Saturday, January 20, 2018

Montreal in November

Notre Dame de MontrealThe ride from Quebec to Montreal was relatively short. We left Hilton, Quebec on Saturday morning at around 11am and got to Garden Inn in Montreal at around 2pm.

Our room in Montreal.We stayed in this particular hotel in Montreal last spring during our Canadian trip with the children. I remembered the great salt water pool, which I definitely wanted to use. I forgot about their fancy made to order breakfast with daily crepe selection, which is quite unique, so it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover it the next morning.

First dinner in Montreal -- Brasserie 701.Danya researched TripAdvisor for dinner options, and we’ve decided to try Brasserie 701, which was less than a mile walk from the hotel. The GPS brought us right to the Notre-Dame de Montréal, but we could not find the restaurant at first and made a few circles around the block. Brasserie 701 ended up being in the same square as the Cathedral, so we had a nice view during our dinner.

Borg buildings at the center of Montreal.I was excited to see a risotto on the menu, but after we got seated the waiter told us that since it was only 4pm, the dinner menu was not yet available. Danya’s steak was on the lunch menu, but my risotto was not, so I was really disappointed and considered leaving. The waiter went to the kitchen to see if they can make an exception for us, and to my delight, they did. We spend a while trying to figure out the wine menu, and ended up ordering beers instead.

Streets of Montreal.Both of us got Kronenbourg 1664 brand, but Daniel ordered a wheat blanc variety, and I got the regular one. Both beers were really good, but if I were to order again, I’d go with the blanc as well. It turns out that we’ve already tried this beer in Irish bar in Keflavic. Danya says that it’s one of his favorites now, so when he went to stock up on beer before Christmas, he bought it along with some sour blueberry and Erdinger beers. The food was also really delicious.

Streets of Montreal.After we finished dinner, it was already dark and still cold in the city. We walked around the Notre-Dame a little more and then went back to the hotel. The pool was waiting! I felt a little bit sad that the children were not there to enjoy it with us, but at the same time I could fully relax without having to worry about them being safe and happy.

By Notre Dame.We chatted with a French-Canadian couple in the hot tube, which was really nice. The woman told me that my accent was more New Yorkian than Russian, which was somehow pleasant to hear. I know that I have a hard-to-place accent, which is different from Daniel’s. Still don’t know if my speaking Belorussian is the reason for that.

Light dinner at hotel restaurant.We had a light dinner at the hotel’s restaurant — buffalo mozzarella, poutine and Belgian Moon, which is what they call Blue Moon in Canada.

Poutine.Now on the subject of poutine. Apparently, it’s a Quebec specialty, but I only found out about it in Montreal while watching Antony Bourdain’s guide to French Canadian cuisine. Poutine is pretty much french fries with brown gravy and cheese curds. When we dined in Quebec, the waitress offered us to upgrade our french fries, but we politely declined. What a pity! The hotel’s poutine was pretty good, but our waitress hinted that it was far from the best. Note to self — next time we’re in French Canada, we should try this in other places.

Streets of Montreal. From our hotel window.Next day we walked back to Notre-Dame. There is an entrance fee, so we did not go inside the night before, but decided to do it during day time. Next to the entrance we’ve noticed a poster advertising a live organ concert at 2pm. The tickets were relatively inexpensive, and the whole idea was so enticing. Ever since we’ve heard the organist in Washington National Cathedral I dreamed of hearing the great instrument in its natural environment again. Danya was not as excited as me at the prospect, but he did not mind going either, since he was also really impressed in Washington.

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.It was still about two hours before the concert, so we went for a walk with plans to return. First we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known as the Sailor’s Church. On the top it has a statue of the Virgin as Star of the Sea, and inside it has models of ships hanging from the ceiling. Very unusual, very distinct place. I am glad that we stopped by.

Jacques Cartier Bridge.Then we walked to the river shore, took some pictures of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, saw an empty ferris wheel and a whole bunch of closed kiosks, which in season sell different food items, accessories and souvenirs. It was chilly and windy, but we were dressed for the weather. There was quite a number of people running and fast walking on the promenade. I guess, they are used to this weather and it does not deter them from excersizing.

Organist at Notre Dame de Montreal.We came back to the cathedral with a small cushion of time before the concert. There was an option to pay extra to sit on top near the organ, and we’ve decided to do it. The administration only accepted cash, but we had no CAD. Luckily, they’ve accepted USD. Of course, they didn’t account for the exchange rate, so we ended up paying a little extra for the convenience of using another country’s money, but at least we had that option.

