An Urbanist’s Dream

Friday, January 22, 2010
Travel Writer

Remember those old ads that promoted Montreal as something like a poor man’s Paris? Times have changed — a lot.

Montreal is no longer for poor men; the suddenly-strong Canadian dollar has put an end to that particular marketing angle. And it’s just as well. Because rather than seeing Montreal as a bargain basement, Americans can now discover one of the continent’s most cosmopolitan and cultured destinations.

Sure, it’s cold this time of year, but Montreal boasts its “Underground City,” a subterranean network of shops, restaurants and alleys. And as temperatures above ground fall, the cultural calendar is in full blossom.

While it’s no longer dirt-cheap, Canada is still reasonably priced — and close. You can fly from New York to Montreal in an hour or drive there in about seven, making it an ideal weekend getaway.

What’s more, Montreal can feel like an urbanist’s dream. It’s easy to get around by the very efficient metro system, but there’s also a thriving bicycle culture as well as compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. The Old Port, the historic waterfront on the St. Lawrence River, is an ideal place to rent a bicycle and explore the romantic 18th-century alleys and jaunty boulevards of the city’s original center.

Quebec’s French-speaking majority status has long been used to justify separatist and sovereignist movements, Montreal is more multiethnic by the day, and wears its tolerance proudly. European roots are evident in the elegance of its historic neighborhoods, and its peaceful, safe-feeling streets are also reminiscent of the Old World. But along its main downtown boulevards, like Rue St.-Laurent, immigrant shops mix with chic galleries, and cafés buzz with polyglot chatter.

Jewish travelers will feel at home in a community that takes its religion and its institutions seriously. With myriad synagogues, more than a dozen Jewish schools, and kosher eateries to serve a large observant population, Montreal Jewry is thriving within a proudly pluralistic culture.

The first Jews settled in Quebec in the 1700s, and a Sephardic synagogue was established in Montreal in 1768, when Jews numbered in the low triple digits.

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the first Ashkenazic temple and a major landmark to this day, was founded in 1856; its stately brick structure was built a few decades later, and today it hosts traditional services for a diverse congregation. (For comprehensive information on worship and kosher dining, consult the Web site of the Jewish Community Council, listed below.)

Canada’s major waves of Jewish immigration ran roughly parallel to those in the United States, peaking around the turn of the last century, with European immigrants turning to Canada at times when American quotas ran dry. But while Yiddish-language culture disappeared long ago from other cities, Montreal is one place where the Yiddish theater lives on.

The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts hosts Yiddish-language productions throughout the year — everything from the recent “The Pirates of Penzance,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic presented in the mama loshen, to the upcoming “No More Raisins, No More Almonds” (February) and “The Jazz Singer” (June). Performances are supertitled in English and French for those whose Yiddish is rusty. Last year, the Segal Centre even hosted the first-ever Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival, drawing scholars and performers from around the world.

The Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, who studied at Montreal’s premier university, McGill, left a permanent imprint on the city with his “Habitat 67,” a massive complex in the Old Port designed for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. Originally conceived for his master’s thesis, Habitat is an imposing, futuristic jumble of cube-like buildings that now serves as a residential complex and tourist attraction.

The city’s artistic heart, however, is arguably its Museum of Fine Arts. Housing one of the country’s top collections, it boasts some excellent European paintings that span the last millennium, a striking contemporary gallery, and one of the most comprehensive gatherings anywhere of art by Canadians. (Perhaps best of all, the permanent collection is free to visit.)

Special exhibitions, which carry a fee, are often excellent. Crowds have been thronging to see “J.W. Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment,” a major retrospective of the 19th-century British painter famed for his scenes of pre-Raphaelite damsels. The show closes Feb. 7. Five days later, the museum will unveil “Tiffany Glass: A Passion for Color,” through May 2.

If the Museum of Fine Arts is Montreal’s Met, then La Place des Arts is its Lincoln Center. Located in the city center, the Place des Arts is a glittering, 1960s-era arts complex that hosts the local opera, ballet, and symphony orchestra, as well as special programs like a Sunday morning children’s concert and brunch.

The L’Opéra de Montréal is presenting “Tosca” through February, while Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal will perform “La Sylphide” and a triple-bill program of works choreographed by Jiri Kylian later this winter. The L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal has a star conductor in Kent Nagano; an upcoming highlight is a concert series featuring Vadim Repin and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Traveler’s Resources:

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts:

http://www.mmfa.qc.ca

Jewish Community Council of Montreal (with kosher dining listings): http://www.mk.ca/

Habitat 67: http://www.habitat67.com

Segal Centre for Performing Arts:

http://www.segalcentre.org/en/yiddish_theatre/

Place des Arts: http://laplacedesarts.com

The Old Port, the historic waterfront on the St. Lawrence River.

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