Monday, October 9, 2023

Road Trip with a Wheelchair: Montreal

Montreal city-scape from namesake hill (Mount Royal)

In her murder mystery series, Louise Penny depicts the city of Montreal as a foil to the orderly Quebec City, and to the peaceful village of Three Pines.  In these Inspector Gamache books, Montreal is big and scary, full of shady characters and sketchy areas inhabited by drug addicts, poverty, and crime.  As a matter of fact, when we arrived in Montreal, it was late in the evening, and we immediately noticed the dirty streets and the crowds of people, some of whom were distinctly separate from the well-dressed, purposeful, fast-moving flows.  And yet I can’t wait to return! 

Acrobat near University
of Quebec in Montreal
One of the reasons must be the magic of the circus. Montreal is the home of the national circus school and of many circuses, including the famous Cirque du Soleil.  It bills itself as the North American hub of circus arts; in fact, we arrived on the last night of the annual Montreal Completement Cirque festival, where there were free circus performances just blocks from our hotel. These performances were absolutely stunning, and the professional acts were framed by music, lights, and drinks, which kept the crowds lively and the streets magical until late in the night. 

Pedestrian Mt Royal street

Another reason was the outdoor scene. Making full use of the short summer season, the city was bustling with outdoor restaurants, cafes, and bars. Most of the outdoor areas I saw were wheelchair-accessible.  The outdoor spaces on Rue St Denis went on for blocks, starting in the heart of the city, then heading out to the suburbs.  On the plateau, streets were often blocked off to vehicles, with outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars lining the sides, interspersed with artwork and gardens.  Many even had spritzers every few bocks, for walkers and cyclists to get some heat relief.  

A final draw was the food. Montreal is home to several world-class restaurants. Because of the pandemic, we did not sit down inside any; but, we did frequent the outdoor options, the produce markets, the delis, caf├ęs and patisseries. Montreal is famous for its bagels, so we tried all competing versions. Unfortunately, the Kouign Amann bakers were on vacation, but we sampled various breads, pastries, and croissants.

Bike lane going by
Montreal’s Old Town

Interestingly, we practically avoided the old town and its buildings, which are probably one of the main draws for most visitors. Instead, we spent our time exploring the various neighborhoods and their culinary offerings.

Rue St Denis is lively
all day, but it is
especially alive at night

We took advantage of the proximity of Rue St Denis, joining the lively crowds of outdoor revelers to enjoy veggie sushi and Canadian beer.  Nearby parks hosted festivals until late at night.

Cirque du Soleil on the
Of course we saw Cirque du Soleil one night.  It’s one of those attractions described as “expensive, but worth it” in guide books.  There are many cheaper options in this circus town, so I’m not sure I agree 100%, but the waterfront location makes it difficult to top.  The waterfront is easily reached by bike lanes and is itself an expansive flat area with lots of activities and people. Cirque du Soleil has accessible seats and a separate section of accessible restrooms,

Sunrise from Mt Royal

One day we drove up Mount Royal, for which the city is named, for a spectacular view. Ted hiked up there at sunrise another day to capture colorful photos.

We also went to the Jean Talon market in Little Italy. The market is very accessible with long rows of fruit, flowers, vegetables, and other food.

Under a spritzer on
Mt Royal Street

We ended up wishing for more time on the Plateau pedestrian streets, especially Mt Royal Street, where we explored the neighborhoods, sat outside and watched passers-by, and sampled the atmospheres of the cafes and wares of the boulangeries-patisseries. Favorites ended up being Joe laCroute, Boulangerie Toledo, and Boulangerie Premiere Moissan.

Huge new ramp to access store

The question of accessibility depends upon location. As with Quebec City, Montreal is an old city, and the process of retrofitting old construction with lifts and ramps is visible, but gradual.  

Many of the neighborhoods that we explored had curb cuts on the sidewalks of main roads, through these were often hacked-down corners of sidewalks.  

In general, the sidewalks were worse than those of my home city, Seattle (where sidewalks are not great), but Montreal is full of bikes and bike lanes.  Utilizing them made traversing the city much easier. I would just join the throngs and line up with them at stop lights.  

Only some of the subway stations have elevators, so it bears checking the information carefully. Fortunately, the university station near our hotel was accessible, and it looked as though they were retrofitting the station on the plateau to include elevators so it would be accessible.  That would save a lot of time and shenanigans, since we had to use the accessible station beyond the plateau and then travel across trails and sidewalks back to the plateau. 

As mentioned, several of the streets on the plateau were closed to traffic, allowing me to wheel freely down the street.

Completement Cirque
Circus Fest in the
Festival Quartier
We stayed in the Quartier des Spetacles.  I was a bit apprehensive about this location, but it turned out to be perfect for our stay — centrally located, near the circus performance, Rue St Denis, and university subway station, and lively .  Our hotel was accessible, but the rooms were not.  In the future, I would try the nearby Fairfield by Marriott Montreal downtown (seems as if they must have accessible rooms) or the Hotel de l’ITHQ, in the same building as the tourism board (according to Cory Lee’s travel blog, the rooms are very nicely accessible) and not too far away (it was closed for remodeling while we were there).


***Cafe on Montreal Plateau

Alternatively, I would like to stay (and wanted to stay) on the plateau, but all I could find there were Airbnb’s rather than hotels, and they were not accessible. Maybe, with the change to an accessible subway station this will change as well?