French fancy: part two
Kaye Holland is seduced by the sleek sophistication of Montreal and the old world charm of Quebec City in Quebec – aka the most surprising destination in North America
Continued from Tuesday
By contrast, the 400 year old UNESCO World Heritage site that is Quebec City - a quick and easy, if unattractive, three hour drive up the road from uber cool Montreal – is a much more sleepy sort of place and can’t be considered a party town. Rather, it’s remnant of an older, miraculously unspoilt world: despite being the capital of Quebec (and the only North American fortified city whose walls still exist), the pretty city’s half a million inhabitants still refer to Quebec City as a ‘village’.
Montreal might be bilingual (you don’t need to speak French to get by), but in Quebec City, French firmly dominates proceedings. Indeed I would argue that Quebecois do French better than France, in every possible way. The road signs are all in French, shop keepers will speak to you in French (even if the guidebook you’re clutching clearly indicates that you’re a tourist, not a local) and you’ll find pavement cafes selling perfectly flaky almond croissants and coffee, as good as any across the Channel. And, mercifully, without the aloofness and snobbishness, that the French seem to specialise in.
Most visitors will spend the lion’s share of their stay in Quebec City, exploring the Old Town with its 17th and 18th century stone buildings that house buzzing Parisian style bistros and brasseries, boutique hotels and antique stores. Unlike Montreal, Quebec City’s Old Town isn’t just for tourists: 6,000 Quebecois still live inside the city’s old walls, so expect to share restaurants and wine bars with real, live locals.
Highlights of my Quebec City sojourn, include admiring the old town from the fortifications (4.6km of ramparts), the Eglise St-Jean Baptiste (North America’s oldest pilgrimage site), pretty Place Royale (Quebec’s founding site which Steven Spielberg used as an alternative to France in his 2002 film Catch Me If You Can) and the copper turreted Chateau Frontenac.
Perched atop a cliff overlooking the spectacular St Lawrence River, the iconic Chateau Frontenac is said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. If you can’t afford to follow in the footsteps of Grace Kelly and Charlie Chaplin and stay here (prices will cause your palms to moisten), do at least have a drink in the bar and join in the hot topic du jour: will Quebec ever succeed in breaking away from the rest of Canada and, given its unique identity as an isolated island of Francophonie, become a country in its own right? Given that two previous referendums on independence have failed, I would say it doesn’t look likely – but every Quebecer has their own opinion.
Tempting as it is to stay within the Old Town, it’s worth venturing outside the city walls to St Roch (a urban wasteland that has undergone a remarkable renaissance in the last decade, and is now home to classy cafes such as Le Cafe du Clocher Penche), Montmorency Falls (situated seven miles from the city and some 30m higher than Niagara) and to Ile d’Orleans.
A 15 minute drive from Old Quebec City, the hilly island has built up a reputation for growing organic produce – not for nothing is it known as the “garden of Quebec”. I enjoyed a stopped at Cassis Monna & Filles – a family business that turns blackcurrants into cassis (France’s favourite blackcurrant liqueur).
I find it to say which city I preferred: the charm of visiting both Montreal and Quebec City is its mix of modern and traditional, British, American and French influences. Quebec is a curious hybrid but the province personifies joie de vivre and happily there is no bad time to visit: spring sees maple saps rising, summer is all about blossoms, autumn is harvest time while, in winter, there’s snowmen -and the world’s biggest winter carnival in Quebec City.
Sure, temperatures plummet (often as low as -20), but this is when ingenious inventions such as Montreal’s Underground City – 20 miles of subterranean pedestrian tunnels packed full of shops and restaurants – come into their own. And, at less than seven hours flying time from the UK, Quebec is closer than you think…
QUÉBEC FACT BOX
For FREE brochures, advice and information call Tourisme Quebec:
Tel: 0800 051 7055 between 3pm and 10pm daily
The site includes a full list of UK based tour operators featuring holidays to Québec.
Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/tourisme.quebec
Twitter - @TourismQuebec
For the low-down on Quebec’s Eastern Townships, check out our article here