Everywhere It's Christmas
From Frankfurt to Budapest to Montreal, we visit some of the world’s most enchanting Christmas festivals.
At the POP Montreal headquarters in the heart of Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, it’s easy to get caught up in the creative buzz. Far from the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown Montreal, this two-story vintage building exudes the funkiness of the neighborhood itself. Laptops churn, cellphones ping and volunteers chatter in French up and down a narrow, twisting staircase, working to finalize plans for the roughly 400 bands that will play at close to 50 venues for this month’s 15th anniversary of POP Montreal, the city’s coolest indie music festival.
Stacks of office supplies and leftovers from past festivals clutter the ground floor. A circle of mismatched couches works as a makeshift conference room, and as I sit down to wait for my meeting with Dan Seligman, the festival’s creative director, someone hands me a bottle of beer: a spicy, rose-colored quaff called Rosée D’Hibiscus, brewed here in the Plateau at the Microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel.
My initial visit to Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood was two years ago with my wife to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We stayed at the cozy, 21-room Auberge de La Fontaine on Rue Rachel. Across the street was the Parc de La Fontaine, one of the city’s forested public spaces, often referred to as the “lungs” of Montreal. That warm September Sunday afternoon we strolled arm-in-arm past clusters of picnickers, guitarists, drummers and entwined couples. Caught up in the moment and dismissing the infamously long Canadian winters, I said to my wife, “I think we could live here.”
Today, while I imbibe and reflect, I think back on the last three days of eating, drinking and generally nosing around in what some call Canada’s Greenwich Village. One of the largest of 19 neighborhoods — boroughs, as they’re dubbed in this island city of 1.5 million — Plateau Mont-Royal sits in the shadow of its namesake, the majestic Mont-Royal, Montreal’s highest point and the apex of its trail-laden, 500-acre park designed in 1876 by Frederick Law Olmsted. Around 130,000 residents, median age 34.4, call the Plateau home. French is the lingua franca, but the majority of the population is bilingual. There is a comfortable mix of students, a growing number of expats from France, Anglophones, tech workers and other young professionals, hipsters, Hasidic Jews and no shortage of the creative class. Forty-nine percent are single, and the preferred mode of transportation is the bicycle. Bikes, in fact, outnumber cars. Rush hour on the Plateau is an orderly stream of two-wheeled commuters of all ages.
“The Plateau is the hippiest, hippest, most bohemian of all the neighborhoods in Montreal with the highest concentration of artists in Canada,” says Catherine Binette, a Montreal native and manager of media and leisure for Tourism Montreal. “It also has the largest concentration of artistic venues, small cafés, studios, libraries, as well as secondhand libraries and secondhand vinyl stores. Its population is very young, lively and creative.”
The Plateau’s present path to hipness followed a familiar historic arc. The borough was once home to working-class immigrants. They lived in what are now referred to as “Plateau houses,” the 1,000- to 1,200-square-foot, two- and three-story duplexes and triplexes with staircases built on the outside to save space on the inside. Over time, as immigrants prospered and moved on to other areas of the city, the neighborhood became run-down. The lower rents that followed in the 1960s and 1970s soon attracted students from nearby universities such as McGill University and the French-speaking Université du Québec à Montréal. Artists followed, too, lured by the abandoned textile mills and warehouses where they found large workspaces, perfect for setting up studios for painting and playing music.
Gentrification — which moves at a considerably slower pace in Montreal than, let’s say, Brooklyn, New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood — began in earnest in the 1990s, as retailers opened trendy shops and restaurants on the main commercial corridors such as Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Saint-Denis Street and Duluth and Mont-Royal avenues. Young professionals arrived from the suburbs seeking a more bohemian lifestyle, raising the rents and converting those Plateau houses into single-family residences. Yet there are strong rent controls in place, and the city has made a concerted effort to preserve the authenticity and affordability of the borough. High-rise apartments are a rarity in the Plateau, and the many attractive low-rise structures that anchor street corners are preserved solely for business enterprises such as cafés, bike shops and bodegas rather than high-end hipster housing. One of those corner enterprises is the venerable Wilensky’s, est. 1932, famous for its grilled-salami-and-bologna sandwiches with mandatory mustard and homemade sodas.
That preservation effort in the Plateau Mont-Royal is led by the political party Project Montreal as part of a broader campaign to slow down an exodus to the suburbs and to create sustainable neighborhoods on a human scale. Interim Project Montreal Leader and Plateau Mont-Royal Borough Mayor Luc Ferrandez states on the organization’s website: “Convenience stores, book stores, record shops, grocery stores, cobblers and other typical neighborhood businesses are well implemented in the Montreal urban tradition. Their presence encourages residents to walk, to buy locally and to socialize, which is essential to having thriving neighborhoods.”
I wanted to see if that idealism was reality. So, on a drizzly April afternoon, umbrella in hand and accompanied by Emilie Braymand, coordinator of marketing, tourism and communication for the Société de Développement de l’Avenue du Mont-Royal, we set off down the “Avenue,” as it’s called by locals. Braymand is part of a wave of recent French expat arrivals to the north end of the Plateau.
