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During Prohibition, Americans used to slip across the border to Montreal to get a taste of then-forbidden booze and the wild life that went with it. Now, workaholic Americans can go to Montreal for what have become almost-illicit pleasures: to hang out in cafes, eat good French and ethnic food at gentle prices, and, in general, take part in a less-harried, Gallic-accented life. But while Montreal is commonly thought of as a closer, next-best alternative to a European vacation, it has a style all its own, a synthesis of Latin chic and north-of-the-border exuberance. You can act like a tourist in the third-largest French-speaking city on the planet and just sightsee. It’s better, though, to be a cultural traveler and participate in the vibrant goings-on in this cosmopolitan city. Montrealers always seem to be celebrating something, and as the long, cold winter loosens its grip, flowers begin to bloom, cafe tables spread to the sidewalks, and the festivals start up. Montreal is, at first glance, less charming and picturesque than the provincial capital, Quebec City. But what it lacks in scenery, it more than makes up in bustle and a cosmopolitan outlook. To orient yourself, just remember that East is French and West is, well, a little less French, or “francophone” in the local parlance. The Maginot Line is the boulevard St-Laurent, or, as Anglophones once called it, “the Main.” But if that lengthy boulevard divided English speakers from French in the old days, it now unifies, being a hot pot of stylish bistros, trendy Asian-fusion eateries, and nightclubs. These establishments often reflect the polyglot nature of the area, such as Baba-Reeba, a tapas bar where you can get snacks and drinks well into the night (3614 boulevard St-Laurent, 514-281-6913). No visit to the Main is complete without a stop for smoked meat — reminiscent of New York-style pastrami — at Schwartz’s, or, to give it the officially sanctioned name, Chez Schwartz Charcuterie H�braique de Montreal (3895 boulevard St-Laurent, 514-842-4813). A couple of blocks east is the Latin Quarter, with its francophone main drag, rue St-Denis. At its southern end, rue St-Denis betrays its proximity to the Universite du Quebec � Montreal by its student hangouts and poster shops. It gets more upscale as you go north, where the window-shopping is decidedly better. As a restorative, check out the mosaic sidewalk tiles and go in search of number 3927 rue St-Denis, where you’ll find L’Express. It’s the bistro of your dreams. Oxblood-colored walls, tall mirrors, and a long zinc-topped bar provide the stage for this theater-crowd hangout. The friendly staff slaps a big jar of cornichons on the table and lights cigarettes for women; the one-page menu by chef Joel Chapulie offers food on one side, one of the city’s better wine lists on the other. Don’t miss such standbys as leg of lamb with ratatouille, a garlicky soupe de poisson, and the showy le flottante au caramel (reservations strongly recommended; 514-845-5333). Just across the street, chef Normand Laprise holds court at Toque! Laprise had a brief fling with New York in the Flatiron District’s Cena, but the love, for some reason, wasn’t mutual. So he’s back on St-Denis, cooking “post-nouvelle” food with the freshest (and sometimes oddest: milkweed, anyone?) of ingredients (3842 St-Denis; 514-499-2084). You could easily eat your way around the city, but there are a few other ways to keep occupied. For a more touristy, but still scenic, experience, head on down to Vieux Montr�al, the small area near the old St. Lawrence River port that gave birth to the city. French colonial stone architecture abounds. In particular, visit the beautifully ornate Basilique Notre-Dame. The altar is a masterpiece of wood carving. Legend has it that its Irish-Protestant architect, James O’Donnell, was so affected by designing the church that he converted to Catholicism. As the weather warms up, the festivals get in gear. The big ones are the summer Jazz Festival, from June 28 to July 8, and the comedy festival Juste Pour Rire (July 12-22), which spills out into the streets of the Latin Quarter. Even though most of the acts are French-speaking, it’s worth checking some out just to see the peculiarly physical type of humor beloved of the Qu�b�cois. And the end of the summer means it’s time for the Montreal World Film Festival, one of the continent’s more important film fests (August 24-September 3). As for the language thing: A couple of decades ago, when the separatist Parti Qu�b�cois first took office, English speakers were often made to feel uncomfortable. But that was then. Almost half of Montrealers are bilingual, and most servers and store clerks will sense whether you’re more comfortable in English or French. Go ahead, try out your high-school French. Unlike the stereotypical waiter in Paris who sneers at your pathetic attempt, the Montrealer will probably smile.

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