Winter of their content

A light show at the Montreal en Lumiere.
A light show at the Montreal en Lumiere. Photo: AFP

Ute Junker pulls on her thermals in Montreal for the coolest party around.

It's 1am in downtown Montreal, and the snow is coming down in thick, heavy flakes. Far from falling on empty streets, however, it's landing on the heads, faces and fingers of a crowd of revellers.

People are roasting sausages over open fires, dancing to DJs, queuing outside museums. This is Montreal's Nuit Blanche, the culmination of the city's midwinter festival, Montreal en Lumiere (MEL). Tonight, the party goes on until dawn.

Chill out: Family fun on the icy slopes.
Chill out: Family fun on the icy slopes. Photo: Corbis

Montrealers deserve this party. In a city where winter starts early and finishes late, where temperatures can plunge to minus 30 degrees and no one bats an eye at snowfalls of 20 centimetres a day, hibernation might seem the smart option. Montrealers, however, have taken a different route. Instead, they have created a packed calendar of activities that lures out even the most frosty-toed revellers - and that makes Montreal in winter an unlikely, yet irresistible, holiday destination.

Take Nuit Blanche. This year, 185 separate activities were programmed across three party districts connected by all-night shuttles. All but about 20 of those activities were free.

Most of the action is centred downtown, with everything from dance parties and art and sound installations to improv performances. Montreal's many churches are also turned into venues, hosting gospel choirs and sacred-music performances.

Crowds converge for the Montreal en Lumiere celebration.
Crowds converge for the Montreal en Lumiere celebration. 

I have already checked out half a dozen performances when, shortly before midnight, I become frozen with indecisiveness. Should I head towards the Place des Arts, to get a tour through the stage sets of the opera Dead Man Walking, or make for the Theatre Sainte Catherine to catch a special midnight performance of Yasmina Reza's play Art?

As it happens, I get to neither. I'm still trying to decide as I walk past the Belgo building, where many of Montreal's young artists have their studios. I follow the crowds in, and spend the next hour exploring the warren of rooms in a lucky-dip fashion.

Behind one door there's a sound installation. Another room has been turned into a photography studio, where you can have postcards made of yourself standing in front of tropical backdrops. Over here, there's a dance-off taking place; over there, they're refuelling on fresh Jamaican patties.

Snow-covered cemetery gates.
Snow-covered cemetery gates. Photo: Ute Junker

Everyone has their own plan of action for making the most of Nuit Blanche. Some people are happy to queue for hours to get into a particular event; others are doing what I'm doing, strolling the streets and wandering into events at random. Everyone seems oblivious to the temperature, which is sliding to minus 5 degrees.

The snack of choice is tire d'erable, or maple syrup taffy, which is sold from small booths set up around town. The maple syrup is heated then poured onto fresh snow to cool off, before being wrapped around a stick. When I put my first one into my mouth, the tingle of the snow crystals caught in the sticky toffee gives me an agreeable shock.

The Montreal en Lumiere festival spans 10 days of culture, food and fun. The cultural program typically includes theatre, dance, classical and popular music and the odd circus. Each year, MEL celebrates a different global city. This year's feature city, Buenos Aires, is represented by tango masters, cabaret performers and a chamber orchestra performance of Latin composers.

Festive: Christmas in New York.
Festive: Christmas in New York. Photo: Reuters

The city's restaurants also get into the spirit, with 23 top restaurants hosting dinners by top Argentinian chefs.

There's also plenty of free entertainment. In the heart of downtown, there's something on most nights at the Place des Festivals, including light projections, a Ferris wheel, open fires over which you can cook sausages or marshmallows, and concert stages offering everything from rock and techno to tango classes.

The most popular attraction, however, is the 110-metre-long ice slide, which is as big a hit with adults as with the kids.

The festival is far from being the only gig in town. The city's sprawling Parc Jean Drapeau, covering 268 hectares, is the setting for Montreal's Snow Village. Open from January to March, it includes an Ice Hotel, an Ice Bar, an Ice Restaurant and even an Ice Chapel, which has hosted more than one wedding this season.

The thought of sleeping on a bed of ice leaves me cold (sorry), but when we tour through the Ice Hotel one afternoon, I'm impressed by the suites, decorated by a team of 15 ice sculptors on the theme of New York.

One suite is done up like St Patrick's Cathedral, another features the Statue of Liberty, and a third is taxi-themed, complete with traffic lights. My favourite is the King Kong room, which features the ape, the aeroplane - and an empty space in the ape's fist, so you can play Fay Wray.

