All things French without going to France
Starting in the 1600s, and escalating in the 1700s, the British and the French battled back and forth over eastern Canada. In the end, the French won in what is today’s Québec province, at least culturally, making a trip to Québec City a vicarious visit to France.
The city, about 160 miles northeast of Montréal, is Québec’s provincial capital. Its twisting warren of cobblestone streets, chic boutiques, and sidewalk cafés exuding enticing aromas create a Parisian ambience.
Québec City also has soaring cathedrals, 18th and 19th century buildings, fine French cuisine, and the sounds of the mellifluous French tongue. The fleur de lis, symbol of the old French monarchy, adorns the flag. French is the official language of the Parliament’s debate.
Move over New Orleans! French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded Québec City in 1608, and the residents (called Québécois) consider the province to be the cradle of French civilization in North America. The city’s motto is: “Je me souvenir,” which translates to “I remember” — meaning, “I remember my origins, my history.”
The city’s location is stunning, 300 feet above the mighty, 2,500-mile-long St. Lawrence River. Champlain named it Kebec, the Algonquin word meaning “the river narrows here.”
Some say the St. Lawrence looks like liquid mercury at night. The river’s tide can reach 20 feet, and ice breakers have to make it navigable in the winter.
Québec, the oldest port in Canada, is North America’s only walled city north of the Rio Grande. But the 2.9-mile wall today is not a barrier. It’s a key part of four centuries of history. A walk along the top offers spectacular views and perspectives.
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of historical superlatives — for example, the continent’s first stone church, oldest hospital, and Canada’s first Anglican cathedral and first girls’ school. And they all remain in some form.
Roaming around town
The ideal way — most say the only way — to fully absorb this city, its aesthetics and its vibes is by leisurely meandering along the labyrinthine streets of the historic Old Town, Vieux Québec.
A funicular, which opened in 1879 and travels at a 45-degree angle, connects Old Town’s two parts: Haute Ville (Upper Town) and Basse Ville (Lower Town).
The city’s architecture is distinctive — steep sloped roofs of tin, aluminum and copper that can last 200 years, modeled after French chateaus. The slopes and ladders on the roofs help deal with the typical winter’s 150 inches of snow.
Old Town is crammed full of 100-year-old granite buildings with mansard roofs reflecting the city’s French roots.
The “crown jewel” of the city’s architecture is the world-famous, iconic Château Frontenac hotel, which opened in 1893. With soaring turrets, it is perched like an elegant castle atop Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond).
The hotel’s signature copper roof is visible from all over the city. Tourists are welcomed and, in fact, expected to wander through the lobby — a place that usually has more tourists than hotel guests. A bit of trivia: Château Frontenac was designed by Bruce Price, father of manners guru Emily Post.
From 1693 to 1831, the French and British took turns constructing La Citadelle, a star-shaped fort nicknamed “the Gibraltar of America” because of its strategic location above the river. Today, visitors can beef up on military life from colonial times to the present in the fort’s museums.
La Citadelle is still home to the Royal 22 Regiment, a squad also known as the Vandoos. Its ceremonial changing of the guard occurs at 10 a.m. daily in the summer.
The French and British clashed in the city’s Plains of Abraham multiple times. For example, in 1759 the Brits scaled 300 feet up the cliff and, after a 15-minute battle, defeated General Montcalm.
There’s no sign of conflict today at what some call the “lungs of the city.” At 103 acres, it’s the tenth largest park in North America, and to locals is what Central Park is to New Yorkers. It’s been the stage for artists like the Beatles, Celine Deleon, Rush and more.
Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral, built by the French in 1647 and rebuilt in 1925 after it burned to the ground, is the final resting place for four governors. The priest preached from its elegant pulpit, completed in 1784, before the microphone’s invention. Louis XIV gifted the pewter sanctuary lamp, one of the few pieces of the cathedral’s early history to survive the fire.
The European invaders were not the first people in the region. The Museum of Civilization offers a tutorial on Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, the history and people, including the First Nations.
Visitors learn from a model how the Iroquois lived in log houses near the river. You can also gain insights into the Inuits’ lifestyle from over 500 objects on display, including a 3,000-year old copper necklace.
An Inuit stone lamp is fueled by whale oil because there’s no wood above the 56th parallel. These hardy people made snow goggles from bone to protect against the snow’s glow. Inukshuks, figures of piled stones, served as landmarks or navigational aids for Inuits in the Arctic snow.
There is no charge to tour the Parliament Building, Hôtel du Parlement, completed in 1886. Bilingual guides explain how laws are made Canada-style, based on the United Kingdom’s system.
A stained glass window — Champlain greeting North American native people — reminds visitors of the province’s French heritage (or invasion, depending on your point of view).
Busts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill stand on the grounds because they planned World War II’s Normandy invasion here.
This is a place to seriously eat and eat seriously, to channel your inner Julia Child and Larousse Gastronomique.
In intimate cafés, cozy bistros and fine restaurants, classic French food and good wine can be found at all prices. Always popular and tasty are the tourtières, hearty meat pies of venison, beef, pork and even elk. Savory crêpes, pâtés, frog legs, escargots, quiches, cheeses and baguettes rarely disappoint.
Or in the pricier range, scrumptious Cognac-infused lobster bisque, caribou filet mignon, beef Bourguignon, deer tartare and duck confit delight. Fondues and raclettes are staples.
For dessert, chocolate mousse, multicolored macaroons, éclairs, truffles, petits fours and more abound.
Recreated First Nations village
For a glimpse into some of the people the French encountered when they arrived, the Huron-Wendat traditional site, a 30-minute drive from Québec City, travels back in time to a recreated village of 1,000 Huron people on the Akiawenhrahk River. The museum and log house are a journey into a proud First Nations’ culture.
Outside are examples of traditional gardens planted with corn, beans and squash — “the three sisters” that support each other (The beans climb the corn and fix nitrogen which the corn needs. The squash leaves help prevent weeds.)
The site’s restaurant serves wild game charcuterie, deer sausage, maple cream sauce, braised bison shoulder, and smoked meat sandwiches. Powwows are held once year in June or July.
If you go
You can easily navigate in English as most locals are bilingual.
Visit www.quebecregion.com, and when in Québec City, start at the tourist information office, 12 Rue St. Anne, where a very efficient, helpful staff can provide information on tours, festivals, maps and more.
The Hôtel Clarendon at 57 Rue Sainte-Anne is a centrally-located base for touring the city on foot, by bus or horse-drawn carriage. Rooms start at $101 in Canadian dollars, which is currently $72 in American money. See www.hotelclarendon.com or call 1-888 222-3304.
June to September are the most popular months for tourists, with high temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Spring and fall have smaller crowds, but note that the average high temperature is 46 °F April and 51°F in October.
Roundtrip flights to Québec City from BWI in early April start at $311 on Air Canada Express.