QUEBEC CITY, Quebec — It is doubtful that even Samuel de Champlain, revered “Father of New France,” ever savored such a feast.
Certainly no mere trapper or voyageur ever sat down to boar and wild caribou rillette with cranberry chutney, warm goat cheese salad with maple vinaigrette, and a Lac St-Jean pie filled with wild meats accompanied by a pheasant and bison casserole.
Yet these are traditional Quebecois dishes: hearty, muscular fare that insulates against long, bitter winters and compels the diner to pat his stomach with profound satisfaction.
Wherever one lives in Canada, it is to the province of Quebec one comes to enjoy such old-fashioned dishes, not least the ubiquitous, somewhat daunting poutine, a concoction beloved of the locals that consists of a mound of homemade french fries topped by cheese curd and a blanket of thick brown gravy.
“Quebec,” or “Kebec” in the original Algonquin, means “where the river narrows,” referring to the mighty St. Lawrence, a waterway almost 60 miles across at its widest point. A steady diet of old Quebecois food, alas, could mean “where the arteries narrow.”
Which is why a visit to, say, Aux Anciens Canadiens, a mecca of traditional cuisine tucked into the historic district’s oldest (1676) house at the corner of Rue Saint-Louis and Rue de Jardins generally is reserved for a special occasion.
It is a cliche to call Quebec City “Europe at our doorstep,” but the sobriquet is not wrong.
From its cobblestone streets to its graceful architecture, the city’s Old Town (Vieux-Quebec) harbors not only an evocative Old World appearance but a palpable European feel, albeit infused with North American sensibilities.
The province of Quebec was founded on July 3, 1608, by Champlain, the great navigator, cartographer, explorer, geographer and diplomat. And it is from the site of an abandoned Iroquoian settlement called Stadacona that “Canada” derives its name.
Quebec City itself is among the most venerable European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, with Vieux-Quebec owning the distinction of being the only fortified city north of Mexico whose walls still stand (guarded by many a ceremonial cannon).
Preceding Champlain, French explorer Jacques Cartier erected a fort at the site in 1535. Quebec City served as the staging area for raids against New England during the French and Indian War. After several decisive battles, New France, and the city of Quebec, were ceded to Great Britain in 1763.
American attempts to “liberate” Quebec City during the Revolutionary War came to nought. Yankee designs on annexing Canadian lands in 1812 also failed. Wary of another U.S. incursion, however, the Quebecois began construction of the Citadelle of Quebec in 1820. Still used by the military, it remains a prime tourist attraction.
Charm to burn
Today, Quebec City is home to 516,622 citizens, with a metro population of 765,706, the province’s second largest city after Montreal.
Its most impressive physical feature is its promontory, Cap-Diamant (Cape Diamond).
With Levis, a town on the opposite (south) bank, it defines the river’s narrows. The Laurentian Mountains, among the oldest on the planet, pass by to the north of the city.
Vieux-Quebec is divided between Upper Town atop Cap-Diamant, with its high stone ramparts; Lower Town at shore level beneath the promontory; and the gently undulating Plains of Abraham, at whose terminus is the impressive Musee National des Beaux-Arts (National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec).
Joining Upper and Lower Towns is the Escalier, otherwise known as the “neck-breaking steps,” or for those averse, the $2-a-ride Funicular, or cliff railway.
The broad Terrasse Dufferin (Dufferin Terrace), a walkway along the edge of the cliff, offers beautiful views of the St. Lawrence River. But the most memorable sight may be directly behind it, Chateau Frontenac, the skyline-dominating grand hotel (designed by American architect Bruce Price), that is the city’s signature image.
Top or bottom, the old city exerts its seductive charms. And the best way to discover it is on foot. Strolling is a delightful experience, but those unaccustomed to climbing stairs and hills should invest in a good pair of walking shoes.
With little industry to speak of, aside from the export of electricity, Quebec City relies on its tourism. Like Charleston, it features a remarkable array of restaurants, from such Upper Town temples to haute cuisine as Panache, Initiale and Le Cremaillere to dark, sumptuous bistros like Voo Doo Grill and Cafe Sirocco that dot the youth-favored avenue Grande Allee. Of the many convivial pubs, D’Orsay and Saint-Alexandre stand out.
A thriving farmers market on the marina also offers fresh, locally grown produce.
Aside from its famous Petit Champlain district, which begins at the base of the Funicular, Lower Town also is the setting for Place Royale, a showcase of preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings.
Quebec City’s highest concentration of art galleries and boutiques are in Lower Town, as well as the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church (oldest in the city) and the much-admired Musee de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization).
Porte St-Louis and Porte St-Jean are the main gates through the walls leading to and from the modern section of downtown.
Where to stay
One may lodge at the imposing Chateau Frontenac, or, for considerably less money, at any of a number of small but well-appointed inns that reside in its shadow.
Nearby are such attractions as Parc Aquarium du Quebec; Montmorency Falls Park near Beauport, whose majestic 270-foot falls marks the confluence of the Montmorency and St. Lawrence rivers; the Basillica Sainte-Anne de-Beaupre in the town of Sainte-Anne; and the Mont-Sainte-Anne ski resort.
But if you are thinking to escape the heat of coastal South Carolina with a summer jaunt to Quebec, think again. Summers are quite warm and occasionally hot, often humid until the end of August, while spring and fall are more clement.
Fall foliage generally peaks the last week of September or the first week in October. Winter is best left to locals, skiers and devotees of the city’s spectacular Winter Carnaval celebration.
Don’t speak French? Fret not. The simple gesture or saying “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” is usually sufficient to win a local’s favor, and they will instantly segue to English.
While you, brave soul, sample the poutine.
Place Royale is a showcase of preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings.×
Bill Thompson Nearby Montmorency Falls Park draws visitors to the countryside.×
Bill Thompson Night falls on the Old City along Rue Saint-Louis.×
A faint rainbow appears at the base of 270-foot high Montmorency Falls.×
Bill Thompson Entering the Old City via the picturesque avenue Rue Saint-Louis.×
A quiet afternoon in the Petit Champlain district, which begins at the base of the Funicular.×