Before I move on from Quebec City, I really should take this opportunity to mention the annual Quebec Winter Carnival - an event which takes place in January or February and has now become the largest and most famous winter carnival in the world. If you're in the region at the time, this isn't something you're going to want to miss. Every year, people come from all around to take part in the festivities, which include an ice sculpture contest in which teams of sculptors spend days carving out the snow into intricate designs ranging from the beautiful to the surreal. For thosestaying in the area, Quebec city provides a hotel made entirely out of ice for the occasion - a complete building sculpted out of blocks of ice which melts after the carnival and is built afresh in a new design the following year. Guests at the hotel sleep on beds of ice, eat in the restaurant of ice at tables of ice, drink at the bar of ice, worship at the chapel of ice and presumably leave at the end of their stay with backsides of ice.
The festivities are watched over and judged by the official ambassador of the Winter Carnival, a giant snowman with a perpetual smiling face and giant black buttons who goes by the name of Bonhomme (the good man). Throughout the festival, he is on hand like the characters at Disneyland to have his photo taken with children and help out wherever needed. For a few weeks in January and February, everybody drops whatever else they are doing and spends their time skating, sculpting, sledding, throwing themselves down the ice slides and generally freezing to death in the interests of having a good time. And why not? You can be sure I'll be dropping by for the carnival sometime soon, and bringing some warm clothes with me...
The journey from Quebec City to Montreal isn't very far in itself compared to other journeys I've taken, only wasting about four hours of the day on the coach. The group pretty much went down for breakfast this morning, piled onto the coach and then only stopped once on the way here to get a cup of coffee at a mall outside town. I don't know what it was about the coffee at the hotel this morning that so unimpressed our guide that he had the coach stop off shortly after we set out so we could have another cup, but that was nevertheless what happened. The scenery between the two cities wasn't particularly inspiring, and by the time we arrived in Montreal at around 12.30 this afternoon I couldn't have been more bored if the on board entertainment system had been playing the greatest hits of Barry Manilow all the way - although, of course, that would've only actually occupied the first thirty seconds of the trip. There comes a point on a tour like this where you just get a little fed up with jumping on and off of coaches every morning for hours of driving from one place to another - when there is beautiful scenery to look at, then that's one thing, but after a while you just feel as though your legs may have packed up altogether from lack of use. To make matters worse, I arrived in Montreal with the worst headache I think I've ever had and just wanted to swallow the entire Canadian stock of Aspirin and throw myself into bed. Instead, we were allowed to get off the coach for just long enough to find out that our rooms hadn't yet been prepared at the hotel and we couldn't actually go anywhere to freshen up.
We only had a little under three quarters of an hour before we were booked on an inclusive tour of Montreal, and the best our hotel could manage in the way of lunch before we left was a quick "soup and sandwich" deal thrown together by a chef who clearly wasn't used to having to serve anything to anyone before the official mealtime of 2pm. I don't know what the receptionist had to do, but after nipping out to the kitchen and waving a rolling pin at him or something of the kind, the chef came up with this magical soup and sandwich snack - although I don't think any of us wanted to know how much of last nights leftovers went into the preparation. Oh, and they charged us $7.00 each - I almost forgot to mention that. I think I could probably manage to rustle up a round of sandwiches and a bowl of soup for 7 bucks a head, too.
I have to be honest here and say that I didn't pay much attention to the tour this afternoon - not that Montreal wasn't a beautiful city full of wonderful sights and women of such incredible gorgeousness crossing in front of us in slow motion every time we stopped at a traffic light that I was almost able for a moment to forget that I'd need to take a course in French to chat any of them up, but a little man inside my head was by now beating my skull with a hammer and all I could really concentrate on was how much time had gone past since my last dose of pain killers.
About the only thing I clearly remember being told on the tour, and only because it seemed such an absurdly ridiculous thing to say to a coach load of mainly middle-aged couples, was that we were going through the centre of Montreal's thriving Red Light District and should look out for prostitutes leaning nonchalantly on the walls outside sex shops. I think somebody needs to study their target audience a little more...
