Sunday, November 25, 2012

Quebec City - Last day and trip home.

Our third day day started less promising, grey and with spotting rain.  We visited our favourite breakfast place and determined not to let the weather influence us, we asked to sit outside again. After breakfast we set out for the Ile d’Orleans. Considered the cradle of French civilization in North America, today the island is home to artisans, cidreries and fruit farmers, and was recommended as a particularly picturesque spot to visit by a number of people.  A drive around along the road that runs around the island is 57 km total.

The bridge to the island is the last bridge over the St-Lawrence River before the Atlantic Ocean. (And in fact, it only goes to the island, not to the south shore.) Until the bridge was built in the 1930’s the people of this island depended on a single ferry, and in winter on ice bridges.  The center of the island is still primarily farmland, and the six village centers are all located along the road that runs around the outside edge of the island. The bridge brings you to the north side of the island, near the western tip.

Following the guide we had obtained in the Rigaud tourist office, we circled the island in a counter clockwise fashion and soon entered the village center of Sainte-Petronille. We stopped at Horatio Walker street. The painter lived and worked there, but from the signs it is unclear at which house, or if the house is even still there. We had a beautiful view of the Montmorency Falls and Cap Diamant here, unfortunately it was still grey and windy, and our hoodies were zipped up all the way. Luckily the sun broke through shortly after and the day warmed beautifully after all.

The Montmorency Falls from Sainte-Petronille.

 Cap Diamant, unfortunately so grey that day.

Of course these are perfect subjects for a telephoto lens:

 Houses ranging from 200+ years in age, to less than ten years old line the road. The mixture is pleasantly eclectic and interesting and there are only a very few McMansions. All the properties are kept well, and people are obviously proud to live here. Around villages the road is lined with small stores and art galleries. We could not stop at every single one, but sometimes we were tempted, like when we passed the chocolatrie in Sainte-Petronille.

At Chemin du Quai on the western tip of the island the weather began to clear.

In St-Jean de l’Ile d’Orleans we stopped  at a bakery which also served coffee. Their cinnamon buns and almond croissants were delicious, and we enjoyed them in the sun on the porch. Behind the bakery we found a store which sells jewellery, pottery and embroidery all in a tiny building. We speculated it was once a farmhand’s house. We wandered to the church and cemetery across the street from the bakery and noticed that water's edge behind them is made of strange type of rock. I noticed that again here that all the walls are capped with a sort of roof structure with shakes. I assumed they serve to reduce frost damage but it also gives the walls a tidy rustic finished look.

The pretty boulangerie with the small shop behind it.

Sitting on the porch of the boulangerie, view of the river beyond the church and cemetery
The unusual shore behind the church

A cruise boat went by towards Quebec City at a good clip. Later we will see the boat moored on the quay below our hotel. After some pictures we moved on.

 The boat we will see again later back in town.

In St-Francois de l’Ile d’orleans we again stopped at the modest village center. Next to the church is the oldest surviving schoolhouse in Quebec. There is a small candy store in it now. On the other side of the church is the home of a stone sculptor. The guide states that the artist makes stone mosaic and sculptures in his garden and that the place is open to the public. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, and we didn’t feel like getting a private tour and being under pressure to buy a souvenir, so we skipped it.

Quebec's oldest surviving schoolhouse. Now a candy store. Contradiction? 

By now we reached the eastern end of the island and came to a park with a 5 story tall wooden lookout tower. We climbed to the top and enjoyed the view and the breeze. Once back on the road we began to see glimpses of the Basilica at Ste-Anne de Beaupre on the other shore. We stopped at a roadside farm stand and bought some apples. The smell of the fresh apples was so strong we smelled them in the car parked at least 50 feet away from the stand before we went to buy them.

The north view from 5 stories up at the east end of the island. 

The view almost due east. 

Our next stop was at La Maison Drouin. This house was built in the 1720’s and was in the hands of the original family until 1984 when the last descendant moved out due to old age. The house had at that point no running water or modern heat. There was a single electrical circuit supplying two ceiling bulbs and one electrical outlet. A guided tour of the house was $2. The guide had a fire going in the fireplace and repeated the information she must have to say dozens of time a day with true enthusiasm. 

