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Sub-Zero Survival

Montréal

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Need an excuse to start learning the Montréal Métro? Try winter. Prowling for parking in the neighborhoods off St-Denis and St-Laurent is like visiting a diorama of the Ice Age. Even if someone else manages to extricate his car from the sky-high snowplowed piles, getting yours into that space will likely require the maneuvering skills of a Teamster. On many streets, folks just give up parallel parking altogether and jam their cars diagonally into the drifts. Not only does parking present a physical challenge, but parking spaces in the city are probably reduced by half.

Which brings us to the Métro. Dry, clean, warm and safe, it takes you to within a couple of blocks of wherever you’d want to go in the city. A testament to its success is the fact that 50 percent of adults and more than 30 percent of families residing on the Island of Montréal don’t own cars. Here in Vermont, with our spotty public transportation systems, it’s hard to develop a habit of using them, and harder yet to teach our children how to use them where they do exist. That’s another good reason to ride the Métro.

Montréal’s subway is actually a recent phenomenon, unlike those of Boston and New York. It was a showpiece of the urban developments undertaken for Expo 67. In fact, the dirt from the tunnel excavations was dumped in the St. Lawrence River to create the island of Notre Dame, which accommodated part of that exhibition and also served as a major venue for the 1976 Olympics.

The civility that permeates Canadian culture is evident on the Métro. Crowds are extremely polite, personal space isn’t violated, seats are actually given up for the elderly and disabled, and travelers turn in left-behind items to a central Lost and Found office. Marc Ouellet, keeper of les choses perdus at the Berri-UQAM station, led me through the cache last week — bins full of hats and mittens, hundreds of key rings, a box of cell phones, a safe full of wallets, watches and jewelry.

In a room ceiling-high with metal shelving, Ouellet managed an orderly display of abandoned shopping bags, lunch boxes and briefcases. One of the strangest finds he could recall is there right now: a wheelchair! While I was visiting, a young woman arrived at the window looking for a lost stocking cap.

“Do you really expect you’ll find it here?” I asked.

“There’s always hope,” she said.

Could anyone traveling New York’s subway say the same?

The winter does drive Mon-tréalers underground, as the miles of subterranean shopping and tunnels attest. Some residents both live and work above Métro stations and don’t have to don winter coats for days at a time. The subway’s busiest day in 1999 was not during Jazz Fest or the equally crowded fireworks festival, but mid-winter, February 11. It must have been the weather, Métro PR man Serge Sevard told me. Either that or a lot of Valentine’s Day shopping.

In the warmer months, above ground, the other half of the Société de Transport de la Communauté Urbain de Montréal — that’s buses to you — also offer a great way to navigate the city. System-wide maps are available at Métro kiosks, and are models of clarity. Bus stops are well marked, and there’s usually a line map posted at the stop so you can double-check your route.

Some of the buses are also mini city tours. The St-Laurent bus, for example, starts in Old Town, in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, one block north of IMAX. Ride the bus north through Chinatown, the nightclub district and that polyglot shopping wonder, “The Main.” Stay on for a ride through a warehouse district and pass Le Petit Patrie, Little Italy, home of the Jean-Talon Market. After that, the bus skirts Jarry Park with its tennis stadium, site of the Canadian Open every August, and then loops back to downtown via St-Urbain.

The most scenic bus ride is the Montagne route, which starts at the Mont-Royal Métro station and climbs to the top of the mountain. The turnaround is the traffic rotary near the skating rink at Lac aux Castors — a short walk also to the city overlook in the middle of the park. Another scenic favorite of mine is Av. des Pins, leaving from Atwater and Ste-Catherine for a swooping ride along the side of Mont-Royal, through the tony consulate row, and overlooking downtown and McGill College on its way to trendy St-Denis.

Strips of six one-ride tickets —un lisére — are on sale at all Métro kiosks, in many depanneurs and tobacco shops, and currently cost $8.50 CDN. These are good for bus and subway. Transfers are available from machines in the Métro stations, and by request from bus drivers.

If you plan on a day of travel, an unlimited one-day or three-day pass, called the Tourist Card, is available for $7 and $14, respectively, from April to October at all downtown Métro kiosks, and at the Info-Touriste center on Dominion Square, near Peel and Réné Levèsque. During the winter, the Card is available only at the Berri-UQAM station. Scratch the date you want, à la lottery ticket, to use the pass; buy several and use them as needed.

And when you ride the Orange Line, don’t forget as the train leaves each station to listen for the harmonic song of Expo 67 — the first three notes of Aaron Copland’s New World Symphony. Quelle ville!