Montreal is not a city of big monuments . It is a city of neighborhoods and streets. It is a patchwork city, made by assembling former villages and municipalities of the island, which reflects in the feeling you have when crossing it. Each neighborhood is to be visited like a specific piece, with its own identity and its own landscape, sounds and smells.
The back alleys (les ruelles) are the backstage of Montreal. That’s where the real show is happening. Restaurant staff taking smoke breaks and joking together, kids playing hockey, neighbours discussing over the fence. If you are lost in Montreal, walk along the back streets, day or night.
The light is always incredible, and squirrels will run with you from electric wires above your head.
Pulleys and clothe lines are everywhere when looking up. As the floor level appartement is the only one with a backyard, the upper floors need some trick to dry the laundry outside in the summer.
Montreal is incredibly green for a metropolis. Unlike european cities with tidy gardens and squarish parks, Montreal is full of giant trees, high weeds and colorful flowerbeds planted by inhabitants themselves.
Buildings texture is mostly dominated by small bricks, from red to grey to black. Walls are tortured by the frosting-defrosting alternation, the cracks being very often filled back again by some cheap cement, fated to crack as well soon after.
Galleries and stairs are made of wood and steel. The spiral staircase is probably the most iconic landmark of Montreal, the mountain and the river excluded. As most houses are duplex or triplex, most Montrealers have to climb steep staircases both outside and inside to get home. Bikes are usually locked in the street to the lawn fence, but a lot of people take them up to the first or second floor balcony.
I’ve rarely seen a city with so many gorgeous courtyards. When front gates are left open, you sometimes discover hidden gems of Montreal’s intimacy. A lot of buildings appear rough from the outside but have been completely renovated inside, proving the inflexible gentrification that started on the Plateau and is now reaching traditionally working-class neighborhoods such as Hochelaga Maisonneuve.
Street art is hard to miss. Books, tumblr’s, blogs have been made about it. Like everywhere it is a mix of art and wild signatures, but usually big beautiful fresco are not painted over. The city also made sure to “buy” the most talented street artists and to use their skills for city promotion, officially ordering some graphs from them (especially in the Quartier Latin and Quartier des Spectacles).
It sometimes feel like Montreal is a giant house in the middle of the mid-west. Rocking chairs and wood galleries give to the visitor an impression of “home sweetness”, even if you will rarely see people sitting there actually taking their time.
Streets cross always at a right angle. It is very easy to find your way in Montreal, once you’ve learned the name of the ten important streets such as Mont Royal (picture below), Saint Denis, Saint Laurent, Sherbrooke, Maisonneuve, Sainte Catherine, Rachel, Ontario, Jean Talon… It is also crucial to become aware of the fact that North, in Montreal, means real north-west. The island of Montreal is north east – south west oriented, but most maps will represent it horizontally (so the north east becomes the east, which makes the north… north-west). Right?
MMontreal is not a city you will be excited about just by driving through, but it has a gigantic charm if you walk across the different neighborhoods. Look everywhere above your head, take a glance between wood boards of the fences, listen to the wind, birds and restaurants rumble, you’ll catch this little magical thing Montreal has no-one can name.