Possibly more than many other cities, Montreal truly comes alive in the summer. The hot, sticky weather and the long hours of daylight signify that it’s (finally) time for picnics in the park, ice cream, late afternoon drinks (which unfold into late evening dinners) on outdoor terraces, sun-bathing and other sports on the gentle slope of Mont-Royal, bustling Plateau streets with restaurant-goers walking with a bottle of wine tucked under their arm, and the countless festivals that Montreal is famous for. When summer rolls around, one of the festivals I look forward to most is the international fireworks competition that takes place every year at La Ronde.
The fireworks competition is as old as I am, and has been wowing spectators since 1985 (you do the math). It is said to be the largest competition of its kind in the world, and judging by my international friends’ wide-eyed reactions when we have gone to watch them, these explosive shows are indeed something pretty special. Ironically, I have never been to watch the weekly fireworks from La Ronde itself; instead, it has been a tradition to stand on the Jacques-Cartier bridge among throngs of people, and to enjoy a panoramic experience along with the show.
Watching from the bridge is magical in its own right. The City closes the bridge to traffic around 8.30 pm, allowing only pedestrians through – pedestrians who will soon climb the railings, sit in a long row on folding chairs and blankets, with their radios and walkmans or iPhones and iPads (depending on the generation), transforming the bridge as though it was never one of the city’s busiest set of lanes. Waiting for the traffic on the bridge to halt is always amusing; there are always tons of cop cars but for a happy occasion, and light-hearted police officers ask kids if they are excited about the show. The rules are simple: no glass, no aluminum cans and no bikes. Aside from these rules, the atmosphere is one of community, of the City supporting tradition.
Walking up the ramp always feels a bit surreal – the crowd takes up all lanes, instead of being confined to the two gated sidewalks on either side of the bridge. By then, night is falling, the cityscape twinkling, its reflection shimmering on the water. This is a different perspective on the city, with La Ronde on one side, the Olympic stadium’s protruding tower leaning in the distance, and the downtown skyline on the other. The beacon of light from Place Ville-Marie swoons over the city at intervals you quickly learn to predict, cutting the night like a beam from a lighthouse, unifying us as we look up at it from various points in the city.
The excitement builds until 9.55 pm, when a test firework shoots up above our heads and signals that the show is about to begin. The Ferris wheel counts down the last ten seconds, its lights gradually shutting off like a hand of a clock sweeping the surface of time. Some viewers count down, while others tune their radios to 105.7, but everyone awaits the first fireworks in anticipation. And then it begins, and you are suddenly at eye-level with an exploding sky. For half an hour, you forget everything you did that day, were meant to do, or didn’t do. All you can do is enjoy the bursts of color against the dark sky, and wonder what will come next.
The bridge shakes with every boom, the sound resonating through the steel as it vibrates straight through your chest. Every week, another country puts on a show, with a different theme and a different musical soundtrack. There are fireworks of every color and kind, sometimes traditional, sometimes incredibly innovative. They fire at different levels, filling up all parts of the sky, and even making use of the small lake at La Ronde. The best shows are those which make you feel as though you are seeing fireworks for the very first time.
You stand there on the Jacques-Cartier bridge, not feeling time pass. You check your watch for the first time around 10.25 pm, because your gut tells you the Finale is about to begin. You stand there facing a sky of a million sparkling, shimmering, cascading lights. The city is at your back, and you are surrounded by similarly enthralled people, their faces reflecting the sky’s madness. But all you can do is keep looking up. The fireworks come in waves, yet when a song nears its end and the explosions subside, you are still transfixed by the colored haze wafting over the amusement park, the echo of the last resounding boom, and the glowing embers falling from the sky.
The sense of community continues to linger, and you can’t help but smile when you hear giddy “ooh”s and “aah”s rising over the sound of the exploding shells. You know that these fireworks can be heard from all over the city, and you imagine people watching them from the Old Port, from rooftops, from the other shore. People from all directions are looking up at the sky. You join in on the resounding applause, coming from the bridge as well as from the crowd sitting in the stands at La Ronde. You can feel their energy. All around you are people of all ages and all languages enjoying the fireworks much like children do, with bright eyes and wide smiles, and appreciating yet another amazing festival our dear Montreal has to offer.