Montreal & Quebec Day 1: Arrival in Montreal

From Saturday, September 23rd 2006 to Sunday, October 1st 2006 (about a week), I explored Montreal (two-thirds the vacation) and the city of Quebec (one-third the vacation). I invited my parents, who I hadn't seen in nearly a year, and they joined me on this trip. It was nice to see them and quite a change to vacation with them; the last time I recall going on a family vacation was before high school. Dividing the work helped reduce the planning stress, a welcome change compared to my solo Vancouver trip. I researched restaurants and chose what to see; they researched and booked hotels and brought quality AAA maps. (This is important: the maps in guide books and brochures are sometimes inaccurate and often hard to use.)

I really liked Montreal. It's a very cosmopolitan city and is in many ways similar to Manhattan:

  • both have a density of restaurants and stores that's unmatched by nearly all other cities;
  • both have places that stay open late;
  • both have people on the streets to the wee hours of the morning;
  • both have a good subway system, though walking is nice and quite effective;
  • both have older sections of town with centuries of history;
  • both have a large park created by the same designer;
  • both are quite clean, Montreal perhaps slightly more so;
  • both nowadays have some, but relatively few, panhandlers/homeless people.
The main differences are:
  • Montreal's huge number of bistros and cafes (and even sandwich shops) and, with the French everywhere, the foreignness. Yet, while foreign, it was still easily navigable since everyone was bilingual.
  • The massive number of impressive churches/cathedrals/basilicas/etc. in Montreal dwarfs New York's.
  • Montreal has very few blacks. (I can't say African-Americans, can I?)
This post and the following ones will document my Montreal experiences in more detail: where I went, what I saw, what I thought about what I saw, where I ate, and in general how I felt at various instants. As for Quebec, I'll write my general impressions of the city in my first post on that topic and further posts will describe my adventures there.

One neat observation: even though I can't speak French, my ability to pronounce it increased dramatically. On the first full day, I learned how to prounounce thank you (merci); a few days later I had downtown (centreville) down pat; by the end of the trip I could pronounce French names and words correctly without giving the task conscious thought.

Getting to Montreal was easy. I took public transit to SFO. In a corner of SFO, I grabbed a okay sandwich for lunch from Klein's Deli, a joint in the remote end of a terminal. (I had "The McGinn," which mainly included turkey, cheese, and pesto.)

The plane flight was nice. My seatmates were friendly. I talked to one for a large portion of the trip. She was a serial restaurateur, having started and sold three restaurants. At some point she was a health practitioner, utilizing her education at McGill (undergrad) and Harvard (grad). Now she mostly sails. But she's also starting an alternative medicine clinic in Belize. She has three kids, only one of whom still lives in Montreal. From her living and owning restaurants in Montreal for so long, I got many tips about places to visit and sights to see. It's amazing how much one can learn about someone's history from one conversation.

My only disappointment with the flight was that my socialness meant I didn't get to read as much of my guidebooks as I'd have liked, and therefore didn't end up with much of a concrete plan for each day. Instead, I ended up roughly planning each day the evening before. That worked out fine.

After my parents picked me up at the airport, we passed some nice nighttime views of downtown on the way to our hotel (Hotel Chateau de l'Argoat), checked in, and asked for advice for a nearby place to grab a bite to eat. We walked to the suggested restaurant, Pizza Donini, and continued several blocks further to explore. The segment of St Denis we walked down had a few bistros, a creperie, a Tibetian restaurant, an Ethiopian restaurant, two Indian restaurants, a Szechuan restaurant, and more. I could tell Montreal was a diverse and adventurous city. Eventually, we decided to return to Pizza Donini for food. Here's my review.

Our late dinner completed, we returned to the hotel to sleep and prepare for our first full day in Montreal.

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