Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Road Trip: Long weekend in Montreal

Let me start by saying that before this trip, I had never been to Canada (my few hours in the Toronto airport during a layover really does not count). My, admittedly stereotypical, impression of Canada was that it was full of Dudley Do-Right push overs and female lumberjacks. So when the suggestion came up to do a weekend road trip, I was definitely interested, especially since it would not be long before we would be moving away from the Boston area and no longer within easy driving distance of the Canadian border. For the trip, we selected the closest major city, Montreal in Quebec and I promptly went to work getting all of my travel documents updated.

Our party for the trip consisted of my wife and me along with two of our friends from my wife's grad school. Early on, we made a decision to minimize costs, and thus turned to Airbnb for accommodations. Since the itention was a road-trip, the TSX, with its rather capacious interior and plentiful trunk space was pressed into service for the journey. Once we arrived in Montreal, the idea was to use public transportation as much as possible to avoid racking up massive parking expenses. Luckily, Montreal happens to be the home of  Bixi, the bike share company that supplies the docks and bikes to bikesharing programs across many cities in North America, including both Boston and Washington, DC. A plan was hatched to make use of Bixi's rather extensive network and to spend some time biking throughout the city, which would turn out to be an adventure in and of itself.

Departing late in the afternoon on a Thursday, we were fortunate enough that traffic exiting the Boston area was not too severe and we actually made good progress to our first stop just past the Vermont border for some dinner. However, after dinner, we were much less fortunate as the skies quickly turned and we suddenly found ourselves caught in a torrential downpour and took visibility down to a matter of inches. The emergency flashers came on, and many other drives chose to pull over to wait out the storm. I chose to press on, but went from traveling at 65mph down to crawling along at barely over 25mph. Luckily, the decision to keep moving paid off as we were able to make our way out of the storm area within a half hour and resume or cruise to the border at a normal pace. It did stretch our trip out by an extra half an hour, but we finally arrived at our accommodations just before midnight, tired and just a bit delirious.

The next morning, we awoke to the sight of the ornate gates of Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges at Mont-Royal peeking back at us through the thin curtains of the apartment. The rains has already come through during the morning and dampened the streets, leaving behind some clouds to continue to make the morning a bit gloomy. We strolled to a local market and grabbed some breakfast items for the duration of our stay, saving ourselves the extra expense of a breakfast each of the three mornings we would be in Montreal. The plan today was to explore the downtown and old-town areas of the city, enough to get a sense of what to look forward to.

We headed downtown and promptly found a Bixi bike dock with plenty of bikes for us to use. Of course, the first time I swiped my credit card, fraud protection kicked in and promptly denied the transaction. Luckily, we were able to get it working with my wife's card and soon had the requisite codes to grab our bikes. At this point is when we discovered that one of the members of our party had only ever ridden a bike twice in her life - a fact that somehow managed not to come up during the planning phase when we suggested exploring the city on bikes. To make sure that our novice rider would be comfortable, we proceeded at a rather cautious pace and selected only streets with either separated or extremely well-marked bike lanes. Luckily Montreal's bike infrastructure was extraordinary, with over 300 miles of marked bike lanes and tons of cycle tracks exclusively for bike use. I was just dumbfounded at how well integrated the cycling infrastructure was and how respectful drivers were here to cyclists. It puts every US city I have ever biked in to shame.

Our first stop that day would be the old town section of Montreal, where we strolled along the narrow streets, taking in the sights and enjoying the small shops that lined the streets. At one point, we stopped to enjoy a quick snack at a small cafe, where one of the other patrons, a fellow American who spends her summers in Montreal, chatted with us and offered suggestions on galleries we might be interested in checking out. From old town, we eventually maki our way towards the Notre Dame cathedral that sits at the edge between old town and downtown Montreal, its Gothic architecture certainly contrasted greatly with the surrounding skyscrapers. Our walk eventually takes us to Place Vaquelin and then to the old port, where we pick up bikes again to ride along the Saint-Laurent River and the Canal de Lachine. The goal is to get to the Atwater Market area where we could sit down to a lovely dinner as the sun set.

