I was on the city bus and didn’t know where to get off. Then I happened to glimpse the Porte St. Jean, down a side street. It was unmistakable.
I had tried to read about Quebec City in advance, you know, to plan, to chart a course, to prepare like a good tourist, but I got lost among those tiny, meandering streets on the map. My eyes crossed, and my brain froze.
Screw it, I thought. Just get there and wander.
And wander we did, Julia and I, in 90-degree heat with, I swear, as much humidity as air can hold without spontaneously precipitating. And it was delightful, albeit damp and sweaty.
Vieux Quebec–the old city–is small enough to stroll around in until you get your bearings. And you can always orient yourself by the iconic Château Frontenac, which is front and center on every postcard shot of the city.
Vieux Quebec is the only city north of Mexico with its original walled fortifications still intact. While the rest of the city sprawls outward like any respectable metropolis, the Old City of Quebec is as tightly wedged behind its wall as it was four hundred years ago. Same tiny cobblestone streets; same dormered houses. That’s why it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, a designation it deserves in every way.
I crossed under the St. Jean gate, and it was like stepping into the Renaissance, except more festive. In fact, it had a Disney-esque quality, what with flags and flowers blossoming from every doorpost. One might almost expect to see a princess–or Pocahontas–emerge from a doorway, but no, just kids coming home from school. As in Amsterdam, ordinary people live in these quaint and ancient buildings, coping with the tourist carnival that begins anew every day outside their door.
Quebec City sits atop a mighty bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Had you been a military guy in 1608, you would have recognized in that bluff a nigh-impenetrable fortress against attack by sea. And thus did Samuel de Champlain, who claimed the site for the glory of God and the king of France.
Vieux Quebec is a city in two layers. Atop the bluff and surrounded by the walls is haute-ville, where most of the churches and government buildings–you know, the important stuff–is located; far below the bluff on a narrow strip of lowland along the river is basse-ville, the lower city, the other side of the tracks, where the merchants and craftsmen lived. And this lower town is where Quebec began, clustered around Place Royale, the original town square. This was one of the places I stumbled upon blindly, and even in my torpor, I recognized that it was special. Our Lady of Victory church stands at one end of the square, and a ring of squat, old buildings, mostly shops and restaurants, surrounds it. A trompe l’oeil mural covers the side of one building and depicts several famous personages overlooking town life.
The first day of wandering got Julia and I through the center of the haute portion. We saw the requisite Chateau Frontenac with its turrets, arches, copper roof, and 631 richly appointed rooms. This is the fortresslike hotel that anchors every postcard shot of the city. Of all the events these walls have witnessed, perhaps the most famous was the meeting between President Truman and Winston Churchill and other Allied partners during WWII.
Even lunch was entertaining. I imagine the competition for customers is fierce on these streets lined with restaurants of every stripe imaginable. We chose the one with the nice girl outside who reeled customers in with a pretty smile and a vague wave at the menu. The food was good; the waiters were unforgettable. Besides the French lessons and general tomfoolery, they enjoyed the presence of my comely daughter quite enthusiastically.
On the second day while Julia kept her cool at the campground, I executed a more coordinated attack on the city. First, I walked the length of the wall to the Citadel on the far side of the St. Jeangate. This impressive fort is still an active military base, so you can only visit with a guide. At this point, I was reluctant to spend an hour at the very beginning of the day, so I opted to take pictures from the entrance.
The present citadel was built on top of the original French fort, but was cleverly reinforced in the mid-1800s, ultimately to protect it from the US. But by that time, we’d spent all our marbles on the War of 1812, when we fought Great Britain, and by extension, its colonies. That’s when we took Lake Erie and part of Ontario. Quebec City hunkered down behind its fortifications. (Trivia: the mascot of the Royal 22nd Regiment is a goat. White and furry, but a goat, nonetheless.)
From there, I descended down Breakneck Stairs (escalier casse-cou), built in 1635 to connect the high and low villes, past St. Matthew’s cemetery, the oldest in the city, to the Quartier Petit Champlain—where the shopping is out of control–all on a cobblestone street lined with tiny, dormered shops. You can find kitschy t-shirts; you can find handmade artisanal items; you can find fine art from the Inuit and First Nation tribes. It’s a cornucopia of consumerism in an authentic setting.
The rest of the Basse-Ville continues on a similar theme. There’s history to rival the Europeans; there’s quaintness and charm; there’s fine food with a new world flair (I had elkburger for lunch); and there are crazy surprises that you sometimes stumble across.
After two full days in Vieux Quebec, I ran out of juice before I ran out of things to see. Stuff I missed that you shouldn’t:
- Museum of French America. Depicts the establishment of French culture in the New World.
- the Citadel. Take the tour.
- Hotel Frontenac. Take the tour. I didn’t even know there was one.
- Parliament Building. I saluted from afar, but didn’t go inside. I should have.
There may be interesting things to do in the greater metropolitan area of Quebec, but I just saw it from the bus window. I was more than happy just touring the old town.
I’ll be posting a bunch of photos of Quebec City on my wanderingnotlost.org Facebook page. Check it out.