Montreal’s Old Port, the largest vintage business district still standing, has a long and colorful history. It has gone from a bustling port connecting Canada and Europe, to seedy and now to swank, luring trendy restaurants and over a dozen boutique hotels to its heritage buildings and cobblestone streets. Even a decade ago the Old Port was a promise waiting to be fulfilled. But now it’s one of the city’s signature districts, with its grandiose centuries-old bank buildings and spacious warehouses reborn as galleries, hotels and cafes. Trendy as it is, there’s still a haunting vibe of past glory, when the Old Port was a major North American trading center and the gateway to what was once the most prosperous city in Canada.
What actually took place here in the 350 years after the French landed? What kind of jobs did people do, what did they wear, what kind of buildings did they live in? You can get a sense of this history by visiting one of the old port’s most distinctive modern buildings, the Point-a-Calliere. Called the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History, it stands on the very spot where Montreal was born. Here on display are six centuries of history, from the Amerindian period to the settlement by the French in l642 to the present.
The museum is built on three levels. The lowest level, the crypt, is a continuously evolving archeological site. (A challenge to the architects was to construct a modern building that would accommodate changes). Models evoke different periods in the life of the site; artifacts and and animated video clips show what life was like in New France when traders were buying furs from the Indians and shipping them to Europe. There are traces of a guard room dating to l698, and of the l8th century fortifications that surrounded Montreal when it was a walled city. Another level is enclosed in the former Customs House, built l836, with a 15 meter long fresco showing details of life in Montreal’s harbor circa l850.
The “wow” moment comes when the visitor is seated in a theatre like no other, suspended high above a stage consisting of the remnants of old buildings. In the dark, a voice begins to describe the panorama Montreal’s history, from the Indians, the French, the English, and other immigrants. Huge images are projected on the various levels. Old engravings are used to show the earliest times. Photographs show the l9th century city, and film clips recreate the atmosphere of the early l900’s. The exhibit, called Yours Truly, Montreal, pulls out all the stops, using special effects, animation, lighting and an evocative sound track. This artful use of cutting-edge technology to show the sweep of history seems to be a Quebec specialty – consider Robert Lepage’s unforgettable projection of images on giant silos to celebrate the 400thanniversary of Quebec city.
The museum’s temporary exhibits continue to draw visitors. A recent one told the 250 year old history of St.Catherine Street. The current exhibit, To Your Health, Caesar! Wine and the Gauls, shows the wine route, starting in the golden age of Gallo-Roman vineyards, from the first to the third centuries AD.
Current vintages, as well as fine food can be had at the museum’s restaurant, L’Arrivage, which offers fresh market ingredients and a superb view of the Old Port.