It’s minus 20, and 35 centimetres of snow have blanketed Montreal over the past 24 hours – it’s the biggest blizzard of the season so far. The airport shut down soon after I landed, and the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, where I set up camp, are as slick as a Wet Banana slide. The city has come to a full stop, and all is quiet but for the distant rumbling of incoming snowplows and the scraping of shovels on icy pavement. I’m in town to embrace winter like only a Montrealer can. I have no choice.
That’s how I end up in an abandoned lot in the Mile-End neighbourhood, chatting with friends around a fire, the scent of woodsmoke and mulled wine warming the crisp evening air. At the edge of the lot sits a yellow school bus that’s been converted into a tiki-themed bar decorated with colourful strings of lights, where tuque-topped twentysomethings are dishing out chocolat chaud and vin chaud to families, friends and dogs.
The gathering is at La Petite Floride, a winter pop-up co-created by Charles-Olivier Bourque in collaboration with La Pépinière, a not-for-profit collective that turns neglected spaces into community hangouts. “You really have to make something of our winter to survive it,” he tells me as we warm our hands around our paper cups of wine, “so we encourage people to get outside and stay outside.” The project feels like a winter lab – a grassroots experiment to see what can be achieved in a sub-zero urban landscape. As it turns out, more than a little bit of magic: There’s also a DJ booth and bundled-up dancers getting down to the Beastie Boys. A game of broomball breaks out on a skating rink. “If you want people to stay, you’ve got to keep them moving,” says Bourque, hopping around by way of explanation (or maybe he’s just as cold as I am). It’s a welcoming place for those wanting to participate in a more communal winter. Less Netflix, more Bavarian curling.
Chillin’ in the wind chill is a centuries-old tradition on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, where the recent whiteout has turned the Old Port into a postcard-perfect scene featuring a snowy historic clock tower and skating couples holding hands on the riverside rinks. That is, until a busload of tweens pile onto the ice, making it more of a Mighty Ducks scenario. I’m lacing up my skates with François-Xavier Robert, the co-owner of Quartz Co., a local clothing brand that’s quickly earned a reputation for stylish and toasty parkas, including the world’s first plant-based insulated winter jacket, filled with milkweed fibre. I figured he must know a thing or two about staying warm.
We glide away while newbie skaters fall like rag dolls around us, and he tells me that there were hockey rinks in every neighbourhood when he was growing up. “We’d put on our Canadiens jerseys after school and throw our hockey sticks in the middle of the ice. That’s how you’d choose the teams.” No bodychecking, no slapshots. “Then every hour we’d shovel the ice together like a man-powered Zamboni,” says Robert, describing the scene on the back of an old $5 bill.
Like the kids tightening each other’s skates in front of us, he and his friends were building friendships and winter skills. They were also learning, as I am, that it takes a village to get through a Montreal winter. Everywhere I look during my time in the city, people are helping each other traverse snowbanks, carry groceries up winding iron staircases or pull toddlers on sleds down icy sidewalks. A matriarch wearing a fur coat and sheer stockings walks her poodle in 60 centimetres of snow. Life goes on.
Staying sane during the shortest and darkest days also requires a healthy if slightly absurd sense of humour. I’m thinking that that’s likely how the Nordik Games came to be. Part of the Old Port festival known as Igloofest, the games turn winter survival skills into sport: Competitors carry babies (thankfully swapped out for dolls) up icy stairs, dig cars out of snowbanks and build tarpaulin-tent car shelters. I sign up for the Christmas-tree toss and bask in the warmth of the crowd – it’s as if they’re holding that balsam aloft right alongside me – as I launch my tree skyward, like a pine-scented Olympic flame lighting the cauldron for the Nordik Games. It lands with a thud a little more than a metre in front of me.
Hanging my hood in embarrassment, I head to one of the open-air bars for a tallboy before settling in for an outdoor viewing of Slap Shot on a giant screen. How did we all stay warm while watching a feature-length cult film outside, you ask? The answer, in short: We did not. Later that night, as hundreds keep warm dancing to house music under the white-hot stars, it occurs to me that this just might have been my most Canadian day ever.
