On an afternoon in early October, I sat in a pew in an old church and took in Mass. A woman dressed all in white sang a soothing hymn, and then a priest in an intricate, green robe read from a prepared sermon; behind him, an imposing pipe organ dominated the sparsely-crowded room.
I didn't understand a word. The service, the song, the Bible — everything was in French.
This was the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, a nearly 200-year-old gem that's been the site of state funerals and, perhaps as notable, Celine Dion's wedding.
A very lapsed Catholic, I only go to church on Christmas, but to leave Montreal without stepping inside this landmark would be like leaving Disney World without riding Space Mountain.
The hour I spent there, pretending to listen to the service, while I really just gazed at the stained-glass windows, the towering ceiling and all the immaculately preserved religious icons, was a welcome respite.
Montreal is a city that moves at ten different speeds — you can stroll around Old Montreal, casually dine on foie gras at one of the locavore-friendly restaurants in town, or you can go dancing and stay up past 4 a.m.
It's an ideal fall vacation. While the city has a reputation for hipness and sensuality, I found that it appeals to both the history buff and the restless urbanite, the big spender and the traveler on a budget.
Motivated by affordable railway fares — until Nov. 23, Amtrak is offering double-reward points on all travel — I went on a bit of a Canadian expedition this month, taking the train from Baltimore to Toronto for $140, and then to Montreal. I stayed four nights in the city, and for the return trip snagged a $78 direct train ride back home.
Toronto has its pockets of curiosities, but it ends up being a reminder of many cities in the Northeast. It's not for nothing that it often doubles for New York in movies. It's the no-fun house to Montreal's love shack.
Canada's second-largest city, on the other hand, offers historic architecture, exceptional dining, nonstop music and all that … Frenchness. In Montreal, you don't need to remember your high school 'je m'appelle's'; everyone, except maybe bus drivers, speaks English too. But the vibe, from the food to the nightlife habits, is distinctly Gallic.
The club scene
I arrived in Montreal on a Friday night and went directly to L'Addresse du Centre-Ville, a handsome, spacious and affordable ($90 a night) bed-and-breakfast listed on a handy travel site (www.bedandbreakfast.com). With a convenient location near the Beaudry metro station on Saint Catherine Street, it is close to any number of attractions — the Montreal Botanical Gardens, which from September to late October is decorated with hundreds of traditional Chinese lanterns, or a late-night screening of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the Cinema Imperial (showing through Oct. 31).
But after five hours on a train, what I needed was a beer.
In the Mile-End neighborhood, the Royal Phoenix was throwing a party by an American expat who specializes in arcane house music. I walked through graffitied streets — "Well Come to Montreal" was scrawled under one bridge — past some ominous-looking warehouses and cut through train tracks to get to the nondescript but hip bar.
The neighborhood reminded me of Baltimore's Station North district. Though scruffy-looking, it's an area known as a hub of artists and filmmakers.
Phoenix was roomy enough for an open dance floor and a full-service bar; my beer was $5 Canadian, or about $4.93. It also had a better-than-usual bar grub menu, with items like tofu po'boys. The night was early, though, and on the dance floor, only a few stragglers swayed to the music.
For more high-end — read "pricier" — bars, try the martinis at Reporter, at the Westin Hotel downtown, or KoKo, which Lady Gaga is said to have visited. Flashy and exclusive, KoKo boasted an epic line of well-dressed, patient patrons waiting to be let into the inner sanctum. I wasn't as patient and left to try Vauvert, an equally clubby, dimly-lit restaurant in Old Montreal that turns into a bar after dinner and hosts dance-music DJs.
For some serious dancing, I went to Unity, which is located in the gay district, itself one of the best spots in town for people-watching. Clubgoers and drag queens outnumber the taxis, and the sidewalks are their runways as they try to outdo each other with ever more exaggerated ensembles.
The club was a labrynth that spread over three smoky, hard-to-make-out-the-person-next-to-you floors. There was even a patio on the top floor that overlooked the village. The music, of course, was predictably relentless, and left me beat.
Montreal's gay clubs boast indefatigable DJs who succeed in being inclusive; their true audience is anyone craving an over-caffeinated rave.
For gays and lesbians, Montreal has historically been a getaway destination; its annual pride parade is said to be among the largest in North America. The weekend I visited, the city was also hosting Black & Blue, an annual dance music festival that attracts some 70,000 people every year to raise money for HIV/AIDS research. The event is so big it's held at the Olympic Stadium. When I went Sunday, it was clear that among the throngs of shirtless men, there were also many young men and women who came just for the experience of getting lost to trance music in a vast clubland.
