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Quebec — A Walled European Fortress In America

Quebec — A Walled European Fortress In America

Quebec, like New York, is both a city and a state (or rather, a province).  It’s an island of French heritage and culture within our Anglo-North American continent.  I had wanted to visit this city for years so when Untours began offering apartment rental trips to Quebec, it seemed an opportune time to spend a week exploring and enjoying the city.  We combined this visit with stops in Montreal and Ottawa, which I’ll talk about in separate postings on this blog.

Quebec is one of the oldest and most historic cities in North America.  Founded as a small French outpost by famed explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608, it is now a city of 500,000 (and recently celebrated a huge 400th birthday bash on the Plains of Abraham).  Champlain recognized the strategic importance of the site.  Quebec was built on a broad rocky promontory (Cap-Diamant) which provided 360 degree defensive views including distant views of the St. Lawrence River valley.  The location is at the “bottleneck” point where the St. Lawrence River expands from one to several miles in width.  Over the years a wall was built to defend the city, the wall remarkably still intact and one of the few to be found in North America.  Within this fortress lie lovely old stone homes, cathedrals, restaurants and shops that are very reminiscent of Old Europe.  It might seem to a visitor that a scoop of 17th century France had been transported to North America — an impression that would generally be correct.  Quebec is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a picturesque, charming city well worth visiting and exploring.

Our family of four (including two sons in their late teens) stayed in a quaint and comfortable 2 bedroom apartment occupying the second story of an historic home built several centuries ago.  It was located in Basseville, the lower portion of the old city, on Le Petit Champlain boulevard, a pedestrian-only walkway filled with quaint shops and restaurants, and lay in the shadow of the grand Chateau Frontenac.  Our apartment was immediately adjacent to the funicular that connects the upper and lower portions of old Quebec.  The apartment, accessible only by an external spiral staircase, was very comfortable and provided us with a home-like setting in which to relax and plan our daily walks around the city.  The place had a great kitchen/dining area in which we breakfasted on fresh croissants and jam, eggs or cheese, fruit and coffee every morning.  It was fun in the evening to sit around our living room and try to understand some of the French TV newscast.  The weather was mostly lovely — warm and sunny, with a few days that were cooler and windy and with an occasional rain shower.

Old Quebec is divided into two regions — it’s helpful to you plan your activities by geography.  The lower city is Basseville.  It encompasses the flat area around the harbor area along the St. Lawrence River.  Most of old Quebec (Vieux Quebec) and the majority of the city’s attractions like within the upper walled city on top of Cap-Diamant.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

The upper city is dominated by the castle-like Chateau Frontenac, one of Canada’s historic CP (now Fairmont) hotels, which is the iconic image most people think of when Quebec is mentioned.  It sits on Dufferin Terrace, the best place to catch great views of the St. Lawrence valley and to watch ships cruise up and down the River.  The Chateau would be an excellent place to stay during any visit to the city (although its fairly pricey), but there are dozens of nice historic hotels from which to choose.  Make sure to at least walk through the lobby of the Chateau to take in some of its historic elegance, and if you can have a snack or meal there.  Visit the statue of Champlain beside the funicular on Dufferin Terrace in front of the hotel.

I would recommend spending at least several days exploring the upper city.  Stroll the streets and walk around the old stone walls of the city, visit the Notre Dame Basilica and learn about the important role Bishop Laval had in the historic founding of this town.  Stroll thru the campus and beautiful old buildings of the Seminary of Quebec and Laval University which lie adjacent to the Basilica.

No visit to Quebec is complete without a stop at the historic Citadel.  The Citadel is home to  Royal 22nd Regiment, an active unit still engaged in the War on Terror in Afghanistan.   If you’re there in summer, schedule your visit so that you can watch the changing of the guard in the morning.  This military display is captivating and well worth your time.  Take a tour thru the historic fort or of the home of Canada’s Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Canada, which is located inside the thick walls of this fortress.  Immediately adjacent to the Citadel lie the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British (under the leadership of Gen Wolfe) defeated the French (lead by Gen Montcalm).  Thereafter the British governed this island of French culture and heritage until Canadian confederation in 1867, an occupation understandably very irksome to the independent minded French-Canadiens.  The Plains of Abraham is now a large urban park and site of celebration of their annual “National Holiday” on June 24th (St. Jean Baptiste Day).  We were there during this celebration and can verify that it starts early, runs until dawn, and that the volume of beer consumed is impressive even by Canadian standards — but it was a fun celebration.

