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.

Miami

Miami is the place where I first stood on the American soil. It was in June 2001 when I landed in Miami International Airport on my way to work at Walt Disney World in Orlando. But, ironically, it was only last year that I actually visited the city of Miami itself. Previously I was there always on a way from somewhere to somewhere else.

The reason for that was partially the fact that I never really thought about Miami as an attractive destination in itself, especially since the US is full of great and wacky places to visit. On top of that CSI Miami, which is really one of the worst TV dramas ever made, didn’t encourage a visit there, even despite some amazing aerial shots. But in March 2016 I had a bit of time while on my way from Cape Canaveral to the Keys so I decided to finally stop in Miami. I actually booked a hostel in Miami Beach, which is technically a separate city, but first I briefly stopped in downtown Miami.

One can immediately see that Miami is experiencing a real building boom with skyscrapers rising everywhere. In fact the population of metropolitan Miami is one of the fastest growing in the US, partially due to the influx of inhabitants from Latin America. Some even call Miami the informal business capital of Latin America. It seems that all of the famous and rich inhabitants of that continent own, or are currently buying, property there. All this gives the city a definite Latin vibe. I had a decent stroll around downtown, admiring some impressive architecture, but I have to admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by the city. It could be partly due the midday heat (even in March) but somehow I feel it was more than that. Something just didn’t click between me and Miami.

So after a few hours I decided to head towards Miami Beach. My mood immediately improved. I put the roof down, turned the music on, and drove along MacArthur Causeway straight across the Biscayne Bay.

This was one of these moments which I like so much in my American explorations. The feeling that you are actually travelling through a movie set. My drive from downtown Miami to Miami Beach brought back memories of countless TV shows and movies, (the old good ones like Miami Vice or Bad Boys, not the crap ones like CSI Miami). In fact Miami Vice was one of the first American TV dramas I remember watching back in Poland (shown just weeks after collapse of the communism). I still remember James Crockett driving his white Ferrari across the causeways of Miami. And here I was, driving a white convertible Ford Mustang across the Biscayne Bay. Silly? Kitschy? Maybe, but I don’t care, it was a damn awesome feel.

Having said that, reality isn’t a movie and I eventually got stuck in the heavy afternoon traffic entering Miami Beach (somehow it never happens on TV). It was particularly bad as I was visiting it during the (in)famous spring break (more about which later).

After entering Miami Beach I decided to drive around for a bit. First along the famous Ocean Drive, where countless bars and hotels are facing the beach, and then along the the Collins Avenue (aka US Hwy A1A) which is the main street of the town. Fast drive it wasn’t but with a roof down and music volume up it was fun. Where else can one do a bit of showing off if not in Miami Beach?

Actually it doesn’t make much sense to drive around here as the place is perfectly walkable and traffic is mostly bad. So I parked my car in one of the multi-storey car parks and set out on foot for further exploration.

Miami Beach occupies a group of barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay so it is quite elongated. But the most vibrant part of the city (and where I spent the vast majority of my time) is located south of 17th Street, especially in the neighbourhood of South Beac(also known as SoBe, or simply the Beach). It is there where most of the world famous Art Deco protected. The Art Deco District is probably the largest collection of architecture in the worldand comprises hundreds of hotels, apartments and other structures erected between 1923 and 1943. Mediterranean, and Art Deco are all represented here. In fact this amazing historic architecture was one of the main reasons for my visit. I walked around aimlessly for hours, taking tons of photos of some amazing buildings. It is hard to say if this colourful, bright architecture looks better in the strong sun of the day or after dusk when all the neon lights add even more colour. I myself like it in any light.

As the day progressed and evening approached I did ever less walking and more stopping for a beer here and there. I went as far north as the pedestrianised Lincoln Mall which is a place dominated by outdoor restaurants, performers and even some crazy preachers. Quite a sight.

Miami Beach isn’t cheap so I based myself in one of the hostels. It was located right in the middle of the Art Deco district, it was clean and quite pleasant but… Yes, it is time to mention the spring break. Somehow, coincidentally, I ended up in Miami during the middle of it. Spring break is a national institution, a time when hordes of US college students head south to the coast to party. And they tend to party hard. During my visit Miami Beach seemed full of young people enjoying themselves. At times the crowds can be rowdy but I didn’t experience any particular problems during my stay. However I later learned that there was one shooting on the beach a few days earlier. I could see quite a lot of police presence.

