Quebec City…..Getting there is NOT half the fun, but once you get there…ooh la la!

Every year on Shirleyfest, about midway through the month, I take a short trip near my host city. I have figured out a pretty good formula for this excursion. I never plan it in advance. I let my new local friends suggest the place and where to stay and where to eat. I then find the intersection of the best weather and the availability of the suggested hotel and that is when I go.  That’s how I ended up at the Islington Hotel and seeing MONA in Tasmania, Australia and the Barclay House in the Cotswolds.  This year it is  recommended by my friends Danielle and Paul that I go to Quebec City, stay at the Le Germain Hotel and eat at Chez Boulay.  I follow that advice exactly and I am very glad I do. Quebec City is drop dead gorgeous. It is as if you doubled Carmel,  California  and put the second one on a huge bluff above the first and added big sky, puffy clouds and lots of river traffic. Oh and by the way, the amount of history crammed into such a small space is mind-blowing. From French explorer Champlain’s discovery of the place in 1608, through the English overthrow of the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and then its role as the one time capital of Lower Canada, you cannot turn a corner without feeling the history.img_2157

As for the title of this post, I am not talking about the existential philosophy about journey versus destination–I am totally on board with loving life’s journey. No, I am talking about the mechanics of getting from point A to point B.  I have long suspected that the phrase “getting there is half the fun” was propaganda  put out by our parents’ generation, who in our case would put five kids in the back of a Chevrolet and drive and drive endlessly and call that a vacation. They loved it. Of course they did–the two of them in the first class front seat, chatting away  with a clear view. But in the backseat economy section, five of us were wedged in, punching, teasing, fighting for the window and sitting on each other (no seat belts of course). I mean really–when I thought about it,  was it half the fun to spend two days crossing the Drake Passage  strapped in my bed to get to Antarctica–or wasn’t it much more fun when I got there to be marching with the penguins?  Nearly 24 hours flying to Botswana was not fun, but it sure was fun going on safari at night when I got there. There are really only two ways to get to Quebec City from Montreal–rail or bus. Every spot I checked said to use the bus as they are both the same price and same time investment, but the bus has many more scheduled departures. So,  I take the bus for 3 hours. No big deal you say…..yes it is a big deal…..bumpy, claustrophobic and hot and while the website promises cushy comfort seats, with wifi –you really can’t read or use wifi when all you are doing is drumming your fingers and wanting to jump out the window and ask the cars whizzing by if you could possible ride with them.


I arrive (happily on terra firma) at the Le Germain Hotel. It is an oasis of calm, where Antoine, the professional, thoughtful concierge, and Esther, who is both lovely and  extremely capable at the  front desk, manage to put me in a top floor city view room that makes it hard to want to go out and explore. But first I need some food. I head to Café Bistro du Cap and have a lovely brunch on the terrace outdoors and a much needed Aperol Spritz.img_1894It is a gorgeous day so I first  walk to the Musée National Des Beaux-Arts Du Quebec. It is a three pavilion complex mostly of modern and contemporary art. I really want to see an immense plexiglass exhibit called The Flux and the Puddle by David Altmejd. It is like a museum within a museum with figures and gels and resins and lots of things I can’t begin to understand running through these cubes of plexiglass. The description says it reminds us that evolution never ceases. I like that. Here is me alone in the room with the work…..evolving.img_2087I am finally forced to leave the museum as they are closing and I wander about through the Upper Town, seeing the citadel, churches and shops until heading down the Escalier casse-cou (Breakneck Stairs) to get ready for my dinner.  Before dinner I snap this picture from my room of the sun setting over the city.img_2212I wander through the crooked streets and up the hills trying to find my restaurant in the night. I hear a man call out from way above me, “Are you lost, my dear?”  “Hopelessly”, I say.”Come up the hill and I will help you”, he calls.  I scramble up the hill and meet Jerry  who moved to Quebec City from New York several years ago. He couldn’t be happier living in Canada in this beautiful little town. After a fun chat, Jerry points me in the right direction and I make it to Chez Boulay.

