Her pronunciation was abysmal.
"Get her to say 'Boulevard Rene Levesque Est' again."
She did and we tittered, feeling that much better about our own halting high school French. Driving into town, our GPS gal mauling that most romantic of romance languages, we didn't realize yet how little it mattered.
It's fitting that Quebec City is lavishly festooned with trompe l'oeil murals (so much so, you could design your own scavenger hunt/walking tour, going from one to the next). It looks like France, it even sounds like France — but it's all a delicious illusion. North America's cradle of French civilization, it's a city of Francophones eminently willing to slide from their French-through-a-mouth-of-marbles native tongue to English. At about half the price of a plane ticket to France, it has got culture and history, winding cobbled streets and starry-eyed lovers holding hands, monuments and suave brasseries serving steak frites and wine-addled mussels. But really, you don't need to dust off the phrase book, spend days in transit or even exchange currency. O Canada, indeed.
Now Quebec City is throwing itself a several-month party to celebrate its 400th birthday, offering even more reasons to head north rather than east this summer.
In the beginning
Explorer Samuel de Champlain was tramping along the path of the St. Lawrence River in July 1608, intent on setting up a fur trading post. Seemed like a good spot: pretty, with a natural harbor and a narrowing of the river that would be easy to defend ("Kebek" is an Algonquin word for "where the river narrows"). Indians were soon trading furs for European goods, missionaries nipping at their heels. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Quebec City was the heart of "New France," an enormous rough-and-ready territory populated by fierce men battling fiercer winters. The British wanted in on things, taking control after the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham, then in 1775 the American colonists tried and failed to muscle in.
Wandering the streets for five days in May, stopping here for crepes, there to watch a glassblower swirl and balloon a decanter into existence, I could see why France, England and the United States were all jostling for a piece of the action. It's a beautiful city, rich with civic pride and steeped in history. Easy to navigate, with inexpensive restaurants and hotels, it's on an intimate scale — nearby Montreal's population of more than 3-million dwarfs Quebec City's 622,000.
On our visit, crocuses were just busting out, the last of the dirty gray snow retreating grumpily. If you go this summer, think glorious weather, not too hot. Lucky, because Day One is all walking, exploring the walled city and the heart of Old Quebec. Start at the Place-Royale, where old Champlain erected his first building in 1608. It was the city's financial center in the 1800s, but during the last century it lay derelict and slummy, boutiques and businesses having migrated elsewhere in the city. Just a couple decades ago, using plans from 1700, the city rebuilt sturdy stone mansard-roofed, Norman-style buildings and businesses flocked back.
Old Quebec was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, but it's a living, working place. The sweet Notre Dame des Victoires holds Mass on Sunday. Weekdays shopkeepers and residents huff up the hundreds of stairs to the upper town to get to work or home.
The most iconic structure in the heart of Old Quebec is the vast Chateau Frontenac (now a Fairmont hotel). It casts a broad shadow across the upper town, with 618 rooms and its long Dufferin Terrace on the St. Lawrence River out back. The hotel was built in three stages, the first in 1896, the last in 1986. It's worth following behind one of the slightly hokey costumed tour guides, or at least strolling through the lobby before walking along the terrace. There, street performers busk their hearts out, and the Glissades de la Terrasse, a toboggan ride in winter, becomes a 270-foot water slide in summer.
Before taking the Breakneck Stairs to the lower town (or hopping the Funiculaire du Vieux-Quebec for its panoramic views), stop into the little Musee de l'Amerique Francaise. The oldest museum in Canada, it traces the history of French presence in North America. Hardly a stodgy history lesson, it offers a fun film and interactive doodads. The rest of the afternoon might be pleasantly spent wandering, zipping into craft shops or sipping coffee.
We had the good fortune to stay at Auberge Saint-Antoine, a stunner of a Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel mated with a museum (each modern room boasts artifacts unearthed below during excavations). Even better, we happened into the hotel's restaurant, Panache, where we were awed by its commitment to cooking local. The area is known for game meats like venison, buffalo, moose and caribou; foie gras and artisanal cheeses; and local veggies and black currants grown on the nearby island of Orleans. Our waiter drew us a bare-bones map so we could find his favorite spots on Orleans.
It proved sufficient to guide us, our GPS buddy butchering Orleans' street names the whole way. In the summer there are farms to visit and winery tastings, but in the off season this island twice the size of Manhattan makes for a lovely drive and a nice view back at Quebec City (a view you can also get from a cruise aboard the Louis Jolliet or the ferry that depart from the Old Port).
Facing the island of Orleans, the Montmorency River is the locus of much local pride. Everyone sends you to the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, most adding that its waterfall is one and a half times the height of Niagara Falls. On a pretty day it's a nice outing, the falls explored via a cable car system, bridges, belvederes and trails; its manor house offering a competent buffet. Better, though, to head back into the city and splurge at one of the bastions of regional cuisine, L'Echaude or Initiale.
We opted to rent a car because flights to Montreal were half the price of those to Quebec City. We figured the savings paid for nearly a week's car rental and we were happy to make the pleasant two-hour drive between cities.
You needn't have wheels to enjoy Quebec City, however. Stay at Chateau Frontenac or a boutique hotel like Le Saint-Pierre, and you can nab a breakfast pastry at Le Cochon Dingue (the crazy pig, right?) before walking over to the Musee de la Civilization. The slightly self-congratulatory family-oriented museum has changing exhibits that get at the heart of Quebec City's unique history (many specifically with the 400th birthday in mind). A longer walk, maybe 30 minutes, but well worth it, the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec is spectacular. Its permanent art collection is housed in the city's old jail, and this summer 250 pieces of art from the Louvre was France's (temporary) birthday gift to New France.
From there, a meal at the museum's sophisticated cafe or a long walk in the urban park that is the Plains of Abraham are both solid ideas. The plains' military significance is exhibited by monuments, Martello towers, field guns, interpretation panels and commemorative plaques, but there's also a multimedia exhibit in the Discover Pavilion of Battlefields Park. A day of walking builds up a powerful appetite, so head for portside Le Cafe du Monde for classic French brasserie fare in a sprawling black-and-white checkerboard dining room.
Again, leave your car (and GPS friend) idle. Walk along the Fortifications of Quebec, the last fortified city in North America. Its imposing ramparts were declared a historic monument in 1957; today it houses an interpretation center and offers 90-minute walking tours. For a deeper look at the city's military history, the Musee du Fort, not far from Chateau Frontenac, chronicles the six sieges of Quebec City, with a cool 400-square-foot model of the city.
Governed by hunger, the next stop is the Parliament Building (Hotel du Parlement), constructed between 1877 and 1886 in an imposing "Second Empire" style inset with 22 bronze statues of Quebec City historical figures. Part historic site and part working National Assembly Chamber, the building houses a lovely regional cuisine restaurant called Le Parlementaire. Out front, a new fountain, a 400th birthday gift to the city from Canadian department store magnate Peter Simons, provides a spot for people-watching and a little relaxation.
If you're departing from Quebec City's airport, consider spending your last evening at the swanky Chateau Bonne Entente (close to the airport and just 15 minutes from Old Quebec), a business hotel par excellence with lots of newfangled pampering technology.
Or live your last day like a local. Stroll Avenue Cartier, five or six blocks of boutiques and local fashion designers outside the walls of the old city. Locals are also to be found in the boutiques and cafes along St. Jean.
And for the last afternoon, rent a bike at the farmers market and follow the bicycle path toward the bridge along the recently renovated Boulevard Champlain, another delicious opportunity to see just how spry this quatercentenarian is.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs. tampabay.com/dining.