Quebec City: Old world in the new

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one way to approach Quebec City-from the water. I’ve been in the city many times (I live in rural Quebec). But the most spectacular arrival was a few years ago, when I sailed in aboard a cruise ship. It was early morning and the sun was drenching the Chateau Frontenac and the stone buildings clustered around the historic hotel in a golden light.

The passengers who had gathered above deck were mightily impressed, sighing long “oohs” and “aahs” of appreciation. Quebec City seems to invoke that kind of appreciative reaction, and no wonder.

It’s hard not to be impressed by this handsome walled town, even if you don’t arrive by cruise ship. You can still arrive from the water on the ferry from Levis, across the St. Lawrence River. From the river, you first see the towering bulk of Cap Diamant. The Upper and Lower Town developed around this 100-metre high promontory. It makes you appreciate why Quebec City was such a formidable military base in colonial times.

There are many ways to explore the city and learn something of its history:

  • On a tour bus
  • By sightseeing boat
  • Riding a horse-drawn caleche nashamedly commercial, but fun).

But to really absorb the ambience of what is essentially a European city transported to North America, it’s best to take a trek. And trek you will-the streets are narrow, steep and winding.

Plains of Abraham
Before wandering around the old town, take time to pop into the Musée du Québec, a complex of buildings on the Plains of Abraham. This is where General James Wolfe defeated the French army under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm, September, 1759. The museum houses a rich collection of art, much of it depicting everyday life in the province during the past 300 years.

The Plains of Abraham are home to the National Battlefields Park, a 250-acre green space with walking trails and landscaped gardens. From here, visitors can enjoy some of the best views of the St. Lawrence River, New France’s “highway” to the outside world. This river is an integral part of the history of both the province and the nation.

East of Battlefields Park is the Citadel, a fortress built in the early 19th century and home to the Royal 22nd (Van Doos) Regiment. During the summer, the Changing of the Guard draws hordes of visitors. It’s an oh-so-British military manoeuver, with soldiers clad in crimson jackets, black pants and glossy busbies.

Oldest district
There are, of course, many other tourist attractions besides the military installations:

  • Vieux Port Interpretation Centre
  • Musée de la Civilisation
  • Notre-Dames-des-Victoires, built in 1688 and the oldest church in North America
  • Rue du Trésor, a lane where more than 30 artists display their work (it’s also home to Explore: Sound and Light, a state-of-the-art, multi-media show tracing the voyages of Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain).

The heart of Vieux Québec is Place Royale. Said to be the oldest shopping district in North America, the shops, craft studios and restaurants are housed in buildings so meticulously restored that visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled across a film set. Nonetheless, the preserved buildings, with their thick stone walls, huge chimneys and dormer windows, have won Québec City a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

Antique shops, old station
A 15-minute walk away, past the Vieux Port, is a quieter part of town frequented by locals who want to escape tourist hordes. It, too, is a historical “quartier.” Saint-André and Saint-Paul, the main thoroughfares, are lined with antique shops and stores selling everything from model trains to garish plaster angels.

The focal point of this area is the Place de La Gare, VIA Rail’s terminus for trains from Montreal and other points in Eastern Canada. This part of town was once the site of a shipyard, and artifacts found around the waterfront-iron nails, bottles, slivers of European porcelain-displayed in a glass case in the square.

Be sure to venture inside the station. It’s an architectural gem, a typical, early 20th century “railway castle” (built in 1915) which looks like a miniature version of the Chateau Frontenac. In the middle of the roof is a stained-glass window depicting a stylized map of Canada, with a railway line running from coast to coast. It’s a reminder that travelling by train to Quebec City might be a pleasant alternative to travelling by ship. Not quite as spectacular as sailing up the St. Lawrence perhaps, but surely the next best thing.