What it all meant was quite a noisy night in the hostel. I spare you the details as I would have to R-rate this blog. Luckily two other guys in my dorm were rather “mature”. One of them was a sound engineer building the stage for weekend techno music festival and had to wake up at 5 am (poor chap), the other one was a young Dutch airline pilot who came to Miami Beach for the weekend to attend the said festival. Funnily enough we all felt like we could be fathers of half of the hostel guests. Which of course didn’t stop us having a few drinks and good time ourselves.

I spent my second day in Miami Beach walking even more up and down the city, along the beach, along the narrow back alleys and along the main streets, taking even more photos than the previous day. It is such a photogenic city. The beach is glorious while the Biscayne Bay coast offers some splendid views across the water towards the skyscrapers of Miami (as well as of some very expensive yachts and private islands). Apart from the historic Art Deco architecture there are also some impressive modern buildings. Amazingly one of the more interesting ones is a multi-storey car park located at the corner of Alton Rd and Lincoln Mall. It is weird angular structure constructed of exposed bare concrete. And from the top deck there are some stunning views of Miami Beach and the city of Miami across the Biscayne Bay.

In general Miami Beach is a curious mix of art, architecture, tourism and hedonism but also quiet local neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the town, further from the ocean. Here the old photogenic low rise buildings are often surrounded by the lush tropical vegetation. It is also in such places that you can see some regular inhabitants of the city (some of them quite “rough around the edges”) rather than the jet-set or the “springbreakers” who dominate the tourist district closer to the beach. What’s also good about the city is the fact that it is compact and pedestrian friendly, something which is not that common in America. If I think about it, I could see a lot of similarities with my beloved New Orleans. Both places are tropical, compact and lively party towns. I still prefer the Big Easy for its longer history and more bohemian feel but Miami Beach is also fun.

Overall Miami is a strange place. Not really somewhere where I could imagine living or even staying for longer. It is a huge suburban sprawl of more than 5.5 million people, growing too fast and experiencing many environmental problems (like hurricanes, flooding but also ironically shortages of drinking water) which are only getting worse with the climate change). But there are some nice pockets, like the city of Miami Beach which in itself is quite unique and well worth a visit.

I eventually left Miami in the early evening and drove south towards the Keys. It was time to revisit the place which I had visited 16 years earlier and which really is something stunning.

But I already wrote about it here, so that’s it for now.

There is already another trip to North America in the planning, so stay tuned.

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy_Space_CenterLast year, while touring the southeastern USA I finally managed to visit the Kennedy Space Center. I have been to Florida before, I even lived for a while in Orlando, barely an hour away, but somehow I have never managed to tick this point off my bucket list. The closest I have ever come to that was in 2001 when, during my summer job in Disney World, we were organizing a group visit. Unfortunately due to confusion between the teams in three different cars I was literally left behind. Everyone thought I was in another car. And at that time I didn’t have a mobile phone (I know, it is nowadays hard to believe there was ever a time without them) to get in touch with anyone. So I got stranded and never got to Cape Canaveral.

Anyway, back to last year.

Apollo_11_BridgeAfter a night spent in the outskirts of Orlando I arrived to Kennedy Space Center early in the morning. I chose a midweek day to avoid the worst crowds and a quick glance at the vast parking lots assured me that it had been a good idea. I quickly got my (rather expensive) tickets and entered the complex. Close to the entrance there is an area called the Rocket Garden where you can see some of the historic rockets. There is also the bridge used by the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to enter their craft before the launch. That means you can actually walk in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong! Of course the bridge is nowadays only a foot or so above the ground rather than hundreds of feet as it was back then. Still it is a cool experience.

