The French Connection: La Connexion Francaise
Ninety minutes from now, you could be snarling choice words on a gridlocked Sagamore Bridge. Or trying out a whole new language as you explore Old Québec.
I wish we could say we go to Québec City for its sense of history. Or that we go for the galleries and museums. Or even for the outdoor sports—skiing and skating in winter; rafting, canoeing, and climbing in fall, spring, and summer.
But the real reason we go to Québec City is because it’s the quickest way to inject a little Europe into our lives. As fascinating as it is to retrace the 1759 battle during which the British wrested Québec from French rule (in a matter of 20 minutes); as sublime as the slopes of the nearby Laurentian Mountains are, we go to stroll along serpentine, cobblestone streets. To savor a steaming bowl of café au lait at a fireside table. To luxuriate in the sound of French tingling in our ears. Boston could add another dozen “authentic” brasseries to its surplus, and the vibe still would not come close. In Québec City, it’s the real deal.
If you’ve been thinking of visiting, take it as a sign that, in June, Delta reintroduces a daily nonstop flight from Boston—that’s Logan to Jean-Lesage in under an hour and a half. Given that 90 minutes is roughly the halfway mark for Martha’s Vineyard weekenders (and not even that for those staying up-island), Québec City is closer to New Englanders than, well, much of New England. Take it as another sign that the coming months offer a huge array of festivals and activities—urban opera, Cirque du Soleil, music, dance, visual arts—many held to mark the 400th anniversary of the first European settlement in 1608.
Any time you’re in Québec, actually, it’s impossible not to encounter some pleasant spectacle. In the winter, it might be a chain-saw sculptor turning a block of ice into a castle in preparation for Carnaval. In warmer weather, it’s likely to be a sidewalk artist or, in the evening, a fireworks display. As you turn corners and climb staircases, sweeping views of tiled, turreted, and gabled rooftops framed by the powerful St. Lawrence River take you by surprise. Tiny bistros beckon with Édith Piaf on the sound system and ice cider, a local specialty, chilling for a pre-dinner treat.
The only walled city in North America, Québec gains an air of cozy intimacy from its ramparts. It is divided into Lower Town and Upper Town, areas connected by steep streets, a funicular, and flights of steps (one is called the “Breakneck Staircase”). Old Québec—the part of the city within the walls of the ancient fortifications—is in Upper Town, as is the Quartier Petit- Champlain, home to many restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Occasionally, we’ve broken down and played the tourist: a cross-river ferry ride to the town of Lévis, a trip down the ice-covered toboggan run on the Terrasse Dufferin. The video at the Musée de la Civilisation, a film of talking heads illuminating the city’s complex history, was actually a revelation. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts showcases Québec artists: From June through October, in honor of the quatercentenary, the museum is home to an unprecedented loan of more than 250 treasures from the Louvre.
If you’re smart, though, you’ll take some time to explore the areas outside the city walls. Once, on a long walk that took us under a highway overpass and past a shabby mall, we “discovered” Le Café du Clocher Penché in the once industrial, but increasingly gentrified, neighborhood of St.-Roch. Always crowded, this lively eatery offers traditional bistro dishes with a French-Canadian accent, showcasing local game, cheeses, and an ever-growing wine list. Across the street stands a restaurant many consider the hottest in town, L’Utopie. (Like some boîtes we’ve longed to patronize in Paris, it always happens to be closed when we visit.) Other foods to sample in St.-Roch are the sushi at Yuzu and any bread, pastry, or sandwich from an inviting bakery called Le Croquembouche. On our most recent trip, we stumbled upon La Barberie, a brewpub on a nearly vacant street (look for the keg outside the door). We had a “carousel” (eight 5-ounce glasses) of the pub’s brews, while trying to catch snatches of conversation about politics, literature, and—naturellement—love.
