We followed the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River from Montreal to Quebec. The river can be as wide as 24 kilometers, but it narrows to about one kilometer at Quebec City. Actually, the word Quebec comes from the Algonquin word for “where the river narrows.” The high peninsula between the Saint Lawrence and St. Charles Rivers made a natural fortification point when Jacques Cartier built a fort there in 1535. However, he could not get a permanent establishment going in the cold and hostile climate. That was left to Champlain who founded the current city in 1608.
The French held on 155 years until 1763 when it was ceded to the British at the end of the Seven Year’s War. The British attempt to pay for that war was one of the causes of the American Revolution. Local guides are quick to point out the Americans attacked the city during the Revolution and again during the war of 1812, only to be beat soundly each time.
The old city is the only completely walled city left in North America. It was just below our hotel, so we wandered down the very touristy Rue St.-Jean to have an excellent cheese plate and glass of wine. It was the most expensive cheese plate I have ever had, but it was also the nicest.
When we returned to the courtyard outside our hotel, we found it packed with people with cameras and young men and women in formal dress. It was prom night.
Many of the young people were vying with each other to arrive in the most extravagant manner. There were, of course, limos and horse drawn carriages, but others were more inventive. One group arrived in a hay wagon pulled by one of the largest tractors I have ever seen. Two couples were on a yacht. One was in a tractor trailer. One was in a dump truck. Some were on an antique fire truck. It went on and on, and finally we gave up and went in to our hotel.
The next day was Monday June 23. June 24 is Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. It is celebrated across Canada as a celebration of the summer solstice (probably not what the church had in mind) and is a “national” Quebec holiday since 1977. Since 1984, in has been run by the MNO, Mouvement National de Québécones et Québécois, the separatist group. As it was on a Tuesday, they were celebrating in a big way on the 23rd as part of the long weekend.
We were warned by hotel staff to carry a hotel identification bracelet in the evening as there would be thousands of revelers on the street, and we would not be allowed back in without our bracelet; we had no problems.
The next morning, we took a hop on/hop off bus around the city before stopping for a light lunch of apple and cheese crepes and cider.
The city is quite compact, and most places can be reached by walking, if it is sometimes a long walk. But we “hopped on” again.
The Plains of Abraham, once the site of bloody battles, is now a lovely park that had a large stage at one end where a band was practicing for the evening’s free show. Another surprisingly interesting spot was underneath a free-way: they put murals on the supports to keep down graffiti.
Then we walked up to the citadel, where we took a tour. Once again as so often on this trip, we found ourselves alone with our guide which made it much easier to hear and ask questions.
The Royal 22nd Regiment of the Canadian Army is largely based outside the city. However, it has traditionally held the citadel which is still a military instillation — if only for ceremony. One is not allowed to walk around alone.
The regiment’s roots go back to the war of 1812, but the modern version was created as a French-speaking unit in World War I. The members of the regiment have a distinguished record in both World Wars as well as Korea, Afghanistan and on several UN missions. It’s motto “Je Me Souviens” is found on Quebec license plates and means “I remember.”
That evening we ate at the small Café Hobbit on a portion of Rue Saint-Jean frequented by more locals and fewer tourists. We both were able to indulge in the best of French cooking traditions. Alie was intrigued by her confit duck, but it was not her favorite French meal. I, on the other hand, had a “duck duo” which was a breast of duck and duck rillettes, a sort of pate of minced meat covered with pistachio crumbs. These were on a blend of several vegetables and lentils each with its own wonderful flavor. We shared a dessert that combined puff pastry, chocolate-hazelnut ganache, pears and sweetened whipped cream garnished with a strawberry and blueberry. It was one of the best meals in my memory.
I try not to give into my aging body too often. However, the no-charge celebration on the Plains of Abraham started at 9:30 in the evening and went until 3:00 a.m. My old eardrums were almost broken during the afternoon when we passed one band practicing on the stage. So we chose to forgo the pleasure of the crowds and bands.
There is one event which I would love to attend, but it takes a commitment to Quebec I will never have. They have a fireworks competition featuring a demonstration each Saturday from June 28 to August 2. The competitors are companies from all over the world. I love fireworks and I really like Quebec, but not enough to spend a month where I can’t read the signs.