Underground Montreal

By Ilona Kauremszky

special writer

February 15, 2004

MONTREAL, Quebec - As Austin Powers says, "Hey baby it's cold outside." It's -36F so you'd think the city would close down. But you would be wrong.

This is La Belle Province, and if hardy Montrealers are used to anything, its long cold winters. So what's Montreal's secret in coping with Mother Nature's deep freeze? A subterranean city, with a catacomb of walkways linking stores, recreational facilities, hotels, and restaurants, everything you need to live (or at least shop) in comfort. A particularly frigid day can be spent - and what better way is there? - exploring Montreal's shops.

And who needs Starbucks, Borders and Macy's when there's tres chique Van Houtte for coffee, Archambault for French jazz CDs, and Simon's, a hip Quebec department store known for great deals on name brand American and European labels.

For this trip, I hopped a train. The VIA Rail Canada from Toronto took me through a winter wonderland of small towns, farms and snow covered spruce forests until I arrived at my destination, Montreal's Central Station, an art deco gem bustling with daily commuters.

My first pit stop was at the ubiquitous Premiere Moisson bakery. I had a panini porc avec brie, creamy artichoke salad and only because my server whispered "leger" (light) I topped it off with a decadant tarte abricots amonde. This sumptuous lunch was under $9 USD.

From there, I headed to Montreal's Underground a.k.a. the Reseau. A green R logo outlines the path that leads you to nearly 2,000 boutiques, 350 restaurants, 8 hotels, 19 cinemas, 3 skating rinks and 10 subway stops. The system stretches 19 miles throughout the downtown core. Urban planners consider this to be the world's longest continuous underground pathway.

The birth of the underground dates back to the swingin' 60's when avante garde architects like I.M Pei made his mark on Montreal and the world by designing the massive Place Ville-Marie, a sleek cruciform shaped building which is the hub of the system.

Much has changed since the early days when the first subway route was opened in anticipation of the pop culture crush of the World Expo '67. Today, clusters of grand old buildings have been stitched together by canopies of cathedral glass skylights that brighten the lower concourses open to street level traffic.

Walking through the Reseau you are constantly delighted visually by both public and private art. There is an 18th century French statue of Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon, anchoring the end of a large granite reflecting pool. Around the corner another surprise, a section of the Berlin Wall, a gift from the City of Berlin in celebration of the 350th anniversary of Montreal.

After a morning of bargain shopping for scarves and hats, I visited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for a flashback into the '60s Global Village exhibition showcasing Janis Joplin's psychedelic painted Porsche. Groovy.

Montreal's playful optimism is embodied in their new Convention Center, which harkens back to the 60's for its inspiration. The International styled building is sheathed in a collage of bright rainbow colored glass. Some are even calling it the Austin Powers building.

In the evening a bird's eye view of the city can be had atop I.M Pei's masterpiece Place Ville Marie, which rises 737 feet. I had dinner at the aptly named Altitude 737. This landmark of fine dining has a menu long on foie gras, roasted canards, and heavy cream sauces. Some say a heart-stopping menu but Montrealers would say joie de vivre.

Currency exchange booths abound at the train station and throughout the underground, so it's easy to change your American green backs for Canadian loonies. The lingua franca is French but everyone also speaks English especially in shops and hotels.


photos: Stephen Smith

If You Go:

VIA train trip averages 5 hours from Toronto to Montreal and has a discount return fare of $222 CDN. For reservations, call 1.888.VIA-RAIL

Altitude 737 is located at 1 Place Ville-Marie. Table d'hote $42-$48 CDN includes appetizer, main course and coffee.

Until March 7, 2004, The 60s Global Village is on exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1380 Sherbrooke Street West. Tickets $12 CDN

For shopping sprees in Canada, visitors can obtain a sales tax refund, known as a GST Rebate on most products as well as hotel accommodations. For details check www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca or send email inquiries to visitors@ccra-adrc.gc.ca or call 1-902-432-5608 (outside Canada)

For more travel-related information on Montreal visit www.tourism-montreal

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