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Fabulous festivals, food and summer fun in Montreal

Old Montreal is especially magical at dusk. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Old Montreal is especially magical at dusk. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The jazz was great. The acrobats were wonderful. And the Barbu Foire Electro Trad was like nothing I’d ever seen.

I spent a long weekend in Montreal earlier this month, mostly checking out festivals during the night and exploring neighborhoods during the day. It was, as always, an extraordinary trip to one of the world’s great cities.

\Jesse Cook put on a tremendous show at the Montreal Jazz Festival earlier this month. PHOTO COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL

\Jesse Cook put on a tremendous show at the Montreal Jazz Festival earlier this month. PHOTO COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL


We started out with a show by Jesse Cook at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which wrapped up July 9. Cook and his band were utterly sensational; playing a mix of Spanish/Flamenco style guitar with marvellous percussion work, as well as a great fiddler. His show was at the Montreal Symphony Hall or Maison Symphonique, which features tons of natural wood on the inside and possesses world-class acoustics.

After his show we wandered around the surrounding streets, catching some of the dozens of free shows that are put on by the festival folks each year. Families were sitting on blankets under the stars, soaking up everything from traditional jazz to R and B and even country tunes, and there were kiosks selling everything from macarons to poutine to beer and wine. A great way to spend an evening.

The Jean-Talon Market in Montreal is one of the finest in North America. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Jean-Talon Market in Montreal is one of the finest in North America. JIM BYERS PHOTO


The next day we toured some fine restaurants, including Crudessence for lovely vegan sushi and homemade kambucha, as well as the Jean-Talon Market and the famous Fairmount Bagels for their famous wood-oven bagels with sesame seeds. We also got to tool around town on electric bikes from Dyad Cycles; the next best thing to a moped and fun as all get out. We checked out some lovely shops and also buzzed our way to the top of Mont Royal for a bird’s eye view of the city.

The second night was truly magical. There was an outdoor show in a park by a troop of dancers from Les Minutes Complètement Cirque, part of the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. Troop members roped in folks from the public for a fun event where an emcee had them dance and do various tricks and then freeze in place.

The Montreal Completement Cirque is a  magical festival held in the city every summer. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Montreal Completement Cirque is a magical festival held in the city every summer. JIM BYERS PHOTO


Afterward the circus performers led visitors on a walk to nearby Jardins Gamelin, where they put on a dazzling show with a tight-rope walker high over downtown, as well as jumping tricks and somersaults off a high tower that called to mind a Cirque du Soleil performance. They had a woman in a wheelchair take part in the show, too, which was lovely.

After that we checked out Montreal’s Gay Village and had dinner at Le Saloon, where I tried an El Paso Burger that was tasty but could’ve used more hot peppers. Then came the real treat of the night; a visit to the Olympia Theatre for a performance by the outrageous Barbu Foire Électro Trad.

The Barbu Foire Electro Trade is like no circus/entertainment act you'll ever see.  And I mean that in a good way. PHOTO BY ANDREI KALAMKAROV, COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL

The Barbu Foire Electro Trade is like no circus/entertainment act you’ll ever see. And I mean that in a good way. PHOTO BY ANDREI KALAMKAROV, COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL


They started out by having four burly guys with NHL playoff-worthy beards (and then some) come out on stage on roller skates, where they proceeded to spin in circles while holding onto each other’s beards. As the evening wore on there were women mud wrestlers, the aforementioned burly guys dressed in black Speedos waving multicoloured ribbons as if in a rhythmic gymnastics meet and a dominatrix with a whip. At the end there was a tall, skinny guy suspended in what looked like a bright red punching bag. Someone from the audience was called up and threw a pie in his face as he was swung about in circles inside the bag. When the pies were gone the man crawled out of the bag, naked but for a small cup over his privates.

I suspect the theme had something to do with suspending disbelief and escaping our usual ideas about gender. Then again, I don’t really care. It was fun and goofy and crazy and wacky and hugely entertaining, and that’s all that really matters in the end.

Colourful macarons at Maison Christian Faure in Old Montreal. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Colourful macarons at Maison Christian Faure in Old Montreal. JIM BYERS PHOTO


We had a fun tour of Old Montreal on our last full day in the city, checking out Notre Dame and trying a variety of small bites at various restaurants, including remarkable macarons at Maison Christian Faure, where they also make killer croissants, and great maple syrup products (including beer) at Sucrerie de Normand at the Bonsecours Market. Not to mention nice, Portuguese natas at Cantinho de Lisboa on Rue St. Paul.

Some of my group headed off to try the waterfront zipline but I instead rented a Bixi bike and explored more of the city, taking in the colourful sounds and dancing at the Caribbean Festival, Carifiesta.

Fireworks light up the sky in Montreal each summer. PHOTO BY ROBERT BURCH, COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL

Fireworks light up the sky in Montreal each summer. PHOTO BY ROBERT BURCH, COURTESY TOURISM MONTREAL


I was lucky enough to have dinner that night at Da Emma, a Montreal institution on the waterfront housed in a former women’s prison. The owner and main cook, Emma Risa, loves to greet diners in her kitchen after their meal, and you’ll find photos of the most glamorous stars in the world on the wall; everyone from George Clooney (looking a bit dazed, to be honest) to Penelope Cruz, Heath Ledger and Al Pacino. Lovely veal and even better pasta and roast piglet.

There was an Adam Cohen concert going on but I chose to wrap things up with a razzle dazzle show on the water, courtesy of the International Loto-Quebec Fireworks Competition.

Some rooms at the Marriott Chateau Champlain offer tremendous views of Montreal. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Some rooms at the Marriott Chateau Champlain offer tremendous views of Montreal. JIM BYERS PHOTO


We stayed at the Chateau Champlain, which I stayed at with my future wife back in 1980 and hadn’t been back to since. It’s now a Marriott, and they’ve done a great job of updating the rooms while keeping the character of the place. The lobby is intimate but provides a real sense of arrival, and the food is very good. I highly recommend the blueberry pancakes at breakfast, especially with some great Quebec maple syrup.

The city of Montreal stages more than 100 festivals a year, so there’s no shortage of places to celebrate and things to do. Just don’t let anyone on roller skates pull your beard….

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