Canada Trip #11 – Montreal

In every vacation – especially with our road trips – we have some kind of mishap, catastrophe, or major stressor.  For our Canadian road trip, it was the Montreal leg of our trip that went almost entirely pear-shaped.  I had so many possibilities researched for our time in Montreal, so many potential plans, but if those plans were all neatly packed into a box then our time in the city was like the bottom falling out of that box as soon as it was lifted up.

It all started with the accommodation, which had been booked with a company we had never used before and shall definitely never use again.  It was a hotel without a concierge so the idea was we had to phone 24 hours before check-in to be given all manner of instructions and access codes.  This should have been simple enough but they did not answer the phone, no matter how many calls we placed and messages we left.  I will spare you the details of the saga but just know that the uncertainty was very stressful to manage and gave me sustained elevated anxiety.  My husband and I used to wing it when travelling in the past because finding one room for two people at last minute was rarely problematic but finding accommodation for six people is a challenge even when planning in advance and definitely cannot be managed on spec without a whole barrel more stress.  Ultimately, at very nearly the last minute, the company finally picked up the phone, provided the codes, and we could access the accommodation.  All we had time left to do that first evening, however, was have a brief explore of the area nearby.  It was a frustrating start.

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The first proper thing we did in Montreal, therefore, was to ascend Mount Royal.  This is the volcanic hill that gives the city its name.  Neither Mr Pict or I had visited it during our previous visit to Montreal so we were keen to see it and the spectacular views over the city that were promised.  We set off from our apartment in the morning and were soon hiking up the trails, through the trees, to get to the summit.  And, just as we really started ascending, the skies opened and we were drenched by a deluge.  We sheltered beneath the tree canopy in the hopes it would quickly pass over.  Rain had not been predicted for the morning after all.  However, it did not pass.  It actually just got worse.  By this point we were soaked to the skin anyway, and at least it was warm, so we decided we would keep plunging onwards and upwards.  We emerged from the woodland trail onto the belvedere dripping, squelchy, and looking like forest trolls.  But at least it would all be worth it for the fabulous views, right?  Yeah, not so much.  We could definitely see an expanse of the city below us but it really wasn’t that enthralling a view.  Maybe it was the haze from the intense humidity obscuring the detail and maybe (probably) it was our soggy moods but we were all entirely underwhelmed.  Well, Mr Pict and I were merely underwhelmed; our sons were incandescent, feeling like they had been duped by us, and starting to foment a rebellion against committing to any of our other plans for Montreal.  Oh dear.




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We squelched and dripped our way back down the hill and towards the neighbourhood we were staying in.  Most of us were going to require a change of clothes before we could even countenance doing anything else.  Our apartment was in a district that was kind of hipster and trendy, definitely in the category of an up and coming area rather than fully gentrified, and we had learned that it was fun to explore it by daylight, when it had a really great vibe, but we didn’t really want to have the kids out after dark.  Anyway, our walk back to the apartment from Mount Royal took us through a neighbourhood where the gable ends of buildings and other walls were decorated in wonderful murals.  Apparently urban artists are invited to paint the walls in the neighbourhood every summer and the quality of their art is really fabulous.  The kids and I really enjoyed viewing them and treated the streets like an outdoor art gallery.







Returning to the apartment to dry out and change clothes was useful on a practical level but it was also a mistake.  Once the kids were back inside those four walls, they mounted a bit of an insurrection about going back out.  Our bad start to exploring Montreal had eaten away at their enthusiasm and they were bottomed out.  Plus they are teen and tween boys so any opportunity to rebel and rail against parental dictats is going to be seized upon.  I sometimes have to remind myself that life was not in fact easier when they were all small enough to be strapped into a buggy or carrier.  I also have to remind myself that I have trained them to voice their own opinions and to debate.  I created these rebellious monsters!

We compelled them to go back out again with the promise of lunch.  Once they had been fed, however, I revealed that we would be using what remained of the afternoon to do something constructive.  Of course they whined and grumbled but I was past caring at this point.  As we are fond of reminding our precious children, while we normally parent in a democratic style, sometimes we have to be dictators.  You can imagine how well that went down.


