Cape Breton

We arrived in Cape Breton after more than a 1200km-long drive from Quebec City. Sure, we could fly but part of the fun when visiting North America is the driving. Especially as our route was largely along the famous Trans-Canada Hwy. The road was wide, the weather was good, traffic was light and speed enforcement virtually non-existent. In other words, perfect conditions for a road trip.

We chose the city of Sydney as our first stop. Now, don’t confuse it with Sydney in Australia as one Dutch student did when he was booking his flights (he had to call his dad to book his flight home after landing there in winter with only light clothes packed). It is a much smaller place, just over 30 thousand people call it home, with some historic architecture and a small pleasant downtown on the waterfront. But ultimately it was just just a convenient base to start our exploration of the island of Cape Breton and especially to visit Louisbourg, where we headed the next morning.

The small town of Louisbourg is located about 40km from Sydney and the main reason (actually the only reason) to visit it is the Fortress of Louisbourg. This was in its heyday (between 1720 and 1758) one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications in North America. It was built by the French to protect their colonial interests, especially the cod fishing grounds, and it was actually a whole fortified town. It didn’t last very long as it was destroyed after being captured by the British in 1758. The Brits didn’t need the fortress as they already had Halifax.

That was its short early history, now let’s move to the 20th century. The fortress and the town were partly reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s (using some of the original stonework), which provided jobs for unemployed coal miners from the area. Apparently the site stands as the largest reconstruction project in North America, even if only quarter of the original town was rebuilt. The rest was left as ruins so one can still see the actual historical remains.

We are both history, architecture and archaeology geeks so we spent the whole day exploring the site. All the buildings look very realistic as during the reconstruction the original techniques and materials were used as much as possible and the whole project was based on careful research of plans, maps, sketches as well as physical remains. For example the glass for window panes in the King’s Bastion was sourced from a company in France which still use the historic glass making techniques. According to one of the guides it happened to be the same factory that produced the glass for the original building. How cool is that?

The site is manned by costumed interpreters which bring the place to life. They answer everybody’s questions, they man the gates, they shoot muskets and even occasionally fire a cannon (or train paying guests to do so). It is all quite fun but the most fascinating thing about the place is the sense of its unique history. One of the weirdest aspects of the whole thing is the fact that the reconstruction from the1960s now stands longer than original fortress ever did. Does it make the current reconstructed buildings more “historic”?

Anyway, the day was coming to an end, the fortress was closing, so it was time to move on. From Louisbourg we drove north towards the Cape Breton National Park, past Sydney, before stopping for a night in a small family-run motel in some tiny community. It was one of those classic small motels where you park the car right in front of your room and where the owner lives on site. We sat on the deck chairs outside our room, watched the sun setting behind a mountain, just across a small bay, and sipped local craft beer which we bought in the liqueur store in Sydney. By the way, alcohol is not easy to buy in Nova Scotia so always buy supplies when you have a chance. It was a fantastic setting for a budget motel. I will take places like that over any fancy or hip hotel in the likes of NYC or LA.

The next day we finally entered Cape Breton National Park and started following the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic road which encircles most of the national park. We started on the east side of the park and travelled in a counter-clockwise direction. In the morning the weather was glorious so we kept stopping in numerous picturesque coves and in some small settlements. This part of the coast, with its pink granite, reminded me of parts of the coast of Brittany. I can imagine the original French settlers to the region could have had the same impression. I can see why they settled in this part of the world. Moving at rather leisurely pace by the afternoon we finally reached the west coast of Cape Breton. Unfortunately at that stage the weather was turning worse. Which is a pity as the west coast of Cape Breton happens to be more spectacular than its eastern counterpart.

Here Cabot Trail hugs the coast, in places climbing dramatically around promontories where it offers some amazing views. This part of the road reminds me of the famous Pacific Coast Hwy in California. The only difference is that the spectacular stretch is much shorter here in Nova Scotia. When we stopped at the first viewing point it was still sunny and we could admire a fantastic panorama. But in a few minutes clouds and fog closed in and the views were pretty much gone. In some stretches, where the road climbed higher, I could barely see in front of the car as the low clouds limited visibility to a few metres.

