This is the Life – A historical visit

Last week we flew to what I am now thinking of as my favourite Canadian city. Our first visit to Quebec City was for a conference, perhaps 20 years ago and, while we left with fond memories, they included blowing snow and biting cold in early May.

Whatever gods are in charge of tourism made it up to us, though, because our five days of wandering around under blue skies were a complete delight. Not least among our experiences was a return to the one restaurant we do remember from our previous visit—Aux Anciens Canadiens, which specializes in traditional French Canadien fare. As we sat at our window table I kept looking at our server, a woman of indeterminable age who could be about 60. Each time a customer referred to the menu she had to slip her reading glasses on. The more I watched, the more convinced I was that she was familiar. Finally, I asked if she had worked at the restaurant a long time. 31 years, she replied. I am quite sure she was our server on that first visit, and that thought gave me a smile.

We enjoy walking in cities, and for that alone Quebec is a perfect destination. The upper and lower old sections surround the Chateau Frontenac and connect with the park on the Plains of Abraham, and the bustling Rue Saint-Jean is close by. The port, where cruise ships tie up and the ferry to Levis, the city across the St. Lawrence river departs, is right beside Old Quebec.

If there is any negative at all for travellers, it is that the city is built on a promontory, and the steep rise from the ocean that made it effective to defend from invasions also means there are steep climbs and steps that must be navigated. After a day of walking perhaps 15 kilometres, most of which seemed to be up and down, my left calf developed a charley horse that put me tears for a the first awful seconds. The pain was sudden and intense, but I am pleased to report that the next day gave credence to the “walk it off” theory.

On Thursday morning we took a walking tour with a Chinese-born guide and six other guests. Sunny was true to her name, and she filled us in on the history of the city. I enjoyed the coincidence that some of the huge, fortified wall that encircles the original town is being reconstructed, fantasizing that Quebec City will be prepared should invaders from the south get any ideas. If nothing else, Donald Trump should be impressed that there is a neighbour that respects walls (a newly-wed couple from Vermont on our tour reported that these are embarrassing times for American travelers).

On another day we took a morning bus tour to once again visit the Île d’Orléans, an island in the St. Lawrence that is filled with homes built a century or more ago, and known as the Garden of Quebec for its huge output of produce and products. Most of the farms remain in the ownership of families that date back hundreds of years and many also have stands of sugar maples. We drove past some, which are now quite noticeable for the blue plastic hoses that run from tree to tree. The hoses remain in place year-round and when the sap starts to run the spigots on each tree are simply opened and the thin sap runs through the hoses to the sugar house, to be cooked down and made into syrups, sugars and other products.

On one of our favourite days we walked the kilometer or so from our Airbnb apartment on Grande Allee to the Chateau Frontenac, which features a huge boardwalk overlooking the lower old town and the river. Many, many stairs took us up to the citadel and then onto the Plains of Abraham, where paths run through forests that feel like wilderness. Eventually our route took us to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, an art gallery only a few blocks from our apartment. We took advantage of the timing and got a table to enjoy Sunday brunch, a five-course set menu that was memorable from the opener of a small ham croquette through to the bread pudding dessert, which was topped with a cheese glaze. We agreed that we have never had tastier mushroom soup or a better piece of tuna. The entire experience was magical, and for $26 we had a meal we will long remember.

As we drove away from Quebec City in our rented Jeep Wrangler (an “upgrade” from the Toyota Yaris I had reserved), destination St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, we felt completely thrilled to have returned to this history-filled city, the most European of all Canadian communities. It is a destination not to be missed for all who love this country.

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