Thursday, October 31, 2019

Eating Our Way Through Montreal

We had a delicious three days in Montreal!  We ate our way through the city and walked about 9 miles a day in exchange.  Montreal felt almost even more French than Quebec City, but much bigger and more modern.  Erin captured it well when she said Montreal felt like New York City, while Quebec City was more like Florence.  Whereas Quebec gave us the old, historic feel, our time in Montreal felt more like a weekend we might spend at home in Boston - but in French!

Here are our highlights!

The drive from Quebec City to Montreal took about 3.5 hours - it was a pretty easy drive, but we had more traffic along the way than we had expected.  We arrived around 4:30pm, valet parked at the hotel, and took a little time to settle in while the kids played with the new toys they received when we checked in.

We headed off to our first destination, the Notre Dame Basilica.

We had 6pm tickets to the Aura light show in the basilica.  We had read a few recommendations for the show and made a last minute decision to buy tickets (while sitting in traffic on the drive!) and it was definitely worth it. It was so cool!!  The whole experience lasts about 45 minutes.  You can walk around the basilica for the first 20 minutes or so - everything is lit up and they've done some crazy high tech things where the paintings have this amazing animation and things are highlighted in different ways.  The second half is a music and light show, which was really neat.  It is very loud and Henry got a little freaked out, but the woman at the door was so kind and let us watch from the chapel, where the glass windows dulled the volume but still let us see everything well.  The girls thought it was so neat and Erin said it was her favorite part of the trip.

After the show, we walked to Jardin Nelson for dinner.  We had read about the restaurant in a New York Times travel review, but didn't realize it was in such a cute little bustling square (Place Jacques-Cartier) in Old Montreal.  It was the cutest little place and we got a kick out of sitting outside on the patio under the heat lamps.  They had good options for the kids, but Erin and Ryan both ordered off the adult menu and that was good too.  Zach went for a local recommendation - duck confit crepes - while Erin had a Caesar salad and Ryan got a different kind of crepes with eggs and sausage.

We struck out on finding gelato after dinner - for some reason everything was closed by 8pm - but we had a good walk back to the hotel and everyone was ready to fall into bed with promises of gelato the next day.

Our main attraction for the day was the Science Center!  We walked down to the Old Port and stopped first at Olive et Gourmando for breakfast on the recommendation of friends.  We way over-ordered but nothing went to waste!  All of the pastries were to die for and we kept a few in our bag for snacking on throughout the day.  Erin and I got the chia pudding, which was beautiful and filled with seasonal fruit (although she was not a fan of the addition of pumpkin puree).

The Science Center was awesome!  Our favorite attractions were the human body exhibit, which the kids declared "less creepy" than Body Worlds and loved all of the interactive games and stations to play with, the sports and wellness exhibit, and the creativity center.  This was like one big maker station and we spent almost an hour in there.  There were about seven different challenge stations, each equipped with a ton of different materials and supplies to create with.  We tinkered with the challenge of how to build something that can make it from one end of a clothesline to the other.  We were all working on it, using all sorts of materials and weights and balancing tricks - until we looked over at one point and Henry had rigged up a simple contraption all on his own that accomplished the goal on his first try.  Touche, little inventor man.

After a couple of hours in the science center, we walked along the waterfront and Henry spent some of his souvenir money to ride this cute little train.

We popped into Mlle Catherine for gelato for lunch and explored the adorable little shop next door.

We were all feeling a little vacationed out at this point, so headed back to the hotel for some down time.  Zach and the little kids went ahead while Erin and I found a grocery store and shopped for some snacks for the room.

After some chilling out time, we headed off to meet up with friends from home who now live in Montreal.  We played around in the park for a bit and no one minded the light rain, which helped us justify bringing the rain gear along!  We went out to dinner at Universel where we all got our first taste of poutine.

One of the things the kids really wanted to do on the trip was eat breakfast in the hotel.  (Why?!) We did this on Sunday morning and it was a pleasant surprise!  We saw more kids than we had seen in the entire city up in the hotel breakfast room, which had quite a nice selection for a free continental breakfast.

We walked back to the Notre Dame Basilica for Mass (in French!).  We love attending Mass at the beautiful, historic churches even if they aren't in English - we had done the same thing in Florence at the Duomo.  Even if we can't follow along during the whole Mass, it's such a special way to see the churches and really enjoy getting a great look at all of their unique features while sitting there for Mass.  You can notice things and enjoy them in a way that you don't during a regular walk-through visit.

After Mass, we headed back to the hotel to change into comfy clothes and plan our day.  We also packed lunches with the provisions we had bought at the grocery store, which was a great decision.  We jumped on the metro - which was one of the trickier experiences to navigate given that the ticket machines were mostly in French - and headed to the Olympic Stadium!  We rode out to Station Pie IX and it was about a 10 minute walk from there, with well marked signs along the way.

