The experience is surreal to say the least. Just a few minutes ago the wind was whistling so hard it was tough to stand up straight and snow was so thick in the air that it looked like mist. It was so cold that shards of ice formed in our hair as beads of sweat iced together when we battled through the blizzard. However, as we pull the ice out of our hair and dust ourselves down we see in front of us a couple wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals whilst tucking into an ice cream. It may sound like special effects on the set of a movie but it is very real and the poster on the wall says it all: welcome to Montreal.
Located in the province of Quebec in eastern Canada, the city will seem strangely familiar to anyone who is used to ducking into air-conditioned shopping centres to escape the heat of the Gulf. The two climates couldn't be more different but the same principal is at work.
Temperatures of minus 20 are usual in winter and the weather reporters consider it “balmy” when the thermometer hits zero. From the start of winter to the first days of summer Montreal is cloaked in a permanent coat of white as snow falls and it is too cold to melt. It leaves streams frozen and rivers covered with so much snow that it is impossible to see the water. People even walk through the streets with skis taking them to the popular run down Mount Royal, the hill which towers over Montreal and gives the city its name.
On the occasions when the temperature peeks above zero it leaves a fascinating effect as the top layer of the snow melts only to freeze again when the mercury falls. This creates a sparkling sheet of ice on the snow and, like popping bubble-wrap, it is hard to resist tapping it lightly with your foot so that the top layer gives a satisfying ‘crack’ and caves in.
With its permanent sprinkling of white, central Montreal looks like a scene from a Christmas card and the trees are even wrapped in fairy lights. Adding to the effect, many shops and public buildings keep tinsel and holly wreaths from Christmas up until well into February.
You certainly need to dress appropriately to brave the elements as we found on our close encounter with the blizzard. It was an experiment that thankfully did not need to be repeated.
Montreal’s most remarkable aspect is not immediately visible on arrival in the city. Underneath its streets is the world’s biggest underground system — a network of 18 miles of pedestrian tunnels which connect everything from office blocks and banks to cinemas, museums and universities. They aren’t tunnels of the dank and dingy kind as they are not only well lit, air conditioned and ornately tiled but some are carpeted and have music piped in from concealed speakers along the way.
Most of the tunnels are so wide that they have shops on either side and they connect shopping mall after shopping mall. In total 1,700 shops are accessible on the underground network which would put Montreal in the top five biggest malls in the world if they were all under one single roof. It makes the city a shopaholic’s paradise and you don’t need to brave one flake of snow to see it.
The inter-connected malls range in style from retro 1980s to others with chandeliers, fountains and sweeping staircases. They house the usual chains, such as Gap, Zara and H&M, whilst the department stores have a more unusual flair to them.
The main shopping streets are St Catherine and Sherbrooke which is home to Ogilvy a department store founded in 1866 by Scotsman James Angus Ogilvy. Nearby is Holt Renfrew, owned by Selfridges of London and appointed supplier of furs to England’s Queen Victoria in 1886. The Canadian dollar is around one for one with the US dollar, which gives good value for money, though prices are often bumped up by tips and taxes added on at the till. The only let-down is that tight retail laws lead to shops being forced to close by 7pm on most days.
There are two downsides to the underground city as it is known. The first is that it is so big that just walking around can leave you parched. It is this reason that led to the surreal scenario of coming across people wearing shorts and eating ice cream after braving a blizzard only moments before.
The second problem is that the underground city is like a super-sized rabbit warren. Many of the tunnels look the same and, just to make life even harder, they are badly signposted and contain different branches of the same store. Some city maps handily show the connected areas highlighted in blue but even with one of these you can still get lost after days of underground roaming.
Once you know where you are going, the underground tunnels are definitely the quickest way to see Montreal since there are no icy patches, no need to stop at traffic lights and few of the hills which are found above. There is something very comforting about being snug in an underground mall looking through a skylight at a blizzard outside and knowing that you can pop out when you feel warm enough. The place to spend time looking around outside is the old town.
Walking around the winding streets of old Montreal you can be forgiven for thinking that you are in France. The cobbled streets abound with wrought iron lamps, sculpted railings and ornately designed signs. Instead of the ubiquitous chain stores found downtown, old Montreal is home to galleries, bakeries and cafés. The final touch is perhaps the most surreal: everyone speaks French.
All the road signs, billboards and loudspeaker announcements are in French and you are greeted with a friendly “bonjour” on entering shops. However, even stranger is the fact that there is no language barrier for anyone who failed French at school. If you look the slightest bit bemused the locals slip straight into English.
Montreal is a genuinely bilingual city and so much so that you often hear conversations starting in English and ending in French and vice versa. This isn’t the only aspect that makes the city a multicultural melange. Thanks to Canada’s status as a member of the Commonwealth, coins have the Queen of England’s head on them and Cadbury chocolates line the shelves next to British magazines.
This is all down to Montreal’s history which saw it founded by the French in 1642 then conquered by the British in 1759. There is even a hotel which is in itself a wonderful celebration of the kind of diversity at the heart of Montreal.
L’hotel sits in a former bank building in old Montreal so from the outside it just looks like a stately grand building. However, the moment you walk into the lobby it soon becomes apparent that l’hotel, perhaps more than any other hotel worldwide, deserves to be known as a boutique. Indeed, it would be more apt to name it an art hotel.
The lobby is littered with modern art from illuminated sculptures to paintings by David Hockney and Andy Warhol which are easy to verify as being genuine since many still carry the original stickers showing their lot number when Chrisitie’s sold them at auction. The abundance of art carries on in the corridors and rooms which are themed to famed artists. Our room was adorned with work by American painter Frank Stella, who played a significant role in the minimalist movement. L’hotel is the only hotel where you will actually want to explore every corridor and doing so is a real pleasure.
The building’s heritage means that rooms have high ceilings and stone columns. The vividly colourful modern art makes a surprising contrast to the classically grand architecture and antique furniture. However, there is an even bigger surprise on offer in the place where you least expect it – the bathroom.
For technophiles, l’hotel is worth staying in just because its bathrooms have one of the most high-tech showers in the world. Located in a darkened cubicle, the shower is so big that it has a seat inside. There are the obligatory body jets and a huge nozzle above which releases water in a rainfall-like effect. The reason the cubicle is darkened soon becomes apparent as an illuminated touch panel inside allows you to switch on lights in the shower which change from red to blue to green at the touch of a button. The panel also controls a radio inside the shower as well as a fan to suck out the steam, a temperature gauge to change the water heat and even a perfume dispenser which fragrances the air inside.
Even chain hotels in Montreal don't follow the usual format. The Marriott Château Champlain is perhaps the best example of this. The hotel sits inside a tall thin building which looks like a cheese-grater due to the the rooms having half-moon windows. Surprisingly, inside it doesn’t have the typical deluxe hotel décor which seems the same the world over. Instead, the lobby has a vaulted ceiling with wood panelling in the style of a French château. The theme permeates the hotel as wall lights in the corridors are in the shape of candle holders and carpets are made to look like tapestries.
The Marriott has an entrance which leads directly into the underground city so you never need to worry about the weather whilst you are in the city. The ability to do this is what makes Montreal truly unique and when it is minus 20 outside it is something you will be very thankful for.