Poetry and poppyseed

Tim Elliott explores the Montreal milieu made famous by the melancholic artist Leonard Cohen — and comes away smiling.

Because I'm a total misery guts, I've always had a soft spot for the music of Leonard Cohen. Brooding and almost unbearably melancholic, with a biblical focus on death, sex and spirituality, Cohen has for decades enjoyed a stranglehold on the pop genre best described as suicide-folk. To paraphrase Molly Meldrum, this is the music you absolutely must listen to if you're tossing up the idea of killing yourself but need that extra something to get you over the line.

As with all icons, it's easy to imagine that Cohen has always been there, a stateless genius, conjured from the cosmic vapours like the planets and the stars. In fact, he is from Montreal. Imagine my excitement, then, when I discover I'm going to Montreal for work! Finally I can see where the great man grew up, where he drank, wrote and hung out. And if I am really lucky I might even meet him, in which case I can thank him personally for all the moments of great misery he has brought me through the years.

Set on an island in the St Lawrence River, in Canada's eastern province of Quebec, Montreal is famous for its winters, when the temperature can plunge to minus 25 degrees - cold enough to crack the concrete.

When I arrive, however, it's 35 degrees, a heatwave by Montreal standards. The city itself looks much like any other North American metropolis, at least downtown, with big broad boulevards and skyscrapers and lots of panhandlers with broken boomboxes. After a while, however, you begin to notice something unusual in the air, something delicate yet firm, deep and rounded, the sonic equivalent of garlic sauce or a nice glass of beaujolais. Then you realise: they're speaking French! Everyone is saying "oui" and "bonjour" and "au revoir" and pouting as you do when saying those things. Montrealers also speak English but French is the default language, a fact that gives the city an extra dimension of all-round je ne sais quoi.

"Montreal is the most European city in North America," says my guide, Ruby Roy. Roy will be driving me around for the next two hours, much of which she will spend pointing out how Canada in general and Montreal in particular is better than the US. "Here, people don't rush to work, head down, carrying huge Starbucks coffee cups," she says. "We never wear running shoes with our work dresses. And we don't go to the 'mall' to shop: we go to the market."

Roy, who is Afro-Canadian, speaks French, English and Spanish and is typical of Montreal's exoticism. She is also typical in that, like almost every other Montrealer I meet, she has her own Cohen story. She sat next to him for four hours on a plane to Los Angeles, "which was kinda cool".

Roy starts my tour with the Victorian-era McGill University, in the city centre, where Cohen studied English in the 1950s. Apparently his grades were average but it didn't matter: soon he had published his first book of poetry, called Let Us Compare Mythologies, and was playing in an outfit called the Buckskin Boys.

Because of the nature of his music, I'd always assumed that Cohen had grown up in a state of at least mild deprivation. In fact, he grew up in a five-bedroom Victorian home in Westmount, one of the city's wealthiest suburbs. Perched on the southern side of Mont Royal, the hill that gives Montreal its name, Westmount remains posh indeed, thanks not only to its views but because it's one of the few places in the city where you can have freestanding houses. (Most people in Montreal live in such small terraces that they have the stairs bolted onto the outside.)


Houses in Westmount have ivy-covered walls and lawns like golf greens. American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger had a property here "but he's gone now", Roy says, as if describing a recent outbreak of typhoid. "He chopped down 11 trees to renovate, which made him very unpopular."

Cohen's house, at 599 Belmont Avenue, has long been a pilgrimage site for fans. The last time it sold, last year (for $1.4 million), an American couple posing as potential buyers took photos of all the rooms - then posted them online. I'd love to do something similar but apparently the whole of Belmont Avenue is closed for construction and we can't get anywhere near it.

Nice as it is, Westmount couldn't hold Cohen for long. Soon he'd decamped for the city's more bohemian 'burbs, such as Mile End and Le Plateau-Mont-Royal to the north, where he sought transcendence, inspiration and bagels. Along with smoked meat (more on that later), bagels are Montreal's signature food. Bagel connoisseurship is rife here and most people over the age of five have their favourite bagel shop. Still, loyalties seem divided principally between Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel, both small, careworn bakeries just blocks from each other in Mile End.

Roy belongs to the Fairmount Bagel tribe. Cohen belongs to neither, a fact that only seems to heighten his mystique.

"He buys his bagels from Bagels Etc, across town," Roy says, mildly perplexed.

Later that day I visit Bagels Etc, an art deco-styled eatery on Boulevard Saint-Laurent (aka The Main). Here I meet the manager, Simon. "Oh yeah, Leonard," Simon says. "He comes in to shoot the shit when he's in town."

The last time Cohen came in, he tried to give Simon his jacket. "I said, 'Hey Leonard, nice jacket!' And he said, 'You want it?' And I said, 'No, I was just sayin.' But the next day he comes in with three of these jackets in different colours for me to choose from!"

Simon points across the road, to a three-storey bluestone terrace fronting a small plaza called Parc du Portugal."That's where he lives," he says. "He'll peek out his window to see if my light is on."

