Monday, 16 August 2010

Montreal: Vieux Montreal

Notre Dame

After two days' outings to the Laurentians, we have dumped the hire car and are now going to explore the city, starting with Vieux Montreal, the 18th and 19th century origins of the city. The walk starts in Place des Armes with the Banque de Montreal, a Palladian structure, on one side and the Basilica of Notre Dame opposite. Notre Dame was designed in 1824 and has a most extraordinarily colourful interior. Every surface is decorated, but the effect is somehow more harmonious and tasteful than in many baroque churches. The interesting-sounding seminary next door was unfortunately closed for restoration.

The third side of the square has two fantastic buildings. The red brick Edifice New York life was Montreal's first sky scraper in 1888. The Edifice Aldred dates from 1931 and resembles the Empire State Building, completed in the same year. We sneaked in and were thrilled by the pristine Art Deco interior. (The fourth side of the square is occupied by a large, discordant modern block.)

The square itself, which is also being restored, was the site of hand to hand fighting between French settlers and Iroquois warriors. The French were led by Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of the city, and these events are commemorated by a statue and inscriptions. It does seem to represent a very traditional view of history, with savages being defeated by heroic Europeans. It was after all Iroquois territory.

From here we walked a mile or so east along rue de Notre Dame. The most interesting sight was the statue of Lord Nelson on a column, facing one of his French counterpart, Jean Vauquelin, the commander of the French fleet in New France. The droll thing is that the statue of Nelson dates from 1809 - the more famous one in London, on its much higher column, was constructed in 1840-43.

Other things of note along here are the old Palais de Justice, City Hall and Chateau Ramezay.

We turned right into rue Bonsecours and enjoyed a refreshing break in the courtyard of Pierre de Calvet's house (an 18th century house, now a hotel). At the end of the short street is the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-bon-secours.

This church was founded in 1675 by Margaret Bourgeoys, a French nun who was canonised in 1982. The present building dates from the late 18th century. There is some nice stained glass and the surrounds of the windows are decorated with beautiful tiled patterns. The church also houses a museum to its founder.

The real value of visiting the church however is that you can climb the tower (accessed via the museum, so you have to pay). So we climbed the church tower and enjoyed the excellent views over the old port and the St Laurence river beyond. We especially loved the twin statues of angels, one on each side.

We now walked along rue St Paul, the main street of the old town and passed the huge Marche Bon Secours with its grand dome. Further along, the Place Jacques-Cartier is a touristy, but still very appealing square and we enjoyed surprisingly good fish lunch at one of the restaurants, La Maree.

The street gets busier from here and is full of restaurants and little boutiques. Further on you come to the handsome former Customs House (1836-8).

You now turn towards the port on rue St-Francois-Xavier and right into Place d'Youville where you pass the so-called Ecuries (stables) d'Youville. These pleasant stone buildings seem in fact to have been store rooms rather than stables, and belonged to the Gray Nuns, whose convent was nearby.

To my eyes, the wonderful red brick former Fire Station, just further along the square, was much more striking. It is now a museum.

The end of the walk is the Hospital of the Gray Nuns, with the (to be honest, not very interesting) ruins of its chapel. This order, known formally as the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, was founded by Margaret d'Youville, hence the name of the nearby square.

It was raining by now and we decided to call it a day and head for one of the few wine shops we had spotted to stock up for the day’s aperitif.

Conditions: gray, mild, ultimately rainy.

Distance: about 2.5 miles.

Rating: three and half stars.

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