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  • Writer's pictureAdam Hlasny

Rediscovering Québec City after 22 years

If you've been reading this blog long enough, you probably remember that one of my very longest travel droughts was Québec City. You may also remember that it's one of my all-time favorite cities. In 2023, my February 2001 visit had become an increasingly distant memory, and since my only summer visit (June 1997) was now over a quarter of a century in the rearview, it was time for the drought to end.


Québec is a city like no other - at least in North America. Even as a middle- and high-schooler, distracted by a million teen preoccupations, I had recognized its historic importance and scenic splendor. What I hadn't done was taken a single photograph of my own. There are, of course, photos of me, taken by a trip chaperone I like to call my dad.

The intrepid crew from the 2001 visit; note the grimaces and watery eyes.

After 7+ hours in the car (including a scenic stop in Colebrook, NH), Alyse and I arrived in QC around 5pm on July 29, 2023 - which also happened to be my birthday. We had decided to splurge on the Hôtel Clarendon, known for its history (open since 1870!) and exquisite location, a 5-minute walk from many of the main historical sights. It turned out to be a great decision, as I would later comment that its location was perhaps the best of any hotel I'd ever stayed in.



After a quick dinner - and a bungled attempt at speaking French* - we were off on foot to explore. I cannot overstate how jaw-droppingly handsome the architecture is in Québec. If it was just the architecture, the city would be desirable enough, but there's more. The culture. The stunning views from high atop cliffs overlooking the vast St. Lawrence. The attention to detail of perfectly-placed blooms and verdant parks.

 

*SIDEBAR: la barrière de la langue - the language barrier

"Don't they speak French up there?" you might be wondering. The answer is yes... and no. The default language is always French, but if you politely request English (or if they can tell by your tepid "bonjour") that you aren't a local, they will switch over. Spoiler alert: they switched over for us every time.

Sadly, my four years of high school French is now so stale as to be virtually useless. As much as I try to be a culturally sensitive traveler, I did not spend nearly enough time brushing up beforehand, which resulted in the humbling and somewhat embarrassing feeling of being a tourist. For better or worse, we were not the only ones in that boat by a long shot…

 

Dufferin Terrace, Quebec City
A rare quiet moment on the terrace

Dufferin Terrace is, in my mind, the pièce de résistance among many qualified candidates. This generously-sized boardwalk invites slow strolling and appreciation of the views - river on one side, incomparable Chateau Frontenac on the other, and some fascinating people watching front and center. Just when we thought this the pinnacle of the experience, we discovered the steps (there is a LOT of climbing in this city) to La Citadelle, a military fortress-turned-park that allows one commanding views of the area.


Going up!

Skies had been cloudy for hours, but brightness made its return, just before sunset. The gauzy late evening light perfectly reflected my mental state - a mixture of blurry nostalgia and mindful clarity brought on by precisely 41 years of life experience.


Quebec City
Our first evening in Québec was full of nostalgia and appreciation for its beauty

We had ascended to a place of relative prominence. Despite our climb, the distant source of light was far higher still, its unfathomable strength displayed, paradoxically, in a profoundly intimate glow. It reflected off the buildings and deep within me. The breeze was surprisingly cool for late July, somehow lending even more gravitas to the moment.


Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, Lower Town
Chateau Frontenac from the Lower Town

This trip, more than others, would be about far more than checking sights off a master list – though, to be fair, we did plenty of that too. Plains of Abraham, site of the 1759 battle in which the British defeated the French and changed the course of North American history? Check. Lower Town, site of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, one of the oldest churches in North America? Check. Ascending to the top of the highest building in the city for stunning aerial views? Check.


Lower Town Quebec City
Another Lower Town scene

But the trip's focal point was the strolling – to the tune of 50,000 steps in 3 full days. Wandering is my favorite way to see any city, but this one is ridiculously walkable. Alleys, boulevards, plazas, scenic stairways. For hours at a time, it felt like stepping into a venerable European fable.


Quebec City, Vieux Quebec, Old Quebec
A 30-second walk from our hotel

The cityscape was a stunning mixture of stone strongholds and inviting green space. Flowers were everywhere, beguiling us from balconies and balustrades. I can’t think of another city where photo ops were so plentiful. After snapping a half dozen I’d put my phone away, only to retrieve it 12 seconds later for another slew of shots.


Quebec City, Parliament
Québec's Parliament Building, which we toured on our last full day

Being so embarrassingly photogenic, QC obviously has a touristy bent, especially in the summer. That said, crowds were seldom so thick as to be unbearable. I sometimes lament the lack of a flight from New England to Québec City, but the extra effort involved in getting here probably keeps even greater throngs away. Between the souvenir shops we absorbed culture, local flavor, and beauty both human-made and natural.


