There are many great Old World cities and many great New World cities, and a tiny handful that manage to be both. Montréal is one. Like Melbourne, say, or Boston, it has a North American skyline and a distinctly European street scene. It’s buzzy, bilingual, bicultural and very happy in its own skin.
As an introduction to the huge French-speaking province of Québec in central Canada, Montréal is a bit like experiencing America for the first time through New York. The city is of the same country, has the same newspapers and TV channels but it’s a separate city state too, half in its home region, half in the big wide world. My mission on this trip was to head to Québec City, from where I would follow deep roots east into the rich landscape of Charlevoix. I planned to eat and drink deep of French-speaking Canada, and a day and a night in Montréal proved to be the perfect amuse-gueule.
The city is made for a stopover, the more frantic the better. The BA flight from London gets in early evening. Tell your body clock it’s a wuss and get out for dinner – somewhere like the fantastic Le Club Chasse et Pêche. This hunting and fishing club is housed in a low and ancient (well, 18th-century) red-brick house. There is a heraldic sign and you wonder if the place is going to be full of Masonic men chewing on raw carcasses. In fact, it’s about the most fashionable restaurant in town; the interior is all leather and exposed walls, but the clientele do not wear big beards and plaid shirts, not least because most of them are young women in swish business suits. I choose sockeye salmon, but this is real, wild, muscular Canadian salmon in a lemon grass jus.
Le Club is by the Place Jacques Cartier, a long, historic, oblong square of outdoor cafés and kiosks that runs down to the city’s old port. This is as good a place as any to get your bearings – culturally and politically, as well as geographically. Ahead of you is Nelson’s Column – not an obedient copy of the one in Trafalgar Square, but its antecedent, put up in 1808 to commemorate the great English admiral a good three decades before London got around to it. Behind this tribute to Britain’s most famous victory over France is the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville where, in July 1967, the French president, General de Gaulle, called out ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ (‘Long live free Québec!’) to the assembled crowd. Having brought the arguments about an independent Québec nicely to the boil, and having enraged his hosts in Ottawa, de Gaulle then quit Canada in something of a hurry. It’s doubtful he tipped his kepi in the direction of Nelson.
After my night in Montréal, I jump on a train, which arrives in Québec City just as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood poem titled 'Disembarking at Québec'. Atwood is Canadian and lived for a time in Québec – and she still finds the sense of otherness unsettling. How will an Englishman get on? We have not always been welcome here, after all.
Read on to discover the Canadian waterfall that dwarfs Niagara.