More Montreal Please!

I can’t wait to see Montreal in the spring, when the bike trails are clear, and the sun is shining, because even snowy, wintry Montreal with its twinkling Christmas lights and intermingling international residents left me wanting more.

What I like about this city is that there is so much of everything and everyone that no one kind of person stands out. You’ll see racially mixed crowds of teenagers, groups of well acclimated immigrant families, same race and interracial couples, and speakers of French, English, Swahili, Chinese, and Thai bustling through the streets without any real hint of racial discord. It’s absolutely refreshing!

If you’ve travelled to Geneva, Paris, New York, or the Northeastern United States (as an Ohioan, I think of Cleveland Heights) you’ll find that Montreal has traits in common with all of these places. Shops, restaurants, and cafes abound and the city is also home to good museums, a beautiful replica of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, numerous outdoor ice rinks, an internationally known jazz festival, and several salons and barber shops that cater to black clientelle.

I spent the last few days of 2010 visiting an Argentine friend who became a Canadian citizen several years ago. Needless to say, when you tour Montreal with an Argentine, you’re bound to eat a lot of good steak, and this was no exception! My favorite meal during my four day stay included a melt-in-your-mouth sirloin steak at an unassuming steakhouse in Old Montreal called The Keg on 25 Rue St. Paul, 514-871-9093.

Once inside, I was surprised to find a huge portrait of Miles Davis hanging on the wall between photographs of the Cotton Club and Billie Holiday, an homage, I suppose, to American blues and jazz. From the crusty fresh bread and butter to the perfectly seared steak, baked potato, and fresh grilled tomato (I was too full for dessert) I wholeheartedly recommend The Keg for a genuinely good meal at the reasonable price of about $35 and a little less for fish or chicken. (A few other good options for dinner: L’Auberge Saint Gabriel on 426 Rue Saint-Gabriel, 514-878-356; info@aubergesaint-gabriel.com, and Gibby’s (seafood, fresh fish, and steaks) on 298 Place d’Youville, 514-282-1837; info@gibbys.com.)

From The Keg, it’s an easy to walk to the downtown financial and shopping districts and the historical sites in Old Montreal. In winter, cobblestones and slush can slow you down, so be sure to pack a good pair of boots and warm socks, but other than the weather, not much else will impede your enjoyment of the area. Home to Pointe-a-Calliere where the city’s founders landed in 1642, Old Montreal’s narrow cobblestone streets date back to the origins of the French colony. You’ll find small public squares, five small historical museums, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and cafes here. It is also close to the Old Port on the Saint Lawrence River, an area that has been developed for docking boats and other recreational uses. Several attractions including City Hall, Place Jacques-Cartier, Champ-de-Mars, and the Bonsecours Market are also found here. While the market can be touristy, the area is more often a quietly charming intersection of old world ambience and modern day bustle. For more background and information on official and evening tours go to www.old.montreal.qc.ca.

One site in Old Montreal you shouldn’t miss is the Notre Dame Basilica on 110 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest.

Canada’s version of the famous Parisian Cathedral was constructed between 1824 and 1829 by James O’Donnell, an Irish-born protestant who lived in New York. A multimedia sound and light show offers the history of the construction of the Basilica’s sanctuary, altar, pulpit, organ, chapels and stained glass windows. While something about the show feels the slightest bit cheesy, seeing it is, overall, an enjoyable experience. The show costs $10 and includes headphones with translations in English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin. A simple tour of the Basilica is $5. Masses are offered Monday through Friday at 7:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.; Saturday at 5 p.m.; and Sunday at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Weekend masses are accompanied by the organ and the choir is present at the 11:00 mass on Sundays. The Basilica also hosts concerts on a regular basis. For more information ask tour guides or visit www.notredamebasilica.ca. 514-842-2925; 1-866- 842-2925; E-mail: info@basiliquenddm.org

Just a few blocks from the Basilica on Rue St. Jacques, you’ll find a few top grade hotels including the five star Saint James, one of the “Leading Small Hotels of the World.”

