(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.
About 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.
A 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.
As 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.
Of 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.
Some 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
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).
The 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.
Visit 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.
The 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.