"Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver," Gille Vignault wrote in his folk song Mon Pays. It means: "My country isn't a country, it's winter." Taken metaphorically, it refers to cultural isolation; in the case of Quebec, the song, written in 1964 at the beginnings of what became known as the Quiet Revolution, refers to political isolation and was taken as an unofficial anthem of the separatist movement. The lyrics really can be taken literally, though. Quebec is winter. I've got a photo of myself in Bermudas and no shirt, digging out of a two-foot dump in late April a few years ago. With rising temperatures of late, however, the winter season has shrunk. A traveller to Quebec can now expect snow on the ground and up to the knees from December until March.
Montreal is known as Festival City. In the summer, there are festival of international jazz, French music, comedy and beer; the fringe festival and the world's largest multilingual literary festival, Blue Metropolis. There are signs everywhere of a "Festival du homard". Don't be fooled. It's not a lobster festival, but a restaurant enticement to eat crustaceans any day of the year. L'hiver, not to be outdone, has a winter festival, held Jan 22-Feb 6 this season. Events, most free, are held in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Ste-Hélène in the St Lawrence River. Montreal, being the home of the Cirque du Soleil, sees many circus troupes pass through town. The Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain kicks off a multiweek tenure on February 15 at Tohu, 2345 Jarry St East.
A comfortable bed
Our friends stay at Auberge Jardin d'Antoine, a charming bed and breakfast on St Denis Street in the Latin Quarter. A budget room costs about $110 (Dh395); a suite $155 (Dh557), taxes excluded. One of the top boutique hotels, featured in Linda Kay's Romantic Days and Nights in Montreal, is Hotel Saint-Sulpice, 414 Saint-Sulpice St, in Old Montreal. The hotel offers a number of different packages, such as a double room for $260 (Dh934) per person that includes tickets to a performance of The Nutcracker by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens plus a backstage tour, or a museums package for $265 (Dh952) a night (two-night minimum).
Find your feet
Montreal is a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own character and all of them connected in some way by public transportation. There are four subway lines and countless bus routes that can take you in all directions on the island. It's the tour guide cliché to mention the Underground City, so I'm mentioning it: once in the subway network, you've got access to stores, malls, concert halls, cinemas, museums and the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team's arena through 32km of tunnel.
While you're out, see an exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Vieux-Montréal is worth a walkabout in winter: the architecture is exceptional and the history goes back a long way by North American standards. You'll want to stop by the Point-à-Callière Museum, the Centre d'histoire de Montréal and/or the Château Ramezay.
You can also find your legs with some skiing on Mont Tremblant, about 90 minutes north, or skating on the pond at Île Ste-Hélène or indoors at Atrium, 1000, de la Gauchetière West St.
Meet the locals
Montrealers are out and about, winter or not. A tourist to Montreal doesn't have to go to some outlying, off-island area to meet locals. Get on the Métro to Villa-Maria in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, walk down Monkland Blvd and drop into any of a dozen bistros, cafes or restaurants. On est tellement fière d'être Montréalais and proud, too, of our ability to speak French and English. Most Montrealers, now that Quebec's language and education laws have been in effect for 30-odd years, are completely bilingual, sometimes multilingual. Given the city's multiethnicity, you'll also have no trouble hearing people speaking Arabic, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese or Russian.
Book a table
First things first: In Montreal, an entrée is the appetiser. On to the main course: Montreal is a gourmand's delight. Montrealers have always thought so. It took a while for the rest of the world to notice. Two valuable resources: Cheap Thrills, available in Montreal bookstores; and the online guide at www.montrealgazette.com.
L'Orignal, 49 Alexis St, features tartare, grilled and braised meats such as wild boar and bison. Dinner for two (starters, mains and dessert), excluding taxes and beverages costs $135 (Dh485). Fourquet et Fourchette, Palais des congrès, St Antoine St, devoted to the cuisine of New France, as Quebec was known 400 years ago, and the native culture found there. An evening meal for two includes soup or salad and dessert for $70 (Dh252), not including taxes. A lunch menu is about half the price. Alep and Le Petit Alep are in Little Italy at 199 Jean-Talon Street East, but the cuisine is Syrian-Armenian with its own Québécois twist. The main resto and its smaller, slightly less-dear cafe neighbour are an antidote to homesickness for things Middle Eastern. The range is $10 (Dh36) to $15 (Dh54) per main.
What to avoid
Don't spend too much time in the Underground City. Most of the people you'll find there are rushing to catch a train or are on their way to work in one of the connected government buildings. You wanna be outside.
You can, if you're dressed right (and natives generally are dressed properly in their Kanuk overcoats and fur-lined Kamik boots or Timberlands) take in some shopping along Ste Catherine Street, or buy art or antiques in the high-end galleries on Sherbrooke Street. If the cold gets to you, drop into Les Cours Montréal or Eaton Centre, or any one of the hundreds of shops, catering to all tastes, connected to the Underground City.
I've been away from my adopted home since January 2008. I miss everything, even shovelling. You shouldn't miss: poutine, the dish of French fries, gravy and cheddar cheese (so endearingly written about by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker last year); bagels, which in Montreal are handmade and only baked in wood-fired ovens; and shopping at the Jean-Talon or Atwater markets (covered, so you can shop in the winter). Here you'll find produce, meats and beverages. You can also have a quick lunch in one of the many cafes and traiteurs. Don't forget to bring home some Quebec maple syrup.