Exploring Montreal (and Myself)

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.

– Pico Iyer

Traveling is first and foremost a getaway from all that is familiar in our daily routines.  Beyond that, travel is a desire to experience something new (or maybe just different), a craving to explore a place not called home, an urge to discover an adventure–even if it’s the best spot to put a towel on the beach.

On a much deeper level, travel allows you to experience yourself in a new light, as the above quote suggests.  And traveling alone is an invitation to find out a whole new world within yourself, or at least that’s what I’ve found.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal and the Place d’Armes Square in Montreal, Canada.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal and the Place d’Armes Square.

Traveling alone gives you an amazing feeling of freedom.  All decisions are mine to make; I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.  Some people may find that responsibility daunting, but I love it.

I set out on Thursday morning in Montreal to explore the city, specifically, Vieux-Montréal, or “Old Montreal.”  The city’s historical architecture, namely its European influence, was part of the appeal when I planned my trip and I couldn’t wait to experience it firsthand.

The John Young Monument near the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, Canada.
The John Young Monument near the St. Lawrence River.

I started the day with breakfast at Olive et Gourmando.  The neighborhood restaurant makes all the tourist guide books and local restaurant lists (including the list of Canada’s 50 Best Restaurants) thanks to its laid-back feel, especially with the community tables and relaxed attitude.

I ordered an egg panini called “Le Egg in Your Face” that came with loads of stretchy, melty cheese, green onions, roasted tomatoes, greens and a kick of Siracha sauce.  I never knew Siracha sauce could be so awesome on a breakfast panini.  (Consider me a converted Siracha fan!)

Rue St. Paul in Montreal, Canada.
Rue St. Paul, Montreal’s oldest street, was paved in 1672.

With my tummy full of goodness, I headed off on a self-guided walking tour of the city.  I found the guide on Frommer’s website (there are several different tours available), which was a great way to learn about the notable buildings without taking an actual tour.  It allowed me to go at my own pace and only go into the buildings I wanted.  (Oh yeah, and it was free!)

Inside the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.
Inside the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.

The tour started at one of the most famous sites in Montreal, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal (“The Notre-Dame Basilica”).  I visited the cathedral on my first night in town and asked a man to take my picture.  He informed me about a light show inside the cathedral, where a story is projected on screens draped from the ceiling.  We sat together during the show and turns out he was born in Salt Lake City!  One of my favorite things about traveling is the random conversations that I always find myself in, just like this one.

Inside the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal
Inside the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.

I saw cathedrals and churches, government buildings and historical houses.  I even learned a bit of American history on the way.  I had no idea that Benjamin Franklin visited Montreal around the time of the American Revolution in an attempt to persuade the French Canadians to join our fight against the British.

Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, Montreal’s City Hall.
Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, Montreal’s City Hall.

Once the self-guided tour ended, I found my way to other cathedrals with the help of my iPhone.  At St. Patrick’s basilica, which is a little off the touristy path, there was no one in the church except for the janitor and the organ player, who happened to be practicing.  I hung out on a bench for awhile, listening to the organ music.  It was one of those Oh my god, I’m in Montreal moments.  And it was wonderful.

St. Patrick's Basilica in Montreal, Canada.
Alone in St. Patrick’s Basilica, built in 1847.

Then I made my way to what would be my favorite cathedral, Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde (“Marie, Queen of the World Cathedral”).  I was awestruck at the beautiful high ceilings, delicate decorations and calming colors.  I sat down again on a bench, watching the tourists wander around taking pictures.  I wondered where they were from and why they were in Montreal.

Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral in Montreal.
The beautiful interior of the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

Eventually I made it to downtown Montreal, full of tall buildings, traffic, pedestrians and high-end shopping.  I felt like I had been transported to New York City’s Fifth Avenue!  I stopped for lunch at Vasco de Gama, a Portugese restaurant I had read about in National Geographic.  I had a bison burger and a spinach salad, neither of which were very impressive.  (I regret not ordering the foie gras burger.  What was I thinking?!)

The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montreal, Canada.
The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (“Our Lady of Good Help”) or the Sailors’ Church.

By the end of the day, I had seen Old Montreal and a bit of downtown–all on foot.  And all the sites for free.  I was exhausted, in the best way possible.

The Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, Canada.
The Christ Church Cathedral, one of my favorite doors in all of Montreal.

Traveling can easily turn into a to do list of places to check off and your focus can be transformed to where you’re going next instead of where you are now.  As I explored Montreal, I focused on staying in the present moment.  (I learned that trick while in New York City alone.)

As cheesy as it sounds, each new place in Montreal provoked so many emotions, and allowing myself to feel each of them was a bit therapeutic.  It was so relaxing to observe people around me, listen to conversations in French, and be at peace where I was.  And in a city as beautiful as Montreal, how could I not be?
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