At the heart of outdoor life here is Mount Royal Park, 470 acres designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also dreamed up Central Park) to be enjoyed year-round. The sun is going down and the wind is picking up. Cross-country skiers wearing headlamps whiz by on their way home from work. A golden streak washes over Beaver Lake (now a huge skating rink full of figure-eighters) and the sun dips for good. Tubers and tobogganers scream down the hillside. My friends and I strap on snowshoes and head for the woods. Crunch, crunch, crunch through the forest trails lined by maple, spruce and oak. Up and down the hills we go, slicing fresh tracks through the silence – it’s as if the animals have been tucked in and are waiting for their bedtime stories. We finally make it to the Belvédère Kondiaronk lookout, a vista over the twinkling multicoloured lights of the downtown buildings below, and pull out a Thermos, the hot chocolate steam curling around my drippy red nose.
The next day, the temperature rises and the snow starts to melt – just like that. Finally, I can see people’s whole faces, instead of just their eyes peeking out between scarf and tuque. I’m at a breakfast cookout in a garden behind Joe Beef, the famous spot in Little Burgundy near the Atwater Market, owned by local spitfire chefs Frédéric Morin and David McMillan. Morin arrives first and starts the fire with a blowtorch. Joined by McMillan and chef Marc-Olivier Frappier (from the adjoining Le Vin Papillon restaurant), soon they’re all cooking together over the fire, making bagel French toast, stirring bean and pork-rib cassoulet and flipping fried eggs.
“Fred and I both have big trucks, and I have an off-grid house up north,” says McMillan. “We spend an enormous amount of time outside.” He says they don’t pretend to ice-fish, they “ice-fish for real.” He makes fires on the frozen lake, throwing dinner parties in his shed for a dozen people at a time, Le Creuset pots bubbling away on the wood stove. McMillan loves it when the woodsmoke gets into his clothes.
After the dream of a breakfast, which also includes beef tongue, sausages, smoked sturgeon, potatoes dauphinoise and bacon-wrapped cinnamon buns, I hop into Morin’s truck and he drops me off at the airport. If I had any lingering doubts about enjoying Montreal in the dead of winter, I polished them off at this morning’s breakfast. But as I’m checking my bag, there’s a problem. The counter attendant’s nostrils flare as she wonders out loud if she should call the fire brigade. “It’s me,” I say, letting her sniff my parka sleeve. I smile as I walk away.
Hôtel William Gray: Old and new are linked by history and elegant neutrals at this 127-room hotel, where local collaborations include Café Olimpico and OTH (for morning espressos and upmarket hoodies, respectively). The exceptional address makes the Notre-Dame Basilica your new stomping grounds.
421 rue Saint Vincent, 514-656-5600, hotelwilliamgray.com.
Henri Henri: In the eastern part of downtown, you’ll find this 1932 chapeau shop selling finely wrought classics for looking cool while keeping warm. Choose from wide- and small-brimmed, pageboys or top hats, felt, wool or fur.
189 Sainte-Catherine Est, 514-288-0109, henrihenri.ca.
Spade & Palacio: The year-round walking tour, “Beyond the Basilica,” takes you from Place d’Armes through the entertainment district and up to the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood. You’ll get a history lesson while seeing the vibrant murals created during the latest edition of Montreal’s Mural Festival. spadeandpalacio.com
This month, La Pepiniere takes over Little Italy’s Place Shamrock for a holiday artisan market, with craft workshops, storytellers and a choir to help you forget the sub-zero temps.
Schwartz’s The Boulevard Saint-Laurent restaurant, so dated it looks like a 1970s film set of a deli is a revelation in winter, with a palpable sense of “we’re all in this together” filling the crammed little room. Order a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich, which will be served in what seems like seconds, with a sour dill pickle and Cott cherry cola.