January-February 2020:
Les Vacances, à la Montréalaise:
Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

By Corey Sandler

So a travel writer and speaker goes on vacation…

It sounds like the setup for a joke, but no, it was time for a vacation and we chose to spend a full month à la Montréalaise. Montréal, Quebec. In the dead of winter. On purpose.

We are both of the sort who do not really mind cold weather when we are properly equipped. And we enjoy a good snowfall, especially when we do not have to drive or shovel. And so here we are in a lovely condo in Ville Marie, in the heart of the city.

An art installation in the Reso, part of the underground passageways that link much of downtown Montréal, affording a bit of shelter from the cold

So, about the snow. It was snowing when we arrived in mid-January and then after a brief surcease we had a two-day storm that dropped about half a meter or 20 inches of fluffy powder. Then an overnight half-foot that caught the weather forecasters and the city planners by surprise. Oh, and a few lesser storms not worth considering–or clearing from streets and sidewalks.

Not that it seems to matter all that much to the locals. Clearing roads and sidewalks is apparently not a very high priority around here. You just put on your boots and zip up your parka and get on with life.

It took more than a week before the residential street in front of our apartment was finally cleared. It was an impressive sight, though: road graders and fleets of trucks hauling away les neiges.

Temperatures have been mostly in the teens for those who count in Fahrenheit, or about -9 Celsius. The cold medal arrived a few days ago when morning arrived at -7 Fahrenheit, or -22 Celsius. Bonne journee, have a good day, we told each other as we pressed on to hot lunch.

Huddling against the cold?

Les Habs, the Montréal Canadiens, are not having the best of seasons–actually they’re in a multi-year drought–but their arena fills for nearly every game. We snagged tickets and enjoyed a raucous few hours, and a win.

Too many men on the ice? The warmup just before the hockey game began

In my lectures about Montréal, I have talked about eating your way up The Main, the nickname for Blvd St-Laurent which more-or-less divides the city into west (mostly Anglophone) and east (mostly Francophone) sections. We put that to the test, going out every day–snow or not–to try many of the city’s wonderful international offerings.

You can’t–or at least you shouldn’t–visit Montréal and not dine on smoked meat and a dill pickle at Chez Schwartz, Schwartz’s Deli n the former Jewish area. Across the street from the famous deli is a museum dedicated to the local culture, and there they offer a gefilte fish club sandwich. And, of course, Montréal’s bagels: honey sweet and worth the trip.

In and around Chinatown are restaurants that provide glimpses into some of the lesser-known regions of China. Put aside Cantonese and Szechuan fare: we fell in love with Nouilles de Lan Zhou, noodles from Lan Zhou in Gansu Province in northwest China.

Lan Zhou Noodles in the making
And ready for the eating

But let us not forget fresh dumplings from Harbin or Dalian at Qing Hua. There is an art to eating them that involves lifting them from the dish with chopsticks, biting into them, and then sucking out the soup and filling within.

Make way for dumplings
Vietnamese Pho, a great cure for a snowy day

As it happened, we were here for Chinese New Year, and watched some of the celebrations that spread through the district.

But wait, Chinatown could more accurately be called Little Asia. We also dined on Japanese shabu-shabu at Kagayaki, cooking our own fresh vegetables and meat in a boiling pot at our table. We dined several times at two wonderful Vietnamese restaurants for hot Pho, which goes well with cold snow.

Oh, and some wonderful North Indian fare including tandoori chicken and fresh naan bread at the very unprepossessing but fine Thali.

We enjoyed fresh arepas, stuffed grilled or fried cornmeal sandwiches at Bocadillo, a Venezuelan restaurant.

We visited a lovely Polish cafe called Stash near the St. Lawrence, a few blocks up from where cruise ships usually dock in the summer; my wife celebrated with pierogies and galumpkis.

Down by the river, ice has filled most of the piers and shorelines. Shipping–aided by ice breakers–still continues for much of the winter. And in late January, the frigid waterfront was home to a two-week-long heavy metal concert series that quite rightly billed itself as the coldest rock festival in the world.

A ferry fills one of the slips where large cruise ships dock in the summer
Brave souls could ride on the Wheel for a frigid view of the Saint Lawrence River and the old town

We enjoyed the theatre scene in Montreal as well. At the National Monument we saw a student production of “Street Scenes”, an operetta by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Langston Hughes.

And then on a crisp Saturday afternoon we walked up to McGill University to enjoy a spirited production of “The Gondoliers”, a worthy Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut.

The main campus at McGill University, Montreal’s premier anglophone colleges.

One day we walked far up to the plateau on The Main to Pucapuca, a dark and somewhat scary storefront offering Peruvian fare. A one-man operation, the chef seated you, presented you with the day’s offering (no menu–just what he felt like cooking that day) and since we were still there a bit late and we somehow seemed of interest, the chef sat down with us at the table to discuss food, culture, history, and politics in a melange of English, Spanish, and French. This is why we travel.

All content and photos copyright 2020 by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.