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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
ASSUMPTIONS can often lead travellers astray, causing them to avoid gems due to what they think they may already know.
Such is the level of familiarity with American culture, it can be all too easy to dismiss a trip to Canada because it is just like its smaller yet more bombastic cousin.
If ever a city was going to put paid to that, it’s Montreal.
The bustling commercial district would be at home in any Hollywood blockbuster at first glance, but slowly the uniqueness of the city reveals itself to you.
Pristine ‘American’ avenues give way to European sidestreets and the buzz has a distinct Franco-feel to it – not least because legally French is the premier language in Quebec – but if you are fearful of making the leap away from your native tongue, worry not.
The locals happily switch to English when needed, smoothing everything for the traveller who struggles to recall school lessons of yesteryear.
The city itself is dominated by Mont Royal – from which the city’s name derives and gives spectacular views of the metropolis below. From here, the one sight you can’t help but be drawn to is the iconic Olympic Stadium.
With a tower that leans over the roof, the white concrete structure has the look of some extra-terrestrial scorpion, but it holds the key to what we may see become of London in years to come, with Olympic attractions transformed. For example, the velodrome was underused and is now a biodome.
That the velodrome was underused is in itself something of a surprise.
Everywhere you look in Montreal you will see cyclists.
They love their two-wheeled rides here and the city has gone above and beyond to encourage everyone to saddle-up.
A number of cycling tours are available; showcasing not only how good the bike network is but some of the hidden gems you may never get to see.
From the vast outdoor market of Jean-Talon which provide a dizzying amount of local produce – much of it comes from within 30 miles of Montreal – to the home of the continent’s best bagels.
Ignore what you know about New York – Montreal’s offering courtesy of Boulangerie St Viateur beats the Big Apple hands down.
Indeed, food is Montreal’s secret weapon. Gordon Ramsay recently opened a restaurant here, but unlike his other venues across the globe, in Montreal he simply took a local favourite and added a bit of gloss rather than reinventing it.
Laurier was long an institution in Montreal before Ramsay showed up – its rotisserie chickens are a staple part of the city’s gastronomic heritage. You’ll never have enjoyed a starter as much as the chips, gravy and curd they offer. It may sound simple but the taste is anything but.
The kissing city, as the locals like to inform you it’s called – partly due to it being on islands that look like lips puckering up, partly because you air-kiss rather than shake hands – is a city for all seasons despite the huge variations in temperature. In September, it can hit 30C and a few weeks later be well below zero.
If you’re here in the winter be prepared for deep snow – but don’t let that put you off as a vast underground walkway of shops ensures you can go about your business.
If you’re lucky enough to visit in the fall, the nation’s symbolic maple leaves will be turning the iconic red. The colours that pervade Montreal at this time of year are particularly beautiful, especially as you venture up Mont Royal, where it’s worth noting there are more Titanic related graves than in Southampton, as we look to this year’s centenary.
Beyond the food and the vistas, Montreal’s other trump card comes in the form of a diverse range of free entertainment. They may pay more tax than most, but the locals certainly benefit from free gigs and shows that are scattered across the city. It’s not difficult to find something that is on offer to suit most tastes.
This Canadian city is a truly surprising place that offers far more than you’d ever expect.
The only thing you can guarantee about Montreal is that it will make a mockery of what you think you already know and leave you wondering what else you need to explore.