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Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Things to Do in Montreal

Original image
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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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.


Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.


Raw dough.

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.


Kids trick-or-treating.

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.


The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.


Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.


Kids knocking on a door in costume.

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.


Sugar skulls with decoration.

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.


Little girl trick-or-treating.

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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