Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Winter in Montreal (3rd Wedding Anniversary)

Most people escape the winter by going South, but Tori and I decided to go in the opposite direction and visit Montreal for our wedding anniversary. I hadn't planned it, but I enjoyed the thought that we were escaping the country on the same day as Trump's Inauguration. Upon our arrival in the French-Canadian city, we took the convenient 747 Airport Shuttle into downtown. (Only $10!) It was freezing as we stepped off the heated bus but we quickly found an entrance to the Underground City nearby and navigated the passages to our hotel.

We were staying four nights at the Hotel Bonaventure, a penthouse hotel inside the top two floors of the Place Bonaventure building. Completed in 1967 for the World Expo, the hotel's 400 rooms encircle a rooftop garden with the lobby, restaurant bar and heated swimming pool sitting at the center. The garden stream was half frozen so I was surprised to see ducks still active in the pond. Our room had a view of Downtown with the illuminated cross atop Mount Royal visible through a gap in the surrounding skyscrapers.

After checking in, we took the elevator back down to explore the Underground City. The RESO is the largest underground complex in the world that stretches over 20 miles. Besides the metro, train station and bus terminals, it is mostly a huge shopping mall complex that connects buildings downtown. I was surprised that the shops seemed to be closing down at 8pm on a Friday evening but Tori reminded me that malls close early at home as well. We thought about finding a nice restaurant but we pretty tired from our 6am flight so we ended up eating Korean fast food at the food court in Centre Eaton.

Before arriving, I purchased the 3 Day Museum Pass with Public Transport so Tori and I had to go to the Centre Infotourist at 9am to pick them up. We got a little confused down in the RESO on Saturday morning but when we popped back to the surface our first sight was the neo-gothic St. George's Anglican Church built in 1869. It was about 35 degrees out as we walked North through the city square, Place du Canada. Bordering the eastern side of the square was the impressive Mary, Queen of the World Cathedrale which is a one-fifth replica of St. Peters in Rome. In 1919, it was dedicated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XV and it is the seat of archdiocese of Montreal. Crossing the street, we continued on through Dorchester Square to the tourist office on the opposite side.

After picking up our passes, Tori and I walked to the other side of Downtown to eat breakfast. The city felt almost empty on a Saturday morning and we wondered if everyone else was down in the RESO. Arriving at Eggspectation on de Maisonneuve, it was nice and warm inside as we got a table by the window looking out on the city shrouded in a gray mist. They are famous for their large variety of Eggs Benedict so Tori ordered the Eggs Florentine with spinach and Gruyere cheese but I had the classic Sugar Shack which came with scrambled eggs, crepes, baked beans and Maple Syrup. Both included the Lyonnaise-style potatoes which we loved.

After walking up Rue Crescent filled with Victorian architecture, we arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts). It is a large complex with five separate pavilions, spread across three corners of the Sherbrooke and Crescent intersection. After checking our heavy winter coats, we walked the underground passage to see the Robert Mapplethorpe Exhibit inside the original 1913 building. Mapplethorpe was famous for his black and white photography of celebrities, nudes and flowers. There were two galleries dedicated to his controversial photos of explicit homoerotic sex acts that made him a target of censorship. I had heard so much about the photographer in the past but had never really seen any of his work. Afterwards, we visited the Decorative Arts and Design collection inside the Stewart Pavilion built in 1976. As I first entered, I thought I would bore quickly and want to move on to more "normal" art in the museum but I was soon fascinated by the collection of unique furniture, jewelry, ceramics, glass and appliances. A couple of my favorites were an adjustable Italian chair (I had to resist the urge to move the segments around to different configurations) and a settee made of stuffed animals by a Brazilian designer. I wanted to go for a ride on the displayed 1961 Ski-Doo Snowmobile.

