Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Winter in Quebec City - an atmosphere apart

Snow is falling so fast in Quebec City it seems someone is dumping it into the wind with a giant shovel. When we arrive at our hotel the street outside is clear. Less than two hours later there is a covering of two or three inches.

We scurry round the corner into Rue St Paul, to the nearby Café St Malo. Many early settlers came from the French port of that name but it’s doubtful they had to put up with storms as sudden and violent as this. Would our flight be delayed next day? The hotel receptionist thinks not. It takes more snow than this to disrupt life in French Canada. “This is our winter”, he says, waving away our concerns.

Outside the Café Quebecers pass by in the teeth of the storm, jacket hoods up. Inside it is cosy and crowded. Fish soup is followed by boudin noir (black pudding) and apple. My wife chooses confit de canard. We share a local pudding: sugar pie. The service is slower than you expect in North America. Eating, as in France, is an event.

In the morning it is still snowing. We go to the Fudgerie beneath the old fortress ramparts, to buy delicious chocolate fudge with pimento – a hot shock in the throat. In the Rue Petit Champlain, boutique and restaurant owners are clearing snow from their doorsteps. The sky is slate grey but the narrow street, formerly a place of poverty but now a honeypot for tourists, could hardly look more festive.

This is Quebec’s Basse-Ville, the lower town which lies between the St Laurence River and the city ramparts. A funicular runs from there to the upper town, which is presided over by the pompous Chateau Frontenac a grande dame of a hotel built by the Canadian Pacific railroad company, now operated by Fairmont, where Churchill and Roosevelt met for a conference during the Second World War. Eschewing the railway we climb the staircase, which, in its original, wooden incarnation, became known as the “breakneck steps”.
At the top we head for the Battlefield Park on the Plains of Abraham, where in the late summer of 1759 Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm in a battle which lasted not much more than 30 minutes and effectively decided the future of North America. The two commanders, who could hardly have been more different - the former tall and lean, the latter short and stocky – were both killed. Now they share a monument.

Earlier, we wanted to look at Anse au Foulon, the little bay where the British forces landed, but the steep route up which they dragged their cannon was too icy for cars, and was closed. So we contented ourselves with a view of the St. Lawrence nearby, close to the statue of General de Gaulle, who upset all but French Canadian separatists with his notorious “Vive le Quebec Libre” speech in 1967 in Montreal. It is easy to see why Wolfe was so anxious to take the besieged city before winter. The Plains' undulations are pillowed white. The river is a crazy paving of ice floes moving rapidly on a flood tide. 

The ice would have crushed the wooden warships of the British navy. We duck into the interpretive centre to watch audio visual presentations on pre and post battle history. They are not designed for tourists with long attention spans.

We pick our way gingerly along the walkway high above the river, the snow becoming increasing slushy underfoot. It can be bitterly cold here in winter – take layers of clothing and warm hats – but today the temperature hovers just above freezing. The main purpose of our trip is to go skiing at resorts close to the city. Wintersports are ever present in town, too. Quebecers go sledging and cross country skiing where Wolfe and Montcalm faced off. You can pay to hurtle down a toboggan run erected close to the Chateau Frontenac. There's an open air skating rink, floodlit at night, on the Rue St Jean. During our visit a huge ramp, where snowboarders are performing aerial gymnastics in international competition, looms over a downtown freeway.

But you do not need to be either a skier, snowboarder or be able to stand up on skates to enjoy winter in Quebec. Winter carnival, when there are ice and snow sculptures and all manner of events, is a good time to go.

Though I have visited before, some years ago, the Frenchness of it, and the superb quality of its cooking, still surprises. France, that is, but not as we know it. The nasal dialect makes locals hard to understand, even to a dedicated Francophile. The bavette (skirt) cooked rare at a bistro called Le Hobbit is of elk rather than the beef you might get in France. But there aremoules mariniere with frites to be had all over town and the two different hotels we stay in – the Manoir Victoria and Le Germain – Dominion - have excellent, light croissants and pains au chocolat or breakfast. Both are fine bases for exploration. They are located respectively in the upper town, close to the ramparts and down by the port in the lower town. The former, with recently refurbished rooms, originally opened in 1904 on the site of a Turkish bath which had been built to service guests at an earlier hotel across the street. The latter has been developed in boutique style by converting the former headquarters of Dominion Fish & Fruit Limited and a neighbouring bank.

There's something rewarding about being in a distant city in bad weather. You feel closer to the spirit of the place. It is still snowing when we leave for the airport. In the taxi we reflect that in such conditions, departures from the UK would be heavily disrupted. Our connecting flight is bang on time. We may have fretted about delays, but for Quebecers, this has just been a routine winter's day.