10 Ways to Explore New France in Old Quebec
By RICH GRANT
It took just 15 minutes of battle in 1759 to end the empire of New France, but it’s taken the 257 ensuing years to create the marvelous concoction that replaced it — the wonderful walled, multi-cultural city of Vieux Quebec.
Old Quebec is the most European-looking town in America, a twisting maze of cobblestone streets lined with colorful umbrellas and outdoor cafes, century-old stone buildings with bright red roofs and overflowing flower boxes, cute little shops selling local cheeses and maple syrup, and everywhere, cannons. There are 4.6 kilometers (2.9 miles) of preserved cannon-studded stone walls circling the old town, which can only be breached by entering through four medieval-looking gates. Once inside, you are in a UNESCO World Heritage Site fairy tale, an 18th century European village with the fantastic castle-like Chateau Frontenauc — the most photographed hotel in the world — hovering over the town center.
In Old Quebec, every conversation begins with “Bonjour!” Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop up the street, waiters carrying huge platters of beer and food shuffle from table to table and everywhere there is color, from parks filled with flower beds to historic flags flapping in the breeze to gaily painted wood shutters and doors. It is a far different place than the nearly abandoned and bombed-out ruin of a smoldering town that the British marched into on Sept. 13, 1759. And yet, much of Quebec is still the same, because in Old Quebec, you are never more than a step or two away from its 400-year-old history.
The battle lasted only 15 minutes, but you can spend days exploring the stories around it and discovering the crazy cultural mix that transformed New France into Old Quebec. Here are 10 places to start.
The Plains of Abraham
Frenchman Jacques Cartier started it all by sailing up the Saint Lawrence River in 1534 and claiming all he saw (basically all of eastern Canada) to be New France. No one seemed impressed. It was 74 years before anyone came again. This time, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence and for defensive purposes, at the river’s narrowest spot, protected by a sheer cliff, he founded Quebec City. For 150 years, the town, surrounded by stone walls, prospered and did well with the fur and lumber trade.
But then Quebec got caught up in the first real world war, a global conflict between France and England that extended to the United States, where it was called the French and Indian War. In 1759, a British fleet arrived at Quebec and lobbed 36,000 heavy cannonballs and 6,000 bombs into the town, destroying much of it and setting the rest on fire.
But still, the French held out. In a last ditch desperate attempt, British General James Wolfe led 4,500 crack troops on a daring night raid, climbing the “unclimbable” cliffs protecting Quebec to gain the open fields outside the city walls. French General Marquis de Montcalm felt he must push the British back into the river, and in a military move still debated, he led 4,500 poorly trained French militia and regulars outside the walls to attack. The British redcoats were arrayed in two lines — the first “thin red line” of history. They held their fire until the French were 40 yards away, then delivered two devastating blasts of musketry. The first French line of troops disintegrated into dead and wounded. The rest were routed, the British took the city and that’s why Queen Elizabeth II is currently on the $20 Canadian bill.
Today, the battlefield is a far cry from blood and smoke and serves as the lungs of Quebec — a huge, beautiful park filled with bike trails, picnic spots, and, of course, cannons. The Plains of Abraham Museum offers “Battles 1759-1760,” a multimedia exhibition where cannon balls appear to come flying at you off the screen and chilling first person accounts tell the story of the tragedy inflicted on soldiers and civilians.
It’s somewhat ironic that the bloodiest battlefield of Quebec is now where the city relaxes with concerts and recreation, but the fighting is not quite over. Plans to re-enact the famous conflict on its 250th anniversary in 2009 were cancelled when people still upset over the outcome threatened to disrupt it.
The best of 1960s and 21st century technologies combine to tell the story of Quebec’s battles at this museum, where a gigantic 60-year-old diorama filled with hundreds of toy soldiers has been updated with modern computer graphics and sound effects. Little ships move, bombs explode and there’s enough battle noise to please anyone in this retelling of the 1759 battle, and the later attack on Quebec in 1775 by the United States, led by (of all people) the famous U.S. traitor, Benedict Arnold. It’s old-school tourism, but it holds your attention, and provides a graphic backstory of why there are so many cannons around town.
The City Walls and Artillery Park
No trip to Quebec is complete without walking the walls, and the best way is with a National Park walking tour. For some reason, all the guides of military sites seem to be young millennial aged girls with charming accents and attitudes. No worries, there was never any fighting on the walls anyway. Our guide began by asking, “How many of you are Americans?” Half the group tentatively raised our hands. “Well, these walls were built to keep you out. And until today, they worked.” The joke is not lost on contemporary U.S. tourists who realize that in the 19th century, we were the enemy and Canadians were forced to go to great lengths building walls to keep us out.
