Le Waouh du Moment
Sometimes traveling isn’t about going from one stationary place to another — it’s about the transitory experience within that new locale. Sometimes you end up moving though eras, cultures, spaces you’d never expected — all within the span of one solitary day.
We awoke later than planned — but really, who cares? Out the front door by 10:00, and down Rue Rachel to Boulevard Saint Laurent to Dispatch for a coffee. The interior is clean and calm, and the plywood walls shone in the morning light. Coffee in hand, we walked a few long blocks to Fairmount Bagel. Montréalaise bagels are different — skinnier and sweeter, with a larger hole in the middle. As we walked up, we realized we didn’t have any cash, so we had to meander a few more blocks for an ATM — then we were back, in line, and out the door within seconds.
Onion bagel, toasted, cream cheese.
We sat on a park bench nearby and literally inhaled our breakfasts, as a film crew lazed about trying to decide what their next shots would be. They’d been in Fairmount just before us, half-eaten bagels in hand.
“Can you catch me walking across the street? Should we do that next?”
As we stopped cream cheese from the tiny plastic containers, I realized this probably wasn’t a big enough breakfast — but no matter, as we were off and on our way.
Back down Saint Laurent, up Avenue Laurier — to the Métro at Place du Côteau-Saint-Louis. Ligne orange to Berri-UQAM, ligne verte to Pie-IX — and the Parc Olympique.
As you exit the Pie-IX station, you sort of feel like it’s 1976 again. Not a thing has changed. The lighting, the floors, the béton-brut walls — it’s all exactly as it was left 41 years ago. I suppose the only difference is that in 1976, there were probably a lot of people around.
It was a near-ghost town. There was a sparsely-attended conference happening in the stadium, and still it was quiet. We wandered up to the street and around the main park structures — the Tower, the Velodrome, the new planetarium. Everything seemed to have stopped in place at some point years ago — metal gates with tattered banners flapping in the wind, abandoned trolley carts.
Outside there were a few more people — all tourists, posing for photos next to faux starting blocks. A First Nations family took turns, each child knee-to-ground with wide grins on their faces.
1976 was being flogged about, everywhere you looked. The Velodrome is now the Biodome — an apparently incredibly popular attraction showcasing four different ecosystems. It was converted from its Olympic use in the late 80s, and it’s visible. Giant ventilation equipment looms above the awkward side halls, dripping condensation onto the cracked terrazzo floors. The scent of mildew wafts through the air as you walk past endless photos of the building’s dedication and former life.
In the Centre Sportif, a swim meet was going on — the most activity happening for blocks, it seemed. Teenagers loitered around in Speedos, their parents watching from the mezzanine above. Giant banners with the Montréal 1976 logo hung over the pool, and without the ever-present iPhones in their hands, you would never know it wasn’t 1976. We poked around and nearly stumbled onto a man doing a bodyweight routine just off a side staircase. We pondered going up in the Tower — but the $23.25 per person ticket persuaded us not to. We milled about in the dark lobby, while Esley shopped in the tiny gift shop shoehorned under a staircase.
Despite all of these snarky claims to the contrary, le Parc Olympique is about to undergo a bit of a renaissance — the Biodome is being refitted, the Tower is being refurbished after years of bickering (we watched the new glass being installed), and the Centre Sportif is one of the best training centers in Canada. Maybe I’m worried they’ll strip the glorious haze of age off of everything? Replace all of the béton-brut with shiny metal panels and a flashy rebrand? I hope not — it’s the museum-quality space-age Brutalism that makes it worth visiting, the hope and dreams of a province and a country cast into that concrete.
Out the doors and back into 2017 — and to the Viau station. Ligne verte into Old Montréal — and again back in time, but now even further.
At this point, we all knew our breakfast was long gone and we settled on Vallier — a bistro Montréalaise. I say “settled” because I had an intense moment of food indecision on the street corner, and let the others pick. They picked Vallier, I wanted the Neapolitan pizza joint across the street — yet somehow my hungry brain couldn’t verbalize it? Whatever — Vallier was wonderful and the right choice, to the credit of my people.
“La p’tite poutine” to share, spicy beef tartare, blonde beer.
After regaining control of my faculties (and two beers) we wandered back into Old Montréal. It feels incredibly like Paris — old stone buildings, cobblestone streets, tiny parks. Add the French signage and you’re there. We walked along the edge of the old port, mouths agape at just how beautiful it all was. The flour mills stand on peninsulas jutting into the harbor, some still alive and working. Across the harbor, I pointed out the next destination. “There.”
We found a bike path to get us there. We wandered through the mills, their asphalt parking lots dusted with flour and the scent of bread in the air. We ducked behind overpass supports to let cyclists zoom past. We joked about how the deserted, overgrown warehouses we walked past were surely haunted. We cut across parking lots and lanes of traffic to get there.
“There” was Habitat 67, an experimental housing project built in 1967 for the World Exposition. It was designed by Moshe Safdie, and I’d wanted to see it since I was in architecture school. Of course our timing was off, as our trip fell on precisely the wrong days for the in-depth tour of the place — but it was lovely just to see it. We kept stopping and starting, stopping and starting again on the narrow sidewalk in front of it while taking photos. “...Well, now we have yet another reason to return,” I thought.
We kept walking towards the Saint Lawrence River, towards our next destination. As the sidewalk climbed up to meet the bridge through Parc de Dieppe, we watched surfers in wetsuits, walking their boards out to the river. “Surfing? Here?” we all exclaimed. It was true — as we made our way across the bridge, we turned back to watch. They surged in the natural eddies along the water’s edge, spiraling around between the shore and the ice-cold rapids.
