PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
Quebec! It's the heart, if not the body, of French Canadian culture. The bilingual signs disappeared when we left Ontario, leaving only French. We simply did our best to navigate the freeways and streets. It usually wasn't a problem until we approached road construction that had signs with specific instructions. These weren't included in the French/English translation books we had!
Quebec is one of the oldest cities in North America and it's only remaining walled city with four arched gates for entry into the Old (Vieux) City. Samuel de Champlain originally established it in 1608. Its name was an adaptation of the Algonquin word meaning "the river narrows here." Champlain chose this spot for the settlement because the high cliffs and narrowing of the St. Lawrence River offered excellent natural and strategic defenses. Just like the walled cities in Europe, Quebec is built on a bluff and surrounded by walls for protection. The charm of the city is unmistakable. Quaint, cute, picturesque, charming, etc. are all descriptors that do not do it justice. There is an old world romance to the old city that makes one think that this would be the perfect honeymoon destination. Their famous annual winter carnival with its competition of incredibly elaborate ice sculptures would be spectacular to witness.
Vieux Quebec is divided into the Lower and Upper areas. Lower Quebec, as the old town nearest the St. Lawrence River is referred to, is a good place to enjoy a taste of French cuisine. Just be prepared for menus in French, though a few restaurants take pity on Anglophones by adding tiny font English translations. Throughout the old city, narrow cobblestone streets pass between metal roofed gray stone buildings with their roof outcroppings to prevent snow/ice from burying an unsuspecting passerby. An open square in front of a church provides a setting for a statue of the city's early leaders. It's also a convenient place for local artisans to perform or show their wares. It was all so lovely. A noteworthy landmark in Upper Quebec is the Chateau (Hotel) Frontenac. It also has a wonderful open square in front of it with a large statue of Champlain. The Frontenac is like a castle unto itself with its small arched openings into courtyards, etc. No doubt all this wonderful history comes with a hefty price tag - oh, but what a splurge it could be!
A little historical reference: The French knew they needed to create a strong system of defenses to protect the capital of New France from the enemy British, nearby in the American colonies. What they constructed was the Citadel. Perhaps the most famous of Quebec City's landmarks, it stands 106 meters above the city on Cap Diamant. It was assumed that an attack would come from the river, the city's most vulnerable point, and that is where the cannons were aimed. Unfortunately for the French, the British surprised the French. General James Wolfe and 4500 British soldiers scaled the steep cliffs leading to the Plains of Abraham under cover of darkness on September 12-13, 1759. The French commander, Lieutenant-General Louis de Montcalm, ordered his army (a combination of French regulars and poorly trained militiamen) to meet the enemy. In a battle that lasted 15 minutes, the British routed the defenders. They battered the city with cannon fire until the French army retreated to Montreal, where they would be defeated a year later and New France would fall to the British. Once in control, the British expanded and improved the walls and fortifications. The enhanced defenses were never successfully challenged - certainly not by the Americans when they attempted to do so in 1775 and 1776.
In 1774, the British passed the Quebec Act, which allowed the French citizens to practice Roman Catholicism and to use French civil law (guilty until proven innocent). Still, French-speaking citizens struggled to preserve their culture. During the debates on Confederation in 1867, Quebec representatives refused to join unless guarantees were made to protect the identity of French-speaking people in the newly formed Dominion of Canada.
As it was just starting to pour rain again, we took a bus tour of the city. Our driver spoke English well, but he was distinctly French Canadian. He made a point of explaining what the motto of the Province of Quebec (Je me souviens) translates to "I remember". We had learned this from our bus driver in Montreal who had a 'gentle' tone to the translation. This driver translated it as "I remember my heritage". He said that it means that I remember my language, my Catholic faith, and our historic and political heroes. Several times, he pointed out that British influence does not play a part in their heritage, the intermittent British occupations and eventual ownership of the country notwithstanding. He also spoke in near reverent terms about Rene Levesque, the popular leader of the 'sovereignist' movement as he pointed out Levesque's home, which was within walking distance to the provincial parliament buildings. The "sovereignist" phrase was new to us because we had only heard it referred to as the 'separatist' movement, but it seems to have replaced separatist and become the politically correct reference to Quebec's desire for independence. We had not realized that Old Quebec was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Oh, one noteworthy comment - this is one of the rare cities that had convenient, reasonably priced downtown RV parking. This scores big points in our book! Having spent two days exploring the city we felt we had a good feel for it and even considered that it might warrant a brief winter visit at Carnival time. Note, this is a major concession from us 'cold weather weenies!'