A few more blocks away you’ll find Fanny of Westmount, an upscale hair salon that manages to be both posh and friendly at the same time. Catering to American stars like Hillary Duff, Halle Barry, and European dignitaries like Clair Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the staff at Fanny on 230 Rue St. Jacques also courteously answered my questions about available services for black clients.

While I rattled on about the purpose of AA Abroad and The Hair List, Dana a friendly, down-to-earth stylist advised me matter of factly that everyone in the shop knew how to handle black hair and that she, herself, was a genious when it came to black hair, having perfected a blow drying technique that lasts a week. She took one look at me and told me I needed a gloss, an Italian reconstructing treatment that I’d love. I decided to give it a try and we made an appointment for 4:00 p.m. the next day, which also happened to be New Year’s Eve.

Dana was right, I did need a gloss and she also managed to shape the back of my hair (which has been very short ever since an unfortunate trip to a salon at home that I don’t think I can bring myself to talk about for about 6 more months! ) During my treatment, Dana explained that she had a number of American clients who came to Montreal every few months specifically to to get one of her cuts. She also told me that Fanny’s is a customer service salon that will mail favorite products to clients, even in the states.

The treatment, which includes a relaxing scalp massage costs $57. The blow dry and curl brought the price to just over $90. Relaxers range from $95-$300. No oil was used following my blow dry and should you go to Fanny’s you may need to add your own and touch up a bit with a flat iron depending on how straight you wear your hair. My hair tends to be thick and voluminous, which is great when I have length, but more like a cruel twist of fate when my hair is short as it is now.

While it took a metro ride wearing my winter hat to bring the volume down, when I got home, I quickly realized that the treatment had added a subtle gloss and sheen and seemed to hold true to its promise to repair damaged hair from the inside out. In addition, Dana’s subtle shaping gave it a softer more polished look in the back. I plan to keep using the treatments over the next few months and hope to stop into Fanny’s again when I’m back in Montreal. (Hmmmm… the Jazz festival in June sounds like a great excuse to tour Montreal in the summer and who knows–maybe I’ll become one of those loyal U.S. customers who jets into town every few months for one of Dana’s great cuts. (Let’s see if my budget holds out!)

In any case, my advice to you is count on Fanny’s to offer a plush, yet accessible atmosphere, treatments appropriate for black hair, and courteous, attentive service in a relaxing upscale environment. If you feel like splurging in a high end salon, Fanny’s is the place to try! Fanny of Westmount Maison de Beaute, 230 St-Jacques Ouest, 514-482-5824; E-mail: fanny@fannyofwestmount.com For more products and salons in Montreal go to The Hair List.

You can also get around Montreal easily and inexpensively by metro by purchasing a $6.00 farecard. Add $20 for a weekly pass and you’ll have unlimited access to the metro and buses for seven days. (Museum passes are also available for $45 and $50. For information go to museesmontreal.org.)

Montreal’s metrorail runs on color coordinated lines in a system that is virtually identical to Washington, DC’s. If you’ve ridden a subway in any major city, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Several stops in the including Square Victoria, Place D’Armes and Champ-De-Mars, and Sherbrooke on the orange line and Guy-Concordia, Peel, McGill (the stop for Canada’s oldest university, McGill), and Place-Des-Arts on the green line will land you in or within walking distance of downtown and Old Montreal. For more information on the metro system go to stm.info and click the translate button.

A little McGill humour….

Concordia, another of Montreal’s universities is also within easy walking distance. I ducked into this budget friendly student diner near campus where I found these two engrossed in conversation.

You can walk easily to Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts from downtown. Located on 1380 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, the Museum houses permanent collections on Napolean, Sacred Africa, and Pre-Colombian Art. Admission to these exhibitions is free.

The Museum has also featured several traveling exhibitions including the works of German Artist, Otto Dix. This spring stop in to enjoy the work of well known fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier. For more information on exhibitions and cultural events at the Museum click here.

To access the Official Tourist Guide to Montreal, click here.

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