We stepped into the sixteenth century, my daughter and I. The city of Quebec was celebrating its four hundred’s anniversary, and we relished in their celebrations. We delved into historical monuments, ramparts, archeological digs, theatrical depictions of victories and defeats, and the yummy local French Canadian cuisine.
After its founder, Samuel de Champlain, set up a fur trading post in 1608, Quebec surrounded itself with ramparts. From its high promontory it had a strategic view over the majestic St. Lawrence River split in two by the island of “L’île d’Orleans.” Quebec’s “Upper Town” housed the seats of government and religious institutions. Merchants and craftsmen eventually settled in “Lower Town,” a steep drop along a narrow ledge between the almost vertical escarpment and the St. Lawrence River.
Both France and England wanted to conquer Quebec, and many battles were fought in the 17th and 18th centuries to that end. Under the command of General Wolfe, the British were finally victorious in 1759, making New France a British colony. Nevertheless, by then the Quebecois had already become firmly established both in Quebec City and the surrounding regions.
Quebec is considered as the cradle of French civilization in North America. “Upper Town” was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985. This walled fortress guarded by its Citadel is the only fortified city in North America.
Today its colorful narrow, winding streets are overflowing with quaint restaurants, bistros, cafes, museums, art galleries and boutiques. Artists display their paintings; copper art and wood carvings line the alleys. Street corners are replete with musicians and folk proudly wearing embroidered costumes of yesteryear.
The Château Frontenac, a medieval styled hotel, is the dominant feature of “Upper Town.” A large number of heritage homes have been turned into small hotels, or auberges. Horse drawn covered “calèches” leisurely meander over the cobblestones.
A unique funicular runs regularly from Dufferin Terrace, adjacent to the Château Frontenac in an almost perpendicular drop to Lower Town and back. It’s a steep, covered “alley” that you can only run down very fast! I remember having fun doing that about forty years ago! This time we took the safer option of taking a couple of sets of steep stairs.
On the other side of the Frontenac, one level down buried in the granite rock is the archaeological site of the partially unearthed governor’s palace. A number of government officials had called it home over two centuries until it was destroyed by fire. A number of officials in period costumes guided us through the mazes of chambers, which had detailed descriptions, pictures and historical data.
At sunset the aroma of Quebec’s Lower Town restaurants drew lineups. In many cases the terraces were bigger than the main dining rooms. It was a toss-up between the ambiance of the rustic interior and “la terrasse” with its view of passing elegance of days gone by. We chose the former. The soft sounds of a harp lent an air of elegance to the excellent cuisine, attentive service and cosy atmosphere.
The day was topped off with a stroll down the quay to a large expanse of pure white adjoining elevators. At precisely ten o’clock they were transformed into a huge outdoor cinemascope depicting Quebec life from 1608 until the present. Exploits and defeats, the “coureurs de bois” felling the trees, the fur trade, political highlights, and the industrial era, to list but a few. What a display of sound and images! We were spellbound.
This trip was not merely an expedition to an open air museum. It was exhilarating because our minds were focused away from daily tedium, and our souls were refreshed. Furthermore, we received a renewed dose of appreciation for life in the 20th century, and pride in our Quebec heritage. It may be romantic to imagine the high life of the Quebec elite in the 1600s until you consider the conveniences we take so much for granted which they had to do without! Also, it is humbling to acknowledge the hardships of the severe winters, which killed thousands in their efforts of defending and taming this so very beautiful part of our heritage.