As we headed back to the other side of museum complex, we stopped along the subterranean galleries under the street. I enjoyed the colorful large-format canvases from the 1960's displayed in the Expanding Fields exhibit. "Gong 96" by Claude Tousignant was especially hypnotic. On the other side of the underground passage under the modern Desmarais Pavilion we explored the Contemporary Art galleries. Many of the pieces would fit right in at Burning Man and some had a great sense of humor, especially the Trilogy of St. Thomas. Its three giant paintings revealed the love affair of a British Colonist and his Indian Chief lover set against the backdrop of majestic natural landscapes. The sculpture, "Old Enemy, New Victim" by Tony Matelli, of three fighting apes blew my mind from every angle. Woah!

Back above ground, we found the more traditional art displayed chronologically in the new Pavilion for Peace. My favorite was the section from the Romanticism Era since I enjoy the highly detailed paintings of real or imagined historical events. Due to my fascination with the sailing ships, I enjoyed the amount of detail in "The Burial at Sea of a Marine Officer Serving under Louis XVI". Further on, we entered the modern era with pieces by Pablo Picaso and Salvador Dali. At the back, we found more contemporary art, including "Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup Box" by Andy Worhal and two giant sculptures by Stephan Balkenhol called "Large Pair: Head of a Man and a Woman". The streets were noticeably more crowded as we walked back to our hotel along the shopping street St. Catherine. It began raining lightly so we moved into the Underground City were we soon lost our way but we eventually found the right direction.

Since the AcroYoga Montreal studio was so close to our hotel, we thought it would be fun to take the Saturday class while we were in the city. I am not used to seeing a snow boot rack and changing room at a yoga studio, but I am glad it was there when we arrived all layered up for the cold. On our walk, we passed the neo-gothic Christ Church Cathedral built in 1859. Constructed on soft ground, it was stabilized on stilts in 1987 as the Underground City expanded below. Our instructor was Heidi Blais and she started the class with a nice yoga warm up to limber us up. The first thing she taught us was the Twisted Bird where the base supports the twisting flyer above the knee and at the hip with their feet. After we got the hang of it, Heidi showed us how to transition to Reverse Straddle Throne and back. I want to add this new transition to our regular practice to help limber up my hips. When we get more comfortable, I want to use this fundamental move to learn how to pop from Bird to Reverse Straddle Throne. For the rest of the class, we worked on stomach basing and our hand stand technique. I liked that she forced us to get creative and experiment with new positions. We stayed after class for the AcroJam where Tori and I pulled off our first successful Bird to Low Bird and back. The large picture windows in the studio looked out to the historical gothic revival church across the street.

The bells of the St. James United Church across the street were ringing when we left the jam early to make our 8pm dinner reservations at Toque, one of the top restaurants in Canada by the Chef Normand Laprise. It is located in the Quartier International so we were able to dress lightly and walk all the way from our hotel via the Underground City. We decided to go with the Seven Course Tasting Menu with Foie Gras. After an amuse-bouche of mackerel, our first and second courses were the Princess Scallops and the Artic Char. The scallops in lemongrass water were so refreshing and Tori thought the Char was a perfect cut of fish. The Foie Gras Terrine came next and while we have both had it served warm as a mousse and a parfait, this was our first time eating it as a chilled pâté. It was rich, buttery, and had the texture of cream cheese. So amazing!

I was happy our surprise fourth course turned out to be Quail since I always love it. It was perfectly cooked and I wanted more. When the Duck Magret arrived as the main course of the meal, I was a little hesitant since I have eaten duck only once before and I hated it. Since I wanted to see how it tasted at a top-end restaurant, I was willing to give it another chance. While I didn't hate it this time, I didn't care for the fattiness of the meat which is what so many others love about this dish. I could only eat about half of it and Tori even less. I wish it had been served as one of the early tasting size portions instead of as the main course. The good news is that we weren't too full for the Cheese Course served with a Cauliflower Tart and the Chocolate Sponge Cake served as desert. Delicious Maple Fudge and Chocolate Lime Macaroons arrived with the check as well. It was a wonderful meal and a great way to celebrate our 3rd Wedding Anniversary. On our walk back, we checked out the reinforced concrete of a former bank vault incorporated into the public art piece, Stratifications Parietales inside the tunnel passage.

