Quebec in Canada exudes an aura of French lifestyle harking back to its past history, writes Ranjita Biswas
If you are wondering about the location of this city, then it’s not your fault. Many people may be surprised to see a North American city exuding the charm of a French town. Though in Canada, Quebec’s ambience definitely tends to be French. Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer and diplomat, Quebec is one of the oldest settlements in North America. The city’s somewhat laid-back atmosphere makes it a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of other North American cities.
From Montreal it takes just about three hours by road to reach this beautiful city. A first look at the quaint city with old stone buildings standing like sentinels to the past, baskets of geraniums beckoning from window-sills, pavements with restaurants of varying sizes with their cheerful awnings and people relaxing with food and wine- can prove to be love at first sight – depending. Quebec’s citizens jealously guard their heritage and make sure that it retains its unique aura despite the presence of the smart phones and GPS-oriented tours.
Quebec is the only province in Canada to have French as its official language. Most of the people, especially of the older generation, prefer it to English as their communication language. The region was a French colony for more than two centuries till the surrender to the British troops in 1760.
A port city
In the early 19th century Quebec flourished as a port city. Boatmen transported timber down the Saint Lawrence and St. Charles river for loading ships bound for Britain.
Today, the promenade near the waterfront is a charming walkway with shops, restaurants and winding cobble- stoned lanes. The Musée de la Civilisation at this site is the most popular museum in Quebec. The many sections within gives glimpse of the province’s growth and displays ethnic artifacts as well as those from French heritage.
Meanwhile white cruise boats wait for visitors on the pier. Many ushers dress in 18th century togs to add to the ambience.
The city itself is walled and built on two levels, the Upper Town and the Lower Town. Quebec grew from the lower level in the early days. UNESCO has now recognised it as a heritage site.
Onto the upper layer
You have a choice of taking the steep and winding street called Côte de la Montagne and Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs) to reach the upper layer, or the funicular from Terrasse Dufferin.
Walking up the stone stairs from the Saint Lawrence river promenade – be careful to wear sensible shoes, leads to the most exciting part of the town. It is dominated by a huge castle-like building-very European in structure. Hark, it’s not a palace, but a hotel built between 1893 and 1924 and named Le Château Frontenac after Louis de Baude, Comte de Frontenac, a 17th-century governor of this New France on the Atlantic Ocean, as the region was called then. It is majestic nonetheless and is a landmark of the city.
A huge courtyard lies in front of the hotel, obviously fashioned like a European town square. On one side of the courtyard is the Place Royale skirted by fine stone houses and dominated by the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires built in 1688. Inside, a large model of a ship is suspended in the nave, while the altarpiece symbolises the fortified city of Quebec. It is a good idea to visit the Place-Royale Information Centre (closed between October-April) to get an idea of the layout and history of the place.
A walk on the boardwalk around the Le Château Frontenac is a must after alighting from the funicular. It gives a magnificent view of the Saint Lawrence River; children run around, musicians play and generally there is an atmosphere of peace and quietude.
From there, walk down to the Champlain Petit district… a stroll up and down the narrow, winding lanes with cobble stones takes you back into another era. The ambience has been preserved to retain the character of the place.
Culinary delights and artefacts
It’s a shopper’s paradise too (prices are marked without tax) with boutiques laden with handicrafts, knitted garments in local designs, toys, hand-made jewellery, etc. At some corners, a musician strums a guitar or plays a harmonica; CDs are on sale if you like the music and can be autographed as well. Explore the lovely alley of Rue de Trésor for pretty paintings done by local artists and souvenirs to take back home as mementoes.
If all this walk makes you hungry, not to worry. Restaurants are aplenty, quaint and laid-out with chairs and tables in the sun.
The culinary base here is obviously French with lots of cheese but it also shows influences of other communities as well. Some of the famous local dishes are: shepherd’s pie, poutine (French fries topped with cheese curd and covered by brown gravy), sugar pie, pouding chômeur (a sponge cake with a maple syrup sauce), tourtière (a meat pie), cretons (a pork spread with onions and spices), etc.
Apparently, there is also a tradition called “sugar shack’’ (cabane à sucre), a family culinary tradition of eating maple products to the rhythms of Québec folklore. But then you have to go in summer and also have a good local family as hosts. There is even a chocolate museum here with outlet full of designer chocolates.
How to get there: Connected by air from major cities. Also, by train and bus/car from Montreal
Where to stay: Hotels from budgets to luxury. Day trips from Montreal are also popular.
What to do: Explore the old town, discover the charms of old France, take a cruise on river St. Laurence
What to eat: French cuisine, duck roast, poutine, accompanied by good wine
What to buy: Wine, cheese, maple syrup, art objects.