Montreal: Eclectic Arts and Culture
Montreal …for many reasons
By Christopher Ludgate
When there was finally light at the end of the tunnel and travel opened up along with Canada’s borders, I just as soon found myself back in Canada. Montreal often feels like a more compact version of New York to me but with its own unique multifaceted history of course.
And the cultural influences are similar, diverse, and many. An added bonus is its people can be quite nice, too.
Montreal’s eclectic arts and food scenes have much to offer, and exploring on foot is the easy, oft-preferred mode for many to get about, just like I do at home in NYC.
I’ve explored the obvious cultural aspects when first dipping my toes here in what Mark Twain once dubbed, ‘The City of Steeples,’ and I wanted to get to know Montreal a bit better.
What is it about those bagels, anyway? And while exploring, I discovered it’s an ideal destination for a solo jaunt.
Wellness on the Water
One of my new favorite things in Montreal is floating in the St. Lawrence River. One might not think of wellness and ferries as a synonymous pairing, but here among the relics of Old Port, it surely is.
Across the footbridge, wading unobtrusively beyond the juxtaposed old world and onslaught of new stuff is the peaceful respite of the spa-sur-l’eau, Bota Bota.
It’s an oasis of water-centric wellness ingeniously reincarnated within the skeleton of a retired ferryboat.
I picked up my robe and accouterments at check-in, locked up the phone, and slipped the swimsuit on with my sights on first heading to the gardens of the one-of-a-kind spa.
Bota Bota, which translates into drop-by-drop in Japanese, was bestowed with an unexpectedly gorgeous weather day welcoming loungers on the outdoor terrace chaises and bathers on the hydro-circuit.
Guests relaxed in tranquil floral corners while others circulated above on the multi-level facility of varying thermal baths and yoga rooms.
I opted to start my circuit in the decompressing eucalyptus steam after a rinse, alternating in the dry saunas and the garden’s bathing pool therapies to invigorate the circulation.
After a brief meditation spent basking under the trees, I peeled myself from the lounge chair to explore the teas in the café and level up to where views of city landmarks can be seen in the distance while the bubble jets worked their magic in the tub.
I’ve run myself ragged on many adventures, and although my senses feel fulfilled from the whirlwind, I can wind up exhausted. These days, I think people understand that self-care and wellness are not luxuries. So, forget the screen, refresh yourself, add some travel therapy to the itinerary, I say.
Jewish Noshing Tour
Most people who have been to Montreal know the popular food markets like Jean-Talon or even the new Time-Out Market. The city boasts an eclectic array of ethnic foods, not least of all, that of immigrants who introduced their culture’s iconic Jewish dishes.
On another delightful day in Montreal, I joined guide Melissa of Tours de la Table for a dive into stories of Montreal’s Jewish culture while ooh-ing and ah-ing along the way on the city’s original Jewish food tour with its iconic delis, babka shops, culture, bagels, and a side of Leonard Cohen.
The sun beamed onto the bright mustard yellow awning of Lesters Deli in the Outremont neighborhood where one morning, with a churning empty stomach, I met Melissa.
Famous for its smoked meats and elaborate traditional Jewish menu for 60-plus years, the deli’s old-school ambiance and memorabilia oozed with character. The smoked salmon and rye with slaw got things started as we began the tour.
Are you a St. Viateur? Or maybe it’s Fairmount that will be your jam? Loyal Montrealers have an ongoing debate about what’s the better bagel. Is it the chew, the sweetness, the size… what’s more authentic?
It’s complicated. I always like seeing the St. Viateur bagel factory and shvitz in full swing with all the press write-ups on the walls while waiting in the queue, but I also appreciate Fairmount’s 100+ year history of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Sesame and everything to go, please.
Way Beyond Bagels
But this tour goes beyond bagels. Melissa enriched our time together with insights into the threads of local Jewish history during the intimate hands-on four-hour, two-mile noshing tour.
Detouring through alleys of note, listening to poetry with sweets from Cheskie’s and Hof Kelsten’s, and discussing the old synagogue at Falafel Yoni, my guide herself was an unexpected treat.
I loved hearing about Montreal once being a center for the intellectual Yiddish literary scene with poets like Melech Ravitch and Rokhl Korn whose Song of Yesterday Melissa read aloud to me:
“The street will part us like comb in hair
with curses, screams and beggars prayers
with children’s prams accompanied by baskets
and you will have no idea
that through the jungle of stone walls
our steps called out to each other,
like melancholy birds.”
Montreal’s Nostalgic Lunch Counter, Wilenski’s
At renowned Wilensky’s nostalgic lunch counter where Sharon Wilensky whipped up an old-fashioned egg cream for us as we watched from our swivel stools taking in the atmosphere, all made for a charmingly unique tour.