Our second day started with a stroll through the cemetery, which borders Mont-Royal, and took us to the Plateau Mont-Royal region of the city. Here, there is a more immigrant flare to the neighborhood, with many restaurants serving Mediterranean or South American inspired cuisine. We strolled around, seeking out interesting shops where we might find some small remembrances from the trip to take home. In one shop, we stumbled upon a post-revolution era bicycle from China, sporting some very old school rod-actuated brakes and shifters as well as an absolutely outrageous curb weight. For lunch we found ourselves in line at Schwartz's deli, along with what must have been every other tourist in the city. Famed for their smoked meat sandwiches, we grabbed a couple, along with some smoked meat-topped poutine, and sat down on some nearby benches, enjoying our meal while the Argentina fans drove down the street, honking their horns and yelling, celebrating their victory in that day's World Cup match-up.

After lunch, we split up from our friends and my wife and I grab a set of Bixi bikes to go and explore other parts of the city some more. We first make it all the way back out to the Port, where walk along the water before deciding that we should go check out Habitat 67, an odd looking residence, constructed to look like a number of stacked and interconnected blocks that is quite the feat of engineering and, I imagine, interior architecture. We then take a ride along the Canal de Lachine, going beyond where we had gotten to the day before, enjoying the breeze and getting to see some less touristy sections of Montreal. Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a beer garden and ended up seeking out the St-Ambroise Brewery, a local craft beer maker that creates a rather broad selection of quite enjoyable brews. Our thirst quenched and our water bottles refilled, we set out to bike back to the heart of downtown Montreal and then back to the Plateau where we rejoin our friends again over a dinner of poutine at La Banquise.

Our bellies full of fries, gravy, and cheese curds, we wandered along the streets of the Plateau, in search of a hidden bar that a friend has told us about. It would take a rather circuitous route, but we did eventually find ourselves walking down a long dark hallway into a dimly lit bar, reminiscent of a speakeasy. They specialized in classic cocktails and Japanese Whiskey, the latter of which I promptly ordered. The smooth, dark amber liquid was somehow both light and delicately flavored at the same time it was rich and velvety. Certainly an interesting combination that I would welcome the opportunity to try again. With our bodies tired and our minds slightly clouded by alcohol, we set out for our first real night-time ride through Montreal, safely navigating west side of the city to return ourselves to our rented abode to retire for the evening.

On the final day, we decide to be a bit lazy and sleep in some more, enjoying the crisp morning breeze that streams in through the open window. Our stuff packed and loaded into the TSX, we head out to grab some brunch before attempting to make one final stop at the Biosphere, an enormous spherical glass structure that sits on an island in the middle of the Saint-Laurent River. Unfortunately, there was another event going on that day that made parking just about impossible, so after circling a few times, we gave up and headed for the US-Canada border. Still, we had a wonderful weekend and the experience was very enlightening, giving me a whole new impression of Canada and Montreal in particular. I am looking forward to returning, hopefully with my family to give them a chance to see this wonderful city.

Of course, no good international road trip story could be complete without some sort of near calamity. After nearly 90 minutes of waiting to cross the border, we finally arrive at the booth and hand over our travel documents. The agent was pleasant enough and before long, our documents were returned to us and we were waved through to proceed. Of course, just as we pass the last opportunity to park at the border station, we discover that the agent had actually failed to return my passport card. Intent on getting it back, I hop on the first exit and head back in the other direction, trying to figure out what to do. Finding no place to be able to reasonably park, we end up off the side in a coned off section of the border station, where I hop out of the car and run full-tilt towards the booth we had passed through not 5-minutes earlier. Apparently, this is a big no-no as a rather irate looking border patrol agent, hand on his sidearm, screams at me to stop, turnaround, and go inside the building. There, he promptly berates me for endangering myself and asks me what the hell I needed so badly. After explaining the situation, and he had calmed down a bit, he went to the booth to retrieve my passport card. Handing it back to me, he proceeds to tell me how close I was to getting myself shot before sending me on my way.

To see additional photos from this trip, click here.

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