Say 'Oui' to Old Québec City--'Vieux Québec'
A little bit of France north of the border
Story by Ken Palm, Photos by Judy Palm
Vieux Québec, Château Frontenac and St. Lawrence River
Every year in June we like to celebrate our anniversary in a special way. Two years ago we took a trip and celebrated in St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year we had a special dinner at the Carriage House in Rye, N.H. This year we wanted a short vacation with a European flavor. We did not want to cross the pond, so we decided to visit Québec, Canada.
Turning off the lights, we left before dawn and headed up route 93 to route 91 in Vermont. As we reached the White Mountains the sun slowly turned the darkness into a shimmering green of trees, rolling hills and farm lands. The scenery in New Hampshire and Vermont was spectacular. We crossed the border without any difficulty after showing our passports and answering a few questions to the Canadian border guards. On returning home the American border guards did a quick car search as well as checking passports and asking a few questions.
After a stop for lunch in St. François-Xavier, Québec, a few more hours driving got us to our home for the next three nights. We entered Vieux Québec, the only walled city in North America, to experience a touch of France just a few hours from home.
Four hundred years of history is woven into the fabric of the city, and it is the cradle of French civilization in North America. The city has a dual landscape divided into an upper town and a lower town. Sites to see in upper town include the Basilique Notre Dame-Québec, Jardin des Gouverneurs, antique stores and many historic buildings and stone walls. Also, the oldest girls' school in North America is there and on the grounds are the Musée des Ursulines and the Chapelle des Ursulines.
In lower town don’t miss Maison Louis-Jolliot, master glassblowers at Verrerie La Mailloche, as well as Place Royale. Visit the small stone church Église Notre-Dame-des-Victories, the oldest church in Québec. Musée de la Civilisation is a must see. It depicts the life of the first settlers of Québec.
The Frontenac Steps make it easy to travel between levels. The locals call the steps casse-cou (breaking-neck stairs). Shops and restaurants are located at different stair landings. For those who would rather ride, there is a 'funiculaire'.
The city operates on a very human scale. Its inhabitants are cosmopolitan, mixing the old with the new. In 1985 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We enjoyed the lofty and inspiring heights of a city surrounded by walls that look down on the St. Lawrence River
La Maison du Jardin, our little B&B at 31 Rue Ste-Ursule in the heart of the Vieux-Ville or Old Québec, is a true taste of Europe with charm and hospitality, but with a much bigger room than you would get in Europe. Check-in wasn’t easy as Jolanda, the owner, seemed confused as to where we should be, “here” or “there”. Jolanda owns two B&B’s and didn’t know at which one we should be. When she finally decided we should be “here” we brought our bags up to the largest hotel room we have ever had and went for a long walk around the Vieux-Ville. It was really hot, in the 90’s, as we walked toward the Frontenac.
Walking this city is easy. In the great tradition of "Flâneur” (boulevard strolling) Québec City is wonderful for aimless walking. Cafés, Brasseries, and restaurants line every street. Their variety of style and decor is hard to beat. Its secretive little nooks of tiny lanes and alleyways tucked away on side streets make it fun to explore for that special gift to bring back home.
The Château Frontenac (above) is the focal point of Vieux Québec. It sits high on a breezy plateau looking down on the St. Lawrence River. This is a massive old hotel, built in 1893 in the French Medieval style, which can be seen from any point in the city and is a magnificent piece of architecture. Historically, it was where Roosevelt, Churchill and allied leaders met during World War ll. It seems to be a meeting place for the tourists who come to the city because of its size and central location, but the natives (called Québécois) meet in the small side streets and cafés.
We stopped at Grille Ste.-Anne on rue Ste-Anne and each had a beer which tasted so good because of the heat. We walked all around the Vieux Ville and settled in for dinner on Rue St. Jean at Les Frères Du Côte in upper town. Again, we sat on the patio and watched the people walk by.
Château Frontenac at night
People-watching is one of our favorite things to do in our travels, and here it‘s fun to listen to the French. We took the long way back to the B&B, spending some time on the Terrace Dufferin in front of the Frontenac which glows against the night sky of Québec. Its lights seem to float in the air and outline its turrets, spires and gables. This massive presence with its green copper roof can be seen from any point in the Old City.
Back at our B&B. Jolanda decorates all the rooms in her B&B’s from antique shops and street sales. The decorations are eclectic and interesting. We had a huge armoire in which to hang clothes, and several marble top tables. There was a little area with a small refrigerator, a table with three chairs and a table which serves as a counter. We had brought wine and cheese so this came in handy. The bed was a canopy bed with white lacy material flung over the canopy. There were many paintings hung, some in ornate gilt frames and some in plain wooden ones. Some looked pretty good to our unpracticed eye and others looked like the painting on velvet, popular a while back. We had three double glazed windows that cranked out with wooden shutters on the inside. I imagine they were very warm in winter. There is a large crystal chandelier in the middle of the ceiling and two ornate glass lamps beside the bed. The A.C. was turned way down to 63. These Québécois cannot stand the heat. We left it there and slept comfortably.