Many of the city's cultural institutions cater to winter crowds with blockbuster exhibitions. At Arsenal, a converted shipyard, I catch an exhibition of large-scale works by 13 Chinese contemporary artists, including Han Bing and the Gao brothers, which opened at the end of January.

Curator Pia Camilla Copper tells me the timing was chosen to coincide not only with Chinese New Year, but with other February highlights such as Fashion Week.

"A show can only succeed if it attracts a lot of visitors, the curious and the collectors," she says. Having attracted more than 30,000 visitors during Fashion Week alone, Copper's show is definitely a success.

For traditionalists, a number of outdoor skating rinks are dotted around town, with the one by the Old Port offering the most picturesque backdrop. Also available at the Old Port is ice fishing. I'm told the fish - which include perch, burbot and walleye - don't usually start biting until about 3pm, and I wander down one afternoon to have a look. Where I'd imagined men huddled around holes in the ice, I find instead comfortable heated tents, each capable of housing a dozen people.

While we get a sprinkling of snow most days, one memorable night 20 centimetres rains down. The next morning, we head up to Mont Royal, the hill that crowns the city, to wander through the parklands.

The frosted trees look magical; the elaborate monuments in the hilltop cemetery are even more impressive with a fresh coating of snow. The whole city is dazzling, its icy trim glittering in the sun.

If you'd rather stay dry, just head underground. Montreal has 35 kilometres of underground malls, a pedestrian network that will get you almost anywhere downtown. The light, bright space offers a weatherproof way to navigate your way through the city, although you'll need to pick up a map (available at the information counters found in every mall) to find your way through.

The so-called underground city is the setting for another signature Montreal event, Art Souterrain (Art Underground), where artworks are arranged along a seven-kilometre route. In the foyer of one office building, a labyrinth made of multi-coloured milk crates has been arranged; in a quiet laneway off another mall, old bureaus festooned with pearls and lamps create a sense of melancholy, reinforced by the moody jazz soundtrack. In a busy mall, a paper wishing tree is brimming with the wishes of passers-by; elsewhere, small booths play video projections. It's a wonderful way to spend an afternoon:, an art stroll with a sense of the scavenger hunt about it.

Despite the comforts of the underground city, the best way to experience Montreal in winter is outdoors. My favourite memory is one that could only happen in Montreal: in the early hours of Nuit Blanche, couples clad in layers of protective clothing hold each other's gloved hands and waltz in the open air as the snow rains down on them.

Ute Junker travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

FIVE MORE WINTER WONDERLAND CITIES

New York The Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue, ice skating at the Rockefeller Centre, Central Park in the snow: December is a magical month in New York.

Salzburg The spires and turrets of this picturesque city look even better dusted with snow. Come in December for the Christmas Market, and to hear Silent Night in the city where it was written.

Istanbul Skip the crowds and come in January or early February — with a bit of luck, you'll get to see the city gleaming under a coat of snow.

Berlin Things heat up in February, with a wild Carnival season and Hollywood stars in town for the film festival.

Quebec City If you're already in Montreal, the quick train trip to QC is worth it. North America's prettiest city looks even lovelier with a layer of frost.

FIVE WAYS TO STAY WARM IN A MONTREAL WINTER

Steam it up A steam and sauna at Montreal's Scandinave les Bains will warm you up in even the coolest temperatures.

Ice and fire A local specialty, ice cider is made from apples left on the tree through the coldest months. The delicious drink will warm you from the inside.

Pack in the poutine A Quebec signature, poutine hardly qualifies as a gourmet treat. However, if you're out late, you'll soon see why this combination of french fries topped with gravy and curd is so loved: carbing up is a great way to keep warm.

Sweet nothings Nothing beats hot chocolate in cold weather. Drop in at one of Juliette & Chocolat's three branches for the best hot choc menu in town.

Sock it to me If your feet stay warm, the rest of you will, too. A good pair of boots is essential; thermal socks can also help.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Air Canada has a fare to Montreal for about $2150 return from Sydney including taxes. Fly one-stop to Toronto (about 20hr including transit time in Vancouver) and then to Montreal (1hr 15min). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see aircanada.com.

Staying there The historic exterior of the Hotel Gault in Old Montreal conceals a stylish modern interior. Winter rates start from $C179 ($135). See hotelgault.com/en.

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