Travel north in winter. Face the howling wind; inhale the frigid air; embrace the horizontal sleet, then the icy mist, and finally (mercifully), the soft, drifting snowflake.
It will make you feel intensely alive. The poutine you walked two miles in an icy wind to find will taste like an unearthly delight in a tiny, brightly-lit cave of a diner on a dark city street. You will experience the comfort of a fireplace in a complex, synesthetic symphony of senses beyond your imagining. Your hotel room, after 12 hours of zigzagging across a slushy city while navigating a new form of wintry precipitation every hour, will feel like the center of a perfect and hitherto unknown universe. And the northern city itself, stripped naked and laid bare to the elements, affords a translucent geography not visible in other seasons. In this harsh clarity lies a surprising form of connection.
Montréal in February requires a certain degree of grim commitment from the traveler who hails from a southern clime. Its residents, however, barely break their stride in a snowfall that would shut down my home city of Richmond, Virginia for days. Single-digit temperatures put nary a dent in the throngs of shoppers and cafe-goers: they simply bundle up and carry on.
The joie de vivre persists well into the night, as bars become crowded, beckoning pools of warmth, and music drifts across the darkness. The festival Montréal en lumière had begun the day before we arrived, and at the free outdoor site people ziplined overhead, sledded down an elaborate. twisting chute, and rode a Ferris wheel high into the moonlit sky:
Here we savored a bit of tire sur neige, maple sap boiled to a thick consistency, spread on finely chipped ice,then quickly scooped up onto wooden sticks for a treat at once warm and cool, the maple sap intensely sweet against the cleansing chaser of ice:
Afterward we walked back to our hotel against an Arctic wind, the glowing orbs of the streetlights offering some hope that civilization would prevail.
Gentler weather was in store the following day for our walk up Mont Royal, in a light snow that piled softly and drifted little on a mostly windless day. Here, we sampled the north woods and the city skyline alike:
One might imagine a city so enrobed in snow would be hushed, curled up, and waiting. In fact, it is fully alive and the celebration never ends. Why should it? The colorful throngs of humanity are like bursts of tropical color against the bleak backdrop, and the city’s bones, naked to the world, make the shared humanity of the joyful hordes seem more present, more intense, and more real.
And if perchance winter starts to feel a bit long, the Jardin Botanique has the cure for that in its labyrinth of greenhouses. After all, spring is always coming: