Vive la Nouvelle-France

Clapping peasant girls with huge smiles bound down uneven cobblestone streets carrying wicker baskets of laundry. Song and laughter ring from the squares where crowds congregate to watch live vignettes. One out of every sixth person is dressed in 17th- and 18th-century costume, and the place itself looks like it was plucked from 400 years ago.

For five days each August, almost 300,000 bon vivants come to this UNESCO world heritage city to celebrate French culture. Most dress in period costume, assuming the persona of an historical figure perhaps, or an ancestor. Even I, without a drop of Breton blood in my Celtic veins, wandered into a costume shop and searched among the feathers and finery for something for that evening’s parade. Anyone in costume can enter, and my friends and I – on our first visit to the festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2006 – intended to take full advantage.

“Can you say ‘Vive la Nouvelle-France’?” my host asked later, as we glided by the clapping, cheering crowds gathered on rue St. Jean to watch the Giant’s Parade, snapping photos as we passed, me a genteel bourgeois in blue and gray brcade, and she a peasant in white and green cloth. She had caught me, madly waving my flag, every bit the adopted patriotic daughter. “Vive la Nouvelle-France,” I cried and smiled.

The New France Festival is a great way to discover Quebec City, an architectural and cultural gem originally settled as a fur trading post by Samuel de Champlain. Called the cradle of French civilization in North America, the city, which celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2008, at one time was the capital of the huge territory then known as New France.

During the festival, visitors can dress in costume (the festival’s official costume maker, Créations Face-à-Faces, alone has about 400 to rent) and immerse themselves in history.

Street theatre, musical shows, songs, dance and tales bring about 1,500 artists to town. The New France Festival pass, a medallion worn around your neck, is $5 or $7 at the door and provides admission to almost all events – one of the best bargains anywhere.

The UPA (Quebec Farmers Union) market is the place to enjoy a lunch of regional harvest. Located just off Place Royale on a site that used to be the Champlain marketplace, it runs the duration of the festival and is a popular spot with vendors in period costume, rollicking fiddle music, a bar and long picnic tables lively with laughter and conversation.

Farmers hawk wares near the waterfront. “You need potatoes? Buy my potatoes,” they cry. And you should. The food is so good – and cheap at $1 a pop – for rich, fried cheese with garlic, lamb burgers, cones of berries, roasted potatoes on a stick and corn on the cob.

Adding to the historical aspect are genealogical booths with information on the first settlers and families of the colony. Visitors and locals have been known to find their own roots and history here.

Playing backdrop to it all is the romantic and cultured city itself. It welcomes you. “Come, walk my streets,” it seems to say, “and I will share my secrets.”

And I walk. For hours. I take a seat outside the venerable Chateau Frontenac, that grand dame of a hotel that suits the city like evening gloves on a movie star. I browse Painter’s Alley, sip at sidewalk cafés and visit chic boutiques.

I rise early one morning to set off alone and I ride the cliffside glass elevator tout seul to Upper Town, where I plan to walk the walls, a purely romantic notion, but why not, in this purely romantic city?

Perhaps one of the best memories of my trip came on a short side jaunt. Ten minutes from the city is Montmorency Falls Park, a provincial park, home to Les Grands Feux Loto-Québec, an annual international musical fireworks competition that happens to coincide with the festival. For $96 each, up to 800 guests can feel quite grand enjoying dinner at the Gatsby-like Manoir Montmorency, the former summerhouse of the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, before riding a cable car down to the gorge for the show. Fiddlers and accordion players serenaded us as we took our seats on the terrace for a themed meal. This natural amphitheatre is framed by an impressive 272-foot waterfall rumbling down the walls of the Côte-de-Beaupré plateau. It’s magical and the perfect ending to my first – but not last – trip to the New France Festival.

Photo credit: Yves Tessier, Tessima