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Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Things to Do in Montreal

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

In May, I took a trip over the border to visit our neighbors up north in Montreal, where the people are bilingual and every Starbucks is "Cafe Starbucks." Here are a few things I did—and you should do them, too, if you ever find yourself there.

1. See Stars at Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal

On the outside, Notre-Dame Basilica, designed by Irish architect James O'Donnell and dedicated in 1829, looks like your standard issue cathedral—but the inside (above) will take your breath away. The interior was designed by Victor Rousselot and Victor Bourgeau, and it's more like a theater than a church; the floor slopes downward, toward the altar. The ceiling is dotted with more than 5000 hand-painted gold stars, which are just one karat shy of being pure gold. The stained glass windows were added in 1929. Fun fact: Quebec native Celine Dion married long-time manager René Angélil, also from Quebec, at the basilica in 1994.

2. See a Saint's Heart in a Jar

On the fourth floor of Saint Joseph's Oratory, behind a locked grate, a thick sheet of glass, and in a jar, is the heart of Brother Andre (his body lies in a tomb beneath the oratory). In 1904, Andre had a small chapel built on Mount Royal; when the congregation grew, a larger space was built in 1917. Construction on the current oratory—the largest church in Canada—began in 1924, but Brother Andre wouldn't live to see its completion in 1967: He died in January 1937. Saint Brother Andre is credited with thousands of miraculous healings and was canonized in 2010. 

If that's not enough to get you to take a trip to the Oratory, consider this: Brother Andre's heart was actually stolen and held for ransom in March 1973. To get to the heart, the thieves had to pick three locks and chisel the urn off its pedestal. Though the church refused to pay, the heart was eventually returned in December 1974.

3. Ascend the World’s Tallest Inclined Tower

Built at a 45 degree angle, this 574-foot structure is the tallest inclined tower in the world. Commissioned as part of the Olympic Park for the 1976 games, the tower and stadium weren't finished until the 1980s, thanks to construction strikes and other delays. After the games, a plan for an observatory was added to the still-incomplete tower; these days, you can ride trams up a funicular (a hydraulic system and curb structure allow the tram to stay horizontal the entire time) to the top for 360 degree views of Montreal. (Sadly, I only got the chance to check out the tower from the ground—there was a long drive back to the States in front of us—but I totally plan on going to the top the next time I'm in town, fears of heights be damned!)

Just how does this incredibly inclined structure stay upright? According to the Olympic Park's website, it's all about the ratio of the tower's mass: "the top of the tower is a mass of 8000 tons which is permanently attached to the infrastructure and to the solid concrete implanted ten meters below ground level that has a mass of 145,000 tons, the equivalent of three aircraft carriers!" 

4. Check out Taxidermy and Fossils at Musee Redpath

Located on the McGill University campus, Musee Redpath is pretty quaint when you consider a place like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That doesn't make visiting any less enjoyable, though. On its three floors, you'll see rocks and minerals, dinosaur bones, and taxidermy (including the terrible stuffing of a mountain lion, bagged in Quebec in 1859), plus a section on Ancient Egypt (which includes the facial reconstructions of mummies), an informative/horrifying display describing the Chinese practice of footbinding, and much more. Plus, it's hard not to love a place where most of the signage features dinosaurs (the sign saying that the museum was open was a smiling T. Rex; on the flip side, a crying Triceratops announced the museum was closed!). It's a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. And did I mention it's free? 

5. See Napoleon’s Chapeau at Musee des Beaux-Arts

The Musee des Beaux-Arts Montreal takes up multiple buildings on Sherbrooke Street West. In the main building is an impressive display of stuff that once belonged to Napoleon. This includes everything from art to furniture to the emperor's ink-splattered pen case—and, of course, the famous hat he wore during the Russian campaign in 1812. There's also his shirt, his boots, and a lock of his hair.  Entry is free.

6. Buy a Book—or a Musical Instrument—at Montreal’s Oldest Bookstore

The first Archambault opened in 1896, and its current headquarters, located at 500 Rue Ste Catherine, is seven stories tall. Here you'll find books in both French and English, records, CDs, DVDs, and sheet music, but the real draw is the top floor, where instruments are sold. Guitars, drums, and pianos each have their own rooms; when I was there, a recital was being held in the piano room. 

7. Walk in the Foundations of the City

After paying an entrance fee, visitors to Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal's museum of history and archaeology, are treated to a fun video introduction of the city's history, from before its founding in 1642 to the present day. After that, you head down to the ruins—because the museum itself sits on the site where the city was founded. You'll see Montreal's first cemetery (above), then wander through parts of buildings constructed on the site in the 1700s and 1800s, including the stone structure of Montreal's oldest sewer, the remains of fortifications built in the 18th century, and the foundations of the Royal Insurance Building, which was demolished in 1951. 

Until March 30, 2014, the museum is also home to "The Beatles in Montreal," commemorating the Fab Four's stop at The Forum on September 8, 1964. There's John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce, the controversial cover of Yesterday and Todayan interactive portion where you can karaoke with the band, and a startling array of vintage merchandise, including Beatles hairspray, dresses, scarves, board games, bobbleheads, drum sets, wigs, balloons, and so much more.

8. Go to this Costume Shop

I found Joseph Ponton Costumes Inc. while wandering around Old Montreal. The shop has been in business since 1865—making it the oldest costume store in Quebec—when Ponton began gathering costumes in the back of his barber shop. Inside, you'll find everything from a fuzzy Buzz Lightyear head to a full-body E.T. costume. 

9. Buy lots of Maple Syrup

After exploring Marche Jean-Talon—where a flautist played "My Heart Will Go On"—I stopped at Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, a store that only carries things made in Quebec. Here, a salesperson told me more than I ever wanted to know about maple syrup—after which I bought cans and cans of the stuff to bring home. I mostly chose medium, which the salesperson said has a bolder flavor than the light or amber varieties. Also available for purchase: Maple cookies and candies, Quebec-made jams and beer, and frozen rabbit, among other things. 

10. Eat. A Lot.

The lobster pasta I had at Liverpool House just scratches the surface of the incredible food I ate during my stay in Montreal. At Le Gros Jambon I scarfed down a delicious smoked meat sandwich; at Taverne Square Dominion I raved about the cider-steamed mussels with cheese and bacon (my stomach is growling just thinking about it!). The cromesquis de foie gras (basically, little fried foie gras bon bons) at Au Pied de Cochon were a delightful treat—and don't even get me started on the foie gras poutine. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gibeau Orange Julep, an 80-year-old restaurant shaped like (you guessed it!) an orange, which provided both an excellent meal (smoked meat sandwich again) and a fun photo opp.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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