My Favorite International Cities #2 - Quebec City
Unlike frequent trips to Toronto, I have only been to Quebec City three times, but it remains a favorite. Despite being the provincial capital, Quebec City is curiously difficult to get to from most U.S. cities.
The Iroquois called the area of Quebec City “The Village,” leading to the French word “Canada.”
The French mostly settled in the area of what we now call the Province of Quebec (designated in 1864 by Queen Victoria), landing there directly from France into what they first called “New France.” They first came in 1541, led by the famous French explorer Jacque Cartier.
A more permanent Quebec City community was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, a sailor and explorer. He eventually was made governor, albeit reluctantly because he was not nobility and because he seemed more interested in exploration rather than governance, by Cardinal Richelieu and French King Louis XII.
Another influx of French people came in 1755, fleeing the English ethnic cleansing of Nova Scotia.
Champlain is called the Father of Quebec, even though he also explored New York state and New England, remembered by Lake Champlain in Vermont. He also is known for his high quality maps of all these areas.
The indigenous peoples coalesced into the Great Lakes Tribes of the Huron, the Iroquois, the Mohawk and the Algonquin, with the Algonquin predominate in the area of Quebec. Quebec City is Algonquin for “where the river narrows,” as the St Lawrence River narrows at the city. The French allied with various tribes in the 80-year course of the French and Indian Wars.
These wars finally concluded with the end of the Seven Years War between France and England in Europe in 1763, albeit with an interval of English control of Quebec from 1629 to 1632 wrought by David Kirke. The English interlude ended when English King Charles agreed to return Quebec to the French after payment of money by Louis XIII of France to secure Charles’ wife.
Finally, the English retook Quebec City in 1759 with the surprise raid of Gen. Wolfe up the cliffs below Quebec City to best the troops of Gen. Louis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (Abraham Martin, a Scottish settler of Quebec in 1635) in a battle lasting only about 30 minutes. The plains are now Canada’s first historic site and the location of a fortress museum (built in 1820 – the Citadel Quebec) and government offices. Approximately 4 million tourists come to the plains each year.
The French retook the city for a couple of months in 1760 but relinquished control again and finally conceded to the English after the Treaty of 1763.
But the French really won. They are still there; the French language and French culture predominates across most of Quebec. The Canadian capital city, Ottawa, is built on land from Quebec. Montreal is now the largest and most commercial city in the province.
Unexpectedly, the Americans invaded Quebec during our Revolutionary War against England, led by Gen. Benedict Arnold. The Americans expected both the French and English Canadians to help in the American war with England and join the colonies. But we were wrong; the French and English joined forces to drive us south.
The modern Quebec City is an estimated 500,000 in population with a surrounding area of another 500,000. It is vibrant, proud, very French and typically progressive in its politics, although it surprised observers recently by becoming more conservative. The people love life, food and debate. Capturing some of that spirit, it is the home base of the modern Cirque du Soleil and its founder, Giles Ste-Croix (the suburb of Baie-Saint-Paul). Before the coronavirus pandemic, the circ performed each summer at least once a week, outdoors near the city center, live without charge except for rental chairs and a few special boxes.
The land area of the city is small and thus readily walked except for the city stretching out along the Plains of Abraham.
The Quebec City skyline is dominated by the Hotel Le Chateau Frontenac, built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1893; it is now part of the Fairmont hotel chain. Nearby stand old city walls, Quebec City being the only remaining city in North America with standing walls and gates. Only St. Augustine, Florida, has been longer European occupied continuously in North America than Quebec City.
The Chateau is the route to the Plains of Abraham, its fortifications and museums and a royal palace. Off of the square in front of the Chateau is a small tourist museum with several light shows demonstrating the city history. Frontenac Square is alive with entertainment most warm-weather afternoons and evenings.
Downhill behind the Chateau runs Rue de Sainte-Anne with tourist shops and restaurants and cobblestones, giving it an old and quaint charm. It is the route to the nearby City Hall, Parliament buildings and the Morrin Center with a modern library and displays of the city’s history, including the original jail, much of it intact. Downhill toward the river lies the lower part of the old city, down the cliff with huge stairways and the spectacular funicular machine, costing about $3 per person per direction. The funicular is called the Old Quebec Funicular, built in 1879, upgraded in 1909, 1946 and 1998.
Two hundred and 10 feet below the Chateau are a host of shops, clubs, bars and restaurants built from converted warehouses, plus maritime businesses and docks. The downhill areas also include the Museum of Civilization , famous worldwide and for its modern approach to museums, and Notre Dame Quebec. Notre Dame was built in 1633 from a smaller sanctuary, expanded in 1647 and named a basilica in 1874 by Pope Pius IX. It remains remarkable for its architectural and significant art and artifact collection. Its holy door is now sealed until 2025.
The business district indeed has modern architecture and high rises, but somehow they all seem inferior to the looming old Chateau. The city is very proud of its music and art halls, particularly the Grand Theatre of Quebec. We befriended an opera second, and he sang for us in both English and French the national anthem “Oh, Canada” from the Opera Hall’s magnificent stage – only the two of us in audience.
The city is proud of its aquarium and the Museum of Modern Art, which includes a surrounding park of interactive and climbing sculptures. The famous February’s Quebec City Winter Festival attracts tourists from across the world.
On each visit we have made sure to go to the Restaurant Aux Canadiens for traditional Quebec French fare (pea soup, egg dishes, stews, pork or chicken or seafood, beef burgeon, mixed vegetables, potatoes, cheeses and poutine – French fries with gravy and often cheeses) – but we are also fond of the several Chateau Frontenac four- and five-star restaurants, making sure not to miss at least one afternoon at its venerable Wine and Cheese Bar, the 1608. Downtown, the Restaurant Taniere and Chez Rioux and Pettigrew can’t be overlooked.