which forces me out of bed. I promised myself an early start the night before in order to work off the piles and piles of poutine (French fries with cheese curds and gravy) and the bottles and bottles of La Fin Du Monde beer. With the bells of Christ Church Cathedral ushering in a new day, the early Saturday morning streets of Montréal are still empty and void of any evidence of Friday's revelry. Late night sins have given way to Saturday morning peace, and I bask in it. Walking toward "the mountain" (as the locals call the big hill north of downtown) that contains Mount Royal Park, a place where the hotel front desk promised beautiful trails for a morning run, I pass through the empty McGill University campus where a boisterous commencement happened the day prior. The cool spring breeze hits my back and aids my ascent up the steep rue Peel.
A middle-aged lesbian couple with a baby carriage comes out of one of the stone buildings owned by the university that line the hill. They wave hello from across the street, and as we approach the park entrance they say, "Bonjour." I smile and mutter a self-conscious "bonjour" in reply. They sense my French anxiety and, instead of just running off, engage me. "Parlez-vous anglais?" one asks. "Yes," I say. "Well, why didn't you say something before?" they ask as if we had been engaged in some lengthy confab. I ask them for the best running route on the mountain, and they explain with extreme brevity, but then insist that I go with them—and they don't take no for an answer.
They turn out to be some of the nicest people I meet on my trip, and they describe what they love most about the city as we pass through the forests and well-manicured fields. They talk of the beautiful local food, the world-renowned education, the acceptance they feel, the arts, how European the city is, and what a well-rounded and wholesome upbringing their baby boy will have here. Just then, I look down to a lower tree-lined path and see a man (or woman) dressed as a squirrel hiding in the trees. I point, we stop, and they laugh and look at each other. "Oh that's l'écureuil (the squirrel)," she says. "He hides in the trees and scares people walking by." They wave to him, and they make sure their baby knows that he's there. I am in utter disbelief, and without mentioning it again, they continue on talking about their city.
We reach the top lookout at the Kondiaronk Belvedere, and there is a perfect panoramic view of Montréal, a destination that blends the sophisticated and relaxed charm of an old European city with the vibrancy and openness of a modern-day North American metropolis—and it does this all with a certain sense of humor that's decidedly quirky and always filled with a level of surprise.
Montréal is an enticing destination for American gays and lesbians because it's easy to get to and so different from anywhere in the USA.
"It has French flair, an old city, and some of the most liberal queer rights in the world," says Tanya Churchmuch, the Assistant Director of International Relations for Tourism Montréal, as we sit at gay hot spot NÜVÜ Bistro-Expériences in Montréal's Gay Village (Le Village). She's right. It's only about an hour flight from New York, but soon after arriving I feel like I'm in a whole new world. Especially in this 15-block neighborhood that has a certain live-and-let-live vibe. Unlike in other cities where the gayborhood simply exists, Montréal embraces the gay community along Sainte-Catherine Est. With designated street banners, official markings on city maps, and a rainbow-decorated subway station, this neighborhood is a celebration of queer culture.
As Tanya begins to point out all of the different nighttime options to be had along the strip, she looks at me quite seriously and says, "I am just getting started. This is only the village—you'll find [gay people] everywhere and anywhere in Montréal, just living our lives and having fun." A statement I find to be oh so true.
I begin exploring the city by foot and venture down to Old Montréal. It is this area, nestled along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, where I have an out-of-United States experience. As one of the oldest urban areas in the Americas, the district is exactly what you would expect from a place once part of New France. I spend hours admiring and investigating the different buildings and peering into one-of-a-kind shops. There are two centers in Old Montréal. I begin in Place d'Armes, a square that features the stunning, Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica. Music fans may recognize this beautiful place as the site of Canadian songstress Celine Dion's wedding. For some entertainment, maybe with not as much pizzazz as Celine's wedding, head to the basilica at night to catch the multimedia light-show "And Then There Was Light." Through music, narration, and video on giant "butterfly" projection screens, immerse yourself in the history of this architectural masterpiece. Show times vary throughout the year, but are usually nightly, except for Sundays.
Walk a little farther east to Place Jacques-Cartier, a square that leads to the Old Port. Numerous tourist-trap restaurants frame the open space on a hill, but it's a great place to sit outside on a nice day.
The Old Port of Montréal was once the commercial hub of the city. I admire the row houses and commerce buildings that remain from an era of extreme wealth along the St. Lawrence. Today, duck boats and evening cruises have replaced freighters, and piers are no longer filled with cargo, but with museums, exhibitions, galleries, and theatres. Thanks to a massive redesign of the waterway in the 1990s, I enjoy a morning walk along the promenade and venture into the area's attractions on the various quays. I cannot resist a special exhibit called "Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology" at the Montréal Science Centre. Its interactive displays make it great fun for those who grew up with the franchise. (Make sure to catch this exhibit by the end of September.)
Still feeling like a kid, I stop for an ice cream at Le Glacier Bilboquet, which is housed in old shipping containers. I sit on a bench looking out across the water at the modernist marvel Habitat 67, a community composed of stacked houses that were designed by Moshe Safdie for Expo '67. It's a visionary creation that is now one of the most expensive properties to own in Montréal.
