Monday, February 14, 2011

Montreal, the double-decker city

 Le Palais des congrès de Montreal (Click on images to zoom)

Believe it or not: it is possible to live in a city, go to work, shop for daily provisions, visit the best entertainment spots and restaurants, commute by public transport…all this and more without ever having to set foot on the road. You don’t need to be chauffer driven door to door to be able to do that. In the double-decker city of Montreal that’s what more than half the population does, especially in the harsh months of winter when snow adds to the woes.
Montreal has the world’s largest underground city (also weather-proof/indoor city) that’s essentially a pedestrian network spread over 12 sq km and growing. La Ville Souterraine, as it’s known in French, in itself comes across as a never-ending maze of chic stores, even as it performs its key role of allowing access to about 1,700 establishments on the surface level, including offices, banks, boutiques, shopping malls, leading hotels, cinema, university, metro and train stations, as well as residential complexes in and around Downtown.

Statistically it sounded overpowering, and I looked forward to getting a feel of it. I was staying at Fairmont—The Queen Elizabeth, an elegant heritage property in the heart of Downtown and while flipping through its brochure what arrested my attention was: ‘Located above the train station (Via Rail & Amtrak) and connected to the extensive underground city…’ A train station beneath a luxury hotel, wow! The Fairmont chain was specifically built in the 19th -20th century as accommodation for train passengers, hence the hotels were always located next to a station. Leafing through more city literature gave me a decent grip on the underground network but the element of hassle-free connectivity continued to intrigue me. 

My first experience of Montreal’s urban under world happened quite accidentally, which had me anxious and enthralled concurrently. As I stepped into the hotel lift to get to my room I noticed the lift did not have the regular floor numbers (3-21). Instead it had S1 and S2. I was still trying to figure out what that was when another guest entered, smiled and pressed S2. I presumed this was one of those lifts that are up to a certain floor following which one has to shift to another. However, instead of the lift racing up, the arrow showed it going south. Perplexed, I tried asking the guest where we were headed. “No English. French,” he replied. In a matter of seconds we reached S2 and stepped out. He hurried-off and I pondered, trying to make sense of where I was. There was a food court in front of me and a general rush of people. I walked a little ahead and, lo and behold, it was the railway station! Systematic and smart, the bold signage indicated trains from Ottawa and Quebec were due and passengers had queued up for these. I had mistakenly taken the lift meant to connect with the underground city and at the moment I was two levels under on S2 or Sous-Soul (basement) Two. Pressing the S1 button would have taken me to the shopping level, Place Ville-Marie. If this wasn’t convenience, what was!  With the Fairmont hotel being centrally located, and having an unrestrictive, direct access (by both escalator and lift) with S1 and S2, it could have resulted in tempting passer-bys to use its routes turning it into a thoroughfare. Nonetheless, an inherent public discipline, ensures only hotel guests utilize it. 

The double-decker town plan has given Montreal the ‘two-in-one city’ moniker. I had experienced the under deck on the day of arrival and the next day set-off with my group on a surface tour of the city. We drove past a lot of sights, stopping to absorb the air at some outstanding ones. The quiet and quirky, hip-hop and happening, fashionable and conservative, contemporary and old world all came together within a few hours.  

For starters, the Olympic Tower (built to commemorate the 1976 Olympics) had eccentric tales about. The need was felt to give the city of Montreal a symbol and thus the highest inclined tower in the world was built. It’s another matter that the tower and its observatory were not completed for years till after the Olympics and the city till recently was paying for its construction by way of taxes. This scenario sounded familiar to our Indian group which felt it was revisiting the horrors of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

From among the city’s many high-profile neighbourhoods the one considered the address is Plateau Mont-Royal. Packing a population high on creativity, it’s preferred by professionals and has the country’s largest concentration of artists. Defined by typical multi-coloured houses, outdoor staircases and small streets shaded by deciduous trees, it has funky boutiques, creative art galleries, stylish cafes; and it’s at the Plateau where the hip crowd likes to be seen.

A few streets away from the Fairmont we witnessed two worlds. At one end was Old Montreal, with its cobblestone streets, gracious 18th-19th-century buildings, Notre-Dame Basilica, the old port, and horse-carriage rides that evoked a lingering romance of times as far back as 350 years. A few blocks, at its opposite end, was the buzzing Rue St Catherine, where style defined every bit of this renowned commercial street. Running 15 km east-west across the city it had up-to-the minute trends on display and haute couture ruled. With immense to makes the eyes wander and the wallets lighter it’s a street tailor-made for holiday browsing and buying.

We had been in Canada merely for a few days, but were yearning for home flavours. As it turned out, Devi Restaurant on Rue Crescent, which has sparkling row of fine-dining restaurants and bars, was just the answer we were looking for. It was a couple of  blocks away from Rue Catherine and we reached there famished after having countered the wind and the lure to empty pockets on the trendiest boots, bags belts et al. Devi treated our taste-buds splendidly and we couldn’t believe our luck as we dug deep into platters of papri-chat and samosas, besides a scrumptious spread of desi cuisine. The Indian dinner was a happy contrast to a true-blue Montreal lunch of coffee and oven-baked bagels that we had at the bistro-style tables of the popular 1957 Saint-Viateur Bagel. It’s a tradition any visitor dare not miss.    

Montreal describes itself as the rebel child. “We do things our way, not the Canadian way,” is the general refrain at the country’s second biggest metropolitan and the world’s third largest French-speaking city. One of the things they love doing is cycling. Every home had a cycle parked outside and there’s a distinctive system of hiring, the reason bike stands can be spotted around the city. “Give it a try,” a youngster unlocking a bike tells me. I leave that option for another time.   

Quick facts: 
Accommodation: Fairmont, The Queen Elizabeth: Its popular fine-dining restaurant, Beaver Club, is said to be one of the best tables in Canada.
At the hotel, the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Suite #1742 is where in 1969 the legendary singer recorded the famous song ‘Give Peace a Chance’.
For more info:

Published in JetWings International, Feb 2011

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful pics
interesting read
looking fwd to Japan now;)