November 18, 2016
A Québécois Romance
By Joanne sasvari
As the snow falls softly, a gentle hush descends upon streets winding through centuries-old buildings. Everything slows down to a gentle (and given the icy sidewalks, cautious) amble. Warm lights beckon passersby indoors to partake of hearty Québécois fare and a glass of wine, or two, by the fire.
Call this love, Canadian style.
We Canadians tend to flee south in winter, desperate for heat and sunshine and the chance to fling off layers of fleece and Gore-Tex. But perhaps we should embrace the dark, cosy romance of winter instead. There’s no better place to do that than Quebec City, a vibrant urban centre surrounded by vast wilderness, as close to Europe as you can get without leaving the North American continent.
Not so long ago, Quebec was the shy, old-fashioned cousin to hip, urban Montreal. Montreal was jazz and comedy and late-night clubs; it was cosmopolitan and high fashion, a place for gourmet food and multiculturalism. Quebec was smaller and quieter. It was old Quebec, where only French was spoken and the menus were trapped in a rib-sticking mélange of tourtière, French onion soup and tarte au sucre.
But over the last few years, Quebec City has emerged as a city with its own unique style, a distinctive cuisine and adventurous spirit. It is a gracious meeting place of old and new world, a 400-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site on the banks of the St. Lawrence that, in winter, is a twinkling fairy tale come to life.
Here, winter means skating, sleigh rides and celebrating the annual Carnaval de Québec. About a million people descend on the Plains of Abraham each February for the winter carnival’s nightly parades, live entertainment and daring ice canoe races, not to mention its slightly scary snowman mascot, Bonhomme.
Carnaval is a good time, to be sure. But for a more romantic getaway, perhaps it’s best to book your trip in December or January (this year’s Carnaval runs Jan. 27 to Feb. 12), when the streets are filled with a quieter sort of magic.
High above the city, on the edge of the Plains of Abraham where the British defeated the French in 1759, looms the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. Originally one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s castle-like hotels, it is the most famous symbol of the Old City. Just steps away is a funicular that plunges down to the Basse-Ville, the charming and historic Lower Town that surrounds the Old Port.
In 1608, this is where Samuel de Champlain built his original settlement, around what is now Place Royale. Although Champlain soon decamped to the more easily defendable Upper Town on the plateau, this became the economic heart of Old Quebec, a busy port, fur-trading post and, by the late 18th century, Canada’s leading business centre.
A century later, it was a slum, filled with pawnshops, brothels and seedy taverns that catered to lumberjacks and sailors. Then, in the 1960s, a multi-million-dollar project revived the area, turning it into one of Canada’s most charming neighbourhoods.
It is home to the historic Church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, as well as the Old Port, the cruise ship terminal, the year-round public market (Le Marché du Vieux-Port Quebec, which features a terrific Christmas market) and countless stately old bank buildings and warehouses transformed into hotels, galleries, boutiques and restaurants.
Among them is the elegantly modern Laurie Raphaël, beloved local chef Daniel Vézina’s 25-year-old restaurant, whose kitchen was recently taken over by his talented son, Raphaël. Here he explores all the delectable things that come from Quebec’s forests, waters and the farms of nearby Charlevoix and Ile d’Orleans. Think: tender lobster tail with morels and lichen, or venison gravlax with sunchoke purée, or roast piglet with “flavours of undergrowth.”
It’s just a taste of the city’s distinctive gourmet boreal cuisine, so different from the whimsy and international flair of Montreal. This is food that could only be from here: reflective of northerly climes, influenced by France, inspired by Scandinavia, but wholly Canadian in execution.
Still, on a chilly day spent exploring wintry streets, skating on outdoor rinks and browsing through antique stores, a warm fire and cheesy French onion soup may be all you crave. Quebec City has that, too, at bistros like the Café St-Malo and Café du Monde.
After all, this is one city that knows just what it takes to make you fall in love. •
Here’s what you need to know for your wintry escape to Quebec City.
- Getting there: Both Air Canada and WestJet fly into Quebec City.
- Staying there: Le Germain Hotel is a chic boutique hotel housed in a historic building in Quebec City’s Old Port. legermainhotels.com/en/quebec/
- Dining there: Epic gourmet tasting menus of inventive boreal cuisine are on the menu at Laurie Raphaël in the Old Port. laurieraphael.com.
Paillard on Rue Saint-Jean is a must-visit boulangerie-café for your morning croissant, lunchtime pizza and afternoon coffee. paillard.ca.
Le Café du Monde at the cruise ship terminal is the place to go for casual French bistro fare with a view of the St. Lawrence River. lecafedumonde.com
Café St-Malo is a tiny, quirky and romantic bistro in the Basse-Ville known for its hearty, old-school favourites. lecafesaintmalo.com
- For more information: Visit Québec City Tourism at quebecregion.com.