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19 de juliol de 2006

Canada's new bloom town

The Globe and mail (Canadà) [Crònica]


Avant-garden at Flora Montreal. (Ian Barrett/CP)

If you thought of Montreal as a sophisticated, slightly down-at-the-heels but dashingly European kind of city, add another element: floriferousness (a fancy way of saying it's home to a lot of blooms). After what seems like years of stasis, the city is perking itself up in the most extraordinary way: With the Montreal International Flora 2006.

This show of demonstration gardens in the Old Port is quite unlike anything else we've seen in this country. First of all, there's the size. There are 53 gardens, which is a scale never tried before in any other city. It is out of doors (unlike Canada Blooms, which is in a hellish gloom underground). And it is international in character.

The location alone got the landscape architects in a mood to do something extraordinary. The Old Port, with its ancient quays, has some of the most colourful close-to-derelict grain silos still standing. It reminded me of the Tate Modern in London: The background is a huge industrial building with gardens nestled at its feet. The gardens are spread on either side of the quay so there is the sound of rushing water and the feeling of being a long way from the city, even though you can see it to the north. And to the south you can gaze over the water to Moshe Safde's magnificent Habitat 67 apartment complex.

The opening night last month was one of those occasions to be etched in the memory for a long time to come. Soft evening breezes, a setting sun and a mob of absolutely gorgeous young people helped Montreal live up to its reputation as a home to great beauties. The gardens, though barely finished the day before, already seemed settled into the dramatic landscape. And what a display.

Unlike any other exhibition, an outdoor garden show only gets better as it matures over the season. Some of the displays looked a little raw in June, but you could see where the designer was going with them. Lizzie Taylor and Dawn Isaac's SOGO (Small Office Garden Office) will have burgundy and gold plants climbing all over the place by the end of this month, engulfing the enchanting metal office-cum-water feature.

And do not let it be said that landscape architects lack humour: From Claude Cormier's brilliant blue stick garden to I Spy (with mannequins in various states of undress, including in a bubble bath) by Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui et Assoc, there is a joie de vivre you'd expect in Quebec. Few of the gardens are so deadly that you sigh and turn away, wishing to ignore them.

What's so neat is that the overall design displays a comment on every possible garden problem and location: there are food gardens, gardens for embankments, city gardens, street gardens, balcony gardens and even public gardens, as well as the latest in technology for rooftop gardens. And even better: Every week until the show closes on Oct. 9, there will be special talks given on-site.

Indeed, an entire week can be planned around floriferous Montreal. Staying in the marvellous Hotel St. Paul in the Old Town meant it was easy not only to wander down to Flora, but also over to Chateau Ramezay for the Jardin du Gouverneur. This perfectly restored 18th-century secret garden is tucked in among the old buildings off Notre Dame next to a small piazza on rue St. Claude. The quiet enclave houses a small garden that describes perfectly how the Europeans brought their formal concepts and adapted them to this cold and wintry place: warm stone walls cosset espaliered fruit trees, formal boxwood parterres enclose the herbs and vegetables they used in their cookery. This is a reproduction that was completed in 2000, but it's a good place to stop off for a while and just sit.

To go further back in time, you have to troop off to the west end of the city to La Maison Saint-Gabriel. This little farm has been in the possession of the same order of nuns since the 17th century. The nuns once owned tracts of land all along the river, and they now have this tranquil farm lovingly restored along with a potager (vegetable garden) enclosed with bowers of roses and small meditation areas. The clever nuns are using only the plants they know were used when the farm was first founded. There's a feeling of authenticity to this quiet corner of the city.

Plunked right in the middle of town is the Canadian Centre of Architecture Garden, designed by artist-architect Melvin Charney. This fascinating sculpture garden has an esplanade of narrative sculptures that seem suspended on the horizon overlooking the highway below. The drama of this park is not to be missed. On the way there, try to stop off at Marché Atwater, the vegetable and flower market that is housed in a wonderful art-deco building and has so many eye-popping plants it's hard to resist the temptation to buy.

Then, hop on the Metro and go right to the other end of the island that makes up the City of Montreal, and you'll find yourself at Le Jardin Botanique de Montréal, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It is one of the glories of Canada: a superb botanical garden with plenty of parking and an almost-adequate little coffee shop.

It is, in fact, a really important botanical garden: It has collections, it has scientists, it experiments. It has a famous insectarium, which didn't draw us for one minute, alas, since we were too excited by the gardens themselves. The most startling and effective one for me was is the Chinese Garden. The courtyards of bonsai-fied plants (something I once scorned) are breathtaking. The elements of an Asian garden are all here, with the plants from Asia supplemented, quite sensibly, by native plants in the same family but much better suited to the extremes of our climate.

Meandering along the paths offers aboriginal gardens filled with native plants; the Hancock garden of azaleas and rhododendrons; demonstration gardens by young people; experimental designs by some very mature people and what turned out to be the best walk of the day: the shade garden. The collection of hostas had visitors pulling out their notebooks and taking down names. All of the gardens are put together thoughtfully with the home gardener in mind, but this one is particularly good. Shade seems difficult for people to understand, and this garden shows precisely how magnificent and colourful a shade garden can be.

There's a little train that putters around the main road. Take it. You can hop on and off and save some shoe leather. It can be a long hike especially if it's hot. The coffee shop has paninis that aren't terrible, and the good thing is that if you snag a table under an umbrella, you can sip some wine and appreciate the formal gardens unfolding toward what seems like the edge of the world.

Montreal is a fantastic city by any measure, but if you only went for the gardens this year, you would be walking back into history, and forward into the future of the planet. It's a city brimming with ideas and great museums, but there's no need to stay indoors. Hit the gardens and you'll see another side of Montreal that continues to make it a city like no other.


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