If we tried to go from one weather extreme to another in only a few hours travel, it would be tough to beat this trip -70’s to 80’s and sunny at home, 40’s to 50’s here, windy and rainy. Let’s just say that my last-minute decision to throw that down vest into my suitcase was a good one.
One of the reasons I chose this hotel was their offer of a free breakfast. It’s so nice to not have to think much about that particular meal (one of the reasons we always rent apartments in Europe) because hunting and gathering is not the first thing you want to do in the morning. My hotel breakfast habit was thoroughly ingrained while traveling to China – hotels there always put out a grand buffet with food for every type of breakfast eating traveler – cold cuts, bread, cheese and boiled eggs for Europeans, congee and fish for Asians, yogurt, fruit and cereal for Americans and so I still tend to shop hotels with that in mind. Lots of choices and one less meal to think about. Therefore, I was a bit surprised when told that the breakfast here was in the restaurant next door, and not some form of lounge. I was doubly surprised when it turned out that there was no buffet and instead five or six options on a menu, with actual table service. It took me a few minutes to fathom though that the free breakfast was the free breakfast and not a free breakfast. This was where all that time spent studying French on Babbel paid off – I could read the fine print and grasp the other menu choices included a charge of $5-$8 depending on the complexity of the meal. The free breakfast was attractive, but the other less-free breakfasts were very attractive. Now, if it sounds like I’m being cheap, I’m not – $18 for two people for the best Eggs Benedict ever was a small price to pay. The coffee was pretty darn good too.
Frommer’s travel guides are our favorites, because they always offer a history/culture neighborhood walk. We often start with one of those in whatever new place we happen to be because they give you a good feel for the important sights, and you can then build on what you learn following their structured plan. And so that’s where we began today, right outside our front door.
Québec City was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, making it one of the oldest cities in North America. Eventually it developed into the major port of commerce for the French voyageurs and the capital of the French colonies. The British were immediately entranced with the idea of removing the French and attempted to do so numerous times during the 17th century and were eventually successful in 1759 when Wolfe defeated Montcalm in a battle that claimed both their lives on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the old heart of the city. That battle effectively ended any French claim to the New World. The British eventually found themselves in the same hot seat, once they were removed from their colonies via the American Revolution, although the Americans never posed a strong threat to what would eventually become Canada in 1867.
The upshot of all that history is that Vieux-Québec, the old city, looks an awful lot like the ports from which the French and British ships sailed – Normandy-style stone buildings, steep lead mansard roofs, dormers in the attic. I’ve heard it said that if you squint hard enough it looks like France. I think you might have to squint harder in France to get the real feel. It’s a charming little town, cobblestone lanes, a mishmash of old styles and genuine European feel – but fifty years ago the area was a slum. Following a long economic decline that began at the turn of the last century, a multimillion-dollar renovation began in the 1960’s and today the result is quite attractive.
Our tour started at Parc de la Cetière and La Fresque des Québécois, a truly extraordinary trompe l’oeil mural depicting the history of the city. Begun in 1999, it covers 4665 square feet. Also in the park, the foundations of an old section of a mercantile street are on display (well below the modern street level) with some clever signs that tell the story of the evolution of several small shops from the 17th to the 19th century.
From there we went up the street and then down les Escaliers du Casse-Cous (Break-neck Stairs,) the middle section of the climb from the lower town to the upper. Designed and built in 1893, the iron steps replaced the older stairway that dated to the 17th century. At the bottom is the Rue du Petit-Champlain, the oldest commercial street in North America. Typically tourist, but very quaint, lined with interesting shops and restaurants, it presented some interesting people watching and shopping. We spent some hours wandering in and out of the higher end shops (and of course a couple of the lower end ones.) I ended up with a locally made Alpaca scarf that sent my trusty old Madrid subway scarf to my messenger bag. It started to rain just as we finished our tour and so we turned around and headed back to the hotel to unload the cargo we’d acquired.
The second half of our walking tour was off in the other direction, away from the charming streets and into a neighborhood that is in the middle of a continuing renovation. Rue Saint Paul runs parallel to the old port and offers a few galleries and antique shops worthy of some window shopping. Our target though was Les Cafés du Soleil, a local coffee shop recommended by both our field guide and the hotel concierge. It turned out to be a great find, excellent coffee, great croissants and a pleasant place to kill an hour.
The rain and wind were making our walk a lot less enjoyable but we persevered and walked back to the cannons at the former French fortifications along the river and la Place Royale, the old commercial center of the old city and today home to a bust of Louis IVX, the Sun King and former patron to the founders of the city.
Dinner tonight was at La Repaire, a restaurant we’d discovered about ¼ of the way down the Breakneck Stairs. I took the time to make a reservation on the local reservation-making app, but it didn’t seem to matter since no one asked for my name. Interesting place – a very old stone building with rooms with low, vaulted ceilings. Perhaps used for wine storage in the dark past. While the ambience was nice on the eyes, we had the misfortune of being there with a loud (probably work-related) party that kind of raised the notion of “vibrant bistro” to an uncomfortable level. But the food was excellent, I had a duck confit while MLW feasted on locally caught salmon. For dessert, MLW had another Crème Brûlé. I went for “poor man’s pudding” which of course had a story that the proprietor gladly shared. It seems that not too long ago, Québec was not very prosperous and so the people did the best they could with what they had. A few eggs, some flour and the one resource that is never lacking here – maple syrup. A simple yellow cake drowned in maple and served warm. It turned out to be quite delicious, and reminiscent of the dessert I had last night – Sugar Pie – which shared a similar story of poverty, although in this case, eggs, flour and brown sugar.
While discussing the whole local dessert thing, he mentioned year another – Maple Sugar Pie. This one had similar origins but he told us that he no longer makes it in house. His chef had a version, and it was quite good. But he happened to try one at a local bakery and it was so good that he vowed to never make it again. At the end of the story, he winked, disappeared and returned with a small slice and two forks – on the house. It was delicious.
We headed home around 8PM, stopping to take a photo of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Built in 1690 to celebrate the defeat of the British, originally named Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire and modified to the plural version in 1711 when a British fleet was destroyed in the St. Lawrence by a storm. Those Brits has the last laugh however, destroying it in 1759 while bombarding the city prior to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. It was restored in 1816.
As mentioned earlier, there is a bust of Louis the XIV in the plaza, just opposite the church. What was not mentioned is that he is currently residing inside a snow globe, surrounding by pumpkins. If I had to guess I’d say it’s somehow related to the famous Winter Carnival, but that’s not for months.
One thing that caught our eye as we walked home – once dark, the streets are deserted. Not like Paris or Madrid where dinner starts an 9PM, rather here everyone eats early and disappears at dark. It makes for a nice walk home – rain glazed cobblestones, closed shops, no people. Almost perfect silence and a great way to walk off a local dessert.