Chez Boulay is owned by Jean Luc Boulay and Arnaud Marchand, two legendary restauranteurs and is acclaimed for its seasonal northern cuisine. I have what may be the best meal yet of this year’s Shirleyfest. The meal is greatly enhanced by the vivacious, knowledgeable and extremely fun bartenders, Catherine and Mary pictured here.


They take the time to describe the exotic ingredients in the various menu choices and what wines would pair well with what dishes. I decide to start with arctic char carpaccio which has cattail hearts, milkweed pods and an elderberry marinade. Literally incredible.img_2217My main course is the house speciality of bison cheeks, braised in red currant vinegar, with celery root puree, carrots and potatoes. The chef kindly eliminates the mushroom component for me due to the unfortunate fact that I am allergic to mushrooms. This is my dish. img_2226Doubly incredible. My resolve to walk away happy and dessertless was to no use, as Olivier, Chez Boulay’s director, sensing he had a food lunatic in his midst sends out pie made from sea buckthorns laced with a pine forest spikenard creme anglaise. Yup that’s right and this is what it looks like.img_2244Tomorrow is another day.


The next day the weather changes dramatically, but the town remains charming. I bundle up and go to the outdoor market along the river where all of the wonderful local apples are available.img_2265I see the impressive Basilique Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Quebec.img_2299The most photographed site in Quebec City is the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a huge castle with a copper roof built originally as a residence for the colonial governors and since has housed celebrities and dignitaries. It is impressive on the outside, but inside it is overrun by my fellow countrymen conversing loudly in large groups. img_2143I am very happy I am not staying there and return to my lovely hotel to pack up and return to Montreal.   Via the train this time!

Put your shoes on, open the door, see what happens

It was a short night last night with the Don Henley concert, dinner after and the construction workers starting up at 6:40 am.  When I’m foggy, I can’t plan, so I just pull one of my Shirley maxims out of the bag and let it guide me. The title of this post is a maxim I grab often and it has never let me down. As I open the door to Place d’Youville, this is what greets me.img_1673

Beautiful crisp fall day.  Since my last post was about a rare day in Montreal that didn’t involve food, I intend this post to make amends for that.   I want to start with, well… the first part of the day.  As we can all agree,  pastries are a very important start to any day while on a trip and I literally am smack dab between two of the best pastry shops in all of Montreal–Maison Christian Faure and Olive and Gourmando.  The first is lovely, refined and quiet while the second is raucous, noisy and rustic. Both often have long lines, but the beauty of a month of Shirleyfest is I have psyched  out the line timing and can usually time both just right for a fix any day I want.

The lead picture is from Olive and Gourmando, where a few days ago I had the most delicious breakfast, thanks to Benjamin getting me in and seated at the table overlooking Rue St. Paul, the oldest street in Montreal and one street from my apartment.


And on many mornings I face these choices at Maison Christian Faure.img_1739

But today, I want to try something different, so I head to the iconic Parisian style bistro L’Express.  I take the metro 3 stops and walk a few blocks and am warmly greeted by Arryanne.  I want to see what they do with something simple, so I pick the fruit plate and coffee.  Well… this is what I get.


It is such a beautiful simple thing that I really don’t want to destroy it. So I decide to subject it to a layer by layer deconstruction which I photograph to be able to do this the next time I have house guests. I won’t include all the layers in this post, but just look at how delish this one layer is.img_1696

