Thursday 29 September 2016

Quebec City: Not just a city, more a way of life

Oh, Canada!

John Chambers

Published 01/02/2016 | 02:30

Montmorency falls, Quebec. Photo: Deposit
Montmorency falls, Quebec. Photo: Deposit
RURAL IDYLL: A scene on the slice of paradise that is the Ile d’Orleans — all this is just a few minutes drive from Quebec City, a Unesco heritage site. Photo: Sébastien Lar
Assemblee National Quebeci City

There is just one traffic light on the Ile d'Orleans, situated soon after you cross the bridge from the mainland.

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As you pass, one after another, the beautiful French-style houses, the cider-makers, the chocolaterie, the theatre, and the music centre dedicated to the famous local poet and singer-songwriter Felix Leclerc, it is easy to think that the islanders have worked things out pretty well for themselves and that the traffic light is somehow to slow down the mainlanders and get them to take in the beauty that is all round them.

The map shows that basically there are four roads - one describing a leisurely circle round the island while three cross it - so it's pretty difficult to get lost, at least physically. On one of those cross-island roads there is a grove of maple trees through which you can drive. But it's better to stop and let the greenness of the trees break the vast blueness of the Canadian sky; to stare at the empty road ahead of you, or behind you, as it makes its way in either direction towards the mighty St Lawrence waterway; to drink in, if not the maple syrup, then the moment.

There are, of course, other places to stop, such as the Pub Le Mitan, with its terrace overlooking the St Lawrence, where you can drink in the maple syrup, or at least the maple-syrup-flavoured beer, smooth and sweet, part of a tasting menu of four beers, and reflect that as you are only 15 minutes away from the Unesco world heritage site that is Quebec city, here at least there seems to be the perfect marriage between man and nature.

It's not just on the island that this marriage exists.

Earlier, on the Cote-de-Beaupre, we had taken in two wonders, one natural, one man-made. The natural was the Montmorency Falls (pictured above), which are higher than the Niagara Falls, though not as wide. You can take a cable car to the top, or drive, and walk across them, courtesy of a sturdy bridge. Not one for heights, I screwed up my courage, and ventured out on to the bridge - to be met by a French bulldog with a multicoloured floral collar taking its owner for a walk.

RURAL IDYLL: A scene on the slice of paradise that is the Ile d’Orleans — all this is just a few minutes drive from Quebec City, a Unesco heritage site. Photo: Sébastien Lar
RURAL IDYLL: A scene on the slice of paradise that is the Ile d’Orleans — all this is just a few minutes drive from Quebec City, a Unesco heritage site. Photo: Sébastien Lar

It was, I decided, time to man up and drink in the stunning views. The other wonder was the basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, the oldest pilgrimage site in North America. The current huge church is the last thing the casual visitor would expect, having travelled through the necklace of exquisite villages on the Chemin du Roy. It was, as my wife said, "something quite special", with its neo-Roman architecture, stained glass windows and light-filled interior. The crypt too is memorable, with a selection of impressive modern murals.

Man and nature. It's difficult to get away from that marriage even in Quebec city, founded on the gifts of one and the needs of the other. Nature provided the gifts: the narrowing river - Kebec means where the waters narrow in Algonquian Indian - the soaring cliff jutting out like the prow of a ship into the water. It must have seemed the perfect, easily defendable, spot to Samuel de Champlain who founded a trading post here in 1608. It certainly had something because over the next 170 years it was fought over by the French, the British and the Americans.

Those conflicts, as well as alternating periods of prosperity and poverty, have left us with a captivating city, its layers of history and culture readily on view, and it is now, a Unesco world heritage sight.

"Quebec is unlike any other city in North America," explains David Mendel, historian, president of the Mendel Tours company, and author of a series of best-selling guide books. He ascribes, at least in part, this uniqueness, to the combination of "British and French influences in the architecture".

This contrasting - or maybe, due to some little understood alchemy in the city, complementary - architectural legacy can be seen, for example, in two buildings just a couple of streets away from each other. When you enter the courtyard of the Seminary of Quebec, you could well be in Paris. As Mendel says in his book Quebec World Heritage City: "One feels as if one is no longer in North America".

Turn a few corners and you are confronted with the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the first Anglican Cathedral built outside Britain and Ireland, and modelled, by two British artillery officers, on Saint Martin in the Fields in London. Both are worth a visit, of course, but the old city is packed with gems and, like a particularly fine espresso, it needs to be sipped from.

Assemblee National Quebeci City
Assemblee National Quebeci City

Give yourself time, it will be worth it.

