Sunday, January 16, 2011

Quebec: Conversations with the old and new

Friendly and French, that’s Quebec City. It pleasantly erases all stereotypical a la Francaise notions. And even as it conveys being proud of its lineage --- also asserts the fact of bring the ‘largest French-speaking metropolitan area in the English-speaking world’ --- it subtly informs it’s different and free-spirited and should be perceived that way, merci beacoup.

If I were to pick a city from my recent trip to the Canadian East Coast, Quebec would make it to the top. A charming little world in itself — in fact a perfect illustration for the word quaint —it’s an attractive blend of nouveau and vieux (old) cultures. There’s a sense of constant cheer and the sort of bonhomie found in well-knit societies; the reason some Quebecers often adoringly refer to their city as a “big, small town” essentially highlighting the warmth it exudes.

Samuel de Champlain, a French diplomat, now remembered as ‘The Father of New France’ founded Quebec in AD 1608. Perched on a cape, it overlooks St Lawrence River, which in effect has contributed to the city’s name, the origin of ‘Quebec’ having been traced to the native word ‘kebec’, meaning ‘where the waters narrow’.

Of all spots, Quebec’s Old Town, a Unesco world heritage site, is definitely the city’s calling card. This is where I stayed to discover its engaging lanes and bylanes in the best way one can: on foot. The only fortified city in North America, it’s divided into Upper Town (Haute-Ville) and Lower Town (Basse-Ville), with a layout so compact that it makes almost everything accessible in a few minutes. However, exploring it took me a long-long while, as I was constantly pausing and gazing with virtually all places within the Old Town – hotels, restaurants, shops or cafes, managing to delight the senses.

At first glance, what makes any city look good or bad are its structures, and in that respect it’s often said there are few cities in Canada which can boast of architecture as diverse as Quebec. The city’s edifices are distinctly French and English in character but what makes them vibrant are their assorted architectural styles. Built in stone, they are brightened with cheery windows, doors and roofs adding a hamlet temperament to town. 

I began my city excursion from Place Royale in Lower Town, the showpiece of Quebec and the site where Champlain and his people originally settled. This cobblestone square has pretty 400-year-old residences/offices that have been converted into hip touristy shops. Around it are historic sites as the Notre Dame des Victoires Church (AD 1687) and the strikingly-realistic Quebec City Mural, a fresco of the city’s founders done on the side-wall of a five storey building. The wall is a spot for tourists to indulge in some trick photography as they stand in front of the mural and blend with the painted characters.

A few steps away is the sparkling Quartier du Petit-Champlain, considered the oldest shopping district in the continent. Here I found Rue du Petit-Champlain, a narrow cobbled street an absolute gem of a place to stroll. Almost boutique-like in appeal it was dotted with bistros, exclusive lifestyle stores, musicians playing the harp, someone singing a ballad and a collection of people all having fun. I haven’t seen Europe but “it’s so European” is an expression I often heard while browsing here. A perfect place to pick up souvenirs or to relax at a cafe and enjoy the ambience, it was a street I came back to whenever I had a little time on hand!

At the head of Rue Petit-Champlain is a funiculaire that runs up to Upper Town, and travelling in this ‘cable car on rails’ is a must-do. The funiculaire opens on to Terrasse Dufferin, a promenade offering scenic views of St Lawrence River besides having an expansive monument of Champlain. As expected it’s a popular spot and usually has a band of performing artistes, musicians, painters entertaining the crowds. It was no different when I visited it on a very windy- chilly-rainy day, the weather not being a deterrent for enjoyment. I’m not used to such chill and escaped into one of the nice-looking shops nearby to warm myself. 

Just across the Terrasse, and dominating the prominent line-up of buildings in Quebec, is the overwhelming Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Definitely the most dramatic landmark of the city, its castle-like architecture replete with turrets clearly lord’s over Quebec’s skyline and reportedly is the most photographed hotel in the world. As I stepped into this iconic place it felt as if time had rewound to a few centuries. Impeccably maintained, an experience of Quebec remains incomplete without a visit here. The hotel offers a tour of its property (for a fee) and adds a little drama by having your group guide dressed as a character from the past.

Another eye-catching section of the city which stood out for its colossal Victorian architecture was Parliament Hill. However, amongst all places of tourist interest, one that touches an emotional chord for local Quebecers is the Plains of Abraham. This is the site of the decisive AD 1759 war in which the British defeated France and annexed Quebec, writing a chapter of history that still rankles the populace and leads to voices demanding autonomous rights of governance. The battle is an episode of history that’s not likely to be forgotten and is clearly reflected in their motto: ‘Je me Souviens’ or ‘Yes I remember’. All vehicle number-plates carry that maxim, as a constant reminder, even as Quebec wakes up to a new day.

A weekend in Quebec is just enough to do a quick round of its spots. Beyond that there are theatre shows, cruises, adventure et al to revel in. Soon winter fests will unravel lots more. And as it gets colder Hotel de Glace, the famous ice hotel, will show a new way to experience winter.

Getting in: Air Canada and Delta fly into Quebec City
Getting around: To commute between Upper and Lower towns take the stairs or the funiculaire. Electric buses also ply frequently. Quebec tourism offers a ‘city passport’, a booklet that has discount vouchers on fee to monuments, museums, transportation etc.
Accommodation: The two best options are: Hilton Quebec ( that offers splendid panoramic views of town and Château Frontenac Hotel ( that stands on the foundation of history. 

Published in Deccan Herald

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