Vehicle_Assembly_BuildingThe first big highlight of my trip was the bus tour of the complex. During the tour you can see how big the Space Center is. A lot of the area is actually protected and it is managed as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. Because of that it is possible to see a lot of wildlife, including alligators on the side of the road (one was pointed out to us by our driver). During the tour the bus passes close to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the rockets and the space shuttles were once prepared for launches (and which is one of the world’s largest buildings by volume). After VAB we were driven close to several launching pads. On some of them it is possible to see preparations for commercial launches as NASA is renting facilities to private space companies. We could also see the huge transporters used to move ready rockets to the pads.

Alan_Shephard_SuitEventually we reached the exhibition designated to the Apollo program. Here, in a vast building, is located one of the two surviving Saturn V rockets (out of 13 built). I had already seen the other one (2 were never used) in Houston but it is always an impressive sight and worth admiring. But what I found the most fascinating here was the lunar vault. Among other exhibits one can see is the moon dust covered spacesuit of Alan Shepard from the Apollo 14 mission as well as the Apollo 14 module itself. You can clearly see the scorch marks from re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. There are several training mock-ups of various landing craft and samples of lunar rock. There is even the little van used to transport the astronauts to the launch pad, parked in the corner.Apollo_14

After that I took the bus back to the main part of the complex where it was time to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This was actually the main reason for my visit to Cape Canaveral as I had already seen a lot of Apollo related stuff in the Johnson Space Center in Houston

Space_Shuttle_Atlantis_2To enter the shuttle exhibition building one has to come through a queuing system and not one but two cinematic experience rooms. In the first one there is a video explaining the origins of the space shuttle program and its development. It is quite short and informative. But the real fun begins in the next room which is yet another movie experience. But this time you can watch amazing shots of the shuttle which were taken in space. They are displayed on the screen in front as well as on the ceiling and the walls of the room. In typical American fashion It is all very inspirational. And I really mean it in a positive sense. Eventually there is a shot of the shuttle facing the audience with its loading bay door wide open. Suddenly I noticed that it actually wasn’t a movie shot any more. Just towards the end of the movie the screen changed to transparent so what we were looking at was the actual shuttle in front of us. In this moment the screen lifted and the public could enter the main viewing gallery. It was all very well done, I have to admit that my jaw literally dropped. Americans definitely know how to put on a show.

The viewing gallery allows a really close look of the shuttle which is suspended in the massive room at an angle, as if floating in space. It is so close that one could almost (but not quite) touch it. All the scorch marks and any signs of wear and tear are clearly visible, one can be sure that it is not yet another model but the “real thing”. After getting down from the galley it s possible to walk directly underneath the shuttle. You can have a close look at all the tiles lining the underbelly of it and protecting the craft during the re-entry to earth’s atmosphere. Apart from the shuttle the building is filled with all sorts of displays explaining the science behind it as well as other aspects of space exploration (like the International Space Station). Real heaven for anyone who is even partly as geeky as I am.Space_Shuttle_Atlantis

Another shuttle related attraction was the IMAX cinema showing a movie shot in space in 3D. It was filmed during an actual shuttle mission, the one when astronauts were fixing the Hubble telescope, and it offered some truly amazing footage. There are two screens at the cinema, the other one was showing another good movie, this time about space exploration in general, which was narrated by my favourite Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart). IMAX cinema is a good option for the late afternoon when it gets really hot and most of visitors (including myself) are already tired after their intensive exploration of the space center. Just check what is showing as the films do change regularly.

I’m from the generation which grew up watching news of the shuttle missions. From the sad day of the Challenger disaster (I was then 9 years old) through fixing the Hubble telescope, all the years of building the ISS to the last flights of the surviving shuttles. For me the space shuttle rather than the Apollo program was the symbol of space exploration. That’s why I have to admit that the Space Shuttle Atlantis is one of the absolute highlights of any of my many trips to the US. On par with the likes of the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge or Yellowstone. And I can wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone, young or old and from any background.Saturn_V

I had spent a whole day in the Kennedy Space Center and I could have easily stay longer but I had to move as the place was closing for the day. After a quick bite I joined the I-95 and settled in for a great evening drive all the way to Miami. Cruising along the wide interstate in the light of the setting sun is one of the best uses one can get out of an V8 powered Ford Mustang. But let’s finish for now as Miami deserve its own chapter.Atlantis_Building