Fortified, I decide to stroll up Rue St Denis.  The street, like many of the streets in Montreal, has little pedestrian areas every few blocks to sit and relax. Here is one I take a seat at for a while.img_1703I stop to shop at a great place that features designers from Montreal and Quebec, called La Gamine. I have a most interesting conversation with the woman running the store today and when I ask her name, she points to the street sign–Denis–just like the street.  I think Denise might just want to do a Denisefest after our long talk. I buy myself a few great things and then take a bike from the Bixi rack and bike over to Mile Ex. I was getting hungry–I mean it was fruit after all.  I end up at Manitoba. The space is beautiful with two long bars, a few minimalist style tables, and tables both out back on a patio and out front in a parklet area. One of the owners, Simon, is there and he is so friendly, as is my server, Blaine, and the two chefs I end up sitting in front of (open kitchen)— Frank and Cedric.  img_1728The food is fresh, local, organic ingredient, driven and as close to nature as possible. I decide on a salad of two kinds of greens, housemade aioli, roasted cauliflower and shallots and topped with fresh grilled sardines. Frank and Cedric tell me that the sardines, which are perfectly cooked, are female sardines that have the “caviar” in them.  Seriously…this is a restaurant that gets the fine points down while being ultra casual and cool.img_1723 I end up talking to a fellow diner at the bar, Philippe, who is a photographer with his studio nearby. He confesses that this is his lunch counter several days a week.  His dish looks amazing too!

I need coffee. I have made a point of trying as many locally roasted coffees as possible and the best by far is a company doing artisanal coffee called Dispatch Coffee. Their headquarters and roasting area, as it turns out, is next door to Manitoba. How convenient for me! I buy a bag of coffee and get a cup to go. I turn around to take this picture and the lovely lady who had gotten my beans gives a wave just as I snap the camera.img_1734 Pretty much epitomizes why I am loving Montreal–yes the food….but most importantly the people.


Biosphere, balloons and bikes…how I made one wrong turn and ended up at a slot machine.

Feel free to read today’s post on an empty stomach as it contains no food descriptions or pictures. (But be warned…. the next post is all about food.)

 So what do you do in Montreal if you aren’t at a restaurant or munching on croissants?  Today I went 10 miles on my bike and walked 26,000 steps in search of the answer to that question. I picked out my Bixi bike intending to ride over Pont Jacques-Cartier to the Île Sainte-Hélène. Being a mathematician and not an astute biker,  I biked straight for the bridge from my apartment  only to realize that I had intersected it at the center span and would need to go quite a distance to get to the entrance. But fortunately I could bike to a Metro stop nearby that would go there  and leave the bike. As I turned the corner, I saw this:


This is the Aires Libres art installation known as Le Projet de Boules Roses (comically referred to as “Pink Balls”). 200,000 balls in 5 shades of pink stung along Rue St. Catherine in the area known as Gay Village. It is intended to support the LGBT community and draw people to the area for shopping and restaurants. People were strolling around and having fun. 

I hop the metro and take the yellow line under the water and emerge on the island. There right before my eyes I see peeking at me:img_1099

Hello there Biosphere! I remembered as a child (a very very young child) that the biosphere was built as the American Pavillion for the Expo 1967 held in Montreal.  It is so cool to see it up close and it now houses an environmental museum that as you go thru the temperature changes from tropical to frigid and in between. The Île is a beautiful park and  I walk around it until I see the striking Andrew Calder sculpture”Man”  (L’Hommme) that he created for Expo 67. I realize that I can see my apartment in the view across the river while standing at the sculpture.img_1149Time to rent another Bixi bike. It is so easy to hop on and off these bikes and walk or take the metro in between. The stands are everywhere. I ride over Pont du Cosmos to the Île Notre-Dame intending to circle that island and return my bike at the end. But the Grands Prix Cyclists is taking place today and some of the roads are blocked. I get almost to my return spot when I am turned back by an official. She tells me there is another Bixi stand up the road. I dutifully ride up and see this:img_1159There is no one around and when another biker comes by I say–Pouvez s’il vous plaît dites-moi ce qui c’est? in my perfect French and he says “What?”  In his perfect English he explains that  it is the Casino–the former French Pavillion for Expo 67. I say it must be closed and he laughs. “It never closes! You are on the back side. Go around.” I do and it is like another world. Taxis are pulling up and loads of people are going in( I’m not going to judge their attire, but….).  There to the side is a Bixi stand. I put my bike in and decide to go inside. There are so many things wrong with this picture but I just had to take it. What is mainly wrong with this is not that I am in a casino all sweaty in my biking clothes but….. as so many of you know…..SHIRLEY DON’T DO CASINOS. Well at least it’s not in Vegas. I still have some integrity. 


