The other place for strolling and shopping and people watching is the “Old Port” area. It’s the oldest part of the city – short and narrow streets, architecture in the Second Empire style… The place is loaded with souvenir shops and boutiques and assorted food shops. With all the French signage, you can almost imagine yourself to strolling around some arrondissement during “La Belle Epoque”.
Except, naturally, when you get to the actual shoreline with its repurposed docks and the one single train track (which may or may not still be active) separating the “main drag” from the riverside park.
There are a few items of interest to check out in this part of town; I visited two of them this time.
It’s pretty much a safe bet to check out a science museum, the Montreal Science Center is no exception. It’s quite large, being built onto one of the old docks, but isn’t overly crowded with exhibits and displays. Museum design and display is an underappreciated field – having a lot of cool stuff on display is useless if people can’t see it and understand what they are seeing. It was great to be able to move around and spend time actually seeing things without having to worry about being bumped or nudged by other visitors.
They have two “permanent” exhibits / galleries. “Science 26” is twenty-six (one for each letter of the alphabet, supposedly – I didn’t count them) displays demonstrating the usual physics and engineering principles in ways that kids can beat them up without hurting themselves or each other. Though I did want to yell at a couple of parents – “Dad, the thing with pulleys is designed so your daughter can pull herself up! Give her the darn rope!” “Human” managed to actually be fascinating. It explores lots of aspects of biology and evolution in ways that get you involved while still being in an easy to understand format. Try to block a virtual penalty kick to see how your body’s reaction times change as you age. Check out how prosthetic limbs work – and wonder about how many fake parts you can add into a body before you have to start asking if it’s still a human anymore. Fun Fact I Learned: The average human brain checks in at about 1.5 kg – the average adult human has (at the low end!) about 2 kg of fecal matter in them. So, most people really do have more poop than brains. A lot of good and current stuff going on there.
The feature exhibit – albeit a temporary one; by the time you’re reading this you’ve got just about one more week to see it – is on spiders. I was a bit hesitant to check it out (I confess to being creeped out by any bug larger than my smallest fingernail), but I reasoned that I paid for it, so I might as well. I needn’t have worried. They did NOT have giant sized photos of spiders; the dead specimens were clearly dead; the live specimens were few, small, behind glass, and hard to see anyway. Again, the Montreal Science Center rules by having plenty of space in its galleries, so you’re never overwhelmed by stampeding kids. You can actually breathe and take the time to check things out.
Oh – you can actually touch a moon rock there – and not some piddly little meteorite of lunar origin. They are one of the few places in the world where you can ACTUALLY TOUCH A PIECE OF THE MOON.
I think I made the day of the staffer near the exit by actually stopping and agreeing to take her “Visitor Satisfaction Survey”. She seemed genuinely happy to have someone stop! I didn’t have an answer at the time for the “general comment” question – now I do. Rephrase that question from “Any general comments?” to “Was there one particular exhibit or display that you especially liked?” or something like that. Ask a leading question to encourage them to answer.
Not too far away (and my next stop) is the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. It’s the museum of the history of Montreal, and happens to be built right on the spot where the very first settlement (“Fort Ville-Marie”) of the French was established in 1642. No, they didn’t destroy anything of value when they built the museum, there was another building already there. It’s the perfect place for it, since they’ve dug down into the foundations to uncover some of that original settlement – and it’s right there in the lower levels (along with other building foundations and remnants of Old Montreal) for you to walk through. That’s why the official name is the “Montreal History and Archaeology Complex”.
There’s more than just old local stuff in there. They have a couple of additional gallery spaces. The temporary exhibits when I was there were “Dinner is Served! The Story of French Cuisine” and “Into the Wonder Room”. The former wasn’t so much a look at French food across the centuries as it was a look at the style of dining and how tableware and cutlery changed. The latter is a look at the “cabinets of curiosities” that the well-to-do who were interested in, well, everything would assemble to display their collections of odd and interesting things.
I love these sorts of out of the ordinary exhibits, and it’s great that there are museums willing to have them. I suppose it’s left to the smaller museums to have them; the big ones have their own huge collections with thousands of objects on permanent display, so they don’t really need to get creative that often. Smaller museums have to continually work with others of their ilk to come up with fresh and exciting ideas, and then persuade the big boys to let them have some of their lesser items for just a little while pretty please….
OK, I’m almost certainly exaggerating. But it is really fun to see things like these. One has to wonder how it all came together….
I’m getting into the habit of booking a walking tour whenever I’m on vacation. It’s a great way to see interesting places and things, in a small intimate group, with a guide who knows their stuff. As I was booking my hotel, a pair of nighttime tours caught my eye. A Haunted Red Light District Ghost Walk, and a Montreal Burlesque Walking Tour. As it turned out, they are both run and led by the inimitable “Velma Candyass”, a burlesque producer and performer of more than just a little local note. She’s an amazing guide! Not just in the stories she knows, but in the way she tells them. If you get the chance, book a spot on her tours. Or see a show of hers.
Well, that about wraps things up for Montreal.
Until I need to get away for another weekend….