I cross to the plaza, which has lots of maple trees, a handsome rotunda and a fountain in the shape of a lion's face. I sit down. I wait. Finally, my courage plucked, I knock on Cohen's door. Luckily, no one answers.

Montreal is a surreal city. At first I think this is due to the cognitive dissonance you feel hearing French spoken in North America. But then I begin to notice other things, such as the orthodox Jewish man dressed in black stuffing his face with chips while his wife pedals a paddle boat around a man-made lake in 35-degree heat, or the Catholic priest holding an en plein air art class in an abandoned block, or the clown diving from a 50-metre tower into a pool in Place des Arts (admittedly, this was part of a comedy festival).

In the lift in my hotel I meet a woman cradling a guinea pig like a newborn child. Then there's the weather, which can flip from tropical to polar in about six seconds.

It's also such a civilised city. Bixi, Montreal's public bicycle-sharing system, is the largest of its kind in North America - offering 5000 bikes in 400 depots. Everywhere you go there are Montrealers pedalling about, radiating wholesomeness and joie de vivre. And while I'm sure that traffic jams have occurred at some stage in Montreal's history, I don't see any. I hear a car honk in anger only once.

In 1992, Cohen described Montreal as the "Jerusalem of the north", adding that it had a certain "religious quality". I totally agree with him, and not just because of that Jewish dude in the paddle boat. There's a beatific calm here, a quiet self-assuredness that is no more evident than in Old Montreal, a warren of cobbled streets and fieldstone walls down by the river. Yes, you do see the odd "Get your maple syrup here!" souvenir shop but on the whole, Old Montreal feels blessedly real, thanks in part to the fact that most of the old buildings are still residential.

Old Montreal was also the setting of perhaps Cohen's most famous song, Suzanne, in which he recounts a visit he paid to a dancer named Suzanne Verdal, who lived in a loft nearby. In the song, Verdal offers Cohen "tea and oranges/ that come all the way from China" (pre-food miles, clearly); the two then go down to the river, "where the sun pours down like honey/ On our lady of the harbour."

Today that lady is still there, standing atop Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, her arms outstretched, as if welcoming returning sailors or, perhaps, pleading with the hobos on the riverfront to go easy on the grog. While Old Montreal has remained largely unchanged, this isn't the case in other parts of the city. The Sir Winston Churchill, a pub where Cohen drank so often that they put a plaque on his favourite chair, is no longer a hang-out for bohos but homesick Brits. When I ask the manager about Cohen, he says they removed the plaque five years ago in a renovation. Same goes for Ben's, a landmark smoked-meat restaurant where Cohen and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau once held court; it was torn down in 2006.

The Main, however, does still exist. High up on Boulevard St-Laurent, the Main is a 1950s diner-style steakhouse and a Cohen favourite. It's just down the road from another, more famous, "smoked meatery", Schwartz's, which has had books written about it and, if you can believe it, a musical. On the day I visit, there's a queue of 60 people out front.

The Main, on the other hand, is almost empty. When I sit down, a waiter walks up and throws a menu at me. In the booth next door a man is having lunch with his mother, an elderly woman who, despite her dainty, quail-like physique, is noisily devouring a massive plate of smoked beef with a side of chips, coleslaw and a truncheon-sized gherkin. As I said, a surreal city.

The waiter returns. I point at the old woman's meal and ask, "S'il vous plait?" It's a lot of food but I've got all day. Besides, if you wait long enough, you never know who might walk in.

Tim Elliott travelled courtesy of Tourisme Montreal.


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Montreal from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2660 low-season return including tax. You fly Qantas non-stop to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then to Montreal (about 5hr). See qantas.com.au. As you are transiting through the US you must apply for travel authorisation before departure at http://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there

To see one of the finest art collections in north America, book into Montreal's L'Hotel. Built in a former bank on St Jacques West, this extraordinary 59-room hotel is the brainchild of Guess Jeans co-founder Georges Marciano, who decided to use the property to house his prodigious collection of contemporary art.

There are original works by Warhol, Miro, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, Damien Hirst, Botero, Kooning and Lichtenstein, among others, on every wall and in every room, in the reception and on the street outside. Marciano has put his private art on very public display. Double rooms cost from $C160 ($153), at 262 rue Saint Jacques West, Old Montreal, See lhotelmontreal.com.

The Cohen trail

McGill University, 845 Sherbrooke Street West; www.mcgill.ca.

Leonard's boyhood home is at 599 Belmont Avenue, Westmount.

Favoured bagel shops include Fairmount Bagel (74 Rue Fairmount West, see fairmountbagel.com); St Viateur Bagel (263 St Viateur West, see stviateurbagel.com/main); and Bagels Etc (4320 Boulevard St Laurent, opposite Parc du Portugal).

See "our lady of the harbour" atop Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, at 400 St Paul St East, Old Montreal; see marguerite-bourgeoys.com.

His one-time drinking hole is Sir Winston Churchill Pub, 1455-1459 Crescent Street, see winniesbar.com.

Schwartz's, the "smoked meatery", is at 3895 Boulevard St Laurent; see schwartzsdeli.com.

The Main steakhouse is at 3864 Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

More information

See tourisme-montreal.org.