TLDR: Montreal and Quebec could not be more different, but both are must see Canadian experiences. The JFL Comedy festival can’t be missed for stand-up stans.
Smart, passionate, and dynamic, Gemini is characterized by the Twins, Castor and Pollux, and is known for having two different sides they can display to the world. Expert communicators, Gemini is the chameleon of the Zodiac, adept at blending into different groups based on the vibe and energy they perceive.
This month’s road trip is a bit of a cheat – a train trip instead of a road trip, and the journey here, while interesting, is but a moment between two incredible destinations. While my travel in Quebec has not been extensive, I believe these two destinations show a duality that fits with the Gemini mystique: Montreal, the 2nd largest urban centre in Canada, with festivals, universities, a modern fashion and arts scene; and Quebec, with deep ties to history, a largely intact “old town” beautiful gardens – all looking out on the St. Lawrence River, the reason Canada exists at all.
Montreal is host to a number of festivals, and we went during the Just for Laughs comedy festival to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We went in 2018, the first year under the ownership of Canadian icon Martin Short. If comedy isn’t your thing, there are about 100 more to festivals to choose from; the most well known being the Montreal Jazz festival. But even without it’s myriad of festivals, there is plenty to see and appreciate in Montreal.
JFL itself is unlike anything I’ve seen or done before. While we had a fantastic time, I kept wishing I’d gone 20 years earlier with girlfriends and the stamina to hit the clubs until 4AM. When hundreds of comedy performers from the most well known to the newest faces all converge on a city that loves to party, anything can happen (and often does).
During the day, there are podcast recordings, street performances, and small theatre showings. Nightly galas start around 6 or 7 PM, with 2 showings per night on the week days and 3 on Friday and Saturday. The galas are all taped for TV, with various networks. The galas feature a top headliner as a host, followed by a stable of headliners each doing a 10 minute or so set. The Galas we attended were hosted by Howie Mandel, Trevor Noah, Jeff Dunham, Ken Jeong and Tiffany Haddish. Within those galas, we saw Kenya Barris, Maria Bamford, Roy Wood Jr., Jo Koy, Jimmy Carr, Nikki Glaser, Maz Jobrani, Robert Kelly, Brad Williams, Leslie Jones, Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby, Mike MacDonald, and as they say, many, many, more…
In addition to the galas, there are several single performer shows happening in theatres all over town. We had an event clash and were unable to see Kevin Hart, but we did get tickets to Tom Papa and stalwarts Russell Peters and Brent Butt.
There are artists playing at every theatre, nightclub, and bar in the city, well past 2am. The centre de place starts hopping around noon, and continues well past midnight. Comedians go to other comedian’s shows, and sometimes they all end up on stage and all manner of shenanigans can occur with that much weird and wonderful all together at once.
We chose not to take in the day time shows, but spent this time exploring the city itself. I love architecture and Montreal has a mixture of reclaimed 19th century industrial spaces, modern glass and metal skyscrapers, and art deco touches. The strong Catholic history is evidenced by a number of neo-gothic cathedrals – most well known being the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown.
The waterfront park has a giant ferris wheel, and was a nice cool respite from the concrete and humidity on what were some very hot July days. We did use the metro many times if we wandered quite far – and to make a trip out to the ….market. The metro is quite easy to use and as long as you avoid rush hour, not terribly crowded. Stations were reasonably clean. Whether we were walking back to the hotel at 1am or on the metro, we felt quite safe around the city.
We spent a total of 5 days in Montreal, not nearly long enough to take in much aside from the festival. We spent easily 5 or 6 hours each day just walking through the centre city, but we missed out on a number of excursions. I have a long list of things to do and see for our next visit:
- Explore Mont Royal. It’s higher than you think – but the gardens are supposed to be extraordinary
- Hit the original Schwartz’s deli for the OG of Montreal Smoked Meat and a “real” bagel shop
- Visit the Biodome – and indoor zoo and aquarium – and the Botanical Gardens
- Take a boat cruise along the St. Lawrence
After all that walking, the train trip was a well needed rest. At just under 4 hours, it is only slightly slower than driving, without the hassles. Hubby slept through it – but as trains often go where roads do not – I was treated to some very pretty views along the way. Exiting downtown Montreal, the train goes….falls…and then through pastoral landscapes of farmland, broken only by small patches of wood that increase in number the closer you get to Quebec City. The main stop is in the new city downtown area, full of gardens and new hotels. But there is also something of a sea change in terms of the vast differences between Montreal and Quebec. In the centre of Montreal, don’t worry about trying to show off your grade nine French. It is unusual to come across anyone involved in serving the public in Montreal that is not bilingual. The city is full of malls and boutique shopping (some of which are underground) and with splashy light displays to go with the modern section of the city. Quebec feels old even in the new sections. Quebec definitely feels more French, and you are much less likely to be served in English here. While Montrealers react to your fumbling with the language with a mixture of boredom and instant interruption in English to avoid the pain – we found the people in Quebec City were more likely to simply not speak english at all, even if you kind of figured they could. In the shadow of the battle that kept them an island in a sea of English, you can kind of see how they might want to mess with the tourists a bit. It was not mean spirited and we didn’t have any issues, but you were constantly conscious of the fact that you were a stranger in a strange land. Or perhaps I was projecting given my frustration with having spent 6 years in French classes and still being completely incapable of the simplest conversation. Either way, be prepared for a shift in language.
