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Old Montreal - Walking in the Past

By: Chris Millikan
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Old Montreal - Walking in the Past

History buffs love sauntering along old Montreal’s cobbled European-style streets…or wandering her public squares surrounded by grand cathedrals, historic homes and museums. My hubby and I recently join the throngs probing this cosmopolitan city’s earliest days.

At Musee Pointe-a-Calliere’s theatre a journey through six centuries kicks off exploration of the original townsite. Before diving into its history, an elevator takes us up to view today’s Montreal’s vibrant old port. This three-story archaeological museum soars sleekly above Montreal’s birthplace between the St. Lawrence and Little St. Pierre Rivers.

It’s here, Paul de Chomedey and thirty-five French settlers established Fort Ville-Marie in 1642. Roaming the subterranean remains, we visit the first Catholic cemetery, old customhouse and experience a lively market day, circa 1750. From the open-air Lookout, we absorb panoramas of Vieux-Port’s quayside, nowadays a 2.5-kilometer-long linear park used year-round for recreational activities…

In Place d’Armes, a central monument commemorates Montreal’s founders…but it’s magnificent Basilica de Notre-Dame that dominates this historic square. Spectacular sculpted woodwork and gold leaf interiors dazzle; inspirational stained glass windows illustrate biblical passages and parish history. For two centuries seigneurs resided next door at St-Sulpice Seminary, still topped by its famous clock dating to 1701.

Fine 19th-century townhouses and mansions surround Place-Jacques Cartier, named for the famed French explorer. Once a large public market, today’s cobbled square is filled with Victorian streetlamps, tubs of red and yellow flowers, street musicians and artists. Along with locals and hoards of other visitors, we bask in the lively ambience there, toasting terrific Old Port views from under the flamboyant red awnings at one of many sidewalk cafes.

Nearby, Hotel-de-Ville outshines a sober cluster of courthouses. From the grand balcony of this City Hall, French President General Charles de Gaulle caused quite a stir in 1967, shouting “Vive le Quebec libre!” Behind, stone remnants once standing 6.4 meters high stretched three kilometers around old town

And across the street, Chateau de Ramezay awaits, where attendants in period dress greet us. Built in 1705 for Montreal’s Governor, 15 connecting rooms housed his family of 16 children. With its remarkable 17th-century artifacts and furnishings, this beautiful mansion reveals the gracious lifestyle of its esteemed residents.

Behind the house we wander the French-style Governor’s Garden, tranquil and fragrant. This spot replicates former seigneurial gardens, flourishing with fruit trees, flowers, vegetables and medicinal plants…but on a much smaller scale. “Then, everyone had gardens; large ones like this covered nearly two-thirds of the fortified town,” explains the gardener, harvesting pungent chives, young carrots and emerald sprigs of parsley.

Within blocks, dramatized audiotapes guide us through a 19th-century brick residence. Period fashions and authentically restored, lavishly furnished interiors allow peeks into Sir George Etienne-Cartier’s influential life…and high society of his day. Remembered as Father of Canadian Confederation, his considerable achievements also included development of Quebec’s civil code and the Grand Trunk Railroad.

Looping back, we pass the most photographed of all the heritage houses, circa 1725. Currently a first-rate inn and restaurant, Maison-de-Pierre Calvert’s striking wine-red doors and window frames contrast with massive grey rock walls, chimneys and steeply sloped roof. This illustrious homeowner collaborated with rebels during the American Revolution, holding clandestine meetings here with Ben Franklin, an envoy sent by George Washington in 1775-76.

A leisurely walk westward takes us past silver-domed Marche Bonsecours, Montreal’s major agricultural market for over a century. Restored for its 150th anniversary, her 100,000-square-foot limestone building has been returned to a busy marketplace featuring specialty shops, exhibitions and sidewalk cafes

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