Montreal Friday Sept. 26, 2014
Today was our allocated day for history type museums. Surprisingly, one church falls into that category. The Notre -Dame Basilica on weekdays makes itself over into a tourist stop. Masses are held in a chapel and the Eucharist is removed from the main church to the chapel. Instead, a $5 admission is charged and hordes of tourist come through, take their pictures, and go on guided tours. That was certainly true today as hordes flocked through the church this morning and the square outside was even busier when we walked by this afternoon.
The history of the church is interweaved with that of Montreal. Montreal was founded in 1642 by a small group of people from France planning to build an ideal community and convert the native people to Catholicism. The original name was Ville-Marie, City of Mary.
People of Quebec were skeptical due to the town’s close proximity to the Iroquois who were British allies and frequently attached settlers. Initially, a good number of the colonists died due to Indian attacks. But the city prospered, as we know from Thunder Bay and Grand Portage, partially due to being a center for the fur trade. Now there are 1.6 million in Montreal with 3.8 million in the metro area. Quebec has been left in the dust although Toronto is larger.
So the town prospered, as did the church of Notre-Dame. Originally founded by Jesuits, the Sulpicians arrived in 1657 and still serve the church today. The original chapel was replaced by a stone church seating over 1000. That still was not large enough and the present church was built between 1824-1829 and seats 3200. The architect was an Irish Protestant from New York who moved to Montreal, converted to Catholicism, and died just a few months after its opening.
The church interior has a blue hue, the color associated with Mary. Much of the interior decoration was added after the church was completed. The altar has numerous statues. French made stained glass windows were added in 1929. The stations of the cross are intricate carvings. The organ has 7000 pipes.
The church added a chapel seating several hundred in the late 1800s. Kind of hard to have an intimate funeral or wedding in a church seating 3200. However, an arsonist burnt the chapel in 1978 and it has been re-built. Only two of the stained glass windows survived. The front of the re-built chapel has a huge, modern bronze sculpture piece.
The Notre-Dame Basilica was actually our second stop. First, we made a quick visit to City Hall, where Charles de Gaulle in 1969 stated: Vive le Quebec libre. Long live Free Quebec. This was during a state visit during the time when tensions were rising about Quebec declaring its independence. (Side note: There were two plebiscites on the issue. Both lost but the second one in 1995 lost by a slim margin of 50.6 to 49.4. 94% of eligible voters turned out.)
City Hall was built between 1872 and 1878. The lobby and Council Chambers were open for viewing. We were surprised to see so many official seats until we read that the Council has 64 members and a mayor. Evidently much work must be delegated since it only meets 11 times a year.
Our major stop for the day was the Montreal Archaeology and History Complex. Complex is the correct term. It is built on the site of the actual remains of the city’s birthplace. It occupies four buildings, connected by underground exhibitions taking you through the stone foundations of early buildings including the first cemetery and first marketplace.
First time visitors view a 20 minute multi-media show summarizing the history of Montreal. The city is built on an island and the initial settlement was on a point of the island where the Little River joined the St. Lawrence River. As further development occurred, the new buildings were built over the original ones. Our tour walks you past some of the stone foundations and the initial sewer pipes. The Little River was the first sewer. The pipes were not constructed for quite some time and replaced the Little River.
Twice we had to get directions and/or retrace our steps including the most important part of the day when we had lunch at their cafe. Turns out, the cafe is in the first building and when we were hungry we were in building two, or three, or four. We made it to the cafe in time to get one of the few tables open to touristy type people who had not made reservations. Excellent food again. These people use seasonings and spices!! Who knew the flavor that can come from seasonings?
Ah, Marco Polo knew about spices. Sounds like a weird connection does it not? But the Montreal Archaeology and History Complex was hosting a special exhibit on Marco Polo. Our tour guide was a young man who was heavily involved in the exhibit and his enthusiasm was infectious. Most of us had heard of Marco Polo but we certainly had not read his book about his travels from 1271 when he was 17 to 1295 when he was 41.
The exhibit reminded us how little known the East was to Europe at that time, how many advancements it had over Europe, and how daunting such a journey must have been. While goods had traveled the spice road from Asia to Europe for quite some time, the goods were transported by different traders, each for a segment of the route. Polo traveled by land to China and returned by sea.
Polo’s written descriptions were the first writings describing many of these areas to Europeans; not only China, but Vietnam, India, Indonesia, etc. His tale was actually “dictated” to a scribe when Polo was in prison. Venice was at war with Genoa when he returned from China and Polo went to war as a Venetian and was captured and imprisoned. His cellmate wrote down Polo’s adventures and the book was published when the cellmate was released (a year before Polo was). It became a hit and was translated into many languages. Polo’s writings were one of the reasons Christopher Columbus was looking for China when he “discovered” America. Our tour guide was exuberant as he related the route, the people and cultures Polo encountered, and the life in China under Kublai Khan.
But the day was getting on and so did we. After a stroll along the streets of Old Montreal, we came to Chateau Ramezay. This building was built in 1705 by the first Governor General of Montreal. It is now a museum that details the life during this French colonial era. There is a mention of the American occupation of Montreal in 1775 before their defeat in Quebec City. The museum celebrates the French culture of Montreal.
By now, it was late afternoon and we had put in a full day. My attention was less than perfect so we decided to call an end to museum time. We did enjoy the sun and people watching for a while before heading back to the hotel. A late dinner was at a local restaurant on St. Paul Street where we sat outside and watched the world go by while we ate flammekueches, basically a French thin bread version of pizza. Once again we watched, and did not do much listening to conversations as most of them were in French. We do know that tourists come here from all over, though. Our basilica tour had visitors from India, Australia, UK, Japan and Ukraine besides the states.
Ed and Chris 9/26 11:20 PM