Written by Karen O. Zimmermann
(One of the runner-up entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)
Some cities endure winter, Quebec City celebrates it. We have visited Quebec in other seasons, but it is when ice shimmers from rooftops and skaters glide to music at the outdoor skating rink that this city shines.
Old Quebec City is bordered on three sides by the St. Lawrence River, and on one side by stone ramparts, originally constructed in the 1600s. Outside its gates is a modern, culturally rich and super-stylish metropolis, but it is Old Quebec and the communities just along its walls that draw us back.
Cobblestone streets, river walks, serious food, and a choice of diverse one-bite museums are all within a fifteen-minute walk. There is a steep drop from the upper city to the lower. That does not separate them, though. There are stairways at various locations around the city, and they offer exhilarating views over the river or the rooftops below.
The Breakneck Stairs (L’Escalier Casse-Cou) lead down to Petit Champlain, a cobbled street for pedestrians only, lined with gift shops, galleries and restaurants, and somehow escaping touristy tawdriness.
Perhaps this is because the shops, though of a high caliber, don’t really matter. The architecture is some of the oldest in North America. There are deep window sills, narrow stone alleys, and massive wrought-iron door hinges. Details and age are everywhere you look.
For a close-up view what life was like in these stone buildings, visit the Maison Chevalier. It not only has the oldest corn kernel in the new world, but takes you room by room through the centuries, each room showing styles, amenities and luxuries, (or lack of) over the years.
Winter can be cold, and while this city is best enjoyed outside, a bit of heat can be welcome. Le Cochin Dingue (the crazy pig) offers artistic and smooth café au lait in deep round bowls, and a raspberry jam worth bringing home. Stronger spirits are poured at Café du Monde, a large glass-fronted structure with dramatic views of the ice in the river moving first one way, then the other, as the tides change. We watched several teams practicing for the ice canoe races.
These intrepid souls cross ice floes and frigid water in canoes, either carrying them or rowing them, and go from one side of the river to the other. For us, this is a spectator sport, but a company is now offering winter bateau rides if you want to get a real taste of this.
Other winter warmers are the propane fire pits provided by the city. These appear just when you might be thinking of heading back to your hotel. Surrounded by sturdy armchairs and ice chairs designed for photo opps more than comfort, you can warm your hands and feet and plan your next stop.
If the stairs are too much, a funicular, or cliff railway, operates continuously throughout the day. The upper entrance is on the Dufferin Terrace, a wide deck with railings to keep you from falling into the lower city. It leads all the way to the Plains of
Abraham. These are wide-open fields with cross-country skiing, sledding, and guided, lantern-led snowshoe walks. The terrasse also has a toboggan run over a quarter-mile long. While hauling the wooden toboggan up takes time, the racketing down over the ice is exciting, not terrifying, and well worth the $2.00 charge.
Food is a driving force in Quebec. Restaurants are outstanding, and the Marché du Vieux-Port, a large farmer’s market, has seafood pies, ice cider, and rich local cheeses and patés.
Overlooking all of this is the majestic Château Frontenac. Even if you do not stay here, it is worth a trip through the revolving brass and glass doors to check out the lobby – several stories high and redolent with eighteenth-century grandeur. In front of the hotel horses blow and stamp, waiting for customers to step into their carriages, burrow into a thick war blanket, and take a guided ride through the city. They will pass the École des Ursulines, North America’s oldest girls’ school. It has a chapel and museum with intricate embroideries, and an impressive collection of 17th and 18th Century art. Not far away is the Morrin Centre, where guides shut willing volunteers into total darkness to experience the cramped solitary confinement cell.
You do not need to skate, race canoes, or aspire to jail life to have a grand time in Quebec – just bring a warm coat, waterproof boots, and bon appétit.
Recommended Accommodation in Old Quebec: Auberge St. Antoine
Posted 6th July 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Karen O. Zimmermann. The photographs were supplied by Karen O. Zimmermann after the Writing Competition had been judged.