Annoyingly it was then when we approached the most spectacular part of the coast and the starting point of the Skyline Trail. It was so foggy and drizzly around the parking area that we decided to skip it and continue our drive along the Cabot Trail. However after a few minutes we reached a lower elevation and noticed that there were some clear spells in the clouds and banks of fog covering the trail. We immediately returned to the trailhead. It didn’t look much more promising than before but we decided to head for a walk regardless, hoping for some good luck with the weather. The trail length is just over 3km (6,5 km return) and it ends at a dramatic headland which is supposed to offer some breathtaking views. Unfortunately as we kept walking things looked pretty bleak. I mean we really couldn’t see much. Fortunately towards the end the trail goes down to the cliffs and at this lower elevation we could see at least some nearby rugged coast, even if only for brief moments between rolling banks of fog (or low cloud, depending on your perspective). Maybe it wasn’t the picture-postcard perfect moment but at least we saw something. Were we disappointed? Well, I guess to some degree we were, but on the other hand it was actually interesting to see the place as it often looks. The weather in Nova Scotia is generally a bit less glorious (or some would say more dramatic) than the travel posters would want you to believe.

From the Skyline Trail we continued our drive south along the west coast of Cape Breton. Once the road reached closer to the sea level the visibility improved and we could see more of the picturesque coast which in places really looked just like the world famous Big Sur in California. It was however still rather grey and gloomy which made everything look wild and mysterious. It was actually really fun to drive it in such conditions.

After leaving the national park we continued past numerous small communities dotted along the coast, places with names like Inverness or Dungevan. Just in case anyone has doubts about the origin of the people who settled here most places along the road welcome travellers with bilingual signs, in Scots Gaelic as well as in English. There is even a single malt distillery along the way. You would think that you can’t make things any more Scottish without heading to Scotland itself. Well yes, but only partially. The heavily forested landscape as well as the architecture really resemble New England rather than Scotland. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that Cape Breton is a really interesting part of the world, offering spectacular landscapes and fascinating history.

We ended our tour of the island by stopping in yet another small, family-run motel, which was located right next to a local restaurant. How convenient. Anyway, the next day we will be heading back to the “mainland” Nova Scotia, but more about it soon.

Quebec City Revisited

As I mentioned in the previous post, I knew I will be back in Quebec City. I just didn’t know that my next visit would be barely a week later.
After spending a few days in Nova Scotia (more about it later) we were driving back towards Montreal where we wanted to spend the last few days of our trip. But since we both enjoyed Quebec City quite a lot we decided to pay the city another quick visit.

As we didn’t have too much time we decided to stay on the south bank of the St Lawrence River, in the city of Levis. It was easier to continue our drive from there to Montreal and we didn’t have to waste our time driving into Quebec City in the afternoon traffic. What’s most important is the fact that Levis is conveniently connected to Quebec City by commuter ferries.

We watched them crossing the river back and forth a few days earlier when we were admiring the great views from the Terrasse Dufferin. Even back then we were tempted to take a trip across, but it wasn’t too convenient at the time. Now, by staying on the other side of the river, we could purposefully use the ferry.

We left the car at the motel and headed towards the ferry terminal. It was probably about 20 minutes walk to get there. Initially we walked across rather generic suburban developments which looked as they could be located anywhere from San Diego to Buffalo if not for the French language on all the signs and shops. But as we got closer to the river things got more interesting. The architecture was getting steadily more historic and more “French” looking while the topography was getting more varied. Like Quebec City, Levis is also located on the steep banks of the St Lawrence River and its layout is equally interesting.

Before descending towards the ferry terminal we stopped at the viewpoint located directly across from the Old Quebec City. Here I have to admit that my jaw literally dropped once we got there. We were facing one of the best city panoramas I have ever seen. The city looked simply amazing with all the church steeples, “medieval” looking old town rooftops, some modest skyscrapers and, of course, the impressive Château Frontenac which dominated the view. Add the riverbank escarpments, hills in the background, port installations and even some post-industrial detritus a little further down the river and one ends up with a very interesting panorama. We stood there for quite a while admiring it all and watching the sun slowly setting directly in front of us, right behind the Quebec City skyline.

