Montréal is by far Canada's most cosmopolitan city. Toronto may have the country's economic power and Vancouver its most majestic scenery, but the centuries-old marriage of English and French cultures that defines Montréal has given the city an allure and dynamic unique to North America - a captivating atmosphere that is admittedly hard to describe. Its ethnic make-up is in truth fairly diverse, what with plenty of Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Chinese and Portuguese putting down roots in various neighbourhoods over the last century. But ever since the French first flew the flag here back in the 1600s, the struggle for the city's soul has centred on - and largely set apart - its English and French factions.
As such Montréal has always been a pivotal player in the politics of Québec separatism, the tension between the two main linguistic groups having reached a searing low in the late 1960s, when the Front de Libération du Québec waged a terrorist campaign on the city as the province was undergoing a "francization" that would affect Montréal most of all. In the wake of legislation that enshrined French-language dominance in Québec, English-Quebecers fled in droves, tipping the nation's economic supremacy from Montréal to Toronto. After decades of linguistic dispute, though, a truce appears to have at last settled in, and nowadays it's hard to believe that only a few years ago a narrowly failed 1995 referendum on separation transformed the city into a pitched battlefield over linguistic and territorial rights. It seems virtually everyone can speak French, while the younger generation of Francophones also speak l'anglais - certainly a blessing for English-speaking visitors who should have no problem finding someone who speaks the language. The truce has also gone hand in hand with the city's economic resurgence, which sees Montréal at the fore of Canada's high-tech industry.
The duality of Montréal's social mix is also reflected in its urban make-up. Sandwiched between the banks of the St Lawrence River and the forested, trail-laced rise of Mont Royal, the heart of the city is an engaging melange of Old and New World aesthetics. Busy downtown, with its wide boulevards lined by sleek office towers and rambling shopping malls, is emblematic of a typical North American metropolis, while just to its south, Vieux-Montréal preserves the city's unmistakable French heritage in its layout of narrow, cobblestone streets and town squares anchored by the radiant Basilique Notre-Dame. Balancing these are traces of the city's greatest international moment, Expo '67, echoes of which remain on Parc Jean-Drapeau, the islands across from Vieux-Montréal that hosted the successful World Fair. A few kilometres east stands perhaps the city's greatest folly, the Stade Olympique built for the 1976 Olympics, its leaning tower overshadowing the expansive Jardin Botanique, second only to London's Kew Gardens.
Specific sights aside, it's the street-level vibe that makes Montréal such a great place to visit. Like the homegrown Cirque du Soleil, Montréal has a ceaseless - and contagious - energy that infuses its café and lounge culture, its exciting into-the-wee-hour nightlife, and the boisterous summer festivals that put everyone in a party mood. Nowhere captures this free-spirited ethos better than Plateau Mont-Royal, the trendiest neighbourhood in town and effective meeting point of Montréal's founding and immigrant cultures. Here, the best restaurants, bars and clubs hum and groove along boulevard St-Laurent, the symbolic divide between the city's French and English communities, under the watchful gaze of the city's most prominent landmark, the cross atop Mont Royal that recalls Montréal's initial founding as a Catholic colony.
In some contrast, Québec City, around 250km east, seems immune to outside forces, its walled old town steadfastly embodying the province's French fact. Perched atop a promontory with a commanding view of the St Lawrence and laced with winding, cobblestone streets flanked by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses, it ranks as Québec's most romantic and beautifully situated city. Closer to Montréal, two other enchanting regions - the Eastern Townships (Les Cantons-de-l'Est) and the Laurentian mountains (Les Laurentides) - provide excellent getaways, along with top-notch skiing, away from the teeming city centre....Continua