I first traveled to Montreal four years ago on whim. Realizing that my passport traveled to Europe but had never been stamped in Canada or Mexico, I set out to fix that problem, at least the Canadian one. I had been visiting a friend in Vermont, just the same as this year’s trip when catching the train north just looked too apropos and easy. And it was/is.
I arrive by train late at night and am starving. I throw my bags in my hostel and jump a street down to St. Catherine’s. It’s officially the gay section of town filled with lots of eateries and decorated with pink balls strung above the street. And McDonalds. I pick St. Hubert because it looks fancy inside though the signage is cheesy. I question this place as I see the menu with big colorful pictures of the food a la Denny’s. I’m baffled as the bar inside has lighting fixtures I’d expect to see in New York City, but that place in NYC would never have pictures of their food on the menu, much less blown up and plasticized. But, this is Canada where I’ll come to learn that shiny food pictures do not always denote mediocre food. For St. Hubert it does mean this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat all of it. Travel is hunger inducing.
As I walk home to my humble hostel bed, I am stopped by the Montreal Circus Festival in the park around the corner. I love Montreal. The whole city bursts outside when warm weather comes to town and festival after festival beckons every interest. This show is Cirque du Soleil for free. Amazing.
I wish I had understood the wonder of hostel travel in my twenties. I may be spoiled by this first and only experience in Montreal, but the people are so nice. The visitors are friendly, the staff accommodating and helpful. I watch young people make friends from around the world. They bond and travel the city together at times, cementing couches across the world for more travel. In the morning I grab a cup of coffee and a croissant at the hostel and begin planning and literally mapping out the day. The croissants at Samesun Montreal Central Hostel are better than anything at Starbucks no matter the schmancy paper and “parisian” name they slap on it. I call this morning croissant my pre-breakfast appetizer. It is simply the sustenance I need to get me going to the metro and walk to my first food stop.
For my first full day I chose L’Express. It’s a well established French cuisine spot that consistently delivers. I sit at a reserved table. It’s 11am, it’s reserved for 12. I’m in the back which seems like an atrium. There are skylights which diffuse the light perfectly. I have one hour. When traveling alone and not having the option of ordering the whole menu, I tend to ask for the most popular or favorite dishes. My waitress suggests the special omelette of the day made with chanterelle mushrooms. I go for it and my favorite of french pastries, le croissant, the second of the day. My waitress then asks if I like my omelette runny, medium, or firm. I choose medium and at this question I know that I have ordered correctly, the French know omelets, they even know that like a good steak, they have degrees of doneness.
I enjoy the my meal and leave flaky croissant layers all over the table and myself. I’m done and out the door in under 30 minutes. Le French, while they take time to enjoy and savor life, they also perform perfectly on time. As I walk out, a waiter has his arms full of baguettes. I quickly ask if I can grab a picture. It is one of my favorites.
After brunch I stroll Rue St. Denis. The shops here are a little fancy and Montreal has put some amazing public gathering, playing, and relaxing spaces. Montreal nourishes the warm summer weather well. The revel in it. There is even a hashtag.
I wonder into a luxurious linen store and snag an apron and a tea towel. I really want one of everything this little shop has. Along with my kitchen treasures, the best thing I get is local advice about good places to eat. The salesman suggests small local Portuguese places telling me that I am in the Portuguese district. He asks me what I like and how much I can afford. When he asks if I eat octopus and when I say not he he doesn’t like it either, but one places he knows does it so well he will only order it there. This is the insight I love about asking locals or love their city’s food offerings. I never make it to the perfect octopus and calamari spot, but I do make it to his Portuguese chicken spot and I am so glad I did.
On my way to the Jean-Talon market, I stop at Piri Piri for to snack on a chicken sandwich. It is divine. The chicken is cooked perfectly- tender, juicy, well seasoned, and spicy. I Americanize mine by asking for lettuce, tomato, and onion. At first bite, I am in love. Why do we not have this in the states?
I do more walking that is neccessary when I travel. This has multi-purposes. First, it burns calories and since I am on a food tour, it allows me to eat with abandon. Second, I’m awful at figuring out bus routes. Third, I kinda like to get lost in a city. Wondering around has led to some of the best finds, the best encounters. When traveling, you never know what lurks around the next corner and sometimes it’s best to leave it up to chance. On the way to Jean-Talon, I happened upon a Spanish market that was part deli, part bakery, park grocery. The baked sweets were in abundance and breathtaking. I was so in awe that I forgot to take pictures. But, trust me- the hustle and bustle gave away the secret that this place is well loved.
Then, I make it to Jean-Talon market. Beauty. Lucsiousness. This is the French way of seeing food- let it gleam- taste it- adore it- love it in abundance. I don’t have many words here. They are not needed. Here are the pictures. Enjoy.
By the late afternoon, I’m tired- Montreal is hot this July. In the 80’s with humidity. It’s unusual and defies my reasonings for going north in summer. But, after a brief rest in the air conditioning at the hostel I journey out again to the base of Mont Royal where a friend and fellow Montreal lover has told me about a Tam Tam festival. It is held every Sunday in the park and upon feet hurting arrival I see that this is the hippie gathering. The crowd is happy and watchful, the beat ever-present, the vibe is community. I stay for a few short minutes then begin walking to my dinner- Au Pied de Cochon and one of the biggest reasons I am in Montreal.
Fours years ago I wasn’t the foodie I am now- I didn’t even have poutine or a bagel on that first try. Travesties, I know. I did, however, go to Au Pied de Cochon and have one of the best meals of my life. I can only describe it as a sandwich with a soft-shelled crab and ham on a waffle bun with maple. There was way more to it, but the waiter English was so heavily accented with french that it was hard to understand his description of the day’s special. I heard waffle bun, soft-shell crab and went for it. I had no reservation and after schlepping to the quiet street of restaurants where it sits, I summoned the travel gods and got a seat. I sat at the kitchen bar and saw tubs of froi gras come up from the basement prep kitchen like they were bringing up napkins. A local sat beside me, a lone diner as well, and offered me a taste of his cod fritters. Salty is what I remember, but I was a little tipsy on the large glass of white wine in which I had indulged for this special occasion. But, that salt would come back to me this year like it was sent on a sea of time.
While I may walk a block or two in the wrong direction from time to time, I learn from mistakes. This time, I made a reservation at Au Pied de Cochon, but this seat this year was horrible. I should assert more in the moment, but I tend to let things go because who knows the wanders that will come. I sat at the bar, but my view was the back of the frozen drink maker. To say it was bad, is an understatement. The only thing that made it bearable was the very friendly bartender who entertained and assisted me throughout the night. Without her, it might not have been worth it (gasp!).
After dinner, I walk again. Home this time with aching feet and new rubbed sores. My fitbit logs me in at 20,000 steps and 8.5 miles. I’m not sure how I’m going to continue the walking the next day, but I know I’ve earned my pre-breakast, my brunch, my snack, my dinner, and my sleep.