Friday, August 22, 2014

Who are we again?


Its not been intentional but the past few weeks have seen us visit several places connected with the birth and expansion of North America and it really didn't all click with me until we were coming back on the train from Montreal a couple of days ago.

A couple of years ago we visited Nova Scotia and Fort Louisburg, a significant port controlling access to the St. Lawrence River, and only a few weeks ago St. Louis, a city founded by west and southward traveling explorers and fur traders from New France so we've seen quite a bit of the entire landmass that contributed to the birth of this continent (albeit very superficially).

The blue bits are New France in 1713 but previously so were the purple bits that they lost in the War of the Spanish Succession (around 1710).  75,000 of the total 90,000 French settlers lived in Quebec whilst 2 million lived in the 13 pink states to the south.  Fair to say that any 'control' was pretty minimal in the blue areas. 
We've been in Toronto for just under a month and thought it would be nice to spend Viv's birthday weekend getting to know Montreal.  I'd been there for a couple of days 20 years ago so had no memories of the place at all so found a hotel in the Old Town called the Hotel Nelligan, next to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which turned out to be very nice and then set to exploring.



Notre Dame Cathedrale

First of all it rained.

Apparently this either has or has not been a great summer.  Not, if you like hot sunny weather; great if you don't like heat and mugginess which is the norm.  But the rain…

We chose the wet days for our hop on, hop off bus experience which cramped things somewhat but what they do give is a fast overview of a city that you can then hone down to what interests you.  Overall I think they are great and this despite the sogginess was pretty good.  We actually stayed on the bus for a 2nd time around because the guide doing the narrating (a Frenchman from Paris who'd lived in Montreal for 40 years) was so interesting.  

St. Joseph's Oratory
St. Joseph's responsibilities: the Universal Church, workers and sick people.  Arduous, I would say.  The Oratory grew as a place of healing and remains a pilgrimage destination to this day.

In fact the guides we met in every place we visited were good.  All different and one surprise I had was that the francophone guides were better than the anglophone ones.  No idea why.  The French in my experience (up until my last visit in 2011 actually) are deliberately obtuse if you don't at least try to speak French and if they realize (not difficult to do) that you are English, they double up on the obtuseness.  Not so this time… with exceptions, of course… as firstly they apologized for their poor English and then proceeded to describe things in wonderful, flowery detail even making jokes.  As someone who has struggled with French for over 50 years and still can understand words, but not their sense, I am very impressed by this.

And now a little history.

Montreal was founded in 1642 on a point on the St. Lawrence River called Pointe a Calliere largely because it was the furthest point up the river before a significant waterfall (the Lachine) that prevented further movement up river.  It wasn't meant to be a trading centre but a mission called Ville Marie to bring catholicism to the native Americans living there but of course it morphed into being a business centre too.  The Old Town grew up around the mission and the town's name changed to Montreal (The Royal Mountain) somewhere along the way.

New France, as it was called, grew up alongside the English colonies and it was inevitable that the old world enmities should billow over to the new world and so it was from around 1700 onwards. The French allied themselves with the Huron and Algonquin tribes whilst the English allied with the more numerous and aggressive Iroquois further south.  Strife between the colonies grew and it was the 7 Years War (the first war apparently that began in the new world rather than the old) that brought things to the boil.  

At the time New France had 90,000 colonists whilst the 13 states had nearly 2 million, a state of affairs brought about almost entirely by the systems in each settlement; the French had direct rule by the King of France with their traditional seigneurial rights whilst the English essentially gave away land to the new settlers and held a somewhat looser rein over the colonies (despite what the Americans later said).  So the law of large numbers prevailed and the French lost all of New France by 1763 (and incidentally India too) and Montreal became British (called Lower Canada).

A significant loss of territory for the French.  Mind you the English didn't enjoy much of the lower pink bits for long.  I hadn't realized we controlled Florida in this time before giving it back again after the Revolutionary War.

The aftermath saw Montreal grow to dominance in Canada, first outstripping Quebec City as the most important city in Quebec then by maintaining a considerable lead over growing Toronto (Upper Canada) until the separatist movement in the 1970's spooked virtually all investment and industry into moving to Ontario as well as created an unpleasant atmosphere for the large anglophone minority who similarly uprooted thrusting Toronto into its current position as the most important city in Canada.  Toronto recently took over as third largest city in North America and is one of the top 5 best places to live in the world (according to a major survey).

One thing that surprised me about Montreal was that it really isn't that French a city.

I thought it would be far more so.  For sure French is the dominant language but restaurants aren't all French -- the 'best' ones are good but with a new, more generic cuisine -- and while we ran into some people that could have been lifted straight out of a French caricature -- ridiculous glasses and hairstyle, terrible jeans and scraggly T-shirt inside a shabby jacket… which somehow looks both chic and smart on a Frenchman or Italian.  I'd have looked like a tramp.  Most people weren't like that at all.  Architecture isn't that French either.  Of course the Old Town had most of what still remains of the French influence but change the street signs and you could be anywhere in North America.

This said, we did find escargots, cassoulet and creme brûlée… but we had to look for it.




The train ride there and back was pretty neat too.  

It costs a little less than flying but without the need to go to and from airports, through security and all that hassle.  Factoring all that in and the 4 1/2 hour train journey made pretty good sense.  Had we known where the station was in Montreal we'd have walked the 1/2 mile to the hotel there too!



The museums we went to were terrific too.  The Pointe a Calliere (architecture and archaeology), Chateau Razeray (home of the Governors), the Musee des Beaux Arts (for the Faberge egg collection) and St. Joseph's Oratory (with the 3rd largest church dome in the world) really brought the city to life for us.

We had a great time.  Thanks Montreal!

See my travel blog here on Track My Tour.


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