Perhaps the best place to begin is where Montreal itself began, in the Vieux Montreal and Vieux Port area, down by the St. Lawrence River. A visit there is a bit of time travel back to the city’s origins. In 1642, it was founded by the French and named Ville Marie. The fur trade was doing well, and the natives had been conveniently creed off the land by that time.
The area is best toured by caleche (horse-drawn carriages) or on foot. Many buildings from the 17th to the 19th centuries have been preserved or restored and are open to the public. The centuryspanning complexity of the city is visible when standing on Quai Victoria. One looks west across cobblestoned streets and centuries-old gray stone buildings set against the backdrop of Montreal’s modern skyline juxtaposed with majestic cross-lit Mont Royal, where Oratoire StJoseph’s dome is the most visible landmark. One can also look east across the river to Ile-Ste-Helene and Ile-NotreDame, where vestiges of Expo ’67 and La Ronde’s gigantic rollercoaster stand cheek by jowl.
The waterfront area of the Vieux Port has undergone a dramatic revitalization in recent years, with great care taken to preserve the best parts of the past. The harborside and rue de la Commune, which form the eastern boundary of Vieux Montreal, is literally the city’s birthplace and its greatest tourist attraction. Extending south to rue McGill, north to rue Berri, and west to rue St-Antoine, this 100-acre site roughly corresponds to the original walled city’s perimeters.
Repositories of Montreal’s past include the Pointe-a-Cailliere Musee d’Archeologie et d’Histoire de Montreal, near Place Royale, the site of the city’s first European settlement. This unusual building incorporates portions of the 1643 fortifications and pillars built around ruins dating from Montreal’s first Catholic cemetery. The Museum specializes in Montreal’s early history, emphasizing the city’s role as a cultural and commercial crossroads in its permanent and special exhibitions.
East of Place Jacques Cartier opposite the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), is the Chateau Ramezay. Built in 1705, it is one of the few remaining fieldstone buildings from the French days, and is now a museum furnished in 18th-century style. First the headquarters of Claude de Ramezay, Montreal’s eleventh governor, the Chateau was later occupied (in all senses of the word including military) by Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, General Richard Montgomery and John Carroll when it was taken over by the Continental Army in 1775 during the illfated American occupation of the city. In the immediate vicinity is Marche Bonsecours, with its silver dome. It was constructed in the mid-19th century, and has served many purposes: the Canadian Parliament met here in 1849, it was Montreal’s City Hall until 1863, then a vegetable market. The city administration had offices here, and it also serves as a cultural information center, exhibition and convention hall. Right in the proximity (at the end of rue Bonsecours) stands the oldest religious building extant in the city, the chapel Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, where sailors once came to make votive gifts to the Madonna.
Both Notre-Dame Basilica and the Vieux Seminaire face Place d’Armes, one of Vieux Montreal’s two principal squares. At its center stands the 10-foothigh (3 m) statue of Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, Montreal’s founder. In 1644, with a handful of men, he successfully countered an attack by 200 Iroquois braves. This monument also pays tribute to Jeanne Mance, who established Montreal’s first hospital, and Charles LeMoyne, whose sons went on to found New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
The Vieux Seminaire de St-Sulpice (1685) is one of Montreal’s oldest buildings with an old wooden clock (1710) and for more than 300 years the residence and headquarters of the Sulpician monks who purchased the Island of Montreal from the Sieur de Maisonneuve and from the Societe de Notre-Dame de Montreal. This order administered the legal and religious life of Montreal.
The Vieux Seminaire is not open to the public, but the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, one of the largest examples of the Gothic Revival style in North America can be visited.
Just a short stroll east from Place d’Armes along rue Notre-Dame is Place Jacques Cartier, the “heart” of this area. Once one of the city’s busiest open-air markets, it faces the Vauquelin fountain of Montreal’s ornate City Hall (where in 1967, French president Charles de Gaulle shouted his famous “Vive le Quebec libre”). Today it is a people place nonpareil, still the site of open-air flower and craft stalls, sidewalk caf8s and bars and the fair-weather home of artists, artisans, street musicians, jugglers and more. Its 1808 Nelson Column, the first monument in the world to honor the British victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, has been the occasional target of more than one generation of Francophones.
During summer months, concerts take place under the Big Top tent at adjacent Quai Jacques Cartier, which is where Quebec’s own internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil sets up when it comes to town. Place Jacques Cartier opens directly onto Montreal’s Vieux Port, with its cycling paths, picnic areas, pedalboats, food and souvenir kiosks and open-air theater. Among its major attractions are the Images du Futur and Expotec high-tech exhibitions, which feature a different theme every year. Housed in Hangars No. 8 and 9 respectively, both appeal to children of all ages. Expotec is also the location of the year-round 7-storey high IMAX Super Cinema.
Just across the River, a subway stop away, is one of the most picturesque ways to explore the early origins of Canadian history. Even the location of the David M. Stewart Museum on Ile-SteHelene is a history lesson: the museum is housed in the Old Fort, built between 1820-1824 on the orders of the Duke of Wellington as a stronghold against a possible invasion by the American military. Established in 1955 under the aegis of the Lake St-Louis Historical Society, the museum is renowned for its permanent collections highlighting Canada’s early colonial heritage from the time of French, British and European settlers’ arrival in the New World to the mid-18th century. The museum itself and many of its collections, including rare firearms, rare documents and ancient maps, are all a bequest of a Montreal philanthropist, the late David M. Stewart, who was an amateur military historian and collector. Other permanent exhibits feature highlights of Canada’s maritime history, the Amerindians role in the fur trade, and exploits by Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot, Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain.
Its interior, with rich late-19th-century ornamentation and stained-glass windows depicting the history of Montreal, is particularly splendid. Concerts and recitals are held here throughout the year.
The fare and atmosphere at the museum’s Le Festin du Gouverneur restaurant are a recreation of an 18th-century banquet, complete with balladeers and comedy skits. Mock battles by the Compagnie Franche de la Marine and bagpipe concerts by the 78th Fraser Highlanders are held on the parade grounds in summer.