Quebec City a must-see for Francophiles, festival-goers

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QUEBEC CITY -- This is a pretty city, but its prettiness is only the veneer. The real reasons people want to visit the provincial capital of Quebec Province go something like this:

" With a population that is 95% to 97% French and speaks the mother tongue, and with Old World architecture all over the place, its like going to Europe without jetlag. Its a Europe fix for those between big trips or lacking the time and money to deal with the euro. For some, it is a starter kit, a sampler for those who are Europe-travelers-in-waiting.

" Quebecois know how to party!

The big events are 11 days of music at the Quebec City Summer Festival and the five-day La Nouvelle France, celebrating with gusto the time when, between 1608 and 1759, this was a French colony called New France.

In winter, there is the Quebec Celebrates Christmas fest during which the city does just that for a month, followed not long after by the best-known of the lot, the 17-day Winter Carnival, which has as its centerpiece an Ice Palace constructed from 7,000 blocks of ice weighing 90 pounds each.

Locals seem determined to convince the world that it is OK to travel north for something other than skiing -- or maybe they just want to stay warm themselves. They have been successful at the former, and they have their ways of handling the latter (see Local Color, at right).

I attended the 2005 La Nouvelle France festival in early August. The event is characterized by a range of re-enactments that see locals selling goods typical for 17th and 18th century residents.

A large, enclosed traditional market, emphasizing food, is sited in Place de Paris, a square in the part of the Old Towns nearest the St. Lawrence River.

A highlight, in this market and around Old Town areas, is street theater. Visitors may, for example, happen onto actors playing working women in bawdy exchanges and upper-class women gossiping and fretting about trifles.

Daytime activities are capped by lively and very colorful parades through Old Town that feature a popular collection of figures more than 13 feet tall.

The street merchants, street actors, parade participants -- and anybody else who feels like it -- are attired in traditional clothing.

Additional theater, music, storytelling and Native American events are on tap, and an international fireworks competition at nearby Montmorency Falls overlaps with the Nouvelle France event.

Aside from the festivals, seasonal and year-round attractions offer their own compensations.

A river runs through it

For one thing, there are various ways to take to the broad river. Among them -- and very appealing on a sunny summer day -- is the lunch cruise aboard AML Cruises Louis Jolliet, Canadas largest excursion boat.

From the boat, it is clear why Quebec City is where it is: Its the cliff -- topped today by the Chateau Frontenac, a Fairmont hotel -- that drew city founders in search of a defensible position along the St. Lawrence.

The 618-room hotel, built in stages between 1893 and 1993, is sited dramatically to overlook the Lower Old Town and river, and it is the centerpiece in the Upper Old Town that abuts it. Moving between Lower and Upper is good exercise on the roadways or staircases, but there is a funicular, too.

The Chateau Frontenac is a tourist attraction as well as a hotel. Costumed staff portraying specific historical characters conduct tours and tell tales from the hotels history, some of it hyperbole, but all fun. With its over-the-top, castle-like architecture and stunning (and potentially scary) location, it is no wonder this was the setting for a 1952 Alfred Hitchcock movie I Confess.

A pronounced French accent

The Old Towns take visitors back in time for a look at plenty of historical stone houses and churches and a sense of the original French flavor.

French flavor, and it is no small matter, also refers to good food in the restaurants that often occupy the old houses.

On the other hand, this is Canada: English is spoken everywhere -- though sometimes with a French accent.

Ramparts (2.9 miles in length) surround Upper Old Town, making Quebec City the last fortified city north of Mexico. Just outside the walls is the provincial parliament building, called Baby Louvre for very obvious reasons.

The New France look has had a little help, too.

The fine buildings at and near Place Royale were restored recently to 17th and 18th century forms or rebuilt if needed; details even include the ladders on steep rooftops that had been Traditional stone houses were beneficiaries of a major restoration that rescued the area from the depredations of a slum. TW photo by Nadine Godwinused to get to the roof to to facilitate snow removal.

While all of the Lower Old Town looks nearly pristine today, work still goes on.

One effect is to produce new boutique hotels in old spaces. 

My hotel was the 40-room Hotel 71, in a 19th century building and still a work in progress.

During my August trip, guests entered through the adjacent Auberge St. Pierre, which has the same ownership but a different, more rustic style. Hotel 71s lobby area opened in mid-September.

Hotel 71, at least in its rooms, is sleek, contemporary and minimalist -- so minimal the bathroom could have used more places to hang towels. But it was a smart space with huge windows and furnished with a fantastic bed, great for ending each day.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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