A week before my scheduled business trip to Ottawa, I realized that I had a day to kill in Montreal. I had neither the will nor the time to research “Things to do in Montreal.” Instead, I simply contacted Willow, a Montreal CityPal and asked: What’s your Montreal Tour de Jour?
Willow immediately responded, happy to help. She offered me a Montreal walking tour fit for a solo accidental tourist such as myself. “I am in your capable hands,” I replied to her offer. “Show me your favorite parts of Montreal and I will go along for the ride.” We decided to meet at noon in front of the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Church to start our Montreal Tour de Jour.
I landed in Montreal on a rainy Sunday morning, a less than perfect day for walking around town. Despite the weather, I got a message from Willow reassuring me that the tour was still on and that I shouldn’t forget to bring a rain jacket. I made my way to the Old Port whose wharfs and shoppers were quiet, given the rain.
At meeting Willow, we exchanged introductions and very soon the ice had broken and the conversation flowed naturally. Willow, an aspiring novelist, is a wizard of words, ever so eloquent in her descriptions of her beloved city. Before starting off, we grabbed a coffee at the 7 Grains Café, situated just across the street from our rendezvous point, overlooking the wet cobblestones of Bonsecours Street. The café had a warm and friendly ambiance. Enticing aromas of roasted African coffee beans, fresh omelets and warm pastries surrounded us as Willow told me about her life in Montreal, her passion for storytelling, teaching, the English language, culture and the arts. I was thinking that a few years from now I’d be telling the story of how Willow, the famous novelist, once gave me a private tour of her hometown.
Outside the café, Willow pointed out the Star of the Sea, a statue of the Virgin Mary that crowns the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known locally as the Sailor’s Church. This magnificent 350-year-old church is one of the oldest structures in the city. She mentioned how Leonard Cohen, the legendary singer-songwriter and Montreal native referenced the statue in one of his most famous songs “Suzanne”:
“She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor“
It turns out that we are both diehard fans of the late Leonard Cohen, his songs and his lyrics. From then on, Willow graciously pointed out the streets and the sites associated with Cohen’s life and poetry.
We climbed the 67 stairs to church’s tower to look out at some amazing views of the city and the Old Port. From there we walked to the Clock Tower, a landmark memorial for Canadian soldiers who died in WW1. We strolled along the Saint Lawrence River and towards the Governor’s Garden.
Willow’s tour took us through the gardens of Château Ramezay built in 1705 which was once the home of the Governor of Montreal. This magnificent building also served as the Canadian headquarters for the American Continental Army and for the medical school for the University of Montreal. Today it is home to a museum of Canadian history. The gardens of the Château are a great place to sit down and escape the bustle of the city.
A short Uber drive away and we were at the top of St. Laurent Street, referred to fondly by locals as “St. Lau.” This part of town is filled with counterculture shops and cafés, awesome street murals and some very colorful people. St. Laurent Street is where rich businessmen, poor souls, hopeful immigrants and artsy bohemians mesh into an intriguing urban cluster.
Willow noted that “living in Montreal is like living in a mood swing.” Indeed, the atmosphere completely changed as we walked up St. Laurent street from the Old Port through the business district to Chinatown and finally to the Jewish Quarter.
We ended our tour stuffing our faces with some really tasty roast beef sandwiches at “The Main,” a Jewish deli that was frequented by none other than the great Leonard Cohen. The classic Montreal take, I was told, is to order a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich with a pickle on the side and a Black Cherry Cola. And if you don’t mind standing in line, you can find some great Jewish deli fare at “Schwartz’s”, a Montreal culinary establishment now owned by Celine Dion.
Touring Montreal with a CityPal was a very special experience. I would never have come to understand the city without Willow’s guidance. I would have instead passed sites not knowing their cultural and historic significance. Alone, with the dreary weather and empty streets, I would have been one sad traveler. What’s more, the fact that Willow’s Tour de Jour of Montreal was customized to my interests and we were able to discuss and share information about culture, history, politics and religion made the tour experience rich and memorable.