July 29, 2011

Due North, Day 3: Across the Border

Monday, July 11, 2011: Bonjour! The hearty, international greeting given to me by the customs officer brought an immediate smile to my face. I thought it to be an auspicious sign that I had been in Canada for all of one second and I was already having a good time. After a brief perusal of my passport and a few questions about the nature of my visit to the country, the officer waved me on and I rolled over the border into a world where street signs are written in French and distance is measured in kilometers in lieu of miles. With every rotation of my wheels, I was traveling further out of my comfort zone and the thought of the experiences that lay ahead of me filled me with a nervous excitement that had me fidgeting in my seat.

After another hour on the road, the Montreal skyline finally emerged on the horizon. I reached the city limits within a few moments and continued to follow the GPS through a series of congested streets packed with trucks. Soon, the Olympic Stadium came into view. Built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, this magnificent structure features the largest inclined tower in the world. Visitors can ride a funicular elevator to its upper observation decks for an unparalleled view of the city.

My first destination for the day was to be the Biodome de Montreal. Seated in the shadow of Olympic Stadium, the Biodome is a vivarium consisting of four different ecosystems: Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Sub-Polar Regions. Over 230 animal species and 750 plant types coexist beneath the domed roof. These habitats are so well-represented that it was easy to for me at times to forget that I was walking through an indoor area. My favorite part of the visit came when I stepped through a glass door to meet with several groups of playful puffins and penguins.

Also located on the grounds of the Olympic Park is the Jardin Botanique. This lush landscape covers nearly 200 acres and includes gardens done in both the Japanese and Chinese traditions. It is absolutely a grand and beautiful setting in every sense--stone lanterns standing amid bamboo and ornamental grasses, wooden bridges spanning lily-covered ponds, the Wu Yee-Sun Bonsai Trees displayed at the Sukiya Tea Pavilion, the red roofs of Ming Dynasty pagodas reflecting in the still waters of the Lac du Reve.

The Jardin Botanique is also home to the Montreal Insectarium. In the foyer of this building, I got an up-close-and-personal look at a bizarre creature that I've come across in the past: the Walking Stick. This time, it was perched on the arm of a greeter. As I approached, it reached out to me with its front arms in a way that seemed almost friendly and inviting. It's a very unusual animal, but not without its charms.

After leaving Parc Olympique, I drove across town to Old Montreal. Parking in this area can be somewhat of a problem and it took me about 30 minutes to find a place for my car on the street. As all of the spots are numbered and metered, I fed enough money into the machine for a three-hour stroll. With the minutes ticking away, I walked quickly to the site that I most wanted to see: La Basilique Notre-Dame. Construction on the original stone church that would one day become this colossal sanctuary began in 1672. The two towers (named Perseverance and Temperance) were completed in 1843 and, between the years 1866-1882 Notre-Dame's parish priest, Benjamin-Victor Rousselot, oversaw the beautifying of the interior decor.

One step through the heavy wooden doors was all it took and I was astonished. It is a building with ornate detail and divine care placed into every square inch--glistening stained glass windows, spiraling staircases, solemn statues, huge organ pipes stretching to the vaulted ceiling, dramatic lighting that changes color every few minutes making the basilica sparkle. After being completely awed by the main altar and sanctuary, I walked down a rear corridor into the Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Sacre-Coeur, an equally impressive chapel that features a bronze sculpture that depicts humanity's journey to the Holy Trinity. The basilica also houses the glass-enclosed Chapelle Saint-Sacrement, where the faithful can pray in silence.

As I exited La Basilique Notre-Dame, the cobbled streets beckoned me. I opted to simply take a stroll through the old-world maze of galleries and cafes. Vieux-Montreal is a place that is very European in both appearance and feel. Local artists can be found at almost every corner, standing before their easels, painting the afternoon away. It is a very bohemian atmosphere. My kinda place.

With a little bit of time still left on the parking meter, I paid a visit to one more museum: Pointe-a-Calliere. The current temporary exhibit is called "Le Vin Chez Les Gaulois." Babel Fish translated this phrase for me as "Wine at the Gallic Ones." On this floor, I found many urns, statues, and pottery from various places and points in ancient history: the Middle East (5400 BC), Celtic Gaul (120 BC), Egypt (3100 BC), Caesar's Gaul (52 BC), Greece (3000 BC), etc. 
While the displays in the temporary exhibit are fascinating, I was completely blown away when I took the elevator down to the underground remains. Pointe-a-Calliere is part of an ongoing archeological dig that is slowly uncovering the Montreal of 1750. The lower level of this museum reveals stone conduits, marketplaces, a Catholic cemetery, as well as many treasures that were unearthed during excavations.

"Your word is a lamp to guide my feet
and a light for my path."

~Psalm 119:105