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The Best of Both Worlds

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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Canada’s second city combines the best of North America and Europe: a new world skyline of concrete and glass rises over churches and monuments in a variety of old-world style. Although the prophets of doom insisted that Bill 101, the law which made French the official language of Quebec would spell economic disaster and drive English Canadians out of the city, Montreal is thriving and has become the driving force behind Canadian high-tech industry. The mixture of cultures has helped to make Montreal the most happening city in Canada.

Montreal’s international Jazz Festival is rightly renowned the world over. North America’s largest; it brings more than four hundred shows, over seventy-five percent of the free, to the city between June and July. Huge open-air stages around the Place des Arts become the focus for the festive atmosphere that captures the imagination of locals as well as visitors. Throughout the year jazz is popular at live music nights in many of the city’s bars. If you’re too late for the jazz the world’s largest comedy festival take place in mid-July - past headliners have included Jim Carrey and John Candy.

Most visitors start by exploring the quaint charms of Old Montreal. Narrow streets and alleys and a variety of architectural styles make for an appealing walk around. The departure of the big shipyards from the port area of the old town left a lot of space that has been reclaimed for recreational use: running and cycling trails, quayside exhibitions and even cross-country skiing are available in this part of town. This is also the place to come for a jet boat trip through the spectacular white water Lachine Rapids that will leave you wide-eyed, wet and exhilarated.

The locals are fiercely proud of their ‘mountain’. At a petite 233 meters, Mont Royale is a hill to most of us – but this green oasis holds a special place in the history of the city: it was here that the Iroquois settled when the island was declared French. Historically, the mountain was privately owned, but in a more-than-usually-harsh Quebec winter the owner cut down some of his trees for firewood. The citizens were outraged, and in 1875 the city purchased the mountain at considerable expense. Now it provides long running and skiing trails for all-year-round fun and games. Commercial development has been banned. The only construction on the mountain is a lake on which you can boat or skate, depending on the time of year. The Plateau Mont Royale District is typical of Montreal. Penniless students, upcoming professionals and old-fashioned working families rub shoulders around here. The outside of buildings are decorated with weird staircases that lead to long, narrow apartments. Flower-decked in balconies provide perfect views of street life – in many ways this is like the New Orleans of the north. You’ll also find some high class restaurants and boutiques in this area. To the south, the Quartier Latin has got rid of its old, seedy reputation and become a smart area of cafés and bars.

The Underground City may sound glamorous – but don’t be fooled. It’s just a means of getting around with a few humdrum shopping malls – in effect, a glorified subway.

As for other landmarks, you won’t be able to escape ‘The Big O’: Montreal’s Stade Olympique, named after its huge circular shape. It’s vast, and the locals are always complaining about it – the building cost a fortune and the city is still working off the debt thirty years after construction began. It wasn’t even ready in time for the 1976 Olympic Games. Just about anything gets staged here these days, as Montreal is trying to pay off the cost of place once and for all. One was to check out the stadium is to buy a cheap ticket to a football game. The stadium’s in a pretty shaky state, with a retractable roof that has never quite retracted properly and whole sections that may soon need to be demolished.

The nearby Biodome, which was built to host cycling events, has been more successful. These days it’s an exciting environmental museum made up of four different eco-systems – tropical, forest, plains, and polar, all complete with appropriate plants and animals.

If you’re a real sports fan, make sure you catch the Habs – Montreal’s ice hockey team – in action. Ice Hockey is the unofficial national sport, and it’s one of the few things that really gets most Canadians going. Ticket prices are reasonable, and the high-adrenaline, speedy nature of play makes the price of admission well worth it. Team rivalries are intense, and there’s an old saying in the city – ‘I went to see a fight and an ice hockey game broke out.’

If you like French culture – but want to have your Freedom Fries and eat them – Montreal is the place to come!

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