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Quebec City Puts on a Royal Welcome

European charm is fused with a pioneering spirit. And the food-- c'est tres bon.

July 07, 2002|TONY GRANT LECHTMAN

QUEBEC CITY — With an almost jarring perkiness, the French-speaking waiter, a linen napkin draped elegantly over one arm, thrust a plate of pungent escargots past my face as his colleague dashed for the piano and broke out into a giddy, heavily accented rendition of "Jailhouse Rock."

It was just another night at the Cafe du Monde in Quebec City, capital of its namesake Canadian province and a place where the king lives on--in more ways than one.

With its beautiful, clean tangle of cobblestone streets, graceful graystone churches nestled within thick ramparts, and nonstop parade of cozy cafes and bistros, the only walled city in North America feels like France. But far from an imitation, Quebec is a synthesis, in the best sense, of old and new--even more so than Montreal, its sassier sister to the southwest. Quebec has managed to preserve Old Country charms and the pioneering spirit that was, and still is, vital to the success of forging a new land.

Unlike the innumerable fortress towns of Europe, which trade chiefly on their colorful pasts, Quebec exudes an energy that is unmistakably North American. Add this vitality to the traditional Gallic joie de vivre, plus the sheer drama of the city's location on a rocky headland called Cap-Diamant, above the mighty 760-mile St. Lawrence River, and you begin to see that Quebec really is different.

After two visits here to research a guidebook, I was convinced that as pregnant with the past as the place is, it is also mad about the present, and that leads to an array of surprises, from outdoor festivals in the middle of winter to hip hotels and restaurants in ancient settings--not to mention waiters' smiles as wide as any you'll find in Southern California. Unlike many other places in the world right now, being an American here is an asset: Sure, they speak French, but with a familiar inflection, and when the locals switch to English, it's usually without a second thought. Plus, the exchange rate results in savings of about 35% before taxes.

For travelers, the history surrounding Canada's oldest city is its main allure. Quebec's French origins date from 1608, when Samuel de Champlain established a fur-trading post near what is now Place-Royale, at the base of the 300-foot cliffs of Cap-Diamant, which divide Old Quebec into upper and lower sections. Despite regular attacks by the British and Native Americans, the capital of New France flourished. And unlike the American colonists to the south, Quebecers' allegiance to the French crown was unflinching: Even today, a statue of Louis XIV stands in Place-Royale. But in 1759 the British laid siege to the lower town with 40,000 cannonballs and 10,000 more firebombs, and before long New France as a political entity was finished.

Despite a decisive British victory on the Plains of Abraham--an event replayed almost religiously in museums and multimedia shows throughout town--Quebec's cultural and linguistic ties to France never foundered. As stark proof, 95% of the city's 600,000 residents speak French as a first language, with a robust accent that sounds to the French like American English does to the British. License plates in Quebec province read "Je me souviens"--"I remember." And they do: The fierce loyalty to collective memory led to a referendum in 1995 that would have spelled the secession of Quebec from the rest of Canada had it passed. It was narrowly defeated. For the time being, the issue of separatism has receded from the forefront of public discussion.

The best place to get a perspective on the 3,475-square-mile city is from Dufferin Terrace. This broad wood walkway straddles the cliff above the St. Lawrence River and is at base level with the castle-like, 618-room Chateau Frontenac, rail magnate William Van Horne's hotel and unofficial symbol of Quebec since its construction in 1893. Today it is owned by the Fairmont chain. From here the panorama over the river is nothing short of stunning, and it's easy to see how Quebec's strategic location was prized by French and British alike. On any summer afternoon, Dufferin Terrace plays host to an unorchestrated waltz of families with young children, couples strolling and a changing roster of performers, from youth choruses to face-painted jugglers and ventriloquists.

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