Travel, Etc. --> Quebec City
France without the French
I know that I have done a lot of travelogues lately but I started this one back in April and just now got around to finishing it... this is a place worth visiting.
Don't get me wrong, I have always enjoyed visiting France. Unfortunately, it's a long way away, it's expensive and I don't speak French (and, at least in Paris, they don't speak English, even if they do!). But did you know that Ambassadair travels to a wonderful "French destination" that you can reach in two hours? Plenty of other airlines do too, but they have connections and take at least four hours.
Last September, we took a four-night getaway weekend to scenic Quebec City. It was our second trip, and proved to be as much or more fun than our first. Founded in 1609, Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and it has the buildings to prove it. Although the trip in from the airport makes you wonder why you came, since from the outskirts it looks like just another urban sprawl, a little like 82nd street in Castleton, only with the signs in French.
But overall, it's a fascinating city steeped in history, filled with 17th and 18th century architecture, where the streets are lined with sidewalk cafes and the menus are in French. And, best of all, they say "bonjour," you say "good morning" and then they say "may I help you?" Suddenly, you're off the highway and you climb the narrow, twisting streets up to the cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence river. Then you pass through the walls of the old city where you lose about 200 years in the space of about two blocks. The old city is called "Vieux Quebec" and is dominated by the tower of Le Chateau Fontenac, one of the newer buildings, a 600 room hotel built in 1893. Perched on the cliff overlooking the river, it towers over the lower port city at the base of the cliffs.
Le Chateau Fontenac
While I am sure that there are plenty of other good hotels and inns in the old city, I cannot imagine going to Quebec city without staying at the Fontenac. The hotel has been gradually remodeled over the last ten years and management has passed from the venerable Canadian Pacific Railroad to The Fairmont group. Our accomodations were elegant and most of the hotel looks like a movie set from some "turn of the century" epic. In fact, if you have the time, the tour of the hotel that they offer on the hour, complete with a guide in period attire, will really give you a glimpse of what life must have been like for the very rich in that graceful age.
Forget a car, if you want a day trip you can rent one in the hotel. This is a town to walk in – so bring your walking shoes. A couple of our favorite walks were:
Chateau Fontenac up the Grande Allee
Leaving the Fontenac you can stroll up rue St. Louis, the main street of the old city past rows and rows of shops and restaurants that are a little tacky, but tacky in a very Gallic way.
Fortunately, it seems that our "Manifest Destiny" went west. The citadel is a magnificent fort in the shape of a star perched upon the highest point in the city to
defend the St. Lawrence river against a American fleet that never arrived. It is still garrisoned with soldiers who carry real guns and plenty of cannons that could still sweep the river provided they still know how to use them. The tour is well worth the eight dollars and the hour it took, and take your camera because the views are incredible.
Once you pass through the gate of St. Louis, Rue St. Louis becomes the Grande Allee, a magnificent six lane wide boulevard lined with shops and sidewalk cafes reminiscent of
the Champs Elysees in Paris or the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en- Provence. To your right as you come through the gate is the Quebec Parliament buildings and to your left is a massive park called the Plains of Abraham, 206 rolling acres of green space overlooking the river.
The park commemorates the British victory in 1759 that took Quebec away from the French. It contains some beautiful gardens and is bordered by the fort on one side and the Quebec National Art Museum on other. After lunch on the Boulevard, we used the Promenade des Gouverneurs to return to the hotel. The promenade is a wooden walkway that over hangs the cliff and stretches from the fort all the way back to the Fontenac and the stairs to the lower city. Often as much as fifty feet wide, it has numerous overlooks, ice cream stands and roving musicians that perform long into the evening… fun walk, especially after dinner.
The Lower City - Petit-Champlain, Palace Royal & Vieux Port
The lower city is the oldest part of Quebec. Located at the base of the cliff, along the wide St. Lawrence river, it was and still is the center of river commerce in the city. The problem is that today, instead of fur traders arriving from the north, they now welcome cruise ships from the south. And yes, it's those same people you love to hate on St. Martin and Grand Cayman. Luckily they mostly confine themselves to the shops and restaurants in the lower city. So, if you can, choose a time to tour the lower city between ships. Although, sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping wine and watching the world go by like we did can be fun, especially when there were two cruise ship loads of Japanese and German tourists in port at the same time...
You can reach the lower city by stairway, very steep, very long, or by using the Funiculaire located behind Chateau Fontenac. The Funiculaire is kind of a sloped glass enclosed elevator, that for a few quarters, will save you much huffing and puffing. And, there is plenty to see in the lower city. Narrow cobblestone streets weave between ancient churches and buildings containing surprisingly high end gift, clothing and jewelry stores along with plenty of art galleries and cafes. If your tastes run toward museums, Musee de la Civisation in Palace Royale is very interesting, covering both historic and modern Quebec.
Quebec is a city filled with restaurants and I have to admit that every one we tried was pretty good. Here are two that we really enjoyed....
For a city this far north the amount of outdoor dining is simply amazing with sidewalk cafes on almost every corner, especially in the lower city and on the Grande Allee. The closer you are to the cruise ships, the more touristy the restaurants become. However, we found that even those were pretty good. If fact, in the lower city beside Boulevard Champlain we spent a few enjoyable hour at a sidewalk cafe called Le Cochon Dingue. Loosely translated, "The Crazy Pig," specialized in sausage and we spent the afternoon sipping wine and eating wonderful sausage sandwiches on crisp baguettes served with the kind of Frits that only the French can make. While avoiding the cruise ship crowds might be preferable, I have to admit that a glass of wine at a nice cafe and watching the crowds was interesting. We made a game out of trying to identify the different languages being spoken by the people passing by and gave up after identifying at least six. Le Cochon Dingue 46 Boulevard Champlain
The better restaurants seem to be confined mostly to the upper city and we found two worthy of note. They are sister restaurants that share the same building just a few blocks from Chateau Fontenac. Conti Caffe was an Italian themed restaurant that was quite good. However, the real prize was Le Continental, a traditional Continental restaurant from the old school. This year they will celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in the same location so you had to assume they were doing something right. And they were. The restaurant buzzed with a quietly efficient army of waiters and bus men in white tuxedos who presided over carts of copper cookware and flaming tableside presentations. No nouvelle cuisine or Asian fusion here!
At Le Continental, it could still be 1955, where gentlemen wear ties to dinner and dining is an elegant affair. The chateaubriand for two was served table side with a flourish of flaming cognac. The Caesar salad had real eggs whipped with Dijon in a gleaming copper bowl and garnished with croutons that were carefully placed on top with silver thongs. Even Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster both still existed on their dessert menu, obviously unaware that they had both been banished from restaurant menus 20 years ago. Paired with a bottle of 1999 Caymus Cabernet that was an amazing bargain. not only was it a trip down memory lane but an excellent meal. The two hour experience was was about $300 including tip but could have been mitigated by a less lofty choice of wines.
Le Continental - 26 Rue Saint Louis