Onward to Québec

Québec City has long been on both of our bucket lists. Scott had been to Montreal a few times (once, performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas), but Québec City had a different kind of allure—more French and maybe more European. Since we were already in Northern Maine, this was the ideal time to go, because Québec City was a straight shot southeast of Presque Isle. We got out our Pimsleur Quick and Simple French CDs, and headed across the border.

For the last half of our drive, the road followed the Côte-du-Sud region (south bank) of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Laurence River). We stopped along the way at the in the small town of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, which is known for its antique stone houses, for bowls of café au lait at the Le Café du Bon Dieu, located next to the light-filled church. Families and birders with binoculars were gathered at a picnic area behind the church, taking in the view of the wide tidal flats and the small mountains on the distant shore.

Soon, we were driving through the modern outskirts of Québec City, past stores and shopping centers that might as well have been in Dallas. However, the ambiance began to change as the street name changed to Grand Allée Est. On our left was the battlefield where the English had wrested Québec from the French, and cafés lined the sidewalks. We soon passed through an arch in the old city wall (Québec is the only walled city in North America north of Mexico) then drove a few blocks more to our hotel, Le Manoir d’Auteuil.

The hotel completed our transition into old Québec. Originally built in 1835, it was renovated in art deco style in 1933, and was the place Edith Piaf chose to stay when she visited the city. We practiced our French with the young desk clerk (who would teach us a new phrase each day) while noticing the deco light fixtures and sculptures in the hall and lobby. Scott had found the hotel online, and we felt lucky to be there.

We are both walkers, with Fitbits to keep us on our toes, so we quickly hit the often-steep streets. The city is built on a bluff, with high cliffs on two sides. Ramparts follow the top edge, with their ancient cannons pointed toward the river, surrounding a city that is now filled with 18th century homes, government buildings, restaurants and boutiques. In fact, with its street performers and artists, Québec feels like a hilly version of the French Quarter, but without the funkiness.

The area below the walls and along the river, which is accessed by a succession of staircases, or by a funiculaire (an elevator on tracks), may be the most interesting part of the city. The further we walked away from the more tourist-oriented area at the foot of the stairs, the more edgy and contemporary the art galleries and restaurants became. Yet, for our first night, we chose to dine at Lapin Sauté, a wonderful restaurant in the thick of the bustle on rue du Petit-Champlain. We shared a cassoulet with duck sausage, pork and braised rabbit leg—a hearty introduction to Québecois food.

The next morning, we slept past the hotel breakfast time. It’s a vacation, right? We then took a long walk outside the wall to the office of the Festival d'été de Québec, the summer music festival, to ask about a possible job next year. Along the way, Scott bought a flowered shirt to wear on stage. We were able to see Québec’s “other” side, where people live and work, and it still reminded us of Europe.

For dinner, we treated ourselves to Restaurant Légende, where Chef Frédéric LaPlante uses only Nordic ingredients in his intricately designed small plates. Thus, pickled daisy buds replaced capers in a tomato salad. Along with a scallop ceviche and a dish of bison flank steak with vegetables, three courses made a meal that stimulated thought about how specific flavors can be to a place, with ingredients like sea buckthorn and fir mousse. Our expert young waiter encouraged this discussion as he recommended a Québecois chardonnay that reminded us of the high altitude wines of Italy’s Alto Adige.

For out last day, we walked to the Marché along the waterfront. It’s a permanent farmer’s market, in the European style, with vegetables, fish, meat and snacks available at different stalls. We bought fresh berries, and wished we had access to a kitchen to make use of the beautiful produce. Then, it was on to the Promenade des Gouverneurs, a boardwalk with stairs that follows the cliff just outside the city walls, passing the Citadelle, an old military headquarters that is still in use. At times, it was a steep climb, overlooking the river.

After all that walking—we averaged ten miles each day—we figured it was time for poutine, at least if there ever would be. Poutine might be the Québecois national dish, so we chose the restaurant La Buche, which features all traditional cuisine. The recipe is simple—French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, and often topped with something else (duck confit, sausage, etc.). It looked good when it arrived, but the gravy had been generously infused with maple syrup, and it was too sweet. We both decided this might be one of those dishes, like haggis (the Scottish dish that is boiled in a sheep’s stomach), cracklins (the Louisiana dish of pork skin fried in pork fat, then sprinkled with cayenne) or chapulines (Oaxacan fried grasshopppers) that we only had to try once in life. Who knows—poutine cravings may yet sneak up on us!

When we left Québec the next day, we knew we would miss the friendly people, and especially the poised and confident young staff at the hotel. Québec is not an international city like Montreal or New York City. Rather, it is a place that has its own French culture, of which its citizens are clearly proud. It seems like a place where everything works. If only it wasn't so cold in the wintertime!

NewsScott Billington