The house is made of stone and was doubled in size about 100 years after the original construction. Food was kept in an unfinished cellar accessible via a trapdoor, and the house was initially just one room. After it was enlarged it was divided into three rooms on each side, although this was done much later. The attic space was used for storage, being completely uninsulated and too cold in winter and too hot in summer to be used for living or sleeping space. Every floorboard in the house was scarily flexible, and sagged under our feet. The outhouse (now removed) was across the street, to ensure the well was not contaminated. That means this elderly person had to cross the street, day or night, January or July,  just to use the 1984! Wow.

La Maison Drouin - The portion to the left of the chimney is the original house.
Interior of the house.

After we visited this house I began to pick out other houses along the road that date from a similar time and were built the same way. All have been modernised and some have been stunningly renovated and landscaped.

In Ste –Famille de l’Ile d’Orleans we found the only church with three belfries in Quebec. All of them have bells in them. I could not decide if it is unique or overkill. The church stands on the edge of the Parc des ancetres. The park lies around a pretty mansion that is confusingly referred to as both Maison de nos aieux (house of our ancesters) as well as Maison Drouin in the guide. A monument bears the names of the founding people of the island, including the ancestor of someone I work with, who arrived there in the 1650's. Around it is a garden in which descendants of these people have placed stones with plaques on them, honouring their ancestors.

Three belfries...each with bells....overkill or quaint?

Monument to the founding families, the names are on the other side of the base. The house in the background is the "maison de nos aieux".

After we meandered around the pretty garden for a while, we got back in to the car and moved on. The next stop was at Domaine Steinbach, a cidrerie. They offer tasting "tours" and do this in a very interesting way. First you are invited to try their large collection of jams, mustards and relishes, arranged on high bar tables around the outside of the room. Crackers are provided for the tasting. Once you are done with that (and already have a mental list of things you won't leave without) they let you taste the four different ciders they make, and give you little snacks to pair with each taste. They pulled out some of their own duck pate which was to die for. Alas, we could not buy it. The jars need to be refrigerated. Two jars of jam, one relish and one of mustard were purchased, along with two bottles of cider, which are being saved for Christmas.

Domaine Steinback. Orchards not visible from the road.

After this we found our way back to the bridge and back to town, very aware that this is worth doing again at some point and perhaps then stopping at some of the places we skipped.  Our legs were still sore from all the walking the day before.

Once back in Vieux Quebec we drifted back into lower town and in to the atelier of a glass blower, called les trios corbeaux. The artist’s thing seems to be flying piglets, and about 40 are suspended in the front window of the store.  We watched her make one in front of our eyes. I HAD to have one, and so we left with a bright orange pig with green wings.

Lunch had been the pastries at the boulangeire, the apples and the snacks at the cidrerie, so we were looking for an early dinner. We drifted again towards Le Lapin Saute, proving that presentation and marketing works. The menu consists of rabbit, rabbit and more rabbit. We were seated on the side terrace and watched the other tourists go by on the street. I had rabbit lasagna with camembert sauce. I’ll probably never eat anything like that again. When we had finished our early dinner we were rested again and walked around the area some more and eventually back up to upper town.

Le Lapin Saute.

After we walked around some more we went for drinks in the hotel bar. From the terrace we saw that the tour boat we saw earlier in the day was now moored below the hotel.

The same boat from coffee time, now here at cocktail time.

We walked back onto the boardwalk to take some pictures and then follow it west, all the way to the entrance to the Plains of Abraham. By that point it was dark and there was no point in continuing. We turned around and walk back to the hotel. The park would need to wait for a future visit.

The following morning it was departure time and cold enough that we finally asked to be seated inside at the breakfast place. We then packed up our gear and hit the road. We planned to take the Chemin du Roy back on the portion to Montreal instead of the highway. This road was the original road from Quebec City to Montreal, and the current road still largely follows the same route. It is far more picturesque than the highway. To catch the road we had to drive down to lower town. We discover the Maasdam moored at the quay, and immediately illegally parked to be able to photograph it.

Maasdam moored on lower town.

