By Jane Muller
Decades before visiting Montreal, two iconic Montrealers introduced me to their city. The songs of Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne” in particular, and writings of novelist Mordecai Richler, including “St. Urbain’s Horseman”, provided glimpses of the city’s people and places.
It was as though both were there as phantoms as I explored the city last summer, a year after its 375th anniversary in 2017. A nine-storey tall mural painted by Kevin Ledo allows Cohen to literally loom large over the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood where he lived. Created for the annual Mural Festival, his image overlooks the house where he lived just off Main Street on Mary Anne Street, renamed by fans to reference one of his popular songs, “So Long, Marianne”, a farewell ode to his lover Marianne Ihlen.
Like many of his fans, I have a photo of myself posing outside his former front door and beneath the street sign and in front of the mural, which is what brought me to the neighbourhood. The imposing tribute is one of dozens of murals that have been bringing new life to the Staint-Lauren Boulevard area since the Mural Festival’s inception in 2013. Each year artists from around the world have left their creative mark in the downtown area. Walls are the canvas for works that traditional galleries could not accommodate.
Event co-founder Pierre-Alain Benoît says the mission of the festival is to “democratize urban art” by providing free access to works of local and international artists. Last year’s entries included 19 main murals, bringing the amazing collection up to 84.
The creation of the works is a marvel in itself and visitors arriving a few days ahead of the festival launch can watch the artists working from their perches atop scissor lifts and scaffolds. There’s a map on the festival website (muralfestival.com) that highlights mural locations, some of which are just out of plain sight throughout the neighbourhood and are revealed as you emerge from an ally, turn a corner or simply look up.
The 11-day festival that runs from June 6 to 16 also features live music, a pedestrian street mall and pop-up exhibition. Visit the website for updates. Guided tours are available and must be booked 48 hours in advance.
While visitors will find so much to see and do on their own, guided tours can enrich the process of discovery. Tourism Montreal included two guided experiences for the group of visiting travel writers that I had joined to explore the city that had recently added a 60 metre tall observation wheel and zipline attraction to its waterfront.
The luxury of starting the day with an exceptional cup of coffee and decadent pastries is multiplied when taking a coffee culture tour. With stops at several diverse offerings, our vivacious guide Carrie MacPherson, mixed her impressive knowledge of history into the brew for an entertaining morning.
Cohen and Richler would have known Crew Collective and Café as the Royal Bank of Canada built in the financial district in 1928. The grandeur of the architecture contrasts with the working class neighbourhoods where the pair grew up, from the intricate mosaics on the domed ceilings supported by ornate pillars right down to the inlaid marble floors and well worn stairs to the brass railings and ornate teller wickets. The café’s offerings were also impressive. Take the time to enjoy them in the grand setting.
Richler and Cohen would have been more at home at Caffé Italia that has remained virtually unchanged since it opened in 1956 at its St. Laurent Boulevard location in Little Italy. The backstory of this café, still run by the founding Serri family, is as deep and rich as the delicious Italian ice coffee that refreshes on a warm summer morning.
The shaving kits and playing cards for sale at the café are throwbacks to when it was a hangout for men, many of whom came to Canada ahead of the rest of their families. They would have shopped at the neighbouring Milano grocery store that opened two years before the café and features a vast selection of European products.
Our coffee tour en route to the compact St. Henri Café, took us past Jean Talon Market that offers fresh produce and more indoors year-round and outdoors in season. The fresh, modern bistro-style café may be located in the Latin Quarter but as the old-style pull-down school map on the wall indicates, its coffee takes customers around the world. Sample the wonderful baked goods, with choices packed with protein and many to accommodate special dietary needs.
The Tommy Café in Old Montreal combines the old and the new in its open, multi-level space where greenery thrives in the generous natural light afforded by the tall original windows framed with Victorian architectural detail. We didn’t have a chance to sample the coffee at the popular location but it was well worth the peek.
During the van ride from Old Montreal to Little Italy, MacPherson pointed out the Mordecai-Richler Public Library (the renamed Mile End Public Library) housed in the former Church of the Ascension, a beatiful1910 building that retains its main architectural features. This nod to the native son was duly noted.
We took to the streets to discover more about the city on a bike tour led by an equally knowledgeable guide Anne-Marie Pellerin, co-founder of Spade & Palacio. Her familiarity with the streets and local traffic provided a sense of safety while her commentary immersed us into local culture. A two-wheeled expedition accommodates access to private spaces like enchanting gardens hidden in alleyways. The government funds these projects undertaken by neighbours who agree to work together on small green spaces.
Located in the middle of the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, La Fontaine Park is a large-scale green space established in the 1870s. Bike-friendly trails are shaded by towering trees that add to the charm of the 34 hectares (84 acres). Across from a substantial pond complete with the park’s namesake fountain is an amphitheatre. Pellerin noted that the park is a destination for picnickers who can enjoy wine or beer with their meal thanks to the liberal liquor laws of the province.
As we pass quaint row houses of the Plateau, she explains that the exterior staircases that run from the edge of the sidewalk to the second floor were designed to free up space inside the small apartments. The usual design is unique to Montreal and adds to the visual appeal and character of the city.
The bike tours are headquartered at Le Club Espresso Bar, where caffeinated fuel can be enjoyed before or after a tour.
While cycling is a great way to spend a warm sunny day, evenings in Montreal are more suited to walking. Throughout the summer from Tuesday to Sunday from dusk to 11 p.m. pedestrians will find 25 historically-influenced outdoor videos presented in Old Montreal and the port. Download the free app for audio. The Cité Mémoire videos are projected on walls and on the riverfront, a tower provides the perfect place to present a tribute to Leonard Cohen choreographed to “Suzanne”. The song is inspired by the view of the Montreal harbour from the observation tower of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel and references the Our Lady of the Harbour statue that stands, with arms outstretched toward the St. Lawrence.
And so there was Cohen, serenading us on the river. The view has changed since he penned the poem in 1966 that was later set to music. Most notably, the 60-metre high observation wheel, La Grande Roue de Montréal punctuates the cityscape. From its enclosed, climate controlled cabins, riders take in a panoramic view of the river, Old Montreal, downtown and the mountains. Riding at night provides the extra glitter of lights on the river and be sure to use the Bluetooth sound system to create your own soundtrack.
Might I suggest a little Leonard Cohen?
If You Go
901 Square-Victoria St. – marriott.com
W Montreal offers modern luxury and a youthful vibe. In close proximity to Old Montreal it features the Nom Nom restaurant and the ‘40s inspired Bartizen bar with its gin specialties infused with fresh herbs.
465 McGill St. – borisbistro.com
The unique terrace is framed by the stone wall remnants of a historic building and accommodates mature shade trees. The varied menu is “certified gluten free” with many lactose-free options.
243 Mont-Royal Ave. – restaurantha.com
This is the place to enjoy a Vietnamese style poke bowl and steamed buns. Shaded patio seating offers views of Mount Royal.
Through the Echoes at PY1
360 Rue del la Commune E. – PY1.co
A 60-minute, 360-degree multimedia creation, Through the Echoes incorporates atmospheric special effects for an exploration of space and time. Produced by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, it’s presented all summer at the new contemporary space, the PY1 pyramid.
Take a quick zip over the waterfront at the Old Port. It’s Canada’s first urban zipline.
VIARail takes the stress out of getting into downtown Montreal. Sit back for the five-hour ride from Toronto. Make it even more enjoyable with business class that offers great food and attentive service.