The four kilometers of walls are indeed an incredible feat, comparable to any of the walled cities in Europe. And the tour by the French Canadian guides is delightful and filled with fun. You’ll forget the dates of construction, but will always remember a sweet French accent.
The Citadelle of Quebec
Fed up with threats from the United States, in the 19th century, the now-British Canadians finally finished the Citadelle, an impregnable “fort within a fort” — the “Gibraltar of America” — a place that was so powerful, it was never attacked. Today, the star-shaped Vauban fortifications offer a look at 300 years of military architecture. The highlight of the visit here in summer is the daily changing of the guard. This is an active fort and the Royal 22nd Regiment is still stationed here. The colorful, if a tad long, changing of the guard ceremony involves dozens of troops marching while a regimental band plays and officers yell orders. Some 10 percent of the regiment are women, and women participate in the changing of the guard as officers.
This is the only French regiment in Canada and all orders to it must be given in French. Even Queen Elizabeth must give orders in French. The Queen gave the regiment a Persian goat in 1955 to act as a mascot, and now the third generation of the goat, always named Batisse, is at every changing of the guard ceremony, posing for photos. Don’t tell anyone, but there are actually three goats named Batisse. The guides seem quite jealous of the goats. “Each goat has to work only once every three days and the rest of the time they get to hang out with their girlfriends,” our guide said.
The views from the Citadel over Quebec are the best in the city, but you’ll have to take them fast. This is a working fort and they don’t allow loitering.
The Streets of Old Town
There are two Quebecs, the upper and lower town (the one on top of the cliff and the one below it, which has been greatly increased in modern times with landfill). Both are fantastic. The upper town has a maze of streets, some closed to traffic, and a beautiful wood terrace lined with gardens and cannons overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. With the towering Chateau Frontenac as a beacon, it’s impossible to get lost, so the town is best explored by wandering aimlessly, ducking down this alley or taking that street to poke into shops selling maple syrup, Canadian art, Native American handcrafts, fur hats and wool fashions. Every third building is a colorful café or bar. Rue Saint-Jean is a fun place at night, offering performances by folk singers who do a mixture of songs in French and English. Paillard Bakery is a favorite lunch stop with locals for sandwiches and pizza.
Craft beer has found Quebec with more than 70 breweries in the province creating 400-plus different beers. Maudite, Dieu du Ciel and La Fin du Monde breweries are popular and widely available. Rue Saint-Anne is a pedestrian street filled with local artists, portraitists and caricaturists showing off their works. Rue Saint-Jean is closed to traffic on summer evenings and is lined with trendy cafes.
Place Royal and La Petit Champlain
The lower town is the oldest area of Quebec, especially at Place Royal, the oldest and most unchanged square of the city that looks much like it would have when Benedict Arnold and the U.S. army attacked in 1775, just a few blocks away. It was here in 1608 that Samuel de Champlain started the first permanent settlement in New France. The Place Royal Museum has dioramas and a 3D movie to help you visualize the history that took place here.
A bit livelier, is the Quartier Petit Champlain, the incredibly picturesque portion of the lower town where centuries old stone buildings now house 45 shops and restaurants, much of it terraced on the steep pedestrian path leading to the upper town. There’s an 1879 funicular connecting the upper and lower towns for those that don’t do well on hills, but the climb is not that bad and is lined with shops and restaurants, so you’ll be missing a lot if you don’t walk. The lower town specializes in handicraft boutiques selling jewelry, leather, fur, wool clothing, and decorative arts.
Both towns are home to incredibly talented street buskers who perform on stages sanctioned by the city. From acrobats jumping through fire rings to Broadway quality singers belting out tunes from “Phantom of the Opera,” Quebec is like a three-ring circus, and you are never far from free, top-quality entertainment. Visually, the city is stunning with modern murals, outdoor sculptures and art works blending with 18th century stone architecture and cobblestones. (Don’t even attempt to walk in Quebec in anything but flat, comfortable shoes!)
The Museums of Civilization
There are museums in Quebec covering everything from art to artillery, with historic houses, century old churches, monuments and an aquarium thrown in for good measure. Of interest to seeing how New France became Vieux Quebec are the four partners of the Museums of Civilization, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the various people who have called Quebec home. The modern Museum of Civilization is the city’s most popular museum, with a wide range of changing exhibitions. There are artifacts from Cartier to Champlain, battle dioramas and exhibits on the first peoples of the Americas.
