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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2013

Multicity vacation mixes old, new worlds

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Carriages and tourists gather at Place d'Ames, which is the gateway to Old Montreal and the front yard for the Pantheon-inspired Bank of Montreal. The Canadian city, where residents speak both French and English, is rich in history.
Carriages and tourists gather at Place d'Ames, which is the gateway to Old Montreal and the front yard for the Pantheon-inspired Bank of Montreal. The Canadian city, where residents speak both French and English, is rich in history.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE Enlarge

For travelers with limited vacation time who wish to sample the new world and the old, a multidestination vacation to Montreal and New York provides just the right mix of European charm and Big Apple skyscrapers.

An “open jaw” ticket, a single reservation that allows travelers to fly from their home airport to one city and return home from a different airport, sometimes helps travelers save money. You can book these fares on airline and travel Web sites by clicking “multiple destinations” or “multicity.” Sometimes these fares are cheaper than two one-way tickets, especially on foreign travel; sometimes the price is the same.

Montreal proved to be a less expensive alternative to Europe that allows for immersion in a foreign culture without the need for trans-Atlantic flights, the accompanying jetlag, and complex currency conversions. (At press time, Canadian dollars and U.S. dollars were roughly equivalent, $1 U.S. to $1.05 Canadian.)

Montreal

Montreal, the cultural and economic hub of francophone Canada, welcomes English and French speakers alike. Although the city is awash in French signage and culture, almost everyone in the city center speaks workable English — especially those who work in the tourism sector. Consequently, even the most francais-challenged travelers will have no trouble navigating the city’s quaint rues or grand boulevards.

The best way to travel within Montreal is by subway. With a three-day pass ($18) travelers have unlimited use of the rather clean, modern, rubber-tired underground railway, which whisks passengers all over the city. (The subway does not go to Trudeau Airport, but the three-day pass also works on buses, including the 747 route that gets travelers from the airport to the center of town in 30-45 minutes.)

One popular subway stop is Pie IX, site of the 1976 Summer Olympics. There, the architecturally daring Olympic stadium boasts the world’s tallest inclined tower, which visitors can ascend via funicular for a view of the city. The 1976 structure seems a bit vacant since its resident Expos baseball team decamped to Washington, D.C. — to become the Nationals — but architecture buffs will find the detour to Olympic Park worthwhile.

Time may not have been overly kind to the Olympic Stadium, but the old quarter of Montreal has aged more gracefully. Old Montreal’s stone-hewn buildings — some dating to the 1700s — evoke the feeling of old Europe. Visitors stroll along cobblestone streets, admire ancient basilicas, and dine in outdoor plazas.

One of the best cafes we found was Le Bourlingueur, where wait staff serve traditional French fare — think roast pork and beef medallions — that would be at home in any Parisian cafe. Le Bourlingueur serves a prix fixe menu, in which every meal includes a choice of main entree, soup or salad, coffee or tea, and choice of desserts for $18-$24.

The city also hosts a wealth of excellent museums. Among the best in town is the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which even boasts an art installation on a side street between two of the museum’s buildings.

If you’re traveling with a train buff and willing to rent a car, the Exporail museum about 30 miles out of town features dozens of trains — locomotives and passenger cars — well displayed. An antique streetcar transports visitors from exhibit to exhibit, including one where visitors can ride a 1⁄8-scale model train.

Visitors with a sweet tooth must visit Maple Delights (aka Les Delices de l’Erable), which has locations in Old Town Montreal and Quebec City. Shops have a maple museum and sell maple syrup and an array of maple products, including maple cream spread and maple caramel sauce. Best of all is the maple-flavored gelato with chunks of crystallized maple candy. (Another sweet tooth suggestion: Rolo milk, a Canadian delicacy available at convenience stores and some drugstore milk cases. Rolo milk is chocolate milk infused with caramel. CaraMilk chocolate-caramel milk is an acceptable substitute.)

Montreal’s mix of new and old world charms makes the city feel like a cross between Paris and Chicago — a place exotic enough to take your sweetheart but safe enough to take your mother.

Quebec City

Montreal’s neighbor to the northeast, Quebec City, feels even more like the old country. Medieval-looking stone walls still guard Old Quebec, although the danger they guarded against (American invasion) has long since subsided. Tourists are the primary invaders nowadays, as they meander among ancient churches, monasteries, and plazas.

Parts of Old Quebec so closely resemble their French antecedents the only way to tell them apart is the smell — or lack of smell. Quebec’s modern sewer system is a remarkable improvement over French sanitation systems, making Quebec a more pleasant experience. In fact, Old Quebec is so clean, parts of it look like a Hollywood backlot.

But the experience of les Quebecois is decidedly real — as visitors can discover in the city’s many museums. Some museums detail the city’s military battles — against those darned Americans. Others provide more whimsical insight. During our visit, the city’s much acclaimed Musee de La Civilisation presented an exhibition on the history of video games.

For a more agrarian experience, visit Ile d’Orleans, a 20-minute drive from Old Quebec. Farms, farm stands, wineries, and restaurants dot this quaint island that offers a respite from the bustling city life.

Quebec’s culture is arguably closer to that of France than it is to the rest of Canada, and its citizens speak less English than the residents of Montreal. Still, with a little sign language and a few smiles, it’s possible to travel sans problemes in Quebec.

Onward to NYC

Of course, making an open-jaw ticket work requires a way to get from your first destination (Montreal/​Quebec City) to your departure city (New York). Amtrak provides an option — the Adirondack— with daily service between Montreal and New York City. Within an hour of leaving Montreal, the Adirondack crosses back into the States, and as the train glides along the shore of Lake Champlain, its passengers settle back into the English-speaking world.

We chose to stop for a couple of nights in Albany, N.Y., gateway to Vermont, western Massachusetts, and the Hudson River Valley. Buying two Amtrak tickets, even using the multi-city open-jaw option, costs more than one ($65 for a direct-to-New York ticket vs. $91 for stopping in Albany), but it also breaks up what would otherwise be a long day on the train.

The Adirondack leaves Montreal at 9:30 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive in New York at 8:20 p.m. It’s not the prettiest Amtrak route — those are mostly out West — but some of the Hudson River views are quite charming, offering an easy transition from the old-world feel of Montreal to the gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is a writer for the Post-Gazette. Contact him at rowen@post-gazette.com.



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