Breakfast is from 8:30 to 9:30 in a small dining room on the first floor. The first morning we were up early and went for a walk and bought a coffee before returning for breakfast. Breakfast is cooked by Vicky, Jolanda’s daughter, and lives up to all of one's expectations for French cooking. The hot dish on Wednesday was crepes, which were perfect. Other hot breakfasts were a quiche and an egg cheese spinach omelette. All were delicious. There is also cereal, toast,and fruit and jam. Coffee and tea are always available. Eating in a common dining room gives you a chance to meet with other boarders of the B&B, and we chatted with a man from Colorado, a couple from Washington and a couple from Boston. They all had good suggestions for tours and we profited from their experiences.
On Wednesday we walked around the lower part of the old town (Basse Ville). The lower town is quaint, loaded with small shops and cafés. We walked all around and discovered Place Royal, where Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Québec in 1608.
We ate dinner that evening in a restaurant looking down on the city’s oldest street, Rue du Petit-Champlain and again walked around the Frontenac. The lights at night keep drawing us back to this area. Finally we head back to our B&B.
After another good night's sleep we are up to a sunny, warm day, in time for breakfast. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who are both fourth-year med students at Harvard. They had taken the tour of the Frontenac and the Citadel and recommended both. We had already made a reservation for the Frontenac tour at noon and decided to go to the changing of the guard at the Citadel at 10:00.
In order to see the Changing of the Guard, you have to buy a ticket for that and the tour. We didn't have time for the tour but did watch the Changing of the Guard. We walked back to the Dufferin Terrace and had a coffee and split a Beaver Tail, which is fried dough with a filling of your choice. Having staved off hunger for a while we headed into the Frontenac for our tour.
The tour guide was a young girl dressed in period clothes who gave a fun tour. The hotel has 613 rooms and 600 employees. It has had three major additions since it was built resulting in three third floors and a wing that curves because of a design mixup during construction. It is interesting because of the history of the building and because every room in the hotel is different. We did get to see one room and were a little disappointed. Ours is more interesting and a lot less expensive with breakfast and parking included. The tour lasts 50 minutes and is well worth it.
When we left the hotel we were hungry for lunch and stopped at Restaurant L’Omelette on Rue St-Louis. After a Caesar Salad and a Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese croissant), both great, we headed for the afternoon tour of the Citadel since we already had the tickets. Jimmy was our guide and did a good job. It’s a lot of Canadian history, and we learned a great deal, but wish we had a better foundation before going in. The Citadel is located on the highest point of the city offering magnificent views of the Frontenac.
Plains of Abraham
Changing of Guard at Citadel
Beside the Citadel are the Plains Of Abraham, site of the 1759 battle between France and England, which ended French rule in North America. Both generals died during the battle: Wolf of England and Montcalm of France. Wolf died not knowing that he had won, and Montcalm lived just long enough to know that his army had lost. Now the plains is part of Battlefields Park, and Québécois enjoy a tranquil setting with many recreational activities. This is a place to savor and listen to the echoes of a turbulent past.
Back to the B&B for a shower and change. More wine and cheese, and in the early evening we headed out again in search of dinner. It was our 38th Wedding Anniversary, and we hadn’t decided where to eat so we just walked. We ended up walking around the Frontenac where a high school was having its “Prom” or graduation celebration. There were many limos and girls and guys in gowns and tuxes. They were going into one of the banquet rooms we saw on the tour, and it is lovely. Hope they had a great time.
rue du Petit Champlain, Lower Town .
We went down to the lower town again and decided on La Finestra (La Cache à Champlain is its new name) which is just a few steps down from the Rabelais where we ate the day before. They were having a 2-for-1 deal,and it sounded good. We both ordered Filet Mignon, and it melted in your mouth. We had a 1/2-liter of wine, salad, Cream of Celery soup and Mousse and coffee after dinner. Really a bargain. It was a great meal. We walked back around by Rue St-Jean and stopped for another coffee, then walked through the gates into the new town, because they were having a celebration like our concerts on the common. We walked around some more and then finally, fully celebrated and tired, headed back to the B&B.
The next morning we had our last breakfast before starting the drive home. The young couple was still there, and we thanked them for their advice. The fellow from Colorado was also there with his wife and daughters. They were heading out to the Montmorency Falls and Ste. Anne de Beaupre. That is a wonderful trip which takes no more than a few hours, but we were out of time. We said au revoir and turned our sights toward home. We would make the drive again in a heartbeat. We love Québec City.
Our visit was between June 26 and June 29. If you would like to see what Québec is like in winter when Jack Frost calls, click Rye Reflections' Previous Issues and go to Dec 2005.
If you have four days with nothing to do and would love a little taste of Europe and some delicious food, head for Québec City. C’est magnifique!
Les Frères Du Côte
Main Street Lower Town
Le Relais Upper Town
St Lawrence River
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