I meet a guy while taking this picture who asks how much I have won. I tell him I am not playing. He looks at me like I am crazy and tells me he just won $2,000 at the blackjack table. I tell him well then leave.  He once again looks at me like I’m crazy so I take my own advice and leave. Back on my bike for the  ride home but this time over Pont de la Concorde. I think I am getting the hang of this when I realize I have missed the bike lane and am now about to merge with a zillion cars. I stop and see that the bike lane is shut off by a tall barrier. I am frozen and then a man yells to me from his bike that he would lift my bike over the barrier. And he does! Canadian men are very nice…and very strong.  

I am riding along when I realize I am about to pass Habitat 67, a model housing complex built for Expo 67 and now is considered a very desirable place to live. It is 354 identical cubes made of  prefabricated concrete. Originally the cubes were combined in different numbers to create apartments and as the years progressed apartments have been merged and some are 12 stories high. img_1182

I make it back to the Old Port and stop for a sandwich by the water where I talk with Alin, an accountant from Laval. He makes a great effort to speak English as he really isn’t fluent and I so appreciate his effort. Once home I shower and go out for mass at Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, lovely stone church erected in 1675.img_1184

Walking home I pass the store that I took pictures of the other night when a wedding was going on there. I went in and the mother of the bride, Dominique was there.  She is lovely and we had a great chat and it turns out she is my neighbor here on my street. The store’s name is Room Service.


My last excursion for today is to go out to Olympic Park at night and see the lit botanical gardens. It takes two Metro lines to get there but it is worth it. The Japanese garden was my favorite. img_1224I get a few dumplings at the stand in the park, reverse the ride and walk home from Place des Armes. And that is a non food-related Montreal day. Next up…food, glorious food.

And the winner is….St. Viateur Bagels


img_0809Did you know that Montreal has a rivalry with New York over bagels? Everyone here talks about it. Montreal bagels are smaller and thinner with a bigger hole and are always baked in a wood fired oven.They are boiled in honey-sweetened water before going into the fire. And to make it more interesting– the city is evenly split between those that love the ones from St Viateur and those that swear by Fairmount bagels. The shops are in the same cool Mile End neighborhood a few blocks apart—so off I set early this morning on my Bixi bike. I arrive at St Viateur and there is NOBODY there. img_0808After hearing about the usually long lines around the block I assume they are closed, but no–there with his wood-fire paddle shoveling bagels into the oven is Joe Santa Maria. I asked for whichever bagel is coming out of the oven now and it is sesame. I tear into it and it is different–really crispy on the outside and chewy inside. Delicious!  Joe and I have a great chat about the karma of coming when there is no line-(he has no idea why) and how people often mistake him for Adrien Brody.   As I left, the line was quickly forming. I walk a few blocks and find myself at Fairmount Bagelsimg_0817–only one person ahead of me. Sesame is also coming out hot and I take one and sit on a bench—hmmm–good–but no comparison to St Viateur. Or maybe it was just that Joe was so gosh darn adorable.  img_0807

Now that I am on a roll I decide I’m already committed to the Mile End neighborhood, so I head to the most famous smoked meat place in town–Schwartz’s. Now there the line is down the block. But I notice that a separate door says take-out and I go in there to see wonderfully smiling Helen saying come on in and get my sandwich. She points to a lovely area in the back to eat and I think—why on earth would I wait in that line and sit in a noisy crowded elbow to elbow diner when I can get the same thing right here. I order-it is smoked brisket on rye bread with yellow mustard.img_0831 You can go lean, medium or fatty and Helen says to go for the medium–great choice. So happy! img_0845

Helen tells me where the nearest Bixi bike stand is and I go get another bike and head to the Place des Arts. The symphony opens tonight and I’d love to go, but online they were sold out. I go into the beautiful arts complex and find that indeed there is one ticket available and it is an excellent seat. Out with the AMEX and the ticket is secured. Kent Nagano has been the conductor for 10 years and quite acclaimed plus the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal is in a magnificent building.  So my day has gone from bikes and bagels to little black dress and violins and that is just how Montreal rolls.  img_0850

The piece tonight is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana which I love because it combines the orchestra with a large chorus.  Stay tuned!

