In 1535, explorer Jaques Cartier, looking for a new route to India, sailed up what would come to be known as the St. Lawrence River. About a thousand miles inland, he stopped at a large island. Climbing to the tallest point, he planted a cross and christened the place Mont Real.
Today, if you stand on the top of Mount Royal, the expansive and eclectic city of Montreal is spread out below.With nearly 350 years behind it (the first settlement was established there in 1642 by missionaries led by Paul de Chomedey), Montreal is a gem of a city - a New World place with Old World charm, a bustling metropolis with a North American lifestyle and a French accent.
Montreal prides itself on being a little different. Because of its high percentage of French-speaking people (69 percent) and because many of its customs and traditions are rooted in French Catholicism rather than English Protestantism, the city is different from most of its Canadian neighbors. Although most of the people also speak English, French is the No. 1 language; and most street and building signs are printed in French.
As one of the world's largest French-speaking cities, Montreal is often compared to Paris; and there are similarities in look and feel. But this is not simply a transplanted center of European culture. There are North American influences as well; bits of Iroquis and Inuit are blended with the French/English mix to create an infectious joie de vivre all its own.
And despite its northern location, Montreal has year-round appeal. Autumn is brisk but colorful. The golden maples that richly enhance the city provide a clue as to why the tree's leaf was chosen as the symbol of Canada. Winter is a time of snow sports and festivals. The return of spring is celebrated with equal passion. And summer is an endless parade of hot, sunny days and balmy, breezy nights - and countless activities with which to fill them.
Because Montreal is on an island - 32 miles long and 10 miles at the widest point - it is a fairly compact city, especially downtown.
Although the city has an efficient and clean Metro system, the best ways to explore the downtown area are by horse-drawn cart or caleche and by foot. Lines of caleches awaitriders at various points in the Old City, their drivers offering a cheerful call for business.
The Old City is a beautifully restored area, sprinkled with charming handicraft boutiques and fine restaurants as well as history. A walk through this area will take you down cobblestone streets and past buildings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
At the Place d'Armes there are echoes of battles fought between French settlers and Iroquois Indians. The Notre Dame Basilica across the street was inspired by the one in Paris and is the largest cathedral in North America. Inside, the stained glass windows were made in Limoges, France; and soft blue lights play off the rich wood carvings to create a peaceful atmosphere.
Next door is the Sulpician Seminary, Montreal's oldest building. Built by brothers of the order in 1685, it is still used by them today. The clock that was added in 1710 is the oldest public clock on the continent - and it works.
At Place Jacques-Cartier a statue of Lord Nelson, the hero of Waterloo, watches over the goings-on. Boutiques and sidewalk cafes line the sloping rectangle that is often the sight of festivals and fairs. And at the bottom, there's the Old Port, where harbor cruises sail from the 19th-century docks.
As interesting as the Old City is to explore, it's not the only attraction Montreal offers.
The 494-acre Park du Mont-Royal, on top of the highest peak, offers not only a nice view of the city, but also a place to walk and jog and meet and play. In the winter you can ice skate on Beaver Lake and cross-country ski throughout the park. Mont-Royal was designed by F.L. Olmsted, the man who did Central Park in New York.
For more outdoorsy interest, there are the Botanical Gardens. Featuring a total of 30 individual gardens and 10 greenhouses - Japanese, orchid, bonsai, shrubs, etc. - this is the largest such place in North America and the third largest in the world.
Another view of nature can be had at the Insectarium, which just opened this year. Live butterflies and other amazing insects put on their own kind of show at this museum, which is also unique to North America.
Across the street from the Botanical Gardens is Olympic Park, built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The stadium here features a futuristic inclined tower that not only offers a nice view of the city but also tucks away the retractable roof of the stadium, nice for when the Expos play on a sunny, summer day. The sports complex, featuring a variety of swimming pools, is open to the public.
The Montreal skyline - whether viewed from Park du Mont-Royal, from the Olympic tower or from the waterfront - features an eclectic collection of old buildings and new skyscrapers.
The interesting skyline is matched by an equally interesting underground city. Safe, well-lit avenues connect more than nine miles of shops, concert halls, hotels, restaurants and movie theaters underneath the city. When the weather's cold outside, particularly, nothing beats moving on down (unless, perhaps, its a hockey game at the Forum, where the 23-time Stanley Cup winners, the Montreal Canadiens, hold sway).
In Montreal you can go up, you can go down and you can also go out. When city folks head for the hills here, they go to the Laurentian Mountains or the Estrie (Eastern Townships). The Laurentians are thought to be the oldest mountains in the world. In the winter they, and the Eastern Townships, offer great skiing and cozy inns. In the summer, you can catch some theater, enjoy a music festival or visit craft shops.
And in the spring, in the hills and mountains around Montreal, maple sugar time signals the end of another winter. Amerindians taught the first French settlers how to collect maple sap and simmer it into syrup, taffy and sugar - a process that goes on with great enthusiasm still.
Although the sugaring only occurs in the spring, many of the sugar shacks in the Monteregie and Lanaudiere areas are open year-round, providing not only a look at the sugar process, but hearty French-Canadian meals as well. A typical menu includes pea soup, pork and beans, maple-smoked ham, eggs cooked in maple syrup and maple sugar pie.
Montreal, with a population of 2.8 million, is the second-largest city in Canada. But it bills itself as a big city without big-city hassles. Indeed, it is a city of neighborhoods. The typically French areas of east Montreal are famous for their outdoor staircases and balconies. But 35 other languages are spoken here, including Italian, Greek and Chinese, and there are pockets of ethnic culture scattered throughout the city. This diversity is reflected in the 400 churches and the 2,000 restaurants the city boasts of as well.
And it is reflected in the warm, friendly nature of the people, who take pride in saying that Montreal is not just a city but an attitude. The people and the city welcome visitors with open arms, eager to share their exciting joy of life.