“Bonjour!” I said bouncily to the man working behind the pâtisserie counter, reveling in my opportunity to say one of the handful of French words I know, and ordered three delicate, brightly hued macaroons — coconut, strawberry and salted caramel, s’il vous plaît — in what was probably a very annoying and affected voice.
But I couldn’t help myself. I felt inspired inside the expansive farmers market, surrounded by bags of fresh cheese curds at La Fromagere, paper produce boxes filled with deep-green fiddlehead ferns, bottles of locally made rosé wine, and families chatting in beautiful French.
Was this the perfect picture of a Paris afternoon? Perhaps. But actually, no, it wasn’t. It was the North American version in Quebec City, Quebec.
I was made for European vacations, absolutely born for them. The history, the majesty, the pastry.
The problem? The cash. I don’t have a big enough pocketbook to jet over to Europe for the Grand Tour. Or even the Mediocre Tour.
Instead, my husband, daughter and I embarked on a trip north of the border filled with all things sort-of-French.
Usually costing more than $500, flights to Quebec City from Minneapols-St. Paul aren’t exactly tres inexpensive, but they ring up at least a grand less than most flights to Paris. That kind of savings can buy a lot of croissants — and sense of discovery.
“How does the radio speak French?” our 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, asked, incredulous when she caught a snippet of air time. I gave her an unsatisfying explanation that ended with, “Cool, huh?” Soon, I heard the radio announcer say something I understood amid a stream of incomprehensible French: “Kim Kardashian.” She was marrying Kanye West in Italy that weekend. Now that’s a family with no problem affording the Grand Tour.
Our fun started the moment we passed through the gray stone gates of the Old City and seemed to be suddenly transported to Europe.
A walled Old City
Quebec’s Old City is enclosed from its modern surroundings by large, well-preserved stone fortifications, making it the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. In fact, the Historic District of Old Quebec is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Quebec City owes its place in colonial history to French navigator Samuel de Champlain, who founded the city in 1608 as the capital of New France because of its position on a cliff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River. Before long, fortifications, ramparts and a citadel were built, protecting Quebec City from potential invaders. The city eventually fell to the British during the French and Indian War, and still bears the marks of both French and British colonial architecture hundreds of years later.
As we made our way underneath the fortification’s grand St. John’s Gate, I was reminded of the only other walled city I had visited — York, England. It was the first of many times I would be reminded of Europe on this trip.
Almost everything about Old Quebec feels European, and not simply because its people speak French. The continental ambience comes from its cafes and pâtisseries, its beautifully preserved colonial buildings and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. It comes from the rabbit warren of cobbled streets so long and steep that railings are affixed to the sides of buildings. It comes from the feeling that every stone, every narrow lane, every colorful shutter and awning is steeped in history and character.
After leaving our bags at the ideally located, Art Deco-style Hotel Clarendon, we walked to dinner. We paused for a few minutes along the way to marvel at a towering statue of Samuel de Champlain and the beautiful St. Lawrence River, and then boarded the funicular that connects the Old City’s upper and lower districts. The glass-walled tram slowly lowered us down over the rooftops of the Lower Town and into the Quartier du Petit Champlain, where charming shops and cafes make up the oldest commercial district in North America.
We strolled down the colorful, pedestrian-only Rue du Petit-Champlain, where ferns and flowers dripped from wrought-iron balconies, and settled on Le Lapin Sauté for dinner.
The restaurant’s specialty rabbit dishes and relaxed country-kitchen atmosphere managed to be both sophisticated for adults and welcoming to a 4-year-old. We opted for the rabbit poutine, a rich and delicious riff on Quebec’s favorite snack of french fries, gravy and cheese curds, topped with shredded rabbit. A glass of Quebec-made white wine and the charcuterie plank with smoked duck breast, rabbit rillettes, duck foie gras and carrot-and‑onion confit made for a perfect first evening in Quebec City.
“It’s just like being in Paris,” Pierre, the concierge at our hotel, enthused the next morning when we told him where we dined the night before. He nicknamed Chloe “Smiley Tornado” and gave us perfect directions and advice about wherever we wanted to visit.
Crêpes and a castle
On the day’s agenda: the Marché du Vieux-Port, or Old Port Market, an indoor market where local farmers and artisans sell handmade candies and confections; cheese curds; blueberry juice; Quebec-made wines and maple syrup; foie gras and cured meats; fruits, vegetables and flowers.
We strolled around for hours, skipping a proper lunch and instead eating our way through the different stalls and sampling as much as we could. We shared a bag of cheese curds, which squeaked between our teeth, and Chloe ate local honey right from the comb. I sampled ice wine, hard cider and crisp, cold rosé. We somehow kept finding ourselves back at the stalls selling sweets, first trying the macarons, then the chocolate truffles, then the bars of nougat.
And we somehow also found room in our stomachs the next morning for crêpes (and a bowl-sized mug of café au lait for me) at Casse-Crêpe Breton, a charming crêperie with rustic, garden-party decor and a line of enthusiastic diners that stretched out the door and down the sidewalk.
But it wasn’t simply Quebec City’s food that transported us to Europe. Quebec City has its own castle on a hill, the famous Château Frontenac, a grand hotel that sits on the site of the former residence of the British colonial governors of Lower Canada and Quebec.
Visitors can see the ruins of that lavish colonial life by venturing underground into the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site of Canada. Between 2005 and 2007, archaeologists discovered and excavated the ruins beneath the Dufferin Terrace boardwalk promenade, revealing the remains of cellars, outbuildings and fortifications.
After paying about $4, I ventured underground, down a set of stairs that descended beneath the boardwalk and into the dimly lit, musty-smelling ruins below. It was hard to imagine what the piles of stone and stacks of brick might have looked like when the colonial governors lived here, but interpretive signs guided me past an icehouse, a crumbling hearth and oven, a wide-open courtyard and other ruins.
A glass case of ornate artifacts discovered during the excavation gives a clearer picture of the place’s former grandeur. There was a fine white-and-blue ceramic water jug and basin, filled for the governor each morning by servants; delicate porcelain tea cups and saucers; and a makeup pot inscribed with the name Fargeon, who was Marie Antoinette’s perfumer.
Cathedral marks 350th year
Quebec City even has its own ancient cathedral, complete with the only “holy door” outside of Europe, and one of only seven in the world.
The year 2014 marks the 350th anniversary of the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec, and to celebrate, the church constructed a symbolic holy door, which represents oneness with the church and God. Such doors are traditionally sealed shut and only opened during Jubilee years [a time of grace observed once every 50 years].
The holy door at Notre-Dame de Quebec will remain open until the end of 2014, offering those who visit during the church’s 350th year a rare chance to walk through one.
We passed through the door with little fanfare, and walked inside the grand cathedral, replete with glittering gold ornamentation above the altar, white marble statues and a larger-than-life painted ceiling. I dropped a $2 coin into a collection box and lit a sanctuary candle before making my way around the edges of the church, pausing for a moment behind two elderly women — one in a wheelchair, the other on her knees — praying at the tomb of Saint François de Laval, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked Chloe — who, I was surprised to see, looked sort of spooked. She was ready to get out of this intimidating place. And she was right. It was already time to head home.
Throughout the trip, I had to keep reminding myself we were still in North America, yet some things were fantastically Canadian, like the super-friendly people and, of course, the poutine. And we learned that all we had to do was hop over the border to experience a new, beautiful culture that seems very, very far from home.
Alexandra Pecci is a travel writer based in New Hampshire.