A Little European, A Lot North American

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Travel Writer

‘I’m nervous about going to Europe,” my mother fretted recently, scanning the headlines about possible Al-Qaeda plots in Britain, France and Germany.

She pictured shifty-looking terrorists on the Thames, evildoers in the Eiffel Tower, villains lurking among the vines of the Loire. But I’m convinced that Europe is a big place, as safe as anywhere these days, and am planning trips abroad with no qualms whatsoever. Even if everyone else is not in the mood.

So when people ask me, “Where can I go that’s close to home and still feels foreign enough for a change of pace?” I am tempted to send them to Quebec City.

Not because it’s the Paris of North America; it’s not. Would-be Parises tend to suffer in comparison with the real thing, which makes sense, because Paris is better at being Paris than is Buenos Aires (“the Paris of South America”), or Beirut (“the Paris of the Middle East.”)

Back when the Canadian dollar was a bargain for New Yorkers, I always felt Quebec did itself a disservice by promoting itself as a cut-rate France. With its historic stone architecture and stately chateau rooflines, Quebec City does have a vaguely European feel to it, but there’s a distinctly North American flavor to be savored here.

Perched on a rocky promontory, the city center offers sweeping views over the St. Lawrence River Valley that are too vast, too spacious to be European. The cold, fresh air, pale clear sunshine and grayish tint to the light remind you that you’re in Canada.

Streets here are narrow and quaint, but you never lose the sense that you are surrounded by grand expanses of wilderness — thousands of miles of forests, blazing in color during the glorious fall weather. The St. Lawrence itself is mighty, sprawling and gunmetal gray, American in its breadth and ambition, empty enough to make you feel like a pioneer. This is a feeling you don’t get in Paris.

If Montreal is French Canada’s bustling, modern face, Quebec City is the guardian of its past. Wake up in the city’s historic center, the Old Town, and you indeed feel transported: delicious aromas emanate from traditional patisseries along cobblestoned streets, and French chatter is ubiquitous on the elegant boulevards.

Quebec City is divided — pretty much by elevation above sea level — into Upper and Lower Towns, and the city’s very verticality is what makes it so picturesque. With car traffic restricted in the center, this is a paradise for pedestrians — a delightful mix of craggy steps, winding alleys and cliffside boulevards with Kodak views.

In the Upper Town, handily reachable by cable railway, the historic core is enclosed by fortress walls and capped with the imposing spires of the Chateau Frontenac, Quebec’s premier landmark. Walled castles are something you don’t find on this continent every day, especially not ones with dozens of turrets, fur-tufted doormen and ballrooms that look like Versailles. The chateau is actually a luxury hotel, but non-guests are invited to take a tour.

Just outside the chateau, visitors and locals stroll along a lovely promenade, newly restored for the city’s recent 400th birthday party, which overlooks the autumn maples to the river beyond. Where the St. Lawrence meets the St. Charles River, at the Old Port, lies the entrance to a lovely new park: the Parc Linéaire de la Rivière Saint-Charles, a 25-mile stretch of greenery and trails that opened two years ago just outside the urban bustle.

Quebecois culture is surprisingly little known to Americans, despite its proximity. Learn more at the Museum of French America, which traces the history and culture of this region over its 400-year history, and at the grandly named Museum of Civilization, its sister institution in the same complex.

The latter, whose exhibitions are as wide-ranging and unfocused as its name would suggest, varies wildly depending on what’s on view at the time. This fall, shows highlight both the African influence on world popular music and the tree environment of Canada. Permanent exhibitions on the cultures of Quebec and its local indigenous populations are also absorbing; with their sociological rather than historical focus, they make a nice complement to the MFA.

Quebecois culture is also on view at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, one of Canada’s finest art museums. Some parts of it will seem very familiar to regular museumgoers — the grand pillars, the Impressionist portraits — but others are distinctly local: Canadian artists have a place of pride here, and the collection of Inuit art is probably without peer.

Among the religions that have helped shape Quebec City, Catholicism has had the most influence, but the city’s Jewish community preserves tradition and welcomes visitors. The website www.kosherquebec.com, which offers a kosher catering and delivery service for Jewish visitors, lists hotels within walking distance of the Beth Israel Ohev Sholom Orthodox synagogue, which is near the waterfront. Chabad has a strong presence in Quebec City, and operates a website (www.jquebec.com) with events listings for the Jewish community.

Sephardic Jewish music will be focus of an Oct. 27 concert that is part of the Quebec Festival of Sacred Music, which runs from the 18th through the end of the month. On offer is a variety of music — from French motets to the Spanish Renaissance, from gospel choirs to Turkish love chants at the historic Église de St.-Roch, in the trendy Lower Town neighborhood of the same name.

This year is a first for a concert dedicated to Sephardic sounds; the Belgian ensemble La Roza Enflorese will offer a selection of music that spans time periods and takes its inspiration from momentous events in Jewish history. 

 

Castle turned luxury hotel: The Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City’s premier landmark. Hilary Larson

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