A Day Underground Part I

(note: the embedded Tweets in this post may not show up if you’re viewing this on a mobile device.)

Last year, I said I was going to spend a whole day underground for a laugh.

And I did; I spent a full 9-5 workday in Montreal’s underground city, the so-called “RÉSO”. As promised I live tweeted the experience, but then (as they say) life got in the way and I never blogged about it. Since we’re now heading deep into another Winter, I thought it was time to write about it before the experience disappears from my memory completely.

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Goin’ Underground!

I’d set myself some strict rules to follow:

  1. Once ducking underground in the morning, no emerging above ground until the evening.
  2. No exposure to fresh air, unless travelling an official route through the underground city which requires going outside momentarily. For example, the route connecting Windsor Station to the Bell Center is OK. Taking a shortcut over Mont Royal is not.
  3. It is allowed (and even encouraged) to utilise the Métro to visit disconnected parts of the Underground City, even if they’re not officially part of the RÉSO.
  4. Any activity is fine, so long as it doesn’t involve going outside. Even thinking about the outside is probably against the rules, and is therefore also a forbidden activity.

I also added a new 5th rule:

  1. 5. Each cup of coffee bought underground must be given a rating out of 10.

And, I did it. And two years later I’m finally writing about the experience. Was it a life-changing one? Nah, but it was jolly good fun.

So, before setting off it’s worth discussing what an “underground city” actually is. In fact, the whole concept was alien to me before coming to Montréal, but they’re pretty clever, at least on paper.

I think the closest I’d come to an underground city (or at least a large area of connected complexes sheltered from the elements) was my university in Edinburgh, where a majority of the campus was linked by protected walkways shielding travellers from the harsh Scottish Winters. Note, I say “harsh” there with irony, since I’d never truly encountered anything close to a harsh Winter before arriving in Canada.

On a visit to Tokyo not long after I graduated, I got lost in the epic underground complex that is Tokyo Station.

But, Montréal’s underground city is apparently the largest in the world, and it shows. The scale of this labyrinthine complex is nothing short of astounding, and even more so when you consider the satellite parts of the underground city which are indirectly connected to the main section via the Metro.

On my arrival in this city, I was working in le 1000 de La Gauchetière, one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers, and conveniently plugged directly into the underground city. It made Winter a breeze (if you’ll forgive the pun).

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le 1000 de La Gauchetière by night.

You may have done a double take when I suggested it was possible to spend 8 hours underground and still be entertained, but there’s much to discover.

I live tweeted the experience, and the narrative of those tweets tells the story of my day underground the best. I’ve also not edited any of the photos. They’re as I took them at the time on my trusty iPhone 4S.

My day started with a short bus ride from my apartment in Vieux-Rosemont to Rosemont Metro station, my point of entry for the day. I’d decided since I was hardly going to be outside, I’d brave the sub-zero temperatures without a coat and boots to save carrying around clothing for the day that I wasn’t going to wear.

My first stop of the day was to change trains at Beri-UQAM. Three of the Metro’s four lines pass through here, taking you to far-flung corners of the city and beyond. It’s food for thought that the Metro’s hub at Beri-UQAM actually connects three of Québec’s cities together, those of Montréal, Laval in the North and Longueuil on the South Shore (we’ll visit Longueuil in a later post in this series).

Changing lines from the Orange to the Green took me to my first stop of the day: Place-des-Arts.

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A wall of televisions, rotating different art installations on the main concourse in Place-des-Arts. You’ll stop and stare for a while.

You perhaps don’t need to know any French to know what goes on at Place-des-Arts. My fellow Londoners will best understand it as the Canadian equivalent of The Barbican; A venue for performing arts, concerts and even a museum of contemporary art.

Even if you’re not paying a visit to see a show, the venue itself makes an impressive place to just wander through, with its long winding spaces and integrated art installations set to ambient background music.

And, if it’s a nice day, you can pop outside to enjoy the impressive Quartier-des-Spectacles. Of course, I didn’t as to do so would have violated the day’s rules.

Connected directly to Place-des-Arts is Complexe-Desjardins, housing multiple offices in its three tower blocks as well as a branch of the Hyatt Regency hotel chain in its fourth tower.

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The main atrium of Complexe-Desjardins.

The main area within the complex is an impressive atrium with lots of natural light and a big fountain. Like much of the underground city, it consists mainly of mid to high-end boutiques and food courts, but nevertheless makes a nice place to linger for a while before moving on.

My journey continued via an underground passage towards Complexe Guy-Favreau. This massive federal government building has become something of an unofficial indoor town square for neighbouring Chinatown. Although clean looking, there’s a lack of natural light making it perhaps a part of the underground city to pass by reasonably quickly.

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Honestly, as dull as this wall.

There’s no food court here, but it certainly doesn’t lack for cafe chains and shops. If you have any government business such as renewing your social insurance or things to do with immigration, you’ll end up becoming quite familiar with this concrete palace.

An escalator down will take you past Chinatown to Place-d’Armes Metro station and into the Palais des congrès de Montréal. This convention centre with its colourful windows makes for one of Montreal’s most iconic modern buildings. It borders the old town in a part of the city replete with hotels, public squares and swanky office buildings for trendy startups.

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Look into the light.
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An indoor forest?
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The windows tell a colourful story.

Well, with the exception of Place-des-Arts, so far so dull. But, we’re only at the beginning of the day, and there’s a lot more to see. So, join me in Part II, where we’ll discover a section of the Berlin Wall, some random art instiallations and some quite surreal open spaces as we move towards the Southern end of the underground city.

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