Driving to Montréal from Chicago can be a daunting task and most would never do it in the winter. But here Roman and I were traveling east towards Montréal. I’ve always wanted to travel to Québec because the people speak French and heard it is the closest region that resembles Europe.
The drive was long and largely uneventful but there was some worry from my end. I’ve never driven in snow and if it so happened that there was really bad weather, I would have called the trip off. Can’t risk my life just for a trip!
The only reason I was driving to Montréal instead of flying is that Montréal is incredibly expensive to get plane tickets. $450 dollars to as high as $700 dollars and it wasn’t even a direct flight! On top of that, I would have had to rent a car when I got to Montréal adding to the cost. Blah, whatever, driving it was an easy drive. Canadian speed limits are low but almost everybody drives around 70 – 75 miles per hour. And traffic is not as bad in Canada compared to much of the States. Plus every so often you come across a nice Canadian rest-stop that has wifi and either Tim Hortons or Starbucks coffee. Pretty sweet deal. And then 13 hours later we were in Québec (once you cross the Québec border from Ontario you feel the Canadian French very quick).
The night we showed up in Montréal was on the 30th of December. We stayed up with our host, Sylvain, for a bit but we had had a long day and we were mostly tired. Time for bed in one of our hosts roommates bed. It was a little strange staying in somebody else’s bed who happened to not be there but hey it was free and quite comfy.
So on the day of New Years Eve we got up, made our coffee and had our croissants (Sylvain provided them and yes he is from France so this meal makes total sense). We got dressed for the brutal weather that was upon us for the next couple of days. It’s all about the layers and covering any inch of skin exposed. On the 31st the high was 5 and kept falling to around -5 fahrenheit. This was the warmest day we had for our entire time in Québec!
What was on the agenda? Really nothing! We were free to do whatever we wanted so we decided to start at the highest point of it all, Mont-Royal. I had a car so we were able to climb the “mountain” to the top and get a commanding view of Montréal. Under the snow and cold it was actually quite gorgeous and very few would brave that type of cold to go and snap a shot. Never the less I saw so many locals jogging with their faces covered in ice. Yes their faces were covered in ice from perspiring and being that it was so cold it froze to their faces. Sylvain was like “these Québécois are so crazy!” I agree.
I did get a chance to snap some amazing winter photos. Some people were cross-country skiing, others were running; I even saw a squirrel! Montréal really does look quite beautiful under snow and if you can bare the mind numbing cold with your fingers stinging, it’s quite breathtaking.
After Mont-Royal it was time to explore Sylvain’s neighborhood called, Mile End. Mile End is known for the hipster cafés, bars, restaurants, St. Michael and St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and boutiques. Think of it as the trendy part of Montréal but affordable. Also this is where much of the Francophone part of Montréal lives and many French persons from France live here. Sylvain called it the real Montréal because most of the locals live here instead of downtown or Vieux-Montréal (Old Montréal). I like this approach when it comes to travel. I love the slow-paced, local type of travel. It’s not as expensive and more authentic from the alternative.
So Mile End is filled with cute restaurants that were really tasty and served alcohol… that’s all I need to get my fix! Plus being that it was so cold out, it wasn’t comfortable to walk around for long periods. So what did we do? Drink coffee, tea, beer and wine at multiple stops throughout the neighborhood. After lunch at the Les Folies we looked at some book stores so we could buy books in French. It’s a great idea to practice French vocabulary! A few book stores later I picked up a more advanced French book while Roman picks up Le Petit Prince because he is just beginning to learn French.
Being New Years Eve Roman and I decided to celebrate by getting some coffee, jumping in our car and checking out St. Catherine’s Street, otherwise known as the gay street of Montréal. We went early in the night so maybe that’s why it seemed a little dead. Honestly the gay street of Montréal wasn’t that large but maybe it’s because I’m use to Boystown in Chicago. The good thing is I saw a lot of Montréal from the comfort of our car but we ended up not going to a gay club on St. Catherine’s. However the night was rescued with some pizza and wine and we celebrated our New Years by watching the ball drop in New York from our computer. Happy New Years indeed!
Next day was a New Year, literally, and a chance to see Vieux-Montréal or the old part of Montréal. Parking was free somehow as the parking guardd didn’t make us pay. A nice luxury to have when it was a high of 0 F and fell to -13 F with a windchill in the -20’s. First thing we did was to find a place with coffee while looking at tourists passing by. I was surprised that their were even tourists around. But like us, people were braving the cold to get a chance to see the remains of the older side of Montréal.
The streets were pleasant with an old brick design and there were enough souvenir shops to go in and out of to keep warm. That was nice. And we made excuses to keep going back inside. If we were cold than we started looking for food or drinks. It was a strategy that paid off really well because we always found a way to stay warm. One of the highlights of Vieux-Montréal, for me, was to try poutine at the Les 3 Brasseurs. A nice cozy atmosphere with an attractive waiter, sangria, beer, and great company. Poutine is a Québec delicacy that is basically fries, gravy and cheese. Sound disgusting? It’s actually quite good and is best as a side dish.