The bridge across the river was a little harrowing — the sidewalk is maybe two-and-a-half feet wide, between the roar of traffic and the roar of the very cold and very fast river below. I kept my eye on our destination — Île Sainte-Hélène and Parc Jean-Drapeau. I could see the island’s Calder sculpture emerging from the trees on the island as we got closer. After what felt like an hour, we approached the abandoned Place des Nations — a former host site during the Expo in 1967. It was both eerie and enchanting — and I wanted to wander around it so badly, but it’s closed for good.
After gazing at the abandoned complex, we hopped across the traffic lanes (sorry, mom) and onto a pedestrian bridge down into the Parc. After encountering construction barriers and closed footpaths, we realized the entire southern tip of the island was under renovation. We ended up wandering towards the Biosphere, to then realize we had arrived at closing time — and tickets were $20/each, so another no-go for ten minutes of available time. Maybe the Calder? Nope, under renovation. We got some water at the abandoned info center and gazed over the drained aquatic complex.
Somewhat defeated, we decided to head to the Casino de Montréal — the next destination. We caught the 777 bus at the Jean Drapeau metro stop on the island and arrived at the Casino right as the sun was setting. We rushed out of the subterranean parking garage to take a few photos of the truly batshit crazy casino buildings. They served as the French and Québéc pavilions during the Expo, and were converted in the mid-90s… and boy, was it ever obvious. We walked in and were instantly overwhelmed.
Texture on top of texture on top of texture — marble tile, metallic gold walls walls, neon graphic carpet. Everything glows, changes color or moves. Circular floor plates, suspended in the atrium, with laser-cut glowing card suits — one floor with spades, the next with hearts. Every edge of every surface is lit and chromed — calling your attention to every square-inch of your view. The ceilings are embossed and backlit. A six-story LED message board slinks between the seemingly endless number of staircases and escalators. The ceiling height changes at least four times as you walk through each floor, giving you a palpable sense of compression and claustrophobia. On top of all of this, the current theme is “cowboy” — so around every corner is a life-size ad with a shirtless cowboy, a Player’s Card tucked into his waistband. But the noise is the worst. On top of the ka-ching of every slot machine and the beep-beep-beep of every video poker game, there’s a live country singer — belting out French country music in a Shania Twain costume at full volume, the twang echoing through the gigantic atrium.
“…How long do we need to stay here?”
I was ready to go almost immediately after walking in. But Esley is game for literally anything — “Just a little gambling, I promise.” Our first job was to see if we could find an iPhone charger — which we did in the gift shop, alongside Cuisinarts and waffle presses. Then we half-heartedly played a few slots, and in an attempt to escape from the din, we tried to visit the resident Joël Robuchon restaurant for a drink. We wound our way through the gaming floors, finding the solitary elevator to the restaurant. We punched the floor number, descended a floor or two, and the doors opened into a scene straight out of the Queen of Hearts’ castle in Alice in Wonderland. Red leather walls, black-and-white checkered marble floors, gaudy 1990s lacquered lighting. I was almost relieved when the maitre’d told us we’d have to order dinner to have a drink. Back up to the floor — to a video gaming parlor. We sat behind massive touchscreens and played along with the obnoxious dealer up front — he was either chatting with the other dealer in Québécois slang or signing along to the Justin Bieber track echoing though the room, gyrating to the beat. After losing $60, we decided to get the hell out of there and retired to the main bar for giant beers and pub mix. After dulling our senses, we escaped — back on the 777 to Jean Drapeau, metro back into the city.
We departed the Champ-de-Mars stop into Chinatown, in search of jiaozi — and we found them at Mai Xiang Yuan.
Beef & mushroom / pork & leek / lamb & green onion dumplings, stir-fried peanuts + celery.
As we ordered, the Chinese waiter complimented my tattoo. “Oh, it’s Shanghai!” “You’ll never get lost!” The jiaozi tasted just like I remembered in China — perfectly steamed, perfect amount of filling, perfect balance of flavor. Chili oil and black vinegar, soy and chili flake. After paying, we wandered out into Chinatown and vowed to try everything on offer. First stop was Bao Bao Dim Sum for bar buns — pork + leek, red bean. I had three bites before I couldn’t eat anymore — but then down the block to the egg waffle stand. We watched as the “Maestro” methodically poured batter into his mould, flipped it twice and tossed it into a paper bag. We ate it with our fingers on the street, the finished product almost too hot to handle. As we were finishing the last bites and preparing to call it a night…
“Where else could we go?”
“…Orange julep?” I replied. Mark’s eyes lit up. “YES.” Back to the metro, to the ligne orange all of the way to Namur — a twenty-minute ride.
The Namur metro stop was otherworldly — as we emerged from the tracks, a massive aluminum sculpture loomed above. I took probably a hundred photos of it — I was totally entranced. Then as we walked out of the station’s butterfly doors, we were transported into an entirely different place: suburbia. It felt like Westminster, or the Valley, or any place a half-hour from downtown. The submerged highway bisected a swath of strip malls and big box stores, some recognizable but others new to us. We made our way across the highway, and towards the glowing orange sphere in the distance.
The Orange Julep is somewhat of a Montréal must-do — something we noticed as we crowded into the tiny glassed-in lobby of the giant orange. We ordered our juleps and the Filipina cashier thrust our styrofoam cups under a tap and yanked a lever, filling them in seconds with pale orange foam. It tastes almost exactly like an Orange Julius — but better, fresher — and we realized that the former was probably a rip-off of this very drink.
We lazily wandered back to the metro stop, juleps in hand, passing a darkened strip club and an eerily bright retro-style diner. We laughed as we descended back into the metro, back across town, to sleep.
We had traversed hundreds of years and thousands of miles in a day — and try as we might to wander across the street for one last beer, our feet just wouldn't let us. We feel asleep almost immediately, our stomachs full and our minds clear.