Nothing cookie-cutter here. It was also a chance to people-watch amongst the locals.
Taking us through picturesque Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods, the tour led to a stretch of St. Laurent. There, we popped in for a peek at neon-lit Cinema L’Amour which used to be the world-famous Yiddish theater, Le Globe, before becoming the adult film house it is today.
The juxtaposition is amusing, and it still has some of the classic movie house looks.
Giving our bellies and feet a little rest before even more tastings down at Shwartz’s, we lounged with a dose of Crown Royale Rye as Melissa read poetry aloud at lively Parc du Portugal across from Leonard Cohen’s now landmarked house.
A ubiquitous presence in street art throughout Montreal, as everybody knows, Cohen’s music and poetry are a celebrated part of the heart of Montreal.
Solo in Montreal
My decadent king-size room at the chic art deco-themed Vogue Hotel in Downtown District gave me a coveted peek of Mount Royal just up the street outside my window.
In a moment of spontaneity, as the sun was setting, I hopped a cab up the mountain to catch it.
While wandering, I came upon the observatory with its lovely views of the city bathed in dusk’s light.
Further on down, I encountered the massive electric-lit cross that I’d only seen from below.
Dubbed the ‘disco cross’ by some for its oft-changing colors, the cross symbolizes what one of the city’s founders erected there in 1643 in fulfillment of his vow to the Virgin Mary in his prayers to end a disastrous flood. I figured I should say a prayer to find my way down the mount.
Somehow I soon found myself with a scotch on the terrace of Bar George around the corner from The Vogue. It’s uber-grand with its 300-year-old stained glass windows, 15-foot satinwood walls, and 22-carat gold fixtures.
So swanky, it’s almost humbling. But you can’t just walk right by, especially if you’re a covert aristocrat about town.
Immersive Museums of Montreal
I hadn’t enjoyed a simple glass of red with a wood-oven pizza while out on my own in a bit, and sometimes that’s just what I need.
One evening, I dipped my toes into Montreal’s old jazz club scene at Jardin Nelson which was one of those circa 1940’s style clubs where I almost expected Satchmo or Betty Grable to come on next.
I also loved losing time in OASIS immersion at Palais des Congrès de Montréal before lunching with a friend at Monarque brasserie.
A portal of audiovisual experiences with sweeping panoramic projections, the experience commandeered my senses on the richly colorful journey.
Contactless throughout from the Anticipation Room through to the Decompression Corridor, the exhibits explored ethereal themes exploring nature, light, energy, and life while bathing me in its concepts. The instructions are: Relax and let go.
“RECHARGER/Unwind …is an opportunity to discover incredible digital artists who are elevating the language of the immersive experience,” Denys Lavigne, CEO and co-creative director described.
Exploring Montreal’s Queerstory
Montreal has a well-documented progressive sexual history that dates back well before the liberation movements. It remains a popular gay Mecca for many travelers and transplants.
But the thread of equality now woven into Montreal society didn’t come easy. There were stories abound while self-proclaimed Montreal expert, Thom Seivewright and I walked in the footsteps of those who fought back during the Queerstory Tour.
We spent the afternoon exploring pivotal historic hotspots of the 1960s and 1970s where jet-set celebrities reveled at places like Limelight, Studio 54’s sister disco club.
Thom described the overt gay scenes that thrived on Crescent Street with burlesque and baths before the entire city was met with a series of what was officially called a “clean-up” campaign against gay establishments by way of extreme police intimidation tactics.
A Fight for Rights
Thom walked us through Montreal’s version of New York’s Stonewall riots. We stood outside of what was once a hot spot, Truxx on Rue Stanley, where a violent raid by the police sparked outrage from the gay community and its allies.
“The violent raid on Truxx inspired a next-day protest attracting roughly 2000 demonstrators. That’s where John Banks and a few others got the inspiration to found La Brigade Rose, which went on to later organize Montreal’s first two Pride marches,” Thom explained about the crucial moment in the fight for equal rights.
Quebec’s National Assembly passed the anti-discriminatory act in 1977, establishing legal rights for all regardless of sexual orientation.
But it’s not all about the raids. Thom explores gay culture with stories such as the early two-spirit gender philosophy represented in indigenous artist Charles Joseph’s totem pole on Rue Sherbrooke.
Poignant stories like that of the bombing of Aquarius Sauna and the unclaimed bodies, the curious tale of the first openly gay bookstore with a children’s section to appease the puritanical, and not least of all, how gay-icon and performer Marlene Deitrich wound up finding a new assistant in sassy John Banks at one of her Montreal shows one night.