Tag Archives: Quebec


In September 2017 we visited the great city of Montreal. By coincidence it was exactly 10 years since my first visit. Here I have to admit I had an awful experience during that first visit. We only had a few hours in the city and on top of that the weather was dreadful. It was raining heavily. Despite that we tried to be positive and see as much as we could but it didn’t really work. We were wet, cold and annoyed by the time we got back to our car completely soaked. We drove off west towards Toronto and didn’t think much about the whole Montreal experience.

This time things looked much more promising. Montreal was the last point of our Canadian itinerary, we could spend two nights in the city and the weather was glorious.

Before heading to Montreal we actually spent some time exploring the vicinity of the metropolitan area. One of the more interesting sites was Fort Chambly located around 30 km from central Montreal. It was built in 1665 by the French in order to protect travellers on the river from the Iroquois. But the impressive stone structure visible today dates mostly from around 50 years later. It is good place to spend an hour or two, wandering around and learning interesting history of French colonization of the area and the subsequent conflicts with Britain.

In Montreal we based ourselves in a motel on the outskirts but conveniently located a short walk from the metro station. Montreal has an efficient and quite impressive (if rather brutalist) metro system built mostly in 1960s and 70s (with some later extensions). Our first full day in Montreal started from taking the metro straight from our hotel to Île Sainte-Hélène located in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The island is dominated by green spaces and recreational facilities but we went there to check out the views. Across the river channel there is great panorama towards Old Montreal and modern downtown behind it. The views where especially glorious in the early morning sunshine. The sun behind us meant it also a very good time and location for photography. Well worth an excursion.

From the island we returned straight to mainland Montreal. Well, it is actually a bit more complicated. Most of Montreal is located on the Island of Montreal. At around 500 square kilometres it is almost 10 times the size of Manhattan, so I guess we can colloquially call it “the mainland”. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that we went to explore central Montreal.

We started from strolling around Old Montreal. While not as old as Quebec City it was founded in 1642 which still makes it one of the oldest European settlements in North America. For a better overview we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (which is actually a church, not a chapel) where we climbed the tower. From the top one can see fantastic contrasts between the old stone buildings of Vieux-Montréal and the concrete, steel and glass of the modern city. Since we knew we are going to meet a friend here later we decided to venture to other parts of town, away from the river. First we headed north and took Rue Saint-Denis which is the main street of Quartier Latin. It is an area full of restaurants, atmospheric cafes and boutiques, in other words a quite funky and trendy neighbourhood. To be honest most modern big cities have one of those nowadays. Which didn’t make it any less fun, but we actually just strolled through while on our way to a map shop located in the vicinity. Yes, I am a map geek, can’t skip any of those.

After lunch in one of those atmospheric cafes we headed towards Mount Royal. But before we got there we had to cross some residential areas north and east of the hill. It happened to be quite a gem. I actually found those neighbourhoods to be some of the most charming parts of the city. Quiet leafy streets full of beautiful historic houses, for example the area around the Square Saint-Louis. Most of the houses have quite impressive (for their size) mansard roofs and external stairs to the main entrances. I find the mansard roofs probably the most distinctive feature of Quebec province architecture. It really makes cites, town and villages there different from the rest of North America. And Montreal is no exception. After taking many photographs (some would say too many) it was finally time to climb the hill of Mount Royal.

As you might have guessed the city actually takes its name from the hill which at 233m above the sea level clearly dominates over it. And that’s the whole point of getting there, it offers great panoramic views over the downtown and further afield across the river. But first you have to reach the top. It is quite a climb, especially on a hot sunny day (like during our visit). Luckily most of the hill is a heavily forested park so we could hike in shade. At the top there is Mount Royal Chalet, a pavilion built in 1932 in the French Beaux Art style which hosts a shop, cafe and toilets. It has some interesting Canadian touches such as carvings of local fauna and murals depicting history of New France. Most importantly in front of it is a terrace offering unparalleled views of Montreal. It is one of those classic views you might have seen on postcards or in promotional videos. No surprisingly as the panorama of Montreal skyline is absolutely fantastic. We spent quite some time there, just admiring the views and relaxing after the climb.

But then it was time to head back as it was already afternoon. We had such a good time so far we didn’t even realise the time. From Mount Royal we headed straight down towards McGill University campus and then towards the heart of modern Montreal downtown.

There is some interesting architecture in downtown, especially dating from the late 19th and early 20th century when Montreal was the commercial capital of Canada (and before Toronto really took over). For example the 24-storey Sun Life Building (located on Dorchester Square) was the largest building in the British Empire when it was finished in 1931. Next to it stands Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde which was consecrated in 1894. It is a massive church modelled on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On the way towards the Place d’Armes we passed more impressive commercial buildings, many of them decorated with interesting Canada-themed details.

On the north side Place d’Armes stands the beautiful, Pantheon-like, Bank of Montreal building finished in 1847. The sculptures on the pediment were added in 1867 and represent Native American and pioneer motives. But the square is really dominated by Notre-Dame Basilica, the twin towers of which really stand out on the south side. The interior of the church is among the most dramatic in the world and regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. The vaults are coloured deep blue and decorated with golden stars. Together with the previously mentioned cathedral it shows how important Catholicism once (even until fairly recently) was for Quebec culture and identity.

From the square we entered the narrow streets of Vieux-Montréal. Suddenly the feel became much more “European” than “American”. Streets are paved with cobble stones and buildings are not unlike Saint-Malo in Brittany which, coincidentally, we visited a few months later. We strolled around aimlessly and eventually met a friend for a drink in one of the bars with outdoor seating. On a warm September day it was a really pleasant evening which ended much, much later with dinner in Montreal’s Chinatown.

Following day was the last one of our two-week trip. But our flight was late in the afternoon so we decided to walk a bit more around town. Our friend took us for a stroll along Saint Laurent Boulevard which is also called “The Main”. It traditionally divided Montreal between English (west) and French (east) side and other ethnic groups often settled in between. We walked as far as Little Portugal (our friend’s parents came from there) before returning to downtown to retrieve our car and drive to the airport.

I’m glad I returned to Montreal. After my previous trip, spoiled by an awful weather, I was really not impressed. But now I can safely say that Montreal is one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited. Its location and topography is splendid and its cultural, ethnic and language mix fascinating. French language dominates but English is still fairly widely used, much more than in Quebec City. In fact together with federal Ottawa and parts of New Brunswick it is one of a few truly bilingual places in Canada, a place where waiters causally welcome customers with Bonjour-Hello.

The whole two-week road trip across Quebec and Atlantic Canada was one of my most interesting trips in recent years. The scenery might not be as spectacular as in American or Canadian West and wildlife not as exotic as in Deep South or Florida but the coast is still mostly wild, interior forested and empty, and history absolutely fascinating. Many locations on our route are must see places for anyone trying to understand the North American history and creation of modern day Canada. It was a perfect trip for year 2017, the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.

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.