Get Your Fête Nationale On in Montreal
A two-hour parade, a giant bonfire and outdoor rock and jazz concerts. This may sound like homecoming weekend in a Midwestern college town, but Quebec residents annually ratchet those activities to a fever pitch in a unique celebration of their heritage.
Attendees of NAFCU's 48th Annual Conference and Solutions Expo in Montreal will have a chance this week to immerse themselves in one of the cornerstones of French Canadian culture at Fête nationale du Québec (Quebec's national holiday), also known as St. John de Baptiste Day.
The province-wide holiday, celebrated every year on June 24, closes banks and government offices while bringing revelers of all ages into city parks and promenades in celebration. Expect many areas of downtown to be closed to traffic and occupied by massive crowds of Montrealers and Quebecers of all races, creeds and colors.
St. Jean de Baptiste Day is woven into the history of Quebec from its earliest years. The first known celebration occurred on June 23, 1636, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River with a bonfire and five canon shots.
Although celebrations throughout the years have been codified by the government and supported by the Catholic Church, the bonfire tradition dates back to pagan times, when it was a part of traditional Summer Solstice celebrations. But the holiday didn't gain national status until May 11, 1977, through an Order of Council by then Lieutenant Gov. Hughes Lapointe. From then on, things only got more festive.
June 24 is the Feast Day of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, but events this year begin the evening of June 23 with Le Grand Spectale, a massive free outdoor concert at Place des Festivals on Rue Jeanne-Mance. Quebec comedians and musicians will entertain the crowds starting at 6:30 p.m., with the major acts taking the stage at 9 p.m. The only language spoken or sung during the evening, of course, will be French.
The festival continues June 24 with défilé de la Saint-Jean, the longstanding annual parade celebrating the history and beauty of Quebec culture. This year's parade will march under the theme Le Québec, une terre où il fait bon vivr! (Quebec, a land where life is good!)
Now 172 years old, the two-hour extravaganza starts at 1 p.m. at the corner Rue Boucher and Rue St. Denis. Organizers have hinted that there will be free gifts for early arrivers.
Threaded in and among those activities will be hundreds of local celebrations, or fêtes de quartiers, at parks and public spaces throughout the city and province. Fireworks, bonfires, face painting and activities for kids mark the events. Even Montreal's Chinatown will host a street fair as part of the celebration.
Everything ends on June 24 with the lighting of the traditional bonfire at Parc Olympique de Montréal (4141 Avenue Pierre De Coubertin). Locals will tell you that nothing says Quebec pride like a pyre of fire.
As for those who aren't done celebrating, the 36th annual edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival begins its 10-day run June 25 at the Place des Festivals. Featured artists, which number in the hundreds, include jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Chris Botti, DeeDee Bridgewater, the John Schofield/Joe Lovano Quartet and others. Aging rockers The Steve Miller Band and Huey Lewis and the News also make appearances.
On the Quieter Side: But there's more to Montreal than festivals. The city is rife with history, culture and bon vivance. Here are a few more recommendations for those wanting to leave the crowd behind (remember to check whether these destinations are open during the festival).
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Scale Mount Royal: Located north of downtown, Mount Royal (1260 Chemin Rememberance) at 764 feet is less a mountain and more of just a large hill. But Montrealers are proud of their promontory, which has three peaks and gave European explorer Jacques Cartier his first view of the area that would become the city.
A broad path and winding road allow both hikers and motorists easy access to the summit, which opens to a spectacular cityscape. The adjacent Mount Royal Cemetery is the last resting place for many local dignitaries, and visitors can even hoist a tall cool one to the grave of brewing giant John Molson.
Saunter through Old Montreal: The once walled district of Vieux Montreal (303 Rue Notre-Dame Est), founded in 1642 and the city's oldest neighborhood, is just a five-minute walk from downtown. The area still retains much of its historic charm. Historic architecture abounds and cobblestone streets lead to a variety of shops, cafes and museums, including the Pointe-à-Callière: Museum of Archeology and History (350 Place Royale), which features a rare underground exhibit of the city's original aqueduct. Old Montreal's St. Lawrence riverfront boasts some large recreational spaces.
Sail aboard Le Bateau-Mouche: Montreal basically occupies an island near the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. A ride aboard the riverboat le Bateau-Mouche (Rue de la Commune Est at Vieux-Port de Montreal) is a leisurely way to take in the city sights without the hassle of the crowds. The boat holds 180 passengers and offers open-air seating in warmer weather.
Visit Notre-Dame de Montreal Basilica: Fans of gothic architecture will revel in the Notre-Dame de Montreal Basilica (110 Rue Notre-Dame O), what was once North America's largest religious structure and home to Gros Bourdon, one of the world's largest bells at 12 tons. Look for beautiful art and woodworking and an impressive array of stained glass windows in this impressive, neo-gothic structure built on a foundation that dates back to 1672.
Shop the Underground City. Get away from the crowd and by visiting La Ville Souterraine, also known as the Underground City (800 Rue de la Gauchetière O). The subterranean center located beneath the pavement of Montreal's downtown.
Comprised of 20 miles of tunnels beneath the streets, the Underground City is home to subway and bus routes, shops and banks, and even an event arena.
Scratch at the Montreal Insectarium: Visiting North America's leading insect museum may not be to everyone's taste, but it's one of the city's most unique experiences. The Insectarium (4581 Rue Sherbrooke Est) is home to some 250,000 species – some living and some not – and you can even savor your favorite members of the arthropod phylum with a little dash of hot sauce. Bon appétit!
Browse the Marché Atwater: Coffee, pastries, meats, cheeses, and fresh farm fruits and vegetables crowd the stalls at the Marché Atwater (138 Avenue Atwater). The elegant Art Deco structure with its landmark clock tower is home to a bevy of delectable edibles. The Boulangerie Première Moisson bakery produces 40 different varieties of bread, and the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee entices passersby to stop and linger.