With a little more verve in our step than normal, we drove the more scenic route 50 East towards Montreal, Canada’s second largest city. Our ride over consisted mainly of tactical French bakery planning and bets on how many we would eat (could eat?) before we got sick. We knew that Montreal would treat us well with regards to French bakeries, but even so we were unprepared.
Let’s not dally around. If you are ever in Montreal and want to eat a French pastry, here is a simple guide to doing so.
Look up and down every street you can see.
Odds are, you just found yourself a French bakery. There are so many that it took us two days to realize that a French bakery was located around the corner from our Airbnb. Montreal is filthy with them, which will make the next sentence sound kind of weird.
The French pastries were okay.
They were good and well-constructed, but not a light and flaky as we anticipated. We ate a lot of them, too, so I feel that we’re speaking from a decent position. Seriously, we went to at least seven bakeries in four days.
Again, they’re certainly good and I would eat almost any of them again, but they tended to be denser and more bready than we expected. In our minds, croissants should be light and flaky, breaking apart into a custodian’s nightmare with ever sumptuous bite. Those croissants do exist but we’ve come to realize how incredibly hard achieving that is. It depends on so much: temperature, humidity, ingredients, process.
In the end, though, we found fulfilling croissants in Montreal, a city stacked to the brim with them.
And don’t forget the desserts.
Bagels and Meat
Speaking of food, Montreal is also famous for its bagels. Montreal houses Canada’s second-largest Jewish population (for a long time it was the largest), mainly as refugees from WWII, but from other times as well. With the immigrants came the food and Montreal developed a serious love for the wood-fired bagel.
The highest concentration of stores dot the area North of Mont Royal, closest to the Jewish towns. We dug a little and found a really good one, going a little crazy on the bagel buying (one of everything, including one everything).
The bagels were flatter than a normal bagel, but just as filling and surprisingly light. The wood firing created a wonderfully crispy shell that hid a perfectly cooked bagel. Delicious.
The Jewish population of Montreal brought more than bagels, though. A friend of mine strongly recommended a stop by Schwartz’s Deli for some meat and so I had to oblige. Little did I know how storied Schwartz’s is.
That’s right. This deli has its own musical, it’s so popular. Naturally I’m extremely curious to watch a musical about a deli (I hope they added monsters), but sadly I was about 6 years late for the last show. It must have been tremendous.
As for the meat, I was a little shocked to be charged what I was charged for the tiny sandwich placed in my to-go bag, but that thing packed a punch. It was all meat – no fuss – and perfect amount of mustard. Wonderful all around and well worth the visit.
More storied than Schwartz’s, Montreal’s Old Town brings forth the visceral side of Montreal’s history. Stone buildings of all sizes are squeeze alleys together, making it a wonderful place to wander. Little alleys lead to new approaches to familiar streets, all of it gorgeous. As historic sites like Bonsecours Market, Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, and the Montreal History Centre separate themselves from one another by several blocks each, wandering is the preferred way to go from one sight ot another. Give yourself some time and enjoy the views.
As stop at the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, however, is a must. You cannot enter after 4 – heads up from people who tried to enter at 4:15 the first time – and while there are guided tours, you’re free to walk around on your own. It’s a gorgeous building of which they are rightly proud.
Most cathedrals, basilicas, or churches (cathedrals are the base for the bishop of the area while basilicas are designated by the Pope for mainly historic reasons or to places with a particular importance) are plainly lit, the designers for the Notre-Dame Basilica took an entirely different path. Blues and other funky colors abound, but that’s part of what makes it so famous. The Basilica even creates special nights with unique lighting (for a price). It’s an interesting and amazing place.
Mount Royal and Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal
On a spare afternoon, we drove the car up to Mont Royal for the views and to take in a new park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designer of Central Park in NYC. Many of the same ideas are on display here, but with views that go on for miles. The main view overlooks downtown Montreal square in the face, then leads off around one of the peaks of the mountain for tree-lined strolls and open spaces for relaxing. It’s a good park, all things considered, and one made more for the locals than for tourists (save the overlook, that’s all tourists).
South of the park sits Saint Joseph’s Oratory (a basilica), a supremely famous building in the religious world of Northeastern America. It’s still a place where the sick come for a miracle, as a couple have been performed here. It’s a massive, imposing structure with organ concerts every Sunday afternoon, something that we unfortunately were not in town for. Next time.
After our visit, we also found that a reliquary holds the heart of Brother Andre, a brother reported to possess healing powers. I’m uncertain if you can see the heart, but had I known it was there I would have tried.
Montreal houses far more to do: we saw the highlights. It’s a great city with something for everyone and well worth your time and attention.