High above the ground, a barefoot dancer dangles unharnessed from a metal post. Beneath him, two other dancers hover above a small ledge – secured only by a rope as they twist and spin their bodies.
Dramatic music builds to a crescendo, the stage lights flicker blue and red, and the crowd unilaterally seem to transcend breathing as the lead dancer steps ever-closer to the edge of The Giant, a 15 metre-high metal structure that’s hosting performers from Cirque Eloize, one of Quebec’s most famous dance companies.
I feel a raindrop hit my nose.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
The person next to me reaches in her bag for an umbrella, while a dad in front of me puts his young son on the ground and pulls a yellow raincoat from his backpack. The spell is broken and the collective focus of hundreds is no longer on the stage.
As if sensing the mood, the lights on The Giant are turned off, the principal dancer steps back from the edge, as the other performers stop their routines, take an early bow and exit left.
And it’s just in time.
Two minutes later, the heavens open up and a Montreal summer shower cascades gloriously on to the open-air stage, thick raindrops falling fast, sliding down the metal poles of the structure. More umbrellas go up and the crowd disperses, beelining to the shops, bars and restaurants surrounding the Esplanade and Place Ville Marie in the heart of downtown.
The city’s unpredictable weather is one obstacle that organisers of Festival Montreal Completement Cirque, an annual event bringing circus arts to the city’s streets, parks and sidewalks has to contend with.
Part of Montreal's seasonal playground of festivals and al fresco terraces, the daily summer show takes place right in front of The Ring, one of the city's newest public art installations and a striking 30 metre-diameter circular steel hoop suspended high above downtown.
Serving as a window into Montreal's more than 200 years of history, The Ring provides a direct line of sight from the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel – where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their week-long bed-in – to McGill University, often called the Harvard of Canada, and beyond to the imposing humps of Mount Royal.
A city beneath the city
For now, views are not my priority as the rain continues to fall, so I make my way towards a glass pavilion and the entrance to what was the first phase of Montreal’s Underground City. Perfect for escaping the elements, this below street level network began in 1962, when the lower level shopping mall in Place Ville Marie opened.
When the city hosted Expo 67 in 1967, it also launched its metro system and simultaneously expanded this underground pedestrian network. Today, it spans 33km of connecting passageways beneath downtown Montreal and is home to about 2,000 shops, cafes, restaurants and public art installations.
It's used daily by Montrealers and connects across many of the city’s metro and train stations, hotels, office buildings, museums, theatres and universities.
In the winter – when Montreal temperatures can go down to minus 20°C – it’s an easy way to get around and about 500,000 people use it to get around the city. And in summertime, I find that it's the ideal spot for escaping occasional showers, or as a respite from the often blazing midday sun.
I take the network west, in the direction of Le Mille Carre – or the Golden Square Mile. Montreal is the world's second-largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, and signs are largely bilingual, with both English and French descriptions.
Emerging from the underground city about 10 minutes later, I’m greeted by Victorian glamour in buildings that date back to the late 18th century. The rain has subsided and the sun is out as I begin to wander in the footsteps of people who could perhaps have been some of my long-lost ancestors. Despite the city’s connections to France, many of its former inhabitants were mostly, like myself, from Scotland.
From McGill University and McTavish Street, to the McCord Stewart Museum that celebrates the city’s past and present, the stone terraced buildings and cobbled pathways evoke a strong sense of familiarity, and almost have me thinking I’m back in my hometown of Glasgow. The feeling is only heightened by the ever-changing weather – only half an hour later, a light drizzle begins to fall.
Stopping by the towering spire of The Church of St Andrews and St Paul, home to Montreal’s largest organ, I step into the church grounds but veer to the right towards the Quiet Garden. This community space sits between the religious institution and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and is open seasonally for anyone in the city to stop for a quiet moment of meditation or reflection. I take a seat on one of the wooden benches and appreciate the tranquillity of such a spot of solace in the very heart of one of Canada's largest urban metropolises.
For a deeper immersion in nature, travellers can head to Mount Royal. Owing its name to French explorer Jacques Cartier who christened the mound in 1553, the 10 sq km heritage site encompasses residential areas, cemeteries, lakes and the 200-hectare Mount Royal Park, which is popular with locals as a spot for cycling, picnicking and boating.
