A touch of Parisian style

By York Membery, September 4, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter

The year 1608 might not mean much to most Brits but it has a special place in Quebeckers' hearts. For it was the year that the French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed in Quebec City - hence the lavish year-long 400th anniversary celebrations.

So what better time to visit a city -- named after the Algonquin Indian phrase for "where the river narrows" - which regards itself as the heart and soul of French Canada (even if Montreal, 140 miles upstream, might beg to differ).

Whatever the strength of the two cities' rival claims, in one respect at least, Quebec City has the upper hand: it's the only fortified city in North America to have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
In contrast to most North American towns, Quebec City is made for walking - but wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to clamber up and down flights of steps because it has an upper and lower town.
The story of Quebec starts in the Vieux-Port area and it's here - and the cobblestone Place Royale in particular - that you should start your city tour.

The Place Royale, with its bust of Louis XIV, was the heart of Quebec City during New France's brief heyday. The steeply-roofed houses (winters snowfalls have always been heavy) which surround the square were once occupied by wealthy merchants and the streets around were abuzz with fur trappers and voyageurs.

The area fell into economic decay in the early 20th century, but the authorities have done a fine job in restoring it and the streets are now lined with shops, art galleries and museums, the most impressive of which, the Museum of Civilization, has exhibitions on subjects as diverse as "Gold in the Americas" and "Urbanopolis", about cities of the future.

Take the funicular or - if you're feeling energetic then take the stairs - to the upper town, home to Quebec City's most famous landmark, the Chateau Frontenac.

The Chateau Frontenac, dating back to the 1890s, may now be a hotel but it is Quebec's number one tourist attraction. You can even take a tour led by a guide dressed as a chambermaid. But this isn't any hotel, it's one of the Canadian Pacific's famous railway hotels, boasting fabulous views over the St Lawrence and the setting for two famous wartime conferences between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

The upper town is also home to the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Quebec, the oldest parish church in North America, built in 1647 and the resting place of 20 bishops, as well as numerous shops and restaurants.
Anyone with even the slightest interest in history should also visit the mighty Citadel fortress - built at the city's highest point - and the Plains or Heights of Abraham, just outside the city walls, where in 1759 Britain's General Wolfe defeated Montcalm and his French army - a victory which signalled the death knell of New France.

Most Quebeckers (most of whom are now French-speaking) are, understandably, keen to play down the British victory - indeed, there are far more monuments to Montcalm than to Wolfe. But if you want to appreciate the brilliance of Wolfe's strategy, take a battlefields tour and visit the Musée du Fort, near the Chateau Frontenac. 

Given its overwhelmingly French character, Quebec City perhaps not surprisingly fields some of North America's finest dining. 

One of the best restaurants is Le Saint-Amour where I enjoyed a delicious balsamic vegetable cream soup, sea bass and dessert. The bill (including taxes and drinks) was just C$100 (£53) but would surely cost twice that on this side of the pond.

However, my tour guide seemed almost embarrassed when I asked him the best place to get poutine (French fries with curded cheese and gravy) and the nearest thing to a national French-Canadian dish, unconvincingly telling me in a thick French-Canadian accent: "Nobody eats that anymore."

However, the concierge at my hotel was more helpful, and told me to head for Chez Ashton, a local fast food chain, for "the best poutine in town". The place was packed and I finally tried this much lampooned French-Canadian "delicacy" and, you know what, it wasn't bad. 

Part of the joy of visiting Quebec City is soaking up the Francophone atmosphere, which is somehow different in New France's one-time capital. Although some waiters seem to share that Parisian disdain for the customer!

One of the nicest, not too touristy, streets to stroll along and window gaze is Rue St-Jean - home to Maison Jean  Alfred Moisan, a grocery store dating back to the 19th century where you can pick up Quebecois delicacies such as fromages en grains (cheese curds) and sucre á la creme (cream sugar tart).
The story of Quebec City might be a largely Francophone one in the eyes of French-speakers, but other immigrant communities have also played their part in the city's development.

Around 150 years ago about 40 per cent of the inhabitants spoke English although today it's more than 90 per cent French-speaking, partly as a result of an Anglophone flight sparked by the rise of French-Canadian nationalism. Consequently, a knowledge of French is an advantage. The city's Jewish community, while modest in size, has played its part in the city's evolution, including Abraham Joseph, a grocer and financier, and Sigismund Mohr, who established electricity and created a telephone communications network in the late 19th century.

For all the joi de vivre surrounding this year's celebrations, next year will see the 250th anniversary of another big event in Quebec City's history - Wolfe's victory, in some respects far more significant, for it resulted in North America having a largely English-speaking future. But a word of warning: don't mention Wolfe in Quebec City this year. As my tour guide confided after a glass of wine: "He's not very popular around here."

    Last updated: 10:50am, October 14 2009