We followed the shore road out of town to the king's road, and pulled out a free guidebook that was left for guests in the hotel room.The road runs alternately close to the water and further away. in small villages we had to follow "chemin du roy" signs through smaller streets and often passed by the oldest houses in those areas. The guide listed all sorts of spots to check out, but there were only a few really worth exploring. One of those was the Moulin Seineurial de Pointe du Lac. The beautifully maintained (or restored) flour mill and museum has a hidden gem behind it. It's mill pond behind the building is set like a scene from a romantic period movie, pretty wooden bannister and all.

The mill at Pointe du Lac

The pretty surprise behind the mill. I expect to see ladies in long dresses with parasols.

We could not linger too long if we wanted to avoid Montreal rush hour, so we missed quite a few stops. But it will probably not be 15 years before we go back to these places!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Quebec City day 2 - exploring the old town

We slept very well. There were no sounds of water, radio or TV to be heard from adjacent rooms, and even the sound of people arriving in the corridor was muffled. This is the most sound-insulated hotel I have ever been in. On the flip side, you have to pay for internet access!  Come on! It's now free even at Tim Hortons in Quebec!

In the morning we noticed that right outside the windows there were many beehives. We faced a different courtyard from the chickens. As we never actually ate in any of the hotel's restaurants this mystery also never got solved.  When we got outside, we noticed the streets had been washed overnight. It seems this is done daily, even though the caleche horses wear fanny bags to catch any pucky.

Next to the hotel we found a place called "le Petit Chateau". Breakfast there became the habit, because it is good, reasonably priced and very convenient. They came by with the coffee pot to refill your cup at just the right frequency.

Our standard breakfast spot taken from the hotel's parking garage. The building in the background is the Quebec Ministry of Finance.

Once breakfast finished, we embarked on a walking exploration of the old town. This whole area was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985, and in front of the Chateau, Frontenac and at the foot of Champlain's monument  is a garden in circle of United Nations flags to mark this.

UNESCO world heritage site garden and marker.

Upper and lower town of Vieux Quebec are separated by the 195' high cliffs of Cap Diamant, and there is a funicular to transport people quickly up and down the cliff. The city also has many pretty staircases. We descended via the stairs at the edge of the cliff, which are apparently nicknamed the breakneck stairs. I found this video on you-tube showing the whole ascent from lower town to upper town. A little odd with the bare feet, but you get to see the Chateau Frontenacat the end.

Below, we came to a small park with a statue of George Etienne Cartier, one of the fathers of confederation. In 1981 some joker had put an empty beer bottle in his outstretched hand. My parents took a picture and used this to tell everyone that there was no graffiti or vandalism, only humour in their soon to be new home country. Yah.....OK then!

Cartier, sans bottle this time. In the background the south shore of the river.

We walked further down the curving road and down more stairs and at the bottom entered the Cartier Petit Champlain area of lower town. This is the heart of what was once the original settlement of Nouvelle France. The very first permanent buildings were built around the market square, Place Royale, which today still contains a bust of Louis XIV. The square also contains the oldest stone church in North America, Notre Dame des Victoires. The small church's windows are etched, and not stained glass.

Lower town with archeological excavations in the foreground.

The mural from the previous picture. Four seasons and four centuries in one painting.

.......and more stairs down.

 Place Royale with Notre Dame des Victoires

The interior of the small church. The model ship Breze was brought to Quebec from France in 1664, on the real Breze. It used to hang in the Notre Dame de Quebec but has hung here since 1955.

The unusual etched windows

We explored the streets. Shops are a mixture of artisan, expensive designer items and semi-tacky souvenirs interspersed with many inviting restaurants. In some places houses are missing and these lots at the bottom of the cliff left bare. We learned from interpretive boards that there is a history of rock slides from the cliff, with regular loss of life up to 1900. Better inspection, support and prevention have avoided loss of life since then, but I guess they are not rebuilding the missing houses. In one empty spot we found a monument to Louis Jolliet, who explored a significant part of this continent in the second half of the 17th century.

Monument to Jolliet on an empty lot.

Adorable restaurant. We'll return to eat there the following day.

Mural next to an empty lot.

After exploring the lower town area thoroughly we wandered to the old port area, where there are less shops, but it is no less picturesque. We admired some art galleries with very original pieces. On one of the corners we found a very original monument with water jets producing a wave effect. This area is called Place de la FAO, and used to be the city's financial district. The monument celebrates 50 years of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Figurehead in the waves.

