Story by Julia Pelish
Vacay.ca Visual Editor
MONTREAL, QUEBEC — We all know Montreal as a city of festivals. The best known of those celebrations, however, are focused on a particular type of experience, such as food, art, or music. But for the tourist who wants a taste of it all, Montréal en Lumière is a particularly great treat. “There is always something going on in Montreal,” says Alexandre Despatie, a two-time Olympic silver-medallist diver. Despatie, now a television journalist in Quebec, was among the many revellers who took part in the 11-day festival that wrapped up on March 1.
Intrigued by En Lumière and what it might offer, I arrived in Montreal in the early evening by train and after settling into the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth (conveniently located above the train station), I hit the streets eager to discover some new highlight or hidden cultural gem by sampling an eclectic mix of events tantalizingly placed before me.
Montréal en Lumiére (MEL), formerly called the Montréal Highlights Festival, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. Featuring music, dining, arts, theatre and even sports, it lures people into the city’s winter vibe, which is shockingly alive despite the frigid February temperatures. (It was minus-22 Celsius degrees on the first night I was there.) One of the world’s largest winter festivals, En Lumiére welcomed more than 1.3 million this year. The incandescent atmosphere mushroomed into a heat wave during the final weekend as temperatures soared above freezing just in time for the annual all-night modern-art extravaganza, Nuit Blanche.
In a city of 5,500 restaurants, some of Montreal’s finest tables participated in MEL. This year’s gastronomy theme was Spotlight on Montreal. Whether blending culture or wines, Montreal chefs fused menus based on unique pairing concepts. For the hungry tourist looking to explore this foodie destination, the prices were often as enticing as the meals.
At Vertige, a charming bistro (540 rue Duluth Est), chef Thierry Baron prepared a six-course tapas menu that was “fit for an athlete.” Inspired by a pair of celebrity maître d’ and Olympians Benoit Huot and Despatie, A Taste of the Olympics was a protein-rich dinner that started with beef carpacaccio and ended with a decadent chocolate fondant. Huot and Despatie regaled the table with details of their competitive accomplishments and the importance a proper diet plays in sports. Not that any at the table seemed too keen on dieting at the moment. In fact, we ate everything on our plates like champions.
A more conventional themed dinner called A Tale of Two Kindred Cities was held at Renoir, an elegant restaurant in the five-star Sofitel Montreal (1155 rue Sherbrooke Quest). The menu combined Quebecois cuisine with Bonterra organic wines produced in Mendocino, California. I arrived expecting to dine alone; however, my evening morphed into a four-hour dinner party as the hotel’s general manager, sommelier and chef, Olivier Perret, joined me during the six-course presentation of artfully prepared dishes. Perret, a down-to-earth and passionate chef who hails from the Burgundy region of France, remembers “the aroma of my grandmother’s cooking in the morning” and uses this inspiration to create dishes that satisfy the senses. The menu highlight for me was the sweet-chilled lobster carpaccio paired with Bonterra’s light and aromatic 2012 North Coast Viognier.
A Montreal Festival That Has It All
Just as exceptional as the food during En Lumiére was the music component. Montrealer DJ Champion (aka Maxime Morin) and his G Strings, accompanied by the Montreal Orchestra, put on a riveting performance at Eglise St Jean Baptiste (309 rue Rachel Est). Add in the powerful vocals of Pierre-Philippe (Pilou) Côté, along with the magnificent light show, and this performance was nothing short of stellar. The acoustics inside the stunning basilica amplified and uplifted the electro-lounge orchestral concert. By show’s end, the packed audience had erupted into a cheering dance frenzy.
Another powerful vocalist, indie musician Basia Bulat from Toronto, performed at Club Soda (1225 Saint Laurent Boulevard in the Quartier des Spectacles). Bulat’s third studio album, Tall Tall Shadow, is nominated for the 2014 Juno Award for adult alternative album. In Montreal, she played to a sold-out audience. Her songs feature vocals that amaze and her delivery showcases a depth of feeling and emotion. When Bulat plays the autoharp, she seems to tenderly caress the instrument in her arms like a lover.
The MEL outdoor site was also centred in the Quartier des Spectacles at the Place des Festivals. The area was transformed into a Celebration of Light complete with ferris wheel, outdoor interactive art installations, food and fire pits where partiers huddled around to keep warm when they weren’t dancing. Packed with pedestrians of all ages throughout the event this family-friendly zone had plenty of free open-air entertainment to enjoy from live music to fireworks.
Superb dining and a diverse range of cultural entertainment are the trademarks of a great city and Montreal, the largest French-speaking metropolis outside of Paris, certainly strutted its stuff during En Lumiére. Get ready for 2015, when the spotlight will be on a new theme: Switzerland. Can you say cheese and chocolate?
MORE ABOUT MONTREAL EN LUMIERE
Website: Visit Montréal en Lumiére or Tourism Montreal for more information.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Queen Elizabeth (900 Rene Levesque Blvd. W., Montreal, QC); Telephone: 514-861-3511 or (toll free) 866-540-4483; Room rates: A recent search for prices for two adults ranged from $169-$269 per night.
Where to Dine:
Vertije: 540 rue Duluth Est; Telephone: 514-842-4443; email: email@example.com; hours of operation: Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 pm; reservations can be made online.
Renoir: 1155 Sherbrooke West; Telephone: 514-285-9000; hours of operation: Monday through Friday: breakfast, 6-11 am; lunch, noon-3 pm; dinner, 5-10:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday: breakfast/lunch/brunch, 6 am to 3 pm; dinner, 5-10:30 pm; reservations can be made online.