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Embracing winter in Montreal’s Mile End

<p>I was walking along Montreal’s salt-stained Avenue Laurier when I spotted it. Fire! Yes, deep inside the wooded Parc Lahaie, cheery against the dim of a fading winter afternoon, there were not one, but two untended bonfires blazing.<br /></p>

Bustling area is among city’s most diverse ’hoods



patrick mullin for metro toronto


Reading and chatting at the Esperanza Café in Mile End.





I was walking along Montreal’s salt-stained Avenue Laurier when I spotted it. Fire! Yes, deep inside the wooded Parc Lahaie, cheery against the dim of a fading winter afternoon, there were not one, but two untended bonfires blazing.


This doesn’t happen in safety-crazed Toronto, where Dufferin Grove Park regulars are pleading to keep their beloved rinkside fires, and where there are actually signs reading “Caution: Water’s Edge” at a place called “Harbourfront.” So I stopped to investigate. Over the course of 15 minutes, about a dozen locals came through the park, many of them stopping briefly to warm up. That’s when it dawned on me — Montreal “gets” winter.


My epiphany came at the end of a day spent rambling around the Mile End neighbourhood. Ask five Montrealers where Mile End’s borders are, and you’ll get five different answers, but it’s generally accepted to be the area between Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Avenue du Parc, both north and south of Rue Saint-Viateur.





patrick mullin for metro toronto


The Mile End neighbourhood has retained influences from the many different cultural groups who have lived there.





Over the years, Mile End has gone from bourgeois suburb, to Jewish enclave, to heart of Montreal’s textile industry, to Little Greece/Italy/Poland/Portugal, and now back to bourgeois. But you’ll find remnants of each group in the area, making this one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Montreal.


On a cold winter day, however, a tourist just wants to stay warm, and Mile End is perfect for that. The needle and fur trades are still alive here, and all along Saint-Laurent (“The Main”) are places to pick up the smart coats, gloves, and hats that are part of the streetscape in Montreal.


Some of the city’s best-known contemporary designers have set up shop here as well. Located side by side are the shops of Denis Gagnon and Renata Morales. I can tell the clothes are something else, but it’s the stunning mural on Morales’ wall that brings me in out of the cold.


A short distance down the Main, the design gallery Commissaires is the highlight of a growing number of high-end furnishings and housewares that makes the area feel like New York’s SoHo must have felt 20 years ago.


But if it’s the old-time Montreal you’re looking for, the good news is that you can still find it in Mile End, even if the area is slowly heading upscale. My search for something warm to eat leads me into Wilensky’s Light Lunch, the old-time food counter whose house special, bologna and salami on a grilled bun, sets customers back only $3. Only afterward did I realize the place was featured in Mordecai Richler’s 1959 novel the Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz.





patrick mullin for metro toronto


Alocal grocery store





Nearby are countless second-hand shops, bars that are oddly busy on a weekday afternoon, bagel bakeries, and small grocers like the Euro-Deli Batory, whose lunch counter almost has too many hot soups to choose from. My final stop before discovering the bonfires in the park was the Esperanza Café, a sprawling hangout located in a tin-ceilinged former pharmacy with giant, iced-over windows. The place is jammed with students chatting and reading, and is so appealingly run-down that it feels like the fire inspectors could burst through the door at any moment — but of course, they don’t.





sofitel


Montreal’s Sofitel hotel in winter. Writer Patrick Mullin found the floor-to-ceiling windows bring the cityscape in.





My digs for the night, the Sofitel Montreal, are modern and located right downtown, but I’m amazed to discover that the hotel embraces winter just as easily as bohemian Mile End. The lobby, my room, the Renoir restaurant — all have floor-to-ceiling windows that make it impossible to turn your back on the outdoors. It’s as if the architects wanted the cityscape, and not the hotel, to steal the show. It fits.


As I tuck into what has to be the warmest bed I’ve ever slept in, snow begins to fall on Mount Royal, just outside my enormous window. I think to myself: If this is how good Montreal is in winter, imagine what it’s like in the spring.


















mile end


Fashion & design:




  • Commissaires 5226 Saint-Laurent, 514-274-4888



  • Denis Gagnon, 5392a Saint-Laurent, 514-279-1719



  • Renata Morales, 5392 Saint-Laurent, 514-271-5061




Food:




  • Wilensky’s Light Lunch, Fairmount & Saint-Urbain, 514-271-0247



  • Euro-Deli Batory, 115 St-Viateur W., 514-948-2161



  • Pharmacie Esperanza, 5490 Saint-Laurent, 514-948-3303




Drinks:




  • Bar Saint-Laurent 2, 5550 Saint-Laurent, 514-273-2359



  • Casa del Popolo, 4873 Saint-Laurent, 514-284-0122



  • Salon Vert, 5386 Saint-Laurent, 514-495-4448




Stay:




  • Sofitel Montreal, 1155 Sherbrooke West, 514-285-9000




 
 
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