EVE MIDDLETON puts on her walking shoes to explore Vieux-Qu�bec in Canada and discovers it is part of a city with a passion for its French roots, planted more than 400 years ago
Where, more than 5,000 kilometres away from mainland France can you taste freshly baked baguettes spread thickly with home-churned demi-sel butter, hear French being spoken, or marvel at centuries of Gallic architecture? Although the Caribbean d�partements might prove a draw for sun-loving Francophiles, those who cast their attention further north in the Americas will find that Qu�bec City, nestling in the south-eastern reaches of Canada’s Qu�bec province, is a particularly rewarding destination, rich in culture and history thanks to its entrenched French roots. The province is the only one in Canada with a predominantly French-speaking population and French is the sole official language at a provincial level.
As the province’s capital and seat of its National Assembly, Qu�bec City has long been an important marker on the political landscape. Yet beyond the grandiose, grey stone buildings set out for politicians and decision-makers lies a warm and engaging city, eager to welcome visitors and share in more than 400 years of history and experience.
Arriving by car provides an ideal vantage point from which to take in the magnificence of the city’s thick-set stone walls. Within the solid circular foundations, which stretch for four-and-a-half kilometres, lies the old part of the city known as Vieux-Qu�bec. As the only city in the Americas north of Mexico with its original fortified walls, Vieux-Qu�bec was listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 1985. Today’s visitors can walk all the way along the top of the ramparts to see the city within from a new perspective. Whether you are peering down on Vieux-Qu�bec or taking a leisurely stroll at ground level, the sense of history worn into the smooth cobblestones becomes apparent with each twist and turn of the characterful streets. Larger walkways and smaller streets wend their way through the fabric of Vieux-Qu�bec, criss-crossing verdant squares and passing old dwellings with exposed beams and whitewashed walls.
Thanks to its contained layout, Vieux-Qu�bec is easy to get around on foot, but make sure to wear your walking shoes. Its location soaring above the north bank of the Saint Lawrence River (Saint-Laurent to the Qu�becois) is one of the reasons the city’s French founder Samuel de Champlain was drawn here in 1608. Although Breton-born explorer Jacques Cartier had landed on what would become Qu�bec soil in 1534, Champlain was widely acknowledged as the founder of Qu�bec City.
New visitors would do well to begin at Place-Royale, at the river’s edge, where he first arrived. Considered to be the site of the oldest French buildings in North America, it was here that Champlain built the beginnings of Qu�bec. Standing tall over the comings and goings of the busy shop-lined square is the �glise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires; it is one of the oldest stone churches in North America and was constructed in 1688 on the site of l’Abitation de Samuel Champlain, the first Qu�bec house. As with the surrounding buildings, it is listed and remains beautifully preserved as a reminder of its historical importance. Close by on the square is the Centre d’Interpr�tation de Place-Royale learning centre, where there is a model of what Vieux-Qu�bec would have looked like at the time of Champlain’s death in 1635.
The French colonisation of Qu�bec was a slow process at first; following a series of harsh winters and unpredictable weather, it soon became apparent that plans to re-create the French way of life so far from home would have to be modified. However, business eventually prospered and Vieux-Qu�bec became noted for its fur and wood trade. Walk along the flats at the bottom of the hill to the Rue du Petit-Champlain, known as the oldest street in Qu�bec City, and you will see the traders’ houses, next to the river where their business took place. Their fortunes declined in the 19th century and the neighbourhood became less affluent as artists took over the properties.
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Nowadays the Rue du Petit-Champlain remains the preserve of artists, although the affluence has returned and it is one of the city’s main attractions. In 1985 an artists’ cooperative bought the street and now continues to regulate it, with craft workshops, painting ateliers and family-run restaurants standing alongside the renowned Th��tre Petit-Champlain. At the end of the street is a mural – one of several throughout the city – detailing the quirks and intricacies of Qu�bec City. Look closely and you will see a man holding a cluster of what appear to be diamonds. This is Jacques Cartier, who returned to France in 1542 after a third trip to Canada with barrels of glistening stones. These were later identified as quartz, thereby coining the expression “aussi faux que les diamants Canadiens” (“as false as Canadian diamonds”), which is still in use today by the 95 per cent of Qu�bec City’s residents who count French as their mother tongue.
To scale the heights of Vieux-Qu�bec takes determination if you walk up the wooden steps cut into the hillside, but there is a more sedate way: a two-minute ride on the funicular railway at the beginning of the Rue du Petit-Champlain. At the top is the building that has become synonymous with the city, the luxurious Ch�teau Frontenac hotel with its fairy-tale turrets. Built in the late 19th century as a stopover for Canadian Pacific Railway travellers, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980 and is among the most photographed hotels in the world as well as being a prominent markers on the Qu�bec City skyline. The elegant wooden Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk in front of the hotel has spectacular views across the Saint Lawrence River, and in winter plays host to a popular glissade luge (ice toboggan) run.
The river remains key to the city and today’s visitors can enjoy a view of the Qu�bec skyline from the ferry to L�vis on the south shore. Developing the city high above a point where the river narrowed gave its inhabitants a sense of security and its geographical location also meant agriculture could be developed on the nearby �le d’Orl�ans (see panel on the previous page for its attractions). This substantial island, set in the middle of the river, is blessed with fertile soil that attracted settlers keen to work the land and its family-grown produce is prized throughout Canada. Around 300 families living in other parts of the American continent are proud to trace their roots back to the island.
Although a strongly held sense of French history runs through Qu�bec City, it remains resolutely forward-thinking. The Universit� Laval founded in 1663, is the oldest French-speaking university in Canada and continues to rank among the top ten in the country for research funding. This dynamic attitude, while all the while embracing the rich heritage, is also evident in the thriving events calendar, which reached a peak during the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008. However, it also has annual celebrations for comedy (Grand Rire de Qu�bec), fireworks (L’International des Feux Loto-Qu�bec) and a winter carnival, alongside the more traditional F�te Nationale du Qu�bec on 24 June (celebrating Saint Jean-Baptiste, patron saint of French Canadians) and the F�tes de la Nouvelle France in August (held to commemorate the French colonial period).
With a strongly held passion for its French heritage and an emerging identity all of its own, Qu�bec City’s intriguing duality makes for an enticing visit. The vibrant layers of history, culture and enthusiasm make it a fascinating city for any Francophile.