Weekend: Quebec City

SLIDE SHOW: Quebec City Crossing international borders still gives me a tiny mysterious knot in the pit of my stomach. I’m about to go somewhere else, somewhere foreign, and it’s defined–there’s a literal line around it. Like right now, for instance, driving […]

By Annie Graves

Dec 22 2009

Photo Credit : Couturier, Luc-Antoine

SLIDE SHOW:Quebec City

Crossing international borders still gives me a tiny mysterious knot in the pit of my stomach. I’m about to go somewhere else, somewhere foreign, and it’s defined–there’s a literal line around it. Like right now, for instance, driving into the twilight toward the border, moon turned up like a chalice. Low blue-gray clouds hang on the horizon, imitating mountains. What awaits on the other side?

Any chance to pull out the passport opens the doorway to a world of possibilities. Luckily for New Englanders, we can immerse ourselves in the real deal (centigrade and kilometers) simply by pointing our headlights north and crossing into Canada. Passport in hand, you can experience the full thrill of wondering whether you’ll be allowed in, as you wait at a stop sign that holds you in place with an emphatic Arret. Once admitted, you’re on foreign turf. Beret optional, it’s Europe without the jet lag.

A handful of hours after crossing the border, we arrive in beautiful Quebec City. French signs everywhere, French language all around (95 percent of the population), and French cuisine as far as les yeux can see. Bonjour, mes amis, and mon dieu, it’s cold, but cold as les Québécois do it–elegantly, passionately, casually.

Icebergs glide by in the distance, and fashionable folk dart from cafe to cafe. Wind curls off the frozen St. Lawrence, and the city hugs its river close like a devilishly decadent fur.

It’s a city made for ducking into warm places and emerging triumphant. For lingering over a bowl of cafe au lait and then whizzing around the city’s skating rink on Rue St-Jean at all times of the day or night. For studying a rack of newly arrived spring accessories at Simons, a venerable shopping institution, and then sliding down the funicular from Upper Town (Haute-Ville) to Lower Town (Basse-Ville). Or climbing, mountain-goat-style, back up through winding, stone-bedecked streets.

How do les Québécois do winter so beautifully? It’s a heady, head-clearing, steely-blue cold they summon here, but suffused with a supreme sense of warmth. Everyone absorbs a piece of the cold, so you don’t have to do it alone.

The palpable joie de vivre seems to spring from a certain quality of imagination, the kind that results in artwork everywhere–museums, of course, but also window decorations; huge trompe l’oeil paintings that transform blank walls into unfolding stories; intricate pastry displays; and the literal clothes on people’s backs, exquisitely designed to beat the cold. (Women walk by with small fortunes on their heads–$400 silver-fox helmets that seem to defy gravity and guilt.)

In the depths of winter, it’s a marvelously lit city. Supremely walkable, Upper and Lower towns are a rich mix of 17th- and 18th-century French and British influences. You’ll absorb the full benefits on foot, so check your car at the hotel. The two levels are quite handily connected via a funicular stationed at the edge of the imposing Château Frontenac, the dominant city edifice and a fantasy concoction that, despite what you may think, was never built as anything but a really swell hotel (with a delectable lounge and warming wines).

In winter, a bobsled run at the foot of the Frontenac lets you feel the burn while dragging your sled to the top of the hill, shriek your head off plummeting to the bottom, and reward yourself with a calorie-soaked maple-sugar-on-ice treat. If you haven’t been seduced by the city yet, catch a nearby horse-drawn carriage, pull up the heavy fur blanket, and take a ride through snowy streets past the Provincial Parliament building.

There’s more than enough here to easily fill a weekend–and that’s without breaching the walls to explore the modern parts of the city, or investigating the clubby, restaurant-packed Grande-Allée that leads into Old Quebec. Designed for meandering, here are a few places to start; you’ll want to make your own discoveries.

