The main city of Quebec covers Montreal Island (www.tourisme-montreal.org), at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, and other 74 minor islands, many of which are uninhabited.
Dubbed the Double-Decker City, because of its two souls, we set off in search of both: the modern Downtown Montreal, illuminated by the impalpable northern light on one hand, and the futuristic Underground city, which, despite the air conditioning, is just as lively with the changing colours of artificial lighting, on the other. We're in good company: about half a million people pass through it every day to escape smog, traffic, and the cold winter.
Step 1: The Underground City
We arrive in town on a pale January day, and as soon as we leave the airport we get a taste of its peculiar weather, with harsh winters and short summers, which are generally windy and humid. A Canadian friend of ours told us about this popular joke in Montreal: “How was summer? I don't know, I was sick that day!” It's just natural that this kind of weather has lead to the development of the Underground City, the largest underground complex in the world. A set of interconnected tunnels both above and below ground.
Its 32 km of tunnels, most of which are wide enough to have buildings on both sides, cover over 12 km², including shopping centres, private apartments, hotels, banks, offices, museums, universities, seven underground stations, two train stations and a bus terminal, as well as the Bell Centre (www.centrebell.ca), which holds an arena and an amphitheatre. With over 120 exterior access points, the underground city comprises 80% of office space and 35% of commercial space in Downtown Montreal.
The best-known area is located in the centre of city, between Peel and Place-des-Arts metro on the Green Line and between Lucien-L’Allier and Place-d’Armes stations on the Orange Line. The tunnels are open during the metro service hours from 5.30 a.m. to 1.00 a.m., though many accesses are closed outside business hours.
Step 2: Winter
To our muffled eyes the lashing cold worsened by chilly wind gusts, and the snow that keeps falling turn the landscape into a futuristic nativity scene with snow covered skyscrapers that stand tall on lonely streets. We had read on the guidebook that the underground city is promoted as an important tourist attraction. We get to notice this during those few moments we remain outside: the ubiquitous RÉSO logo, invented in 2004 following the rebranding of the underground city also to indicate the access point, is a star of urban design. Freezing cold, we enter the UndergroundCity.
We start our visit from the commemorative plaque unveiled in November 2006 at Place Ville-Marie in honour of urbanist Vincent Ponte, who had started planning the first segment in this point back in 1962, building the office tower and the shopping centre. The metro connecting Bonaventure to the central station was opened in 1966. Following the 2003 redevelopment, today one can walk for 3 km across downtown centre without ever going outside, from the UQAM Sherbrooke Pavilion at the corner of Sainte Famille Street and Sherbrooke Street, to the Lucien-L’Allier metro station just south-west of the Bell Centre.
After a long walk, we stop to sit on a bench and sip some warm coffee as if we were out in a park. Chatting with passers-by, we are quite surprised of the fact that, unlike us, they don't at all feel as if they were living in a in a fantasy dimension; for them the underground city is normal routine. We connect to the internet via free hot-spot access to check the music events in the clubs.
Step 3: Spring
Montreal is the third-largest French speaking city in the world after Paris and Kinshasa in Congo. Approximately 70% of the population speaks French, which is the official language of communication. Also important are the English-speaking minority (just over 10%) and many ethnic communities, among which Italians are a strong presence.
The Underground City reveals all its elegance around Peel, where most luxury and designer shops are housed. From the Place des Arts metro station we access Complexe Desjardins (www.complexedesjardins.com) with its four futuristic towers housing offices of public and private companies. The atrium of this 152m complex could seem like a square in the year 2100 if it weren't for a little old homeless lady who is wandering around in search of warmth. Her presence brings us back to 2010. Progress is still far away, despite all this technology.
One spring day, once this harsh cold will be over, the outdoor city will awake from hibernation. The Francophone Juste pour rire comedy festival (www.hahaha.com), created in 1983 by Gilbert Rozon, will make you laugh in July with its gag improvisation championships, street performers and short films. In 1985, Anglophone events were introduced as well, thus creating the English version Just for laughs. The 31st Montreal International Jazz Festival (www.montrealjazzfest.com) will take place between 25 June and 6 July, 2010. Not to miss the Mont Royal's Tam Tam, a hand drum jam, which takes place around the monument to George Etienne Cartier every Sunday afternoon from April to October in the old French-Canadian bourgeois quarter, which gave its name to the city. Enchanted by the pace of the present, the public forgets about the future bustling sheltered from the wind, many metres below their feet.
By Federico Gurgone