Saturday, August 20, 2011

Canada, Our Neighbor to the North

We traveled to Montreal and Quebec City this past week on our fourth trip to the second largest country in the world after Russia. Canada has always been a favorite place for us to visit. We've enjoyed Ontario, Toronto and Nova Scotia, and the province of Quebec was no exception. The people are friendly, the restaurants are good, the scenery is spectacular, the flight is short, and the money is very comparable to our currency. Summer is obviously the best time to see Canada, unless you like temperatures of forty below zero and constant snow. It is so cold in parts of Canada that many major cities have constructed underground cities miles long that contain shops, places to eat, bars and professional services. Intricate passageways connect these establishments to transportation hubs and apartment complexes so that citizens can conduct their business without ever coming above ground.

We arrived in Montreal where we stayed at the Hilton Bonaventure, a great hotel in the heart of the downtown area. We had less than five days to do as much as we could, so we wasted no time. In our experience, the best way to learn what there is to see in any new place is to book one of those hop-on, hop-off guided bus tours. We ride the entire circuit of attractions to help decide what we want to see, and then jump off the bus when it stops at our first desired destination. We then hop back on the bus, which usually comes every half-hour, and ride to our next destination. I don't know a better way to quickly learn about a city and preview planned stops than this method. Our first stop in Montreal was the Redpath Natural History Museum on the campus of McGill University.  We also hit the Montreal Museum of Art. I don't mean this in a snobbish way, but coming from New York City, home to some of the world's greatest museums, it's very hard to find many museums that measure up.

Because of its French origins, Montreal is a city of Catholic churches, housing some of the most beautiful cathedrals and basilicas you will ever see in one place. These include Notre Dame, Mary Queen of the World, St. Patrick's and St. Joseph Oratory. The latter is atop a big hill and is reached by a series of escalators. There are also stairs for the less faint of heart. Penitents seeking forgiveness for their sins are known to ascend these stairs on their knees, saying a brief prayer on each step. A young man was doing this during our visit. These edifices are all magnificent structures inside and out, and could never be built today because of cost and the lack of craftsmen. We also cruised Montreal's harbor and got some great views of the city. Finally, the visit would not be complete without a trip to the Casino de Montreal where we actually came out about even for two nights' work.

We took a three-hour bus ride to Quebec City, an old world city that feels more like Europe than Canada. There is a lower city and an upper city at the top of a hill. Tourists travel from one to the other using a "funicular", a kind of glorified escalator. Quebec City features narrow, stone paved streets lined with shops and restaurants. The upper city contains the Parliament Building, the Quebec City Armory, the Grand Frontenac Hotel pictured at left, and the city's Botanical Gardens. We also cruised the harbor where a tour guide filled us in on the history of the city and how, in a matter of minutes, a key battle turned it from a French city into a British one. We could have used another day to walk around this lovely old city, but it was soon time to get back on the bus to Montreal.

Throughout Quebec, French is the predominant language, but English is spoken freely to accommodate the tourists. I thought I sometimes detected a slight undercurrent of French superiority and thinly disguised contempt when they realized you did not speak their language. For example on the bus ride to Quebec City, the driver mentioned there were only two seats left. As we got on we saw two seats up front marked "Reserved". When my wife looked inquiringly at a French woman seated behind the reserved seats she said in her nasally voice: "You can read, no?" I should have reminded her that if it wasn't for the United States saving their raggedy asses in WWII, she would be speaking German instead of French.

The occasionally rude Frenchman is just a minor inconvenience to be sure compared to everything else Quebec has to offer, and we thoroughly enjoyed our trip.


Children's Cranioacial Association 

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