The Olympic Stadium is on the outskirts of town so the metro was the way to travel.  It is located in a huge complex, in the same area as the Biodome (which was sadly closed for renovations) and the Botanical Gardens.  We could have spent twice as much time out there and still not seen everything there is to explore.

For this visit, we stuck with the Olympic Stadium and that alone gave us hours of entertainment.  The first stop was the pool complex.  There was an amazing ninja warrior type obstacle course going on in the pool and Nettie has declared that she'll be having her next birthday party here.

After the pool, we went into the Olympic museum.  There were plenty of exhibits that were interesting for both kids and grown-ups and we took our time wandering around.  We opted not to take the guided tour and still feel like we learned a lot and saw what we wanted to on our own.

We wandered up to the soccer stadium next, but you couldn't really get close to see inside it very well.  But there was a big grassy area nearby so we took a break to eat lunch and rest our legs.  And practice our Olympic jump shots, in Nettie's case.

While we opted out of the guided tour, the kids enthusiastically opted in to the funicular ride to the top of the Montreal Tower.  I was nervous that it was going to be open air or really scary up there, but it was totally safe and really cool.  It is the tallest inclined tower in the world and the views from the top were awesome.  The ride took 2 or 3 minutes and we spent about 20 minutes exploring when we got up to the observatory.

They had a fun photo booth and a nice gift shop at the top as well.

We wrapped up our visit at the stadium and thought we might walk over to see a bit of the Botanical Gardens, but we started walking in that direction and basically hit a wall.  Everyone's legs were tired, Ryan took a major wipeout on Henry's scooter, we were hungry and thirsty, and Nettie broke her newly purchased souvenir.  We aborted the gardens plan and rerouted ourselves to Station Viau, which was not as close by as we had anticipated.  Those subway seats never felt so good when we finally got on the train!

Our destination was Schwartz's deli, with hopefully some gelato along the way.  We had thought we might incorporate our visit to Mont Royal in this same trip, but quickly realized that it needed to be its own adventure for a different day.  We were done walking, let alone hiking a mountain!  We did take the Metro to the Mont Royal stop and walked from there to Schwartz's, which was farther than we expected but in a cute, bustling area.  Unfortunately cute and bustling did not come with a plethora of gelato shops and we were like camels in the desert looking for a mirage!

We finally got to the deli and Zach checked another local specialty off his list with the smoked meat sandwich.  The kids and I also found a delicious homemade ice cream shop right across the street called Ripples, and ice cream has never tasted so good.

Because we were already at about 9 miles walked for the day and what's a few more, we decided it would be almost as close to walk the rest of the way back to the hotel rather than finding the Metro again.  The unexpected bonus of this plan was stumbling upon the Dollarama, which was another of the kids' preferred destinations after hearing about it at dinner the night before.  No better way to maximize your souvenir money than shopping at the dollar store!

Our legs were about to fall off when we got to the hotel, so it was the perfect night to crawl into beds and couches for some TV time and dinner in the room.  Thank goodness for that grocery run!

We woke up Monday morning feeling refreshed and hungry to check the last thing off of our must-do list - Montreal bagels!  There is an intense rivalry between Fairmount and St. Viateur bagels and sesame is the famous local flavor.  Zach and I had eaten at St. Viateur on our previous visit to Montreal so we decided to try Fairmount this trip.  Yum!  The sesame bagels were fresh from the oven and still warm and we bought a dozen to take in the car for our drive home.  They didn't last long - I think everyone had two before we had crossed the border!  We would have bought more but it was cash only - and therefore the perfect way to use up the last of our Canadian money on our way out of town.

With bagels in hand, we hit the road for home, via Vermont and Ben and Jerry's!  It was a fun, delicious visit to Montreal!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

36 (ish) Hours in Quebec City

We loved Quebec City!  We stayed in Old Quebec, which had a similar vibe to Florence - a small, old, walled city, with cute shops, historic buildings, and cobblestone streets.  Our Airbnb was in a great location and we walked everywhere.

Here are our highlights!

We arrived in town around 5pm - we were literally outrunning daylight as we tried to find our apartment and get settled before sunset.  Everyone was a little stir crazy after a 9 hour road trip, so we got some wiggles out exploring the apartment and settling in.  We had read a recommendation for Restaurant Parmesan and were excited to discover that it was literally a 2 minute walk from our apartment (which became a 10 minute walk when we got turned around on the winding roads.). Unfortunately it was all booked, but the manager sent us two doors down to Polina Pizzeria.  They sat us right away and we had a good meal.  It wasn't anything to write home about, but the kids were happy with pizza and pasta and the vibe was very kid friendly.  

We had a rocky night's sleep, but everyone was still excited to get out on Thursday morning to start exploring.  We knew that we only had one full day in QC and decided to spend the day walking and wandering to see as much of the sights as we could.  

