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Showtime Is About to Hit Streets of Montreal

February 16, 1992|By JUDITH MORGAN

It was raining steadily when my train pulled into Montreal. Gray clouds pressed down on evergreen forests and flattened the hills, including the noble rise that gives the city its name: Mont Royal, the Royal Mountain.

A porter carried my suitcase through the teeming station to an elevator marked "Hotel." In seconds I stepped out into the vast, elegant lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which towers above the tracks. To some it is known as Le Reine Elizabeth, since 65% of Montreal's citizens speak French.

In fact, Montreal claims to be the North American outpost of joie de vivre , a place where Gallic pride and charm run deep, the largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. Its accent, cuisine, style, plentiful bistros and Roman Catholic churches all reflect that Old World heritage. The separatist movement that racks Quebec and the nation does not seem to touch the tourist.

Montreal--the heartbeat of Quebec--offers a close-to-home European experience, one that is accessible from the United States by car or train, as well as by airplanes and cruise ships up the St. Lawrence River. Bilingual signs, menus and populace make the city ripe for travelers who want to practice French.

In 1535, the explorer Jacques Cartier ventured up the St. Lawrence to visit an Iroquois village on the island that became Montreal. But the settlement did not take hold until 1642 when French religious leaders established a mission and hospital.

This May will mark the 350th anniversary of the city's founding. Party plans are proceeding with the same high-powered zest that Montreal turned on for the Olympics and the Expo '67 world's fair.

A waiter at the venerable Beaver Club (a group founded by fur traders in 1785) told me that a re-enactment of the French landing will kick off five months of festivities. A hotel bellman said he thought it would be a good time for the Montreal Expos to have a winning baseball season.

The 1992 calendar will be heaped with jazz concerts, classical music, comedy shows and the opening of a Museum of Comedy, film festivals, fireworks and a world cycling extravaganza called Le Tour de l'Ile, expected to draw 45,000 participants.

My brief visit last May was like a backstage tour of a production in progress.

In the center of Montreal there is no need to get wet or cold on inclement days. More than 18 miles of handsome, airy underground malls link the railroad station, hotels, hundreds of fashionable shops, banks, cinemas and sidewalk cafes. These spacious, air-conditioned passageways are equally popular in summer.

I probed beyond their limits, however, venturing into the drizzle of Sherbrooke Street to visit the famed McCord Museum of Canadian History near McGill University. The museum was not where it was marked on my map. I began asking students for information. "It used to be here," said one, in puzzlement. "Where could it have gone?"

Not far, I insisted. Not with that immense collection of costumes, paintings and archives of Quebec life.

Later I learned from a city tourism official that the McCord had been closed for major expansion to mark the 350th anniversary. It will reopen with flair in May.

I boarded one of the Metro's silent blue trains (they run on rubber wheels) to visit the Montreal Botanical Garden, which has passed Berlin's to rank as second in size of collection to London's Kew Gardens. The rain was whipping under my umbrella by the time I slogged through the gates.

A man appeared out of the gloom, an apparition in a flap-eared cap, knee-high rubber boots and a mackintosh. Binoculars were slung around his neck. He held a soggy clipboard.

"It is too early," he said in a Scottish accent. "You must come back another day. No one is here."

And with reason. In early May, the rose gardens held only canes; the largest Chinese garden outside Asia was still being formed and planted. (It opened a month later.)

A light glowed in a distant building, so I lowered my head and pushed on. Suddenly I was warm, dry and a convert to the study of bugs. My haven in the storm turned out to be Montreal's Insectarium, which opened two years ago.

Schoolchildren, their red boots dripping on concrete floors, were lined up to play video games such as "Invent an Insect." Players choose various heads, wings, body shapes and legs to build a better bug. My turn finally came.

Downstairs were cases of spiders and dragonflies and butterflies--some alive, some mounted. Faure's mighty "Requiem" filled the air.

Across the street at Olympic Park, site of the 1976 Summer Games, I rode the steep funicular to a lookout tower by the Olympic Stadium with its concrete ribs and retractable roof. From the top--at 556 feet--I could not see the downtown skyline, nor the St. Lawrence River, nor the mountains.

"On a clear day, you can see 50 miles," a guide insisted.

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