View from the top.The concert turned out to be a big disappointment. I never thought this possible, but the organ did sound bad. At first, I thought that we made a huge mistake of paying extra and getting to the top and sitting next to the organ player. I kept wondering if the acoustics were better at the bottom, and they probably were, but when we changed seats closer to the end of the concert and went down, I did not hear a significant difference.

Top seats by the organ.The organist was very VERY mediocre. I understand, that playing organ is not easy, but it was the Notre-Dame and not some small village church after all. Danya did not even recognize half the melodies, and he commented that the playing was sloppy and inconsistent.

Organ.And the repertoire was something horrible too. The first and the last songs, which were Zarathustra by Strauss and Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach respectively, were great, but majority of the rest was “contemporary music”, which included “Beauty and the Beast” song, “Somewhere over the rainbow”, “New York, New York” and the likes. Call me old fashioned, but I was looking forward to classics, and got bored with organist’s choices.

Streets of Montreal.All this being said, I am still glad that we went. It was a unique experience, and at times I even enjoyed it. More than anything, I realized that even in the acoustics of the church and with the music by greatest composers, the organ sounds only as good as the person who plays it.

Fondue dinner.Our next stop was the Creperie-Fondue place that we visited last time with kids. Since Danya’s stomach is sometimes sensitive to cheeses, we’ve decided to try beef bullion fondue this time around. First time for both of us. We ordered a ratatouille crepe to share as last time as well. The fondue was great!

Tasty broth.The best part about it was actually not the meat or the vegetables, but the broth. Danya said that we should not waste it and that it will go down superbly on such a cold day. I asked for two cups, and got them along with a ladle. Apparently we were not the first people who wanted to drink up the bullion, although the waiter said that not that many people did this. The broth was so rich, filling and spicy. Heaven! I tried to replicate it at home, but fell short. Not sure if I need marrow bones or some special spices for that… Maybe, I’ll crack this one day.

Cross the border. Going back home.We went to the hotel and up to the pool again. Spent almost two hours there. So relaxing again. We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant again, but ordered sangria’s instead of beer this time. They were pretty decent.

Inside New York capitol building.Next day was the long drive home. Good thing that we planned a vacation the way we did, because driving from Quebec would have been even more tiring.

Staircase inside New York capitol building.There were not a lot of cars at the border, but the patrol officer really took his time with both cars in front of us (inspecting the cars and talking to the people for 10+ minutes). We went through in probably under a minute. I guess, we look trustworthy.

Famous governor.On our way we stopped in Albany. We’ve been there a few times before, but never got a chance to go inside the capitol. I was surprised to discover a big underground mall that leads from parking to the capitol building. We’ve gotten the stamp for Danya’s NP passport and took a self-guided tour inside.

Hall of Governors.The NY capitol is big, impressive and you can see that the state has a lot of money. The staircase alone is something! I particularly liked a hall of governors, with portraits of all the governor’s of New York. Well, almost all. Spitzer’s portrait was so obviously and shamefully (for him) missing.

New York capitol building.Originally we planned to eat in Albany, but after walking to the restaurant, we changed our minds and decided to eat fast food somewhere along the way to save time. I think it was a right decision, since we got home at around 7 o’clock. There was a little bit of traffic closer to the city, but it was expected. The whole trip came up close to 1,200 miles, which is a lot of driving for a short getaway. It was still very nice and memorable.

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New York State Capitol.Albany was the fifth and the final stop of our vacation. One of the reasons for the stop was to break up a long drive from Montreal to Brooklyn. Another reason to stop specifically at Albany was the fact that we have never actually properly visited the capital of our own state. We drove through it before, but have never explored the city or laid eyes on the capitol building and its surroundings.

Empire State Plaza.The ride down from Montreal was supposed to take about four hours, but it started with what I clearly remember about our last trip to Montreal — major road closures. This time they just completely closed one of the bridges that was supposed to take us across Saint Lawrence River. GPS was sending us in circles and all the detour signs would just abruptly end. Luckily I remembered that there was another bridge at the north end of Montreal. And even though that ended up being a pretty big detour for us we finally got out and were on our way.

Rest area stop.The rest of the drive was uneventful. Our phones came alive after we crossed into United States. We stopped at Duty Free on the boarder and bought a couple of souvenirs. We ate our lunch at some fast food place. And we took a short break on some rest area in some part of Adirondack Region where Alёna got talked into playing a little bit of soccer with Arosha.

Capitol view from another side.By the time we checked into our hotel, parked the car and unloaded the luggage it was 6 o’clock in the evening. The hotel was Hilton Albany and we chose it because of its proximity to the capitol complex. It was nice enough as Hiltons typically are. However we were unfortunate enough to have to eat dinner at a hotel restaurant. The fact that it was completely empty should’ve been a sign. The food was less than stellar to say the least.

