Our first destination: Québec City, an enchanting 400-year old city with strong ties to its French heritage. It’s like traveling to Europe, without having to endure a transatlantic flight.
First Impressions Of Québec City
We stayed across the river and took the ferry from Lévis, crossing the St. Lawrence every morning to explore the historic section of Québec City. We love visiting cities by ferry (we’ve done the same in New Orleans and San Francisco). No traffic, no parking hassles, and arriving by water offers a panoramic introduction to the city.
Leaving the ferry landing and walking into Old Québec City reminded me of many European villages I’ve visited. Cobblestone streets. Historic architecture. Charming cafés. We loved it.
A Three Sentence History Of Québec City
Québec City was established as “New France” in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. One hundred and fifty years later, the British gained control and British Canada was born. And then in 1867, Canada said “Enough!” and declared itself a self-governing country.
Throughout the centuries, Québec City and the province of Québec has held fast to its French roots, no matter who was in power. However, a VERY important distinction is that they consider themselves Québécois, not French. That means they are a unique mix of European and American cultures, and they do not want to lose their identity and be absorbed by the English-speaking majority of Canada.
From what we saw in Québec City, they’ve done a good job of maintaining their cultural uniqueness.
French is the mother tongue of eighty-percent of the population of Québec, it’s the first language people greet you with, and all signage is in French, often without English translations. As you can imagine, it can be a bit confusing. I tried to brush up on my college French before our trip.
I thought I was doing pretty well. But every time I would greet someone with “Bonjour! Comment ça va?” they would launch into a full-blown conversation way beyond my skill level, and I would suddenly be struck mute. At which point they would kindly say, “Ah, madame…do you prefer English?”
Any stories you may have heard about the rudeness of French native speakers to those of us who do not speak French…well, they’re not true. Everyone we met was friendly and seemed to appreciate our efforts to speak their language.
If you’re interacting with anyone in government or tourist industries, they transition easily between French and English. However, many other people (such as your neighbors at the campground) may only speak French. At that point, whatever French you can muster and Charades skills come in handy.
Québec, Québec, Québec?
Québec is a province in Canada, Québec City is the capital of Québec, and Old Québec is the historic part of the city. See? Easy. :-)
Old Québec is one of the oldest European cities in North America and is the only walled city north of Mexico. For these reasons, it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent three days wandering the cobblestone streets, exploring the historic sites, and enjoying the cafés and restaurants. It’s a city made for walking.
You really can’t go wrong here. There’s something interesting to see around every corner.
Delving A Bit Deeper Into Québec History
To learn a bit more about Old Québec, we took part in several short tours offered by Parcs Canada (the Grand Tour Package). For a very reasonable $15 American, we learned more about the history of Québec City, including enjoying a proper afternoon tea with a British officer’s wife, just as it would have occurred during the British occupation of the city.
As we delved deeper into the history of Québec City, we learned how the French were able to retain their language, religion, and customs during the British reign. When Britain began having problems with the colonies in New England (which of course, became the United States), the government wanted to avoid a ripple effect farther north. The Québec Act in 1774 reinstated the peoples’ rights to French civil law, and they were allowed to freely practice Catholicism and to speak their language. The culture and language of Québec have evolved with the many influences they’ve been exposed to. Hence, they are uniquely Québécois (and very proud of it).
The park interpreters are engaging and knowledgeable, and if they’re playing the role of a historical figure, they don’t break character.
The Parliament Building
We made a brief visit to the Parliament Building, the seat of government for the province of Québec. I wish we had taken the time for a guided tour because although we were allowed to wander at will (after going through a security check), we would have gotten more out of our visit with some explanation of what we were seeing.
The bronze sculptures on the facade of the building have a lot of personality for statues. They’re all notable figures in Québec’s history—I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such expressive historic figures.
Click on any photo for a larger image
The Museum of Civilization
Along with meandering the streets of the city, we spent a half-day visiting the Musée de la Civilisation. This unusual museum is not a stuffy stuck-in-the-past collection, but instead explores a variety of cultural topics and contemporary issues. There’s a large exhibit on First Nation’s peoples called ‘This Is Our Story.’ Sadly, Canada was equally as bad as the U.S. in the treatment of the indigenous peoples. To their credit, they don’t shy away from the truth.
The museum also incorporates unique art in its offerings. We browsed a fascinating exhibit called ‘Self Shells,’ where the artist wrapped people in every item of clothing they own and photographed them as living sculptures. Her intention was to explore the identity we create through our clothing, as well as the issue of overconsumption (her subjects were ‘buried under their wardrobes’).
It made me think about all of the clothing we haul with us in our RV. It’s not much compared to what we had when we were living in our home, but still, it’s a lot. My justification is that we have to carry a four-season wardrobe, with clothing for all occasions. Here’s a tip: Roll your clothes. You can fit a lot more on the shelves in your rig, LOL.
Anyway, among hundreds of other items related to Québec culture at the Museum of Civilization, there’s a bronze of Queen Victoria’s head that was blown off of a statue by Québec separatists 40 years ago. Although it appears unlikely that Québec will ever secede from Canada, they don’t align themselves with the British monarchy, and they don’t consider themselves French. Another reminder that they are fiercely Québécois.
The Cuisine Of Québec
As intrigued as we were by the Québécois culture, we were not enthusiastic about poutine, which is one of their best-known traditional dishes. Basically, it’s french fries covered in cheese curds and gravy. Maybe it tastes okay, but it looks awful. Call me shallow, but I like pretty food.
Fortunately for us, we found many restaurants that emphasize ‘Boreal Cuisine.’ That’s the Québec approach to eating local, with chefs creating dishes from seafood and wild game, greens, berries, cheeses, buckwheat, and unusual ingredients like fir tips, sea buckthorn, and wild herbs. Three restaurants in three days, and three fantastic PRETTY lunches: Chez Boulay, Bistro L’Orygine, and Chez Rioux & Pettigrew.
About the RV Park
We stayed at the Québec City KOA, and we were happy with our choice. The staff was friendly, and we liked our site down the hill, away from the busyness of the front entrance. Full hookups, of course, and all of the amenities that you would expect from a KOA (but which we never partake of, except the laundry and internet).
There’s a shuttle from the campground into Québec City, but on the advice of the KOA staff, we drove into Lévi (6 miles) and took the ferry across the St. Lawrence. It was a GREAT way to visit the city…we did it three days in a row.