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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Friday, May 13, 2016

Montreal

Streets of Montreal.The drive to Montreal was the longest one we did on the same day during this trip — somewhere close to 340 miles. Actually, our GPS switched to kilometers as soon as we entered Canada, so we had to drive 550 kilometers that day! Sounds even scarier, doesn’t it?

To be completely honest, I was slightly dreading the drive. Luckily for me, I did not have to be at the wheel, but I was worried about the kids getting tired and bored and really whiny. Surprisingly, the day went relatively smoothly.

One of many islands on the river of Saint Lawrence.We drove for a few hours and then made a stop at one of the little towns in the Thousand Islands area. There was a visitor center, where a very nice lady had disappointing information in terms of us being there a few days prior to the start of the season: no boat rides after 12pm (it was already 2pm), fun castles we can ride to are closed, fancy restaurants are opening in a few days. Alas, it was slightly sad to be there on the verge of the beginning of the touristy activities, but we still spent around 2 hours over there. The kids ran around the playground by the visitor center, and then we went down to the river for a little walk, had lunch in a Greek Pizzeria and even did some shopping (got jeans for Danya and earrings for me).

Streets of Montreal.Afterwards, Danya took a scenic route which zig-zagged by the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, and we made a few stops for pictures. After that we just drove and drove and drove until we finally arrived to Montreal. Arosha was often asking about the remaining distance — I think the diminishing number of kilometers helped him to cope with the long ride.

When our GPS led us to the hotel’s address, we were surprised to see that there was no hotel to be found. Apparently, the street it is located on has an East and a West side, and GPS led us to the wrong one. We soon figured out where to go, although kids were even more anxious to get out of the car due to this delay.

On the way to the center.The rooms of the hotel, Doubltree by Hilton, are located on the first 10 floors of the 20+ story building. We got a spacious corner room at the 10th floor. There was no good view from the windows though — all we could see was a tall building undergoing contraction in front of our hotel. There was also some strange rubbery odor in the room, which especially bothered Danya, but considering that it had disappeared the next day, we assumed that it was probably some cleaning solution smell. Another thing was that the pool and gym were located on the 11th floor, so during the first evening we heard some loud bangs from dropping balls upstairs. Luckily, it did not bother children, and the gym closed at 11pm. We had no similar issues the following night, so all in all, I am quite happy with the room we got.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.Since it was late, we decided to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, which turned out to be pretty good. We just ordered a soup and a few appetizers, and I was especially happy that kids ate steamed vegetables, which were delicious, even the asparagus, which none of us is a big fan of. We got lucky with a very pleasant waiter, who totally won Arosha’s heart. Arosha felt very comfortable chatting with him in Eglish, and even tried to teach him a few Russian words (privet, poka).

We had only one full day to spend in Montreal, so we did not make ambitious plans. The only thing we knew we wanted to do for sure (apart from going to the pool of course) was to visit the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Danya and I have been there before, and I remember being very impressed by the gold and blue interior of the church.

Inside the Notre-Dame.The Basilica was a walking distance from our hotel (a little over a mile I think), so we just strolled there at Arosha’s pace. The day was rather cold, but still nice and sunny. We spent probably about 30-40 minutes inside the church. The children especially liked the lit candles. Arosha even insisted on lighting a candle in the memory of his great-great-grandfather Aaron (even though he was a bit confused and thought that Aaron was the one to fight in the World War II, while it was his great-grandfather Leonid/Levy). Daniel pointed out the fact that neither one these grandfathers belonged to the Christian church, but I don’t think it really matters. To be honest, I am not even sure that we lighted the right candle, but I strongly believe that in cases like that intent is much more important than following established traditions.

In front of the Science Museum.We also told Arosha a short and most probably imprecise version of the life of Jesus, and again he was quite fascinated by the story. I wish I knew the Bible better, but my knowledge is very limited.

Afterwards, we just walked around the city a for a little while. We were considering going to the Science Museum, but decided against it in favor of exploring Montreal a little bit more. Danya suggested to take a horse carriage ride, and the children were very excited about the idea, as was I to be honest. As my smart husband had pointed out to me, we finally got a reason (kids) to take one of those rides.

Carriage ride.We were a little short on cash, but the coach driver gave us a discount for a shorter ride. She drove us in a pink carriage for about 20 minutes, which was plenty to have all the fun it could be. I am glad we did it, and next time we visit Venice, we should have a reason to take a gondola ride as well.

After our first ever carriage ride.By the time we were finished, everyone was pretty hungry. We walked down the Saint-Paul Street, which had a great variety of restaurants. Danya used TripAdvisor to see their ratings, which is now always one of the factors when we’re weighting options for our dining choice. We ended up going to a well-rated French place and it really felt like we traveled outside of North America. We ordered a vegetable soup, fondue and crepes with ratatouille. Everything was very good.

After our very French crepe and fondue lunch.After lunch we went back to the church to take some more pictures, and then leisurely went to the hotel. We stopped at a little jewelry boutique and got me a modern-looking set of necklace and earrings and a pretty ring.

The children were very excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so as soon as we got back we changed into our bathing suits and headed up to have some water fun. I have to say that this place had the best pool of all the hotels we’ve been to on this trip — the pool itself was big with very warm salt water, the Jacuzzi was spacious, the restrooms and water fountain were close. There was even a sauna, but we did not use it. We ended up spending almost two hours there.

Lunch. Fondue!We were so wiped out by the end of the day, that we decided to have dinner out our local restaurant again. We got the same friendly waiter as the night before to everyone’s delight. The waiter asked if Arosha wanted to teach him any new words in Russian, and Arosha, after a 30 second deliberation, chose the word “spasibo”.

To sum up, even though we stayed in Montreal just one full day, it gave our vacation a pinch of extra flavor. French Canada for me feels very different from its British counterpart, and it’s exciting to submerge into less familiar waters ever so often.

Square in front of the basilica.

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