Our family hates the cold – except our youngest, aged 8, but, being one out of five votes, she loses every time. Anyway, she also loves the seaside and swimming, so we can satisfy everyone with Caribbean island holidays.
This Thanksgiving, however, we decided to go for something different. Since I barely survived our idyllic visit to Nevis last Christmas, exhausted by doing nothing and longing for the museums and European cities of my youth, hubby relented and suggested Quebec City this year. The next day, I booked the flights. Then he booked a fabulous apartment just outside the old town through AirBnB, and we were all set.
A week before we left, said hubby looked at the weather forecast. “You do realise it’s going to be cold?” he asked. Sure, I replied. “No, really cold, like freezing cold,” he continued, making sure that all the kids ganged up against me in horror – well, all two of them as the little one just leaped up and down, asking excitedly, “Will there be snow?” When I checked the forecast and replied in the negative, she joined the other side, and now it was me against four. Luckily, the trip was already booked and non-refundable.
Equally luckily, unlike last year at the same time when the city was hit with more than a foot of snow, or the year before that at the same time, when the temperature was in the minus twenties, close to an all-time low, this year the prediction was for highs in the mid-forties for the first few days, only dropping to low thirties for the last two.
We arrived to a blast of frost, but not enough to scare us off going outside and checking out L’Observatoire de la Capitale, the viewing tower on top of Edifice Marie-Guyart, Quebec City’s tallest office building. Since we got there around 4.30pm, we managed to see the 360-degree views of the city in daylight and then watch a glorious cloudless sunset, as the orange-red orb slowly melted behind the trees in the distance. We could clearly see the old villages of the 1690s, surrounded now by the hideous concrete architecture of the 1960s. We also had an excellent view over the “Vieux Ville” of Quebec City, locating the key areas we wanted to explore the next day.
Quebec City is the perfect size for a five-day visit. You can get to all the museums, wander copiously around the old town, both Upper and Lower, eat in fabulous restaurants every night, and get time for shopping and café visits.
The kids’ favourite museum was “Musée du Fort”, technically neither a museum nor about a fort, but, in fact, a splendid diorama of Old Quebec, showing the history of the town, but focused on the famous battle of 1769, when the British troops overcame French resistance and took hold of the city maintaining it for the next….well, forever actually. The large electronic screen behind the model told the story with the addition of a simple voiced commentary (English on the hour, French on the half hour), while different parts of the 3-D mock-up below lit up to highlight critical areas in the battle. Finding out the British won was a big disappointment to my American-born but half-English-for-Heaven’s-sake kids, but given all the invading British navy had to do was shout “Vive Le Roi” for the Québécois to confuse them with loyal French supply boats and so let them in, I’m not sure it was a fairly-weighted competition.
The Musée des Ursulines, also in Upper Town, tells the story of the nuns who came to Canada, originally to teach the natives, but quickly switching to French and British-born Canadian female children as the demand from them increased. Never mind if the Eskimos can read or write, when there is a European need. The museum is housed in the former 1700s dwelling of a rich French woman, who dedicated much of her inheritance to this education of girls. It describes the life of the students as well as the process in which they chose, if indeed they did choose, to become nuns after a couple of years at the school, including videos from the 1950s of the initiation process. Alas, they ran out of girl pupils and nuns, and the school shut in the 1990s, only to reopen in 2011 as a boys’ school.
On the way out of Upper Town, the Musée Nationale de Beaux-Arts de Quebec (or MNBAC if you’re in a hurry or typing on an iPad) has a great collection of Canadian painters. When we went, it was featuring four contemporary artists, three of whom we really liked, especially Jean-Paul Riopelle, with his thick multi-coloured slabs of finger-sized paint, slathered on with a pallet knife. If I could afford one, I’d have one in my living room. Or bedroom. Or loo. I wouldn’t really mind where, actually. The museum has already expanded into a second building from its first, which was an old prison. You can even see some of the old windowless cells. Now a massive all-glass third building is under construction, due to be finished in a year or ten.
Unlike these three good museums, Musée de la Civilisation is very uncivilised. The exhibition on the history of the city was boring, with more to read than look at. It couldn’t hold the kids’ attention and even I struggled with storyboard after storyboard. They did have an all-video exhibition on dance, and my daughter and I put on giant shoes, hats and coats to experience the art of Jean-Pierre Perreault through doing some re-enactment in a darkened room, which kept her amused for 20 mins. Without that, the CA$42 would have been a write-off.
Part of the fun of the city is just ambling around and seeing what you come across. The Edifice Price on Place de l’Hotel de Ville, opposite an old pub from 1640 that seems to want to masquerade as a classic pub from Ireland, was built by the very wealthy Price family and based on the Empire State Building in New York. Though not nearly as high, thankfully not overwhelming the consistency of the city culture, the building is still impressive. Inside, the maple wood-lined elevators are a glorious apogee to a bygone era, as are the detailed copper plate images in the entrance hall, describing steps in the timber-processing industry (from whence the Price fortune came) in the 1930s.