The train station is located in the modern centre of the “new” city – adjacent to a small park and across from the city hall building. A quick cab ride took us down and then up the steep hills to our hotel, the Hotel Concorde, which sits across from the Plains of Abraham historical park and gardens. Having spent most of our allowance on concert tickets, this seemed like a good choice with reasonable proximity to Old Town and, as it turns out, fantastic views of it’s own. The hotel itself was okay – certainly clean and comfortable, but the check-in experience was terrible and service a bit chippy all round. The hotel itself has an air of faded glory – a rooftop revolving restaurant and baby grand in the lobby had a very 60s – 70s ideas of grandeur. But the baby grand was roped off and the elevators were excruciating slow. Ah, but that view…
There are a couple of other hotels on this block, and an adjacent boulevard (Grande Allee E) is lined with restaurants of all sorts, with patios to enjoy on a warm summer evening. Of course, patios were jammed, so we opted that evening for an elegant late dinner at the luxurious Restaurant Louis-Hebert. I don’t recall exactly what we ate, but I know had at least three courses, each more delicious than the last. The dessert was almost too pretty to eat…almost. After an afternoon spent exploring the Plains of Abraham and the Jean d’Arc Gardens in hot humid weather, I sweated off enough pounds to allow it.
We all know from elementary school history that the Plains of Abraham was the site of the battle that essentially determined whether we would be an English colony or a French colony. In these days, battlefields were large open fields where soldiers tended to line up across from each other and shoot, akin to a mutual mass firing squad. Anyone left standing then rushed the survivors on the other side and then things really got personal. The park is huge with installations and landmarks throughout, interspaced with gardens, fountains, artworks, and greenspaces with massive old trees. It is an incredibly peaceful place considering it’s history.
Early next morning, we set off for old Town, walking down the hill and stopping at the first open restaurant we found for breakfast. The foot traffic picked up significantly while we ate, mostly tourists, many of them families, headed down to the narrow and twisted lanes of Old Town. We did not take the escalator thingy, we walked down from the Chateau Frontenac and then through the streets, admiring the murals and stopping in here and there. Much of the shopping here is of the tourist knick knack variety, but there were a few places worth having a look see. Certainly the big draw here is the ambience itself, not the “je me souviens” key chains.
The Chateau Frontenac is perhaps one of the most famous hotels in Canada. One of the first of the historic Canadian Pacific Hotels which were all built around the turn of the 19th century. This was an era where the well heeled from cities often travelled by train to resort hotels, designed to offer the best of everything of the day. They were owned by the railroad and thus built closest to the stations that served them. There is a CP Hotel in every major city in Canada, some more luxurious than others, but all very similar in architectural style. They continue to operate under the Fairmont label, although they were bought by global luxury hotelier Accor. I have a goal to stay in every one at some point; to date I’ve only scratched two off my list; the great Vancouver Hotel, and the Banff Springs.
Along the way I started calculating in my head just how far we had walked, all of it downhill. And steeeeply down hill at that. There was no way I had it in me to make a return trip on foot. We called a cab to take us all the way back to the hotel, gather our luggage, and then get back to take the late afternoon train back to Montreal. As we had a flight early the next morning, we were able to detrain at the airport stop, which provides shuttle service to the terminal. We stayed the night at the onsite hotel.
Although the terminal hotels can be expensive, if you have a quick turnaround like this, it can definitely be worthwhile when you factor in cab fare back and forth to more distant hotels, as well as the convenience factor. Especially at the end of the trip. At the beginning, waiting for shuttle buses and dragging luggage all over the place is a minor inconvenience. After a jam-packed week of walking everywhere in 30C weather – the luggage starts to gets very, very heavy. Literally for a shopper like me, as well as figuratively, knowing something truly special is coming to an end.
JFL has announced dates for 2021 – some of it likely will still need to be virtual depending on travel given many of its performers come from outside of Canada. It is the world’s largest comedy festival, right here in Canada, and the biggest party I’ve ever had the chance to attend. If not this year, put it on your wish list if you’re a stand-up comedy fan. If not, then just put Montreal and Quebec on your list – you won’t see anything like them in the rest of Canada. The west is so much younger than Quebec in general, and aside from specific important buildings (churches, government buildings, and the CP Hotels) there isn’t enough history to feel steeped in it the way you do in eastern Canada. As a British Columbian, it gave me a greater appreciation for our national history. As a comedy fan since watching my brother mimic Bugs Bunny, it was LEGENDARY.