I’ve just returned from touring some of Tuscany’s scenic hill towns—Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Sienna, and others. While they are distinctive sites and well worth visiting, I find my Canadian nationalism surging, and I want to write about Quebec City, not about Italy.
It’s difficult to find a place that equals Quebec City for its charm, unique culture, and beauty. The only walled city north of Mexico, when you pass through the portal into the city’s historic section, the focus for most visitors, it’s like entering a fairy tale complete with a castle. The century-old Fairmont Le Château Frontenac—with its towering top ringed by steeples and turrets—overlooks the St. Lawrence River and soars over the town, adding to the magical feeling.
But this impressive hotel hasn’t always dominated the old city. Many museums, churches, homes, and scenic lanes date back to the 1600s. These are the structures that define QC and give it so much charisma. The Frontenac is the icing on the cake.
Quebec’s Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is perched on cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River and provides views of the countryside for many miles beyond. Accessible by steep stairs or via a funicular car, Old Quebec’s Lower Town has its own historic charms. The Basse-Ville sprang up around the city’s harbor and was the original neighborhood of the city. Homes, shops, and ancient streets sprawled here at the base of the cliffs centering around Place Royale—a square on the site of the garden of Champlain’s Habitation (1608).
The preferred entry to old Quebec City is via the Grande Allee. Time seems to have stood still here. It’s like entering another world, another time, another place, and it works its magic on you. Only Rottenburg, another walled city, has had such an effect on me.
A horse drawn cab is the appropriate way to view this wonderful place. When we visited, our driver was a redhead, of Irish descent, but born and raised in Quebec. He spoke very clear English, his words carefully enunciated. He wore a straw hat, and the horse’s name was Dixie. We learned that the animals aren’t overworked. A vet checks them every day, and they only pull a carriage every other day.
On our fire-engine red cab, we wove through narrow cobblestone streets past stone houses festooned with window planters. In the more commercial area, the vividly colored umbrellas at sidewalk cafes competed with the flowers for lending bright patches to the scenes. We also passed the Hotel Clarendon, built in 1870, where we stayed. It’s the oldest hotel in the walled city. Located a little away from the most festive streets, it’s still in the center of the action. Our room had a window overlooking the St. Lawrence, a clock tower, a part of the Château Frontenac, and a park.
If I can generalize, this link between French and English speaking Canada that our driver represented captures the essence of Canada, with Ottawa the head and Quebec City the heart. Without Quebec, something precious would be lost to Canadians. It’s a touchstone and, Quebec City, which lost once to the British, must not lose again. It has the exuberance, the emotional life, and the sensuality that some Anglos can lack. Quebec City also is the heart in that the Americas emerged out of European sensibility, and that presence its felt here perhaps more than anywhere else. I guess that’s why Italy’s hill towns and QC merge for me.