A walking tour of Old Quebec
Fancy a trip that oozes European charm, but don’t want to make the long haul trek? As a closer to home choice, why not try Quebec City, a place with a distinctly French flavor? Whilst managing to remain a 100 percent full-blooded Canadian destination, it is possible while visiting Quebec to feel as though you are on another continent.
Quebec City overlooks the mighty St Lawrence River, the proximity of the waterway being a main reason for its selection as a settlement by the French over 400 years ago. The river was vital for transport and trading purposes and the very defensible position of the site was another great attraction. Today, much of the ancient ramparts and architecture of Old Quebec City is still standing, making it an attractive spot for those who like their travel destinations to have an interesting history. A vacation to such a beautiful place wouldn’t be complete without comfortable accommodations; finding such a place to return to after your days spent exploring is not difficult as there are a variety of options available.
The history of Quebec City
Before 1608, Quebec City was a small riverside outpost inhabited by indigenous people, but when the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain arrived on the scene, big changes took place. Samuel de Champlain wanted to stake a claim for New France in the New World, so he started colonizing the region with a reach that stretched far and wide. Built on the success of the fur and timber trades, the city was under French rule until 1759 when it was claimed by the British following the Battle of The Plains of Abraham. The English army, under the command of Major General Wolfe, climbed the natural defenses and overcame the French. Regrettably Wolfe was killed during the battle. Naturally, much of the original development of the city had a strong French influence, and today many Quebecois continue to speak French and value their Gallic heritage.
L’Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs)
Get your bearings
Any visit to Quebec City should take in the Old Town, the earliest parts of the city where Samuel de Champlain’s presence can still be felt. With its cobbled streets, shuttered stone buildings, high city walls and ancient exterior staircases, parts of the Old Town sector could be a film set for The Three Musketeers. A soundtrack of accordions definitely wouldn’t feel out of place as one strolls the romantic alleys and walkways. Whether it’s the whiff of freshly baked baguettes or the welcome sound of a full-bodied red splashing into a glass, the sights, smells and sounds of the quarter all have a distinctive French accent.
The Old Town is divided into two areas, Upper Town (Haute Ville) and Lower Town (Basse Ville), which are connected by a series of over 30 stone staircases. These unique stairways with interesting names, such as L’Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs) or, L’Escalier du Cap Blanc, are found all around the Old Town, providing charming links between different areas. The compact nature of the city makes exploration simple, but weary souls, or those with small children, can take the funicular counterweight railway up and down the hill or alternatively to see the sights in comfort and style, a caléche (horse-drawn carriage).
The narrow streets of the Old Town were designed for foot traffic and carts, which makes it ideal walking tour territory. Beware that some of the cobbled streets and staircases can be a challenge, so for greater comfort ditch the high heels for comfortable walking shoes.
The City Gate
First on the list of must-see sights is The Great Wall of Quebec. This is located in the Haute Ville area of the Old City. This impressive structure served as an ancient fortification: it stretches 4.6km around the city and features a wealth of fascinating details for military historians to drool over. Military gates, cannons and loopholes can be seen, as well as the Artillery Park, fortresses and a star shaped Citadel – all marks of the city’s historic strategic importance. Each morning the changing of the guard ceremony at The Citadel features guards dressed in traditional bearskin hats carrying out their ceremonial duties with great aplomb. A walk around the city walls reveals why UNESCO decided to designate Quebec Old Town as a world heritage treasure.
After marveling at The Great Wall of Quebec, head for some of the impressive architectural features on offer around Haute Ville.It’s hard to miss the magnificent Chateau Frontenac, a landmark castle built in the style of a classic French chateaux. Today, it is a giant luxury hotel, and if staying the night is not an option, why not sip a cocktail in the bar and take in the magnificent views over the St Lawrence River. Alternatively, enjoy a stroll on nearby Dufferin Terrace – an attractive boardwalk perfect for people watching. Other places to visit that give a glimpse into the rich history of the city include the handsome Hôtel du Parlement building, The Morrin Center (the city’s first prison) and the Observatoire de la Capitale, which gives spectacular views over the whole region.
Lower Town is slightly quieter than Upper Town but is no less charming. Head for Place Royale where Samuel Champlain first set down and decided to stay. This idyllic square edged by attractive historic buildings and brightened by colorful murals is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by. Museum buffs should look in at the Musée de la Civilization to get a full rundown of Quebec’s history from well before the French arrived.
Musée de la Civilization
Feeding body and soul
If shopping is an interest the best streets to comb in Old Quebec are rue St-Louis, rue St-Jean and rue du Petit Champlain, which all offer a range of retail opportunities and dining options to check out when your energy levels drop. Sourcing a good meal in this European style city is easy and a thriving restaurant and cafe culture ensures that anything from an espresso to haute cuisine can be ordered. Or for a casual do-it yourself lunch the daily Farmers’ Market at The Old Port is a fine source of delicious local produce – why not put together a picnic and head to the Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park or Parc du Bois de Coulonge to eat in pleasant, green surroundings.
So there is the proof – it is entirely possible to visit a Great Wall without flying to China and to get a European fix without leaving the continent. If history, fascinating architecture, cultural delights and heavenly food are what make a good vacation, this Canadian gem on the banks of the St Lawrence River takes some beating!