Montreal: a special birthday celebration

…with a touch of Norway

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Marché Artisans at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, an urban market concept. Sit down and have a snack or buy some local cheese to take home.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

My nephew Andrew and I have the same birthday on Nov. 7, and we always celebrate together. This year was a milestone number for me, so I decided to do something special. I invited Maureen Littlejohn, a friend from Toronto, my sister and her husband, and my niece and nephew from Boston for a weekend visit in Montreal.

Montreal, the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province, is set on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and named after Mt. Royal, the triple-peaked hill at its heart. Its boroughs, many of which were once independent cities, include neighborhoods ranging from cobblestoned French colonial Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) to the bohemian Plateau area.

Iconic accommodations

We all met at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, a Montreal icon, with a newly renovated interior and trendy restaurant and lobby bar, coffee shop, and Artisans, a high-end food court. There’s a wide range of rooms, but the most interesting is Room 1742, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their 1969 “bed-in” protest of the Vietnam War, newly decorated in period style. Unfortunately, the room was occupied, so we couldn’t see it for ourselves.  But this hotel is where we would conduct our traditional gift giving and set out the next day.

In the hotel lobby, we met Claire Lemieux of Guidatour (info@guidatour.qc.ca) for a walking tour of Old Montreal. Its cobblestone streets and French architecture make this original settlement on the Saint Lawrence Seaway a wonderful introduction to the historic city. Claire has lived her entire life in Montreal, and she knows it well. She took us in and out of buildings, as she explained the history, which culminated in the architectural splendor of the 19th-century Notre-Dame Basilica.

For years, Saint-Paul Street was Montreal’s main street. Many of the buildings, which date from the 19th century, have been renovated and today serve as artisanal boutiques, art galleries, artists’ studios, and even homes.

We visited Crew Café, which largely preserves the splendor of the main hall of the Royal Bank Tower at 360 Saint-Jacques Street. Once the tallest landmark in Canada, and, indeed, the British Empire, the tower was abandoned in 2010, after decades of service as the bank’s corporate headquarters. The spectacular historic space now belongs to tenant Crew, a public office space, with super fast free Wi-Fi, silence pods for doing focused work, and amazing coffee and outstanding pastries. With its 50-foot ceilings and 12,000 square feet of space, it is both big and modern. There was only a small sign on the exterior, but when we entered, we were thrilled to see all the shining brass: doors, letterboxes, and ornamental fixtures from the former bank building. It is, without a doubt, a hidden gem and well worth the detour.

A piece of history

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
A segment of the Berlin Wall.

Then we visited the Ruelle des Fortifications, adjacent to the Montreal World Trade Centre, the site for the installation of a segment of the Berlin Wall, donated to the City of Montreal by the City of Berlin to commemorate Montreal’s 350th anniversary in 1992.

The City of Montreal chose the location, adjacent to the Montreal World Trade Centre, as the site for the installation of the segment of the wall, because it is a crossroads of international trade and a site of openness. This location was the most appropriate to host this “witness to history” that stands, in fact, where the fortifications of Montreal once stood.

 

A city of churches

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Interior of Notre-Dame Basilica.

When the celebrated American writer Mark Twain visited Montreal in 1881, he famously said, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” And it’s true: wherever you look around the city, you are likely to see an elegant steeple or a majestic dome on the horizon. For those seeking a spiritual journey, or who simply want to enjoy the architectural splendor of Montreal’s many religious historic sites, there are some of the most beautiful churches in Canada.

However, there is no doubt that the grand dame of Old Montreal is the Notre-Dame Basilica. This is the crown jewel in Quebec’s rich religious heritage, where global superstar Luciano Pavarotti performed his 1978 Christmas concert, and where Céline Dion married René Angélil in 1994.

Now a designated National Historic Site of Canada, the basilica replaced the tiny parish church of Notre-Dame that was originally built on the site in 1672. The basilica was designed by Irish-American architect James O’Donnell (who is also the only person buried in the church’s crypt) and built between 1824 and 1829. With its two soaring towers, the basilica is a splendid example of the Gothic Revival style, with its grand and colorful interior filled with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and religious statues, as well as a Casavant Frères pipe organ dating back to 1891. The historic site is popular year-round with tourists and locals alike and regularly hosts concerts by orchestras, chamber groups, and organists.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to view the new sound and light show, “Aura,” when the neo-Gothic interiors get the 21st-century digital treatment from Moment Factory, the Montreal-based multimedia studio also responsible for the lighting of the river-spanning Jacques Cartier Bridge. The 20-minute sound and light spectacle traces the arches, columns, altar, and vaulted ceiling in colorful rays and uses them as canvases for projected images of shooting stars, crashing waves, and autumn leaves, certainly an awe-inspiring event.

