Quebec City the Charlevoix region
Letter from Laura Tanna
Montreal may be multicultural, but Quebec City is not. Ninety-five per cent of the population speaks French, 95 per cent are Catholic and 95 per cent are white. And in a population of 700,000, last year they had ONE murder. Strange statistics for us in Jamaica. They do have their working-class neighbourhoods outside of the rather commercialised Vieux Quebec City, which attracts a multitude of visitors, especially after being named as a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1985. As the heart and soul, as well as capital of the French-speaking province of Quebec, Quebec City is special. The First Nation Native American Iroquois people inhabited a village on the same site when Jacques Cartier, the French explorer, first arrived in the area in 1535 as he sailed up the St Lawrence River. It became a city in 1608 when another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, laid claim to it with a few structures, primarily to facilitate its becoming a fur-trading centre, positioned as it was upon the St Lawrence River.
For us, the three-hour drive over excellent roads from Montreal was incredible. Forests of roadside trees displayed all shades of yellow, orange and brilliant red, most strikingly surrounded by evergreens, the contrast against blue skies magnificent. We could not have selected a more perfect time to enjoy the autumn change of colours, a spectacle we never experience in the tropics. This was mid-October but the season can be unreliable. By the next morning when we hoped to have a private walking-tour of the Old City, horrible windy, cold and rainy weather forced us to cancel that and instead join a bus tour. And that is how we came to visit not only Vieux Quebec City, but also the working-class suburb of Limoilou where the entire neighbourhood has only outdoor stairs called 'mother-in-law' stairs. With extended families living on different floors of a house and no interior stairs, it's a way to keep your mother-in-law from visiting, if she has to go outside to climb the stairs during brutally cold winters!
The guide assured us there are only two seasons in Quebec, winter and construction, the latter because everywhere roads and roofs were being repaired before winter arrives.
We heard fascinating anecdotes about historic Quebec. How French President Charles De Gaulle declared "Vive le Quebec Libre!" on a visit decades ago when separatists really believed they might break free of Canada to become a separate country. Now a third of the people work for government and with the Laurentian Mountains nearby, many people enjoy skiing in the evenings, especially since shopping malls open only two evenings per week, on Thursday and Friday. Boats remain in the marina only four months per year, since the river freezes over, and houses keep ladders on rooftops to sweep out the chimneys to avoid fires. Cedar shingles were replaced by tin for the same reason and roofs are steep so that snow will slide off. Needless to say tourism is at its height in the summer months, when thousands of visitors each day, crowd the cobbled-stoned lanes to visit Old Quebec City's delightful little shops, cafés and restaurants. Just as in France, many people in Quebec have pet dogs on leashes with them wherever they go.
We stayed at Le Chateau Frontenac, opened in 1893, now a Fairmont hotel whose historic castle lies within the walled city, reputedly the only walled city north of Mexico. Here President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill held secret meetings during World War II. Perched on Cap Diamard, a cliff above the old city, the chateau dominates the skyline. One reaches Vieux Quebec either by a funicular for C$2 or by descending treacherous steps. Just beside Chateau Frontenac, reached by a boardwalk along the ramparts of Dufferin Terrace, lies La Citadelle, built by both French and British armies as, first one, and then the other nation, took possession of the area. Today half of the French-speaking 22nd Regiment, which makes its base there, is serving in Afghanistan.
Despite 50 mile-an-hour winds with blinding rain that blew our umbrellas inside out and nearly knocked us into the road, we managed to dine out twice on rue Saint-Louis, at Conti Caffe, an Italian restaurant with style but middling food, and Le Continental, with style and better cuisine. Neither was of the calibre of restaurants found in Montreal. We never did try Quebec's favourite fast food, poutine, a mixture of French fries, melted cheese and gravy!
We gave a miss to the Musée du Fort, with its military history, and to Musée de la Civilisation and instead drove four and a half miles northeast, to Montmorency Falls, higher than Niagara Falls, and then on to the beautiful Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de Beaupré, a vast shrine to the mother of the Virgin Mary. Since 1658 there has always been a church on this site. A replica of Michelangelo's Pieta, the extraordinarily moving statue of Christ dead on his mother's knees, located in St Peter's, Rome, is found within the Basilica, visited by over one and a half million pilgrims every year. Quebec is profoundly Catholic with stunning manifestations of the faith.
Venturing 130 miles along the Charlevoix Coast on the northern side of the St Lawrence, we found lovely farmlands, some maintained by the same families for three centuries. A breed of pure-white cattle appeared near the two-storey wooden houses with porches, ancient wooden barns and silos. We also encountered snow along the way, at 740 metres. Because of the weather we couldn't fully appreciate the historic villages which once caused the area to be called "the Newport of the North."
We stopped only at Le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie, its Casino festive with Halloween decorations. But the grandeur of the autumn colours along the coast made the drive worthwhile.