Enchanting Quebec City
By Anabel Dean
“You cannot leave this city without having ‘la tire d’erable sur neige’,” says the guide. “‘Maple sugar on snow’ is Quebec City.”
I know what he means. Molten maple syrup cooled on a bed of fresh snow is as much a part of life in Canada’s predominantly French-speaking capital as a glass of vin rouge and a bowl of garlicky escargot.
It’s while stepping through a compact 400 years of European history, in hot pursuit of a ‘maple taffy’ stall, that I notice a kerfuffle at the edge of the ice-skating rink in Place d’Youville just outside the Old Town.
A group of people are standing around something on the ice. It is not maple taffy. It is my teenage son. Red blood on white snow. He is staring into the sky, snow softly blanketing his chest, his mittens in front of his face. “I can’t see!” he says. One eye is swollen, there’s a gash down his temple. Someone has taken his ice skates off and his socked feet are frozen rigid. It’s minus 20 degrees.
Either I’m speaking very good French or the man in the high visibility vest is exceedingly gracious. There are moments forever crystallised, like this, by the sense of good that comes from strangers. “C’est mauvais? (It’s bad?) ” I ask. “I think he cannot see for just a little while,” he responds, lifting my boy onto a stretcher.
“You have insurance?” the paramedic adds, bolting heavy ambulance doors against the cold. We glide over snowy streets, a blaring siren parts moving vehicles like a steel hulled icebreaker, and we arrive at the CHUL hospital two hours before our flight to Vancouver.
“Your credit card,” says the admission clerk, tapping up a consultation fee of $1,300. It’s a grateful reminder that travel insurance pays off no matter where you are in the world. The Emergency Ward doctor is immediately at the bedside. It might be possible to continue the journey. He hesitates. The boy starts vomiting. Concussion is the diagnosis.
Four stitches in his temple and a number of injections permit sleep for short intervals. There are investigations over hours before the doctor completes endless airline medical clearance forms and we arrange another night at our old hotel. His parting words are heavy with expectation. “Do what your body asks you to do,” he advises, “and don’t go over the bumps.”
It’s dark when the taxi driver deposits us at our Belle Epoque hotel in the heart of Old Quebec. Le Clarendon is radiant in white light.
“Welcome home,’ says the smiling concierge. It may not be the landmark that defines the landscape of Quebec City – that’s the mock gothic French chateau on the cliff top (Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac) but it’s the oldest continually operating hotel in town. Our room on the 6th floor feels like home, familiarly modern in spite of habitation ‘depuis 1870’, and the recuperating child is doing well. Luxury helps.
Quebec City is an ancient turreted town on the icy banks of the St Lawrence River. It is a picturesque confection from most angles but especially through three oeil de boeuf (bulls eye) windows looking towards the commanding Cap Diamont. Snow wafts over silver church spires and clings to the steeply pitched rooves of the stone merchant houses that date from the 18th and 19th century.
The cobblestoned streets, strung with baubles and icicles, must be the prettiest on earth. Certainly UNESCO fell for its charms, classifying the city as a World Heritage Site, in 1985.
Of course, an accolade like that comes at a price even higher than the lynx coat in the shop window on rue St Pierre. The city is crowded during the summer cruise season and “especially between September and October” according to the sales assistant at the decades-old furrier Fourrures du Vieux-Port as she hovers between racks of mink, beaver, fox, chinchilla, sable and mouton (“at prices to be arranged”).
The very cold winters have their own appeal in the historic district of Old Quebec (Vieux Quebec) when average temperatures range from -3 to -18 degrees celsius but go far lower. The summer average is around 25 degrees but there’s plenty to admire in the arctic wonder, ice sliding and scraping in the current along the riverside promenade, ferries navigating shifting pack ice on strong tides between Quebec City and the southern shore of the vast river.
The name Québec (from an Algonquin word, kébec, meaning ‘where the river narrows’) refers to the cliff-edged gap below the split-level old town. Atop the precipice, it still feels like a frontier, where wolves prowl between buildings at night, noiselessly skirting the remnant stone ramparts that mark the foundations of the only walled city in Canada.
The city was officially established in 1608 as a permanent settlement for the French and, in spite of the English capturing the city in 1759 and building most of the ramparts, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain is remembered as a hero.
“Champlain was a great fellow,” the guide explains while standing beneath the huge bronze Champlain monument on Dufferin Terrace. “He was a great navigator, cartographer, diplomat. Look at him ladies: very handsome? Courageous and strong, gentlemen? But I have to disappoint you,” he adds with a wink. “It’s not him. This fellow is a model working for the King of France in 1898.”
We may not know what Champlain looks like but his name was once attached to the 59 steps that wind from Cote de la Montagne to the pretty pedestrian-only rue Petit-Champlain (built between 1685 and 1689). Every visitor instinctively senses the icy danger inherent in stepping from the upper town into the lower town via this precipitous architectural wonder known as ‘Breakneck Stairs’.
The lower town is a warren of narrow alleys bristling with galleries, wine bars and bistros that are pungent with the scent of artisan Parisien epicure. This is the place to wear fur and eat wild game. The feasting sits somewhere between classic French cuisine and hearty Canadian comfort food. The appeal of ‘a decomposed shepherds pie, a good old paw stew, a deer tartar’ might be lost in translation but should not to be missed.
Our guide suggests another restaurant for an affordable lunch. Aux Anciens Canadiens is located in one of Canada’s oldest buildings, the 17th-century Maison Jacquet. After a meal that includes onion soup, duck confit, bison fondue, tourtière (game meat pie) and, if you like, poutine, fries slathered in cheese curd and gravy, exercise is obligatory.
There’s a good walk from the Promenade des Gouverneurs in the upper town to the pivotal Battlefields Park, known as the Plains of Abraham, where the British finally defeated French forces in 1759. This is where James Wolfe defeated Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in a battle that set in motion the decline of French power in North America. Today, the battlefield is a leisure ground, an ice rink for more skilful skaters than us, flanked by The Museum of Fine Arts.
There is more art twenty minutes drive out of Old Quebec at the Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel). It’s made from 500 tons of ice and 30,000 tons of snow. Ice sculpture might leave some cold but, for others, it’s the main attraction and the adjoining Valcartier Vacation Village deserves its reputation as one of the most popular recreational tourism destinations for North American visitors.
It’s here that you can have fun sliding down a mountain like a Telly Tubby on the inner tube, or bedding down in a sleeping bag under a reindeer skin doona. You might exchange vows later in the ice chapel. At the end of the day though, the spine tingling sensation of a ‘skiddoo accident in the snow’ - a cocktail in an ice glass handled with gloves - is a knockout. No stitches required.
Our real life accident in the snow causes temporary blindness and delays our departure but leaves time for maple taffy. The search begins in earnest in the last hour. I am alone, scurrying into a shop crammed with maple cider, maple liqueur, maple jelly, maple butter, maple tea, but where is the taffy? The table outside is laid with only fallen ice crystals.
The sales assistant quickly addresses the situation, rushing out to pour piping liquid gold onto the snow, curling it around a wooden stick as it thickens. “That’s all the party you need,” she says, sweet as maple syrup.
The viscous stickiness melts on my tongue and clings to my woolly mittens for days making sure that, as the official motto of Quebec says, ‘Je me souviens’. I remember.