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Quebec City a mix of history and modern vibes

QUEBEC CITY

In the Old Lower Town of Quebec City, the small Eglise Notre-Dame-Des-Victoires, dating from 1688, serves as a quick introduction to the fierce battle for this territory. A small replica of the Breze, a French ship that brought the Marquis de Tracy and his men across the Atlantic to fight the Iroquois in 1665-66, hangs from the ceiling. It's a supposed lucky charm in a church named for victories over the British. When I visited, vocal music resounded as tourists waited their turn to get photos at the altar.

This port city on the St. Lawrence River echoes with Canadian history as you note the galleries of Inuit art staring down lines of French restaurants on Rue St. Louis.

An enormous hilltop Battlefield Park includes the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 British Gen. James Wolfe defeated the forces of French Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm to determine the fate of Canada and the English colonies. But the battle goes on. In 2011, Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper had suggested renewing the "Royal" prefix to the air force and navy, a move that angered many Quebeckers — who hardly consider themselves English.

The park remains a miraculous public place, with manicured gardens and Martello towers — squat, round fortifications built by the British for defense during the War of 1812 but never needed. Folks jog across these fields, cross-country ski in the winter and picnic on the grassy slopes with views of the river and the walls of the Old Town.

You can walk the nearly 3 miles atop these walls that encircle the Old Town of Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While much of the Old Town was built in the 18th century, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac dominates the waterfront, dating just to 1893 with later additions. It evokes a grand history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance while welcoming the modern invasion — the tourists. Like Moorish Plant Hall in Tampa, the fantasy style of the Frontenac mixes architectural elements. It's neo-chateau a la Loire Valley with turrets and a copper roof. It, too, was built as a hotel during the heyday of railroad expansion and now boasts 618 rooms.

This castle of red brick is wrapped at the base in a 425-meter-long wood-planked skirt — the Terrasse Dufferin. Here tourists take a break from the often steep streets of the city for a flat stroll. The locals take their wedding photos. Others pause along the railing to take in the St. Lawrence and the narrow, cafe-lined streets of Lower Old Town, accessible from a funicular on the terrace or down a winding path. It's a dramatic place, poetic even in a light rain.

I'm a people watcher and don't mind the swarm of tourists or all the buskers in the summer. Along the Terrace Dufferin, tenors booming arias plead to the neglectful passersby. Or at the north tip where the bleachers stand under the gaze of the stone-faced Samuel de Champlain, celebrated father of New France, bleachers fill up with the international crowd willing to fork over Canadian dollars for the more accessible diversions — the fire-eaters, a unicyclist, jump rope tricksters, the jazz trumpeter. A female acrobat from Montreal flirts with a tall blond man in the crowd, her birdlike gentleness evokes for me the expressions of the actor Giulietta Masina, street performer in Fellini's La Strada. The other performers wind around Champlain's back, awaiting their turn, tools of their art packed neatly in rolling trolleys. In the end all will plead with the madames et monseurs that this is how they make their living.

But in this town you don't have to content yourself with street performers. Cirque du Soleil presents a free show at sunset until Sept. 1 in the redeveloped Saint-Roch district not far from the river. This year it's the fourth chapter of Les Chemins Invisibles (or The Invisible Paths), The Pixel Frontier.

A taste of Paris

We wanted to be in the center of Old Quebec and booked an apartment right behind the Frontenac, on the surprisingly serene Rue Mont-Carmel. The Victorian building is owned and operated by Frances McKenzie, who also has the historic B&B La Marquise de Bassano around the corner ( marquisedebassano.com).

Frances was quick to offer shopping and restaurant suggestions. First we wanted a French baguette, recalling the crispy-crusted, light-on the inside Parisian style, and he sent us to Paillard, Cafe-Boulangerie and so much more, 1097 Rue Saint-Jean. The baguette there was crisp on the outside, tasty but chewy on the inside, what we learned was the French Canadian preference. But the shop also offers soup, salads and sandwiches, airy macarons and gelato. You might first stroll down the street to the Maison de la Presse Internationale and pick something to read or spread your lunch on the indoor picnic tables of the bakery and meet your neighbors.

Frances also praised the conjoined restaurants the Conti Caffe and Le Continental, both behind La Frontenac on the Rue St. Louis, sharing kitchen and management. The Conti Caffe is the hipper spot with chic stony walls and a sleek center bar. Entrees there are in the $15 to $30 range, though lunch is cheaper. For dinner try the lamb chops, lean and cooked to pink perfection.

Le Continental is the more formal sibling, spacious, with old world, table-side service. It's a favorite for locals, too. Here the menu runs to rich continental food with an emphasis on filet mignon, for $30-$50. But the lunch menu is remarkable at half the price. Try to leave room for the moka cake.

The very French Le Saint-Amour at 48 Rue Sainte Ursule has three dining rooms, including an indoor garden with a glass ceiling and art nouveau paneling. The presentation here is artful and meticulous and the three-course lunch menu changes daily.

This city is a tourist destination year-round, but the quietest months are November and March. Reputedly the largest winter carnival in the world, a pre-Lenten Bacchanal, is held each year. The Hotel de Glace or Ice Hotel just outside the city provides accommodations in igloo-like rooms with beds of ice. When you're too chilled out, relax in the outdoor sauna.

We were looking for a summer getaway, a pint-sized spot that would evoke Europe. We wanted a break from the Tampa Bay humidity. Quebec City summer days generally range in the 70s in the daytime to the 50s at night, though there is the occasional heat wave.

We wanted to conquer only cuisine and maybe learn some history. As we sat on a bench on the Terrace Dufferin and watched the reflection of that evening sun in the clouds over the St. Lawrence, we realized the town had fulfilled its promise.

Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa.

IF YOU GO

Visiting Quebec City

Getting there

There are a number of carriers that fly to Quebec City out of Tampa International Airport with connections in various places, including Newark and Philadelphia. Prices for May start at about $475 roundtrip.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac (seen on the cover and in the large photo above) overlooking the city start at about $290 a night. For more information, go to fairmont.com/Frontenac or call toll-free 1-866-540-4460. There are many hotels that cost half that. Online travel sites can help with your research, among them tripadvisor.com and quebecregion.com.

Quebec City a mix of history and modern vibes 03/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 1:16pm]

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