Quebec City, Old Quebec
Just around the corner from our hotel

On another level, this trip was about discovery (being Alyse’s first time here) and rediscovery. As much as the former gets all the credit – heck, they even named a TV channel after it – I became increasingly exuberant about the latter. In some ways, rediscovering a vista, a city, and especially a person, can be even more audaciously rewarding than that first experience.


I kept thinking how strange it is that I was here as a 14- and 18-year old, but not since. Despite the 20+ year gap, certain cityscapes must have imprinted on my malleable youth brain, as familiarity asserted itself regularly. However, years pass, perspectives shift, obstacles arise. Our very beings change as we see the world differently than in the past.


Quebec-Levis ferry
Alyse and me on the ferry from Lévis

Alyse and I hadn’t traveled alone in a decade, and the renewal of our relationship mirrored my experience of revisiting Québec – an incredibly strong foundation dimmed by the intervening years in which other priorities had taken center stage. Just because it's cloudy or raining doesn't mean the sun has disappeared completely. When new panoramas appear down a previously unseen alley, brilliant light bursts forth.


 

Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre
Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré

As much as we loved the city, it was time for a day trip on Monday, July 31. On the agenda was a trifecta of attractions unified geographically more than thematically: Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica, Montmorency Falls, and Ile d'Orléans.




The basilica, despite being about a 30-minute ride northeast, continues Québec City’s architectural magnificence. A relatively new structure dating from 1923, the interior’s intricate ceiling paintings and delicate mosaics complemented its massive solidity perfectly. The site of many a miracle, perhaps the most moving sight was seeing dozens of crutches displayed from individuals who no longer needed them following divine intervention at this phenomenal church.


Montmorency Falls
Going up again!


Our eyes continued to face skyward at Montmorency, a cataract 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) higher (though admittedly much, much narrower) than Niagara. Feeling ambitious, we opted to climb the 487 steps for increasingly dramatic views of the thundering water. I vaguely remember doing this back in ’97, but one thing I hadn’t done is amble across the bridge, above the wild, watery roar. The weather, which had been a bit loony all day, alternated between rain and sun several times. I guess a waterfall is not the worst place to get rained upon!



Ile d'Orleans
Ile d'Orléans scene

Quebec City skyline
Downtown skyline view from the island

The rain had cleared by our third stop of the day, bucolic Ile d’Orléans, a mere few kilometers from Old Québec. We circumnavigated the southern portion of the island, making stops at a chocolatier in Sainte-Pétronille and a local jam shop (that’s my jam!) in Saint-Laurent.


Ile d'Orleans, Tigidou
Island jams

Supporting local farmers slightly farther off the tourist track was the perfect way to end our day of exploration. The island had been about as idyllic as any I’d been on – think Martha’s Vineyard but even more pastoral and laidback. Our day wasn’t quite over though – it was time to return cityward for an authentic Québécois meal and a twilight ramble.


poutine
Poutine

For dinner, we chose La Buche, a restaurant whose décor was quirky to say the least, reminiscent of a local sugar shack and with plentiful brawny items on offer. I settled on tourtière, a pie containing several meats including venison. Alyse decided to try the poutine, fries with gravy and cheese curd, topped with braised beef. Both were exquisite. We returned to our room to digest, then headed back out at dusk.


Our evening stroll begins


Chateau Frontenac, Dufferin Terrace, Quebec City
Chateau Frontenac at twilight

Just when we thought this city couldn’t get any more dapper, the sun went down. Walking amongst the warmly-lit buildings was almost Christmas-like despite it being summertime. Picture talking to a best friend by a fireplace after an already satisfying day together, and then learning something new and dynamic about them for the first time. The feeling of contentment and satisfaction was almost too much to take in.




 

Our last morning in Québec :(



A couple days later our time in Québec was up. I took one last walk around the main areas on our final morning, maple latte from a local coffee shop in hand. Typically when a trip – even a wonderful one – is done, I’m pretty much ready to head back to the comforts of home. This time though, I was legitimately crestfallen. I literally did not want to leave this magical place.


If I had to leave, I wanted to bring it with me, the proverbial snow globe I could shake and find myself in its enchanting environs on demand. As I peered out over the silent, sun-soaked St. Lawrence for the final time, I realized hopefully that if my original memories from 1997 and 2001 endured this long, surely reflections from the 2023 visit would linger for many years as well.



I certainly won’t be waiting 22 more years to visit again. Coming from me, this is saying something; I typically don’t repeat destinations due to the list of new ones being far too long. However, I’d make an exception for Québec, possibly my favorite city ever. After all, with a fresh perspective there will always be something here – and within – to rediscover.

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