Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Québec 2009

I love Canada, I really do. I've been there 7 times, and visited aready many regions - British Coumbia, Alberta, Ontario, Newfoundland. This year the GECCO conference took place in Montréal, Québec - and that meant my second trip to Canada in 6 months.

As usual, during the first week there was little time for visiting; the conference took up most of the time. I had a lot of fun riding around with the Bixi's, however, the new city bike system, based on the Vélib from Paris. I was lucky that the conference took place during the famous Montréal Jazz Festival, so every night I got to enjoy a lot of music for free, just within a few meters from the place where I was staying.

Being at a conference also meant meeting up with old friends, such as the Ireland gang. As is tradition, everywhere they go, they'll always find a good Irish pub to have just a pint. Or maybe two.

After the conference, a series of events got me stranded in Montréal: a friend in hospital, a skype interview for a job I didn't get... So in the end, I stayed for 2 full weeks in Montréal, leaving me little time to explore the rest of Québec. And the weather wasn't exactly cooperating either...

I did get a good bit of visiting done in Montréal however, it's a great city. The Vieux Montréal area definitely has an European feel to it, with the cobbled streets, small shops, old cathedral, magnificent Hôtel de Ville... The port just besides it provides a great stoll, with a good view of the city across the harbour.

One of the days was spent exploring the Biodôme, the old Olympic Stadium built for the 1976 Olympics, converted into a massive replica of four ecosystems: a Tropical Forest, a Laurentian Forest, the Saint Laurence Marine ecosystem, and a Polar area. It is well worth a visit.

Afterwards I went to the Insectarium and the Botanical Garden, which are just close by. Getting lost for hours in the botanical garden was a great experience, despite the weather!

Another day was spent exploring the two artificial islands. The first one contains the Parc Jean Drapeau (the name of the famous and beloved old mayor), with the Biosphere (which I didn't fully visit), a conversion of the US house of the 1967 World Fair.

The second island is where the Formula 1 GranPrix used to take place. It was funny seeing all the cyclists going around the hairpin! After a long walk around the circuit, I reached the Casino de Montréal, build inside the old French house from the World Fair. I tried my luck at the slot machines and horse races, and came back out with a gain of $10. Not bad!

Coming back to Montréal, I didn't feel like walking around the whole circuit again, and decided to take the Concorde bridge, which provided me with a great view of the biosphere at dusk.

The thing is, I thought there would be a way down from the bridge to the parc Jean Drapeau. Think again! The bridge just went on and on. In a way it was cool, as the road passed right in front of Habitat'67, the wicked housing complex built during the world expo. But as it kept steering away from the city centre, I seriously began wondering where I would end up!...

After a few hours walking, I go to the Peel Basin (I honestly have no idea how); the silhouettes of the downtown buildings on the basin were impressive. But it took me 3h30 with a fast pace to get back downtown.

The food in Montréal is also really good. Apart from a great choice of European style cafes, restaurants and bars, there's also some unique places. Schwartz's, for example, a Jewish smoked meat place worth waiting in line outside for a long time (in summer and winter!); the Banquise, where you can have a delicious poutine (none of the fast food version, this is the real sh*t!); or Juliette & Chocolat, a chocolate house where you can have, well, anything made with chocolate: the hot chocolate cocktails are as tasty as they are expensive.

From Montréal, it's possible to go on a day trip to Ottawa, which is what I did. It's a completely different city, with a definite British feeling to it - it reminded me of Victoria, BC. The Houses of the Parliament are quite impressive, with their copper ceilings. But a 2h line up to visit inside? No, thank you. I went to the Byward market instead, recently famous for receiving a visit from Barack Obama (you can even buy "Obama cookies" now).

The view from the Alexandra Bridge (leading to Hull/Gatineau) is impressive: the houses of the parliament to one side, the Museum of Civilization to the other. I spent hours inside the museum, soaking in the wonderful First Nations culture, which I discovered on my first trip to Canada, and have been fascinated with ever since.

And it was thus on my last week in Québec that I finally left Montréal for good, taking a bus to Québec City. A completely different kind of city! I also went back to my habit of staying at Youth Hostels, which paid off immediately: within 1h of arriving, someone had already offered me a spare ticket to go see the last night of the Summer Music Festival!

Québec is a beautiful small city, a bit too touristic at times, but even the walls smell of history in that place! The Fresque des Québécois is a good example; the Chateau de Frontenac a lot less (although it remains quite impressive).

A morning visit of the Marché du Vieux Port, organised by the Hostel, was really nice - rows of local producers, proud of their goods, and making sure you taste the strawberries, drink a bit of wine, try the honey... An afternoon 15Km bicycle tour, also organised by the hostel (which I did with an English couple, 20 and 19 years old!), was also really nice.

I was lucky enough to be able to go to two amazing night events while I was there. The first was the Moulin d'Images, quite simply the biggest cinema display in the world! An amazing 2h of animations projected onto an old series of silos and warehouses, describing the history of Québec.

The second was the night show of the Cirque du Soleil. It takes place under a tall motorway bridge, in between the spectators, an amazing show.

My last day in Québec city was spent in public transportation, to get to Wendake, the sole remaining Wendat tribe village left in the world. The trip definitely reminded me that in North America you're not meant to go around in public transportation! Terrible service, bad connections... The visit was ok, it was interesting to see that despite all that they have gone through, the first nations still actively try to maintain and evolve their culture and traditions.

At the end of the day, it was time to get the bus to Tadoussac, from the beautiful station in Québec.

Tadoussac... is a party village. With a population of only 5000, it is well known for its whale watching opportunities, hence the flood of tourists during summer. The hostel is at the centre of the party: every night there's live music, and a bar by the patio until midnight.

After that, a big bonfire is lit (even with light rain!), and all the hippies gather around, singing songs and drinking beer until exhaustion. It seriously reminded me of the juggling conventions I used to go to in Ireland.

I quickly made a lot of acquaintances, especially with a group of 4 French and 2 Québecois. The next day, we all decided to go for a swim in a nearby lake (thankfully, a lot warmer than the ice cold water coming from the fjord!).

Having gone on a whale watching trip in the West Coast a few years ago, I didn't feel it was necessary to feed more petrol to the poor whales just to get a glimpse of them, so when my newfound friends left, I went on a lone long walk along the bay, up through the Pointe Rouge, and spent a few hours on a deserted beach, reading a good book, and keeping an eye out for a possible whale sighting (although they never came).

After another night of debauchery around the bonfire, the rain decided to stop me from going for the last nice walk I had planned, so I stayed inside the hostel while waiting for my bus, playing the piano and partying with everyone else there. The friendly feeling of the place is hard to describe.

And that was it, I took the ferry and the bus back to Québec City for one last night, and then flew back from Montréal to Paris. Another wonderful trip in Canada, one of these days I'll finally decide to buy a one-way ticket!