Today’s post is 1650 words, 21 photos, an 8 minute read. Enjoy!
After our two-night stay in Montreal (click here if you missed that post), we made the three-hour drive to Quebec City by way of Autoroute 40. This road follows the north side of the St. Lawrence River making the ride very scenic, pleasant, and slower-paced than the more heavily traveled Trans-Canada Highway (Quebec Autoroute 20). We were on our way to join our Road Scholar tour group to learn more about the history and culture of Old Quebec City. More about that in this in three future blogs. But first….
A little about the Province of Quebec
Quebec is one of thirteen provinces and territories in Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north. Quebec is the largest province by area (nearly 600,000 sq. miles) and second to Ontario in population with nearly 9 million people. The official language of Quebec is French. It’s the dominant language of commerce, education, media, and local and provincial government although English is also spoken by most residents. An interesting factoid; any land, buildings, and roads in Quebec under the control of the Canadian Federal Government must also have signs in English.
Here’s the reason why: the French explorer Jacques Cartier landed in what is now Quebec (then New France) in 1534. France’s interest in North America languished for nearly 50 years, until the demand in Europe for beaver pelts gave rise to the fur trade. In the early 1600s, Samuel de Champlain established a permanent trading post along the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City. The fur trade grew, settlers began moving from France to the colony of New France (present day Quebec) to establish businesses and farms. As you may know, that in time, the territory claimed by France extended from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. This lasted until 1763 when the British took over the northern French colonies after winning the Seven Years’ War. Secretly, the French had ceded the lower portion to Spain. France regained this territory and then sold it to the United States in 1803, now known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Prior to the American Revolution, the British were concerned that the French speaking peoples of Quebec might join the fledgling American colonies in their war, thus the British allowed Quebec to keep the French language and cultural norms. And the French-Canadians accepted the British crown’s offer. Fast forward to the 1960s, when the “Quiet Revolution” began in Quebec. Since this time, there have been two referendums in the Province of Quebec to seek independence from Canada. Both failed, the first was 60% against and 40% for, the second 50.6% against and 49.4% for. Who knows what lies ahead. Below is the flag of Quebec.
The economy of Quebec is diverse with an abundance resources such as hydroelectric power (second largest producer in the world), mining (gold, silver, iron, zinc, diamonds, and others), agriculture, business services, information technology, and tourism.
The word Quebec is thought to come from the Algonquin word that means “narrow passage.” That passage refers to the narrowing of the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City. On either side of the river are cliffs that overlook the waterway. Below is an example of a photo taken from Upper Old Town Quebec City looking across the river.
Quebec City is the Capital of the Province of Quebec and its second largest city after Montreal with a greater metro area population of over 800,000 people. As I mentioned earlier, Quebec City was founded by Champlain in 1608, making it one of the oldest cities of European origin in North America. It’s also the only city north of Mexico with the original city walls still intact. We saw some of those walls as we explored the historic district of Old Quebec City.
These ramparts were built to protect the city from marauders including the British in the 1760s (they weren’t successful) and the Americans in 1775 (they weren’t either). Remnants of these walls still stand and the area contained within the walls is designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Lower and Upper Old Town
Old Quebec is divided by terrain. Below the cliffs is Lower Old Quebec, the area closest to the river and harbor. For a few hundred years, this area was home to the peasants and laborers. Today, it’s a bustling area filled with boutique shops, art galleries, restaurants, a couple of museums, and the waterfront. The photo below shows one street in Lower Old Town, Sault-au-Matelot where there are a few high end art galleries, restaurants, and antique shops. It’s easy walking through this European feeling and looking part of town.
Lower Old Town is connected to Upper Old Town by very steep sidewalks and streets. We walked from Lower to Upper a couple of times, arriving at the top sweaty and totally out of breath! That is until we discovered the Old Quebec Funicular that carries passengers between the two Old Towns. For the price of $5.00 CAD per person, the ride 210 feet up the side of the cliff in a few minutes is well worth the price. More on that in a future blog.
Upper Old Town sits on tops of cliffs and was for years home to the military occupiers, first the French then the British. In the last 70 years or so, Upper Old Town has undergone a revival. While old buildings were preserved, new buildings were added to the mix. It’s now home to many of the tourist hotels, department stores, restaurants, shops, as well as many historic sites that I’ll take you to in the next few blogs.
Independent City Discoveries: Quebec City
As I mentioned earlier, we were in Quebec City to participate in the Road Scholar program Independent City Discoveries. This combination of educational lectures and guided tours was augmented by time for independent exploration. It’s a nice why to learn about the culture and go deeper in areas of personal interest. I highly recommend this program, click here to learn more.
We were lodged at the Hotel Manior Victoria, a four-star hotel in Upper Old Town within walking distance of most of the historic sites in Old Quebec City.
The Road Scholar program began with introductions and a very nice dinner at the hotel, followed by a walk to the terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence River. It was a chilly, breezy evening, we were glad for warm jackets, gloves, and ear muffs. A container ship happened to be passing on the river, the area in the foreground is Lower Old Town.
Behind us was the famous landmark and historic hotel Chateau Frontenac. This grand hotel was built in the 1890s and added to in the intervening years. It’s a designated as a National Historic Site of Canada and a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Marie Bussieres, our Road Scholar tour guide, gave a bit of history of the hotel. She mentioned that many heads of state that visited Canada have lodged at Chateau Frontenac including President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Queen Elizabeth. It’s a beautiful landmark both on the outside and inside. Marie told us that the next day we would have lunch in one of the hotel dining rooms. I’m happy to report the food, service, and ambience was excellent. I had the beef cheeks, one of the best meals ever.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed by Quebec City Hall where they have dancing water fountains. It was quite fun to watch the colors change.
Near city hall is the Price Building, an 18-floor art deco skyscraper, the tallest building in Old Quebec City, and one of the oldest skyscrapers in Canada. When it was built in the 1920s, it was very controversial as it was in stark contrast to the Quebec City historic district. Today, the Premier of Quebec has an official residence on the 16th and 17th floors of this building.
The next morning, Marie Legroulx, a local historian gave an hour lecture on the history of Quebec City. She did a remarkable job. Fortunately, I read one of the suggested books prior to the start of the program. That helped but Marie brought that history to life.
Her lecture was followed by a two-hour walking tour of Upper Old Town Quebec. Marie took us to through the streets pointing out historical points of interest and interesting architecture.
One stop was at Laval University, the one-time Catholic seminary founded in the 1660s. It was the first institution of higher learning in Canada. The University became coed in the 1910s and an independent secular institution in 1970. In the 1950s the school ran out of space and moved its main campus outside Old Quebec. Today the old seminary shown below houses the School of Architecture.
Marie took us past City Hall in the daylight. It was built in 1896 on the site of what was once the Jesuit College. It’s also a National Historic Site of Canada and part of the World Heritage Site designation of Old Quebec. Another interesting factoid: the French words “Hotel de ville” translated to the English mean city or town hall.
As we made our walk around Old Quebec City, I snapped a few photos of the city. Note the interesting architecture of the houses. French settlers adhered to what was familiar to them from France. The houses were often one story with a very tall, steep roof to prevent the accumulation of snow. Dormer windows were added to bring in light to the attic.
Our walking tour ended in front of Chateau Frontenac near the monument to the founder of Quebec City, Samuel de Champlain. After a short description of the monument and Champlains accomplishments, our stomachs told us that it was 12:15 PM and lunch was around the corner.
Join me next week for the continuation of our time in Quebec City.
Until then, happy travels!