National Assembly of Quebec

National Assembly of Quebec

Another building worth a visit, just outside the walls of the upper city, is the Quebec legislative building or as they like to call it, the “National Assembly of Quebec” or “Parliament building“, home of Quebec’s “federal government” (there remains a spark of independence in the Quebecois as they refer to their provincial government as a national government).  Its grounds are pleasant to stroll around and have many interesting statues, including a well crafted Inukshuk (which I’ve loved since seeing my first in the Yukon Territories many years ago).  Tours of the interior of the National Assemby are available, last about an hour, and are worth taking.

As we were staying in the lower city (Basseville) we had lots of time to explore the Harbor area — something — I’d recommend several days for doing this.  We enjoyed walking on the banks of the St. Lawrence River at dusk, looking up at the Chateau Frontenac lite up at night, and trying a new flavor of gelato each day.  Place Royale in Basseville has been beautifully refurbished and really made me feel like I was in Europe.  Take the time to wander Place Royale’s cobblestone streets and enjoy the old stone buildings and shops. Be sure to visit its historic Notre Dame des Victoires Church.  Visit the area of the Old Port and explore its market (and try some of the cheeses, pastries and produce sold here).  The Museum of Civilization is Basseville and was recommended to us, but as we had just visited the National Museum of Civilization in Gatineau a few days earlier, we did not tour this one.

I would strongly recommend everyone take the ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River to Levis to enjoy the view of the city.  Levis is located on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, directly across from Quebec.  This is the best place to get a complete view of the Quebec City and an appreciation of the whole city — and for those who like photography will give you among your best shots of the Chateau Frontenac.

There are large numbers of cafes around the city, with numerous bakeries and gelato counters.  One small boulangerie/cafe we really enjoyed was Paillard on Rue St. Jean in the upper city.  It has superb croissants, breads and pastries, great soups and sandwiches and the best gelato we had on this trip.  We ate dinner at a different restaurant each night and the food generally was very good.  Of the places we visited the most interesting location was Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, said to be in the oldest building in Quebec City.  The menu has an assortment of wild game dishes including stag, bison and caribou. The finest meal we had in Quebec City was Sunday brunch at the Chateau Frontenac, which we give our highest recommendation (make sure you try the Beef Wellington if they have it — its fantastic beyond belief).

Montmorency Falls, Quebec

Montmorency Falls, Quebec

Day Trips from Quebec

There are several excellent day trip opportunities from Quebec, these generally being located downriver to the east of town.  Montmorency Falls, a dramatic and tall waterfall (you’ll hear it endlessly pitched as taller than Niagara Falls), is just off the main highway.  It offers a cable car ride to the top of the falls and an assortment of walking and hiking opportunities. Isle De Orleans is an island in the center of the St. Lawrence river — immediately facing Montmorency Falls —  which provides much of the summer produce for the region and is a favorite place for locals to go to pick fresh strawberries in the summer and apples in the fall.  A bridge connects the island to the northern bank of the St. Lawrence river so access is not a problem.  Drive around the island and enjoy the many pretty farms and small towns.

The huge St.-Anne-Du-Beaupre Cathedral and shrine at first glance seems out of place in the small country town it dominates.  The current cathedral was built during the 20th century and is a magnificent structure.  If you like cathedrals as much as we do, be sure you take time to explore it.  I was especially moved by the display of dozens of crutches and walking aids of those who were “cured” here.

St. Anne’s Canyon and Falls is a nice walk/hike featuring several swinging bridges and a chiasm with a roaring series of waterfalls that’s quite memorable.  St. Anne’s Canyon, St Anne Du Beaupre Cathedral and Montmorency Falls can all be visited in one day.

North of Quebec City lie the picturesque Laurentian mountains, which we did not have much time to explore.  It would be a great place to visit in the fall when the trees are changing color.  If you drive through the Laurentians be sure to stop at one of the “sugar shacks”, which sells maple syrup products (we visited one in the port market)

Further east on the north shore of the St. Lawrence lies the picturesque Charlevoix region of the province, home to innumerable cheese producing farms (most of whose products are superb) and to Celine Dion.

We really enjoyed our time in Quebec.  It lived up to and exceeded our expectations!

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