Our first stop on the Avenue is l’intervalle, a women’s shoe boutique, where the distinctive leather and suede shoes are displayed under lights like jewelry. Co-owner and co-founder Vicky Scalia tells me the store only opened in March 2015, but because demand is so high, she and her husband, co-owner, co-founder and CEO Sam Assaf, have opened four more stores in the Montreal area. Scalia describes the people who live in the neighborhood as “well-cultured. That’s why we chose the Plateau to open our [flagship] store. A lot of the customers are from Europe and have an appreciation for the European style.”
Just down the Avenue from l’intervalle is Aux 33 Tours, the largest vinyl store in all of Quebec province, established in 2007. Floor-to-ceiling records climb the store’s walls, some 60,000 albums that are quickly restocked from a warehouse containing another 800,000. Owner Pierre Markotanyos grew up in the Montreal suburbs collecting records. He would bus down to the Plateau every week on buying trips, and when he decided to open his own store, it just made sense to locate it on the Avenue. He estimates that up to 25 percent of his customers live in the Plateau.
“It’s a very artistic place with a lot of musicians, painters, actors and sculptors,” he tells me. He has entertained offers to expand to other areas, but says, “Why would I branch out and open up in another location when I have customers coming here from everywhere?”
A few doors down, Manager Pauline Rousseau greets us at the Bleu & Persillé, a fromagerie that’s the only one of its kind in the borough. The shop, filled with natural light, is less than a year old and sells 250 varieties of cheeses; 40 percent from Quebec and nearly 60 percent from Europe, with a few cheeses from Australia and the U.S. A unique refrigeration system combines cold air with humidity. Rousseau says the system “creates a humid atmosphere for the cheese — like in a cheese cave.”
She adds that the neighborhood has enthusiastically embraced the new store. “The idea was to create a local shop where all kinds of people can meet and share their love for food.” I sample two delicious cheeses from Quebec, both cheddars: a one-year-aged sheep’s milk called Taliah, and a two-year-aged cow’s milk called Île-aux-Grues. I really don’t want to head back into the rain. “One more sample, please?”
The next day I meet Danny Pavlopoulos, a Montreal native from Spade & Palacio Tours and my guide for the Mile End district of the Plateau Mont-Royal. Our rendezvous is at Schwartz’s, a Jewish deli on Saint-Laurent Boulevard that was established in 1928 by the Romanian Jewish immigrant Reuben Schwartz, where I barely finish the generous portion of a classic smoked-meat sandwich on rye.
The energetic Pavlopoulos wants to show me the painted murals from a popular public art festival held annually in a section of Saint-Laurent, a busy thoroughfare that divides Montreal between east and west. As we take in the huge-scale artwork, Pavlopoulos says, “The Plateau is the most artistic neighborhood in Canada. It’s a hotbed for creativity because it is cheap to work and live here. One in 10 people makes their living from some form of art.”
We jump on a bus and head up Saint-Laurent to the Mile End district. Less francophone than other parts of the Plateau, the Mile End seems quieter and more residential. There are row houses and working-class hangouts like Café Olimpico and Club Social that predate the arrival of the new hipsters.
Mile End is home to a large portion of Montreal’s Hasidic Jewish community and to the Plateau’s biggest employer, Ubisoft. The French video game firm set up shop in 1997 and now employs around 3,000 people in a repurposed textile mill in what used to be a neglected section of the borough. That is no longer the case. Pavlopoulos says the techies have created a demand for cafés, breweries and sandwich shops, adding to the overall gentrification of the neighborhood.
Still, many veritable neighborhood institutions remain, including St-Viateur Bagels, open 24 hours at its flagship location and “Embracing the bagel since 1957.” We tear apart warm sesame bagels and watch the traditional cooking process that includes boiling them in honey water and baking them in a wood-burning oven. Pavlopoulos says a rivalry exists between bagel aficionados in New York City and Montreal as to which city has the better product.
“Ours are better,” he says matter-of-factly.
Back at the POP Montreal headquarters, Seligman arrives and plops down on a couch. Joining us is Brad Barr, an American expat, guitarist, singer and songwriter who, with his brother Andrew, form the band the Barr Brothers, a previous headliner at the festival.
I ask Seligman about the origins of the Plateau-based POP Montreal festival. “When we began 15 years ago, there were a bunch of young, emerging bands that were coming up. We were able to help their careers and, in turn, they helped put us on the map,” he says. “Artists like Arcade Fire.”
Brad originally visited Montreal with his former band The Slip, and in 2005, he decided to make it home. Brad was attracted to the musical venues and the community of musicians, especially the blend of both francophone and anglophone influences. “This is an easy neighborhood to meet people,” Brad says. “There is a do-it-yourself feeling that everyone here is starting something. Taking their life in their own hands, like starting a coffee shop that also sells skateboards. Anything goes. I have never felt more at home than here.”
Sept. 21 to Sept. 25