- Breakfast at Paillard.  Voted best croissants in Quebec City!  The treats were yummy, although the atmosphere felt a little sterile - I don't think it's a chain, but it felt very modern and grocery like.  But no one was sad to start the day with chocolate pastries, so it got a thumbs up all around.
- Horse drawn carriage ride!  This was something that Henry had really wanted to do in Florence and we couldn't pull it off, so we promised him we would make it happen in Quebec.  It was awesome!  The driver let all six of us ride in one carriage and bundled us up under warm blankets for a tour of the city.  He took us around Old Quebec as well as parts of the new city.  It was a great way to get our bearings and see a lot of the city, and Zach and I found the driver's narration to be very informative.  The kids loved the ride and were especially excited to feed carrots to the horse at the end.  

- Benjo toy store: The kids had read about the store in the travel books and knew it was enormous and had a special kids-only entrance.  They were sold :) It was kind of off the beaten path, into the new city, but it was a nice walk and not hard to find.  We timed our arrival at the toy store with Zach's work conference call, so he settled into the store's cafe while the kids and I wandered for almost an hour.  They all made some hard decisions about how to allocate their souvenir money, but everyone left with some sort of special treasure (small enough to carry, as was the rule!).
- Crepes for lunch: We were fading a bit and needed an energy boost, so found a sweet little creperie for lunch, called Casse Crepe Breton.  It had an open "kitchen" where we could watch them making the crepes from our table.  We had a combination of sweet and savory crepes and everything was delicious!

- Chateau Frontenac, Terrace Dufferin, funicular ride and Quartier Petit Champlain: After lunch, we wandered over to explore the boardwalk around the Chateau Frontenac.  Zach and I had stayed there when we visited before kids and it made for a lovely, high end potty stop with the kids!  Everyone was wide-eyed about the toboggan slide and begged to return during winter carnival someday.  We rode the funicular down to the Quartier Petit Champlain, which was a short but fun ride with a good view.  We poked in and out of some cute shops, had fun checking out all of the Halloween decorations on the streets, got a maple taffy treat (yum!), and found a gorgeous umbrella installation where we took some pretty photos.  

- Dinner at Cafe du Monde in the Old Port. We went back to our apartment for some down time before heading out again for dinner. We decided to go down to the Old Port, which was one of the only areas of the old city that we hadn't explored yet. It was about a 15 minute walk from our apartment and had great views of the port and its giant cruise ships. Having had Italian for dinner the night before, we wanted something more French bistro and this fit the bill. The restaurant was enormous, had a great kids' menu, and good bistro fare for adults too. Erin and I shared a maple sugar pie for dessert, which was a delicious local treat that we are hoping to replicate at home for Thanksgiving!

Everyone slept much better after Thursday's adventures and we woke up hungry on Friday!  We knew we had to check out of our Airbnb by 11am so we got an early-ish start and headed out for another bakery destination.

- Breakfast at Le Paingruel and coffee at Cantook Micro Torrefaction: WORTH THE WALK!!  Now this was the kind of authentic, local, French bakery we were looking for.  It was about a 15 minute walk from the apartment, outside the walls of the old city, and totally worth it.  The bakery was a tiny little shop with a lovely baker.  We drooled over all the treats before settling on a good variety of choices - and actually went back in for seconds after we polished those off.  Erin got a pear and chocolate pastry that she swears is the best thing she has ever eaten.  We also got coffee across the street at a bustling local shop, which was the perfect complement to our breakfast.  We took a baguette to go and headed back toward the old city.
- Walking the walls of the old city: You can walk all around the old city on top of the city walls, which Zach and the big kids did while Henry and I headed back to the apartment to pack up.  This turned out to be a good decision, as Zach was surprised to find that there are no railings in many spots up on the pretty high old walls!  They walked the walls all the way around to the boardwalk near the Chateau for some great views and sights.

- Montmorency Falls: we packed up and headed out of town around 11am and drove to Montmorency Falls, just outside of Quebec City.  This was super easy to do and worth the stop.  We explored on foot for awhile, and Zach and the big kids walked across the falls on the footbridge while Henry and I found a playground right next to it (another smart decision for the height fearing among us!).  We all took the funicular/tram from the top to the bottom of the falls.  This was a great ride with really good views of a different side of the falls, and the kids liked the little souvenir shop at the bottom.  
We spent about an hour at the falls before hitting the road for Montreal.  Overall, we had a great time in Quebec City and felt like we were able to hit all of the highlights in the time we had.  If we had to do it again, we would have tried to arrive a few hours earlier in the afternoon on Wednesday to give us a little more daylight time to explore upon arrival, but there really isn't anything major that we had hoped to do that we didn't fit in.  It was such a cute, old city with a very European feel, and had plenty of sights and shops for adults to enjoy while simultaneously being very kid-friendly.