When you drive towards the Canadian border in New York state the taste of France starts way before the border when the French radio stations started to pop on the dial. The music changes, the rhythm the same and little by little you exchange the “anglo” competitive atmosphere to a more relaxed and pleasant one. If the stop is Montreal the change is not so drastic, a competitive city that once used to be the financial capital of Canada, a position that was jockeyed recently by Toronto. But if you continue your drive toward the east and you end up in Quebec you may have a tendency to feel like in a “Disneyfied” version of a medieval town. But Quebec is not a concoction of the corporate world but the “real thing”, an old fortified town in North America built by the French and enforced by the Brits somewhere between the 17th to the 19th century. Towers with turrets, tall crenelated stone walls and moats transformed in parks add to a magical charm of this city where life moves to a totally different pace than at several hours drive south.
It was the fourth time I was in Quebec and it always fascinated me, not by comparison with any other European fortified or medieval towns but by its propinquity and its un-expectancy. The narrow streets are in deep contrast with the car owned avenues of North America, the buildings dating from the 17th century are basking in the sun surrounded by like-buildings and not dwarfed by sky scrapers made out of steel and glass, the stores smell of croissants and “pain au chocolat” and are serviced exclusively by people of European descent. The “chocolateries” abound, book stores adorn the street corners, signs hang on top of each store that have flowers in the windows or in front on the side walk. And more than anything people look and are relaxed pacing slowly the medieval looking streets. Did we time travel or by accident we cut through space and are somewhere in the countryside in France? No way, because people are really nice, helpful and smiling….
Quebec is a tourist destination but being so far away few are real foreigners, the core of the travelers being Canadians. You hear them speaking Quebecois, a French that would defy your educated language you learned in school, a sort of “French de Brooklyn” that is considered, according to some studies, the language spoken in France during the 17th century. Beside you may hear some occasional English from the other provinces or from several Americans like us traveling way north. The typical Asians tourist crowds are totally subdued and lost in this French mass of people, kept at bay maybe by the Quebecois protectionist spirit, the language or …the Canadian cold. In spite of the fact that many people are walking the famous and elegant St Laurent promenade in front of Chateau Frontenac you are not feeling stifled by mass tourism like sometimes we feel as locals in New York, a city that became trampled by tourists like no other place in the world and where in order to move at rush hour we prefer to walk on the streets defying the cars instead of the tourists hordes that populate the sidewalks.
Quebec is a city that you hardly want to leave. In spite of being small is always something that catches your attention, all old, all covered in deep history, all caring a story behind that most of the time you don’t have time to read and digest. We walked its intersecting alleys and curved streets winding up and down from the port to the upper town and back, from Frontenac to Ursulines, from the fortifications to Place Royal and Petit Champlain, a quarter purchased by people of various trades to be preserved of the American investment that wanted to build there high-rises and in spite of spending an almost full day we planned to come again the following day for a recap and a croissant.