Wrapped in its 18th-century fortified walls, the main streets of the old Upper Town are chock-full of eating, shopping, and general diversion. Rue St-Louis, with its mix of clever shops, offers a straight shot to the Frontenac past one of the city’s earliest houses, now the restaurant institution Aux Anciens Canadiens. In the shadow of the Frontenac, don’t miss the touristy but completely adorable “Painter’s Alley” (Rue de Tresor), with artists braving the cold to sell some decent and affordable prints. “It’s our little Montmartre,” says one of the locals.

Parallel to St-Louis, bustling Rue St-Jean is a major artery loaded with shops and restaurants, including the lively Pub Saint-Alexandre and the family-oriented Casse-Crêpe Breton, with its range of sweet and savory crepes. Since a number of the boutique hotels in town have in-room CD players, it’s a fun stop at music/bookstore Archambault for the latest releases and an entire section devoted to French Canadian music.

Just off St-Jean on Rue St-Stanislas is culinary gem Le Patriarche, specializing in wild game, where we have a transcendental experience in five courses. The meal unfolds like haiku, each course told in triplicate (sanglier, that’s wild boar, presented in three tiny, exquisitely different versions). Midway through the meal, a palate-cleansing cranberry granita is, thankfully, limited to a thimbleful, because its crunchy tang is addictive.

Finally, tucked away down on Rue Couillard is my favorite Québecois café–Chez Temporel. I stumbled onto this student-soaked haven years ago, with its steamy windows and generous bowls of café au lait. “Any revolution starts at the Temporel,” says our knowledgeable guide, and God knows I’d sign just about any petition if I could sink my teeth into another gooey croissant-and-cheese sandwich.

Gliding down into Lower Town via funicular is like descending into the soul of a little French village. Take a sharp right onto one of the oldest and prettiest streets in North America, Rue du Petit-Champlain, or go straight onto Rue Sous-le-Fort, a postcard-perfect street with several high-end shops. At Atelier la Pomme, dueling designers refashion recycled clothing and get crazy with fur. If your inner Daniel Boone needs a boost, La Chasse-Galerie offers serious knives, fur hats, leather jackets, and slingshots with little carved bear heads.

Just around the corner, Rue Notre-Dame takes you along to Place-Royale, a French-medieval-style stone square (rebuilt from the original plans) lifted straight from central casting. From here, heading north, you can visit the offbeat Museum of Civilization, which on any given day may have an exhibit on, say, space aliens, in addition to a very thorough permanent display on the history of the city.

Or stroll along Rue St-Paul, a densely packed “antiques corridor,” and home to Le Café St-Malo, where a crazed French chef will cook you a “bouillabaisse to remember.” Farther down the street is my favorite upscale T-shirt shop, Le Roquet, where tight-fitting tees feature bandito cats and philosophical carrots.

Heading south again, a midday stop at Le Petit Cochon Dingue lets you check out the Christmas decorations (rolling pins), sample country-style soup with a slice of quiche, and take a gander at the fresh gateaux and tartlettes, including the tempting Québécois specialty, tarte au sucre (sugar pie).

A vertiginous climb back to Upper Town returns us to Rue St-Jean and Le Capitole, our extremely cool hotel, where our room is a cross between Greenwich Village studio apartment and Maine lighthouse. Our two-level nest has gargoyle-like views over the Old City, a three-volume set of Les Misérables for sale in the tiny living room, and a skylight over the bed, smack in the midst of a painted, stormy sky.

In the morning, we’ll take our customary window seat in the dining room, order up a bowl of café au lait, sample some fresh granola scattered over tangy yogurt, and watch the skaters across the street at Place d’Youville. It’s snowing. People walking by look fantastic, bundled in their down, fur, and leather confections. Later we might check out cross-country skiing on the nearby Plains of Abraham or stop into the Frontenac for a warming glass of anything, looking out over the frozen St. Lawrence. Whether we’re inside or out, it feels as though we’ve come in from the cold.