When In Montreal: “Aura” at Notre-Dame Basilica

img_9697

(Editor’s Note: The coronavirus has pretty much kept us all at home for a while as travel has become risky business for now. For the past few months I’ve been living vicariously through travel TV shows (thank God for Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS), YouTube videos, and blog posts. It’s a far cry from actually traveling, but it keeps me dreaming of when we can all get back out there again. In that light, I’ve decided to start posting articles of past travels. Here’s a highlight of my excellent trip to Montreal last summer 2019. Hope you enjoy it. More to come!)

Interested in visiting a low-key yet fun, vibrant, cosmopolitan North American city? Then look no further than Montreal, Quebec! Before my 5-day visit to this amazing city last summer, I did not know what to expect. No offense to Montrealers and their excellent city, but I mistakenly did not view Montreal as a “destination.” I told a friend I was visiting the city and when he asked “why?,” I replied, “I’m not sure.” I really did not know what to expect. However, I was prompted to visit the city after liking what I saw during an episode of “Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope” and decided, somewhat impulsively, to give it a try. 

And I’m sure glad I did! During the course of my five-day visit last summer, I quickly grew really impressed with this charming city, everything from its impressive arts and culture scene, its diverse culinary scene, rich history, architecture, and of course, Montrealers themselves, who are some of the nicest people on earth! 

With so much going on in Montreal, especially during the summer months, the most impressive part of my trip was a visit to the amazing Notre-Dame Basilica for a mind-blowing light and sound show called “Aura” that takes places inside this beautiful sacred place. Between the building’s impressive interior to the mind-blowing, state-of-the-art light and aural experience, “Aura” at the Notre-Dame Cathedral is truly a feast for the senses, and a compelling destination for anyone visiting Montreal.

In the photo above, the Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah gaze in awe upon the interior of the Basilica, and it’s no wonder, as there’s a lot to gaze upon in this magnificent example of classic Gothic Revival architecture. This was a must-visit on my first-ever trip to Montreal in July, and it did not disappoint. The Basilica’s breadth and scope must be seen to be truly comprehended, and yet, despite its grand scale and history, the Basilica remains a hushed and reverent place of worship.

IMG_9791About The Basilica
The Basilica is located at 110 Notre-Dame Street West, at the corner of Saint Sulpice Street, right in the center of popular Old Montreal. The building faces the Place d’Armes public square (above), which is a great place to take in Montrealers at leisure, especially on warm summer evenings when there is both a nice breeze and cool live music in the air. 

img_9586-1A true masterpiece of classic Gothic Revival architecture, the Basilica has been a Montreal destination for tourists and locals alike since its completion in 1829. Approximately 11 million people visit the Basilica every year, giving it the distinction of being one of the most visited monuments in North America. In fact, seeing pics of its magnificent interior on travel websites and TV shows was a big part of the motivation for my planning a trip to Montreal.

img_9635

img_9664

IMG_9671As you can see from the pics, the Basilica’s interior is a sight to behold, with its vaults colored in deep blues and decorated with golden stars, as well as shimmering gold-leaf ornamentation, hundreds of woodwork carvings, religious paintings and statues, and colourful stained-glass windows, all sweeping dramatically upward as if reaching towards heaven itself. Interestingly, the Basilica’s stained-glass windows depict the religious history of Montreal rather than traditional Biblical scenes.

organOf course, no cathedral is complete without a massive pipe organ, and the Basilica boasts an impressive Casavant Frères organ (above) that has been in service since 1891 and consists of four keyboards, 7000 individual pipes, and a pedal board. During the year the Basilica hosts a number of organ and chorale performances, and the annual December performances of Handel’s Messiah have become a Montreal Christmas tradition.

