ADJUSTING your eyeballs is not an option. Quebec City will look just as stunning when you blink again, disbelieving.
At 406 years of age, and French Canadian to her roots, she is the oldest kid on the block anywhere north of the Rio Grande.
“I often come here just to feel hip,” says Marie-Louise from upstate New York. “And to practise my French.” She waves her walking stick in the air. “This place is more beautiful than any human being you’ll find in its streets. That’s reassuring when you’re my age.”
Don’t be mistaken, Quebec City, despite its longevity, has a youthful sense of humour and wears its heart on its sleeve. It was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer who set up a mission here to bring Jesus to the native tribes. To mark its 400th birthday, France presented it with possibly the world’s most ugly sculpture – a modern cuboid, made of plastic, 30 feet high.
“Oh yeah, we haven’t removed the wrapping yet,” says a guy I meet at breakfast at Château Frontenac, the fairytale castle-hotel which dwarfs the old town. Recently refurbished, it has become the must-stay residence for fat cats.
So, I admit it, I purr with pleasure just to gaze from my bedroom window at the elegant, high-pitched roofscape, the steep, dipping streets, the cobbled alleys, the shining cupolas and church towers. It almost seems Disneyfied, a version of the perfect medieval French redoubt, canons pointed to repel any crazy attacker who fancies his chances of breaching the walls.
The truth, however, is less romantic, less straightforward. Visit Musée du Fort to grasp the fundamentals of the city’s traumatic past. The sound and light show pulls no punches about the centuries of conflict that kept the English and French spilling blood to win the city’s strategic position above the meeting point of two rivers.
English warships bombarded the fort in war after war. The French fired back. The decisive battle was fought in 1759 when General Wolfe took the French by surprise and scaled the heights to claim the citadel.
A few steps along Rue Saint-Louis from my hotel I find a calling card from the conflict – it’s one of the oddest things I have come across in many years of travel. For there, embedded inside the trunk of a silver birch, is a whopping great cannonball. How did it get there?
The theory goes that having been fired at the city’s ramparts by the English, it lodged in soil, until the tree trunk’s gradual growth hauled it into view. But no one is sure. From a passing calèche – the horse and trap beloved by tourists – the driver, noticing my interest, shouts in good English: “The man, they say, who pull it out, he will be Le Roi of Quebec City! So, why you wait?”
Sounds like a retread of the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur. Sounds like a challenge. And yes, I’m game. The horse has a smirk on its face. The passengers are laughing. Me? I’m just working up an appetite, maybe a sweat.
No point in dwelling on the outcome. Sure, I’ve egg on my face, but it won’t be my grub of choice. Quebec City has a Canada-wide reputation for great cuisine. Within its almost intact city walls fine-dining restaurants are numerous. And I’m hungry.
At the top end you’ll fork out around £100 for a tasting plate (drinks come extra). Fast food is plentiful and ubiquitous. At Pub St Patrick on Rue Saint-Jean, you could choose Le Dublin burger or opt for St Patrick’s Platter, giving you chicken wings, overcooked. The only Irish thing in the dish is, perhaps, the Mayo.
Savvy locals eat in the Low Town, outside the walls – the old port is best (cheap food, big helpings, a flavour starburst). I head to the riverside, and to Buffet de L’Antiquaire, the food jewel of Rue Saint-Paul, where they don’t speak much English. The menu, however, is simple and foolproof. Try the ragout, the poutine or the entrecôte, and get there early (6pm) before the queue forms.
Duly fortified, I tackle the steep climb back, hitching a ride on the funicular, and sleep on my chateau bed, which is soft as a cloud. Next morning I tour the old city’s museums. You could spend all your time boning up on the city’s colourful past: first at the Citadel (a massive star-shaped fort); or at the Centre of Interpretation of Urban Life, which gives access to an authentic 18th-century French house; and at the Musée de la Place Royale, there’s a 3D film, Facing Champlain, which confronts the historic life of the French explorer with such pretentiousness that it’s funny. The old guy surely must be spinning.
At some point it hits you, of course: the old town is the real museum and you’re part of the show. You can see it all from the modern Observatory, perched just outside the city walls: an unequalled view of the zig-zag of narrow tilting streets, the domes and spires, the sprawling river and the magnificent hills beyond.
Or, if you’re a wow-seeker, go to the river. The view will leave you breathless, especially when darkness has come and floodlights bathe the ramparts of the magnificent Château Frontenac. Feeling compelled, I do the touristy thing. My camera points then flashes.
Yet photographs are not memories. Memories come with far more senses attached: the laughter of Marie-Louise, the aromas of cooking at Buffet de L’Antiquaire, the sweat expended failing to make a cannonball co-operate, and the fading clip-clop of horses. And embedded in a tree, on Rue Saint-Louis, my dream of a kingdom is biding its time.
• Getting there Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com, 0141-223 7517) offers return flights from London Gatwick to Montreal from £378 pp. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) has returns to Gatwick from Edinburgh (from £68) and Glasgow (from £75).
• VIA Rail (www.viarail.ca/en) travels from Montreal to Quebec City from £42 return.
• Accommodation Château Frontenac (www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec) has double rooms from £113 per night.
• What to do Visit the Fortifications (adults £4.50) and the Citadel (www.lacitadelle.qc.ca adults £10) for a one-hour guided tour. The Musée du Fort (www.museedufort.com, adult £5) and St Andrew’s, Quebec’s first Presbyterian Church (www.standrewsquebec.ca). Admission free.
• For further information go to www.QuebecOriginal.com or call 0800 051 7055 (between 3pm and 10pm daily) for ideas regarding holidays in Quebec.