And you will need time, whatever type of tourist you are. Whether, like my wife, you like to wander, unguided, taking in the cityscapes, looking for the hidden square, the quirky shop, the unbidden moment, or whether, like me, you like to map your way from attraction to attraction - the Citadel, the immense fortification overlooking the city, and the museum dedicated to the prestigious 22nd Regiment, French-speaking but dressed like the Guards you'd see outside Buckingham Palace; the architectural extravagance of the Chateau Frontenac hotel, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and the Dufferin Terrace with its views over the St Lawrence; the Musee de la Civilization de Quebec, and coming with a warning in our guide book that it's impossible to manage it all in just one day (the book was right - we confined ourselves to a temporary exhibition on Egypt, a fascinating retelling of the story of Quebec, and an exhibition on the First Nations, Canada's original population).

But there is history and fascination everywhere. We would linger looking at a menu at a restaurant in the old town, only to discover later that we had stopped outside the city's oldest surviving house, begun in 1675 - discovered through my wife's quixotic method of exploration - or we would be guided to the Ursuline Chapel with its one altar serving two chapels, one for the enclosed nuns and one for the general populace.

We can thank two Irish men for the preservation of some of the most visible parts of all this history. Lord Dufferin, of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy family, and the man after whom the terrace near the Chateau Frontenac is named, fell in love with the city's heritage when living there and in the 1870s he led a campaign for the retention of the city walls, under threat from those who saw them as a barrier to the city's growth. He brought in Irish architect William Lynn to redesign and widen the gates. It was through one of these gates, the Porte Saint-Louis, that we would walk each evening, out to the Grande Allee, out through the scent-filled gardens of the Assemblee Nationale back to our hotel, the Delta, on the Boulevard Rene Levesque.

There, we could relax after the day's adventures, maybe have a swim in the heated outdoor pool, or a sauna - there is also a gym. As we had a club signature room on the 12th floor, we could also take in the views of the Laurentian mountains, and wonder which of the many celebs drawn to the area might be up there. Halle Berry used to have a home in the area, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones reportedly bought a bolthole there. Jackie Kennedy also used to visit this playground of the rich and the chic. Then it would be off to the club room for a drink and a few nibbles, and more magnificent views before heading out to the bewildering array of the city's restaurants.

But I had come in search of neither celebrity nor nature, nor even fine dining. I had come in the footsteps of General Wolfe. Back in the days - long gone now, I guess, and perhaps that's no bad thing - when young boys' heads were filled with tales of military derring-do, I had been told how the young and headstrong Wolfe had led his troops up onto the Plains of Abraham and had taken the city in a battle that had lasted under 30 minutes.

The Plains are now a historical site run by the National Battlefields Commission. There is a museum and a downloadable app, but you can also just wander, relying on the informative billboards, crossing the very ground fought over by Wolfe and the British, and the French, led by Mountcalm. Both generals died in or soon after the battle. Wolfe was 32.

I had come in search of Wolfe but had found so much more, not least the Wolfe-Mountcalm monument, a remembrance not of glory, nor of victor and vanquished, but of both men, their common death and their common fame marked by a common monument. A tribute that can be seen as a testament to their common humanity, in this city full of architecture and history but built on the human values that inspire them.

Take Three

Drink it all in

If you can’t make it out to Le Mitan and the Ile d’Orleans then never fear, La Barberie is a micro brewery offering a range of eclectic and interesting beers. In fact, craft beers seem to be having a bit of a moment and are probably the perfect accompaniment to Poutine, the regional dish, consisting of chips, gravy and cheese curds. For details on La Barberie see labarberie.com

Go Cruising

Don't just look at the St Lawrence waterway when you can cruise on it. Croissieres Aml offers a number of cruises, including a sightseeing one, and a gourmet experience as well as whale-watching tours departing from further up the coast and heading out to the Saguenay St Lawrence Marine Park. The whale-watching takes a full day with bus pick-ups from the city centre or your hotel. Bring warm clothes. croisieresaml.com/en/

Go bi-cultural

QUEBEC is a more Francophone city than Montreal but if you even try to make an effort the locals seem willing to meet you more than half way. If you do need Anglophone cutural input then the Morrin centre in the city centre has a fantastic library housed in an elegant historic building which previously served as both a college and a gaol. (Though not at the same time.) Try it for guided tours or afternoon tea. morrin.org

Getting there

AIR Transat (airtransat.ie) is offering a Montreal City break from €885pp, based on travel from October 4 to October 10, 2016. It includes economy-class flights from Dublin to Montreal via Toronto, and six nights at Delta Montreal (room only).

For more info on Quebec City and its surrounds: quebecregion.com/en/

Lots of Irish visitors will arrive in Quebec City having flown into Montreal with Air Transat. There’s a lot to be said for turning your trip into a two-centre holiday and trying to spend at least a couple of nights in the vibrant city of Montreal. Bigger than Quebec City, it has its old quarter and hosts a plethora of festivals — ranging from jazz to French music to comedy. Delta hotels has a property in Montreal too — beside the Quartier des Spectacles, where much of the action takes place. It’s about three hours on the VIARAIL services and the train is very comfortable.

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