A Little Europe In Our Backyard


Giorgio, Old Port Montreal. Photo by Tegan Wiebe, 2011.

Hooves clop along the cobblestone paving with a carriage rolling behind. The driver and I exchange nods as the carriage passes. I pause to fill my lungs with the sweet air of vacation and new experience, condensed into one afternoon. But after having trolled around for the better part of the afternoon, tilting my head back to see the top of Notre-Dame Basilica‘s two steeples, watching a man riding a unicycle in a no-car zone, and walking past historic architecture, my stomach tells me its time to move on.


Notre-Dame Basilica, Old Montreal.

I find a road running beside a quay and begin walking East, peeking up streets looking for restaurants. At the first street I come to, I glance up: a red sign leans out from a stone wall and says “Rue de Vaudreuil” in white script. The street it labels is paved with brick. At the end, it turns sharply avoiding a stone building of four towering floors, lined with latticed windows: the lowest ones capped with burgundy awnings. Connected buildings line each side of the street forming an unbroken brick and stonewall from the end to myself. No restaurants down there. But it’s not long before I cross in front of a stone archway, opening into a dim courtyard, and surrounded by old buildings. I enter to explore and find my search rewarding: red letters spelling “Giorgio” hang from an iron ornamented sign. Imagined or real, I can taste Tortellini Portobello salivating in my mouth. I think I’ve found what I’m looking for. Once the real dish is in front of me, I let my thoughts drift back over the day. Cobblestones. Brick. Lamp stands. French signs. Italian food. It feels like half of Europe has dropped by. I have to remind myself; I’m 20 minutes from downtown Montreal. Of course the European feel of Old Montreal is in keeping with its history. Although it’s gone through several forms of itself, and exchanged French and British rule, since its founding, Montreal has remained European throughout. In 1642, French Catholic settlers arrived on the shores of the St Lawrence River and built a village of temporary shelters called Ville-Marie, soon changed to Montreal. Some of the settlement’s street grid is still visible.

Français : Plan des rues de Ville-Marie en 167...A sketch of Ville-Marie’s streets as they were in 1672. Drawn by François Dollier de Casson. Image via Wikipedia

Early in its existence, Montreal had unsettled relations with the Iroquois and English and felt the need to defend itself. So whether with wood or stone, between 1680 and 1717, Montreal was a fortified city. This state of defense changed in the 1800s, when immigration from England, Scotland, and Ireland caused the population of Montreal to explode; to accommodate the expansion, the city took down its stone fortifications. This action removed the barrier not only between danger and Montreal, but also between the suburbs and Old Montreal: the district where the bourgeoisie lived and ran their businesses.

In the mid to late 19th century, rapid industrial development arrived in Montreal. The Old Port saw merchandise delivered by train from across North America and by boat from across the Atlantic. By 1964, at which point Montreal’s downtown had shifted further inland, Old Montreal was titled a historic district, preserving the district from being swallowed by Montreal’s modernization. As a result, we can still see some of Montreal’s earliest buildings. One such example is the St-Sulpice seminary. Built in the 1680s, it is the oldest building in Montreal. That said, it is not the oldest piece of architecture; there are archeological remains for even older sites located in the basement of the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History, Canada’s largest archeological museum: its basement houses remains of a Catholic cemetery that was created in 1643, built only a year after the French settlers arrived. Also, near these ruins, lie more recent remains of The Royal Insurance Building, which housed a custom’s office from 1871-1917. With so many buildings created by first-generation immigrants from Europe and a mandate to preserve this district’s history, it no wonder it feels like there’s a little bit of Europe living in our backyard.

For more Old Montreal information and images feel free to read on:

Food, Activities, History: http://gocanada.about.com/od/montreal/tp/Old_Montreal.htm
Image Gallery: http://www.hanifworld.com/Montreal-Pictures.htm
Old Port Information: http://www.quaysoftheoldport.com/home.html

For more articles on Montreal areas see:


Sources * http://www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca/eng/accueila.htm * http://pacmusee.qc.ca/en/home * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Montreal

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