By Robert Selwitz
For North Americans who want to vacation in Europe but feel stymied by high summer airfares, a great solution lies much closer to home. Canada's Quebec City is easily reached and offers an old town wrapped in centuries-old walls, a bevy of cobblestone streets lined with elegant dwellings, friendly people and excellent food in abundance. This 405-year-old city will satisfy the craving for Europe without the time and expense involved in crossing the Atlantic.
Just 515 miles from New York City, 395 from Boston and 155 from Montreal, Quebec City is less than a day's drive or train ride from almost any northeastern starting point. For those wanting to fly, fares are significantly lower than those for overseas destinations.
The European demand for furs was the driving force behind explorations of northeastern Canada during the 17th century. This was the raison d'etre behind the small St. Lawrence River fort established in 1608 by French explorer and geographer Samuel de Champlain. He correctly assumed that the new town would be an ideal place from which to receive precious pelts from the inland, export them to Europe and receive vital finished goods the colony needed to survive.
Today the city is home to some 500,000 residents and hosts eight times that number of annual visitors. The riverside where Champlain launched his settlement is filled with twisty streets and byways, elegant squares, gorgeously restored structures and several fascinating museums. This is also the heart of the port from which vast quantities of everything from grain to finished goods are exported and from which thousands of day-tripping cruise-ship passengers arrive and depart between the spring and fall.
But there's much more to experience in Quebec than a short visit can satisfactorily cover. For example, a major lower-quarter thoroughfare is Rue de St. Paul. Here boutiques fill spaces that were deserted after 1970s-era separatist threats convinced financial institutions to leave the area. While that stalled the post-1950s renovation efforts — a time when the lower town was particularly run-down and generally considered to be a dangerous no-go zone — many of those buildings morphed into art galleries and shops that have great appeal for visitors.
The best way to see the city is to stroll toward Place Royal, the marketplace for the original old town. Located here are the bust of Louis XIV and the 1763 renovation of the Eglise Notre-Dame des Victoires. Originally erected in 1688, it was spiffed up again in 1969.
Strolling the city's 4-centuries-old streets is a prime lower-city draw.
Nearby is the Museum of Civilization on Dalhousie Street. Spacious and user-friendly, it features revolving shows as well as several permanent displays that include "The People of Quebec — Then and Now," which traces Quebec's citizens from the "New France" Champlain inaugurated to the present. There's also "Encounter With the First Nations," which details the stories and cultures of Quebec's original occupants, the ancestors who long pre-dated the French and whose thousands of descendants continue to live here today.
Some 200 feet above the original settlement is the old town, the area contained within the only standing fortified walls north of Mexico. The most famous site here is the iconic 119-year-old Chateau Frontenac hotel. A boardwalk extending south to the 19th-century Citadel fronts the 618-room grande-dame property.
Within the area surrounded by the walls — which can be circumvented via foot — are a potpourri of winding byways, shops and homes, and several noteworthy attractions. These include Notre Dame Basilica, with portions dating to its 1647 origins; the star-shaped Citadel; the museum and chapel of the Ursilines convent; and several elegant gates.
In the 19th century these gates were cut into the old city walls to facilitate traffic. Since the walls no longer served a defensive purpose, there was pressure to tear them down. By opening up thoroughfares linking the old and new cities, the gates contributed to successful efforts to preserve the walls.
Beyond the western wall is Plains of Abraham, site of the short but decisive 1759 battle in which the English defeated the French. This effectively made Great Britain the ruler over what once had been New France.
It's also worthwhile to take a tour of the elegant and ornate Quebec Parliament, a grand structure with nothing "provincial" about it. Also not to be missed is the National Musee des Beaux-Arts, which boasts a fine collection of Quebec artists' works and a facility that includes the former Quebec City prison.
For a complete change of pace there's Ile d'Orleans, the bucolic, under-populated, fruit-, vegetable- and wine-growing island right in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Just a 15-minute car ride from Quebec City's heart, the island features fine dining and cozy lodgings within its six small villages. Picking superior produce or shopping for local vintages and crafts are just part of the joys one can experience during an Ile d'Orleans sojourn.
Another favorite excursion is to Montmorency Falls. The falls are taller but narrower than Niagara Falls, and nearby are hiking trails, a footbridge from which excellent photos are easy and a cable car that leads from the parking lot to a spot near the bridge. The falls are equally beautiful whether they are thundering water or partially frozen during wintertime.
According to a local guide, these falls provided the power for the first long-distance transmission of hydroelectric power. In 1885, electricity from a turbine powered by the falls illuminated lights along the boardwalk in front of the Chateaux Frontenac. An interpretive center within the Manoir Montmorency tells this story and displays photos of luminaries who stayed and dined at this historic property.
For a fascinating view of Quebec Province outside of Quebec City, the daylong excursion along an 87-mile rail ride through the Charlevoix region to Baie-Saint-Paul is time well spent. From May to mid-October the train chugs along the St. Lawrence River's north coast, past small villages and intriguing riverside views, and the vistas are accompanied by haute-cuisine dining. Excellent croissants and other breakfast goodies are topped only by a fabulous gourmet dinner served during the return.
Departing daily at 9 a.m., the outbound terminus of the route is the arts-oriented town of Baie-Saint-Paul. After several hours of shopping, walking, visiting the excellent contemporary art museum and lunching, passengers come back to the train for their return and a fine dinner. This train line does not pause when snows cover the ground, either. At that time of year service is provided to the base of a major ski complex. Upon arrival, skiers and their gear are transported separately to converge at the mountaintop, then reverse the route at day's end.
A rail company representative said this has proven to be a real asset for those who want fast and easy access to ski slopes without having to drive during the often-challenging conditions of Quebec's winters.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Quebec: www.bonjourquebec.com
Le Massif de Charlevoix train: www.lemassif.com
L'Hotel du Capitole offers funky but comfortable upper-town digs in a structure that also houses a major music hall: www.lecapitole.com.
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.