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Bike Montreal

Isle de Boucherville Image

With 600 kilometers of bike trails (that’s about 370 miles for us metric-impaired Americans) Montreal is a tremendously bike friendly city. They’ve even imported Europe’s Bixi bike rental system, which is a great and inexpensive way to get around town. So it’s not surprising that some of our best biking thus far took place just a few kilometers from central Montreal on Îles-de-Boucherville.

The national park is comprised of five small islands in the Saint Lawrence River. A free ferry and several short bridges connect a 10 km gravel bike route that circles the island. Several other paths and slightly more rugged hiking trails branch out in various directions. Although just minutes from the city, the island feels remote, with spectacular water views and oceans of golden rod on either side of the trail.

Tahitian Sunset and Apricot Nectar

WeMontreal Botanical Garden, Japanese Garden hope to one day take in a Tahitian Sunset while partaking of Apricot Nectar, but for today at least, those are just some of the colorful names given to the 10,000 roses that populate the Montreal Botanical Gardens; many of which were still in bloom when we visited in mid-August. Not merely a rose garden, or even just a flower patch, the 185-acre “jardin botanique” includes ponds adorned with water lilies, winding forested paths, and a re-creation of a mountainous Alpine garden, one of 30 or so themed oases displaying plants from around the world.

What most captured our attention was a locked gate in the Japanese Garden (above). Really, we thought, there must be something good in there if they have to keep it under lock and key. No one was around to explain, so we continued on. But curiosity reigned, and eventually we circled back to the elusive locked gate. It turns out they were trying to hide a Japanese tea garden from us. They only allow ten people at a time in the garden because of the fragility of the plants, and it has to be seen with a guide.Montreal Botanical Garden Image

During the 10-minute tour, we learned the tea garden’s purpose. It’s a transitional space to clear your mind before taking part in the tea ceremony. Actions like crossing stepping stones and kneeling down to wash your hands at a tsukubai (basin), set against the backdrop of the tranquil and carefully designed garden, are meant to help you leave the outside world behind and find serenity.

The other highlight of the day was the Chinese Garden, modeled on the private gardens of the Ming Dynasty and the largest of its kind outside China. Paths lead around “Dream Lake,” linking seven vibrant red pavilions (including one where we enjoyed a picnic lunch) and leading to a waterfall, a bonsai display, and beds of blooming pink lotus flowers.

So can you have wanderlust while you’re already traveling? China and Japan have officially moved up on my places-to-visit list, along with some Tahitian sun and apricot nectar.

This Is More Like It

Notre Dame de Montreal, Image

With a casual glance one could easily mistake the exterior of Notre Dame de Montreal for its somewhat larger, and far more famous, sister in Paris. With twin bell towers emerging from a rectangular, two-story base and three arched entryways, the cathedrals are practically identical. You almost expect to see Quasimodo running about the Gothic campaniles.

But the spectacular interior is influenced by a completely different Paris cathedral, Sainte Chapelle. Chapelle’s influence is seen in the blue and gold color scheme, and particularly in the gilded stenciling in the arches and on the columns. Intricate wood carving adorns every inch of the interior. You can walk around and study the detail for hours. Or simply click on the photo below for a closer look.

Notre Dame de Montreal interior image

L’Oratorie Saint Joseph Non Fini?

Saint Joseph's Oratory ExterilrMaybe they ran out of money, or vision. Or maybe the workers went on strike and never came back. For whatever reason, the interior of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal doesn’t stand up to the grandeur of its exterior. It almost seems incomplete. Like they ran out of resources after finishing the facade and just threw up a concrete interior to get the job done.

You can certainly imagine that the builders ran out of materials, because St. Joseph’s is huge; larger than either Notre-Dame de Paris or St. Pauls Cathedral in London. But somehow, it feels smaller. When stepping into the gothic halls of Notre-Dame, one’s senses are overwhelmed. You just can’t process everything there is to see. It is a bit staggering and awe inspiring. St. Joseph’s is nothing like that.

Getting into the basilica involves ascending several escalators that could just as easily connect floors in an office building.  The chapel itself is cavernous, but non-descript. Unadorned concrete pillars support a plain vaulted ceiling, which together hold up a similarly muted dome.

But outside is a different story. The rising slope of Mount Royal adds to St. Joseph’s impressive height; vaulting its magnificent dome, second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome, to the highest point in all of Montreal. The Italian Renaissance style façade is gorgeous, evoking comparisons to Florence’s  Duomo. Formal gardens in front, and an interesting prayer garden to the left, complement and complete the basilica’s external opulence.

If you’re in Montreal, certainly stop by St. Joseph’s for the grounds and to admire the Oratory’s external architecture. Step inside for the price: it’s free.

St Joseph's Oratory Interior Image

The stark interior of St. Joseph's Oratory doesn't match the grandeur of its exterior

A Virtual Stroll In Montreal

As with just about everything recently, we’ve had to adapt our style of travel to the realities of living in an RV. In the past, we would land in a city, pick up a map, and stroll around to get our bearings. We’d always feel helplessly lost at first, but within a couple of hours we usually owned the city. We’d know what could be done reasonably on foot, where we’d want to take the metro to, and what might require a taxi. We’d also have a strong sense of which things on our to-do list should be grouped together.

But now we don’t have a city hotel room to retreat back to after our stroll. If we want to explore the city, we have to get there first, and even that takes some degree of planning. Do we drive in or take public transportation? Where is the best place to park for what we want to do? In what order should we do things? All this, and more, has to be decided before we’ve even set foot in town.

Thankfully, Google has this neat feature where you can plot destinations on an interactive map.  This allows us to visualize our itinerary for Montreal, and capture some of the benefits of our stroll virtually. For example, we know we want to catch a free jazz concert on Thursday night, but we don’t know what else on our itinerary made sense to do the same day. After plotting a bunch of ideas on Google Maps, we can easily see what else is in the neighborhood.  The “walking directions” feature tells us that a walk from Notre Dame, to the Archaeology Museum, to Marie-Reine-du-Monde Basilica to the Jazz venue takes about 40 minutes; a pretty good day’s itinerary. More importantly, it tells us that the botanical gardens and the Jean-Talon Market are probably too far to walk, and too much of a pain for the metro. So we’re grouping them together and driving.

You can play around with our map here, to see how it works and maybe create something similar for your own next trip. In the future, we’ll be plotting more of our itineraries this way to get a feel of a city’s geography, if not its culture, before we arrive.

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