Definite rumblings began to be heard from our midsections, so we tracked our way back to upper town via a roundabout way and went for lunch at "Au Petit Coin Breton" which had been recommended by a colleague. Anything from plain crepes to one filled with boar ragout is on the menu. I settled on chicken asparagus, the photographer went for the boar. We added a half liter of cider, rested our feet and watched people going by through the window.

After lunch we explored upper town. We walked back to the city walls and discovered Artillery Park close to Port St-Jean. The compound was built to defend the upper town and the buildings are now open to the public with costumed guides explaining things. The place looks somewhat rough and unmaintained compared to the rest of the old town and needs a lot of work, some parts being off limits, but it has lots of potential and looks as if in a few years it will be much nicer.  A black powder firing demonstration took place right at the gate and we stopped to watch.

Artillery park entrance.

Black powder firing demonstration. Loud!

We drifted back into upper town and on a whim stopped at the Cimon art gallery in front of the Notre Dame de Quebec. We spent a few minutes talking to the owner about the collection of paintings (and secretly enjoying the air conditioning). The paintings were well out of our price range, but we liked them very much. (After an exhaustive search, I was not able to find the painter on line.) We spent a few minutes in the cathedral which felt very different from Ste-Anne de Beaupre the previous day. Behind the cathedral is the seminary with a bare but pretty courtyard. The rows of windows remind me of a puzzle I once owned. All windows the same; a very frustrating puzzle!

 Interior Notre Dame de Quebec.

Courtyard of the seminary of Quebec with sad photographer. I have his toy for a moment.

In and amongst all this people just live in houses tucked between the shops and restaurants. Every once in a while a pretty courtyard appears and people live a very idyllic urban lifestyle in restored historic homes. Probably they complain about the wooden windows which are impossible to open in wet weather and the small closets, (and all those tourists) but from my point of view it looks just lovely.

Pretty house on a sloping street.

Despite the fact that we started to feel our feet, we decided to go visit the Citadel. We climbed back on to the city walls and followed them to where they meet the Citadel, enjoying the view and hopping over the gun ports. The walls are more than 10 feet thick, no balancing act at all.

Top of the city walls with gun ports which are easy to hop over at the narrow end.

At the Citadel, you can enter the main gate without paying and see nothing but walls, or pay and get to see the inner area. At the inner gate stood two guards with the usual bear skin hats and red jackets. They were furiously being posed with, like people do everywhere they see these guys. You wonder what they think about all shift long. The next English tour is was starting in 10 minutes. Bonus!

Inside the Citadel walls.

While the spot has always contained a fort of some kind the Citadel was built in about 1820 and like so many of these forts was obsolete within 20 years of being completed, because advancements in warfare made strategy completely different. (We saw the same story in a few places in Maine last year.)

The Citadel is the second home of the Royal 22nd regiment, a regiment created specifically for French speaking soldiers, as they were not enlisting, not being able to understand orders. Tradition dictates that therefore the name of the regiment is only spoken in French, les Vingt-Deux, or, as the rest of Canada (including the English media) calls them, the Van Dooze. Buildings are adorned with the names of major battles that the regiment participated in during World War I and II. They have also been deployed in Korea and most recently Afganistan.

The guard told us a bit of a paradox. First he explained that since the place is an "active" military base, we cannot be allowed to explore on our own, but must have guided tours only. Then he told us that if it were not for the tourists coming, the military would move away, because the fort has been strategically obsolete since 1850. On top of that the area is too small for the 22nd to do the combat training which the modern infantry soldier needs, so they do all that at the Val Cartier base where all of them are actually stationned. So why not turn the place into a full museum, rent out rooms in the buildings for people to spend the night, add coffee shops and restaurants in some of the other buildings, and put the guides in period costumes?  Because the Governor General of Canada also still has a second residence in the fort. (The original residence in fact, before Rideau Hall became the full time residence). Probably that will not be given up so easily.

The most modern cannon in the Citadel's collection is more than 100 years old. It was last practice fired in 1905. The Brittish are very impressed that we have this museum piece, they melted all of theirs down during WW II, needing the metal to make more modern cannons.

The most modern canon. Last fired 1905.

Half of the long building which also houses the GG's residence is the most prestigious officers mess in Canada, and houses also officers quarters. The regiment's commander, a lieutenant colonel must live in this building, despite the fact all his men are at Val Cartier.

