I wish I could learn to love the fall. I want to snuggle into a black and red plaid jacket, stroll through a blanket of crimson leaves, while sipping a pumpkin spice latte, with a smile on my face. But I view autumn as the gateway season; in a few short weeks, winter will arrive. To chase away my case of the blues, I took a long walk in Quebec City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fortunately, the city’s beauty and charm washed away my bad attitude. Get ready fall…here I come!
Stalking the Locals
Turning right off Rue des Jardins, I kept several paces back from the trim gentleman in the black beret. He moved quickly, pausing for a second to consider the austere stone facade of Notre-Dame, softened by the morning light. When he ducked into the Café de Buade, I followed, assuming it was his regular breakfast joint and it would be good. It proved to be the right move; the coffee was strong and my oeufs bénédictine were cooked perfectly.
Wondering what to do in Quebec City on an early autumn day? Put away your phone and close the guide book. I wandered its narrow cobbled streets and let the city reveal itself to me in a series of magical snapshots. If you go, turn down a beckoning alley, climb a secret staircase, or stalk an old man in the early morning hours. I arrived in Quebec City feeling blue; the change of seasons from summer to fall puts me in an annual funk. But my early morning walk in Quebec City gave me back my joie de vivre.
A City Divided
Quebec City is multi-layered; think of it as a two-tiered wedding cake. A walk in Quebec City is a workout that will firm up your backside. Thirty-two staircases connect Upper and Lower Towns. The city conducts an annual 19k Staircase Challenge in June if you’re a masochist and feel like climbing 3,000 steps in a day.
I was done after one and felt like cheating. Luckily, Quebec City has a funicular which is a vertical railway. Many hillside cities have them; I’ve ridden ones in Paris, Salzburg, and at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The funicular entrance in Lower Town is accessed through a tiny souvenir shop; a one-way ride takes about a minute, costs $2.50 CAD, and deposits you at the monument to the city’s founder, Samuel de Champlain.
Lower Town – Step Back in Time
Wandering through Lower Town made me feel like I was visiting the France World Showcase in Epcot Center. The streets are cobbled, the storefronts are quaint, and the flowers tumbling from window boxes are perfect. I even heard someone singing “La Vie en Rose” in front of a fountain.
But it feels alive, thanks in part to the herds of tourists who visit each year, including thousands of cruise ship passengers who can step from their ships and head directly to the Place-Royale, Lower Town’s central square. Be prepared. Your walk in Quebec City may slow to a crawl during mid-day hours when the streets are very crowded.
The buildings in Lower Town date back to the early 1600’s when the first Europeans discovered and settled Quebec. It could feel like a stale museum village, but it doesn’t, thanks in large part to several contemporary art installations that lighten the mood.
Tourists, in particular, enjoy posing in front of a large trompe l’oeil mural that traces the 400-year history of the city. It’s a whimsical depiction, mixing kids in hockey jerseys with historical figures and nuns in coifs. There’s a smaller mural on Rue du Petit-Champlain dedicated to the working poor who resided in Lower Town.
Quebec has a reputation for great food, having earned recognition as one of the World’s Best Food Cities by Conde Nast Traveler in 2014. While wandering through Lower Town, though, I wasn’t in the mood for gourmet; I needed something quick and full of sugar. If you do too, grab a sidewalk seat at Queues de Castor and order a beaver tail. It’s a flat oblong pastry that resembles its namesake. They come in several varieties; my favorite was slathered with Nutella. It gave me the fuel I needed to continue my walk in Quebec City.
As you make your way from Lower to Upper Town, weave in and out of Quebec City’s various shops. For inexpensive souvenirs, bring home something maple…syrup, that is. But, if you’re looking for something more unusual, you’re likely to find it in the Quartier Petit Champlain.
Operated as a co-op for the past 30 years, merchants are vetted before they’re offered association membership, providing an assurance of quality. I considered purchasing Amimoc handmade moccasins in all 20 of their production colors but realized I’d need a new suitcase and I’d probably set off alarms going through U.S. Customs.
Need a Drink?
Besides its food, Quebec is known for unique beverages. Grab a spot at an outdoor café for people watching and cradle a bowl of rich hot chocolate. Or try a glass of ice cider; I think it tastes like you’re drinking an alcoholic apple. If you’re really brave (or stupid, depending on your perspective), you can give Caribou a try. This mix of red wine, whisky, and maple syrup keeps some Québécois going during those long winter nights. However, if you have more than one, you might not wake up until spring.
If you ask people where to stay in Quebec City, they are likely to say that there’s only one place. And the one place they mean is the Château Frontenac. Operated by the Fairmont group, the massive copper-roofed castle-like hotel keeps a watchful eye from its perch high atop the city’s cliffs.
I didn’t have the time or the money to indulge in an overnight stay, but I managed to soak up the character and history of this grand hotel by ducking into the 1608 Wine and Cheese Bar. If you go, walk behind the circular bar in the center and take a comfy leather seat by the bowed window to enjoy a fine panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River.
On the Boardwalk
Perhaps my favorite feature of the many I encountered in Quebec City is the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide boardwalk that sweeps in front of the Frontenac and provides strollers with a wonderful place to appreciate the city’s beauty and history. I spent some time sitting in one of the fanciful wrought iron gazebos imported from Paris, picturing the ghosts of the city’s inhabitants who’ve enjoyed this promenade from its construction in 1879 to the present.
Although the British won the famous battle for the city, fought on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, I believe the French ultimately won the war for the soul of Quebec City. I felt it in my core as I watched a delighted crowd enjoy the antics of a street mime. What’s more French than that? My blue mood had lifted and I sensed something else in my core – the aftermath of climbing all of those steps!
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