Cop lights, flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights: as if straight out of a Kanye West song, all save for one of these lights illuminated my experience at Montréal en Lumière. The annual winter festival converts the city’s Quartier des Spectacles into a free urban playground featuring a gigantic ice slide, a digitally-lit Ferris wheel, gourmet gastronomy, outdoor games, and live performances.
Fireworks crackled in the February sky and quite literally started my night off with a bang as dazzling pyrotechnics left the festival grounds singing with energy and excitement in celebration of Montréal en Lumière’s 15th anniversary.
Feeling like a guest at one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, I watched French-Canadian rock musician Xavier Cafeïne take centre stage at Place des Arts and inaugurate his set with an aptly titled ballad called ‘Electric.’ The remainder of the concert pulsed with neo-New Wave vigour as I bobbed my head alongside my coat-clad comrades while admiring the projection art that illuminated the sides of edifices around the district. Several other artists are scheduled to perform free shows throughout the festival, among them Juno award nominee Poirier.
Montréal en Lumière is as much a pleasure for the taste buds as it is for the eyes and ears. Its outdoor site brims with food kiosks serving everything from buttery Belgian waffles to massive Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. As I departed from the concert crowd, I gratefully accepted a skewered marshmallow from festival personnel, slightly burning the gelatinous confection’s edges with uneven contours of bruléed sugar, before grabbing real food at the wooden kiosk of Old-Montreal hotspot l’Atelier d’Argentine.
Confronted with a smorgasbord of affordable Argentinian cuisine, I settled on a smoky beef empanada that heated my taste buds with a spot of warmth from Buenos Aires. For my second dessert, I savoured the Quebec staple tire sur la neige—a taffy lollipop made by pouring hot maple syrup onto a bed of ice. Besides Place des Arts, Montréal en Lumière showcases the talents of over 450 chefs in tasting events and workshops held in various locations around the city.
Not far from the Nucléus is the festival’s popular ice slide, which boasts a 110-metre track that propels passengers through Montreal’s sharp winter air on an exhilarating journey with sound effects and colourful lights.
Slightly eclipsed by the veneer of the festival’s more ostentatious attractions are activities that provide understated pleasure. After disembarking the ice slide, I spotted three people wearing rectangular goggles that made them look like Cyclops from X-Men. Always inclined to try the gimmicky gadgets eulogized by Canada’s resident tech expert Marc Saltzman, I discovered that the goggles were Oculus Rifts—virtual reality headsets developed for immersive gaming. The device allows viewers to experience one of five digital scenarios and had me spellbound and startled by a rollercoaster simulation. My night culminated in a short match of Snakes and Ladders, one of several giant parlour games at the festival’s Espace des Familles.
As one of world’s largest winter festivals, Montréal en Lumière gives good reason for the city to glimmer under the international spotlight.
Montréal en Lumière’s outdoor site is open to the public at Place des Arts every evening between Feb. 20 and March 2.