This area also attracts hefty crowds for numerous special events, including the much-anticipated concert Igloofest each January and the annual Cirque du Soleil performances. When it comes to catching the latest Cirque du Soleil shows, residents of Montréal are lucky; the group's main headquarters and rehearsal space are located in the city, allowing locals to preview the newest shows. This year, the city sees three high-profile performances: Michael Jackson: Immortal, Totem, and Dralion.
Fresh ideas mixed with a thriving entrepreneurial spirit have brought new life into some buildings around the Old City, in particular to an area known as the Multimédia District. Openly gay friends Patrick Meausette and Rob Hack helped lead this urban Renaissance when they transformed the old Darling Foundry into a mixed art space and popular lunchtime spot called CLUNY Art Bar. The reinvented infrastructure uses much of the original building and provides an industrial feel with steel pieces and reclaimed wood, but the owners keep it comfortable and welcoming with country-style table settings and flower arrangements. Only open for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant offers inexpensive food that is hearty yet simple, and includes panini, salads, soups, and daily specials. Attached to the café is a massive space used for art exhibits and spectacular events ranging from same-sex weddings to fashion parties.
As I stroll along the downtown section of Sainte-Catherine, the city's main thoroughfare, I discover a bevy of restaurants, nightlife options (including stripper bars), and an eclectic crowd that provides hours of entertainment. I become quite familiar with the daily characters that line the street, including the always-chatty Hare Krishnas, the in-your-face gutter punks, and the lovely group of corpulent women who sell maple syrup and moose souvenirs. It is on this street that the department store, La Maison Simons (or more commonly called Simons), attracts a fashionable gay crowd shopping for everything from home goods to fashion and accessories.
Tired of walking, I decide to try out the city's innovative bike share program, BIXI Bike. For a small fee and security deposit, you can rent these bikes hourly, and with drop-off stations across the city, it's an easy way to get around. I decide to set my credit limit high and take the bike lanes to a more highbrow street called Sherbrook Ouest. With world-class shopping and superb cultural attractions, this street, just two avenues east, is a whole different ball game. It's often cited as the 5th Avenue of Montréal, and it is part of an area once known as the Golden Square Mile; many still refer to it as this, even though it is technically just Downtown. A look at the grand architecture gives a hint of the wealth here.
The pedestrians that stroll up and down include well-to-do students from McGill University and bourgeois Montréalites, many of which are looking to score some high-end fashions. I lock my bike up and visit a boutique called Georgio Napoli, which specializes in men's Italian clothing. Stop here and admire the timeless collection of men's suits, shoes, ties, and accessories. Helpful staff, including fashion consultants, guide you through the most up-to-date designs. Continuing along rue Sherbrook, you will also discover more familiar names like Hermès, Chanel, and Dior.
The three-building cultural institution known as Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal is also located here. It's widely recognized as one of the most important art institutions in the world, and you'll see why when you get a taste of the 30,000-piece collection. Spend time exploring the contemporary art galleries, Canadian art galleries (including the whimsical work of Michael Snow), world-culture galleries, and the European masters collections. The most highly anticipated exhibit, "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk," is attracting fashionistas from all over North America and Europe for an incredible retrospective on this fascinating man and his fashion world. You'll want to walk down this catwalk before it closes on October 2.
Meanwhile, brush up on your Montréal history farther south on Sherbrook at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. A special exhibit called "90 Treasures, 90 Stories, 90 Years" is a captivating journey through Montréal's history with over 90 carefully selected items. I love the fashions on display from the 18th century that piece together a history I didn't know much about. My favorite part of the museum is upstairs, where a stunning collection of 1,300 photographs comes together to create a massive panorama of the city. We have Montréal native André Cornellier to thank for the project that allows visitors to sit back and take in the city's impressive landscape and imagine the stories behind the people in the photos.
While you are sure to visit Le Village for its numerous nightlife options, the 15 blocks are also a treat during the day, particularly on the weekends, when crowds pack the terraces of the gay bars for drink specials and to admire the people passing by. I am lucky enough to pay a visit to the Village when it is closed to traffic for the summer event called Aires Libres. This year, the city decorated the streets by hanging a canopy of pink beads to create a festive atmosphere unlike any other neighborhood. The street, though, is not just for the LGBT community. I see straight couples pushing baby carriages past the numerous sex shops and gay baths, and older couples chitchatting on the benches. I pop into the oldest gay business in North America, the retailer Priape. They are best known for their leather and PVC clothing (which are made in an upstairs atelier, on site). They also have underwear, porn, sex toys, etc. If you're looking for a hearty lunch in a lively atmosphere, try the community favorite, Le Saloon. The sleek, moody, club-like space fits the Village perfectly and makes for an ideal spot to meet friends before an evening out. The "Western fusion" cuisine is a mixed bag of favorites: pasta, salads, burgers, and sizeable meat entrées, like the grilled chicken breast that you can have seasoned Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, or BBQ style. At night, the venue hosts lively special events with guest DJs.