IMG_9631

IMG_9718Some fun facts about Notre-Dame Basilica:

  • The cathedral is located at 110 Notre-Dame Street West, at the corner of Saint Sulpice Street
  • Construction began in 1824 and was completed in 1829, and the building was consecrated on 15 July 1829
  • The interior decoration was completed in 1880, under the direction of Montréal architect Victor Bourgeau
  • The Basilica has hosted the wedding of Montreal native Celine Dion to René Angélil and the funerals of Angélil, former Candian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and NHL superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard
  • The basilica is the largest church in North America and can accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 worshipers

About Aura
Created by light and sound pioneers Moment Factory, Aura is divided into two 20-minute segments, with the first being a unique opportunity to explore the magnificent interior of the Basilica. For this segment, the interior’s many vaults are cleverly lit with moving streams of LED lights, putting a new spin on traditional religious scenes by giving them the appearance of being alive. Feel free to take as many pictures as you like during this part, because photos and video are strictly prohibited during the second segment (if caught by the staff, you will be asked to leave, so don’t even try because they are quite diligent. On the night I was there, everyone followed this simple request).

IMG_9611The second light and sound segment is a three-act multimedia extravaganza, and mere written words cannot do justice to the truly amazing sensory experience where the traditional meets 21st century technology. Moment Factory (who are based in Montreal) specialize in turning architecture and huge interior spaces around the world into fluid, immersive sensory experiences, and Aura is truly their masterpiece.

The show starts quietly and solemnly and over the course of 20 minutes slowly builds into a cacophony of light, arresting images, lasers, and music that varies from light orchestral to trippy, synth-based soundscapes. To see this beautiful sacred space and it’s classic architecture transformed in such a luminous manner was, to me at least, a really moving experience.

Alas, not being able to take video leaves a lot of the experience to your imagination, so click here to get a brief taste of an immersive sensory experience that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. When visiting Montreal, I heartily urge you to put a visit to Aura at Notre-Dame Basilica at the top of your itinerary! I’m glad I did.

I had read on travel websites that some people complained that 20 minutes wasn’t long enough for Aura’s price of admission, but I did not find that to be true at all. In fact, I felt 20 minutes was just long enough. The show goes all out on the visuals and sounds and I felt that anything longer would have been too much of a sensory overload to the point of being numbing. Apparently, some people need to complain about everything!

Aura can be seen Tuesday through Saturday at 6 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 7 PM and 9 PM. Tickets are $29.50 for adults, $26.50 for seniors, $19.50 for students aged 17-22, and $16.00 for kids and young adults. Family rates that include four tickets (two adults and 2 children ages 6-16) are $74.00. These prices also cover tax and service charges.

IMG_9802Visit the Basilica’s website to find out more about the history of the building, events, and tours. And be sure to check out the Aura website to book advance tickets and to see more videos of this one-of-a-kind experience.

As with any popular tourist destination, I recommend ordering your tickets online in advance, although tix can be bought before the show at the Basilica box office, depending on availability. There is no assigned seating for the light show, so be sure to get there early, as a long line starts forming well before the show begins. 

mapThe closest Metro is Place-de’Armes on the Orange Line but if you’re staying in Montreal proper, do yourself and walk there … it’s a very walkable city and there’s so much to see along the way! Afterwards, take a leisurely stroll around Place d’Armes or go deeper into Old Montreal, which is like being in Paris without actually being in Paris.

There’s no shortage of excellent restaurants for dinner in Old Montreal, although I heartily recommend Restaurant Boneparte, a five-minute walk from the Basilica at 447 St Francois Xavier Street in Old Montreal. Go ahead and splurge on the Tasting Menu. I did and it still ranks as one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had!

So once the world opens up and we’re all free to travel once again, make one of your first destination the wonderful city of Montreal. I might just run into you there, because for me a second, deeper visit is a must!

Check out the gallery below for more pics.

 

Posted in Architecture, Essay, Montreal, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #8: Colorful

IMG_5278

I’m a few days late to the photo challenge party, but here’s an explosion of colors in this from-the-top pic of a tropical plant seen last month in Seattle, of all places! Put a little more color in your life by checking out this week’s Lens-Artist Photo Challenge at Patti Moed’s very excellent blog.