For city views from a lower vantage point than a tower block, head to Le Citadelle at the promontory of the Upper Town. This is still used as a modern garrison, and in winter, without the Changing of the Guards ceremony, is really all about the view and no more than that. From the edge of the steep hill that naturally protected Quebec on three sides from enemies (they forgot about the flat fourth grassy-field side in the back from whence the British smartly attacked), you can look down over Lower Town, little changed in the last three hundred years. This is due to the laudable strength of the efforts of its contemporary residents, turning many of the former dwellings in Lower Town into artist cooperatives and tiny restaurants serving top quality Canadian dishes, and thus saving them from the wrecking ball. Our recommendation would be for Le Lapin Sauté, the rabbit no longer jumping when served but very tasty. The kids could not bring themselves to eat Benjamin Bunny without declaring him greasy and tasteless – just an attempt to assuage guilt, I’m sure. Stick to the wild flesh and fowl (duck included) and skip the tasteless vegetarian ratatouille pasta and, sadly, the dessert as the runny Crème Brulée is definitely the wrong consistency.
The shops in Lower Town cater happily to tourists, though we did not find the locals to be particularly warm or friendly. Perhaps we should not be surprised when the weather itself does not subscribe to these characteristics.
I toyed with the idea of a fox fur hat because it looked so good on me, and the rest of the family was ardently lobbying for me to purchase it. I could see right through their ardour, and knew it was only so that they could taunt this vegetarian with contradictory moral values (poor foxy foxy, nasty farms) for the rest of her lifetime, so I declined and instead bought a totally aesthetically-sound red leather jacket from Atelier du Pomme, off rue de Petit-Chamblain (named after Samuel Chamblain, who founded the town, but died before he could successfully lose to the British). I followed that up with yellow leather boots at Fillion, the well-known sports shoe store in town, but no foxes were bred in the making of that product either, so I’m good. Actually, I never liked foxes much. Maybe I should go back and get the bloody hat?
There was also a glass-blowing atelier, where I got a fun turquoise snowflake for a friend’s Christmas tree (an annual tradition – not the Christmas tree, I do realise that is indeed an annual tradition, but I was commenting on the gift of a tree ornament to my pal).
Upper Town has the oldest grocery in North America, to which my twelve-year-old son mysteriously insisted on going. We would do anything to please our kids (except yet another beach holiday), so we dutifully trudged uphill. J. A. Moisan on rue St.-Jean is worth the visit, serving a variety of interesting cheeses, meats, chocolates from Canada and France, and unimaginable spices. My son left with a Red Apple Ginger Beer and that seemed to suffice for him, even though after just one sip he declared it undrinkable.
Breakfast is an almost-entirely French matter. Pastry shops abound and, unlike in America, they can actually make real bread here. Fresh, slightly chewy croissants; chocolate eclairs with soft cream inside, rather than the crunchy faux stuff back in the USA. Our favourite was the Croquembouche, where we could get croissants with raspberry jam (that being the only flavour on offer all week) or ham & cheese, mini-cakes, jam-filled pastries, pesto and onion breads and a delicious cappuccino. La Boîte à Pain had fewer choices but better lunch sandwiches, such as duck terrine with blueberry jam, tuna with cheese and tomato, and salami on sesame baguette. Unusually for a bakery, they even had a tasty chickpea salad with a spicy vinaigrette. Try and ignore the grumpy cashier. Both these places were on rue St.-Joseph, in the heart of the up-and-coming new shopping district, where our lodging was also located. In Upper Town, Paillard is deservedly famous for the quality of its pastries, but the atmosphere is more that of a fast-food chain than a traditional bake shop with moist and delicate pastries.
We tried going a bit out of town to Fun en Bouche for an egg breakfast one day, but the grumpy owner told us he was fully booked until 1.30pm, so we had to get our “fun in the mouth” elsewhere. We ended up at Le Bügel in Upper Town, which had many varieties of fresh bagel sandwiches, served with a vegetable ball and slices of fresh fruit. Hubby got eggs with muesli and yoghurt, daughter (from the kids’ menu) a bagel with butter and fruit, and I opted for eggs over-easy , surprised to find that neither did I know the French word for this, nor did the waitress. It came out alright, though. English is widely spoken in this town. I thought, like in France, the locals would prefer to speak to me in my fluent French, due to everything I’d read about the Québécois nationalist push for independence, but the majority of the time, even when I initiated a conversation in French, the response came back in fluent but accented English. So much for improving the kids’ French out here.
We also discovered that you really need to book restaurants if you want to eat in QC, whether lunch or dinner, and even in non-touristy November, where it isn’t even Thanksgiving in Canada.
We got lucky our first night with a meal at the high end restaurant, Table, on rue de la Couronne. The cheese plate was perfect – I only wanted cow cheeses, and they came with dates, walnuts, raisins, cranberry jam and homemade bread. Cheese plates, I was to find, are as splendid here as they are crappy in South Carolina.
