montreal about to turn 375

It’s just a two-hour train ride, but Montreal is a world away from Ottawa. The buildings here are older, the streets and traffic more rumbustious, and it feels like people are simply having more fun here.

The VIA rail line takes you right into the centre of town, but the whole station is underground. No worries, there are more than 30 kms of tunnels connecting you to office buildings, numerous subway stations, and endless shops and restaurants. You can get most of the way across the downtown core without getting wet or cold if the weather is not so good. It’s called RESO, although everyone knows it as the Underground City.

I was staying at the Hostelling International hostel downtown, so checked in and was pleased to find that a walking tour of the old parts of the city was about to get underway. That’s one of the benefits of staying in HI hostels, there are often free tours or other activities to join.

We travelled through parts of the Underground City, but surfaced quite regularly to see major historic buildings — massive churches and banks using architecture to illustrate the power they represented. Our tour guide also talked about the historic conflict between the English and the French in this province, although she felt young people are much less concerned with the politics of separation than their parents.

I was surprised to find a section of the Berlin Wall on display in the atrium of the World Trade Centre — it was a gift to Montreal on the occasion of it’s 350th anniversary. That reminded me that next year the city marks 375 years since a small settlement was established on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The tour ended with a stroll around the very oldest part of the city, now home to countless restaurants, souvenir shops, art galleries, and offices.

I returned to the original old port area the next day to spend some time at the city museum. The main floor features the story of Montreal as it grew from a mission and trading post into a major industrial port and thriving metropolis. The upstairs temporary exhibition area, however, has a different story to tell. Aptly named “Scandal!” this floor introduces viewers to the seedy underbelly of the city, especially “vice, crime and morality” in the city between 1940 and 1960. Critical of criminal activity and exploitation? Sure. But celebratory in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” sort of way. Scandal! is only around until the end of December, so go see it now if you’re in the area!

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This is Windsor Station, the original eastern terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

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A piece of the Berlin Wall gifted to Montreal in 1992.

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Old office and warehouse buildings in the oldest part of Montreal.

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An old building is dwarfed by new condos under construction near the hostel.

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An irreverent peek at the seedy side of Montreal.

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