Kids by one of the fountains.Anyhow, since we were staying for only a single night the rest of the day was the only time that we would have to explore the center. So we set out towards the capitol building. The walk was probably no more than 10 minutes long at Anna’s pace. The day was warm, the sky was blue, it was a nice end of the day.

Capitol.The capitol itself is non-typical looking. It doesn’t have a traditional dome, but instead looks more like some large castle. Sadly because we were visiting over a weekend the building itself was closed, so we were not able to see it inside. I guess we’ll have to come by some other time to get our stamps.

The Egg.Next to the capitol building there was a large open area — Empire State Plaza developed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. It had large fountain pools which were empty at this time of the year. On its edges there was a good number or large monolithic buildings and there was an egg shaped concert hall which was called exactly that — The Egg.

Climbing assistance.Kids had a lot of fun running and climbing around, exploring empty fountains — basically expanding all the extra energy that got accumulated in their systems after a day of driving. Then we tried to go to some highly rated pub nearby, but there was a 30 minute wait for the table. Since we were very tired and hungry by then and there was nothing else open in a walking distance we decided to dine at our hotel, which turned out to be a mistake as I explained earlier.

Units.And to finish the day off we went for a swim in the pools — last pool of our vacation. That was actually the only time we ended up socializing with other people while sitting in a hot-tub. As a result Arosha ended up with a much longer pool time than he was originally promised.

Climbing.And when we got back to the room I attempted to push Arosha’s bed toward the wall as we often do to minimize his chances of falling off the bed during the night which he still does from time to time. However I did not anticipate that I would slip out out of my still wet rubber slippers during this maneuver. As a result I performed a major face plant into the bed after which one of my legs slammed into the floor. I still limp two and half weeks later.

Another view.On this positive note I will conclude the last day of our vacation. Our drive home was uneventful and we got home early enough to rest and then visit our parents for a nice dinner in the evening.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Niagara, Toronto, Montreal Road Trip

Canada 2016 road trip map.For this spring we decided to forgo the trip to a warm sandy beach in favor of a road trip in our own car to a cold Canada. Our kids haven’t been to Niagara Falls yet and I wanted them to see it. Another big factor is a matter of having to purchase four plane tickets which comes out to quite a bit of money for a type of vacation I enjoy the least — laying on the beach, doing nothing.

The total round trip ends up being 1,200 miles. One other option that we have considered was going to Great Smoky Mountains again, but it’s quite a bit farther away and we all have been there. I wanted our kids to explore something new and it’s always interesting to see those new to them things through their eyes.

We tried to beak the trip up into many parts so we wouldn’t have to drive for very long periods of time in a day. Our first stop of the trip is the Finger Lakes region of New York state. We’re going to spend 2 nights1 in a hotel in Seneca Falls and try to do a hike or two along one of the lakes. The drive there is 271 miles long and we hope to do it on the first eve of our vacation.

Our second stop is going to be Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. We plan to get there on Saturday, April 23rd. We are going to stay there for 3 nights2 at a resort that we’ve been to before. There is a lot to do and see at Niagara Falls — the falls themselves (although Maid of the Mist is not running yet for the season), butterfly observatory and horseshoe bend among other things.

Our next stop is Toronto, which is really close to Niagara. We’re going to spend 2 nights3 here. The main thing that we want to see is CN Tower and have a dinner at a spinning restaurant at the top. Hopefully nobody will get dizzy this time around, unlike it was in Berlin.

The drive from Toronto to Montreal is going to be the longest — 336 miles. We might stop at The Thousand Islands region for a break. Montreal itself has a lot of old cathedrals to explore and had a nice World Fair site if I remember correctly. We’ll spend 2 nights4 here.

And one our way back home we’ll spend 1 night5 in Albany, the capital of New York State. And even though we have driven through Albany before I have never seen the capitol building of the state that I’ve lived in for the past 20+ years.

On the final note on all of the hotels — they all have pools — an important thing to have when traveling with kids as we have established. Also the Canadian Dollar at the time of the writing was worth only 73¢ of US currency. Hooray for strong US dollar — it makes it cheaper to travel beyond the border. Should be a fun exploration road trip with kids. I only hope Canada has proper diesel for our car.

  1. Hampton Inn Seneca Falls — 2 nights for $258 with taxes. []
  2. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort — C$450 for 3 nights with all the taxes. []
  3. DoubleTree Toronto Downtown — C$504 for 2 nights with all the taxes. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville — C$427 for 2 nights with all taxes. []
  5. Hilton Albany — $172 for the night with taxes. []

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