48 hours into Montreal….trés bien!

I think this pretty much sums up the 48 hours.  IMG_0525But you expect a little more detail probably.  I arrived without any problem to my lovely apartment in Vieux-Montreal–the old part of town near the water. It is always  a bit scary before I open the door for the first day of Shirleyfest. Will it measure up to the pictures online? I am happy to report that this one exceed my expectations. It is a very old stone building and  looks out on cobblestone streets and people riding by in horse and buggies. Inside tho it is very modern with a lovely kitchen.IMG_0393Too early to cook for people tho and I head out for my first dinner—at Le Serpent– a  walk away where I sit at the bar and enjoy conversation with Ann the bartender, a couple who left 6 kids at home and are in town for some ‘clubbing” and a very nice Parisian fellow on my right in town for business. Great meal and a good walk home. Day 1 not too shabby.

Day 2:   I always like to get a good walk in first thing and today after solving some internet problems and stocking up on some critical groceries–wine, water, coffee, I headed out to rent a bike for 30 days and buy a 30 day metro card. Then I’m off to Jean- Talon outdoor market. Loads of fresh produce and the market is ringed with food trucks and little stands where you can buy everything. I go for the “grilled cheese” from Qui Lait Cru. SOOOO good.IMG_0411But I am here not to down prepared food, but to buy fresh produce so I stock up a bit. The market is beautiful and the produce perfect. Don’t you want to buy these?IMG_0418Now I am ready to bike home on my Bixi bike. I put my purchases in my basket and head thru Little Italy and it is about a 45 minute bike ride home. Relax a bit and decide to try to go to dinner at Foxy– a very hot new restaurant that I am unable to make reservations in advance as they are “booked up”. Not to worry. I manage to get in and enjoy an Aperol Spritz and a lovely dinner of melon and tomato salad, smoked pork ribs and yams with cartelized red onions. The bartender is Renaud and reminds me of Elmer from Tony’s back home. He and the front of the house, Corinne, and I make plans to go to lunch this week at the sister restaurant Olive et Gourmando. Day 2 also not shabby.

Saturday. I am up early and reserve the last spot available for the 9:30 bike tour with Fitz and & Follwell. I bus over there and meet up with a group of friends traveling together and we head off with Tom our guide. A really spectacular ride though the city with stops at McGill University, the cultural center, the old port, the Plateau neighborhood and much more. I learned a lot, got some exercise and had fun. One of our last stops was to see these wonderful houses. I think they are Montreal’s version of San Francisco’s painted ladies.IMG_0508

Once home I hear about a food festival at the clock tower quay which isn’t that far from me. I head over there and it is amazing. Al kinds of food to sample and the people watching is quite fun. The sign I started this post with is at the entrance.   I decide to climb the clock tower which is actual a monument to WWI soldiers ( why? Because it is there)IMG_0547

I get some great photos at the top and now it is time to head back to my flat. I am amazed by how many brides I pass on the short walk home–I think I counted 5 wedding parties. This was my favorite.IMG_0554Bon Soir until the next post.

Montreal…I’m coming for you!

I leave tomorrow for my 2016 Shirleyfest in Montreal. The packing is all done, the reservations are made and the research is done, and now I get to just think about how I want to enjoy this month. I have already connected with several locals and have been invited to dinner at their homes and to a French play. I have reserved my bike for the month thru Bixi and I’ll get my Opus card which is a month long metro pass when I arrive. Apparently my apartment is above a coffee house so that will be nice to wake up and smell each day.

I invite you to follow me on this journey and see where it goes.

À plus tard, Je vous verrai au Canada!