Charles Dickens captured Quebec’s essence in one fabled sentence: “Splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn.” From the Dickensian atmosphere of falling snow and glowing lamps, to the peeling of church bells from elaborate cathedrals, row-upon-row of quaint stone gabled houses with steeply pitched roofs, ancient convents, leafy pocket parks, sidewalk cafes, cobblestoned lanes and horse-drawn caleche, Vieux-Quebec ( Old City) is unstoppably picturesque. It is a grand set of evocative gorgeousness, a built landscape spanning 400 years, bestowed with World Heritage protection in 1985. It is the only North American walled city beyond Mexico, underpinning its proud sense of historical continuity.
A city that clings to her French-speaking heritage and Gallic traditions. Home to the largest Francophone population outside of France, Vieux-Quebec is the cradle of French North America, where the dream of New France was born and died. The Old City comprises the Upper Town, surrounded by fortifications and strutting the craggy heights of Diamond Cape, while the Lower Town is nestled around its base, fanning out from Place Royale. I started my exploratory at this compact and photogenic plaza which the locals consider as the birthplace of French America. It is where the famed French navigator, and father of New France, Samuel de Champlain made his home away from home in 1608, after declaring it French territory.
There’s still a bust of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the centre of the plaza, installed in 1686, which was the town’s bustling marketplace in the 17th and 18th centuries. Commercial activity stagnated in 1860 and the district became rundown and all but abandoned on the grubby edges of the port. But fifty years ago, the harbourside district was reborn and rehabilitated, with antiques shops, bistros, and chic boutique hotels breathing renewed atmosphere into the plaza. One building houses the Musée de la Place Royale.
Here, a 3D movie about Samuel Champlain, huge scale model and a costume room gives you a taste of the city’s 400-year history. Dominating the square is Notre-Dame-des-Victories, Québec’s oldest stone church, built in 1688 after an inferno razed many Lower Town homes. Built atop the ruins of Champlain’s first outpost, British cannons smashed the church during the 1759 siege, which was lustily restored four years later. Its paintings, altar, and large model boat suspended from the ceiling, were brought by early settlers to ensure safe voyages. Unsurprisingly, the church is one of the most coveted locations for weddings in Canada. It’s fully booked for the next two years. Rue du Petit-Champlain is arguably the prettiest street in the city, flanked by impeccably restored merchant houses and fur trading posts, now brimming with bistros, art galleries and handicraft boutiques.
Natural-fibre weaving, Inuit carvings, hand-painted silks, local fashion design, and enamelled copper crafts are among the trademark specialties for sale here. The street, which is actually North America’s oldest trading street, absolutely heaves with tourists, so you may well want to get here early morning to beat the crowd crush. After founding the settlement in the Lower Town, Champlain relocated its heart to the more easily defendable Upper Town, atop Diamond Cape. Originally the two districts were connected by the vividly-named Breakneck Staircase, a gut-busting stairway first built in 1635. Originally built in wood, the current steel staircase replaced it in 1968. It’s no problem tottering down, but a hell of a thigh-burner clambering back up.
Save your energy and opt for the funicular when ascending. I’m a funicular fanatic from way back and Quebec’s cliff-climbing contraption is a classic. It’s actually one of the region’s oldest businesses, hauling humanity between the Upper and Lower Towns since 1879. The funicular coughs you out onto Dufferin Terrace, which occupies the site of the fort and chateau St. Louis that Champlain founded in 1620, prior to his death in 1635. For two centuries, the chateau served as the official residence for the governors of New France, including the British rulers, until it was destroyed by fire in 1834.
The governor at the time, Lord Durham, decided to build a sprawling cliff-side wooden promenade on top of the chateau ruins, which has been progressively enlarged ever since. This ginormous boardwalk, which now extends for a kilometre along the cliffs of Diamond Cape, delivers sweeping views across the Lower Town and the St. Lawrence River. I loved strolling along the terrace at night, or grabbing a seat on a bench, backdropped by the soaring turrets of the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac – claimed to be the most photographed hotel in the world. The moon’s glow turns the St. Lawrence River into the colour of liquid mercury, which of course would famously freeze over in the heart of winter. Lurking beneath the terrace, the archaeological crypt of the chateau’s remains and the seat of power for French and British governors. In recent years, a major excavation project has revitalised the ruins and the relics, which you can now walk through, underneath the terrace.
The terrace eventually leads you all the way down to the Plains of Abraham, where a twenty-minute battle changed the course of history and a continent’s destiny. It was on this field that Britain’s General James Wolfe and the French General de Montcalm crossed swords and both died, climaxing in the British army conquering Quebec, spelling the death on New France, with the surrender being formalised in Maison Kent. The battlefield is a peaceful city park now, full of winding walking paths and bicycle trails, and a favourite spot for cross-country skiers, come winter. Adjacent to the park, the British reinforced the city’s defences and built a colossal star-shaped fortress, the Citadelle. The Duke of Wellington ordered its construction, after repelling the Americans in the War of 1812. The facility has never actually exchanged fire with an invader, but still continues its vigil for the state and is home to Québec’s Royal 22e Regiment. It is the largest fortified base in North America still occupied by troops. The regiment turns out in scarlet tunics and bearskin caps for the changing of the guard, daily.
In a city that has borne witness to such dramatic military history, the Fort Museum brings it all to life with a riveting sound and light show, re-enacting the area’s important battles. It’s all staged across a 400-square-foot replica of the city—complete with ships, cannons, and hundreds of miniature soldiers lined up for battle. This remarkable diorama was first created fifty years ago, but has been progressively enhanced with technological lighting effects, delivering an easy-to grasp-insight into the battle-scarred story of Quebec, over the centuries.
Another radiant Quebec encounter is to take a stroll down Rue de Tresor, a small outdoor alley near the Place d’Armes, just past the bright red awnings of La Grand Terasse. Artists have been gathering here to exhibit and sell their work for over 50 years, as if it’s been teleported by the Paris Left Bank. Most of the works showcase Québec scenes – the perfect souvenir to remind you of this stirring pocket of Canada. The city’s motto is “je me souviens.” (I remember.) And it’s a destination that is simply unforgettable.
By Mike Yardley.