Of Flamms and Flying Cars

16 Mar

RED Ferraris wink at revellers in downtown squares. Music booms out of every doorway. Policemen direct traffic through circuitous detours long into the night. It’s the typical annual Grand Prix weekend in June, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world to Montreal.

During the Formula 1 racing weekend, serious sports fans and holidaymakers looking to party turn this normally lively city into a hyperactive creature, roaring with energy, seemingly inexhaustible like the race cars that zoom around its tracks.

Montreal glitters; it’s at its spitzy best for visitors. The night streets are cleared of all traffic and tourists throng all open areas, winding their way from one wild party to another. This first glimpse of downtown Montreal is enough to make us dump our bags at our hotel and hurry out to catch the nightlife before fatigue sets in.

But it is by day that Montreal really makes its way into our affections. The next morning, when the night owls have retreated to sleep away the day, locals mix with sightseers in a more agreeable, manageable crowd. Determined not to waste a sunny Saturday lazing, we explore the downtown area.

The wide streets are lined with shops and cafés, old stone churches, brand name stores and, incongruously, the ubiquitous Chinatown, as we navigate the streets and stroll down to Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal, the triangular, southern end of the city. It’s the perfect way to digest a breakfast of crepes at Chez Cora, or walk off a headache induced by too many pints of beer the previous night.

Winding our way through Montreal’s historic French district is an unalloyed pleasure.

Fancy cars line the cobbled streets, the perfect image of a city where past and present rub shoulders in easy familiarity.

The Place Jacques-Cartier is lined with cafés, most with outdoor seating and overhead canopies, each serving a long list of European beers. Some restaurants even offer mini kegs of beer, with their own taps, set on your table. Stalls scattered around the cobblestone square sell trinkets and souvenirs, and artists sketch caricatures. But the highlight, for me, is the busker offering free hugs. He draws the most number of giggly girls, skipping schoolchildren and amused parents. Motionless and dressed quite normally, except for his lime green fedora, he moves only when approached for a hug. I notice his collection jar fills up quite quickly.

When our appetites demand something much more substantial, we stop at the very French Les Trois Brasseurs, an international chain of microbrewery restaurants headquartered in France, serving that yummy Alsacien version of pizza, la tarte flambée (called ‘flamms’ in Montreal). The flamms are large and thin, with a generous helping of cheese, scattered with bits of your choice of meat.

Pleasantly full, we stroll over to the banks of the rivulet that stems from the St. Lawrence River. The carnivalesque mood takes vocal form with French singers entertaining passers-by. The breeze from over the water is refreshing, and the grassy slopes of the stream issue an irresistible invitation to take an afternoon nap, and forget that we still have to go shopping for souvenirs, for gifts for folks back home, and definitely for some of those famous Canadian maple products. It’s like being in France, but with a distinctly Quebecois flavour.

The busker offering "free hugs" has a collection jar that fills up quickly

The busker offering "free hugs" has a collection jar that fills up quickly

The charming architecture in Vieux Montreal

The charming architecture in Vieux Montreal

The Place Jacques-Cartier is lined with cafés

The Place Jacques-Cartier is lined with cafés

THE next day, we wake up bright and early to make it to the track on time. There are two days of Formula 1 racing, but it’s the final on Sunday that draws the most people, including my friends and me.

Montreal’s race circuit is situated on a manmade island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. We get there by taxi. The grounds are a maze of people, stalls and staff directing the public. Our seats are in the corporate section, a special enclosure that requires us to take a boat to get to our box. We are lucky to be pampered, with a canopy that blocks out the sun, with food and wine, and ear plugs to block the roaring of the engines as the race cars zip by.

For my friends, attending the Formula 1 race is the dream of a lifetime. For aficionados who follow the careers of the drivers with passion, everything about the race is a treat: the racing machines, the hum of their engines, or simply being amongst so many racing fans and cheering their favourite race car drivers. For me, the highlight is all the extras: Montreal city, the parties, the sightseeing, the food. What’s fascinating is the entire experience, not just the final race. I lose myself in the free wine and plump grapes; in the motorboat ride we take to get to our section; in the gift bags the staff hand us when we leave; in the whoosh and zoom of the race cars as they whiz by, making our seats shudder; in the hustle and jostle of the crowd as it shoulders its way out of the track after the race. And, of course, the omnipresent danger of a crash adds a tinge of daredevilry to the enjoyment.

The race itself doesn’t last too long, about an hour and a half. Once it’s over, the crowds are out in full force and it’s easy to be swept away in the rush. The Montreal police shuts down all roads on the way back, so for our return we have to choose between the subway, or our feet. We walk—it takes a little over an hour. We have lots of company. In the searing heat, we buy over-priced bottles of water from vendors and douse our heads. The subway is equally bad; trains are packed tight, like my suitcases after a vacation, chock-full of gifts for friends and family. Whatever you do, you can’t beat the crowds.

Feet aching and a little sunburned, we make it back to the hotel, looking forward to a cool shower and a soft bed. The buzz in the city winds down as the afternoon fades. The big race over, visitors leave, eager to get back home. Cars head for the highway in a long line, causing a minor traffic jam. It’s the typical annual Grand Prix weekend in Montreal.

This article was published on 16 March 2007 in the Indian newspaper Mint.

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