Things started to pick up as the tour drove us out of town and to the top of an extinct volcano called Mount Royal - which I'm sure you won't be too surprised to learn is where the name "Montreal" comes from. Well, I say extinct volcano - but this is apparently a matter for conjecture. Wikipedia, that internet fountain of all knowledge which occasionally gets it right, insists that Mount Royal isn't actually a volcano at all, but an extension of a deep volcanic complex, whatever the hell that means.
Still, our guide was pretty certain that the thing was a volcano and she had been doing the tour since the dawn of time, so I was inclined to take her word for it. Besides, when I was doing some research for this book recently and typed "the right to bear arms" into Wikipedia, it offered me a page explaining how this expression referred to the right of every American citizen to give blow-jobs to monkeys, or something along those lines, so I'm not altogether convinced of the wisdom of letting your website visitors write your content for you.
I have to say that, despite having to fight against my headache the whole day, I really loved what I got to see of Montreal as the guide led us around the twisting, eerie streets of the old city. It didn't really matter that her voice was like a hammer thumping in my skull, because I was able to walk away from the group at every opportunity and explore the little side streets for myself, which I found quite relaxing but must've made me look like I wasn't at all interested in anything the guide had to say. Luckily, somebody else on the tour had a mobile phone and kept taking calls while she was speaking, so I think I managed to get away with being only the second most ignorant Brit in the group. I did get to explain my headache later, though, so all was forgiven.
Old Montreal is beautiful, there really is no other word for it. We were forever darting in and out of alleyways, along narrow passages, into concealed back doors and up ricketty steps to another door on the street above. Much of the city seemed like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, especially with the snow on the ground everywhere, and I really expected a grumpy old man to throw open a window at any moment, toss an old boot at us and command us to "begone with ya". The buildings themselves all looked decidedly peculiar, with gothic archways and spires stuck up seemingly at random from every other corner. I really love it when cities decide to build their new ultra modern district down the road and leave the charming old one where it is, rather than bulldozing everything as you might expect these days - it's something which tends to happen more in Europe than anywhere else, which perhaps explains why Montreal has gone down that road. After all, they obviously have something of a love of all things European in this part of Canada.
One place which should be right at the top of any to do list while in town is the Basilica of Notre-Dame. Obviously, after my previous experience of being treated like a leper for daring to cross the threshold of the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, I put my head around the door cautiously, half expecting to find a church thug standing by to scream at me - but Notre-Dame has the incredible ability of making you forget anything you might have been thinking about a moment before as soon as you actually get inside. Located in the Place d'Armes, a large public square in old Montreal which is the second oldest public space in the city and has served every purpose you can think of from a gathering place for soldiers to a lively marketplace, everything about the Basilica of Notre-Dame is about as elaborate as you could possibly imagine with just a bit more added on top for luck. About the only thing dissapointing about it is that this particular Notre-Dame doesn't come with its own hunchback to show you around.
To describe the interior of Notre-Dame as gothic would be an understatement in the extreme. Every inch of every surface is covered in elaborate carvings, bright colours and detailed statues depicting scenes from the bible. The ceiling resembles a giant mosaic of blue glass pieces, all stuck together to imitate a bizarrely troubled sky - and around the outside, this sky is scattered with little white stars as though someone has attempted to stick up some 50s wallpaper they had left over at home. From floor to the vast domed ceiling, everything is covered in gold and carved out into gothic designs - some of which, to be quite honest, would probably be more at home in a Dracula movie than in a church. The stained glass windows depict scenes from the history of Montreal, shunning the accepted idea of actually showing traditional religious iconography, and the organ which takes pride of place at the head of the Basilica is so monumentally huge that one note played on it would probably shatter all the windows for miles around. The truly astounding thing is that everything looks brand new - all of the colours are bright and welcoming, every gold surface glints in the subtle lighting thrown out from concealed fittings behind the statues, and on several occasions I wanted to reach out and touch one of the paintings just to see if the paint was still wet. Ironically, the man who was commissioned to build the church and who created the whole gothic theme, a chap called James O'Donnell, wasn't even a catholic when he designed it and only made the decision to convert from the Protestant church on his deathbed when it was pointed out to him that he wouldn't otherwise be allowed to be buried in his own church. Now, I'm not a religious man by any means, but can you imagine how pissed off he would've been if he had then got to heaven and found a protestant bouncer at the pearly gates waving his finger and saying "You were so close, there. Protestant all your life and then changed your mind at the last minute. So now you're not getting in!"