Posted in Lens-Artist Photo Challenge, Lens-Artists, Photography, Stephen Kelly Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Patterns

IMG_8927

Patterns upon patterns in the facade of this school building on 18th Street in San Francisco.

Am I detecting a pattern here? To see what patterns other bloggers have come up with or to join in on this week’s photo challenge, check out Leya’s cool photo blog.

Posted in Lens-Artist Photo Challenge, Lens-Artists, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Photography | Tagged | 7 Comments

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Blue

_ASC1346 copy

With the abrupt, unfortunate end of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge, my blog friend Patti Moed and others have taken up the photography challenge mantle with their new weekly Lens-Artist Challenge, and here’s my first contribution. This week’s theme is blue and this shot was taken in San Francisco’s City Hall on a cold, overcast winter’s day. That’s enough to give anyone the blues!
Check out other takes on the Blue theme at Patti’s blog.

Posted in Lens-Artists, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography | Tagged | 14 Comments

WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Liquid

IMG_3996.jpg

For my first blog post in nearly two years, I’d thought I’d reintroduce myself to the blogosphere by participating in this week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge, which this week focuses on liquid, like these cups of cool, refreshing cups of water taken at a Thai restaurant on Clement Street in San Francisco. When you’re anticipating a hot and spicy Thai meal, you’re gonna need a lot of water on your side!

Posted in Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Photography, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Close

IMG_5805

When traveling by rail in Japan, things often get a little too close for comfort, like this subway train car in Kyoto!

Check out Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s My Backpack for more things up close and personal.

Posted in Ailsa’s Travel Theme, Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel Theme | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Numbers

IMG_5837

Two, four, six, eight … who do we appreciate? NUMBERS!!!

For more clever enumerations, or to add your own, visit this week’s edition of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Numbers.

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

When in Japan: Discovering Osaka

_ASC6201

This being my first trip to Osaka, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew some things about the city (like the magnificent Osaka Castle, below), but I must confess that I know so much more about Tokyo. In fact, I know more about Kyoto, the next stop on this trip, than I do Osaka. So despite much pre-trip research, I felt like I was going an unknown city that’s just begging to be explored, and that was exciting. I liked the prospect of not knowing what to expect.

_ASC6346

Unsurprisingly, I found the city as something of a midpoint between Tokyo and Kyoto, not as serene as the latter or as hectic as the former. It also seemed grittier, more lived in, and I mean that in a very good way. 

I guess it’s easy to compare Osaka and Tokyo, two of Japan’s biggest cities, and at first I was slightly disappointed with Osaka simply because it was not Tokyo. Osaka is not as big or vibrant or bustling or space age as Tokyo, and whereas I found that somewhat disconcerting at first (as if assuming all Japanese cities are like Tokyo), I soon came to appreciate Osaka’s more sedate charms and its take-it-easy, relaxed pace.

_ASC5880I found the city to be full of surprises, like the amazing Yasaka-jinja lion shrine in Namba (above) …

_ASC5808…the giant whales in the Hep 5 shopping mall in Umeda (above) …

_ASC5986…the awesome Kuromon Market (above), a true feast for the senses, especially if you’re hungry …

_ASC6494… and the trippy modern architecture of the Osaka National Museum of Art (above).

The city is not as sprawling as Tokyo and the subways seemed less packed,  so getting around Osaka was fairly  easy … or as easy as something can be if you don’t speak or read the language. I also found the people in Osaka to be nicer, more ready with a smile and a polite bow, especially when visiting some of the streets and neighborhoods off the tourist paths, like the scenes below.

_ASC5824

_ASC6060

_ASC5787

_ASC6270

_ASC6058

IMG_5554

Some fun facts about Osaka: it is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan, and with 19 million inhabitants, one of the largest in the world. “Osaka” literally means “large hill” or “large slope,” a name which dates back to 1496, but which seems strange since the city was mostly flat. Osaka contains numerous urban canals and waterways, and 872 bridges. It is a major economic hub and is home to the headquarters of Panasonic, Sharp and Sanyo.

