Updated: Jun 22, 2022
Québec City is one of my favorite cities in the world (the province isn't half bad either). However, writing this in 2021 I think this statement should include an asterisk. Want to know the dirty truth? I haven't been there in 20 years - more than half my life ago. That's right - I was a senior in high school when I last visited this slice of European enchantement. Oddly enough, that winter visit was my second in four years, the first being a whirlwind 8th grade tour of QC and Montréal in 1997 - my first real trip to Canada.
I've been to the province four times total, a woefully low amount for its proximity to New Hampshire and its world-class culture (French-speaking and otherwise).
June 1997: Four days, split roughly two each in QC and Montréal. As I was 14 years old my memories are relatively few and influenced by an immature mindset. Case in point: two of the experiences I remember most were fine dining (Hard Rock Café) and culture (La Ronde Amusement Park). Cue eye rolls...
February 2001: Never in my life has the word "cold" seemed more inadequate. Read on if you'd like to revel in a biting chill that I can almost feel to this day...
May 2010: An extremely brief Montréal stopover on a return trip from Ottawa to White Plains, NY. While Alyse and I got a tiny flavor of Mont-Royal and the Old City as part of our one-year anniversary trip, the sojourn was measured in hours so barely even counts.
August 2019: My last pre-COVID trip across the border - across any international border, for that matter. It was a trip of firsts for me, including my first time staying overnight in Montréal proper, first solo trip to Canada, and, you could argue, my first proper visit to Québec in general.
The 2019 trip was my chance to park the car and experience Montréal culture at the sidewalk level. I stayed in a tiny Airbnb in the Plateau section of this pulsating city. I injected myself into the throbbing arteries of its pedestrian life, walking 20+ miles in my three days there.
These well-trodden pedestrian-scapes had a electrifying energy - a jubilance, even - that I've never seen stateside. Perhaps it's weather-related. When winters are as brutal as they are here, locals take to the streets with a spirited tenacity from May through September. It's no secret here that life is best lived outdoors, whether it's frisbee with friends, admiring the explosion of street art, or just reveling in the miracle of being alive on a brilliant day. It was absolutely infectious, and I milked every hour of daylight. Strolling through parks and past centuries-old stone buildings. Past gracefully spiraling cast-iron stairways. Enjoying the rich aromas of cuisine from a kaleidoscopic milieu of cafes.
Another sociocultural concept I noticed was an inherent level of trust in the unknown. Let me explain. Despite passing through the big city mélange of cultures and persuasions, I never felt unsafe. People of unimaginably diverse backgrounds mixed together, celebrating their own cultures while respecting those of others. The word trust just kept coming back to me. Instead of a fear of the unfamiliar or the mysterious, everyone just seemed to go with the flow. The cultural cacophony was not only tolerated, it was wholeheartedly embraced. Was this some kind of utopia on earth? Of course not. What I mean is there was a unity among differentness that was palpable. Somehow it just worked. C'était très Montréal.
This was illustrated perfectly at my apartment rental, where I never actually met my phantom host, Catherine. Our one interaction was limited to a monosyllabic pleasantry, a flash of dark hair, and the light slap of her bare feet in the hardwood hallway. There was limited physical separation between my quarters and the rest of her house, which I hadn't been crazy about when I had booked. Trust prevailed.
I attempted to live like a local, eating a smoked meat sandwich in verdant Parc La Fontaine on my first evening, and reveling in the provincial joie de vivre. Of course I hit the tourist circuit too: Mont-Royal, the Old City, Olympic Stadium, St. Joseph's Oratory, etc. I was even able to get a waterborne perspective as I took a boat tour on the bustling St. Lawrence. My explorations were eclectic and mirrored the open, welcoming ethos I had grown to admire over my brief few days.
To anyone who is considering a visit to this exceptional metropolis, my only advice is to lace up some comfortable shoes and become a neighborhood adventurer. To not experience the city from this point of view would be a tragic mistake... in my opinion.
As day 3 dawned I sipped a mocha latte and noshed on a pastry at a hole-in-the-wall, locally-recommended café. Casting my usual shyness aside, I struck up conversation with a couple who happened to be from Philadelphia. They had a whippersnapper in tow, introducing the next generation to this prismatic urban pastiche. We parted ways with a smile, and I made a final neighborhood loop before (gasp!) driving to Olympic Stadium and bidding Montréal adieu.
Hopefully I'll make it back with my family soon. I'm not too worried about it though - somehow it will just work out, the way things usually do.
Québec City is a totally different beast than Montréal, despite its relative proximity less than 3 hours' drive northeast. It's smaller, more manageable, and très français. The classic, devastatingly handsome Château Frontenac graces posters, calendars, and daydreams worldwide, its fortress-like eminence towering over the old city. But as formidable a presence as it is, the grace and allure of Québec City lies at a more human scale: its captivating, stone-ensconced lanes, its classic bistros, its historical splendor. Its European-ness.
