Quebec City Courts the Crowds
The soul of New France is now a sophisticated city of one million. Head north of the border to discover its charms for yourself
Quebec City is a nesting box of treasures. Round a corner, open a door, or climb one of the city's 60 staircases to the top and you never know what you'll find--a quiet gallery of Inuit art, world-class musicians playing for passersby, a cart selling ice cream made from local wild strawberries. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a resident, Quebec City has the ability to charm at every turn. Travelers of all budgets and interests will find something to their liking in this special corner of Canada, whose story is symbolized on building edifices and letterhead everywhere in the form of a sacred regional trinity: a Canadian maple leaf, French fleur-de-lis, and English rose. Its European roots run very deep, back some 1,000 years.
New France, Old France
Many wax poetic about how European French-speaking Quebec City, and for good reason--it's the only walled city north of Mexico and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The Old City, anchored by the imposing Chateau Frontenac (the most photographed hotel in the world), and historic port that spreads along the mighty, tidal waters of the St. Laurence River, are indeed reminiscent of France, each with enough ghosts and cobbled streets to conjure Old World visions. In fact, nowadays it often stands in as Europe for production companies that don't want to pay the way for crews to cross the pond. Taking Lives starring Angelina Jolie was the most recent movie to be filmed there.
Despite it being a scenic backdrop and riding on its reputation of an historic wonderland, it's winning the fight against "Disneyfication." Quebec City is far from being a theme park. Rather, it's a living breathing city of nearly one million now, working hard to forge a modern identity beyond the ramparts and quaint Vieille Ville. It's succeeding, evidenced by the cosmopolitan cocktail lounges that now dot the fringes of the Old Port, the funky coffee shops of the new Quartier, the world-reknown jazz bars on St. Joseph's Street, and the skateboarding punks that like to hang out in the Place D'Youville.
For centuries, Quebec City was one of the most important cities on the continent, and even went head-to-head against New York City as home of the United Nations. Walking around and speaking to people, however, you get the sense that the city is inching back onto the world stage. Local pride is at an all-time high, and no wonder. The economy is doing well; for many years graduates left for greater opportunities in Montreal or beyond, but now they're staying and building their professional lives closer to home. And, there's virtually no crime in Quebec City. Even during its Quiet Revolution in 1960 not a drop of blood was shed when local French Canadians fought for the same opportunities as their Anglo counterparts. And who wouldn't be proud of a city-wide art democratization mandate that states that one percent of public works' budgets must be used for art?
When it comes to dining, you simply can't go wrong in Quebec City, a town that gave birth to the region's modern day gastronomic revolution in the 1930's. Even a casual, on-the-hoof snack of a street crepe made with local cheese, a slice of "sugar pie," or a crusty sandwich offer unexpected satisfaction. For those who venture beyond the popular pedestrian streets, other treats await. One very special place to eat is the ornate dining hall inside the Parliament Building (three-course lunches $15, dinner $40). Who knows, you may even eat next to the Premier. Another relatively unknown spot is the restaurant tucked inside the Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec, or fine art museum of Quebec where a three-course lunch also goes for $15. For drinks, try the simple pleasure of nursing a maple beer purchased at the oldest grocery store in North America, J.A. Moisan, located at 699 rue Saint-Jean. The unusual brew just won the prestigious Prix D'Innovation, or Innovation Prize, in Paris.
L'Echaude Restaurant (http://www.echaude.com/, 73 rue Sault-au-Matelot) a 20-year-old bistro in the Old Port, which offers 10 wines by the glass (and a superb list of bottles), $10 three-course lunches called table d'hote ($16 for dinner), and the best steak tartare in the city, is another sure bet. And just down the street sits one of the city's most unusual hotels, L'Auberge Saint-Antoine, whose outstanding restaurant Panache officially opens this month. Whether you choose to stay at L'Auberge Saint-Antoine or not, a dinner by the artful chef Francoise Blais is mandatory during a visit to Quebec City. Blais's reverence for fresh ingredients and French Canadian cuisine shines through in every dish, creating a memorable festival of local flavors.