On Sunday morning, we took the Metro for the first time and headed into the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood for breakfast at St. Viateur Bagel. Montreal is famous for their bagels that are boiled in honey water, dressed and baked on long wooden boards in wood-fired ovens on-site. A large batch of fresh sesame bagels lay piled high as we entered the busy cafe and got a table at the window where we photobombed the girls talking pictures under the sign outside with their bagels. (They smiled and waved when they passed again fifteen minutes later.) I ordered the A La Coque Deluxe, the omelette, grilled ham, lettuce, and tomato bagel sandwich with an amazing pesto spread. Tori ordered the Traditional with smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, onion, capers and lemon. They were so delicious we came back the next day to order a dozen bagels to take back home with us. Tori the Coffee Connoisseur gave high marks for the java and I also recommend the Hot Chocolate with Bailey's.

After breakfast, the sky turned blue for a short time as we headed back to the Mont Royal Metro Station. Across the street from the station stood a public library that was built in 1896. The building once belonged to the Sisters of the Holy Cross and housed the Saint-Basile Boarding School for young girls. Exiting the metro at the Place-d'Armes station, we walked though Old Montreal to the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. This fairly new museum, which opened in 1992, sits over the archaeological birthplace of the city and has documented its growth over the centuries. Inside, we watched the multimedia presentation about the history of Montreal from the original Iroquois longhouses and the early French settlement by fur traders to the arrival of the British after the French and Indian War. The images were projected onto the three large screens as well as the uncovered ruins below.

After the show, we took the stairs down into the footings of the former Royal Insurance Building that was built in 1861. Among the ruined walls, we found the original cemetery of the settlement from 1643. It held both French settlers and Iroquois who had converted to Catholicism. While the bodies had been moved long ago due to the rising river, archaeologists found one that had been missed when they uncovered this site. Crossing though the underground tunnel, we passed the remains of the early wooden palisades and the First Collector Sewer where the young city enclosed and buried the little river that used to run through the area. Under Place Royale Square sat the archaeological crypt. This site once served as a Guardroom, a King's Stores, an Inn and the site of a public fountain in front of the city's Old Custom House. The museum used neon lighting as a clever way to highlight the different ways the area was utilized over the centuries.

Walking back through Old Montreal we stopped at Place d'Armes with the monument at the center of the square to the founder of city, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve. I slipped several times trying to cross the icy surface to take a picture of the Norte-Dame Basilica built in 1843. The western tower is called Perseverance and holds the eleven ton great bell. The eastern tower, Temperance, which took two extra years to build, holds a carillon of 10 bells. When finished, this church was the largest in North America for fifty years.

Inside the Gothic Revival church, we were awed by the size of the interior and the deep blue colors of the sanctuary and the intricate wooden carvings surrounding the altar. We ended up joining a tour and following it into the back to visit the Chapel of Norte-Dame du Sacre-Coeur. This smaller chapel is used for weddings and funerals and had to be rebuilt after a fire destroyed it in 1978. Above the altar stood an impressive bronze sculpture bathed in golden light. Created by Charles Daudelin, it represents mankind's journey up towards the Holy Trinity. As we left the basilica, we could see the huge Casavant Frères pipe organ rising up to the roof over the front entrance.

At 2pm, we took the Metro Green Line up to Olympic Park which was the site of the 1976 Summer Games. We wanted to go to the top of the Montreal Tower for a view of the city but the 541 foot structure was closed due to major renovations for a new tenant. At an angle of 45 degrees, it is the tallest inclined tower in the world. Inside the former Olympic Velodrome is the Montreal Biodome which holds replicas of four different ecosystems found throughout the Americas. It was quite a change to go from the Canadian winter outside to hanging out with Caimans, Tamarin Monkeys and Scarlet Macaws in the heat and humidity of the South American Tropical Forest habitat. Our first encounter was with a Capybara, the largest rodent in the world.