Now it was time to cross the river. We walked down to the base of escarpment via a long and quite exposed staircase leading towards the ferry terminal. It is a striking modern building standing in the middle of a nicely landscaped and clearly recently redeveloped area. The ferry terminal is also a hub for local buses which take commuters coming back from Quebec City to many places south of the river.
At the time of our visit there was a ferry crossing every 30 minutes (ferries travel more often in the morning commuter peak) so we bought the tickets and waited a few minutes admiring the Quebec City panorama visible through the floor to ceiling windows of the waiting room. We also watched as our ferry was docking and getting ready for boarding. I have to say I love watching harbour activities, it is part of the reason why I like travelling by ferries.

For such a short crossing (around 12 minutes) the ferries operating this route looked quite impressive. In a way they must be quite sturdy as they operate year round, even in the challenging winter conditions, and the currents in the St Lawrence River are strong. This is serious commuter transport, not some touristy boat cruising in a nice weather only. Each vessel is able to take over 500 passengers and 54 cars. Once we boarded we went straight to the front of the top deck to admire the night-time view of Quebec City as were closing in on it.

Once in the city we we walked again through some familiar places like Place-Royal and Rue du Petit-Champlain. In general we had a nice evening exploring the Lower and Upper Towns but we didn’t venture anywhere beyond the historic core. We didn’t have that much time and besides, we wanted to have some nice chill-out time, which we used to visit yet another bar. The big advantage of a second visit to any place is the fact that I usually feel less pressure to “see everything”. Another plus of revisiting any location is the nice feel of a certain degree of familiarity and basic local knowledge.

Anyway, as much as we both enjoyed Quebec City it was time to head back to Levis as the following day we didn’t want to start our drive to Montreal too late. So we walked towards the ferry terminal (Gare Fluviale), which in Quebec City is much more dated and less impressive than its counterpart on the other bank of the St Lawrence. After a short wait we boarded the vessel and once again we made our way straight to the top deck. Despite the night chill from the river (it was actually quite late) the views during the crossing were too good to hide inside. At night, the reflections in the water’s surface of the buildings lighting up the skyline add a romantic touch to the crossing.

I’m really glad we took the ferry as the crossing offered a different perspective on the city, in fact on both cities. Besides, I have always appreciated commuter ferries in cities. I enjoyed travelling by ferry in New York City as well as in Seattle and in both cases the ferries offered unique views of their skylines. There is also something calming in water travel. The pace is slower so the panoramas unfold slower. You can see people sitting on decks, reading books, napping or even getting some tan. The last thing is definitely out of question on a commuter train.

Once in Levis we walked straight to our motel via deserted streets. It is amazing how much more quiet the city is. It is barely a 1km away, and a 12 minutes ferry crossing, from the hustle and bustle of Quebec City, with its thousands of tourists from all around world. And yet here we found ourself in quiet town which could easily be located in the heart of rural Quebec province.

I would really recommend a trip to Levis to anyone visiting Quebec City. For at least two reasons. The ferry crossing, as I mentioned already, is spectacular and fun. And the city of Levis offers a less touristy, maybe a bit more “real” face of Quebec than its counterpart on the other side of the river.

This is definitely the last about Quebec City, at least for this trip.

As I wrote in the previous post, it is amazing place, much more varied and interesting than I have expected. And it says something as I already had quite high expectations.

I think I can safely say that I will be back in Quebec City, even if this time the wait will have to be a hell lot longer than a week.

Quebec City

Quebec City is yet another place which I wanted to visit for years but somehow never had. That is until September 2017.
We decided to start our tour of eastern Canada from this historic city so after landing in Montreal we drove straight there and based ourselves in a small hotel on Grande Allee, which is an impressive avenue leading to the historic city centre from the west. Our hotel was located in a converted old mansion, from where it was only 15 minutes walk to Citadelle of Quebec and the historic heart of the city.

After leaving our luggage and the car at the hotel we headed towards the citadel by crossing the Plains of Abraham. This is the place where the famous battle of Quebec took place in 1759, when the British took control of the region (and effectively most of North America) from the French. After reading numerous books on the subject of the complicated colonial history of America I was glad to finally see the place. Nowadays it is a rather nice city park, not dissimilar to Hyde Park in London.

