Québec [kebek] ( listen) is the capital of the province of Quebec and its second largest city (pop. 500,000). Only Montreal is larger. Kébec is an Algonquin word meaning "where the river narrows."
In 1535 Jacques Cartier discovered the granite cliffs that tower over the waterway he called the St. Lawrence River. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded New France in this area, which remained in French control until the British captured it during a half-hour battle in September, 1759 on the Plains of Abraham, 17 years before the start of the American Revolution. The people of Québec never surrendered their heritage and the city is as French-speaking today as it was then.
A visit to Québec feels like a European vacation. Cobblestone streets are terraced up to the imposing Chateau Frontenac that dominates the skyline. Walled ramparts and stone arches surround Vieux-Québec, the only remaining walled city north of Mexico.
Nearly everyone in Québec speaks French, and in the rural area surrounding Ville de Québec, many speak French only. Canadian Rail vacations are popular and we signed up for a package that included an all-day cruise up the St. Lawrence river from Montreal to Quebec, a night at the famous Chateau Frontenac, and a train trip back. We extended it to stay another night in Québec. The concierge at the Queen Elizabeth Fairmont in Montreal set it up for us at the last minute. She did such a great job!
We took a seat at a long table at the back of the boat which was enclosed with glass on this drizzly morning. We sat next to Gilles and Louise Brisland of Drummondville, a farming community on the south side of the St. Lawrence river. They didn't speak much English and we don't speak much French so we had a great time handing the dictionary back and forth and drawing pictures to communicate.
Louise told us that for her 40th birthday, Gilles took her to Las Vegas to see Celine Dion sing. She said it was the vacation of a lifetime. The Nevada desert couldn't be more different from the lush greenery of Canada. Because nearly all the travellers were Canadians, the enthusiastic tour guides led song fests of local folk songs. The river is lined with farms dating back hundreds of years, punctuated with industrial plants and covered by bridges which are too low to allow cruise ships to reach Montreal. Gilles gave us a little tutorial in Québecois: instead of saying it's cold as they would in Paris (if fait froid), in Québec they say "cé frette!"
Our tour guide told us of the history of the area and that there really aren't three rivers at Trois-Rivieres, it is just an optical illusion. The cruise was restful and appreciated by Howard who was suffering from a flare-up of gout. He was grateful to spend a day sitting and enjoying the scenery after our active hiking in Montreal.
We learned that French farmers first settled the Québec area. They were frequently visited by French sailors and fishermen who had discovered the Grand Banks. From there the French explorers and trappers travelled to what is now Montreal, through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi from the source near La Crosse, Wisconsin through Dubuque, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau and finally New Orleans and Baton Rouge, capitol of Lousiana. For the first time I understood why, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased the Lousiana territory from France, our ally in the Revolutionary War.
I also finally figured out why "Evangeline" was deported by the British to Louisiana, and why Manon Lescaut was banished from the Paris high-life in the Puccini opera to suffer in the (torrid desert) of Louisiana. I had not fully understood Britain's determination to claim this territory for the British crown.
The travel brochures showed Fall colors for Québec so I thought that our early September trip would have splendid autumn color along the river. We were a couple of weeks too early. I think the Canadian leaf-peeping is just a week or so earlier than Massachusetts and Vermont. The arrival in Québec is pretty spectacular as the Chateau Frontenac, built in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific Railway to promote luxury tourism by appealing to wealthy travelers, comes into view. It dominates the Quebec skyline and is the closest I'll ever get to spending the night in a castle.
Le Château Frontenac owes its name to a flamboyant French governor called Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, who guided the destiny of New France from 1672 to 1698. Photo below from the Web. More info on Québec and Old Montreal.