My most vivid memory of my previous visit to Montreal was of visiting Notre Dame Basilica (yup, same name was the one in Quebec) because I had been bowled over by its interior decoration.  I decided that was what we would do so we tramped over to the old city.  The queue for admission ran all the way down the street – cue much griping – but it was also fairly fast moving.  We were inside in under forty minutes.  The kids elected to soak up the atmosphere and aesthetics (and air conditioning) from a pew so I just abandoned them there while I wandered around the basilica and studied the details of the carvings, the stained glass, and the paintwork.  It was the latter that had left that lasting impression with me.  The vaulted ceiling is painted a rich blue that is then spattered with gilded stars.  The main altar is also mainly an azure blue colour but with patterns picked out in red and purple as well as gold.  It’s like an exquisite box of luxurious jewellery.  It’s lavish and stunning and a bit of an extravagant confection but I think historic ecclesiastical architecture can pull such excess off.  I even got to hear the 19th Century organ being warmed up and played briefly which was fantastic.  The kids remained unmoved and unimpressed.







After a bit more wandering around the old city and its port, we gave up.  We strolled back to our own neighbourhood, grabbed some ingredients for our evening meal from a grocery store, and returned to our apartment, and I packed up so we could set off for the next leg of our trip.  So our time in Montreal was a bit of a damp squib all in all.  My memories from my 2001 Canadian road trip had left me with the impression that Quebec was a much more appealing tourist destination but that Montreal was a much more practical city and my visits this time had just served to shore up that opinion.  While our visit to Montreal as tourists had been beset by problems – some of our own making and some not – I could definitely imagine it being a great place to live and work; meanwhile, Quebec was a wonderful city to visit as a tourist but I think living there could be a bit more challenging.  In any case, we were done with cities now.  Now it was time for a change of pace.

Canada Trip #10 – Ramparts of Quebec

After our visit to the Montmorency Falls and the Ile d’Orleans, we wanted to spend the evening back in Quebec’s old city given it was our last evening there.  It was completely lovely to be out in the cooling air and the golden light of the sinking sun really showcased the city’s architecture.  We didn’t really have an objective when we set out for our stroll but then inspiration struck and we decided to walk along a section of the Ramparts.

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The fortifications technically date from the mid-18th Century after the British took the city from the French but they have been demolished and reconstructed over the centuries so they are a bit of an architectural Frankenstein.  We could not have walked the entire perimeter of the walls even had we wanted to because, once again, as with our attempt to reach the Plains of Abraham, we were thwarted by construction works.  We, therefore, walked a stretch from Porte Saint-Jean around to the area of the Plains of Abraham.

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The elevation of the walls afforded us a great view over the city streets, lots of panoramic vistas, and letterbox vignettes observed through these oblong windows cut into the walls.  It also helped us appreciate how these fortifications functioned as defences and how much they must have dominated the city.

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The ramparts made for a really lovely stroll, away from the crowds yet still in the thick of things, and it was especially pleasant to be so high up as the sun set and then to be back in the area of the Place Royale in the dark to enjoy the twinkling lights and glow from the lamps.  It turned out to be the best way for us to bid farewell to Quebec.

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Canada Trip #9 – Ile d’Orleans

After spending most of the morning at Montmorency Falls, we headed across the bridge to the Ile d’Orleans.  This should have been a very brief journey across a short bridge but it took a quarter of an eon to cross it because the traffic was dense and intensely slow moving.  I really had not appreciated that there would be a traffic jam heading onto an island.  Once we were on the island, we essentially did a loop around its circumference on its one main road.  It’s a very agrarian island with lots of orchards and vineyards – Cartier named the island after Bacchus when he arrived there in the 1500s – and plentiful charm.

There are lots of places where one could stop off on the Ile d’Orleans as there are a whole load of artisanal food producers, gift shops, and eateries.  We did not have the time nor the inclination nor the budget to visit all of them so we made a selection and stuck to it.  First up was a blackcurrant farm called Cassis Monna & Filles.  It was selling its wares in a very bijou building with a restaurant in the top level and a store below.  We enjoyed sampling the various jams and preserves and most were completely delicious.  The only one I objected to was some sort of chutney that was onion and blackcurrant.  Mr Pict and I have been consuming blackcurrants for most of our lives as they are a pretty common seasonal fruit in Britain but we have really not encountered blackcurrant anything during our years of living in America.  It was, therefore, a treat to be eating blackcurrant again.  We were all thirsty so we bought blackcurrant cordial which tasted just like Ribena, another staple of British childhoods.




We had a little nose in the barn, which is set up to be a small museum about their history of blackcurrant farming, and which had a window that enabled us to observe the manufacturing of blackcurrant produce.  Unfortunately we had clearly just missed them making something so what we were observing was two workers cleaning up all the equipment.  Still, the exhibits were interesting and informative and we learned the explanation for our blackcurrant deficit at home: blackcurrant farming was banned in America for a long time because of a plant disease called white pine blister rust.  I guess there is, therefore, no tradition of farming or eating them.




