Last week during a bromantic evening with my bestie, we reached that deep conversation mode we generally do around beer number five.
We were in the cozy comfort of our local craft beer den. It was an icy evening with temps “feeling like” the minus thirties and I was dreading the 15 minute walk home.
We talked about our present lives, relationships, shrinks and everything in between. I was indifferent in saying that my winter was going well and I was in good spirits. I hadn’t really thought about how I was just generally happy this year and so far away from the depressed and slouching life I managed one year ago. He asked what it was I was doing right or what had changed. “Don’t laugh at me ok”… I warned. “I’ve been using the Underground City”.
The truth is that there are many factors to my cheerful living, but I shit you not, the 33km of indoor tunnels and everything they connect me to are a big piece of that pie chart.
Let’s get a few things straight. Underground is not the proper term. A large portion is at ground level or even elevated. I call it the Interior City. It’s more than a never-ending mall we locals seriously take for granted and definitely not just something tourists enjoy visiting. Here’s a list of great things to do and see in the Interior City and what I’ve been taking advantage of these colder months.
2019 will mark the 11th anniversary of the Festival Art Souterrain (UnderGround Art Festival). Covering a route of about 6km of tunnel space, each year local and international artists create one of the longest indoor installation networks out there for just under one month. A great free activity to keep warm in March, generally divided into two walks, one east and one west, this year’s theme is True or False.
Permanent collection. Throughout the system there are dozens of pieces of public art dotting corridors, head office lobbies and open atrium space.
Québec adopted its policy for the integration of art into government and public buildings, colloquially known as the 1% law, in 1961. Since the first set of passages were laid out in the 60’s, the amount of sculpture, in situ and framed pieces are abundant. They include the oldest in the city, dating back to 1750, a statue of Greek goddess of the sea, Amphitrite located in the Centre de Commerce Mondial. The piece is in front of a beautiful fountain, often the backdrop for wedding photos. Yes, people are wed in this atrium with its indoor/outdoor feel.
My personal favourite is the installation by Montreal based artist Christian Kiopini located in the tunnel beneath the gorgeous Jacques Parizeau building. The three piece acrylic, glass and paint work titled Stratifications Pariétales, is in one of the most beautiful and quiet stretches of the Interior City. All works can be found on the Art Public website.
Many museums are only metres away from the nearly 1000 entrances to the RÉSO (the term and branding for the unified system since 2004). The Contemporary Arts Museum is the main Montreal arts institution directly linked since 1992. They often throw late night half party, half exhibition events knows as les Nocturnes du MAC. If you skip last call you can ride safely back home to the 68 métro stations directly or indirectly connected to the museum.
The 46th floor of Place Ville Marie is anything but underground. The massive office and commercial complex that covered the big hole (train lines and station that scarred and separated downtown) in 1962, was the gateway to the much larger hole which is today’s RÉSO. Atop the skyscraper is the Observatoire Ville-Marie, downtown’s beautiful 360 degree lookout. This 180m high platform is my personal office at least twice a week during both winter and summer…thanks WIFI. The natural light is ENDLESS. The elevator ride up will cost you about 20 bucks, 50 for the year, cheaper than a SAD lamp. Admission for tour guides is free..
EAT & DRINK
There are endless food and beverage options, over 500 actually. Most of these are schwarma spots, pseudo Asian counters, smoothie bars and fast foods located in the many downtown foodcourts. I’m seriously looking forward the TimeOut Market set to open in the Eaton Centre this fall.
There are also great spots for third wave coffee on the go. I was so happy to see My Little Cup open in the McGill Métro Station. My go to when underground is Tunnel Espresso Bar. This is where I get a cortado on my way to the Observatory. Their location is a mere 9 feet squared. Enough space for two baristas, a Kees Spirit espresso machine and some seriously good Joe.
There are high end food options as well. One of the city’s most reputable chefs Normand Laprise’s Toque serves both lunch and dinner connected to the RÉSO. I recently sat down for a stellar roasted octopus at Rosélys, directly above the Central Station and happy houred over gin cocktails at the stylish Bartizen in the International District.
I regularly run the Beyond the Basilica walking tour. After visiting the impressive Royal Bank lobby we navigate the sheltered system past a piece of the Berlin Wall, under the modern corridor leading to the Lipstick Forest towards Chinatown where we head back outdoors for snacks, impressive street art, thrifting and Montreal’s best coffee. A must for first timers to the city.
SEE A SHOW
Canada’s cultural playground, the Quartier des Spectacles and more specifically the Place des Arts is a massive portion of the grid’s east end. The 5 theatre venues and Symphony Orchestra House group about 4500 concert seats. The biggest names in comedy, music and dance have wooed crowds here for over 50 years.
In the west end, over 21 000 seats are filled weekly for the Habs’ games at the Bell Centre and about 15 000 for music performances.
The two main downtown movie theatres are also integrated into the network.
Leave Penn Station to Montreal’s Central and take an indoor walk to a wide range of hotels like the W, Bonaventure, St. James and so on. Two main stations for suburban and international train travel, 10 Métro stops and two bus terminals are also included.
With the construction of the REM linking the airport to the downtown network set to open in a few years, the world will be accessible from the RÉSO. It’s kinda cool.
The possibilities are endless and the RÉSO truly is a city within a city. I’m about to head out to run errands in the hustle and bustle of downtown. I bring my white Converse with me in my tote bag and replace them with my wet winter boots at Parc Métro. I miss wearing shoes. I throw my jacket over my left arm (I wish the Métro had coat check) grab my New Yorker out of my bag and enjoy the 6 km ride downtown over a few articles.
At the World Trade Center I drop off my dry cleaning on my way through the tunnels that lead me to catch the exhibition at the MAC. I grab lunch at their restaurant and ride the train over to the Eaton Centre to get a coffee on my way to the office to write this post.
I meet a friend downstairs for a quick 5pm glass of wine at the Nacarat bar before rushing to the cleaners who close at 6pm. I make my way back to Parc Métro, get off the train, sit down to put my boots and jacket on. It’s a skating rink out there, which seems to be the pattern this year. I’m dreading the 10 minute walk home…