Sazia Sharmin visits one of the oldest European settlements in North America
It was an epiphany on my tongue: a luscious sweetness balanced with the slightest hint of salt, topped with in-season strawberries that came aglow in the soft bistro lighting. In my ears was the melody of French musette accordion; in the air, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. As I tasted the cheese pie at Le Petit Cochon Dingue on Boulevard Champlain, I was transported to Van Gogh’s Café Terrace on that magical summer night. It’s not France I went to; rather France had gone there four hundred years ago. Québec City is a historical site of contact between Europeans and the First Nations of Canada. Today, it is the heart of French Canada, the capital of the eponymous province and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The flight from Toronto is so short that it fools you into thinking why you didn’t just drive. Yet many of our friends who did do just that found the drive surprisingly long, having to deal with the traffic of both Toronto and Montreal en route. We, therefore, decided to take the delightfully short flight on a beautiful July day with our two and a half year old and six month old in tow. It was our first vacation as a family of four. We knew we needed the support of a good hotel. In Quebec City, choose none other than the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, renowned to be the most photographed hotel in the world.
The hotel is a destination in itself. Over a hundred years old, it’s painstakingly preserved and subtly renovated to bring the amenities up to date. It sits on a cliff by the St. Lawrence river with magnificent views from inside and out. What we loved most was the extras: milk and cookies for the kids before bedtime, free umbrellas when it rained and, mind you, not cheap plastic ones but elegant umbrellas with sturdy wooden handles. We even borrowed a good quality crib and a stroller for the baby. Many tourists who don’t stay at the hotel actually go to eat there and to take pictures, so the lobby was often crowded. To be honest, the crowds did not bother us much, possibly because we were constantly homesick for Dhaka. In fact, it made us feel festive. The beautiful boutiques and toy shop in the lobby and the open-air performances by acrobatic buskers right outside added to the joyful ambiance.
Even with a toddler in a stroller and a baby in a carrier, the cobblestone paths of Québec City are surprisingly easy to explore. We walked for hours without having to climb a single stair! Our hotel was in the Haute-Ville (Upper Town). To get to the Basse-Ville (Lower Town), we took the Funiculaire, a cable car that is designed to move up and down steep slopes. Nicely balanced by the car moving in the opposite direction, the view still gives you the chills, fearing a free fall at any moment. Maybe because we got so spoiled by all the ramps, elevators and helpful strangers, one time we decided to climb down the L’Escalier Casse-Cou, the “breakneck” steps from the upper section of old Québec to the lower section. The experience was an anticlimax. We found no reason why anyone would break their necks on those steps. Then again, it was July. The sublime Canadian summer can make you forget how cold it is more than six months a year. Covered with treacherous January sleet or dampened by October rain, the same steps can become dangerous.
Whether you take the Funiculaire or the Breakneck Steps, you arrive right into a riot of colour and the buzz of activity. Quartier Petit Champlain has the kind of European charm you find in postcards, but of course this place is real! As we walked along the meandering paths of Petit Champlain, we embarked on a feast for the senses. Everywhere we looked, we were enchanted by art, crafts, music, food and drink, unique little boutiques with carefully curated accessories, scented candles and incense sticks for the home. There were benches at every corner welcoming us to take a moment to take it all in. The bright and bold primary colours on the Old World architecture give the place a fairly-tale character that lifts your heart. Never once did our toddler complain about being bored! Our baby was happy as a six-month old can be snuggled in the carrier, which we took turns to wear. Québec City is frequented by retirees who go on Atlantic cruises from the port. Many of them were very affectionate towards our young children and offered us much needed words of encouragement as a growing family.
The Lower Town is also where the must-sees of the ancient Notre Dame desVictoires church and the Musee de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization) are. The difference between the early French settlers in Canada and their English adversaries was not only in the language, but also religion. French Canada was, and remains Catholic, whereas the English followed their own Anglican Church. The Notre Dame desVictoires is a stone church dating back to 1687. Its name refers to early French victories against the British army. We also visited the Plain of Abraham, where a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War between the French and the British took place. Today, it is a peaceful vast green field with lovely play areas for children. The pieces of colonial history we kept on receiving during our trip reminded us of our own jagged history of being colonized. The good food was certainly a big help to swallow it down. We did not have a single bad meal at any restaurant in Quebec. The breakfasts were gorgeous and the buffet at the hotel was luxurious and great value for money.
The third day into our trip, we decided to take a break from all the history and leave the old town for a trip to the Mega Parc. I know there are more amusement parks than the world really needs, but this one is exceptionally reasonably priced and accommodating to the youngest kids. We were able to safely ride several attractions with both kids. My toddler son had the time of his life and his first roller-coaster ride ever. The ice-skating rink was full of skaters even in July! The Parc is inside a major mall, so we did some touristy shopping. I was pleased to find unique children’s clothing and accessories that were whimsical, colourful, and funny… perfect for Disney-detox. Quebec is no-doubt the hotbed of creativity in Canada where some of the best children’s TV shows in the world hail from, such as Caillou and Toopy and Binoo. I have never seen Caillou stuffed toys or Toopy and Binoo t-shirts anywhere else!
Our other excursion outside of downtown took us to the Montmorency Falls at the mouth of the Montmorency River where it drops off into the Saint Lawrence River. Not far from the falls is the Îled’Orléans, one of the first parts of Canada to be colonized by the French. The tourism brochure described it as the “microcosm of traditional Quebec and as the birthplace of francophone people in North America.” Note how the French are talked about, the literature exudes an oozing sense of pride and heritage. But who lived in Quebec before they came? What was here before Champlain built his habitation in 1608? It seems ironic that John Keats described human life as “a poor Indian’s sleep / While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep / Of Montmorency” because Quebec was an important site for the first Nations of Canada long before the French came. It’s very difficult to find any traces of them in the old town. However, not far from downtown, there is Weandake, a Huron-Wendat reserve. For
tourists, there is an interesting effort to reconstruct a traditional Huron village. Wendake hosts an active community of artisans and artists with many galleries and arts and crafts shops. We picked up some beautiful mushrooms carved from soft Oak wood. Another great source for local art to fit all budgets was the Rue du Tresor, literally Treasure Street not far from our hotel, a laneway where local artists display their work for sale without any pressure to buy.
Another must-do in Quebec City is the ferry to Lévis. We didn’t have much time to explore the town, but we loved the wildflower meadow on the river bank. My son and I had a wonderful time chasing butterflies and dragonflies and getting to know the wildflowers: Hickory, Yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, Milkweed and many others we didn’t know. On our way back, the Château was breathtaking against the indigo sky. We walked into our hotel room with a renewed sense of awe that we really are staying in a castle!
If you envision North America as the land of junk food, big-box stores, identical shopping malls and endless suburban houses, Quebec City will pleasantly surprise you. Chockablock with chic storefronts displaying one-of-a-kind items, unique local eateries, independent cafes with decadent pastries, you just can’t get enough of this city. It’s not only the home of the old France in Canada, but also the multi-ethnic new France, with immigrants settling in from all parts of the francophone world: Algeria, Lebanon, Haiti, Vietnam, Chad. On weekends, some of the major streets of the old town are closed off to car traffic and there is a river of people from all over the world flowing through the city. While we were sometimes a bit unsettled by the excess of colonial pride, we got over it as we lost ourselves in the crowd.