Thousands of little pink balls festooned Saint Catherine Street. A woman rapped in French, accompanied by a saxophone and break dancers. A guy passed me, his peacock tail made of balloons dragging on the pedestrian street while a man tucked a water bottle into his shiny metallic blue short-shorts. It was summer, past midnight, the last night of Gay Pride, and it seemed like these rainbow party people would never go to bed. Dark buildings hulked around them, remnants of the 1700s and 1800s, full of hidden stories of the city’s Catholic past, and struggles between English, French, and the First Nations people who were already here. At this summer night disco party, I couldn’t dwell on the past. But I spent subsequent days checking out both the old and the new that this fantastic city has to offer, from its early history to art to spas, and its astonishing number of vegetarian restaurants.
Early Women’s History
Montreal is a secular city, ever since a backlash against Catholicism that started in the 1950s. Nowadays you’ll find more people at Pride than in churches. But on several trips to the province of Quebec, I’ve been drawn to the seventeenth and eighteenth-century women, most of them religious, who left settled lives in France, moved to the wilderness of early Canada, and founded the province’s first education and healthcare systems. Montreal has several museums dedicated to early women and religious orders, which I pretty much had to myself.
To learn about early medicine, I visited the Musee de Hospitallers. Jean Mance, Montreal’s founding mother, started the first dispensary in what’s now Montreal in 1642, and built its first hospital in 1645. The Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum commemorates Montreal’s first teacher. Bourgeoys taught all the children of the area, the French speaking, the First Nations, and eventually the English.
Bourgeoys is also partially responsible for populating Montreal. In 1668, she bought a farm and turned it into a self-sufficient operation. At its most uneven point, Quebec had one woman for 14 men. But in France, Louis XIV had a surplus of orphaned young French women, too poor to afford the required dowry to marry or become a nun. He figured he’d solve the problem by sending them off to Quebec to find husbands.
Eight hundred of these women, called filles du Roy, sailed to Quebec in the 1660s and 70s. Most stopped in Quebec City, but 100 continued on the two-week canoe ride to Montreal. They had to be courageous to come here my tour guide, Charlotte Kelly, told me as she showed me around the Maison Saint Gabriel, Bourgeoys’ farm. I’d braved a rainstorm to get to the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood and was one of only a few visitors. Bourgeoys and her staff of nuns watched over the girls and oversaw their meetings with the area’s eligible bachelors. The young women usually stayed in the house for two to five months before choosing a husband. When the men came to visit, Kelly said, it might look like a speed dating session from the 17th century. I asked her if the girls chose the handsomest husbands, and she looked at me like I was crazy. These girls knew enough about survival to realize that in the Canadian wilderness having land and a house trumped looks.
Many of today’s Montrealers are descendants of these brave, sensible, and hardy filles du Roy.
While Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017, Montreal turned 375. An ambitious multimedia project that bridges art and history is lighting up Old Montreal. Every night, Cite Memoire projects 23 enormous images on buildings commemorating important people and events in Montreal history. A free app lets people access narration about the tableaux, which range from Jean Mance’s days to the 1967 world’s fair.
Public art fills Montreal’s streets. Each spring, 21 Balancoires reappears downtown, a set of musical swings which plays notes as people are swinging. People of all ages play on, composing impromptu songs. Art highlights visitors can expect over the next few months include:
Lucid Realities (through Dec 16) at Centre Phi, a trippy show that simulates walking in space, inhabiting another person’s body, and other altered sensory experiences.
Gabor Szilasi, The Art World in Montreal, 1960-1980 (Dec 8 – April 8) at the McCord Museum, featuring unpublished images shot by one of Quebec’s most famous photographers
Leonard Cohen A Crack in Everything (Nov 9 – April 9) at the Museum of Fine Arts, about the imagination and legacy of this famous Montreal musician
After lots of walking and museums, I stopped by Bota Bota, an old river ferry turned floating spa. The boat features two floors of water circuit, with more hot and cold tubs spilling onto the adjacent deck. Onboard is the quiet zone. On land, the mood is slightly more boisterous.
I zeroed in on the quiet zone, especially an on-deck hot tub. I soaked and gazed at the Montreal skyline, listening to whistles of passing trains and checking out the surrounding port, the other boats, shipping cranes, and enormous grain silo. Eventually I hauled myself out and explored Bota Bota’s many other places to relax, including hanging chairs in the quiet zone and hammocks tucked into a secluded corner of the on-land gardens. I heated up in a sauna and gulped for air in the most intense eucalyptus-scented steam room I’ve ever experienced.
While locals love Bota Bota, it’s very accessible to visitors. All you need is a swimsuit and flip flops. The spa supplies the robe, towels, and a locker. I wanted to take this spa home with me.
I met up with Elise Desaulniers to learn about Montreal’s veg scene. Desaulniers is an activist, author of 21-Day Vegan Challenge, and co-founder of Montreal’s Vegfest.
The first thing I wanted to know is why are there so many veg restaurants? Are there really that many vegans in Montreal? Most of the vegan restaurant patrons, she tells me, are omnivores but open to vegan meals. We hate debates in Canada, Desaulniers says. We like to find the middle ground. So, the conclusion is you should eat less meat. But being vegan 100 % of the time is considered too extreme. Instead, many Montrealers settle on having a couple of vegan lunches per week. Veg travelers, rejoice. It’s super easy in Montreal to eat out everywhere, Desaulniers says.
Attitudes are changing, especially among young people. Over the last six years, when Desaulniers speaks in colleges, the questions have changed from protein sources to connections between meat and capitalism. The link between all forms of oppression is very clear for them, she says.
The response to Montreal’s VegFest has been overwhelming. Desaulniers co-founded it with about 20 people in 2013. The first year, they expected two thousand people and got five thousand. The second year, ten thousand people came, including the fire inspectors. An hour-long line wrapped around the building.
Here are a few highlights for veg-seeking visitors:
Montreal has embraced its vegan sushi restaurant, as the crowds prove. Creative sushi, beautifully arranged. Groups can order a two-foot-long wooden boat filled with assorted sushi. I ate so much sushi I got a stomachache.
This hip, upscale restaurant offers vegan entrees like tofu bourgignon and curry stew with sunchokes, carrots, and coriander. Save room for an almond tart with cashew cream or vegan triple chocolate cake.
An all-vegetarian restaurant draws students and staff from the nearby University of Montreal at lunchtime for international-inspired comfort food. I got the hemp burger with house made barbeque sauce. Vegan desserts including banana chocolate pie or matcha cake, a moist green organic tea cake topped with passion fruits and chia seeds, whipped coconut cream, and raspberry coulis.
This spot features organic vegan cocktails and falafel sandwiches. It stays open late and you can sit outside to people watch.
When you go, know that Air Canada and United fly direct from LAX to Montreal. With a crispness in the air and fabulous vegetarian food everywhere, Autumn is the perfect time to visit our friendly northern neighbor.
This article is a part of the Oct - Nov 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.