Friday, July 29, 2011

A View From The Top: Montreal's Mount Royal

Topping 764 feet, Montreal's Mount Royal is the highest point in the city and the best place to grab panoramic views of the city.  Bikers, hikers and walkers fill the trails, as this is one of the most popular green spaces in Montreal. The mountain is surrounded by a lovely park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed New York's Central Park.

Just below the mountain is Beaver Lake, a favorite spot for ducks in the summer and ice skaters in the winter.  The lush prettiness and great views make Mount Royal a Montreal must see.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Montreal's Mount Royal Tam Tam Festival

The spirit of Montreal  is vibrant and eclectic. It grabs you immediately and inspires you to explore this lovely and complex city. Although Montreal hosts scads of festivals, the one that truly embodies its free-spirited vibe is the Mount Royal Tam Tam Festival or Les Tam Tams Du Mount Royal. Tam Tams is French for drums and you'll see every version of percussion instrument, played by every kind of person at this weekly fest. Held at the  foot of the famous Mount Royal, surrounding a statue of Sir George-Etienne Cartier, crowds of revelers, dancers, musicians and party people drum and dance from noon to sunset.

I was really excited to attend the festival and I wasn't disappointed. Even though I go to dozens of festivals every year, the Tams Tams is special.  Locals and tourists drop any inhibitions and connect through music. For over 20 years, the festival has unfolded every summer Sunday in Mount Royal Park and I could see the joy that the ritual has created. I witnessed a grandmother in a sari dance with a shirtless teen, I watched a man with a long gray beard whirl around with his dog and I saw girls in ponytails grab tambourines to join a circle of men pounding on Djembe drums. The sun blazed down mercilessly but that didn't stop anybody, it only seemed to supply more energy. Vendors lined up under trees with handmade clothes, jewelry, hats and instruments. With an ice cream cart selling cones and frozen treats, there was no real reason to leave. After three hours, I tore myself away but only because I had a poutine date with Emilie'.  The Tam Tam jam represents a quintessential element of Montreal. Check out the energy with this video:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poutine and Ice Wine

It's been awhile since I updated my blog because I'm afraid all of Montreal's joie de vivre wore me out!  Actually it was  the back to back trips three weeks in a row but now I'm back. I have lots of images and experiences rummaging around in my mind and one of the most memorable was sampling poutine. You can not visit Montreal without tasting this quintessential  Quebecois dish. It's so much part of local culture that McDonald's even serves it. What is poutine exactly? Well, as you can see from the photo above, it's a gloppy concoction of fries, cheddar cheese curds and gravy. Poutine literally translates to mess in French. Its been popular since the 60s and is served in fine restaurants as well as dives. As a Midwesterner, I'm  familiar with the irritating squeak of fresh cheese curds but I 've never had them accompanied by anything but a greasy paper bag. I have to admit, I wasn't so thrilled to try poutine but I was determined to sample the best version I could find. I scoured the menus of every restaurant I passed. I solicited recommendations and I eyed the dozens of poutine versions with a trained eye. The fries are supposed to be crispy, the curds fresh and the gravy rich. Finally after days of research, I joined my French journalist friend Emile' for a late night poutine try out. We plopped down in a non-descript food court and dug in. Or Emilie' dug in. I picked. Slowly. It actually wasn't as bad as it looks. The cheese curds add an interesting texture to the fries and the gravy gives it flavor. It's not something I will hunt down again but it wasn't a bad experience. 

On the other hand, ice wine is something I will  chase down when ever the opportunity arises. Although they didn't invent it, ice wine has become an iconic Canadian drink and I quickly discovered why.  Created by grapes that have frozen on the vine and picked at the coldest point of a winter's night, each grape makes just one drop of ice wine.  The fermented juice is extra sweet because the freezing and thawing of the grapes concentrates the sugars and acids. Because ice wine is  so painstaking to make, it's an expensive treat.  And what a treat.  I sipped on the glass for at least a half an hour, trying to make the smooth and fruity nectar last as long as possible.  All over Montreal, I spied ice wine made from apples, berries and grapes and I wanted to stash them all into my suitcase. Only the thought of TSA stickiness stopped me but  I've since discovered that you can order Canadian ice wine online.