Quebec City – The ‘French Enclave’ of Canada

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September 26th 2014
Published: September 26th 2014
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We're up early for a quick breakfast & then leave the hostel at 8am to take the Metro from Victoria Square to Berri/UQAM where the central bus station is - not the same place as we arrived on Megabus, though all the other bus services seem to run from here. It's warm and humid even at this hour. Surprisingly, the Metro is not that busy even though it's rush hour. The bus station itself is a bit of a slog from the Metro through some very dismal underground passageways though the bus station itself is quite modern and well organised.

The L'Orleans Express bus arrives 2 mins before it's due to depart (9 am) so by the time everyone has boarded it leaves late but we still get to Quebec City (QC) on time at 12-15 pm. The road takes us through fairly ordinary scenery - quite flat, and a lot of farmland where the main thing of note is the amount of sweetcorn crops in the fields.

It’s very hot & humid in QC. To get to the road into Vieux Quebec where we are staying we have to go through the very French VIA Rail station - gothic style with a steep copper roof and very large central hall, with lots of eateries and cafés. It's part of the Basse Ville (lower old town) at the bottom of the hill! The walk up the hill into Haute Ville (upper old town) where our hostel is located (Auberge Internationale) takes 15 mins and M is dripping by the time we get there due to the humidity and carrying the heaviest bags!

The hostel is deceptively compact but is quite big - about 300 bed spaces - but has pretty good facilities and is in a great location right in the old town. Everything is within walking distance of here. Our room has 2 bunks which is a bugger but it's nice and light with big windows and a decent size. Unfortunately the ceiling fan doesn't work so they let us have a standalone, then the handyman comes and fixes the ceiling one so we have 2! Which is perfect - we need both in this heat - though the forecast is for much cooler weather from tomorrow when some rain is due.

Vieux Quebec (VQ) seems a bit like Montreal old town at first, though with more attractive streets and buildings, lots of interesting side streets (some cobbled) and much more provincial. Until you get to the square outside Le Chateau Frontenac hotel (the iconic image of Quebec), and then it's very, very grand! We can see why it's a UNESCO World Heritage city (since 1985).

To add to the "set" there are lovely horse drawn carriages very nicely decorated etc. to take visitors around for a grand tour. The only problem is the cost; C$90 for 35 minutes (plus the customary tip)!! Maybe not for us then! Also, there are lots of street musicians - violinists, a harpist, pianists, guitar players and a very colourful drum player with his dog in top hat & sun glasses – adds to the madness of it all! And they're all really good. Those who play in the historic lower town mainly play French music which adds to the atmosphere.

To get between the lower and upper town (other than by the main roads), there are steps in various places, and also a Funicular near the Frontenac. C was keen to try the funicular till she discovered that the steps were pretty easy & saved $5 a time for us.

The Frontenac is above Place Royale, where QC was first "settled" by the Europeans, and a wide wooden Boardwalk winds its way around the upper city riverside from the Frontenac to the area near the Citadel (which houses the Governors Official residence). The Old City was well fortified against attacks by the British and the city walls are still intact around the upper town. You can walk along most of them.

Another impressive sight is the Parliament buildings which are very attractive with a huge & beautifully sculptured fountain at the front and interestingly quite a few statues of First Nation people at various points - though nothing to explain why?? The front of the building also has statues of the original explorers and politicians; amazing how easy it is to tell the difference between the French and English just by looking at the faces!

Beside the building are statues of the first woman MP and that of a group of women who were the original suffragettes who won the vote for women in Quebec.

We go out a few times in the evening to take a walk around the Parliament buildings and city walls, and the square in front of Chateau Frontenac. We get some nice pics in the dusk light which makes the city look even more photogenic, and without the hordes of tourists passing through.

Near the Frontenac is the Basilica de Notre Dame. It's very beautiful inside, though not so impressive as the Montreal ND. The altar has a very large elaborate gold gilded frame, a bit like a crown (the type you wear on the head) - nothing like anything we've seen before. Then we go to the nearby Seminaire, established as a school for boys going in to the clergy in the late 1600's by the early French settlers, and now a part of the University of Quebec Architecture dept. The main Seminaire is a grand grey stone building with bell tower on the roof, and nearby is a courtyard of 3 whitewashed blocks that were part of the original construction.

It's striking how much of the original buildings in QC have been preserved so you do get a real sense and feel of the post settler history of the place. However, other than galleries and the occasional reference to Native Americans on statues there is almost nothing here that indicated a history pre European settlers.

