Monday, 23 February 2009

Penguins, Ice Slides and Maple Snow Lollies

The 2009 Montréal en Lumière Festival and other weekend Highlights

Alex and I have just enjoyed our second weekend in Montréal, in which we have not only managed to complete the furnishing of our apartment but have also celebrated Alex's birthday in style thanks to the Montréal en Lumières festival. The event, also called the High Lights Festival takes place every year in the city and was started up ten years ago as a celebration of life in the city and to get people energised and out of their houses to raise spirits (and profits) in the midst of the bleak winter months! It lasts from mid February until the start of March and includes live music performances, fine dining experiences, activities for kids, firework displays and a whole lot more.

On Friday evening we went to something called the Soireé au claire de lune (Moonlight Soirée) at the Biodome and Olympic Center. The Biodome is a kind of indoor zoo, a set of self-contained ecosystems containing plants and wildlife from all over the globe. There is a tropical rainforest zone (which feels just as hot and sticky as the real thing). It is particularly atmospheric at night when you catch glimpses of bats flying past your head as well as crocodiles and flamingoes by the water's edge.

Next is a marine zone, with fairly convincing sea cliffs complete with nesting seagulls and underwater viewing areas to see crabs, starfish and even piranhas.
Then there's an arctic and antarctic zone where you can see antarctic penguins and arctic birds up close (They are kept separate, in case you are wondering).

Something that really brought the experience to life though was that the centre had employed various actors and improvisation artists to interact with visitors as you wander through.

I met a ship's captain, a lost fisherman, and weirdest of all, a set of human-penguin hybrids in a training session for a bobsleigh race!

After we'd finished going round the Biodome, we went up the tower of the Montréal Observatoire (second time for us), this time for some night-time views of the city. While viewing some spectacular vistas over downtown and Mont-Royal, we also saw a magician and tarot expert, then wandered down to another room where red lighting and logs created the effect of sitting round a campfire.

Two cowboy-types told a funny story about a shoemaker and his wife and the deals they made with the devil (a character which is very common in local stories thanks to the Catholic influence). As with the best raconteurs it was as much the way the story was told as the story itself that made it so funny and memorable, especially when they started translating for each other but got mixed up about who was doing what language! All in all it was a really unusual experience and a great way to celebrate Alex's birthday.

On Saturday we paid a visit to Atwater Market, a really high quality market selling fresh fruit and veg, French cheeses and top quality meat and sausages. After that we went to pick up a microwave we'd found via Craigslist for the bargain price of $40 (25 pounds). We carried it back home on the underground and the bus which was fun! In the afternoon we were driven around to a variety of people's houses to buy furniture, by a man with a van who charged only $25 an hour! By the end of the day we had a bed, 3 bookshelves, a kitchen table and chairs and a futon, for only a couple of hundred pounds in total.

We spent much of Sunday making the apartment nice, arranging furniture and cleaning, but by the evening felt relaxed enough to put our feet up and play Super Mario Galaxy and Guitar Hero on the Wii. We also cooked our first proper meal in the house (albeit using the stove in the empty flat upstairs as ours is still not connected!). We had Butternut Squash stuffed with mince & veg (and for a taste of home, flavoured with Henderson's Relish - Sheffield's finest sauce - which Giles had given us as a leaving present). Delicious. It's really starting to feel a lot more homely now!

But back to the festival. Unfortunately our moving efforts on Saturday meant we missed the Festival du Fromage that ran during the day - a real disappointment given Alex and I are such huge cheese fiends! But not disheartened we set out to enjoy the evening festivities in Vieux Montréal. There was a real festival atmosphere, and a great deal going on, from rides in a horse-drawn carriage to huddling under heat lamps and listening to the live music (which was really excellent, a sort of French version of the Levellers!).

They also had open fires where you could frazzle sausages on sticks or toast marshmallows - we thought this was a really novel idea and just the thing for a winter festival! There were also a couple of maple stalls. As you probably know, maple is very popular in Canada, and is made from the sap of the maple tree. There is a tradition that when the first syrup of the season is made, it is poured over snow and rolled around a stick to make "taffee" lollies - and at the festival they had trays of snow where you could try this out for yourself, which was definitely a new experience for me! There was also La Glissade, a slide running the whole length of the Place Jacques Cartier, made entirely from blocks of ice! It was a very impressive site to see, and the kids seemed to be loving it. We would have had a go but the queues were a little long.

There's still a week to run of Montréal en Lumière, it culminates next week in something called the Montréal All Nighter - where all the bars and restaurants open all night long and street parties continue until morning. Sounds like a lot of fun; you can be sure we'll be there. From what we've seen so far, Montréal is certainly living up to its reputation as a party city where there's always something going on. When this festival finishes it won't be long until the next one starts, as this website and many others show. I'm particularly looking forward to the Comedy Festival and the Jazz Festival.

The snow has continued on and off for the last few days, I've been very impressed how everything keeps running here - buses still run on time, people go about their business more or less as normal (admittedly with thick boots and lots of snow shovelling!) Here is a picture I took this morning out of our window - the streets were a hive of activity, with the bin men emptying bins and sticking markers in the ground next to cars they want the owners to move, mini snowploughs clearing pathways, people digging their cars out, and in the midst of all of this a school bus trying to get past!

You can find more pictures to accompany this post on Flickr (don't forget to let me know your Flickr ID so I can add you as a friend so you can see all of them) and also on Dr Alex's blog..

Until the next time!