Montreal (Ulysses Travel Guide)
by Olivier Gougeon, ed. 

Reviewed by Zoe Benezet-Parsons

For anyone who thinks of Montreal only for its eight months of winter or its 18 year-old drinking age, the Ulysses guide to the city will be an enlightening read. Not only does Montreal claim to be known for its bagels (surprised? apparently New York is not the only official source), it also boasts a massive summer jazz festival and it is home to several world famous circuses (Cirque du Soleil might ring the most bells). Truly, it’s a diverse metropolis worth exploring, and, as the guidebook emphasizes, a destination for families, children, young people, and, of course, the inevitable American minors on a road trip for a legal bar experience.

Starting with the initial table of contents, the guidebook is neatly and extensively divided into logical subcategories. The first half, printed on white pages, is dedicated to general statistics about the region, keys to the maps and symbols used throughout the book, a historical overview, and suggestions for walking tours. The second half, contrasted to the first by the use of a grey background, contains practical data: accommodations, restaurants, and shopping locations – basically the less interesting but necessary nitty-gritty expected of any decent guidebook (its purpose is to guide, right?). Additionally, variously-sized gray boxes placed throughout give further quick and useful suggestions and intriguing bits of trivia. For instance, if you are dragging in the middle of exploring Little Italy, stop by Café Italia for one of the city’s best cappuccinos. Or try the (apparently) ever-popular authentic chocolate bagel at the Fairmont Bagel Bakery.

The brief yet detailed section on the history of the city is perhaps one of the more remarkable aspects of the book. At 22 pages, the light, conversational style manages to fully inform but still avoid any sense of tediousness. The development of culture is given equal weight as Jacques Cartier’s first discovery of Canada and the fur trade that initially stimulated Montreal’s economy. For American readers, who are usually shockingly uninformed about their northern neighbor, several more not-to-miss pages cover the French versus English language question in the province of Quebec, and, for some lighter-hearted facts, review the extremely comprehensive review of the Montreal film scene (who could forget the 1989 classic, “Jesus of Montreal”?).

Unlike other publications featured on the same bookstore shelf, the Ulysses guide to Montreal has no special focus or clearly defined audience, which can function as a benefit and a drawback. The information covered can satisfy a wide variety of people – it includes five star hotels and ten-beds-to-a-room youth hostels, and it makes five-dollar sandwiches and fifty-dollar steaks sound equally delectable. But the consequence is that the spectrum must be so broad that in order to avoid creating a ten-pound tome, the information given for every sight, bed, and meal must be short. A casual traveler would most likely be satisfied, but if someone has come to Montreal to extract the inner core of the city, a more directed account might be in order. The list of suggestions for families with children is also meager. Deeper in the pages, some of the activities listed, including an antique sword seller and a laser tag course, could attract certain ages, but it’s questionable whether the primary recommendations are well-targeted. Would an energetic kid really care about the fur trade, even if he or she got to stroke real fur?

The diversity of the restaurant and entertainment sections is a real strength of the guide. Every single individual segment of the book includes an index, and it further divides the choices into price ranges and those that carry the Ulysses Label (an indication of a strong recommendation). The typical array of ethnic menus is further extended by categories such as “Medieval,” “Smoked Meat” and “Syrian.” The Montreal bar scene is apparently impressive. There is even a useful section for those interested in gay or lesbian clubs. In general, the reviewers do a thorough job of mentioning the music style of the club, the typical age range, and the lighting quality you’re likely to encounter, but this is the one area of the book where it might have been nice if the descriptions had focused on the prices as well as the ambience.

The guide has only a few noticeable weaknesses. One regards the language issue. Perhaps because Ulysses is a Canadian-based company, a certain previous knowledge of French seems to be assumed. The final pages do include a cursory French-English phrasebook and dictionary for commonly used words, but there are no directions for pronunciation, a necessary feature for a language known for its subtleties. Furthermore, throughout the book, French words in various descriptions are not translated. This oversight is not disabling – for the walking tours the guide includes many clear, well annotated maps and exact walking direction for getting from place to place, but for the curious tourist, it might be helpful to know that when she is searching for the “Tour de L’Horloge,” she is literally looking for a “clock tower”. Finally, and this is most noticeable in the two pages of color pictures included (some of which are regrettably uninspiring), the guide significantly underplays winter in Montreal. This could be excused, however, by the fact that most intelligent tourists would probably not choose to visit when spit freezes before it hits the ground.

The one bizarre feature of the book is the occasional personal-style note from a local. There are only two, but neither of the authors is introduced and neither piece is given any further explanation. A woman who grew up as a proud English-speaker makes the somewhat inflammatory comment that she carelessly refers les Canadiens-francais by the derogatory terms “frog” or “Pepsi.” This tribute to defying integration and ethnic consciousness is a strange addition to a factual guidebook.

For the final word: if you buy books for their inside-cover glossy maps, in this case you will not have been steered wrong. The Ulysses Guidebook to Montreal is a solid source for both basic practical information about the city and a generous assortment of carefully chosen attractions. Try a muesli bagel when you get there. They’re fabulous.

Olivier Gougeon, ed. 
(Canada: Ulysses Travel Guides, 2006)
ISBN: 289464742-5.  $22.95.  320 pp.

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