If you want to get out of the city for a day, there aren’t many places worth going to. You could drive five hours to Montreal, another beautiful Canadian city, but you wouldn’t want to make it back the same day, so that’s not really a day trip. Ottawa is even further. However, just fifteen minutes from downtown is Montmorency Falls, named after some French governor, who must have lost some battle to the British by mistaking them for Native Americans or wild boars, the usual stuff. The Falls are even higher than Niagara but only a tenth or less the width, so they don’t feel nearly as spectacular. They are spectacular in their own right, though, and you can walk across a bridge over them at the top, leaning over to watch the water rushing by. That feels impressive. A 20-minute journey further from Quebec City is St. Anne de Pres, with a 1920s cathedral that is visited by a million people a year. When you go in, you can see why. Hubby declared it the most beautiful church in North America and I don’t even think he was reading from the guidebook. Mosaic paintings and patterns in desert colours of sable, red, ochre and black adorn the walls and ceilings. The Corinthian columns are topped not with trophy-like decorations, but intertwined stone heads and torsos. Behind the altar are intricate rising curved beams of gilded wood. It’s a peaceful yet highly decorative place. I could get married here. Oh, except it’s too cold. And I’m Jewish. Aside from that, it would be perfect. I always wanted a long runway. Underneath the church, instead of a crypt, is another church. Once again, mosaics, this time in larger pieces of blue and green. I found it rather garish compared to the floor above. New murals done in the 1990s and later by worshippers who visited (I think, not sure, it’s really not my French, they don’t explain too much out here) are not nearly as jarring as those seen in modern churches. In the nooks upstairs and downstairs are also the expected collection of small chapels. The rest of the village isn’t much to see, so “Falls + Cathedral” is really a morning affair, and you can plan to do a late lunch back in town. We went to Bistro Sam in Chateau Frontenac, the glorious castle in Upper Town, overlooking the river. Built in the 1840s, this is the best place to stay in the city if you’re a romantic couple on a weekend getaway. Even though we’ve been married far too long to be romantic, we enjoyed our meal with the kids. The cheese plate, with all the usual jam and fruit adornments, was yummy and not unreasonable at US$15. It’s a meal unto itself. Dad and older son partook of venison gnocchi, mixed with roasted tomatoes in a light oily sauce. Middle kid’s maple honey and chocolate pie was almost as good as the perfect one he had got at dinner in Versa (along with a huge bowl of mussels, it’s just outside old town) the night before. The view from our Frontenac dining seats over the river on a clear, cold day was made all the more enjoyable by watching folks below blown by the freezing wind as they walked across the windy terrace. From the terrace, you can take a funicular (cable car) to Lower Town – if you are too lazy to walk down the 200-odd steps of the steep wooden staircases. It’s a fun experience, but a completely unnecessary one. If you’re going to take the cable car, at least, unlike us, do so in the upward direction.
Hubby and I came to the Chateau one night for drinks at the bar. We sipped rum cocktails as we sat on sheepskin-covered seats, while stuffed ducks “flew” overhead. I admit I liked it less than the pear and Remy Martin rum cocktail that I had at Versa. I don’t think it was because of the ducks, but I could be in denial.
Dinners generally were US$ 160-200, which is cheaper than the Caribbean and not much more than we’d pay for three courses plus a couple of drinks in the U.S. Cotes-de-Cotes in Lower Town is on the less expensive range of these more expensive restaurants. It has the big advantage of a parking lot right opposite, so you can drive there at night and park, a tricky business in the rest of the old town. The food is more American BBQ than Québécois dead wild animals, but it tasted good nonetheless. We had only picked it as everywhere else was sold out, but it turned out that even the youngest in our gang liked the ribs and, to my great surprise, the vegetable couscous was excellent, neither too dry nor too gooey and the sauce wasn’t too tomatoey or tasteless. Score!
Even pubs are packed for dinner, and not only at weekends. We ate at Pub de Parvis on a Thursday and although the food was not special, we were lucky to get the last table in the place. The burgers, pizzas and salads were fine, but no more than that. You might as well go to one of the other places I mentioned and pay 20% more for something really good.
For afternoon drinks, because you will need to stop and warm up in November in Canada, I recommend Cannelia Sinensis on rue St-Joseph, where you can get fresh leaf tea until around 7pm. If you pick the wulong or aged tea varieties from the twenty or so choices on the menu, you get a little cup with the leaves in which to do thirty-second steeps with hot water, before pouring it into your drinking cup. The art of the tea making was almost as much fun as the tea drinking. Cafe Pekoe, just down the road from Cannelia, also has tea, but it comes in a teapot and hasn’t got the same sophisticated vibe, though it costs half the price. Nektar, on the same street and also in Old Town, makes average coffee and watered-down hot chocolate, so skip that one.
As I’ve said time and time again, and as hubby well knows, it wouldn’t be a holiday if I didn’t end up with some jewellery. Since I didn’t get the fox fur hat (PETA halo now shining), surely I deserved something else special? Fortunately, the Boutique Metiers d’Arts du Quebec in Lower Town had the same silver necklaces and earrings by Denys Michaud that I had managed to resist in MNBAQ the day before. As anyone will tell you, too much resistance is futile. Very cool necklace and earrings now in my possession. The store staff promised they would not tarnish. If they are lying, I’ll be back so they can clean the jewellery themselves – but only in the summertime.