A Quickstep Through Québec

Photography by the authors

Cruise ships, especially small ones like Le Boréal (the name in French means “from the North”), often can deposit their passengers right at a city’s pier. There’s no tedious drive in from a distant airport. You arrive, you’re there. Yet even with the new dedication that cruise lines are giving to increasing the time spent on land, the pace for exploration is not leisurely.

As always, it helps to know what you want to see. Fortunately old towns and ports in ancient cities are compact, made for walkers. Movements in the past were not fast even for residents on horseback although, today, you should take the almost obligatory carriage ride through the upper town of Québec when you’re a tourist. The funicular elevator in the lower town brings you to the top of the cliffs then a walk though the celebrated Chateau Frontenac hotel delivers you to where the carriages are lined up.

The carriage ride company has 11 carriages and 50 horses. The horses work alternative days — they actually have their own trade union!

Your carriage trundling above the un-climbable Heights of Abraham will take you past the 18th century defense escarpments whose ramparts faced the wrong way since attack was never expected from that quarter. In 1759 British soldiers scaled the cliffs to capture the city in a battle that lasted a mere 15 minutes. The French lost Québec in 1759 and the area was under British rule until 1868.

“Did that improve the cuisine?” asks a visitor.

The driver starts to answer then laughs as he realizes his leg is being pulled. He has a lot to tell us including the fact his grandmother had 18 children. “We have cold winters,” he explains.

The carriage goes past statues of famous people from Joan of Arc to Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

“Those first two were great soldiers,” says our driver. “De Gaulle?” he continues and gives a sniff.

De Gaulle, he explains, lost much of his World War II mystique when he came to Québec and insulted what he saw as the attempts of its citizens to speak proper French. The people have a long memory.

The upper town has some of the most beautiful buildings in the city from Laval University to the former convent where the Ursuline Sisters so patiently educated the children in their charge. The monument showing the feather quill pen, the books and the helping hand is for them — and all school teachers.

Invariably your steps lead you back down to the square Place Royale where the bust of the Sun King, Louis XIV, placed here in 1686, stares haughtily at the peasants around him (Your Majesty, they are called “tourists” now!). Here, too, is one of the oldest stone churches in North America, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, built in 1688 and restored twice. The victories claimed by the church’s name were the defeats of British ships by cannon on the cliff tops in 1690 and by shipwreck in 1711.

Shipwrecks were common in the unexplored foggy reaches of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. A scale model of a ship Le Brézé hangs from the ceiling, a gift from the Marquis de Tracy who arrived with his army of soldiers aboard it in 1665. He was lucky: the 54-gun, 900-ton ship was shipwrecked one month before Christmas, the same year.

Our French guide tells us the church was classified a historic monument in 1929.

“This is where my wife and I got married,” he says. “It’s so popular a place for wedding ceremonies couples have to make their reservation a year in advance!” He grins and continues, “That gives the lady plenty of time to cancel her acceptance of the proposal if something better comes up.”

“Like an Englishman?” asks a man with a London accent to boos from some of the group.

Around the corner are the boutique shops of Petit Champlain and, close by, possibly every visitor’s favorite spot in town, the mural La Fresque des Québécois that portrays 15 figures historically important in Québec City’s 400 years of record.

The fresco, completed in 1999, is the work of an artist cooperation from Lyons, France and local artists Hélène Fleury, Marie-Chantal Lachance and Pierre Laforest. The only change in the last decade, the digital age, is the number of tourists who hand over their point-and-shoots to perfect strangers so they can immortalize themselves against the image of Samuel de Champlain and make the famous explorer part of their own family history. Perhaps they don’t know Champlain’s first book, written in 1603 about those living in North America, was called Among the Savages!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for
Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.