QUEBEC CITY - Donned in 17th and 18th century attire and colorfully corseted with an abundance of crinolines, three giddy ladies pass through the cobblestone streets nervously flickering their fans. An aroma of roasted pig and herbs fills the air, as a young lad recites Shakespearean verse amid the medieval music of flutes and harpsichords in the background. The clicking sounds of the horse-drawn carriage had just diverted my attention, as I tried to absorb the endless energy spiraling around me on the streets of the Old Quebec City.
I was a festivalgoer during the first week of August when Quebec City celebrates being French. The city normally attracts some 4 million visitors a year, with Americans being the largest number of foreign tourists. In 2008, there will be even greater fanfare when the city commemorates its 400th anniversary from the beginning of June to the end of September.
|400 YEARS AND COUNTING - In 2008, Quebec City will celebrate its 400th anniversary with expected great fanfare from the beginning of June to the end of September. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann. |
|PAST MEETS PRESENT - Quebec City's Summer French Festival attracts some 4 million visitors a year into its cobblestone streets teeming with characters and scenes reminiscent of 17th and 18th century France. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann. |
|HISTORIC HOTEL - UNESCO declared Quebec City a World Heritage Treasure. The Fairmont's Le Chateau Frontenac, one of the most well-known sites, sits in the middle of Old Town Square overlooking the St. Lawrence River. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann. |
First founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, Quebec City became the cradle of French civilization in America. Today, 98 percent of the population is French-speaking. The dialect spoken, though, is quite different from the French spoken in France.
The city, encased in 4.6 miles of 40-foot-high walls built by the British in the 18th century to protect itself from an American attack, makes Quebec the only fortressed city in North America. A pleasant pastime during a warm summer evening is a stroll along these historic ramparts.
Just beyond the walls is the Plains of Abraham, named after Abraham Martin, who brought the first colonists here. Once the national battlefield sprawling 235 acres, the Plains are now a picturesque park for dog walking, bike riding or just enjoying a leisurely walk.
Strolling through the narrow, winding stone streets of Old Quebec is like sleepwalking through a storybook. It's no wonder UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Treasure. Another noted landmark, The Church of Notre Dame, built in 1688, is the oldest stone church in North America. There is no shortage of churches in Quebec City. Although some 80 churches have been constructed, many were de-sanctified, with altars removed, and re-created into concert halls, public libraries and even a circus school. I stepped into many a holy establishment during my week's stay.
The Fairmont's Le Chateau Frontenac is by far the most dramatic and well-known site, jutting out in all its grandeur in the middle of Old Town Square overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
This fabled chateau has been operating since 1893 and has been host to a lineage of celebrities and politicians. This long list includes Princess Grace of Monaco, Charles Lindbergh and Alfred Hitchcock. The hotel served as a meeting place during World War II for President Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill.
Centrally located amid the festival activities, Le Chateau Frontenac also serves a great breakfast buffet to prepare you for the day's events. At night, the surrounding area becomes even more magical. Street lamps circling the hotel illuminate the boardwalk overlooking the glistening skyline of the St. Lawrence. But for an even more dramatic sight during evening hours, don't miss the spectacular fireworks show coloring the waterfalls in a crimson glow from the Parc de la Chute Montmorency, as part of the International Firework Competition.
Though winter turns Quebec into a Christmas postcard, the summertime was a perfect time for me to experience the city's rich, historic past and joie de vivre. The sounds, tastes and aromas of the city are in full force. From French country cooking to novelle cuisine, quaint Quebec offers a plentiful array of first-rate restaurants amid a bevy of boutiques, bookstores, cafes and galleries. The best selection of eateries is along the Grande Allee to restaurant row. This expansive boulevard is riddled with places to dine outdoors and people-watch.
One of my favorite culinary experiences was at Gambrinus, just a short walk from Le Chateau Frontenac. The restaurant offers a reasonable and savory business lunch. Their outrageous chocolate cake topped off a most memorable meal.
The ambience was also quite pleasing. The windows were draped with hanging vines along the gray stone walls. Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, musicians perform. Just below Gambrinus stands the Vieux-Port (Old Port). I was glad that I had good walking shoes to descend the hilly paths to and from the port area, where I was able to explore a district enriched with art galleries. All along the neighboring streets, I encountered brightly colored hanging flower baskets and window boxes adorning the storefronts of the stone buildings dating back to 18th and 19th centuries. A funicular, or steep stairway, is another way to descend to the water and browse the popular shopping area, the Quartier Petit-Champlain.
Returning back to the center of Old Town, I walked along the colorful Rue St. Louis and discovered Rue Dauphine and the Literary and Historical Society, once a prison, where on Saturdays at 1 p.m. children's stories are read. Though no children showed up the day I arrived, Monique, the storyteller, continued to read books to the only two adults present. I have to admit that I was totally engrossed in Monique's tales and velvety voice. I couldn't remember the last time I had a fairy tale read to me - and so apropos for this storybook city of Quebec.
IF YOU GO
For further information on Quebec City, go to www.quebecregion.com or contact the Office du Tourism de Quebec at 418-641-6654.
Beverly Mann is a freelance travel writer.
© Copley News Service