REMEMBERING QUEBEC'S YESTERDAYS
Photos and story by Margaret Deefholts
Quebec City is sometimes disparaged as being 'so touristy' And it is. But it is also charming. Particularly on this brilliantly sunny Fall morning as I set out with Nicole Bergeron, raconteur and guide, to stroll through the streets of the Lower Town.
Motto: "Je Me Souviens" -"I Remember."
My first, "Oh wow!" moment is when we stop in front of an immense mural-it extends along the entire side of a five-storey building, and its clever use of perspective gives it the appearance of a three-dimensional fresco. Known as The Mural of Quebecers, it is a collage of Quebec's 400-year old culture, its architecture, its seasons, and some of its historical personalities such as Jacques Cartier, the first explorer to arrive on these shores, and Samuel Champlain, founder of Quebec in 1608. I am dazzled.
Just around the corner is Place Royale, popularly known as "the birthplace of French civilization in North America" and the oldest part of Quebec. The settlement started as a fur trading post and Samuel Champlain's house and utilitarian warehouses would have fronted onto an unpaved mud compound. It was a far cry from what it is today: a pretty cobble-stoned town square dominated by a bust of Louis XIV and surrounded by stone buildings, their roofs painted yellow, bright red and green.
Le Petit Champlain, near Place Royale is one of the Lower Town's most delightful pedestrian streets, and at nine in the morning, it is stirring to life. The little lane is flanked by stone buildings, their window boxes spilling over with lobelia and nasturtiums. People chat while sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, or linger in front of boutique windows, eyeing handcrafted objets d'art. We pause at a small park, where a guitarist plays a haunting rendition of "Lara's Theme" for an appreciative audience. His dog snoozes nearby, unimpressed by his master's performance.
Upper Quebec's skyline is dominated by the green roofs and turrets of Quebec City's iconic landmark-the Chateau Frontenac. According to Nicole, it is the most photographed hotel building in world. As she drives me through Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec), she mentions that this is the only fortified city north of the Mexican border, and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. She slows down to proudly point out the commemorative monument, adding as she does so, "And did you know that Quebec is also the oldest city in Canada?" I didn't. She nods emphatically, "There were other places already occupied in Canada, but this was the first actual city to be established. Do you know how it came by its name?" Feeling like a thoroughly ignorant Anglophile, I sheepishly shake my head again. It's from the Algonquin word, 'Kebec' meaning 'where the river narrows'."
The entrance to the walled city is through four archways or "gates" which resemble medieval European battlements. In the course of a whirlwind drive, past the impressive Place de l'Assemblee Nationale, the Artillery Park and Notre Dame de Quebec Basilica, I get a rough idea of the city's layout, before Nicole says farewell and drops me off at Aux Anciens Canadiens.
Once known as Maison Jacquet, this pretty red-roofed building was one of the finest homes in Upper Quebec in 1676. It is now a prestigious restaurant. I am eager to try typical Quebec cuisine, and I've certainly come to the right place! True to their reputation, they serve up an enormous Quebec Country Platter-pastry covered meat pie, meatball ragout, salt pork grillades, and baked beans! As if that isn't rich enough, it is followed by a delectable maple syrup pie topped with fresh cream.
When I get back onto the street again, waistband of my skirt straining at the seams, I head out towards the funicular leading to the Lower Town. The view from its glass-walled car encompasses the brightly coloured roofs of the Lower Town and the sun-flecked waters of the St. Lawrence. I find my way to the historic house, Maison Chevalier, which Nicole and I had passed by earlier. Walking through the rooms, furnished with 18th century furniture and memorabilia, it is as though I've tumbled backwards through a looking glass into Quebec's yesterdays.
Quebec's motto, "Je Me Souviens"-"I remember" finds echoes of the past around every corner of the city. Even my boutique hotel, the charming Auberge Saint-Antoine, has a cache of mementos buried in its unique history. It is built on the site of an archaeological dig and artefacts unearthed here date from the 1600s to the early 1900s. Each floor displays treasures revealed by the excavation-the lower the floor number, the older the artefacts. My floor covers the period 1840 to 1940.
Beyond the French windows of my bedroom, the floodlit Chateau Frontenac looms against the night sky. It is grand and spectacular. However, "my" Auberge Saint-Antoine, is both less and more than that. It is small, and it is enchanting. Just like Quebec City.
IF YOU GO:
Go to http://www.quebecregion.com for further information on tours, attractions, calendar of events, hotels and restaurants.
Auberge Saint-Antoine (82 rooms, 12 suites), a Relais & Cheateaux hotel, is a little gem. It has panache and style. The staff is cheerful and helpful, the rooms are elegant, and their dining room offers superb cuisine. In addition they are within easy walking distance to attractions in Lower Quebec, and to the funicular which services the upper part of the city. For more information go to http://www.saint-antoine.com
1. 400 years of history depicted in the Mural of Quebecers
2. Horse and buggy on Rue Saint-Louis
3. A prospective customer ponders his choices in front of Aux Anciens Canadiens.
4. Porte Saint-Louis leading out of the walled city of Old Quebec
5. David and Goliath: Auberge Saint-Antoine flood-lit against the Chateau Frontenac (photo courtesy: Auberge Saint-Antoine)
6. Painter in Place Royale
7. Quebec's "Montmarte" along Rue du Trésor
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