At 233 metres high, the so-called mountain is reaching beyond its status a little – mounds are typically hills until they reach a height of 600 meters above sea level – but the tourists who throng its lookout points for epic views of the city named after the area don’t seem to mind.
Festival-filled summer days
Montreal's event calendar overflows with festivals throughout the year, many of which are free to attend, but it is during the summer when it really comes into its own. There's the multicoloured spectacle that is the Montreal Fireworks Festival, an event where countries compete in a massive fireworks competition over several weeks, and nations put on a 30-minute pyrotechnic display, lighting up the skies above Montreal.
Street art is in the spotlight at the Under Pressure and Mural Art festivals, while music is the focus at Piknic Electronik and the Montreal Jazz Festival, the world’s largest celebration of the genre. In August, the Montreal Highland Games celebrates the city’s Scottish roots while at Lasso Montreal, country music stars turn Jean-Drapeau Park into an open-air party.
Comedy fans can enjoy a giggle at Just for Laughs Montreal every August while Festival Blvd, running until September on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, allows everyone to embrace their inner child with giant games, play areas, treasure hunts and more.
And in the city of poutine, smoked salmon bagels and beaver tails, it’s no surprise that foodies are also well looked after on the festival circuit. The Montreal Street Food festival runs on the first Friday of the month from June until October, bringing together one of the largest gatherings of food trucks in Canada, as well as one of the country’s largest urban ephemeral terraces at Olympic Park Esplanade.
Summertime in Montreal also means waterfront fun and perhaps a visit to the beach. As an island destination, the city has no shortage of coastlines and I while away a few hours at the free to enter Clock Tower Beach in the Old Port, with its bright blue parasols and wooden Adirondack chairs.
Once the bustling hub of Montreal, where immigrants first docked on Canadian shores, the Old Port is also home to the recently opened Port of Montreal Tower, a glassed-in structure towering 65m high that offers great views of the St Lawrence River. Inside, a multimedia exhibition reveals details of the city’s past while a glass-enclosed cage on the top level is where I find some of my favourite photo opportunities.
A short walk from here I come across La Grande Roue, Montreal’s observation wheel. This 60-metre steel Ferris wheel whisks visitors up in the air, offering views of the river, downtown and the surrounding hills. Cabins are thankfully air-conditioned, making my ride around a comfortable one. Back on the ground, it's hard to escape the carnival-like atmosphere with music, families enjoying drinks in the park and stallholders selling everything from maple syrup to handcrafted jewellery, food trucks and candy floss.
From past to present in Old Montreal
Of course, no trip to the city would be complete without a visit to Old Montreal.
A district of contrasts, this part of the city is peppered with cobbled streets, ancient arches and greystone buildings, interspersed with unique boutiques and hip coffee shops and restaurants. Reflecting the city's rich and colourful past, it's the place to wander to take in influences of all of the communities that have over the years called Montreal home and is home to some of the oldest buildings in North America, including the graceful Notre-Dame Basilica and the domed Bonsecours Market.
People-watching in the sloping Place Jacques Cartier square is a delight, as summertime life bubbles over with locals, tourists, artists, musicians and performers colliding in the pedestrianised plaza. From here, it's a short walk to Cafe Olimpico, where I refuel with a cup of authentic Italian coffee, brewed to a recipe brought to Montreal by an Italian immigrant who arrived here back in 1970.
Strolling towards Place d'Armes, I take in the Maisonneuve Monument – an ode to Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Montreal's founder, as well as Jeanne Mance, a French nurse considered by many to be the city's co-founder. Opposite the statue, a queue is building outside the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.
It's almost 6pm, which means its time for L'experience Aura. Slipping inside the first Gothic revival church in Canada, I wander the basilica's periphery, taking in a series of illuminated stations designed to highlight its architectural details and artworks. The lights dim, and visitors are asked to put their phones away and I slip into a seat in one of the central pews.
Suddenly, the venue bursts into life – filled with the notes from 7,000-pipe Casavant organ and hundreds of colourful lights. L'experience Aura combines light, chorals and storytelling to project a breathtaking show in the nave of the basilica with visuals appearing across the altarpiece, walls, and vaulted ceiling, telling an intricate story in a 23-minute visually enthralling journey that's the most beautiful way to round off my summer stay in the Paris of North America.
Emirates flies daily from Dubai to Montreal with a travel time of about 13 hours