It seems that many of the buildings are being renovated and the drains in the upper town are being replaced (spending all the UNESCO funding??) so give the impression of being a bit like a building site in places. However on the positive side, many of the renovations appear to keep to the original design. We notice that many of the roofs have been refurbished with aluminium square "tiles" which shine in the sun and look very different. Unfortunately, the planners have also "had their day" so interspersed with the beautiful buildings are a number of square block functional tower blocks from the 70's. Blots on the otherwise attractive landscape – Prince Charles would definitely object to these ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

There are two big events in town while we're here; the Celtic Festival so we're off to a Ceilidh tonight & Highland Games tomorrow, and it’s Burger Week - 30 restaurants doing special burgers as part of a national competition!

As we wander around we find a few monuments to Irish settlers in the 1700's and those who subsequently came here to escape famine. They estimate that about 40% of the population has some Celtic heritage. It’s definitely something we were not aware of. Guess that explains the Celtic Festival.

We go for a walk along Rue St Jean, but outside the VQ area. It's supposed to be much cheaper and it is. Pint of beer in VQ C$9.75, just outside VQ (5 mins walk away) C$6.50 and only C$3.25 in Happy Hour!! So we have to have one! There are loads of nice eateries and a great cafe along this street as well as the local supermarket which has some great stuff for cooking in nights, and a liquor store opposite (SAQ).

We try the bar in the hostel for a pint of decent Barbarie amber - not bad at all for C$4.30, though the atmosphere is a bit student unionish as it's in the cafeteria area. Then we head off in search of the two restaurants that are recommended on Rue St Jean outside VQ - Le Billig for the best crepes in town and Chez Victor, the best burgers. We decide to leave crepes for lunch and have a wild boar and a lobster (Burger week special) burger at the latter. It's pretty good and filling but somehow no-one does burgers quite as well as the Americans and the lobster, while nice, doesn't completely wow us.

Then we head back into VQ for a wander and to listen to the last half hour of the ceilidh; we definitely missed a trick here - they're really good. There are folks sitting & standing around on the street and a few dancing in front of the stage on the pavement. It reminds us of our trip to Cork in Ireland with Romi & John.

It's on again tomorrow evening so we will definitely get there earlier. Just as the band finish it starts to rain (good timing) and then it buckets! So it's back to the hostel to listen to the thunder and watch the lightening while catching up on blogs etc.

When we do go to Le Billig, the crepes place, we go for a duck confit and a scallop and leek crème crepes which seem to be the most popular. They are pretty good though a bit pricey and doesn't compete with the crepe we had in Montreal at Jean Talon market.

The next morning we have a lazy start as its cloudy, then first stop is the Marche de Vieux Port - in the lower town near the train station. It has lots of locally grown fruit & veg, cured meats, fish and some fancy looking cheeses, and a few stalls doing crepes, hotdogs etc. We buy a few bits then head back into VQ for Lunch at Paillard, a cafe/boulangerie in the tourist centre that does a really good grilled veg baguette. It also does some nice looking bread that we buy on another day for our suppers in the hostel with cheese and pate.

The Highland Games are being held on the Plains of Abraham near to the Citadel so we head over to watch some of the action (our first Highland Games) - tossing the cannonball and beer barrel throwing etc. There's actually quite a few folk watching and enjoying the fun, though there are only about 6 competitors, all kitted out in kilts and very much looking the part (i.e. large and rotund!) In the refreshment tent a band is playing Celtic music and they're pretty good too, and around the park various bagpipers are practicing for a parade later.

As we walk down the boardwalk back towards Chateau Frontenac a bit later we see folk lining up along the boardwalk. There’s to be an Air Display it turns out though we hadn't seen anything advertised. It starts with a bi plane, then spitfire, some jets and finally the Snowbirds (Canadian Red Arrows) who do a great full monty display (though no colours in their smoke plumes).This is an unexpected bonus and we get some nice pics. It gets bloody cold though, and we do need our jumpers!

After supper we head back into town for the ceilidh - a pianist and violinist this time - more gentle than last night but again very good. We finish off the night with a walk through town discovering some different side streets and late night performers/artists, before its back to the hostel.

Next day there's supposed to be a parade for the Celtic Festival in Rue St Jean, but it doesn't materialise (at least not where it was supposed to) so we wander around Haute Ville taking pics and enjoying some of the artists stalls that have been set up. As it brightens up in the afternoon we head down the steps to the Place Royale and it's really nice. Very French style buildings, narrow lanes that you can't really see from the top, lots of cafés and small shops, some great shop signs etc. so lots more photo's!

