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LIFE UNDERGROUND MAKES WINTER A BREEZE

"Why are you worrying about the freezing cold and snow? Here in Montreal we have solved most of our winter problems."

I looked inquisitively at Pierre, a Montrealer who loves his city.

"How?"

He grinned, "Haven't you heard of our underground city?"

Continuing, he exuded pride in his "city below the city."

"Do you realize that if you live in one of the apartments, linked to our underground city, and work in the heart of town, you can go to work, shop, dine, and go to a movie all winter long without even putting on a coat. There's no need to go out in the cold. You will find everything in our subterranean city."

In the ensuing days as I explored the vibrant life in Montreal's huge underground commercial complexes, used daily by some 500,000 people, I came to understand Pierre's pride in Canada's largest "city below the city." A vast man-made world, it makes life uncomplicated and comfortable for a great number of Montreal's inhabitants.

With its towering skyscrapers, magnificent buildings, outstanding museums and handsome churches, Montreal, with a population of 3.1 million, is Quebec's largest city and the second largest French-speaking metropolis in the world. An attractive town, it blends the old with the new and mixes modernity with antiquity. An exhilarating and dynamic metropolis with an engaging atmosphere and European charm, the city, because of its underground malls and subway system -- virtually a "city within a city" -- appeals year-round to visitors. A five-square-mile area wedged between the city's well-known landmarks, Mount Royal on the north and the Saint Lawrence on the south, this vast indoor downtown pedestrian city contains 19 miles of underground corridors linking a whole series of climate-controlled subterranean malls. These myriad of corridors are the longest connecting pathways for underground malls in the world, making shopping in Montreal during the winter months a pleasure. Added to this, and making the various subterranean centers even more accessible, is the Metro -- a subway system taking shoppers from one mall to the next.

The city below began in 1962 beneath Montreal's first high rise as a simple underground shopping center called Place Ville-Marie. In their vision for the center, the planner, Vincent Ponte, and architect, Ieon Ming Pei, were inspired by New York's Rockefeller Center. Thereafter, Place Ville-Marie became a symbol of Montreal as well as a flourishing business center. Its success led to the building of other subterranean malls which are still being connected by corridors.

Today, the city below covers close to 4.7 million square yards and contains almost everything to be found in the city above. Its corridors and subway station link up with two bus terminals, 10 metro stations, 1,200 offices, 2,000 stores, 1,615 housing units, 200 restaurants, 40 banks, 30 movie theaters, seven major hotels, the Universite du Quebec Montreal campus, and the University of Montreal. Also linked are Olympic Park, Place des Arts, two leading department stores, one cathedral, the Molson Center (home of the Montreal Canadiens), and three exhibition halls: the Place Bonaventure, the Convention Center and the Olympic Center.

Most of the underground malls are linked to the structures above, making those below and above into one complex. At least 60 percent of the business offices in Montreal are linked to the underground centers, and there are some 200 entrance points to the city below.

Blending well with the subterranean buildings is the architectural diversity of the Metro stations -- no two are the same. At the time of their building, 1 percent of the construction costs were allotted for works of art to be installed in the stations. This and the variety of style and ambiances make them the world's largest subterranean art gallery. Adding further to their appeal, all the stations have an easy and comfortable accessibility, especially during the harsh winter months. Entry is mainly from lobbies, then basements of neighboring buildings.

What makes the underground city very popular among the Montrealers is its easing of the traffic congestion during rush hours, especially at the busy stations. The Metro users often do their shopping after office hours in the multitude of shops in the city below, then return home when the traffic has eased.

For Montreal, the underground city greatly reduces car-pedestrian conflicts, decreases demand for parking spaces and reduces air pollution. Even more, the interaction between the subterranean city and the commercial streets above has enabled the downtown area to retain its economic vitality. Above all, the city below has become a leading tourist attraction, adding to the many appeals of Montreal.

Travel information

Montreal has many attractions.

Some of the most important are: Old Montreal and Chinatown, much favored by tourists. Casino de Montreal is the city's No. 1 tourist attraction. Besides its glittering tables, its cabaret features one of the top musical shows in the world. Olympic Stadium has its famous 575-foot tower, the world's tallest inclined tower. The Montreal Botanical Gardens is a maze of tropical forests. Mount Royal Park has a panoramic view of the city. Biodome is an unusual environmental museum. St. Joseph's Oratory is a world renowned pilgrimage center.

Contact: Tourism Quebec, (800) 363-7777; fax, (514) 864-3838;
e-mail, info@tourisme.gouv.qc.ca

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