I won't say much more since my impressions are two decades out of date, though I'm guessing the elements that leave visitors oohing and aahing haven't changed much in a century or two, let alone my 20-year absence.
For whatever reason a third visit has proven elusive. The frigid memories of February 2001 lasted for several years, but now I'm more than ready to go back. I hope you enjoy my reflection from that trip below (written in 2015). As a photographer I can't wait to visit as an adult for the first time and attempt to capture what I can of its chic, quaint ambience - in the summer of course.
SEEKING WARMTH IN QUEBEC
I brace myself for the moment of impact. Mittens? Check. Ski jacket? Check. Healthy dose of insanity? Check. The snow on a centuries-old cobblestone crunches beneath my feet as I emerge from the heated comfort of the tour bus to brave the elements; I’ve just arrived in Old Québec with a dozen intrepid classmates for the annual Carnaval d’Hiver. While my more rational friends bask in the sun-kissed sand of a Florida beach, I’ve dubiously decided to spend my winter break 200+ miles north of home on an immersion tour of this frigid fortified city.
I’d been enamored with Québec’s history, architecture and culture since taking another class trip four years earlier, ecstatic when this prospect for a return journey presented itself. The difference was that the first trip occurred in June during Québec’s ephemeral summer: resplendent flowers abloom, hooves from horse-drawn carriages clopping, sunset panoramas glistening on the St. Lawrence. Now reflecting on the frosty encore trip 14 years later, I’ve realized how dissimilar it was from my original expectations. Despite my best efforts, the tantalizing comfort of warmth would prove elusive on one of the strangest long weekends of my life.
To say that Québec City is cold in mid-February is akin to saying St. Peter’s is ‘a church in Rome’, a bombastic and ludicrous understatement. Temperatures 10-20 degrees below zero with an agonizing, arctic wind made even the simplest endeavors - such as breathing - downright miserable. Despite ample cold weather gear and valiant efforts to imbibe copious amounts of hot cocoa, each foray out of doors became disagreeable after about 15 seconds; watery eyes froze, my wind-whipped face stung violently, and any non-essential body parts ceased functioning within minutes.
The ultimate confirmation of my status as outsider, however, was observing the reaction of the Québecois to these inhospitable conditions. This hearty lot celebrated -20 as if it were the most pleasant occurrence imaginable. These insouciant cultural attitudes were epitomized by the goofy, cartoonish grin of Bonhomme Carnaval, the snowman mascot of the event. This jovial, rotund fellow whose painted-on expression hadn’t changed in decades seemed to mock my abominable discomfort. I imagined him smugly saying “I’m wearing nothing but hat and scarf and still smiling, so what’s the problem, mon frère?” I had been thrust from the warmth of familiarity into the forbidding polar foreignness of a new culture, unable to gain footing on the iciness that surrounded me.
Another memorable instance of cultural chill was the bizarre failed exchange that occurred on day two. Being an immersion tour, my classmates and I were given a day to explore the city while speaking French with local students. One would think this a brilliant opportunity to make lasting acquaintances from north of the border; after the event, I indeed had a new friend… from New Jersey.
Finding ourselves in a mixed student group with the Québecois, the daring and socially adroit individuals from my contingent attempted some rudimentary French, while the more linguistically timid folks (like me) congregated separately. Garden State native Marissa and I agreed that between being in a foreign land and dealing with foul weather and other teen melodrama, we were already immersed enough, thank you very much. We became fast friends, sharing life details – in English – as we ambled through archaic alleys, piquant wood smoke wafting about. The weekend’s dynamic became even more absurd when a sort of rivalry developed, West Side Story-style, among the New Hampshire and New Jersey factions. I later found myself having to hide the fact that I had been hanging out with a ‘Jersey girl’ from my schoolmates.
After two more days of shivering in the Chateau Frontenac’s shadows, the morning of our departure finally arrived. Knowing that numbness would instantly set in anyway, I made the bold decision to walk out to the bus jacketless. As I defiantly bid adieu to some of the most unforgiving conditions I’d ever experienced, I recall someone announcing the wind chill was -40 that morning. I’d never really warmed up (physically or culturally) over the course of the weekend, but the trip could hardly be considered a failure. In addition to gaining a new friend, I joined the ranks of Québec winter survivors, and would have intriguing subzero stories to share long after reentry. Travel, like life, seldom works out as expected, and the coziness of returning home sometimes proves more satisfying than finding warmth on the journey itself.
Back in New Hampshire the following day, I made my way to school, the listlessly rotating thermometer at the downtown bank reading a balmy 4 degrees. Now snugly in my comfort zone, I contemplated the weekend’s preposterous happenings, and a grin as wide as that of Bonhomme Carnaval crossed my face. Despite the single-digit temperatures, I had never felt warmer.