MONTREAL — In a very cozy café on a bitterly cold afternoon, urban planner Olivier Legault struggled to find a way to describe the Quebec-centric concept of “nordicité.”
“Montreal is still discovering its nordicité; it’s an evolution,” he said.
When faced with my blank stare, he took a sip of beer and tried to explain the term again.
“You know, nordicité,’ he said. ‘It’s like hivernité.”
Hivernité was even less helpful. Was hivernité the title of a Celine Dion Christmas album that I somehow missed?
“I don’t know how you’d say it in English. It’s wintertude,” Legault said.
That was it. Wintertude. Montrealers embrace the season with a positive wintertude and a pile of very heavy jackets. Without knowing it, Legault created a word that I will now regularly use and attempt to trademark. The Québécois don’t hibernate when the temperature dips to freezing, zero, or even 20 below. Call it wintertude, nordicité, or even hivernité. I saw it in full force with my own iced-over eyes. Locals were ice skating when it was well below zero, chefs were playing with ingredients harvested from across Quebec, and the downtown corridor was filled with bright public art and activities to light the long, frigid nights to entice residents outside.
The winter festivals in Montreal are back in force this year. They overlap and intermingle, so it’s tricky to differentiate, but if you’re tempted to embrace the nordicité (that’s nordicity in English), then look for the following celebrations: Luminothérapie, Montréal en Lumière, and Nuit Blanche. While each has different components and activities, the overall goal is the same. They are designed to get people outside exploring, eating, moving, interacting, and diving into the city’s cultural scene.
Crowds are expected to number in the hundreds of thousands as travelers from the United States can now enter Canada without proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or negative test. You won’t need a lot of cash. Many of the activities are free. But you will need to pack all your warm clothes, a lot of nordicity, and a positive wintertude.
Nordicity was coined by Louis-Edmond Hamelin, a Quebec geographer and linguist, in the 1960s. It’s the idea of embracing a cold climate, not hiding from it. But it’s not only about temperatures. Nordicity is also about throwing your arms around the sociological, anthropological, cultural, artistic, and even culinary impact of your surroundings. It’s a state of mind. Just to avoid any confusion, nordicity doesn’t mean Quebec is comparing itself to Nordic countries. In French, “nord” means “north.”
For the past two decades, Montrealers have become increasingly comfortable with their nordicity, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, an underground city began to take shape beneath the central business district, growing steadily with the introduction of the Metro, and then spreading with a surge of underground malls in the 1980s and 1990s. These were effective at shielding residents from the cold temperatures, but did little to create a sense of community.
Legault, the urban planner, is cofounder of Winter Lab, a think tank that has been working with the city to bring residents back outside. The city has been using a few guiding principles to do this.
“When you read the literature about winter design, it’s all about the light and the comfort,” Legault said. “It has to be fun. You have to give people a reward for going outside, so it needs to have some kind of magic. It’s all about the micro climates, activities, and access to warm places to go inside to warm up and get hot chocolate.”
Maybe urban planners in Boston could look to Montreal and borrow a couple of ideas. Please?
If nordicity was all about light, fun, and hot chocolate, I was ready to fully immerse myself in the concept. The only festival in progress during my visit was Luminothérapie, so I laced up my skates and tried out Au bord du lac Tranquille, a rink that uses sensors to follow skaters and send projections that make it appear that the ice is reacting to their movements. It was like a live-action Disney film under my feet. That is, until I fell on my derrière and the film abruptly ended. Thankfully there’s a public chalet adjacent to the rink where I could warm up and hide in shame.
The granddaddy of the winter festivals is Montréal en Lumière (www.montrealenlumiere.com). It runs from Feb. 16 to March 5 and features more than 100 activities, so there’s no shortage of diversions to help you forget the cold. The most prominent installations are an insanely high-tech elevated ice skating loop that is twice the size of the rink at Rockefeller Center and a giant Ferris wheel. Most of the activities are free. The smaller Luminothérapie, which is focused on interactive public art, began Dec. 1 and runs through March 15.
It all culminates with the raucous Nuit Blanche on Feb. 25. It’s an all-night party with free concerts, free admission to the city’s top museums, lots of art, any style of dance you’re craving, DJs, and even a bit of Japanese bondage . . . as art, of course. I would never use the trite phrase “It has something for everyone,” but it really does. The party is centered around eight neighborhoods (organizers call these sites poles). I recommend looking at the full schedule at nuitblanchemtl.com and carefully plotting a strategy. You will only be able to get through a fraction of the offerings, so choose carefully.
“The point of Nuit Blanche is really to have culture accessible to everyone,” said Valérie Morel, project manager for Nuit Blanche at Équipe Spectra. “For one night you can go see something super weird and not pay for it. Go ahead. It’s free. Go discover stuff at traditional museums you may not normally visit. It’s so nourishing for the public, but also for the artists.”
Nuit Blanche is not unique to Montreal. You can find the nocturnal party in cities around the world. The difference is that Montreal’s Nuit Blanche takes place in the winter. It’s another reward for city denizens to get out and celebrate their nordicity, and for tourists to test their fortitude. This year, some locations will be open until 6 a.m. Morel says the conditions at Nuit Blanche are usually either rainy or bitterly cold. That means pack for anything.
I know you’re already overwhelmed with options, but this last one is a biggie. Montréal en Lumière features a gastronomy program. More than 40 restaurants will offer special menus created with local chefs in collaboration with international chefs and wine makers. Called Finest Tables, its special menus are offered throughout the two-week festival, but not every day, so check the schedule and reserve a table ahead of time.
Finest Tables is also an opportunity to see how Montreal’s restaurant scene has evolved since the pandemic. Gone are the days when Au Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef defined the city’s culinary offerings. According to Julie Martel, manager of the gastronomy program for Montréal en Lumière, nordicity (that word again!) has moved into the kitchens of Montreal chefs.
“It’s interesting. The northernness of Quebec products has not been promoted enough around the world,” Martel said over a very Quebec-focused lunch at the recently opened Restaurant Bivouac. “Mostly we hear about Scandinavia, but we have the same products here. It’s food, but it’s also identity. It’s more than a trend.”
Another change in the dining scene is that restaurants are no longer open traditional hours because of staffing shortages. Lauded chef Simon Mathys’s new restaurant Mastard isn’t open at all on weekends. His menu is hyper-local, but even Caribbean restaurants are incorporating local ingredients.
The Haitian restaurant Kamúy from celebrated local chef Paul Toussaint uses Quebec ingredients in dishes such as the seafood casserole, beet salad, and grilled pork ribeye.
“We have incredible producers here of meat, vegetables, spices, whatever you need,” Toussaint said while mixing a cocktail. “You may not think that ingredients from Quebec belong in Haitian food, but it’s a very Montreal thing to do. This city has its own identity, but that identity is always adapting and changing.”