Day 12: Montreal
Blend of bohemian and bourgeois make this Canada's premier city
Friday, August 18, 2000
After years of recession and retreat, Montreal can claim to be back in the place it deserves, as Canada's premier city, the only one that can even enter the shadow of a New York or Paris.
Spurred by an economic revival, by the victories of Air Canada and Bombardier, Montreal is swanning. (It does not strut.) The theatres and concert halls are packed, as are every hotel and hostel this week for women's tennis. Downtown and on the Plateau, the sidewalk cafés are brimming with gorgeous young women and men who drink and smoke as if it were their birthright, as perhaps it was, and then indulge in nightclubs that gaily run till dawn.
Out on le Ste-Hélène, the 1967 Expo grounds have become major destinations again, less for La Ronde amusement park than for the hugely popular Biosphere, which has come to show that cities are about more than neon and nightclubs.
There are independent bookstores such as Libraire d'Androgyne on St. Laurent. And, of course, the parks, ones like St. Louis Square, crowded late on a weeknight with middle-aged couples eating ice cream, young lovers embracing on benches and punks bathing their dogs in a public fountain. Crowds laugh, chat, argue and blend together like the sweet smell of pot wafting through the humid night air.
This is Montreal at its best, not just a city of high fashion and outstanding food, but a place where the bourgeois and bohemian come together in a way they do not in Toronto or Vancouver.
Then there's the casino.
On le Nôtre Dame, the decidedly drab Casino de Montreal is a trap devoid of design, vigour and fun, not to mention taste in its design that resembles a convention centre on the inside and, at night, a fully lit spaceship on the outside. The casino may also be cited as the strongest spark yet in Montreal's revival. Late at night, or in the middle of the afternoon, its six floors are crowded with gamblers, and not just the traditional casino crowd. At the high-stakes blackjack tables, most of the players are Vietnamese. In the vast halls of slot machines and keno tables, there are Haitians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and a few native people.
There may be little laughing and no cheering, not even when the keno winners are announced. There may be little to even suggest this is Montreal.
Yet it appeals. As coffee trolleys roll by in the early hours, customers continue to pour in, the clinking of coins grows stronger and a city is forced again to redefine itself, as cities do.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.