Montreal: Satisfying Juxtapositions

Montreal: Satisfying Juxtapositions

 

This is a town for acoustic motorbikes, which is what the underrated Irish singer Luka Bloom calls bicycles.  I spent not enough time recently in this delightful Canadian city, and the highlight was seeing the city from a rented bike.

Like various enlightened cities across the globe, Montreal has deployed a plethora of self-service, short-term bicycle rental stations.  Bixi has won the coveted franchise in Montreal, and life on two wheels is even simpler as a result.

A swipe of a credit card, and you are a subscriber for 24 hours (renew your subscription the next day).  Arrive at any rack of Bixi bikes, swipe your credit card, get a simple code and use it to disengage your bike from the solar-powered rack.  Drop it off at any Bixi rack.  This is the Netflix-meets-Redbox of 2 wheelers.  Bixi subscriptions are $5 per day or $28 per month.

The bikes are sturdy, 3 speed cruisers.  A clever built-in bungee cord rack sits below the miniature Schwinn Sting-Ray handlebars.  I was able to pack a water bottle and my book, and set off for a cruise along the historic Canal de Lachine.

Once I was underway I saw many other Bixi bikes, and then I knew I also was powering a cool built in headlight and tail light.  Magnets and wrapped wires were hidden somewhere in the aluminum frame, and in my mind I was happily sent back to early physics lessons.  I discovered later that the tires are filled with nitrogen, which consistently maintains the pressure.

When I felt sufficiently comfortable on the Montreal streets (and when I noticed enough other earbuds in bikers’ ears) I pulled out my iPod and dialed up a sweet mix of Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.  I would have added a few more Canadian songwriters had I the foresight to load them before I left home.

There are over 5,000 bikes spread across 400 stations in Montreal.  Other cities are taking note, as Bixi is spreading to Ottawa and across borders to Boston, Minneapolis, London and Melbourne.  David Byrne has noted that bicycles will become a prevalent form of transportation when good looking, sharply dressed women are seen riding.  Montreal is ahead of the curve.

Montreal is distinctively European, giving an Old World flair against a modern sensibility.  The city is named from Mont-Royal, which is the triple-peaked hill located in the heart of the city. It is the largest French-speaking city after Paris. Toronto overtook Montreal in the mid 1970s as Canada’s most populous and economically powerful city. But Montreal is comfortable in its current role, becoming a consistent chart-topper in the list of the world’s most livable cities.

Reflecting the city’s juxtaposition of old and new is the lovely Opus hotel.  The guestrooms are spread across the historical ‘Édifice Godin’ and a modern concrete addition. The former dates from 1914, and boasts the first poured concrete building in North America.  But the lovely Art Nouveau style blends with the boutique styling of sleek glass, metal and soft wood of the new lobby.

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The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with chic lighting, a well-appointed bathroom and some quirky but inviting furniture.  The tall ceilings evoked vintage European styling, but the modern design of the interior blended well.

The Koko restaurant and bar straddle the old and new portions of Opus.  The vast porch was a perfect setting for a Campari and soda after the vigor of my Bixi ride along the canal.  The trendy cognescenti of Montreal soon filtered in, and I later enjoyed another juxtaposition; this time a combination of Far Eastern flavors and Western culinary design.  A few of chef Matthew Piercy creations that I enjoyed are the unagi and sockeye salmon roll (the avocado, tempura flakes, ginger, green onion mayonnaise mingled nicely on the palate) and the Thai green papaya salad with lemongrass marinated prawns.

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Another restaurant hot tip is the newly opened BrasserieT! (emphasis apparently a necessary trend, as Normand Laprise and Christine Lamarche also own the critically acclaimed Toque!). Their new venue is literally dropped onto the sidewalk in the center of Montreal’s cultural district.  The evening I visited was in the middle of the raucous (by Canadian standards anyway) Festival Just for Laughs.  The streets were filled with people of all ages enjoying a plethora of free events and performances.  At the bar of Brasserie T! I had a magnificent Coquilles St Jacques and a warm beet salad.  The delicate scallops of the former contrasted nicely with the bright taste of the latter.

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Co-owners Christine Lamarche and chef Normand Laprise, of Toqué! fame, overlooking their new brasserie-style restaurant at Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles (entertainment quarter).

My short stay in Montreal left me wanting more.  I was able to breeze through a superb Miles Davis exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, where it was emphasized that one of the trumpeter’s key collaborators during his evocative orchestral period was the Canadian-born Gil Evans.

I now concur that the two least American cities above the Mexican border are New Orleans and Montreal.

 

Bixi

www.bixi.com/home

(514) 789-2494

Opus Montreal

www.opushotel.com/montreal

(514) 843-6000

Koko Restaurant

www.kokomontreal.com

(514) 657-5656

Brasserie T!

 

(514) 282-0808

Museum of Fine Arts

www.mmfa.qc.ca

(514) 285-2000

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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