A plethora of culinary delights

Our day continued with a visit to a kosher bakery, Boulangerie Cheskie, where I could find my favorite poppy seed pastries, then off to a Breton Crêperie, Breizh Café, founded by Frederic Coupard, a native of Rennes, France. Here we enjoyed perfect galettes, buckwheat crepes made from stone-ground buckwheat flour from the local grist mill, Le Moulin Bleu. My crêpe was absolutely identical to the best I have eaten in Amboise, France.

After a short walk, we set off to enjoy high tea at the Ritz-Carlton. The origin of the afternoon tea service began with Anna Maria Russell (1783-1857), 7th Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. At that time, by tradition, dinner was not served before 8:30 or 9 in the evening. The duchess, who often became hungry in the afternoon, would secretly have food delivered to her quarters. Once the secret ritual was discovered, she was not ridiculed, as she had feared. On the contrary, her routine became a popular ritual known as “afternoon tea.” Now the tradition is a choice of teas with scones, served with Devonshire-style cream and jams, finger sandwiches, and tiny samples of the pastry chef’s creations—très délicieux!

A touch of Norway in Montreal

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
A younger volunteer proudly serves up genuine Nidar marzipan from Norway.

But our day was not yet over. Editor-in-chief Lori Ann alerted me to the Norwegian Association Christmas sale she had seen advertised on Facebook, so I tracked down and communicated with Ellen Laughlin, president of the association.

After tea, Maureen and I set out in an Uber for Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, where we found the very busy Christmas sale. People were buying Norwegian sweaters, pewter items, jewelry, foodstuffs, candy, and were eating open-face sandwiches and cakes, all the while chatting up a storm.

The Norwegian Association of Montreal is made of up Norwegians, Canadians of Norwegian heritage, and “honorary” Norwegians, family and friends who wish to celebrate Norway’s culture and traditions and promote understanding between Canadians and Norwegians.

The association was formerly divided in two: the Norwegian Club of Montreal (founded in 1951), which hosted a variety of social and cultural events, and the Norwegian Church Association (founded around the same time), which oversees the church building and its maintenance.  The two groups became the Norwegian Association of Montreal in 2017, with several hundred members.

“And for a relatively small group, we are incredibly active with at least one event every month except for July and August,” explained Laughlin.

Celebrating Norway the Quebec way

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
It was a very busy first night at the Christmas sale, where members and visitors enjoyed both good company and good food.

Events for both young and old are part of the program. Some members like the monthly pub nights that send thirsty Norwegians to an Irish pub in downtown Montreal.  Others celebrate seasonal activities, such as a ski weekend in the Laurentian Mountains, featuring a popular barbeque and an hour-long hike in the woods around the country north of Montreal. There is even a jump in the lake for the hardy few who don’t mind September’s cold.

There is also an annual ski day (named the Family Fun Day if the ski conditions aren’t the best), when families toboggan, take winter walks, and enjoy sausages over an open fire, followed by dinner at a local restaurant.

For the culturally minded, there is a group that gathers to enjoy dinner and an evening at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre once a year.  The “ladies” meet several times a year for coffee mornings, usually at someone’s house, and “set the affairs of the world in order.”

Cultural evenings feature everything, from travel talks to movie nights.  And, of course, there’s the annual seafood party, with lots of peel-your-own shrimps, salmon, crab hors d’oeuvres, and fabulous desserts.

Very importantly, there are the annual 17th of May festivities. First, the children have their day and parade with games, pølser, and iskrem on the Saturday before May 17. Then on the day, adults celebrate with speeches, singing, and live streaming from NRK of Norway’s festivities on a large screen, accompanied by a sumptuous dinner.  Without a doubt, it is a party worthy of the great Norwegian tradition.

And then, of course, there are the big events that attract large crowds in the Community Centre—and Christmas is certainly one of those times. Julebord dinner is held at the very end of November, and members home-cook all the traditional Norwegian food for the attendees:  gravlaks, svinekjøtt, rødkål, surkål, turkey (a Canadian addition), medisterkake, boiled potatoes, and all the trimmings.

There is a gathering ahead of time for a bløtkake-marzipan marathon, where about 150 cakes are made, most of which get snatched up at the annual November Christmas sale, held by the Norwegian Church Association (where I was lucky enough to find myself). The Juletrefest is a children’s Christmas tree party with the Julenisse and singing around the tree.

“So you can see, we’re a busy group,” Laughlin said with some pride.

And this was certainly not hard to believe, as I was happy to have experienced some of Norway-quebecois style for myself, the end to a perfect day in Montreal.

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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