Underground, overground, Montreal’s free!

Named after the Mount Royal which sits at its centre, the city of Montreal is fully located on an island in the St Lawrence river. The ‘Mount’ itself is actually a hill with three separate peaks, and the surrounding park is perhaps the best example of a green space I have seen so close to a major city centre. Covering 470 acres, Mont Royal Park is mostly woodland but also has several open spaces, a man made lake, and a maze of roads and paths which allow you to cycle or hike (or drive if you’re less adventurous) to the peaks with varying degrees of inclines. Being so close to such a large hub of activity, naturally there are also excellent views of the city below if you can find the right look out spots. Naturally this is easy to do as one is home to a bus stop, another was even chosen as the site for the Chalet du Mont-Royal, and both feature obvious crowds of tourists looking out to the distance.

SAM_5168The view from the Chalet looks south – at least in terms of the Montreal compass which is arranged in terms of the St Lawrence flowing to the east (which in reality is north-east) rather than a magnetic north – and showcases the skyscrapers which have built up the downtown area. As impressive as the engineering feat of countless tall buildings can be however, the one thing that sets Montreal’s downtown apart from most others is the inclusion of something which you can’t really see from any viewpoint.

In order to make traversing the city easier in Canada’s harsh winters, a network of underground walkways have been built which connect a number of metro stations and various buildings, thus significantly reducing the need to walk anywhere outside once you arrive downtown. Many of these are also lined with shops, cafes and other boutiques, even those which are connecting shopping malls to begin with.

I began my subterranean journey at the Cours Mont-Royal, where I enjoyed the small exhibition that was the Barbie Expo, a collection of dolls which had been dressed up to represent fashions from all over the world, and recreate famous figures from pop-culture. While it was interesting to see such elaborate designs for some of the more traditionally exotic nations, the idea that Britain was represented by Flasher-Mac Barbie was somewhat lost on me, although apparently Burberry trenchcoats are a well known thing to other people?

Armed with my map however, I set off to make my way to the Place des Arts. A relatively short walk a couple of blocks down the road as the crow flies, but which takes rather a lot more time when you have to follow the U shaped network of tunnels, and get confused along the way. While there are signposts which point you in the vague direction, much of it also requires you to work a few things out for yourself, particularly when the ‘Underground’ city actually takes you a couples of storeys above ground.

SAM_5253The other lookout at the Mount, the Belvédère Camillien-Houde, looks east with a view of the Olympic Park. Built to showcase the 1976 Games, (the only Canadian city to host the Summer Games), the main stadium plays host to various sporting and entertainment events. More than this, the tower is still a major tourist attraction not only as the tallest inclined structure in the world, but itself also offers views accessible by a funicular elevator. These come with a hefty price tag though, so I was more than happy to just walk round the arena to tick off Montreal on my list of Olympic cities visited, and be content with the views from the Mount.

Right next to the Olympic Park is the Botanical Gardens, a feature of many towns and cities I saw throughout Australia, but Montreal’s is also host to the Insectarium. Displaying countless species of insects and arachnids, some mounted on display with several live specimens, mostly encased in their own enclosures, but also with an entire open air ant’s nest (although far enough away to keep it out of reach) complete with food source and a bridge connecting the two, of course resulting in the lines of ants marching between the two. (Despite the name of this blog post, the Gardens and Insectarium do come with a charge, but one I felt they were worth.)

SAM_5231Alongside the main island of the city there are also a small number of others including Île Sainte-Hélène, another green space with impressive views of the city which encompass its bredth rather than looking down on it, and which is the site of the biosphere. Originally built for Montreal’s World Fair Expo 67, it is now a museum dedicated to the environment and our impact on it, with displays looking at weather phenomena, renewable energy, etc. Generally it charges admission, but is free if you happen to turn up during Canada’s environment week, like I did. Sometimes backpacking highlights are all about coincidences.

Another coincidence was that the nearby Île Notre-Dame was also hoating the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix during my stay. Home of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, it is just a short bridge walk away from Sainte-Hélène, provided of course the entirety of the artifical island hasn’t been cordoned off and/or you have a ticket for the event. Whislt there were several people staying at my hostel who were attending, Formula 1 tickets aren’t really in keeping with a backpacker’s budget, so decided to keep to my wallet friendly explorations of the city instead.

SAM_5329Something which lead me to another great coincidental find, a self described “big science celebration” called Eureka. Taking over a large chunk of the waterfront by the science museum, this festival was lined with tents from companies and institutions from Parks Canada to Nintendo all showing off their latest innovations and projects, complete with a number of stages where presentations were held. I was lucky enough to catch one of these which showcased th joint NASA/Candian Space Agency OSIRIS-REx mission, which is the ambitious project to collect rock and dust samples from the asteroid known as Bennu.

All in all, I have to admit that going from underground tunnels to the reaches of Space for next to nothing wasn’t a bad way to spend a week at all!