Walking into Campus is a bit of an eye-opener. It’s a big gay strip club spread over two floors on Rue Sainte-Catherine, in the heart of Montr?’s gay village, with a reputation for presenting beefy jocks in the buff.

By a strange twist of fate, I visited Campus at a time when the beefy jocks were prepping in their locker rooms. Entertaining the tourists instead was a man who looked like he’d stepped out of a Renaissance painting, olive-skinned, long-haired and lithe of limb, equal parts saint and sinner. I was transfixed.

Call me shallow and vacuous -¦ but would you believe I was testing a claim by Tales Of The City author Armistead Maupin that Montr? is the most sex-positive city in North America?

Maupin’s assessment is probably right. And that’s saying something coming from a guy who calls San Francisco home. There seems to be sex aplenty in Montr?, but that’s not the only reason to visit the largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris, founded by the Jesuits in 1642, and later over-run by British, then American forces. There’s plenty of fun to be had on the party circuit, loads of art and culture to savour, a high Mass on Sunday to enjoy, and non-stop delights in the food department.

Montr?’s gay and lesbian community is an important component of the city’s urban mix. It rubs shoulders with several other cultural groups: Catholic, Jewish, Anglo-American, Italian and Greek. Significantly, the upcoming Montr? 2006 Gay Games have secured the political and financial support of city authorities, and events such as the annual Divers/Cit?ride march ensure queer visibility remains high throughout the year.

Increasing numbers of party boys from around the globe flock to Montr? for the Black And Blue festival (www.bbcm.org) staged next month from October 8 to October 14. It’s a pretty intense week, with something like 50-odd activities on offer, ranging from parties to cocktails to sports programs, a military ball, leather ball, girls’ night, and a full moon fetish night (changing room available). The main event is the Black And Blue Party -“ a huge stadium party in the Mardi Gras vein, with shows, DJs, and an energetic dance-till-dawn atmosphere.

Eating is an enduring delight in Montr?. Easy to find places include Presse Caf?n Rue Sainte-Catherine. This caf?n the heart of the gay village serves snacks, sandwiches, salads, cake and coffee along with internet access. It’s a favourite drop-in for the local gay boys as well as visitors. Nearby are up-market restaurants such as Area (1429 Rue Amherst), serving seriously delicious French-style regional specialities with a wine list to match. On Boulevarde Saint-Laurent you’ll discover Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen. Order the smoked meat sandwich and fries, and let them know ahead of time if you don’t want mustard. The closest thing Montr? has to a national dish is something called poutine, a no-frills heart-warming serve of fries with gravy and cheese. Great cold-weather food.

Culture-buffs are in seventh heaven here. A walking tour of old Montr? uncovers a circuitous network of old cobble-stone streets connecting the glorious Basilique Notre-Dame with Montr?’s oldest public square, Place Royale, and the waterfront. The Basilica is a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, and its Sunday high Mass -“ complete with choir, incense and layers of gilt -“ is worth experiencing if only for the music and pageantry.

To the casual eye, Montr? seems to have got it together. There are fundamental differences between the city’s French- and English-speaking citizens, but life goes on regardless -“ and may even be better for it. The taxi drivers are crazy and the winters are cold, but that’s nothing a serve of poutine can’t fix.

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourisme Montr?. He is also a director of Gay Travel Guides (publisher of the Gay Canada Guide).

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