Québec City celebrates a unique 400th birthday in 2008 after Samuel de Champlain first settled in Kebec or in Algonquin, "where the river narrows." Cartier preceded him 100 years earlier, but his settlement failed. We last visited this beautiful city 30 years ago, the former capital of Lower Canada still zealously guarding its historical heritage and atmosphere, but, as befits the first port for permanent settlement, welcoming all newcomers. Indeed, it achieved world recognition in 1985 as the first North American urban centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We favoured a leisurely pre-birthday visit on VIA Rail, riding from St. Catharines with short stops in Toronto and Montreal, intermittently reading and watching road warriors in automobiles, and wondering why people foolishly abandoned the locomotive in favour of road-rage, tailgating and accusatory single digit body language.
We stayed in the heart of the Old Québec City at Auberge Place d'Armes on Sainte-Anne St., a short taxi ride from the striking Gare du Palais train station and opposite a small park from the Chateau Frontenac, an imposing architectural gem that commands the city skyline. The building exudes 200 years of history with Holy Trinity cathedral and its park, museums, boutiques nearby.
The first evening, we walked to the Parliament Buildings to view the Fontaine de Tourny, a gorgeously lit fountain donated by La Maison Simons, a local business since 1812. The seven-metre-high fountain by sculptor Mathurin Moreau won a prize at the Paris Exhibition in 1855 and stood for years in downtown Bordeaux, the old capital's twin city. That's a municipal-business progressive partnership for others to emulate. When we returned to relax and sit on a park bench, we witnessed a dramatic ghost tour, listened to a mellow saxophone player and watched tourists startled by an artist who remained frozen then slowly thawed.
Easily navigable despite steep slopes that twice successfully helped defend the city against American invaders, we walked and walked and took in memorable sights, including the Citadel, (the Governor-General's second residence) Ursuline Convent, Notre Dame Basilica, Museum of Civilization, a ferry ride across the St. Lawrence to Levis and shops with stylish clothing not seen in Ontario. Everywhere, worker bees buzzed as preparations for the celebration were well underway. Along the boardwalk near the Chateau Frontenac, we viewed a narrow archeological dig that will transform into an informative permanent exhibit.
Officials budgeted an astounding $80 million for this historic event, but the party lasts for the year with appropriate thematic events staged along the way to invite visits by all. The Image Mill is an example of spectacle size, an evening media show by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina projected onto a gigantic screen 600 metres across, (the Bunge grain elevators) towering above the north side of the Bassin Louise.
Québec City will host major national and international events: the IIHF World Hockey Championship (May 1-18), the 49th International Eucharistic Congress (June 15-22), the 4th World Youth Congress (August 10-21), and the 12th Summit of French-Speaking Countries (October 17-19) On October 19, Québec-based Cirque du Soleil will appropriately close the celebrations that begin in January. Doubtless, Celine Dion and her minions will appear sometime in between.
Walking along the Plains of Abraham with its enticing gardens and long lawns, I recalled the historic, dramatically short battle of September 13, 1759 when British troops carried the day against Montcalm's French. I witnessed the spot where Wolfe was killed; a wounded Montcalm died later in the city.
After 1763, Québec City was gradually transformed with the arrival of British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish settlers. I spotted many street names and buildings such as St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral attesting to this
influence. The Citadel, an impregnable fortress, dates back to the 1820's and is home to the Royal 22 Regiment, the Van Doos, a corruption of vingt-deux, our Canadian soldiers now engaged in Afghanistan.
In 2008, get thee to Québec City; it's a party not be missed. And take the train to cut your carbon footprint in half.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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