Passing into the cooler environment next door, we found river otters swimming in the Laurentian Maple Forest habitat, a replica of the North American wilderness. A large Beaver Lodge sat in the middle of the pond but we didn't see any beavers since they stay inside during the winter months. Nearby, we found a porcupine sitting up in a tree. I didn't know they were climbers. In the separate enclosure it was feeding time for the Canadian Lynx in their silver winter coats. The cats were using their giant paws which allows them to walk on snow to grab food from a hanging bucket. After the main meal, the keepers gave them a special cat piñata to play with. Two of the lynx tore away at the paper bag with their sharp claws until they pulled out the treat. In the wild, an adult lynx eats about 200 snowshoe hares a year.

The third ecosystem we entered was the Gulf of St. Lawrence habitat with a giant water basin filled with twenty species of fish including the Atlantic Sturgeon and schools of Striped Bass. I enjoyed the contrast between the fake nature backdrop of the tide-pools and rocky coastline with the futuristic velodrome roof. In the last habitat, we found the sub-polar regions split between the two hemispheres. In the Arctic, we found Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins from the Labrador Coast. Unlike the penguin, the puffin can fly as well as swim. On the other side, it was feeding time as well for the Gentoo Penguins in the Antarctic habitat. It was fun to see the Rockhopper Penguins jumping around with their spiky yellow head crests like in the movie, Surf's Up.

After relaxing back at the hotel for a little while, we headed out to Plateau-Mont-Royal for dinner at Romados Rotisserie. It was a cold walk from the Metro station, but the Portuguese restaurant on Rue Rachel had been recommended by a friend. Their specialty is butterflied chicken that is seasoned and clamped into roasting baskets and grilled over charcoal. There was a long line when we arrived but most were ordering take-out so we were still able to find seats at one of the few tables. Tori ordered the quarter chicken with their spicy sauce slathered on top while I tried my first Canadian Poutine made of spicy french fries, cheese curds and chicken smothered with gravy. We were stuffed but we ordered one of their Nata egg-tart pastries to eat later in our hotel room. It was awesome!

On Monday morning, we slept in for the first time on our trip. After a quick bagel with cream cheese in the lobby cafe of Place Bonaventure, we headed out to Parc La Fontaine to go ice skating. The Metro was crowded for the first time with work commuters in dark winter coats. Exiting the station in Plateau Mont-Royal, we walked down Rue Sherbrooke lined with the iconic outdoor staircases of the city. There are many theories on why Montreal has so many, but the main reason was the building codes in the early 20th century had larger interior requirements and mandated building setbacks from the street. One building had a wooden turret stuck onto the corner of a building.

As we walked across snowy Parc La Fontaine, we noticed that the frozen pond looked empty. Tori and I had been looking forward to ice skating, but we discovered the rental office was closed. Even though we couldn't skate, we walked out on the ice anyway and found a maple leaf trapped under the surface. My iPhone froze up in the cold so we used my new GoPro camera to film our AcroYoga on Ice performance. My hamstrings were tight so I could barely straighten my legs. Ha! Near the shore, three hungry squirrels ran around us on the ice begging for food.

Leaving the park, we walked over to La Banquise for lunch. The restaurant is the most famous location for Poutine in the city with over 30 different varieties of the classic Canadian dish of fries, cheese curds and gravy. I ordered the La Paul-Pogo covered with sliced corn dogs, onions and bacon. It was a heart attack on a plate, but I felt safe with an ambulance crew eating lunch at the next table. Tori had the slightly healthier La Rachel with bell peppers, mushrooms and onion. They were great with a couple beers. After walking over to St. Viateur Bagel to pick up more bagels to take home to California, we decided to ride the Number 11 bus up to Parc Mont-Royal for a view of the city.

