In the summer of 1977, Marité and I had visited Montreal and we had been charmed by the city. Thus, in December of 1982 we thought that we could do something different that Xmas and spend it in that lovely town.
We had enjoyed traveling by train in Europe, a few years back, so we decided to try the Amtrak service to our destination, and compare it with the European trains.
The first surprise was that Amtrak does not assign a seat to its passengers. It only guarantees that a seat will be available to each ticket holder, so when we got, early that Friday, to Grand Central Station (long distance trains still departed from that station in 1982), we saw a large crowd jostling to get into their seats in the cars. Luckily the throng was not as large as it first appeared and we were able to get a double seat in one of the Superliner coaches. The seats were a tad less comfortable that the ones in the Intercity high-speed trains that we had used in Europe, and definitely the speed wasn’t equal to the European trains. It took the Adirondack service 11 hours plus to cover the 831 miles separating New York City and Montreal. With speeds reaching 200 miles an hour a European high-speed train would probably have made the journey in less than 5 hours.
Anyway, it was an enjoyable ride. The first hour there was the pleasant scenery along the Hudson River, then stops at Poughkeepsie, Albany, Saratoga Springs, Fort Henry and other points in upstate New York. Again there was beautiful scenery along Lake Champlain and by late afternoon we arrived at the border. The immigration agents checked our driver’s licenses (they were still accepted ID at that time) and we continued our trip.
It was night when we arrived at the Gare Centrale (Central Station) in Montreal. We hopped in a Metro subway, made a connection and arrived at a B&B, close to a subway station, on east Sherbrooke St. (not the more fashionable and commercial west length of street that ends in downtown Montreal). When we surfaced from the subway, we were gladly surprised by the relative warm temperature of the night. Montreal is known for its extreme climate in winter, but during our short stay, day time temperatures reached the sixties. However, our host didn’t lower the heat in the house and the room was warm, like a sauna. We managed to open the window and had a restful night.
Next day it was Christmas Eve. We went downtown and walked a bit aimlessly. There was snow in the streets, but it was melting. A light drizzle started to fall and we took refuge in the Underground City, an area under downtown Montreal, that spreads over more than 12 km2, with over 32 km of tunnels that connect pedestrians to stores, museums, banks,
universities, hotels, apartments, 2 train stations, the Bell Centre, a bus terminal, and 7 metro stations. People very busy buying last minute gifts and rushing to get home for the festivities.
We got out at the metro station Champs-de-Mars, a beautiful designed station with tall colorful glass panels that let sun light reach the train platforms. From here we walked into Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) the historic area with buildings and cobblestone streets that date from the 17th century. Although there are other entrances to Vieux Montreal, the favorite of tourist is the
Place Jacques Cartier. In our previous visit the Place was teeming with people, flower and art stands, souvenir stores and restaurants. That afternoon the area was almost deserted and most of the stores were closed. Nevertheless, we continued our walk taking the sites, enjoying the atmosphere and looking for La Campagnole, a restaurant that we had visited five years past and where we had a memorable dinner. But, alas, the restaurant was closed. Luckily there were a few other restaurants open, and we had a delicious meal in one of them.
It was pretty late when we left the restaurant and directed our steps to the Basilica of Notre Dame, which we had visited earlier and where we saw that there would be a choral concert before midnight mass. The basilica is built in the Gothic Revival style, and is sumptuously trimmed and rather extravagant; starting with the atypical stained glass which depicts scenes related to Montreal’s religious history instead of traditional biblical scenes. But the most striking future is the deep blue ceiling adorned with thousands of golden stars.
When we arrived to the church, it was mostly full, but we made our way up to one of the balconies and truly enjoyed the organ and choral music.
I don’t remember how we got back to our accommodations, but I’m sure that we were really tired and slept for many hours.
On Xmas day we got up late, had breakfast at the B&B and went again downtown. It appeared that we
had the city to ourselves. The streets were empty and almost silent. It was cloudy and grey, but we enjoyed the peace and quiet that the holiday gifted us. I don’t remember what we did, where we eat or when we got back to our room. But I remember the delight of feeling that we owned the empty city.
The next day, Monday, it was Boxing Day and again it seemed that everyone kept inside their homes and that only a few tourists roamed the streets. We had a train to catch to go back home.
When we got to the station it was strangely empty and we were afraid that there were no trains running. But running they did. However, there were no jostling crowds trying to get a seat on the train back. Our car had only four passenger, a lady with a small child and us.
Thus, ended our Christmas holiday in Montreal. Next day we would be again at our jobs, in the city that never sleeps.