This is a tale of two cities and a village -“ one is English-speaking, the second is decidedly French, and the third is a little bit of both worlds. One city is above ground, the other is subterranean and the third is the largest gay village on the North American continent. Three different places? No. It’s Montr?.
This glamorous metropolis is the second largest French-speaking city in the world -“ actually it’s two cities, if you count the 18 miles of vibrant city life that make up the sleek and modern underground Montr?.
My partner and I always enjoy Montr? because it’s so European in feeling for a North American city, yet most of the French-Canadians speak English. We start conversations with our limited French vocabulary and the Qu?cois usually show their appreciation for our efforts by offering to speak in English. From that point on we’re treated to that irresistible Gallic charm that defines French-Canadian hospitality.
This is a city of quarters that has managed to successfully blend steel and glass skyscrapers alongside everything from classic 19th-century commercial buildings, neighbourhoods of stone row houses and stately stone mansions to ivy league-looking universities. The one quarter that stands alone is Old Montr?. Because it’s an historic district, nothing can be added or altered. It’s the site of the original settlement on the St Lawrence River with 18th-century stone houses replacing the original wooden structures and picturesque cobbled streets lined with shops, galleries, bistros and outdoor caf?
The gay quarter, Le Village, stretches for 12 blocks along St Catherine Street, east from St Hubert to Papineau Street. One of the Metro stops is decorated in rainbow colours which is just one of the many symbols that clearly define this as a gay-friendly city. The gay village offers wild nightlife, restaurants that range from don’t bother to four-star in quality, bars for every taste and fetish, clubs that feature male strippers, boutiques, saunas, hotels, quaint inns, B&Bs, and lively unity events throughout the year such as the August Pride Celebration and the October Black And Blue festival (www.bbcm.org).
Unlike many gay enclaves, Le Village has a few fine restaurants where you can have it all -“ well-prepared food, ambience and good service -“ without maxing out the credit cards. You can have a superb two- or three-course meal for under $18 USD. The Canadian dollar is generally weaker against not only the US dollar but also many of the world’s currencies.
Two eateries that deserve recognition for providing quality and value are Chablis and Piccolo Diavolo. After dinner, you’ll want to explore Le Village hotspots and a not-to-be missed venue is the dazzling Bourbon Street complex featuring a hotel, sauna, disco, leather bar, theatre, three restaurants, and an ice cream parlour. Nearby is another complex, Le Drugstore, with eight bars on three floors.
A word of caution as you indulge in the bars as well as the restaurants: they are generally smoke-filled. We managed to get enough fresh air to survive an evening by bar-hopping among the many clubs that offer free male-stripper shows and cabarets along St Catherine Street East. It gives you a chance to fill your lungs with fresh air every half-hour -“ or whenever -“ as you make your way through the gay quarter.
We usually stay at the 4-star Hotel Gouverneur Place Dupuis because it’s in Le Village and connected to an indoor mall that includes a bakery, food market, drug store, food court and the Berri Metro station. It’s more fun buying breakfast goodies and snacks here than calling room service, and it’s a traditional French way of shopping for life’s comfort foods rather than ordering from a predictable menu over the phone. However, the hotel does have room service, restaurants, lounges, indoor pool and, best of all, the staff and management are gay-friendly, which is reflected in the first-class service.
From almost every place in town, you can see Mount Royal, a sprawling mountain park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, that forms a dramatic backdrop for this island-city. The stone terrace at the summit offers a panoramic view of Montr? from which you can get the lay of the land from diagrams mounted along the stone barrier wall that keeps visitors from tumbling down the mountain.
Another must-see attraction is the vast underground city of indoor public squares, commercial malls, eateries and cinemas that are connected by a series of corridors and the Metro, the city’s underground railroad system. This vast space is a network of islands making it possible to visit the many shopping centres and major attractions without being exposed to the summer’s heat or the winter’s cold for more than a few minutes. You can take a train from our hotel to within steps of the Biodome, the Botanical Garden, museums and many other attractions within the city.
There is so much to do in this vibrant and seductive city -“ it will keep you amused and delighted with its joie de vivre 24 hours a day.
Don Church is a Connecticut-based travel consultant and writer.