Exploring the Lived-In History of Old Quebec
Perched high atop the bluffs of the St. Lawrence River sits Old Quebec, a 400-year-old walled city relishing its past, yet connected to today. Ever since Champlain founded the city in 1608 Quebec has been at the center of Canadian history.
When you enter the old city through the main gate, it can be a little off-putting, with flocks of tourists staring ideally at T-shirt shops and tour guides in period dress making it feel like you’ve walked into a tourist trap.
The thing is the more you explore Old Quebec, the more it feels like something different. Once you get past the generic pizza places and Irish pubs that could be anywhere in the world and look a little deeper you find there’s something more.
Whether it’s the stories about how lots of people still live in the old city or how the Rue du Petit Champlain was a run down wreck until it became a home for local artists and craftsman. The stories people tell about the city are when you start to understand that the reason Old Quebec feels different is because, under its cobblestone sidewalks and tourist charm, it’s clear that people have worked hard to preserve their history without having their city get stuck in the past.
What Quebecers have done is create something different than a living history museum, where people dress up and pretend time stopped in better days. What Quebecers have created is a place where history feels comfortable, where it feels lived-in.
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Wandering through Old Quebec is like spending the evening in someone’s lovingly restored home, from the outside it looks a lot like it did a hundred or two-hundred years ago, but when you look closer you see the little things that tell you someone who cares lives there, with a fresh coat of paint here and a shored up stone wall there.
What to do in Old Quebec
When the walls were built they were designed to keep everyone out; they keep everything close by, making it easy to explore on foot and impossible to explore by car. With everything so close together, a rich history, and plenty of tourists, there’s a lot to do no matter what your interests are.
Because of its central role in Canadian history, there are a plethora of historical tours, sites, and museums to visit. On the Plains of Abraham, you can hear about the deciding battle between France and England for control of Canada. At the Citadelle de Quebec, and just about everywhere else, locals and tour guides alike enjoy pointing out that the Citadelle and its large cannons were built to keep the Americans out.
Quebec has embraced street performers in ways few other cities have, with special performance areas, including seating, it’s easy to see a rotating cast of jugglers, mimes, and clowns who are light years ahead of your average street performer.
A must see during the summer is spending an evening at the Old Port seeing Flip FabriQue perform Crépuscule, which is a free Circus Du Solae style show performed nightly throughout the summer that is absolutely worth getting into line early for.
The circus, street performers, and copious amount of public art spread throughout the city breath life into Old Quebec and create a feeling of mystery that something interesting is waiting around the corner.
French Through and Through
As you travel through Quebec, both city and province, it often feels as if you’ve taken an unexpected turn and ended up in France. French is the first and only language for most people in the city, and even though people are helpful and friendly, it’s easy to see how much more comfortable they are speaking French than English.
A part of why there is such a deep cultural connection to France is because after the English had taken over, they struck a deal with the people of Quebec that they could keep their language, customs, and religion. The deal meant it was much easier for the British to hold onto Quebec and that they would have ready allies against any American incursions.
The best part of the city’s relationship to France is that French food abounds. If you don’t have a chance to research specific places ahead of time or like to find dinner on the fly look for places that have duck confit, plates of charcuterie, and wine lists full of French wines.
Many of the restaurants focused on French food are like the city itself, grounded in the past and proud of their French heritage. A benefit of eating at restaurants focused on French cuisine is that they’re often the places making the most interesting regional dishes. A couple of standouts from a recent trip were Café Du Monde and Le Lapin Sauté.
When you visit Old Quebec try and stay for at least a couple of days in the old city, if you can afford it, and take the time to learn a little about the area’s rich history, because learning about the people and the history of Quebec make it easier to understand why Old Quebec has been preserved.
And make sure to set aside some time to wander along the walls at sunset, to stroll along the Terrasse Dufferin, and to sit in a café and people watch, because the real magic of Old Quebec happens when the echoes of the past mingle with the people of today.
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Mark is Umami's publisher