Paris in the provinces

Québec is, in a word, charmant. One of the oldest cities in North America and the capital of Canada’s francophone province, it effortlessly embodies grace, elegance and Parisian style. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 on a promontory overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, the city is named from the Algonquin ‘Kebec’, meaning ‘where the river narrows’. As one walks on the cobbled streets up from the waterfront, past the bistros and boutiques of the Rue Sainte-Anne, with the Fleurdelisé flying alongside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it’s not hard to imagine that one has crossed the Atlantic, travelled back in time, and retreated to a European idyll.

Canada, rather touchingly, offers a national holiday to commemorate Queen Victoria’s birthday on the Monday nearest 24 May, so with cheap flights from Air Canada there seemed no better place than Québec for our second foray out of Toronto. But even this offers an insight into the city’s complex history: Victoria Day is considered too royalist a celebration for French-speaking Canadians, who instead mark Patriots Day, a call to independence. When the British gained ‘Canada’ (as was) in 1763, they pragmatically avoided any significant political or cultural reform. Instead, they strengthened the fortifications against American invaders, instituted pubs beside the coffee shops and cafés, built a promenade along the waterfront and named major new streets after members of the Royal Family. Given that British influences are largely limited to warfare and beer, it’s not entirely surprising that independence referenda are a regular feature of modern Quebecois life. The unionists have won twice, but the second time only narrowly, and in 2006 the federal government passed a motion proclaiming Quebec “a nation within a united Canada”.

Thus we found ourselves only 800km from Toronto and yet seemingly in a different world. Our first stop was, of course, lunch: colleagues had told us wistfully of the city’s French-inspired cuisine. Poutine – fries, cheese curd and gravy – is a Quebecois hallmark and available in different combinations. (We particularly enjoyed the vegetarian masala poutine.) The smoked meat club from Montreal is also a favourite, and delicious. For dinner, we enjoyed the Parisian food at Chez Jules and the high-class French-Canadian fare at Chez Rioux et Pettigrew. And, of course, there's always time for a crepe and an ice cream!

When not sampling the cuisine or wandering the ramparts – the only fortified walls in the Americas north of Mexico, by the way – we enjoyed Québec’s rich cultural life. The musée de la civilisation houses a wonderful history of Québec from Jacques Cartier’s short-lived landing in 1535, as well as a beautiful exhibition of the aboriginal tribes that used to and still inhabit the land around the city. (We felt we would learn less from their flagship temporary exhibit, Ici Londres, with its artificial Big Ben that could be seen for miles around.) In the musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the traditional wing was sadly closed for renovation, but we enjoyed very much the modern Quebecois art on display in a converted prison: Jean-Paul Riopelle’s daring use of colour, the surrealist influences in the vivid works of Alfred Pellan, and the caricature-like figures in Jean Paul Lemieux’s portraits of Québec were particularly striking.

Outside the city centre, Québec is known for its natural beauty. The Plains of Abraham, just beyond the Porte Saint Louis and the old city walls, were once the site of a pivotal battle in the Seven Years War, but are now a vast urban park. And only a short bus-ride away are the Montmorency Falls, a spectacular and beautiful waterfall, taller even than Niagara Falls, which suddenly interrupts the otherwise gentle flow of the Montmorency River into the Lawrence River. From the suspension bridge above, the view was stunning – but we didn’t feel brave enough to take the zipwire across!

On the one hand, our trip to Québec and its much more European way of life offered a picturesque insight into the history of Canada. On the other hand, the mystery of our adopted country only deepens: how can Québec and Toronto co-exist in the same nation? How can two such different cultures be reconciled in one national identity? And how can a place so far from France, and with a rich aboriginal history, feel so overwhelmingly European? But as we walked the old streets, enjoying une boule de glâce in the sunshine, these thoughts gently receded in our minds. For now, in the beauty of Québec, it is enough just to wander and to observe, as we learn more about this extraordinary country.


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