After getting full and warm it was time to brave the cold and visit more of the old town. We by chance stumbled on Notre-Dame de Montréal and realized that we could go inside. Talk about grand and spectacular! Vivid colors of blues, gold, greens and yellows. Catholics really know how to make a church feel grand and it was a great experience even though I’m not religious.
So what do you do after visiting a Catholic Church? Follow it up with some tea at a Chinese tea room of course! This part was one of my favorites of the day. This tea room in Montréal was sophisticated and the people who worked there had passion for tea from pouring to serving. As a tea lover it was a real excitement and joy to see. Plus it was the warmth and relaxation we needed after walking through Vieux-Montréal.
The next day we headed for Québec, Québec but I wanted to leave that for another post. I want to describe what we did when we came back from Québec City (Québecois people would never say Québec City, just Québec. I’m using it so there isn’t confusion among English readers).
Coming back from Québec City (it’s about a 2 and half hour drive), we arrived back at Vieux-Montréal at 2 in the afternoon; hungry and ready to relax from driving. We parked our car back at Montréal City Hall and braved the cold again. Temperatures were somewhere around -15F to -25F that day. It’s the type of cold where your hands go numb within minutes and you’re brain automatically searches for any place that may be warm. It’s grueling but manageable.
Sylvain, Roman and I decided on eating some pho and Viet food at Chinatown. Montréal’s Chinatown is very small, maybe a block long, but is a great option if you’re sick of the usual North American food. It’s actually just north of Vieux-Montréal, all walking distance. It was great to devour something spicy, warm and different from the usual food we have. I didn’t eat poorly in Montréal because Montréal is a foodie city but I didn’t eat as healthy as I could have.
Anyways, since we had seen Vieux-Montréal and were in no mood to go back out in the cold and we decided to camp out at Café Starbucks as it’s know in Québec. Sylvain told us that Québec has this funny rule that Québec has to make every thing in French. So to make Starbucks more French they decided to put café in front of the word Starbucks. Maybe a tad silly but Québec is all about being unique from the rest of Canada and the rest of the world. At Café Starbucks we picked up a Montréal mug with the name and city on the side. We had been collecting these mugs ever since traveling to Vancouver and wanted to add to the collection. It was the only Starbucks in the area that had one so we snatched it up as soon as we saw it!
This is probably a good time to talk about the differences of Québec people from the rest of Canada and from France. First off, it’s really easy to notice that Québec French is different from France French. People use strange words like char instead of voiture (car) and have what sounds like a funny French accent. It’s almost like they are trying to be different from France which Sylvain assured me was the case. Québec wants to be its own separate identity and even though they get their language from France they want to be known as different from France. They don’t see France as being better than them, just different, while France sometimes looks down on Québec.
Some French feel superior and I personally feel that some really do believe that. I guess that’s understandable. And unlike France they share mostly North American attitudes when it comes to dating, relationships, and lifestyle as explained by Sylvain. This does make sense as Québec is still in North America and is now more influenced by North American customs. The people are not as religious as the United States but they are less promiscuous and forward compared to the French. It seems that Québec is taking some aspects of France and some aspects of North America and making its own identity. Is it all that much different? Yes and no. Québécois are like any other Canadian, American or French person in many aspects but by fusing all those cultures together they create their own unique culture. Pretty cool actually.
After talking for an hour or so, we headed back to Sylvain’s house where we met some of his roommates. They had just come back from traveling abroad. This is the reason I normally don’t like to stay in other people’s homes but they were very nice and welcoming. One was from Ottawa and the other one from Newfoundland. It is really true that most Canadians are very welcoming and it’s especially true when they are from smaller cities and regions in Canada. We ended our last night in Montréal with a stop to a Montréal burger joint that was actually quite tasty. Some blue cheese, beef and other goodies on top. Like I said we never ate poorly in Montréal because it is a foodie city and it was a nice, cheap way to end our trip!
The next morning we left early due to pending snow storms out near Chicago. I didn’t want to be caught driving in poor weather and for most of the trip back it was fine. That is until we hit western Michigan, Indiana and Chicago. There was so much snow, it was actually getting pretty scary to drive. Not the way I wanted to end my trip but I was glad I had the foresight to see the weather was coming in. If we had left later we would have been in more snow for much longer.
So after getting back home safely I let out a sigh of relief and called the trip a success. It was nice to escape Chicago for a bit and go to a place that is unique in culture from any other city in North America. It was great that I could use my French and it was weird that I didn’t need to go to Europe to do it. I will surely be back to Québec but most likely during the summer as the cold was intense and did dictate how much time we spent outdoors. However it didn’t dampen our spirits and I’m glad we experienced it. Québec is strangely distinct from the rest of Canada and should be on your list for future travel.
View a ton more photos of my journey to Montréal on Flickr!
Next week is a post of my time in Québec, Québec!
images by: shawnvoyage