Even though we were in Montreal, I started the evening with oeufs en meurette created by an award-winning chef from Lyon. Beyond the huge restaurant windows, a mirror-covered cement mixer threw disco ball-style lights on the snowy streets.
Emerging from the restaurant, my group meandered through a streetscape that looked like downtown Montreal as imagined by Salvador Dali. The facade of St. James United Church exploded in a shimmering kaleidoscope of fractured lights. We strolled beneath a trellis festooned with 200 decorated lampshades. Above us, enormous inflated humanoid figures appeared poised to climb over la Maison Symphonique and drop to the street below.
Nearby, we clustered at the foot of an open-air stage as a band did credible covers of “White Rabbit” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” A few minutes later, the strains of “I Am the Walrus” drifted over us as we left; it seemed only right that we were singing “coo-coo-ca-choo” as we made our way back toward Ste. Catherine Street.
Despite my thermal running pants, long insulated coat, two layers of mittens, toque and hood, the -25C windchill bit into me.
We ducked into a hotel to warm up and watched through the lobby windows as bundled-up figures on a zipline sliced through the frigid air above the crowds. In the distance, a neon-lit Ferris wheel turned lazily.
Back out on the street, the aromas of onion rings and poutine heavy in the air, we were caught up in a tide of people. At some point, we washed ashore inside the Complexe Desjardins shopping mall, where a raucous crowd was sampling ciders of the world.
Then it was back out into the crystalline night. A short walk away, inside Christ Church Cathedral, a choir urged us to “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Half an hour later, a few blocks away, I was having my photograph taken with Pierre Trudeau and swaying to live ’80s tunes with Ryan Gosling, Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe. The night was becoming increasingly surreal.
Dazed and dazzled, we wandered through serpentine underground tunnels, where TV screens played old “Wheel of Fortune” clips and papier-mâché gifts dangled from the ceiling. We were looking for a “silent disco,” where the dancers listen to music through headphones and out-of-the-loop passersby wonder whether they’ve all been possessed. Alas, when we arrived, a pair of DJs were snapping their packing cases closed. The disco was over, and all that remained was silence.
Exhausted, elated and overstimulated, we stumbled to our hotel rooms and drifted into sleep. Or had we ever really been awake?
Nuit Blanche: Fun until dawn…for some
Three days after I experienced Montreal’s one-night, all-night Nuit Blanche festival on March 4, it still feels a bit like one of those dreams you struggle to explain to your patient spouse the next morning, before the remnants disintegrate. However, I double-checked the program, and it all really did happen. Nuit Blanche took place simultaneously with several other events, namely the 17-day Montréal en Lumière arts and dining festival, the new Illuminart festival and the Art Souterrain exhibition in Montreal’s vast Underground City.
Here’s the story behind my dream-like night.
My Lyon-inspired dinner was among the special menus offered by local restaurants as part of Montréal en Lumière. In this case, Le Bistro-bar Balmoral had partnered with French chef Joseph Viola, who runs three bouchons (restaurants focusing on traditional dishes, such as chicken vol-au-vents and tarte Tatin) in Lyon.
The multimedia show on the church facade, the lampshades and the inflated figures were among the 25 installations of Illuminart.
The 1967-themed concerts were part of Nuit Blanche. So were the silent disco we missed and the late-night dance party at the Musée Grévin, the wax museum in the Centre Eaton shopping mall where I encountered Trudeau, Lady Gaga and the rest.
The video installation featuring “Wheel of Fortune” was part of American video artist Josh Bricker’s installation Promises, Promises (A Fantastic Dystopia), a commentary on “the broken promises of trickle-down economics”; it was installed near Central Station as part of Art Souterrain. (As for the dangling papier-mâché gifts…I can’t for the life of me figure out where I saw them, so perhaps I did dream those.)
So did I party until dawn? Not even close. My batteries ran out long before last call, but I still had a great time.
Montreal’s Nuit Blanche is part of a loosely affiliated international group of similar all-night festivals, which began in Europe in the late 1980s. Many of these events are focused strongly on contemporary art, but Montreal’s is more free ranging, says Laurent Saulnier, vice president of programming and production. “Here in Montreal, just like the city, it’s more like a party than anything else.”
If You Go
If you want to immerse yourself in just about every sort of arts experience—as well as outdoor winter fun, such as curling and a giant slide—I highly recommend Nuit Blanche. Here are a few tips:
- Dress for the weather, as you’ll be outside a lot, even if you’re just moving from indoor venue to indoor venue.
- Peruse the enormous event program, make a plan, and resign yourself to the fact that you will only experience a fraction of the hundreds of activities on offer. (The event involves partners spread across the city, and this year included everything from late-night cooking demonstrations at the Canadian Centre for Architecture to giant cooperative games at Montreal City Hall.)
- For those on tight budgets, focus on the free activities—there are lots of them.
- If you are easily overwhelmed by crowds, noise and movement, Nuit Blanche in the hectic Quartier des Spectacles will knock you out; aim for one of the neighbourhoods beyond downtown instead. All are likely to be crowded, but not as dizzying as this main site.
- Do not attempt to drive between venues; battling traffic and searching for parking will dampen the fun. Besides, if you’re not driving, you can enjoy a drink or two. A free Nuit Blanche shuttle runs between the various sites from 8pm until 3am. In addition, the Metro is open all night long and an unlimited all-night pass costs $5.
Nuit Blanche is a one-night event, so it’s done for this year, alas. Watch for it to return in the winter of 2018 (I’ll post info on this site when it is available).
On the bright side, you still have time to catch a bit of Montréal en Lumière and Illuminart, both of which run until Saturday, March 11. Art Souterrain is on until Sunday, March 26.
Disclosure: I travelled to Montreal and experienced these festivals as a guest of Tourism Montreal, which neither reviewed nor approved this post.
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