Montreal in winter

02/22/2014 12:00 AM

02/20/2014 2:27 PM

The expression on Ringo Starr’s face says it all. A photo in Pointe-à-Calliere, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History, shows the Beatle crouched over his drum set, cymbals strategically placed to hide as much of him as possible. It’s clear from his mournful face that Starr would rather be elsewhere, and who could blame him? The band’s much-anticipated visit to Montreal on Sept. 8, 1964, was marred by threats on the drummer’s life. The Beatles played afternoon and early evening gigs and promptly bolted from the city, never to return as a group.

These and other tidbits covering the Beatles’ rise from their roots in Liverpool, England, to the band’s emergence as a worldwide musical phenomenon are part of an interactive exhibit on display at the museum through March 30. Visitors can easily spend a chilly winter’s day here, browsing through more than 380 Beatles-related items, including many on loan from Montreal’s private collectors.

Hard-core fans can get their “Yeah, yeah, yeah” on, becoming the fifth Beatle in a life-size display of John, Paul, George, and Ringo while singing karaoke to a number of their songs.

Hanging out with the Fab Four is just one of many indoor options in Montreal in the depths of winter when average temperatures hover around 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Also among the city’s 38 museums are the popular Museum of Fine Arts with its sumptuous galleries of painting and sculpture, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts, which focuses on works created from about 1939 to the present.

The glorious Chateau Ramezay, the first building in Quebec to be named a historic monument, walks visitors through 500 years of Montreal history. Built in 1705 as a sumptuous private residence for Montreal’s governor, the Chateau played a role in the American Revolution. It was occupied by Benedict Arnold and visited by Benjamin Franklin, among many others, during attempts to convince Montrealers to join forces with the Continental Army.

Besides museums, there are many other ways to enjoy Montreal from the inside out. In this fashion-forward city, shopping is popular year-round. Montreal’s Underground City, a vast complex of some 1,700 stores, 200 restaurants, theaters, gyms, metro stations, and clinics — to name just some of its amenities — makes it possible to shop, dine, be entertained, and even have minor medical issues cared for without ever dodging a snowflake.

Visitors can gain access to the Underground City from a number of downtown points; maps are readily available at the city’s hotels. Some hotels connect directly to the Underground City, enabling guests to enjoy a lengthy mid-winter vacation and plenty of retail therapy without needing to bundle up in a heavy coat and boots.

Those who like to flirt with Lady Luck can head to the newly refurbished Montreal Casino, which celebrated its reopening with a gala party late last year. From slots and poker, to craps, blackjack, roulette, and baccarat, the casino offers a variety of traditional and electronic gaming venues.

If gambling doesn’t appeal, it’s still fun to wander the attractively appointed building situated on an island in the St. Lawrence River, have a drink at one of the luxurious bars, and enjoy a meal at one of its four restaurants.

The former much-loved Nuances Restaurant — which for non-gambling foodies was sufficient reason in itself for a drive to the casino — is no more. Transformed into “Le Montreal,” it has become a more casual venue. Fortunately for those who loved the old Nuances, Chef Jean-Pierre Curtat, who has been with the casino since 1993, is still in charge and the food remains first-class.

If traveling with children makes a casino visit impractical, the whole family can enjoy ice skating indoors. The 1000 De La Gauchetiere office tower, the tallest skyscraper in Montreal, is topped by a public rink, with rental equipment available. Sunlight streams through the rink’s domed roof, making it a cozy place to spend a blustery afternoon.

Just when it seems that winter will never end, the butterflies arrive at Montreal’s Espace pour la vie (Space for life), which comprises an insectarium, 10 greenhouses, and one of the world’s largest and finest botanical gardens. Sure harbingers of warmer weather, the thousands of butterflies and moths, including many rare examples, are studied by local scientists who observe every phase of their life cycles.

The insects arrive from butterfly farms in 10 different countries, where the business of raising them contributes to the local economy. By encouraging the fair-trade, sustainable business of butterfly farming in Costa Rica, for example, the insectarium has helped preserve more than 123 acres of that country’s rainforest.

For observers, watching the delicate, multi-colored creatures flutter cheerfully in the warmth of the botanical garden’s main exhibition greenhouse brightens even the dreariest day.

It takes plenty of food to power through a chilly winter day in Montreal. The city’s famous bagels made with a touch of honey are fine for breakfast and daytime snacking; the incomparable smoked meat sandwiches make a hearty lunch. But when evening falls over the city and temperatures are at their frostiest, it’s time to tuck into other local comfort foods.

Poutine — the carbohydrate-heavy dish of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy touted both for sticking to one’s ribs and as a hangover cure, is everywhere. After decades of being known simply as an inexpensive, regional dish, poutine now shows up even in high-end eateries, sometimes even prepared with lobster. Perhaps its ultimate gentrification, however, is at the upscale, no-holds-barred restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, where poutine is served with foie gras.

Restaurants throughout the city serve hearty meals of thick stews and game, perhaps followed by sugar pie — a teeth-achingly sweet maple syrup concoction — or pouding chomeur The latter — “Poor Man’s Pudding,” in English — is a surprisingly tasty dish of plain cake sauced with thick maple syrup and cream. The dish was developed during the Depression when bakers made do with limited ingredients.

Fun and heartening as Montreal’s comfort food is, one of the pleasures of this most French of North American cities is lingering long over a gourmet winter meal — perhaps the duck magret with tortellini, shitake mushrooms and celeriac at the elegant Toque! restaurant or the guinea hen with mushrooms and cream sauce at laid-back Restaurant Bonaparte. The slower pace in restaurants means plenty of time to chat with the wait staff and linger over dinner.

End the meal hours later with a tiny glass of Quebec ice wine. There are few better ways to come in out of the cold.

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