Our thirsts quenched, everyone was getting hangry.  There are lots of microbrasseries, vineyard restaurants, and other upscale places for gastronomes to eat fabulous local cuisine on the island but a) we were travelling with kids and b) we have a budget, so we finally stopped off at a trading post place.  It didn’t look like much from the outside but it had a lovely deck area overlooking pastures and orchards and the food was simple but delicious.

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We had hoped to visit a maple syrup farm and see it being produced but we could not find anywhere that was open and running demonstrations.  We did, however, stop in at a boulangerie because we all love bread and pastries and cakes.  We were spoiled for choice as everything on the shelves looked amazing but we each chose a patisserie item that we could scoff for breakfast the next morning.

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If Mr Pict and I had been visiting the Ile d’Orleans on our own, as just an adult couple, we could happily have spent an entire day exploring and eating.  It really is a place aimed at adults and didn’t have much to divert or engage the kids.  It’s a really lovely spot, however, and so peaceful and green.  I can see why it draws daytrippers from the city.

Canada Trip #8 – Montmorency Falls

Montmorency Falls are just a short drive from Quebec’s city centre.  This is a large waterfall at the mouth of the Montmorency River where it dramatically joins the St Lawrence.  The falls have a 272 feet drop which, the publicity enjoys informing visitors, makes them taller than those at Niagara.  A little like Niagara Falls (which we visited last year), it has been transformed from a natural feature into a tourist attraction.  It was possible to do all sorts of activities there – such as ziplining – but we decided to just take the cable car up and then walk all the way back down.  Frankly travelling in a cable car is as adrenalin-filled as I can manage.

In order to reduce queuing time, they really pack a lot of people into each car.  Have I mentioned several hundred times that I do not like crowds?  Hello, claustrophobia!  Our particular ride was made worse because some ridiculous bloke insisted on not folding down his double buggy (stroller) so – having been counted as one person – he was taking up the space of about four people.  Then there was the unstable movement and the heights to contend with.  Along with clowns, heights is my major phobia.  The views of the Falls from the cable car were pleasing enough but man was I relieved when the doors opened and we got out.


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The next phase of the visit involved walking across a suspension bridge directly above the Falls.  We could see all the way across to Quebec city and could even make out the Chateau Frontenac at its apex.  It was not as terrifying as I had braced myself for and it definitely gave us spectacular views of the crest of the Falls.  We could hear the roar of the water and feel the spray of the water.  They are pretty impressive Falls and being above them offered a pretty unique perspective on a waterfall.






The third phase of the waterfall experience was to walk down many, many, many wooden stairs (over 480 steps) to see the “face” of the falls from different elevations and angles.  To be fair, the staircase was completely stable and solid and was perfectly capable of handling the load of a hundred tourists but in my acrophobic brain the whole thing was as rickety and unstable as if I had cobbled it together out of toothpicks.  The views were fantastic, however, so I sucked it up and soldiered on.  We especially loved seeing the rainbows.


The final phase was entirely optional and avoidable but involved standing at the base of the falls.  We could really appreciate the power of the water as vertical met horizontal with a sound like distant thunder.  Even though we were not standing directly beneath the water, we still got soaked from the spray.  My two middle sons ended up completely saturated.  They loved it.




While the hundreds of tourists and all the man-made structures certainly detract from the natural beauty of Montmorency Falls, we were really glad we had taken the trip because the experience really provided us with a new way of engaging with waterfalls given all of the different perspectives.


Canada Trip #7 – Basilica and Food

Everyone was hungry after the Musee de la Civilisation so we had a wander through the streets around the Place Royale, past Notre Dame des Victoires, in search of a snack.  Beaver tails are a Canadian snack that none of us had ever had before so we opted for those.  Beaver tails are a sort of doughnut-like pastry formed into the approximate shape of – you’ve guessed it – a beaver tail on which various toppings can be added.  The place we stopped into provided roughly a dozen options for toppings.  I believe cinnamon sugar is the traditional topping but we went for hazelnut spread and banana, some sort of cheesecake type confection, and an Oreo inspired spread.  Travelling on our stomachs again!







Replenished we decided to walk up to the Plains of Abraham.  This is the site of the 1759 battle in the French and Indian War that killed the commanders of both sides, Wolfe and Montcalm.  We knew we could not visit the citadel there due to a staff strike but we had hoped to wander around the exterior.  Unfortunately, no matter what route we took, we were thwarted by construction work.  As the kids were increasingly frustrated and disenchanted by the plan, we decided to abandon the mission.