We've been told Rue St Paul near the old port market has some great eateries and galleries so we go to check it out. We discover some really wacky street art on the way - plastic garden furniture and kids toys all bundled together and stuck on the side of buildings! There are lots of art galleries in the Basse Ville, many selling Inuit sculpture and artwork - pretty pricey too though we're not sure how much of the sale price goes to the folk who make it instead of the gallery owners? We also see an estate agents window and can't believe how cheap property is here; really beautiful apartments with very typically French design for the price of a small bedsit in a dingy part of London!! Just a bit too far for a holiday home we feel.

We come back to this area for a bit of a splurge for dinner on our last night in QC at Cafe St Malo, enjoying fab sweetbreads and rabbit in mustard - very French and very, very good and unusually a ½ carafe of red house wine (Spanish but very quaffable).

On another day we take a walk to the Quartier St Roch, the more modern area of QC, as we've been told there are some good eateries/cafes on Rue St Joseph. It's a pretty boring walk there under the main roads which pass overhead and when we get there it's pretty mundane with the exception of the huge St Roch Church. The main drag is full of the usual high street shops, a few cafés and bars, one very nice looking bread shop/cafe and not much else. So we decide to move on, back to the area around the train station and Vieux Port area.

At the market by the old port, we try a miniature ice cream type cone filled with maple syrup, topped with maple butter, which we've been told is a must try in the city; enough sugar and calories to see you through a marathon we reckon. Massively sweet and not to be repeated. It's the first proper maple syrup we've had in Canada we realise!

For lunch we try Le Buffet de l'Anquitaire on St Paul's which got great reviews from some local folk when we passed by the other day. Not sure why? The house special - a sort of mixed meat pie was dry as Old Nick and served with tinned veg! We do get another Canadian staple out of the way though - French toast in maple syrup with ham and eggs on top. Actually -not bad though we wouldn't have it again.

For the best views of the townscape you have to take the 15 min ferry ride across to Levi, a small settlement on the other side of the River Lawrence. The forecast when we go is for sunshine though there are quite a few clouds around. We get lucky, as we set off the sun starts to break through and we get some lovely shots of VQ with the Frontenac and Citadel on one side and the Seminaire on the other. We don't actually go into Levi as we haven't heard of anything special to see there, just get on the return ferry back and take more pics. The Ferry round trip is $6 each.

Back in the Basse Ville, we go inside the Notre Dames de Victoires, one of the first three buildings erected by the French in QC when they settled. It's much smaller and simpler than the ND in the upper town but nice because of that. Apparently it has withstood sieges, storms, fires and threats of demolition and is now a protected monument. They have a women dressed in traditional costume of the time welcoming in people at the door.

One of the restaurants in the lower town that is highly recommended is Le Lapin Sauté on Rue St Pier. We go there for lunch and it’s pretty awesome. Fab onion soup then confit rabbit cassoulet. The decor was true provincial France - as was the food. You could almost forget you were in Canada.

Wandering back up to the Frontenac and so pleased we took our pics yesterday; they have a huge crane and the area in front is cordoned off for repair works! Bummer for the day visitors though.

On the Friday, the day we leave, they are hosting a big cycle race in the city so as we walk round later in the week many of the roads are closed while the infrastructure is put in place and barriers start going up everywhere. There are also cyclists out practicing on the streets - we don't envy them on some of the hills especially as Friday is forecast to be quite a warm day.

The starting point seems to be on Grand Allee East, by the Parliament buildings. We take a walk up there and the eateries and cafés are packed - we guess this must be the main drag for all the govt: workers plus the support teams for the cyclists. There are some amazing looking buildings further along the road but with all the road works and detours etc. we decide not to go further. Our lunch at a Creperie on St Jean is quite forgettable – a mistake!

On our final day here it rains - almost all day. So we get on with washing, blogs and other stuff before a late afternoon wander and nosey inside the Hotel Chateau Frontenac. Apparently it costs about C$700 per night to stay here! It's pretty flash. This is the venue Churchill and Roosevelt used to get together to discuss war strategy - so, good to see they roughed it with the troops!! QEII has also stayed here as have many other dignitaries.

Tomorrow we head back to Montreal for the night before our morning flight to visit Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We definitely had more days here than we needed but actually it was quite nice to spend the days mooching, taking pics, enjoying the sunshine, drinking coffee and absorbing the atmosphere in this lovely part of France, oops we mean Canada!

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