By Julia M. Bayly
Montrealers love their city. Spend any time there and it’s pretty easy to see why. Food, culture, entertainment, the arts—take your pick.
Did I mention the food?
As an outsider looking in, it appeared this city on the shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway has a gourmet restaurant or café on every street corner. It’s no secret its residents take their food very seriously.
So it’s a good thing I was in the city for some bicycling.
Turns out, cycling is something else folks in Montreal take pretty seriously.
Just ask Pam Crossen, a native of Montreal and city cycling guide. “I absolutely love cycling in Montreal,” Crossen said. “We have over 300 kilometers of bike paths to explore throughout the island. You can cycle your way through the city in different neighborhoods and parks.” That’s exactly what Crossen and I did during my most recent trip to the city; seeing the place from her insider’s perspective was definitely a treat.
We met up at Montreal on Wheels, a bicycle shop in the old city which rents bicycles just across the street from the Lacine Canal and matches riders with certified guides like Crossen.
After a quick spin along the canal, we headed into the city’s interior through several historic and ethnic neighborhoods.
Pedaling along behind Crossen as we navigated Montreal’s bike lanes it struck me that, while I grew up cycling in city traffic, it had been a good 30 years since I had actually done so. So, instead of worrying about the hundreds of cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles whizzing past me, I concentrated on doing exactly what Crossen did, matching her pedal stroke for pedal stroke. Once we got out of the downtown area and traffic, our pace grew more leisurely as we cruised through several parks and Crossen was able to share a love for her city and its people and their distinct joie de vivre.
“We are a ‘live and let live’ society,” Crossen said. “We have opinions and discussions about everything (but) we don’t take life too seriously if it doesn’t effect our general existence.” A big part of that experience, she said, is the daily tradition of cinq-a-sept, the Montreal version of happy hour when friends get together for an hour or two of pure socializing.
As we threaded our way through narrow alleys and streets not far from the city’s Latin quarter, Crossen pointed out residents’ neighborhood beatification projects. Plants, paintings and other decorations have turned the nondescript alleyways into small garden oases.
Our tour ended at the city’s highest point on Le Plateau and the entrance to Mont-Royal Park. Here, Crossen said, families gather on weekends for picnics and, on Sundays, something called the Tam-Tams where upwards of 500 drummers of all shapes, sizes and talents converge for a daylong jam session.
From the vantage point Crossen indicated the three main ethnic neighborhoods of the city, all accessible via the network of bike trails. Centered around St. Urban and Rachel Streets is the Portuguese Neighborhood with a rich heritage going back more than a century. The Italian neighborhood includes one of the city’s largest ethnic groups and is located around the Jean Talon Market area. The Jewish neighborhoods are typically found around the Snowdon metro station with Hasidic and modern Jews living together.
It’s a good thing Montrealers like to bike because each of these neighborhoods is known for restaurants and specialties like the seafood dishes of the Portuguese, the family pasta recipes of the Italians and the Eastern European meats and bagels from the Jewish eateries. Throughout the city are countless small cafés and bakeries and it is quite possible to literally eat your way from one end of Montreal to the other.
Crossen encourages all visitors to sample the city’s three mainstays: Poutines, that Quebec mixture of french-fries, gravy and cheese curds; smoked meats; and Montreal bagels.
Of course cycling in Montreal is more than recreation where, thanks to a city-sponsored program, commuters are getting into the act.
With the Bixi-Bike program everyone has access to a bicycle day or night. Available at 400 stations around the city, riders simply swipe a credit card or pre-purchased pass to unlock one of the 5,000 sturdy, three-speed bicycles. The first 30-minutes of riding are free and the bike can be returned to any of the other stations around the city. The credit card readers and locking systems are even solar-powered.
The Bixis, all handmade in Quebec, have proven quite popular in Montreal and there is even an iPhone app to check out the nearest stations with available Bixis.
Of course, I had to try one.
A friend swiped his Bixi pass card for me and after I pulled the bike out of its stand, I took off down the street and for about five blocks I was a “Bixi-chick.” The bikes are solid, comfortable and the entire system wonderfully simple to use for residents and visitors alike. Bicycling is hard work and after a day of exploring the city by two wheels, it’s kind of nice to kick back for a little R&R and pampering.
Among the best places for that in Montreal is Les Bains Scandinave where the three-hour Scandinavian bath experience followed by a gentle massage turns a cyclist into a near-liquid state. The bath experience takes place in a three-stage cycle starting with about 20 minutes in either a jet-bath or steam sauna. From there it’s a quick immersion in ice-cold water before spending another 20 or so minutes in the spa’s relaxation area. Go through that cycle three or four times and it would be impossible to have an ounce of stress left in the body.
Hungry? There is no end of possibilities for sustenance in Montreal.
Some favorites are La Banquise Resto or Restaurant Patati Patata for poutine; Schwartz’s Restaurant or Dunn’s Smoked Meat for the smoked meats; and St-Viateur Bagel or Fairmont Bagel Bakery for Montreal bagels.
“You really can’t go wrong if you follow your nose,” Crossen said. “Montrealers are really friendly and love to share this city, so don’t be afraid to get out on foot or bike, be curious and just go explore.”
-Photo courtesy Julia M. Bayly
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