Saturday, October 24, 2015

Welcome to Quebec

Quebec is like our own little France—a New World version, nearer at hand and less encumbered by generations of accumulated attitude. France is inarguably larger, more beautiful, and far richer in historical and cultural sites. Quebec is like a rustic, Americanized France, where we can enjoy the still-affordable seafood, the extraordinary woodpiles, the endless pine forests, and the coastal villages where recreational development seems to have ceased in the 1950s.

Quebec's anomalous situation as a large and regionally confined minority population within an even larger country might well be its most distinctive feature. But communication is seldom an issue, even for a monoglot like me. When you ask, many Québécois are obviously pleased to try out their halting (but often excellent) English, with a sheepish and apologetic charm that belies the fact that you, not they, are the foreigner who can't speak the common language of the province.

Within the walls of Quebec City itself, tourism thrives amid stone buildings dating back to the seventeenth century. The views out across the St. Lawrence River are expansive. No particular sight demands attention, though along with the restaurants, shops, churches, and coffee shops, there are also plenty of small-scale museums to duck into, many of them focused on aspects of the early history of the colony.

You can absorb the flavor of the city pretty well on foot in two nights and a day.

In preparation for our recent visit, I reread Willa Cather's novel Shadows on the Rock. This might seem like an odd choice, considering that the book was published in 1931, and the "action," such as it is, commences in 1697. But the spirits of Count Frontenac, Bishop Laval, and the Ursaline nuns are still abroad in the streets (a little), and Cather's description of the apothecary Auclair at the market in Place Royale, buying pigeons and lard to pack them in for the winter, is only one of many vivid and carefully detailed scenes that will prepare you for your wandering visit.

We arrived by car from Greenville, Maine—a three-hour drive—and dropped down to the Boulevard Champlain immediately after crossing the St. Lawrence River on the freeway. This proved to be a shrewd move, as we soon came upon  La Promenade Samuel-De Champlain, a gorgeous strip of parkland running along the north bank of the river. The landscaping was pleasant and the sculptures scattered here and there were modern ... but appropriately dressed in nautical themes and materials. Maybe it was due to the fact that we'd spent the previous day hiking up and down steep hills through the Maine woods, but this sunny strip of land, which ran alongside the river for several miles, struck me as a joyous masterpiece of civic art. The people strolling, jogging, and  walking their dogs, looked exactly like the people you see on the paths at Lake of the Isles, yet they seemed, somehow, a little more sophisticated—maybe because they were all speaking French?

Our next stop, driving through the edge of the Lower Town and on to the old port, was the farmers' market. The fruits and vegetables were well polished, though many of the stalls were devoted to agricultural products rather than produce. The vast cheese counter displayed a hand-written list of cheese varieties in five columns, each variety followed by a price per pound. I'm not much of a cheese expert, which may explain why I recognized few of the selections. Among the offerings from the second half of the list were Maistre Jules, Migneron, Monnoir, Noble, Old Amsterdam, Origine de Charlevoix, Pailasson, Parmesan Reggiano, Pleine Lune, Pikauba, Peau Rouge, Petit Poitou, Pied-De-Vent, Pionnier, Pizy, Porto Bleu, Prestige, Raclette Du Village, Raclette Kaiser, Raclette Poivre Vert, Raclette Griffon, Raclette De Compton, Raclette La Grappe, Rassembleu, Ratoureux, Rebellion,  Sacrebleu, Sein D’helene, Secret de Maurice, Sieur Corbeau, Stilton, Tete de Moine, Tomme D’elles, Tomme de Grosse-Ile, Tomme de Kamoraska, Tomme des Demoiselles, Tomme des Galets, Tomme des Joyeux Fromagers, Tomme des Joyeux Fromagers Agee, Tournevent Frais, Vacherin Chaput, Vacherin du Village, Valbert, Verdict D’alexina, Victor et Berthold, Victor & Berthold /Reserve, and Zachary. It's pretty clear we're not in Kansas any more.

Skipping the cheeses, we bought a savory pastry of some sort from one of the bakeries and proceeded through afternoon traffic up steep hills into the heart of the old city, where our hotel was located. There was a frenzy of activity in the narrow street at the door to the hotel, as quite a few guests—most of them from Europe, I believe—were trying to dispose of their vehicles and haul their luggage through the door into the lobby. We did the same, and twenty minutes later we were negotiating a narrow hallway with uneven flooring to our cozy room, which looked out over a nondescript courtyard. The room was equipped with a huge armoire, a miniscule bathroom, and some almost-kitchy modern art on the walls. Ah, Europe! 

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