After the previous ‘mishap’ when attempting to undertake a guided tour in Quebec City with Theo in tow, we decided a less-ambitious approach was required when undertaking the task of bringing Theo into the city of Montreal. However, following the unexpected expenditure of my replacement wheel the previous day also, we were on the look-out for a low-budget (or should I say ‘free’!) day of exploration- not an easy task in a tourism-orientated city where not only the attractions are plentiful, but also the price tags attached.
A quick browse on the Montreal Tourism website identified many family-friendly attractions and I quickly formed an imaginary ‘wish list’ of places I felt sure Theo and we would enjoy- from the Biodôme de Montréal, which boasts a variety of ecosystems complete with plants and animals, the Biosphère, Environment Museum, the Cosmodôme which looks into space exploration, or perhaps the Montréal Insectarium after the success of the Bug Zoo in Victoria or the Montréal Science Centre which has more hands-on interactive exhibitions aimed at a younger audience. However, all come at a cost- and one we could unfortunately ill-afford, given that we still have places in mind to visit in both Ottawa and Toronto in the upcoming weeks.
Eventually, we decided to aim for the Mount Royal Park, as the weather was glorious and of course, a walk in a park costs nothing but time- of which we had plenty. Our host Mimi was good enough to drop us off towards downtown by the Mount Royal Metro and we decided against public transport in favour of an easy amble along the streets towards the park.
The park itself affords incredible views over the city at its highest point, and is interwoven with both cycle routes and hiking paths throughout. It has two significant viewpoints- the Belvédère Kondiaronk overlooking downtown Montreal, while the eastern lookout faces the Olympic stadium and surrounding attractions. As the name suggests, the park is based around a ‘mountain’- part of the Monteregian Hills- but at a modest altitude of 764ft at it’s highest peak, the climb costs no more than a slightly raised heartrate and is more than do-able with little ones in tow. There is also Beaver Lake featured at one end, beautifully maintained with a vast quantity of green space and trees surrounding. After a stroll amongst the many cyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and runners, we found a children’s play area to distract Theo opposite the monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier. We encouraged Theo to burn off some of the endless supplies of energy he seems to boast these days before deciding to walk downtown and see what sights the city could offer us along the way.
We stumbled upon Le Palais des congrès de Montréal, a huge contemporary convention centre in the Quartier international de Montréal neighbourhood, which provides an entry into Montreal’s infamous ‘underground city’ or ville intérieure- over 20miles of tunnels and underground passages which combine to create the largest underground complex in the world, filled with shops, apartment blocks and offices, hotels, museums, universities and more. We decided to stay aboveground, however, enjoying the atmosphere created by the wide, spacious walkway of Le Palais and the tinted glass windows, along with the modern art displays and sculptures within. Theo also enjoyed the fountain outside- of course!
Heading further downtown and edging towards the waterfront, we then edged towards ‘Old Montreal’ and found the Notre-Dame Basilica, a beautiful gothic-revival style church with a hugely imposing exterior. I was desperate to see inside, however, contrary to reports of the $5 entrance fee that I had found online, the church was asking for $10 each for us and $5 for Theo (they start charging from the age of 1!!) – for us, this is a days worth of food and Matt simply refused point blank. Whilst I understand that many churches these days are reduced to charging an entrance fee to cover costs of maintenance and staffing for such major public attractions, I can’t help but think that charging a 1yr old+ $5 is a little steep. Our host, Mimi, was aghast when we told her that the church charged at all- “Having to pay to get into church?! That’s awful!” I’ve had to simply satisfy myself with some googled images of the interior- and promised myself that if ever I should return to the city in future, minus Theo and with a healthier collection of funds, it will be one of my priorities to visit- the photos I have seen are a tantalizing teaser or the beautiful, grand and colourful interior.
Stepping out at last onto the waterfront, we came to Le Vieux-Port and the Centre des Sciences de Montreal- the science centre, which again we refrained from entering, but found that the building itself and the surrounding monuments, sculptures and walkways provided more than sufficient entertainment for Theo- and the views across the river were fantastic for us. Popping into the food hall, we also treated ourselves to an ice-cream and simply enjoyed watching other families, tourists and locals pass by on the promenade walkway that followed the docks along the waterfront. Strolling a little further along, we enjoyed the views across to Île Sainte-Hélène and found another of the many attractions I had sourced as a ‘maybe’ for the day- the Shed 16 Labyrinth, another popular family attraction that would surely have kept Theo occupied, involving plenty of climbing and exploring and running around in this vast indoor maze. We saw plenty of pedlos and boats around the beautiful dock areas and spotted the Biosphere across on the island also- the vast dome structure is impossible to miss, and was one of the original sights that greeted us upon entry into the city.
There were some truly beautiful buildings forming part of Vieux-Montreal and along the waterfront. The Bonsecours Market- a two-story, 150year old structure that originally housed a farmers market for over 100 years- has a beautiful dome and a splendid front that overlooks the river, and alongside is the beautiful Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel- one of my particular favorite sights of the day, with an incredible statues of the Virgin as Star of the Sea overlooking the harbour. The church has a long history, and also a strong alliance with sailors, fishermen and seamen- earning it the title of ‘the Sailors Church’. Even Theo seemed impressed- and kept pointing to the statue and asking, “who that lady, mummy? Who’s that lady?” Difficult to know how to answer!
Strolling along the cobbled streets behind the church, we also passed the Château Ramezay-Musée et site historique de Montreal, and the Champ de Mars hotel and Les trios palais de justice- all built in line with the historical feel of this corner of the city, in classic stone with beautiful attention to detail. A stark contrast to the skyscrapers of further downtown- and a demonstration of just how architecturally diverse this city really is.
Traveling alone in a city usually calls, on my behalf, for a more ‘spontaneous’ nature of exploration- a wander around, slipping into the odd cathedral or historical building I may come across, sipping a drink in a café watching the city life unfold, signing up to tours if I stumble upon one of interest, checking out art galleries and museums and more. However, we’ve come to realize that being a tourist with a child in tow requires forward planning not too dissimilar to a military operation in order to avoid the inevitable stressors associated with taking a small child around a buzzing city. You need to consider transportation- a stroller, a sling, a carrier (none of which we had, given that the trailer is too large to fit onto public transport with ease), if toilets and facilities are accessible, where to eat and activities that will capture a young child’s interest. Without the time and resources to plan ahead for a day of this nature, we had to accept a degree of compromise somewhere between the two extremes- admiring the many sights from afar without disturbing others and boring Theo by taking him inside, and balancing our desire for culture with his desire for entertainment. Our day in Montreal may not have been as I exactly envisioned, and I retain a desire to return and explore it in more detail in the future- but actually, I feel our day was a great success regardless. Theo certainly enjoyed himself in the park, fountains and running and climbing along the many attractions – and we enjoyed the beautiful buildings and just soaking up the atmosphere of the city.
We ended our day by climbing on the metro and managing to navigate our way back north to our host Mimi, and relaxed on the back deck with beers and martinis in the heat of the afternoon sun before enjoying a delicious meal and proceeding to share and listen to music well into the night. A perfect end to a lazy family day.