I, therefore, led everyone to see something I wanted them to see which was the Notre Dame Basilica.  I have a thing for ecclesiastical architecture that the other Picts do not share.  They, therefore, enjoyed a rest in the pews while my 13 year old was kind enough to accompany me around the building.  The specific purpose of my mission was to see the Holy Door.  It was installed in 2014 so I had not seen it on my previous visit.  Unfortunately, construction again thwarted my plans and I could not get anywhere near the door.  Why, Quebec?  Why?  Still, the interior of the church is lovely and I think we all appreciated the chance to get out of the blazing sun.





We ate dinner that evening in the Place Royale.  We selected an Italian restaurant because it had an outdoor dining area that enabled us to enjoy the surrounding architecture and people watch.  The food was decidedly off-theme but it was nevertheless delicious.  The bonus was that, walking back to the apartment, there were finally no crowds in front of the Fresque des Quebecois.  It is a mural painted on the gable end of a multistorey building so it has a sort of trompe l’oeil quality to it.  It tells the story of Quebec’s history and is richly detailed.  I like street art so I was very pleased to have an opportunity to view it without scores of people milling around in front of it.

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Canada Trip #6 – Musee de la Civilisation

We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place.  The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there.  It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples.  It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes.  I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.


I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada.  It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period.  Lots of social history too which is my thing.  The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.


What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison.  We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive.  My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs.  As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history.  I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars.  As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches.  Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.






The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions.  The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light.  It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.




The final section we went to was about prehistory.  I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils?  I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil.  My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.




It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.

Canada Trip #5 – Streets of Quebec

Our first destination in Canada was Quebec City so we headed directly there after departing Burlington.  We had rented a lovely apartment in the old city, near the port, to be our abode for a few nights.  Except for a bit of a fankle over parking and an exceedingly narrow entry staircase, the accommodation was completely perfect for our needs.  We were within easy walking distance of everything we wanted to do in the city, with all its hustle and bustle, yet our street was calm and quiet in the evenings.  It was also a relaxing place to chill in the evenings and early mornings.


Once we had organized ourselves in the apartment, we headed out for a late afternoon stroll.  My husband and I had stayed in Quebec in 2001 – in the red roofed inn you can see in the background of the photo of Mr Pict – and had absolutely loved our time there.  Our visit back then had coincided with a celebration of Quebec’s colonial history so we had engaged with all sorts of festivities around the old city and, therefore, had not done much in the way of touristy things.  We had, however, come away pretty smitten with Quebec and were hopeful that we were correct and that we would all be just as impressed this time.  We wandered up the Cote de la Montagne with the aim of showing the boys the Chateau Frontenac.





The Chateau Frontenac is a historic railway hotel that dominates the skyline of Quebec’s upper city.  Built in the 1890s, it was designated a National Historic Site in the 1980s, and I read that it is the most photographed hotel in the world.  I am probably responsible for a few hundred of those photographs.  What appeals to me about its architecture is that it makes me think of the wonky castles I have drawn as either fairytale or spooky buildings.  I especially love its asymmetry and its turrets and towers.  The interior is as swish as you might expect, with lots of marble and dark wood and sparkling glass.  I imagine it must be a pretty swanky experience to stay as a guest there.




We walked the kids through the hotel’s ground floor and popped out on the Terrasse Dufferin.  This functions a bit like a wide promenade or a beachless boardwalk and it had a really buzzy atmosphere.  We could take in the view across to Levis, look through glass at some of the archaeological dig sites beneath our feet, and watch some of the street performers.


After walking up to the Parc du Bastion de la Reine to take in the spectacular views over the city, everyone was getting really hungry so we went off in search of a place that sold traditional Quebecois food.  Mr Pict had eaten a meat pie back in 2001, the memory of which has made him drool ever since, so his objective for our evening meal was to find a place selling meat pies.  We found plenty of places selling Quebecois fare but they were either way out of our budget or really not appropriate for dining with children.  Finally we found the perfect place.  The younger kids ordered pizza and pasta, I ordered poutine (I love poutine), and Mr Pict and our oldest son ordered a Quebecois feast.  This started with pea soup and ended with a maple syrup tart and the entree included the very meat pie Mr Pict has been reminiscing about for almost two decades.  Obviously not the exact same meat pie because a) he ate that one and b) that would be gross and fatal, but one that was apparently identical to the fondly remembered pie.  Mission accomplished.


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We strolled back through the streets to head back to our apartment but we stopped off first at the riverfront where there were water features blasting water and venting steam for the boys to play among.  They got absolutely soaking wet but thankfully the apartment was just a very short walk away so they could walk back through the streets barefoot and dripping.