The Musee de l’Amerique Francophone will be a bit unusual to most U.S. visitors, who are probably unfamiliar with the word “francophone,” which means “someone who speaks French, especially in a country where there are two or more languages.”
The museums traces the history of French culture throughout North America, from the Mississippi and New Orleans to the Arcadians in Louisiana to many other little known influences.
Le Monastère des Augustines
For the right person, this could be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Hotel-Dieu de Quebec monastery was built in 1639 by the Augustinian Sisters, who made this the first hospital in America north of Mexico. Today, it is a 65-room boutique hotel, restaurant, museum and holistic wellness center that lets you experience what it was like to stay and live in a monastery. Don’t even ask about Wi-Fi — you can’t even have an electric hairdryer or shaver. The authentic rooms (or “cells” as they were called) are simple, clean and comfortable, with a sink and mirror, historic furniture, shutters and shared bath. The 32 modern rooms have a contemporary look with private baths.
The room is just the beginning of the experience. There are packages that include workshops, lectures, concerts, meals and daily activities all designed to increase spirituality and holistic health in an authentic setting. This is not the place to stay if you’re going to be out closing the bars on Rue Saint Jean, but for those looking for health, introspection and non-domination spirituality, look no further.
If you’re not up to that, guided tours tell the story of the sisters and with 40,000 objects, trace the history of medicine and the first hospital in New France. There’s a bullet extractor used in the famous 1759 battle, and all sorts of horrific implements from early medicine. In keeping with the program, you must be quiet during the tour and walk softly in the historic parts of the building.
The New France Festival, Fêtes de la Nouvelle France
Held each summer, this festival is a must for anyone interested in history. It’s also a hoot. Staged in at the Artillery Park under the walls of the city, this is a massive celebration of all things 17th and 18th century in New France, with more than 400 programs and events, including a parade and fireworks. Hundreds of people dress like 18th century soldiers, traders, common people, nobles, waitresses and craftsmen. You can rent costumes and join the fun, or at the very least, get a tri-corner hat, a tankard of ale and a turkey leg and enjoy the show. Soldiers guard the gates, colonial bands play, Native Americans offer chants and there are craftsmen working their 18th century magic in a long line of booths selling leather goods, jewelry, muskets and pottery.
Unlike so many historical re-enactments, here the costumed crowds are young and sexy, the beer is flowing and there’s any number of delicious local delicacies to nibble on, from lobster rolls to local cheese fondue. There are folk singers, buskers, corn-eating contests, colonial dance programs (even without a costume, you can learn the dances), military marching bands, gun firing demonstrations and special tours of the fortifications.
There’s also a serious side with seminars and programs about the empire of New France. Roving costumed educators will tell you how there were only 60,000 Europeans in New France in 1759 versus two million people in the British colonies to the south. Though New France was overwhelmed in war, the “joie de vivre” of the French people have kept the culture alive, and continue to celebrate it at this colorful festival.
Chateau Frontenac, a Fairmont Hotel
New France didn’t exist during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, but to make up for that, New York architect Bruce Price incorporated architectural styles from both periods into his masterpiece hotel, Chateau Frontenac.
Opened in 1893 (and expanded with five wings and a tower), the 611-room hotel is allegedly the most photographed hostelry in the world. Who could doubt it? It’s almost impossible to take a photo of Quebec without capturing this mystical castle in the center with its many fantastic green copper towers and turrets.
The name comes from Louis de Baude, Count of Frontenac, who was the governor of New France from 1672 to 1698. His coat-of-arms is on the entry arch to the hotel. Under it have passed every celebrity to visit Quebec, from Princess Grace of Monaco and Celine Dion to Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held two of their few World War II meetings in the hotel in August 1943 and September 1944.
Staying at the hotel is the ultimate Quebec experience. There are 2,000 windows, 1.2 kilometers of corridors and it’s not unusual for the hotel to dish out 2,000 gourmet meals a day. While the rooms have modern amenities in keeping with being one of the finest hotels in the world, the public spaces, lobby, 1608 bar and the rows of hotel shops are dripping with atmosphere and history.
And then there are the views. The hotel is built atop Dufferin Terrace, which is where Champlain built Quebec’s first fort in 1620. Today, walking along the wide wood boardwalk terrace lined with cannons, there are sweeping views of the Saint Lawrence River in one direction and of the towering Chateau Frontenac in the other. Had Montcalm won the famous battle in 1759, it’s hard to imagine how Quebec could have turned out any lovelier or more beautiful … or more French.
The Quebec Region Tourism Office has all the information you need.