Close to the GG's residence is a well decorated with flowers. It is a very "Martha Stewart" like appearance in this otherwise pretty stark military compound. I ask if the entire fort was dependent on it for water. The guide explains that there are five cisterns below the fort which collect rain water via the roofs of the buildings. The well is just pretty. Moving on beyond the well we are treated to the best view in the city.

View of the old town from the Citadel

Past the regimental chapel and the building that houses the book of the remembrance stands a simple wooden cross on a small hill with steps. The area is carefully landscaped and two signs note this is a saluting zone in English and French. The cross is a replica of the one that was erected at Vimy Ridge. The original cross is now buried below the Je Me Souviens flower bed. The battle at Vimy Ridge is extremely significant in Canadian military history. Of course we had to ask the tour guide if he has seen the Memorial in France, and he had not, but apparently at least one person in each tour group tells him he should see it.

Replica of the Vimy Ridge cross.

When we left we noticed that they are renovating some of the space next to the entrance and are about to install a new museum. It will open in 2014. The layout looks like it will be worth seeing. We left by the main gate and were able to get a picture of the gate with a guard, this time not swarmed by tourists.

He can relax for a moment, no one is trying to get him to react.

We walked back to the area in front of the hotel. Across from it is Musee du Fort. The place was highlighted in the tourist brochures from the hotel room, and was supposed to contain spectacular dioramas. It was now about 16:15 and we hesitated. "Let's see what it costs" we thought. The entire museum consists of a stairwell with a timeline and some artifacts on its walls, a bookshop with more panels and exhibits, and a small theater where a sound and light show takes place depicting the various sieges of the city. The cost was $8.00 per adult, and the last 30 minute show was to start in 15 minutes. We bought tickets.

Tiny but excellent!

The attendant answered questions of some other people waiting, and slowly we began to realize that this guy, who I guessed to be 22 at best, is incredibly knowledgeable about the city's military history and the context of the times. After we observe him calmly endure some of the most asinine questions from the one of the other people, the photographer engages him in conversation about some of the books on offer. He clearly has read all the books there, many of which are academic works, and not tourist oriented at all. He has an informed, factual and politically neutral opinion of the works. I hope he truly enjoys his job because his brain and his potential is sorely wasted behind that cash.

In the theatre we found three rows of seats facing an incredibly detailed model of the city and the immediate area as it was 200 years ago. The scale is probably 1/125th, each house being about an inch in size. The attendant quickly oriented us and starts the show. On the sky above the city they projected pictures and texts while a narrator explained the events Below it, this static model came to life with clever spotlighting, tiny led lights in the model, and drawing of your attention to various points (and away from others). I still wonder how they made the tiny cannons smoke when they fired, and how they managed to make the tiny church look burnt down and ruined after the third siege. Upon leaving I approached the model, and could not see any of the small lights used in the show or any damage on the buildings. Well worth the 8 bucks.

They make the tiny cannons smoke and burn some houses.....somehow.

After freshening up and dropping leaflets and souvenirs (book) purchased at the hotel we set out to go for dinner at "Aux Anciens Canadiens", which specializes in traditional Quebec food with a gourmet twist. The restaurant has been there since 1966, quite an achievement. Our neighbour also recommended it to us before we left. I had looked it up on the net and we also looked at the menu posted outside. We chose to go with the table d'hote which afforded us plenty of choice and added wine selection if desired. (Yes please!) Service was excellent and the food was to die for. Once we had our appetizer they seated another couple not too far away. They had not looked at the menu and were dismayed to find that many of the dishes contain game meats. They had a hard time putting a meal together, but the server remained impeccably patient.

Aux Anciens Canadiens

After exiting the restaurant we walked around upper town in dusk, and discovered some pretty corners we had not seen before.  Eventually we ended up back in front of the hotel watching a busker in a circle of spectators. He was playing with torches and wanted to ensure that kids do not try it themselves, but could not resist a little sarcasm. "You should never play with fire or with gasoline" he said. "I am a professional, that's why I work in the street". We walked the promenade again and this time locate landmarks below in lower town which we saw earlier in the day.

Kids, don't try this at home!

The Chateau at night.