Québec City: Walking Through Old Town, Eating Through New TownA roadtrip up north to Canada begins with the misunderstood Québec City. We juggle World Heritage sites with hamburgers and bowlfuls of poutine.
Hungry and lost on dark empty streets without a cent of local currency to our name was, not surprisingly, a familiar sensation. In our travels, my fellow editor and I have had our share of rough starts to new cities. Québec City it seemed, was no exception. And though I was confident we would eventually find what we were looking for (a working ATM), I was less confident that we could find that which had brought us Québec: the sense of boundless adventure that accompanies international travel. Some call this feeling the Travel Bug, though I might say it’s a Cure for Restlessness. For a few days we were hoping we could call it “Canada”.
Only 9 hours from New York City by Ford Ranger (with modest American livery), Québec City claimed to be North America’s most European city, and our gateway to international travel. Coming out of New York’s Adirondack Mountains and crossing the border into Canada, we entered the endless tree-lined plains that lie just south of the St. Lawrence River and mark the road to Québec City. The Ranger careered onward towards a menacing black-brown storm cloud gathering over the road ahead. We turned up the Old 97′s Too Far To Care as the cool wet air whipped in through our one open window. To your editors, Québec first conjured up nostalgia for the Texas highways between Austin and Ft. Worth, not memories of Europe. We were skeptical.
Now in the city, after stumbling through dark streets and Québecois French, we’d found a restaurant that was still open and took credit cards. We discussed the feeling of again being lost in the unknown, and planned our attack on the city tomorrow.
Old Town Walking Tour
The astute traveler will note: Ordering a pint of imported beer from a bar situated in a UNESCO World Heritage site will almost certainly incur a certain “tourist” premium over an otherwise similar bar situated further afield and as of yet undiscovered by the throngs of travel guides, or looked after by an older couple who were themselves unaware that their establishment had been dubbed a “quaint authentic tavern, oft frequented by locals” in the same Lonely Planet guidebook I was now covertly consulting to find the nearest Old Town bar.
All this, we knew. But it was 11am, and after nearly an hour of exploring Old Town (itself looking more and more like an Epcot pavilion with every step) a defeated air, not unlike the muggy and unexpected heat that hung over Vieux Québec, had finally overtaken us. It was here as always, my fellow editor proved his worth: Want to get a beer? Absolutely. And so we sat ourselves, with mustered aplomb, up to a bar in what must be the cleanest 400 year old building in greater Québec.
Old Town, or Vieux Québec, is divided naturally into two main areas to explore: conveniently named “Upper Town” (Haute-Ville) and “Lower Town” (Base-Ville). Atop the promontory (known officially as Cap Diamant) overlooking the St. Lawrence river is the fortified Upper Town. Surrounded entirely by 18th-century ramparts, this district was originally reserved for administrative and religious buildings. Notable stops on the walking tour include some of Upper Town’s best preserved (though usually with substantial renovations) structures, including a number of churches, convents and restaurants.
It’s also here that you’ll find Canada’s most famous landmark hotel, Le Château Frontenac. Designed by American architect Bruce Price (who also fashioned us a Manhattan historical landmark just down the street from my firm’s offices) and completed in 1893, the structure sits on top of the former site of the British Colonial Governor’s residence. I could imagine the old governor taking the morning off to head over to the bar we were currently patronizing (just a few hundred feet from the Château) for a cold pint or two of $9 Sapporo amongst the local tourists.
We settled our tab and headed back out into Old Town, where the haze that hung over the city that morning had mostly cleared. (A certain Sapporo kind of haze had settled elsewhere, though.) Venturing onward into Old Town, our walking tour followed the Rue des Ramparts, which wound down the old city ramparts towards Lower Town. At the foot of Cap Diamant, between the bluffs and the St. Lawrence, Lower Town was the commercial center of old Québec. Along these narrow cobblestone streets you’ll find some of the oldest buildings in Québec City, particularly along Rue Notre Dame. Here buildings date back to the 17th and 18th century (i.e. where the governor actually bought his imported beer).
Lower Town, true to its roots, might have fewer towering structures for obvious photo-ops, but the streets were alive with energy at lunchtime. Here we found some of the ambiance française we came seeking: Cafés spilled out into the streets with such dense wicker furniture that I hadn’t seen since leaving Paris, and the more affluent travelers in our midst fluttered in and out of small (one might say “quaint”) boutiques. In the Place Royal, perhaps the most historic part of all Vieux Québec, is L’Eglise de Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Originally completed in 1723, this church was destroyed in the British bombardment of the (then French-controlled) city in preparation for the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which eventually led to the British conquest of all of New France.