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Just because Old Québec is almost unbearably quaint doesn’t mean all its restaurants are tourist traps. We’ve had seriously good (and seriously pricey) meals at Laurie Raphaël, Le Saint-Amour, and Le Château Frontenac, the castle-like hotel that dominates the skyline. For budget meals, go for the huge platters at Le Buffet de L’Antiquaire, and the soups and sandwiches at Chez Temporel. For picnic provisions, head to the farmers’ market at the Old Port or Épicerie J. A. Moisan, said to be the oldest grocery store in North America; there we bought Riopelle, a runny, triple-cream cheese from the province, and a local sausage heady with wine and shallots. Across the street from Moisan’s is the Choco-Musée Érico, a tiny chocolate shop and “museum” that pours demitasse cups of sweet, intensely brewed dark chocolate.
Lodging runs the gamut, and Québec is home to a number of new boutique hotels, including the sophisticated Auberge Ste.-Antoine.
Traditionalists love the over-the-top baroqueness of the copper-roofed Château Frontenac with its ornate Gilded Age lobby. More affordable options include the much-smaller Manoir sur-le-Cap, which is practically next door to the Frontenac, and the family-friendly Hotel Palace Royal.
On the off chance that you start to feel homesick upon arrival, stroll into the Frontenac’s lavishly appointed St.-Laurent Lounge and ask the bartender to mix you up a stiff Cape Codder. As the jus de cranberge and vodka works its magic, dial up your Vineyard-bound buddies—they may still be braking their way down Route 3.
A timeline of Québec’s 400th anniversary events, from April to October 2008.
By Elizabeth Tingue
“Le clan des oiseaux (The Bird Clan),” a performance by the Symphonic Orchestra of Québec
A sweeping orchestral narrative that combines myth, magic, and reality, the performance is appropriate for young and old music lovers alike. 877-643-8486, osq.qc.ca.
Series of Literary Activities on the Theme of Québec City, the Muse, presented by the Salon internationale du livre de Québec
Bring a beret and brush elbows with the local Francophile writers who will be reading and mingling at various events. 418-692-0010, silq.org.
Gastronomy Festival of Québec City
Sample fare from some of the area’s most prominent chefs at this gourmet affair. 418-683-4150, crq.ca/En.
Cirque ici: Le Secret
Johann Le Guillerm of the Cirque ici troupe makes his North American premiere with this high-tech performance. 418-648-2008.
2008 IIHF World Championship
Hockey, the darling of the Canadian sports world, comes home for a competition between the world’s 16 best teams. 418-622-2008, hockeycanada.ca.
A not-to-be-missed rock opera starring cross-dressers and robot waitresses, among others. 41
More than 100 established musicians will collaborate on this huge homage at the Palais Montcalm. 418-641 6040, violonsduroy.com.
June 20-July 29
“The Image Mill"
For 40 nights, stunning architectural images are projected onto buildings citywide. 418-692-5323, lacaserne.net.
Anniversary Date of Québec’s Founding
Join dignitaries from around the world at the Basilique de Québec for a traditional ceremony, parade, and dance-filled celebration. 418-648-2008, monquebec2008.com.
5th Festival OFF de Québec
A cutting-edge, nonprofit music festival showcasing emerging international indie artists. 418-692-1008, quebecoff.org.
July 19–August 6
Loto Québec International Fireworks Competition
Top fireworks artists meet on the banks of the St. Lawrence River to see who can set off the most dramatic explosion. 888-934-3473, lesgrandsfeux.com/en.
July 30–August 3
Festivent: Hot Air Balloon Festival
For five days, at morning and dusk, more than 80 big balloons will be launched from both sides of the St. Lawrence River. 418-660-7052, festivent.net.
Meeting of the Giants
A wonderfully bizarre public gathering of entertainers dressed as gargantuan historical marionettes (like we said, wonderfully bizarre). 418-694-9481, geantsdequebec.com.
Fashion 400: an Art, a Culture
Talented local designers parade new collections down the catwalk. 800-463-8041, mode.cndf.qc.ca.
Envol et Macadam Music Festival
Alt-rockers from five nations strum innovative tunes for this high-concept show. 418-522-1611, envoletmacadam.com.
Halloween in Jeanne d’Arc Park
Throughout the month, the park is “haunted” by scary décor and Halloween-themed walkways.
Cirque du Soleil
The gravity-defying, Montreal-based circus troupe wraps up the anniversary celebration with a one-time-only performance. 418-648-2008, cirquedusoleil.com.