Appropriately rested from my action packed day yesterday I had a leisurely breakfast and headed out on the subway at 9:30 am. I love the subway system in Montreal since it’s safe, efficient and all the major sights are accessible via underground transportation. And the interesting thing is the trains run on rubber wheels – none of that metallic clanking that I am so used to from places like Toronto, New York City or Chicago…
My first destination for this morning was Montreal’s Olympic complex, located in the Hochelaga-Maissoneuve area, originally a city founded in 1883 by local farmers. Hochelaga-Maissoneuve was integrated into Montreal in 1918 and today is one of Montreal’s main working class neighbourhoods whose residents are 90% French-speakers.
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is best accessed from the Pie IX subway station and upon leaving the station I walked across the vast concrete expanses surrounding this historic stadium, built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. One of it’s nicknames is the “Big O” and it was supposed to be one of the most advanced structures of its time, holding just over 56,000 people. It featured a retractable roof that was held in place by cables suspended from a 556 foot tall tower, incidentally the highest inclined tower in the world.
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium with its inclined tower
The stadium was extremely expensive and its final cost came to more than C$1 billion, the debt on which was only paid off by the city in 2006. Interestingly, Jean Drapeau, Montreal’s mayor at the time, announced that “The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby”, now a popular quote among Montreal residents. Due to various strikes, construction delays and complications, the retractable roof did not open until 1988, but that option was abandoned in 1992 in favour of a new stationary roof which continued to have various structural problems and a new replacement roof is being considered for installation once again. Despite these issues, Montreal’s Olympic Park is a sight to behold and an interesting place to explore.
View from the funicular and the pyramid-shaped former Olympic Village
Between 1977 and 2004 the Montreal Olympic Stadium was the home of the Montreal Expos Major League Baseball team which was transferred to Washington, D.C., in the 2005 season. It also used to be the home of the Montreal Alouttes, Montreal’s team in the Canadian Football League. Today the stadium is used for a variety of purposes including trade fairs, sporting matches, motorized sports, live shows, exhibitions, film shoots, balls, social activities and more. Since its opening, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium has been one of the busiest covered stadiums in the world.
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is a fascinating, unusual yet aesthetic building and I decided to explore it in more detail by taking the funicular which in about 5 minutes takes you to an observation deck that provides a 360 degree of Montreal. Going up you have an unobstructed view eastwards towards the pyramid-shaped buildings of the former Olympic Village and at the top I enjoyed a perfect view of downtown and the skyscrapers, Montreal Royal and the various bridges spanning the St. Lawrence River.
View from the top of the tower of downtown and the St. Lawrence River
The former Olympic cycling track, called the Biodome, has been converted into an artificial habitat that features four different ecosystems: a Tropical Forest, a Laurentian Forest, a St. Lawrence Marine Ecosystem and the Polar Worlds of the Arctic and the Antarctic. For me, my next item on the agenda was the Montreal Botanical Garden. I left the Olympic Stadium and walked under the Sherbrooke Street bridge and found myself right next to the entrance gates of Montreal’s Botanical Garden. The C$12.75 entrance fee gives you access to both the gardens as well as the Insectarium, so I started off with an indepth introduction to the world of insects.
Inside the Insectarium
Open since 1990, the Montreal Insectarium holds hundreds of species of butterflies, moths, bugs and spiders. Its scientific collections hold 140,000 specimens and its exhibition collection consists of about 20,000, about 4000 of which are on public display. There is also a live collection of arthropods with about 100 species. Not only does the Insectarium focus on the science of insects, but it also explores insects in an artistic, cultural and even gastronomical context. In 2005 it even held an insect tasting event!
One of the amazing butterfly specimens
Well, this scientific introduction had warmed me up enough to continue my explorations outside in the Botanical Garden. Right across from the Insectarium is a marsh and bog garden garden that features a variety of gorgeous water lily specimens.
A gorgeous water lily
Moving on from there is a sizeable rose garden with about 10,000 roses from many different varieties. The roses were a bit past their bloom, but I would imagine that this garden must look just magnificent when everything is in full bloom.
A beautiful rose
A bit further to the north is the Japanese Garden, designed as a contemporary garden by renowned Japanese garden designer Ken Nakajima. All the elements, stones, water features and plants have been chosen carefully and are imbued with a unique symbolism. The Chinese Garden next to it is a result of a bond between the Montreal Botanical Garden and the Parks Department of the City of Shanghai. More than 120 containers were shipped from Shanghai in 1990 and 50 Chinese craftsmen were needed to assemble the components to build the garden.
The Japanese garden delights the visitors
I then strolled through the First Nations garden which reflects a natural environment and is the first facility of its kind in Montreal. After walking through some serene ponds and woodlands I reached the Shade Garden which hosts a large collection of primroses, astilbes, hostas and ferns and proves that even shady areas can feature brilliant colours and a variety of foliage and blossoms. Now it was serious time for an ice cream and I sat down one of the tables outside the Fuji Pavilion which is a 66-seat restaurant providing cold beverages, ice cream and frozen yogurt and light meals.
Totem poles in the aboriginal garden
After my little rest there was another part of the city that I wanted to explore and that was Little Italy. So I decided to take the free shuttle bus that connects the Olympic Stadium, the Biodome, the Insectarium and the Botanical Garden and was comfortably whisked to the nearby Vieau subway station. From there I took the subway to the Jean Talon station, along one of the major east-west thoroughfares of Montreal.
Promotional shouts advertising ripe pineapples
Like many cities in North America, Montreal has a large Italian community. Actually, Italians represent Montreal’s largest ethnic group. Many immigrants came over from Italy as early as the beginning of the 19th century and many of them went into the hotel and restaurant business. The majority of them arrived after the Second World War, and most of those immigrants came from the poorer regions of the Italian south. One of the key ingredients of Italian culture of course is its cuisine, made from fresh ingredients. The Marché Jean Talon is an anchor point in this community where local residents can purchase fresh produce, cheese, meat, pastries and other products. This market is different from others since its layout is mostly outdoors. More than 100 producers display their products here in the summer, and the market has a distinct southern ambience to it. You almost feel like you are somewhere close to the Mediterranean or even a Moroccan souk.
That cheese looks delicious…
I wanted to grab a seat in a little local restaurant beside the market, but most of them were so packed that I decided I was going to hop on the subway again (easy to do with my convenient 3-day visitor pass) and check out the St-Denis area a little. Definitely time for a late lunch!
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of Travel and Transitions (www.travelandtransitions.com), a popular web portal for unconventional travel & cross-cultural connections. Check out our brand new section featuring FREE ebooks about travel.