Admittedly, these winding streets of Lower Town, with their bourgeois cafés and shops, had a certain European atmosphere; limit your gaze to a few select streets and you can convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, around the next corner are the narrow alleyways that line Paris’ Boulevard Saint-Michel. Turn that corner in real life though, and it’s just another working port in North America. Chevy trucks, grain mills, next stop Baltimore.
Nor is Québec exactly a city caught in the past. Indeed many of the old buildings date back hundreds of years, yet the landscape of the city has changed drastically (see inset), despite being one of the best preserved walled-cities north of Mexico. The integration of this past into an urban setting is what makes Québec City so unusual, intriguing, and ultimately unique. Eventually we’d come to find that seeking out “Europe” in Québec is ill-conceived at best. Better to seek out (i.e. eat) the uniqueness of modern Québec.
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Chez Victor Meat Tour
Since its new world heyday, Québec has lost much of its prominence to the more cosmopolitan Montreal, just a three hour drive down the river. As Montreal grew as a commercial hub and Québec denizens moved out to the suburbs, urban Québec found itself bereft of the energy that had once made it the jewel of Nouvelle France. In recent years though, the city center has undergone a kind of cultural reinvigoration as students have moved back and new innovative restaurants have challenged their Montreal brethren. With nearby metropolises flying cover, Québec City has been able to quietly become not a historical preserve or a European approximation, but very much an unpretentious cultural hub of Québec. In that respect, Québec City is not unlike Austin, Texas, where your editors lived for four years: small enough to be self-contained and easily comprehensible, but large enough to offer a full range of “Only in Austin” activities.
So on the recommendation of the girl at our hotel front desk, we headed to Chez Victor on rue Saint-Jean. Promising interesting takes on the traditional burger (including duck confit, lamb, wild boar, and of course beef), Chez Victor did its part in reminding your editors of an Austin original, Frank, whose wild culinary approach to the Hot Dog used to captivate us weekly. The local press calls Chez Victor (fr) “a rue Saint-Jean institution for over twenty years” that was loved by locals and tourists alike. We called it an excuse to christen a fresh bottle of Tums.
On our waitress’ recommendation, we ordered a pitcher of Boréale Blance, one Canard Burger (Duck and candied beets, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard), one Merguez au Fondant de Chèvre Burger (Lamb, goat cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard), and two orders of Poutine (french friends, but better). While we waited for our spread, we chatted with our waitress, who on finding out we were originally from Texas immediately announced that she’d always wanted to see the Lone Star State.
“I love the United States,” she told us, somewhat emphatically. “I’m so happy to have English speaking people here! I never get to practice. All we ever speak is French, French, French…”
“Happy to accomodate! Anyway, it’s impossible for me to understand your Québecois accent,” I answered (implying of course that I could understand French-French).
After encouraging her to make her first (and only) stop Austin, my fellow editor and I wondered about the difficulties of speaking French as a first language in a region otherwise isolated from the francophone world. No doubt it gives Québec a independent culture and a regional delineation not found in the United States, but it would certainly put our dear waitress at a disadvantage should she look for careers elsewhere in North America.
Eventually, the burgers arrived, immediately assuaging my fears that a non-American burger couldn’t compare to the original (as we’ve almost encountered before in South Korea). Later, weighed down by all the poutine and another pitcher of Boréale, we walked down the same dark streets of Québec that seemed so imposing on that first night. Suddenly, shops on the rue home seemed familiar, as if we were just leaving another habitual visit to Chez Victor. Europe ensnares foreign travelers in a romanticized kind of gothic unknown–what cute café will I find housed in some old church if I turn down this alley?–but Québec welcomes you like a local. You can decide which you prefer.
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Crossing the St. Lawrence by Ferry
As a final note, one highly recommended activity in Québec City is the ferry to Lévis, the town just across the St. Lawrence. Run year-round (which is quite impressive, given that the entire river freezes in the winter here) by Le Société des Traversiers du Québec, this $6 ferry is your ticket to iconic images of Québec City.
Given my love of mass transportation, this ferry was a must. We pulled out from port, located conveniently at the edge of Lower Town, with at least 20 other sight-seers on-board. The ferry angled itself upriver, fighting the strong current to maintain heading towards the opposite bank. Though the St. Lawrence here is narrow (Québec’s name derives from an old Algonquian word for “the river narrows here”), after five short minutes the landscape began to revert to its elemental colors, as it tends to do when viewed from the water: the dark blue of the cold northern waters and true sky-blue of the sky; the green vegetation on the bluffs of Québec with brownish buildings, themselves seemingly natural, jutting out of them; even the sharp white bridge of the opposing ferry was like a breaking wave passing us. It was postcard weather, so we took pictures and enjoyed a relaxing escape from the city.
Next stop, Montreal.