Sunday, September 21, 2008
A Handle on Montreal
I recently returned from a long weekend in Montreal, where I had a great time. I've visited Montreal before and wouldn't have said that. I would have said it was OK, but not that it was wonderful and that I looked forward to going back.
What's the difference?
I finally figured out how to visit a large city! (Finally! After 14 years of travel writing....)
This time, I had a starting point and no obligation to be anywhere else in particular thereafter. I went to see the Magic of Lanterns show at the Montreal Botanical Garden. This annual event, during which a thousand silk lanterns handmade in Shanghai are positioned around the Chinese gardens, among the pagodas and reflecting pools, had enchanted me on a brief visit last year and I wanted to see it again. (This year's show will be up until Oct. 31.)
The next day, I decided to visit Montreal's Chinatown, which is small but very interesting. I had a long talk with Johnny K.F. Chin, who makes Dragon Beard candy at his open-air stall on De LaGauchetiere West (this candy used to be made for Chinese emperors, he said, and Mr. Chin learned the technique in his native Hong Kong) and then wandered into My Cup of Tea, a chic, little shop that sells loose leaf and bagged tea from China. After sampling several kinds of tea and buying some to take home, I walked back to my hotel, the Opus at Sherbrooke and St. Lawrence Streets (if you know Montreal, you know that this is about as centrally located as you can get) and had dinner in its terrific restaurant, Koko, which serves pan-Asian food.
The chef at Koko came out to say hello, and I mentioned to him my interest in tea. He told me about a tea shop that he liked near the hotel in the Latin Quarter — so the next day, I walked down to Camellia Sinensis at 35 Emery St., and it was, indeed, fabulous. Camellia Sinensis has a tranquil tea room and an adjacent shop that sells around 180 kinds of loose leaf tea from all over the world as well as beautiful tea ware, including pottery handmade in Quebec Province.
From there, I walked down to Old Montreal to visit some boutiques in the Bonsecours Market and another tea shop, Ming Tao Xuan, at 451, St-Sulpice in the shadow of Notre Dame Basilica. By then, a light rain was falling, and I welcomed a pot of Eight Treasures Tea accompanied by some delicious cookies. This shop also sells loose leaf tea and tea ware, including a fascinating range of Yixing teapots, selected by the proprietor, Lee Kwok Kgung, on one of his many trips to China.
I was leaving Montreal late the next afternoon, but I still had a few hours to look around. At breakfast the next morning, I talked to my waitress, Anne, about bagels and she recommended the Fairmount Bagel shop, which she said she preferred to the more famous St-Viateur bagels. (I discovered that in Montreal, food is taken very seriously and everyone you meet will recommend a favorite restaurant or two.) So I hopped in a cab and within 10 minutes was on rue Laurier, where I looked in several boutiques and talked at length with lovely Louise Royer, owner of Royer Objets et Trouvailles, where she sells artwork, crafts and gifts handmade in Quebec Province (another interest of mine). Then it was around the corner to St-Urbain Street, once the heart of the Jewish Quarter, and up one block to Fairmount Bagel, where a line snaked out the door and the bagels were warm and delicious.
I ate one immediately and kept one for the plane. Alas, it was time to go. I hadn't had time to visit the museums that I had hoped to see or to explore some of Montreal's many other interesting neighborhoods, but I had learned that in a big city, you can't see it all -- not in one trip, and maybe not ever -- so the thing to do is to keep talking to people and to let the trip unroll like a ball of twine, leading you from one thing to another. Of course, you'll miss a lot! but you can't see everything, and that's a good reason to come back.