On the subject of irony, we were told that there was actually another, smaller church just behind the main one because many consider the whole thing to be just too far out there and prefer to do their praying somewhere that doesn't resemble an explosion in a paint factory.
Also on our tour of the city, we stopped briefly to look at the Olympic Stadium from 1976 - a building clearly trying very hard to outdo the Sydney Opera House in terms of original design and just plain weirdness. I thought it looked like a giant scorpion. Our guide, who was quite obviousy in love with the place, told us proudly that since the Olympics were way back in 1976, the Stadium is now mainly used to host the Montreal Canadian Football team. Like the English and the FA Cup Final of 1966, it's obviously something they like to go on about, even though everyone else has forgotten that Montreal ever hosted the Olympics. I thought about asking what the difference between American and Canadian Football was, but I managed to stop myself just in time when it occured to me that she might actually tell me.
As is often the case when the Olympics are awarded to a city, the stadium was constructed from the very start to be as ridiculously over the top as possible - if people were going to come from all over the world to see it, the architects figured, then it was bloody well going to do more than just look like a giant scorpion from a science fiction B movie. Actually, they probably didn't say that last bit. The roof of the Olympic stadium is designed to be fully retractable, allowing events to take place outdoors or indoors depending on the weather, and making it essentially the world's largest convertible. Unfortunately, nobody thought to take into account the fact that the workforce was mainly French, so naturally they all went on strike during construction and the Olympic Games had to begin with the stadium only partly built. The retracting roof, the part the city had been most keen to show off about, didn't even leave France where it was apparently being put together by the slowest builders on the planet until 1987 - that's a full 11 years after the Olympics had finished and everyone had gone home. Finally, over a decade late, the roof was hoisted into position and connected to the mechanism designed to retract it on sunny days - and it was at this point that somebody realised another problem. If there was even the slightest wind, the roof didn't move - and when it did, it usually ripped while doing so. On the whole, not exactly Montreals proudest moment.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been delighted to discover that our guide had a wonderfully dry sense of humour - us Brits are well known for our sarcastic wit, and I can be as sarcastic as the next man as you well know from my writing style. People who don't understand sarcasm as a form of wit and insist that sarcasm is a form of rudeness should, in my humble opinion, think about looking up the difference between sarcastic and sardonic in the dictionary - sarcasm is a form of humour intended to make people laugh, whereas someone who is sardonic is actually being nasty. By way of example, lets suppose that I'm talking to the woman behind the ticket counter at the railway station and I ask for a return ticket. Obviously, she's then going to ask me where I want to go. Now, if I reply "back here, of course", then that's sarcasm - I'm being funny, and making a joke about the fact that a return ticket must come back to where it started. In no way am I attempting to be rude or belittle the woman selling the ticket. On the other hand, if I had said "it's a return ticket isn't it? Obviously I want to come back here, stupid!", then I would have been displaying sardonicism because what I had said would clearly have been intended to make the woman feel stupid. There is a very clear distinction - and when people say that North Americans don't understand sarcasm I don't actually think that's absolutely true - as our guide today proved - most people I've met on this continent have understood my sense of humour perfectly and even gone so far as to say how much they love the British dry wit. As you can imagine, everyone loved our guide for the tour today, as she kept us laughing with her little dry quips throughout the day - but I'm sure I missed most of it through standing off to one side wondering when my headache was going to go away. On the other hand, it isn't all bad news - it seems that we are also booked on a full day tour tomorrow with the same woman, so perhaps after a good nights sleep I'll be able to fully appreciate her sense of humour in the morning.