Mont-Royal sits at the center of the city and has an elevation of 764 feet. Some say the city is named after the small mountain. Tori and I exited the bus at the Camillien-Houde Vista Point which had a wide view of Plateau Mont-Royal spread out below with the Olympic Park off in the distance. It was a windy spot with no shelter so we thought about catching the next bus, but we decided to press on and climb a long slippery set of stairs into the treeline. Out of the wind it was quite nice as we followed the trail signs to the Mount Royal Cross erected on the eastern slopes in 1924. While my iPhone had thawed out during lunch, it froze again while I was taking a picture of the 103 foot steel cross. I ended up using Tori's phone for the rest of the day. I had to promise not to leave it out in the cold too long while I was taking pictures. Ha!

Following the cross-country ski trail, we ended up at the Chalet du Mont-Royal on the southern slope. Inside, we relaxed in the chairs under the high ceiling and enjoyed the heat from the large fireplace. The chalet was built in 1932 as a make-work project during the Great Depression. Outside, the Kondiaronk Scenic Lookout had the best view of the city. After enjoying the view of downtown, we descended the nearby wooden staircase that was well-maintained and swept clear of ice and snow. Near the bottom, I took a shortcut by sliding down a slope on my butt. We exited the park through McGill University which is consistently rated at the top of all Canadian universities with the highest admission requirements. To reach the nearest Metro station, we had to navigate a twisting underground maze before we finally found it.

While looking for Eva B, the vintage clothing thrift shop on St. Laurent Blvd, we walked right past the heavily graffitied doors the first time without realizing it and had to backtrack to find it. Looking up, we saw a mannequin of Michael Jackson holding his baby out the upstairs window. When we stepped inside, they offered us shots of apple cider and popcorn while checking our bag. As Tori searched through the racks of vintage clothes, we kept finding new rooms to explore filled with crazy displays. The eclectic shop also contained a small cafe on the first floor.

When we arrived back at the hotel at 6pm, our original plan was to visit Bota Bota, a nordic spa inside a converted ferry docked on the St. Lawrence River. Instead, we decided to go swimming in the heated pool on the roof of the Hotel Bonaventure. With the freezing weather outside, it was awesome that they had a swim-in entrance. I enjoyed swimming through the steam as it rose above the surface of the 80 degree water. It was a shock to the skin to leave the pool and cross the open-air deck to the Jacuzzi, but it felt great to relax in the hot water after several days of long walks. Drowsy from the pool, we decided to stay in for dinner and order room service. Tori ordered a small pizza and I tried the Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich. Both were very good.

A snowstorm hit the city overnight and we woke up to frozen sleet on our hotel window as we prepared to head back home. Because of the underground tunnels, we only had to cross one intersection outside in the elements to reach the covered bus stop but I still managed to step in a puddle of ice water and soak my right shoe. The 747 bus was late so my foot got pretty cold. It was a relief when the airport shuttle finally arrived and we could get back inside were it was warm. Leaving Downtown behind, the icy rain turned into heavy snow. At the airport, I was able to change my socks and dry my shoe under the bathroom air blower so I wasn't miserable for the rest of the day.

We were able to check-in but all the flights after ours were already cancelled. Since our plane was already parked at the gate, we would be able to take off if it cleared up enough. At first it looked doubtful, but by noon the visibility had cleared enough and we were able to board our plane and taxi over to the de-icing station. It reminded me of a car wash with airport workers spraying down the wings of our plane. First with a heated orange fluid that melted off all the frozen ice and then coating the plane with a green mixture to keep new ice from forming before takeoff. They must have been freezing out there. Takeoff was uneventful and we arrived in Chicago at 3pm. Like on our flight out, we stopped at Fontera by Rick Bayless for an open-faced Mollete. It was a perfect layover snack and held us over until we arrived home in San Diego.