Continue reading

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Osaka, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

When In Japan: It’s Cherry Blossom Season!

IMG_5985While any excuse to visit Japan is good enough for me, having this year’s two-week adventure in Osaka and Kyoto coincide with the annual cherry blossom extravaganza gave this trip some extra luster. Traditionally, the cherry blossoms go into full bloom in late March/early April, but the timing can be tricky. Last year the blossoms came early, so by late March they were already gone.

_ASC7668Fortunately, all that pre-trip finger-crossing paid off, because we nailed the timing perfectly. The first leg of our tour was four days in Osaka for the last week of March, where the cherry blossoms were plentiful and colorful, especially along the riverside at Minami-Temma Park, but still a little young. By the time we got to Kyoto on April 1, though, the blossoms were full and fluffy and vibrantly colored … the peak of the season!

_ASC7092And they didn’t disappoint! Both white and pink versions of the cherry blossoms were equally impressive, probably reinforced by the sheer numbers of trees in both cities. They literally were everywhere, and everyday areas and ancient temples alike took on a fresh, springtime look.

_ASC6676Every scene looked like a painting or soft-focus photo.

_ASC6622It’s cherry trees as far as the eye can see along Osaka’s Kyū-Yodo River.

IMG_5967I’m not given to corny superlatives, but at times the cherry blooms were breathtaking!

_ASC7105Enhancing the air of specialness they create, the Japanese people really celebrate their cherry blossoms, as well they should. Their affinity for the cherry blossoms is almost spiritual, as if there’s a special connection between the people and the blossoms with their peaceful beauty. It’s as if they know that the blossoms will only be around for a short period of time, so they make the very best of that time.

_ASC7296So any place with cherry threes, and and especially any area under the branches, could quickly become a picnic area, with people throwing down blankets or tarps (usually blue), busting out the food and drink, and having a relaxing time with friends and family underneath the cherry blossoms.

Continue reading

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Osaka, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dinnertime

IMG_5794

I just returned from two weeks in Japan, Osaka and Kyoto specifically … two glorious weeks where dinnertimes were a dizzying array of authentic Japanese food, everything from sushi to ramen to shabu-shabu to my absolute favorite: tonkatsu, a breaded pork concoction seen above that’s crisp and crunchy on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside!!! The meal also traditionally comes with cabbage (that has its own yummy dressing), rice, miso soup with the little clams in it, and a fine array of crunchy Japanese pickles. It’s amazing as it sounds, especially when you dip it in the thick brown sauce that always come with it.

But to me, visiting Japan is all about the ramen. I always joke that I love ramen so much I would eat it for breakfast if it were socially acceptable, and then suddenly there I was in a country where it is indeed socially acceptable to eat ramen for breakfast! I prefer to call it #ramenheaven.

The only way I can do justice to all the incredible Japanese foods I ate for dinnertime is to share some of it with you. So with no further adieu (mainly because my mouth is watering at the memories), here are some the amazing meals I indulged in during my most recent time in Japan.

IMG_5638Of course, sushi is always on the menu when traveling in Japan, like this sweet presentation in a Osaka sushi joint. I ate sushi four times, including my first night in Japan … seems only apt. Osaka seemed like a big seafood city with lots of seafood restaurants and fresh seafood in the markets. So the sushi was always fresh and creamy … sometimes it just melt in the mouth.

_ASC6030This booth in Osaka’s Kuramon Shopping Area was really interesting. You choose the cut of beef you want …

IMG_5380…in my case a nice slice of Kobe beef, complete with Kobe beef certificate …

IMG_5389The staff cooks your beef on a grill, with liberal dashes of black pepper …

IMG_5392… and then serve it up with onions, garlic chips, scallions, and a nice dipping sauce. Osaka is known as a beefeaters paradise, what with it close proximity to Kobe, so beef restaurants are everywhere, all at varying prices. This little stand in the market served it up perfectly, satisfying my cravings for beef.

Continue reading

Posted in Food, Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Photo Essay, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments