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.
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.