Canada is a vast, bilingual country. Growing up in Western Canada, a five-hour plane trip away from Montreal, I used to dream about visiting for a weekend to practice my French and take part in the Francophone culture that the city is so well known for. Although it’s easy to get by in English, Montreal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world—after that Paris place.
Finally, I took the plunge—I went all the way to Montreal for a long weekend. This meant getting my feet wet in its unique culture and literally getting soaked—really soaked—in freezing Nordic baths that are all the rage both in Montreal and in rural Quebec.
Although Montreal is Canada’s major French-speaking metropolis, it has always had a vibrant Anglo element. Native son Leonard Cohen composed his classic “Suzanne” here and Mordecai Richler built a career as a wordsmith, often skewing the politicos. He once remarked that a local politician was so used to lying that he did it even when he didn’t need to—sometimes, just to stay in shape. So, I felt almost duty-bound to experience Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival to see what kind of malarkey they’d come up with.
Although Montreal is a major North American city, one of its endearing charms is how easily it can be visited on foot.
By picking a hotel in the Old Town of Montreal, we were close to everything we wanted to do in Montreal.
Any town steeped in French culture has to be a place for great food, n’est-ce pas? Since the rage in travel is learning from the experience, we opted for a cooking class at one of the city’s most reputable cooking academies. The name says it all—the Culinary Institute.
Now I am all for learning while on vacation, but we wanted to maintain a nonchalant French cool and not appear too, too eager. It was from our hotel that we learned the best way to arrive fresh and unstressed for a three-hour cooking class and wine tasting would be to first go to a Nordic spa, on a boat, in Montreal’s harbor.
At Bota-Bota this is exactly what we did. Are you unfamiliar with the Nordic spa idea? If so, then you are probably not familiar with Quebec. I say this because all across Quebec, be it in urban or rural settings, the Nordic spa idea has taken off. The idea is ingeniously clever and can be enjoyed at any time of the year.
Here’s how it works. You start off by going into a hot sauna, either a dry Finnish sauna, or a Turkish-style wet sauna. When you can take no more heat, you splash into a 3 to 10 degree Celsius bath, or if you’re in the country you roll in the snow or dip into an almost frozen pond or river.
Sound like your cup of tea? Beginners to the subtle form of torture/pleasure usually last no more than a minute of exposing themselves to freezing water. But the effects are immediate—the body immediately calms down just after exploding with sensation. Then the mind follows, calming down, and then as if giving yourself a reward, you go into a relaxing room. Depending on the type of spa, you watch nature movies, read current magazines, gaze at tropical fish, close your eyes and do nothing, or plan your next assault on the hot-cold pools.
I asked if this routine sounded like your cup of tea or not? If you’re not sure, perhaps this persuades you—I have yet to visit a Nordic spa in Québec that did not serve utterly original fabulous and healthy cuisine. The Bota Bota was no exception, and we treated ourselves to a delicious leek soup, even though our two hours of frolicking in the cold and hot water didn’t leave us with too much of an appetite.
Once we reluctantly left the spa, we had time to walk back to our hotel, relax, and then make our way to the Culinary Institute of Montreal, just another 10-minute walk away. This Culinary Institute is well known across Québec and being in Montreal, it has a wide variety of courses in English and French. Cashing in on the French-speaking aspect of Montreal, we chose a course in French cuisine and, as importantly, French wines. The lady in charge of French wine pairings was a fulltime sommeliére, and had personally visited many of the wineries whose wines she was suggesting.
It was one of those cooking classes where the chefs do all the work although, I didn’t complain! After all, I did get some tips on the proper way of holding a cutting knife. And remember, I’d had an exhausting day at the spa!
The next day, we were ready for some bilingual humor, big time, at the Just for Laughs Festival.
What’s the festival like? Think of a fringe festival but with top international comedians. I will never forget Glenn Wool’s routine where he describes what happened upon his arrival in Bali, nor the hilarious take on modern watches and electronic devices that Scottish comedian Dave Gorman came up with.
This being Montreal, there were dozens of free, festival-related events on and off the street, as well as food trucks with cheap but delicious food. We’re talking steamies, poutine, and smoked meat et tout cela. Eating from street wagons is new in Montreal, where for decades they were strictly forbidden—something related to the mayor wanting to keep the restaurant owners on his side. As a result, there are also many small, inexpensive restaurants.
The venues for the comedy festival were all within relatively easy walking distance from the main festival plaza and finding them was easy. What’s more, I went into places that otherwise would have remained totally unknown to me, like a punk-band bar and the Gesu de Montreal, a lovely, old church converted into an auditorium.
While I’m busy name dropping, perhaps I should mention the infamous Mark Twain quote regarding Montreal: “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window!”
At each venue, (not all reinvented churches), I sampled the local microbrewery beer, had some exotic international snacks, and felt I was really getting into the Montreal scene—the comic, the bilingual, and the culinary.
In Montreal, wherever there are crowds, there are always beggars, yet they beg with a sense of humor. And who knows, the guys I met muttering to themselves down the pedestrian way on the festival grounds could be budding Leonard Cohens or Mordecai Richlers!
Bruce Sach is a freelance writer who hails from Canada.
Events: Just For Laughs Festival www.hahaha.com/en/montreal
Cooking Class: http://www.emsb.qc.ca/stpiusculinary/
Nordic Spa: www.botabota.ca/en
Hotel: LHotel Montreal www.lhotelmontreal.com