I felt much better by the evening, after we had all been allowed into our hotel rooms to freshen up and get a couple of hours rest. Dinner tonight was, well surreal would probably be the best word for it. The travel company had booked us into a local restaurant in Montreal, which I had been really looking forward to until I realised that I was going to have to go along looking like I'd stuck my finger into an electrical socket... In every hotel we've stayed in so far, there has been a hairdryer hanging up in the bathroom, as is clearly the norm in big hotels over here - so, without looking to make sure that the same was true in Montreal, I washed my hair and stuck enough conditioner on it to make sure that the hotel had to order more. I then realised, only ten minutes before we all had to be downstairs on the coach, that I had nothing to dry it with other than a remarkably small towel which was clearly not even up to the job of being a flannel, much less having any chance of drying my hair. Luckily, a leaflet on the bed said that all I had to do was pick up the phone and call reception to have a hairdryer brought up immediately, so that's what I did - only to be told in no uncertain terms that they didn't have one and hadn't got a clue who had written thatin the leaflet. In the end, in frustration, I just had to empty almost a complete tube of extra hold hair gel onto my head in order to not go out looking like the professor from "Back to the Future" and turned up at the restaurant for dinner looking, instead, like you could pick me up and stick me to the ceiling by my head.
As I said, the restaurant tonight was certainly a little unexpected. Despite being in Canada and surrounded by people speaking French, this was a German restaurant - but not just any German restaurant. This place had German culture coming out of its ears. Anyway, the restaurant was only four blocks from the hotel, but the driver of our coach felt compelled to drive us up into the mountains first so that we could get out, look down on the city by night and see the venue all lit up in preparation for our arrival. Anywhere else in the world, a tour company would probably be quite happy to take its guests straight to a restaurant and feed them - only here can you expect them to want to show you where you're going to be eating from orbit beforehand.
When we finally arrived at the venue and were led inside through a large wooden doorway covered in bolts and looking as though it has been shipped in from Bavaria for the occasion, we found ourselves in a large mock-up of a German beer cellar, complete with stone floor and echoing acoustics which made the footsteps of our small coach party seem like those of an approaching army. All of the staff were dressed in traditional costume, complete with ridiculously tall pointy hats, knee length socks with trousers apparently tucked into the top of them, and peculiar jackets with altogether too many buttons. To be honest, I've always associated this look more with Bavaria and the Austrian Alps than most of the rest of Germany - you would definitely do a double take if you saw somebody dressed like that walking down the street in Berlin - but none of us were about to quibble as the atmosphere was fantastic. We didn't even raise an eyebrow when, halfway through our meals, an Oompah band turned up and started walking between the tables blowing in our ears at every opportunity. Blowing their trumpets in our ears, I mean - not just generally blowing in our ears. That would be wrong. The tables were long wooden affairs of the sort you would normally expect to see outside a pub, and the seats were long low benches along which we all crowded together with just enough room to move our arms in order to eat our food if we were careful to keep our elbows pressed firmly against our sides. At regular intervals along each table were ridiculously large steins of beer - and when I say ridiculously large, I'm not exaggerating. We needed a forklift truck to pick one up - and there was easily enough beer in one stein to fill the glasses of everyone at the table, not that there was ever any fear of running out as the staff were constantly going around refilling them from jugs almost as tall as themselves. I think, by the time we'd been there for ten minutes, a few of the more alcoholic members of our group had already spoken to our waitress about the best place to go to experience Oktoberfest in Germany. The Oompah band ended up, after having successfully deafened most of us, on a central dais which revolved throughout the evening so that everyone in the restaurant had a chance to see the faces of the musicians slowly turning blue as they squeezed every breath out of their body in order to keep playing the massive instruments they had chosen to entertain us with. We soaked up the atmosphere very quickly, and it wasn't long before young couples were gathered around the dais dancing in traditional German style, swinging each other around so frenetically that I sometimes thought that if the men let go we'd be able to watch the women fly off across the room and out the window.
By the time we all arrived back at the hotel, half the party was exhausted and ready for bed while the other half was pissed out of their skulls and ready for the bar. That's the trouble with British tourists - there usually isn't any middle ground!
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.