Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Montreal: Day 1

On pretty much every trip I've taken, I've arrived in my next destination well past lunch, and typically closer to supper or even later. Consequently, I've come to expect that my first night in a new city will be a complete waste, spent mainly trying to find a place at which to eat.

On this trip though, I "wasted" an entire day and night on the train. So when I departed at Gare Central, and walked to my hostel, it was a pleasant surprise to find that it was only 10:00 AM, and that I had effectively gained an extra unscheduled day of sight seeing.

I've been to many hostels around the world. They've nearly all been good, and some were even great. But so far the HI hostel in Montreal is the best. Every single day of the week there is a group activity for which interested guests can sign up, including pub crawls, walking tours of Mont Royal, and bicycle tours of the city.

Today was the day of the bicycle tour. I was keen to sign up too, but because it did not start until Noon, and I could not sign in to the hostel until 1:00 PM, so I stashed my bags in a locker and went for a walk around the down town area.

(The Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Town Montreal. The organ inside of this church has 7000 pipes.)

(The building on the left had the first elevator installed in Montreal, also making it Montreal's first "high rise". The building on the right was built afterwards, and was constructed as an homage to the Empire State Building.)

(Random picture of some crazy guy trying to walk on the back of the bench. Actually, I'm pretty sure I've tried to do this before too.)

Montreal is for certain a great city, but it's not a great city in which to be a walker. Hardly any of the intersections have a "walking man" or "stop hand" sign, let alone a countdown to yellow, to tell pedestrians when it was safe to cross. Furthermore, when the light does turn red, there is no delay before the light for the other cars turns green - it immediately turns green as soon as the other lights turn red. As a result, I saw many pedestrians get stuck in the middle of the street when the light turned red, and when this happens the drivers of the cars will actually speed up to try and hit you (not a joke). I had heard stories of this as a kid, but it didn't make it any less scary when it happened for real.

As a bicyclist though, Montreal must be the greatest city in Canada. Granted, it appears as though the rules of the road do not apply to cyclists, and they can run stop signs, red lights, ride on the sidewalk, and more or less go anywhere they please as fast as they please. However, when they aren't breaking rules they can ride on the dual lane bicycle lanes on the road that actually eliminate an entire lane for the cars. Also, the temperature in the summer in Montreal is so hot and the humidity so high, that cycling is the only way to create a breeze strong enough to keep cool. That brings me to the tour.

(BIXI is a new bicycle sharing system installed in various locations around Montreal. You put your credit card in the machine, take out a bike, and return it at any other station around the city.)

(First off, isn't it awesome that bicycles are so numerous that they need markings like this on the street at "bicycle crossing"? And second, notice how the first rider across the street couldn't be bothered to follow those markings?)

(Bicycle lanes that kick cars off the road? Awesome!)
Chris, from the hostel, led us on the subway to a bike shop in Old Montreal where we paid $20 to rent a bicycle, helmet and lock for the entire day. From there we were led along the Lachine Canal - another National Historic Site - to the Atwater Market (it's "at the water," get it?) where we stopped for a picnic.

After our picnic the "real tour" began, and we were led along a mile long bicycle bridge across the St. Lawrence River to two massive man made islands in the middle of the river. The islands in question were made from the dirt excavated in building the 33 Km "Underground City" of shops and tunnels on the main island, that constitute the longest network of connected, underground tunnels in the world (that one is a fact, not just my conjecture).

(Once again, bicycles are so popular they need an entire bridge built just for them.)

(The bridge beside the bicycle bridge. This bridge, Victoria Jubilee Bridge, finished in 1859, is the oldest Bridge in Montreal.)

Once on the first island, Ile de Notre Dame, we rode along part of the Trans Canada Bike Trail (also the longest in the world, and named "best bike trail in the world" by National Geographic), until we came to The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, where the Canadian F1 Grand Prix is held when it was in Montreal, and where NASCAR races have been held since 2007.

The circuit remains open to the public in the summer, and for a fee you can drive your car around the course at a maximum of 30 km/hr. The alternative is to take your bicycle around the track, in which case you can ride for free. This of course means that you would end up paying more to go slower when you take your car over a bicycle.

After finishing our "victory lap" (yes, I raced) we crossed a small bridge to get to Ile Ste-Helene, where most of the remaining pavilions from the '67 Expo are located.

(The former America Pavilion, now the Biosphere.)

By this time we had already been out for over five and a half hours, and Chris wanted to get home to watch the Montreal Canadiens' game. We started for home, going quickly passed Habitat '67 - which was originally designed as low income housing, but is now ironically tenanted by upper class yuppies and hipsters.

The tour was an excellent way to see everything I had hoped to see, but would have never been able to see had I been by myself and on foot. I also learned about the greatest rule ever: The 1% Rule.

In short, The 1% Rule states that any building, or structure of any kind built in Montreal must dedicate 1% of the total cost towards building something pleasing to the eye. This is why many of the banks (which can't be taller than Mont Royal because of another by-law) have Japanese gardens inside. Both of these rules are better than Grande Prairie's bylaws limiting the size of buildings to only four storeys and mandating that 100% of the cost be dedicated to making the building look as ugly as possible.

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