From there we reached the steep banks of the St Lawrence River which offer splendid views to the south, towards the city of Levis located on the opposite bank. It looked very charming with its numerous church steeples poking above the rooftops and the foliage. Here I have to mention that Quebec City has an amazing location on the tall banks of the river which offers great panoramas but also results in some steep streets and a complicated city layout, especially in the most historic part.

From the Plains of Abraham we walked east along the Governors Promenade which is a pleasant boardwalk on the edge of the tall escarpment, offering great views and leading towards Terrasse Dufferin.

Terrasse Dufferin is a pretty plaza located just in front of the iconic Château Frontenac and also overlooking St Lawrence River. This is the place where many tourists visiting the city go first, many of them to take selfies as Château Frontenac is recognizable around the world as one of symbols of not only Quebec but also Canada in general. Before you ask, no, we didn’t take any selfies. There is also a monument depicting Samuel de Champlain, an explorer who is often called the father of New France and who founded the city in 1608. Apart from the great views far into the distance Terrasse Dufferin also offers a perfect vantage point overlooking roofs of the historic Basse-Ville (or Lower Town) which is located right beneath it, at the base of the steep cliffs.

And that’s where we headed next. We could have taken one of the funiculars leading directly down but instead we walked along one of the steep and winding streets. Here Quebec City really feels historic. At times it was easy to forget that we were in North America and not somewhere in the middle of provincial France. 

We spent the early evening exploring the narrow streets of the Lower Town and the most interesting of them is probably Rue du Petit-Champlain, offering a great selection of artisan shops, restaurants and bars. At the beginning of it is located the Breakneck Stairs, Quebec City’s oldest stairway, built in 1635. The street is the centre of a funky neighbourhood, also named Petit-Champlain, which resembles a quaint riverside village. Apparently it was poor and neglected well into the 60s but nowadays it is as trendy and full of tourists as many districts of London.
We decided to have dinner on the cobblestone Place-Royale (Royal Square) which is the heart of the Lower Town and the historic Quebec City in general. This is where French America was born, as the first French settlement was started here in 1608. It is bordered by 17th- and 18th-century buildings as well as Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Québec’s oldest stone church, built in 1688. Again, it was easy to forget that we were thousands of miles from France. After a nice meal in the outdoor restaurant we headed back to the Upper Town and ended our evening in one of its many bars.

The following day we got up early. For the first few days after arriving in America from Europe I tend to wake up early as my body clock needs some time to adjust to the new time zone. The advantage of that was that after an early breakfast we had more time to wander around the town. This time rather than heading straight to its oldest part we decided to take a detour via some newer bits. By newer I still mean historic 19th-century neighbourhoods like Montcalm (on the edge of which we were staying) and Saint-Jean, which takes its name from the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. There are numerous restaurants and shops in both districts but what I really enjoyed was the architecture and the general vibe of these places, especially in the smaller side streets. They are packed full of old buildings with some obvious French influences but also unmistakably North American. If we add steep streets (with steps in some locations instead of pavements) and a huge quantity of overhead cables the result is something akin to San Francisco, just more messy. North and below of Saint-Jean is located a third cool neighbourhood, St Roch. To get there you actually have to take steps down the steep escarpment. The part close to the escarpment seems to be similar to my favourite, Saint-Jean. The same old buildings, lots of cables, narrow streets, just more flat than in Saint-Jean.

Here I have to point out that this part of Quebec City might not be to everyone’s taste. For those who love tidy European old towns, places like these can even be seen as ugly. But I absolutely love them. It is difficult to explain why. Maybe because they do feel very “American” with the utilitarian approach to aesthetics, by which I mean exposed utilities, lots of signage and less care to make the place look and feel like a museum. They also have a unique, for North America, French flavour. Plus these are the places that are away from the main tourist trails and where locals go about their daily business (like walking kids to school).