Montreal, though, is not a city just for those traveling life on the fast lane. Its attraction comes from the occasional brush between young and old, from seeing strolling tourists take pleasure, for instance, in The Village's outrageous excess.
Breakfast starts out with bagels — Montreal's St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel shops are famous. Instead. I chose a pear, goat cheese and cranberry crepe, with a side of vanilla ice cream — the No. 4 at La Bouche en Folie, a casual cremerie in the village run by a French-Canadian woman whose American husband might regale you with stories of watching the Orioles as kid.
Then on to the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Montreal, which is hosting the second annual Quebec Triennial, an eclectic showcase of regional artists that spills over eight exhibition galleries.
Many of the artists here are young, inventive and sometimes silly. There are some standout pieces — in particular, "Loveland," a hypnotic video by the Canadian conceptual artist Charles Stankievech that features an arctic landscape slowly consumed by a purple haze. The Montreal art collective Seripop also built a walk-in, Gatorade-orange miniature city made out of cardboard that recalls a kiddie Occupy Wall Street.
Twenty minutes away from the museum and the downtown area is the Jean-Talon Market. With hundreds of farmers setting up their lush, plump fruits and vegetables and fishes and cheeses , the market has the appearance of a multicolored Benetton ad. For under $10, you can have a pork sausage sandwich from a a food cart and a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream from the out-of-this-world Havre Aux Glaces.
Montreal's dining scene is generally as bountiful as the food on display at the market, and can even be described as playful. The chefs here mix classic French cuisine with a New World, American decadence best embodied by poutines, french fries bathed in brown sauce and cheese curds.
At Kitchen Gallerie, which has locations in Old Montreal and by the Jean-Talon Market, the chefs, Mathieu Cloutier and Jean-Philippe St-Denis, improvise menus daily with what they've bought from the markets. At the Old Montreal location, a chef on break took my order from the bar, and the cooks' boisterous laughter spilled out to the dining room, to the obvious delight of the front-of-house staff.
And then there was dinner, which was also a mix of high and low but that nonetheless made a credible argument for food as religious experience: fried shrimp, served with tartar sauce in an ample bowl, and a foie gras with candied fruit. ($39.30 for the full meal, not including wine.)
I hadn't intended to go to Mass on vacation, but after my four days in Montreal, it seemed the sensible thing to do. It's easy to be sinfully indulgent here. The city encourages taking pleasure in the food, the eye candy — in maximizing the joie in joie de vivre. The markets are brimming with fresh fruits; the streets crawling with beautiful people. Even Notre Dame popped, its ceiling an iridescent cerulean.
If you feel the need to atone, the church offers guided tours throughout the week.
Or you could do what I did: listen politely to the service, nod where it seems appropriate, cross yourself when everyone else does. Then walk down the street to Les Glaceurs, where they serve an ice cream that will make you see heaven.
If you go
Getting there By car, Montreal is about 10 hours from Baltimore. An Amtrak train ride, with several stops along the way, including a transfer in New York, is about 13 hours. Direct flights are less than two hours. With special discounts, Amtrak tickets start as low as $100 each way. Round-trip flights from BWI start at about $500.
Lodging Hotel rates start at about $149 Canadian (about $145.65 U.S.), according to the official Montreal tourism website (www.tourisme-montreal.org)
A L'Adresse du Centre-Ville, 1673 Saint-Christophe St., 866-528-9516, aladresseducentreville.com. This bed-and-breakfast offers rooms of various sizes ranging in price from $90 to $185 a night.
Kitchen Galerie Poisson, 399 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 514-439-6886, kitchengaleriepoisson.com.
Marche Jean-Talon, 7070 Avenue Henri-Julien, corner of Henri-Julien and Jean-Talon, marchespublics-mtl.com
La Bouche en Folie, 1117 Saint-Catherine East, 514-525-0505, laboucheenfolie.com
Les Glaceurs, 453 Rue Saint-Sulpice, 514-504-1469, lesglaceurs.ca
Vauvert, 355 McGill St., 514-876-2823, restaurantvauvert.com
Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal 185, Rue Saint Catherine Ouest, 514-847-6226, macm.org
Club Unity, 1171 Sainte-Catherine St. Ouest, 514-523-2777, clubunitymontreal.com
Information Montreal Tourism, call 877-266-5687 or go to tourisme-montreal.org
A note on currency: The exchange rate slightly favors the dollars now, but I suggest exchanging a big chunk of money at the start of your trip; smaller establishments don't take American money, and many banks charge a small service fee for debit card use abroad.