After our morning detour via the above-mentioned districts we finally went back to the old town. This time we concentrated on the Upper Town where we started by visiting two historic churches. The first one was the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec, the oldest in the Americas north of the Spanish colonies in Florida and New Mexico. It is located on the site since 1647 but it had to be rebuild after the siege in 1759 and after a fire in 1922.

The second historic church we visited was the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Built between 1800 and 1804 it is the first Anglican cathedral to be built outside of the British Isles. Anyone familiar with London can spot that it is modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square. You just have to look a bit more carefully.

After that we’d had enough of historic interiors. The weather was absolutely glorious so for the rest of day we simply decided to ramble around the town. We started from the Upper Town where we explored numerous narrow streets, small plazas and hidden corners before heading down to the Lower Town. We descended via a steep street called Côte du Colonel Dambourgès and stopped for lunch in one of the local cafes at Rue Saint-Paul where we had delicious poutine. Now, poutine is a Canadian classic which originated in Quebec. In its simplest form it was made with French fries and cheese curds topped with a brown gravy, but nowadays it is possible to order it with different toppings and ingredients (for example pulled pork, beetroot, green peas or chicken, all of which I have tried) and it has lost its original negative connotation of a simple poor man’s dish. It is really great food, one of my world’s favourites.

Full and heavy we really had to burn some calories. We walked to Royal Square which we visited the previous evening so we could look at it in the daylight. It looked every bit as charming as in the evening. The same applied to other parts of Lower Town like for example Petit-Champlain. After taking tons of photos of historic architecture we decided to walk along the banks of the St Lawrence River following a nicely landscaped path called Promenade Samuel-De Champlain. First we headed north and then turned west towards the marina. The whole area is clearly recently regenerated but it is not “overdone” and still has some of the old port feel. Apart from plenty of leisure craft one can still watch tugs entering and exiting their dock. They are responsible for guiding and escorting large cargo ships and cruise liners docking in Quebec City.

Right next to the marina is located Le Marche Du Vieux-Port or The Old Port Market. It offers a great selection of local produce like cheese, deli meat, baked goods, sweets, fresh fruit and vegetables. But what really excited us was shop selling beers from all over Quebec province. It had an absolutely amazing selection so we used this opportunity to stock up some local brews for the evening in a motel.

Before heading back to the Upper Town we briefly visited Palais Station (or “Palace Station”) which is the city’s main train and bus station. It isn’t very busy as only a few trains serve it every day but the architecture is quite interesting. Built in 1915 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the two-storey “châteauesque” station is similar in design to the Château Frontenac. It really looks like it could be moved to the Loire Valley and pretend to be a castle. The ceiling of the main hall is dominated by an impressive stain-glass window with a map of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It looks fantastic, and not just because I am a map geek. The building is also full of little details. There is the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom as well as numerous fleurs-de-lis symbolising the French connection.

From the train station we walked back to the Old Town but once again we took a slight detour via my favourite districts of St Roch and Saint-Jean where we took even more atmospheric photos of the less touristy Quebec City, with its sometimes wonky houses and clearly visible utilities.

Our visit in Quebec City ended in the Upper Town. We took the last stroll around it and climbed its walls. Quebec City claims to be the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. It is true but it is worth remembering a large part of the fortifications is actually a Victorian replica. In fact one of the gates, Porte St. Jean, was rebuilt as late as 1939, after being demolished in 1865. All this doesn’t change the fact that the walls, or rather strictly speaking ramparts, offer a great place to stroll and admire the Old Town from above. We did walk quite a stretch of the fortifications before heading back to the hotel to retrieve our car. It was time to leave Quebec City and head east. We wanted to drive a bit out of town before the night so the following day we could avoid the morning commuter traffic, especially as a long two-day drive towards Cape Breton in Nova Scotia was awaiting us.

I can safely place Quebec City among my Top 5 cities in North America. As much as I always wanted to visit it I really didn’t expect that it would be so fascinating. Of course I knew about its interesting history and unique, on the continent, architecture. But is has so much more to offer. Interesting, less historic, neighbourhoods (like St Roch and Saint-Jean), varied topography, great vistas, interesting cultural (or linguistic) mix and a generally good vibe. When we were driving out of town I knew I will be back. I just didn’t realise how soon. But more about it in the next instalment.