A Warm December in Old Québec
by Karen Misuraca

On the train from Montreal on our way to Québec City, just before Christmas, my daughter and I gazed out at the St. Lawrence River sliding past, watching softly falling snow turn dense woods and a procession of little villages into winter-white postcards. Nearly three hours later, relaxed and drowsy from the drone of the wheels, we disembarked and pulled our luggage through the station, the chateau-like Gare du Palais, and climbed into a taxi, setting off into a snowstorm.

Not exactly red-blooded, we two Californians peered out at the port area--le Vieux Porte--to see immense blocks of ice floating in the river. Entering the city through an archway in a massive stone wall, our taxi negotiated a maze of narrow, steep, icy cobblestone streets, and we wondered how we would find the fabled warm heart of this old French city in the deep freeze of winter.

On this late afternoon, Québécois in fur-trimmed boots and with thick hats pulled over their ears tottered along the sidewalks, in and out of little shops through doorways framed in snow-frosted evergreen branches studded with lights. We could see a couple in the glowing window of a café, leaning towards each other over steaming bowls of what we surmised to be café au lait. Dodging some kids careening down the street on a sled, the taxi pulled up at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, built in 1893, the architectural icon defining the city skyline.

In the fading light, we looked up at the soaring, green copper rooftops topped by flags snapping in the wind. Lit up like a giant's Christmas tree, the twelve-story tower, topped by countless snow-frosted dormers, fancy cornices and chimneys, glittered in the whirling blizzard as if in a snow globe.

Taking the advice of the bellman, we watched our luggage disappear into the elevator and hopped back into the same taxi, asking to be taken to Le Café Du Monde, a Parisian-style bistro overlooking the river. Well, it's amazing, isn't it, how cozy you feel with a glass of armagnac, hot water and lemon in your hands and a steaming bowl of garlicky moules mariniere avec frites on the table?

Thirty-something and fluent in French, and with the savvy gained from having spent time in Paris with a French boyfriend, Jessica read the menu: confit de canard (duck confit), poulet Rôtisseur (rotisserie-roasted chicken), bouillabaisse, crème brûlee . . . She said, "As much as I loved France, it was so much easier to get here, and it's cheaper. I have a feeling it's going to be friendlier, too."

Through the window we watched an icebreaker move between the slabs of ice on the St. Lawrence. A lively fur trading port in the 16th century, Québec was an outpost of France and much envied by the English. Vying for control of the colony, the English besieged the city, scaling high cliffs in a surprise attack in 1759. The invaders won, laying the foundation for today's Canada. Nonetheless, having settled here in the 1600s, the French remained, never giving up their dream of New France nor the French spirit of their city, the queen of La Belle Province. Today, 95% of the residents are French-speaking, and within their walled city they have carefully preserved three hundred years of fanciful, French-influenced architecture, stone fortifications and quaint meandering neighborhoods. This is only walled city in North America, and so authentic that UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site.

Best Laid Plans
Laying out our city map, we made plans to see the historic sights and do our Christmas shopping, snowstorm or no snowstorm. We marked the location of our hotel, the monumental Frontenac, on a high bluff called Cap Diamant at the top of Vieux-Québec, the "old town". Rimming the upper cliffs is a seven-foot-thick wall bristling with cannons. Below lies the river and le Quartier Petit-Champlain (Lower Town), reached by the Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs) and thank goodness, also by a glass-enclosed funicular. Once a rough-and-tumble district of warehouses and wharfs, the narrow alleyways of the lower town are now chock-a-block with more than sixty restaurants, cafes, shops and small inns.

Also in the old town, le Place Royale is the oldest shopping district on the continent, where boutiques, artisans' ateliers and galleries, and restaurants are housed in beautiful 17th and 18th century stone buildings with huge chimneys and battalions of dormer windows. Dominating the Place-Royale is the steepled Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, the oldest stone church in North America, built in 1688.

Christmas Shopping
Wrapping up in hats and gloves, boots and mufflers on our first morning, we descended the Breakneck Stairs into the ancient heart of the city, le Petit-Champlain, which from our vantage point looked like one of the illuminated, snow-frosted villages you see under Christmas trees. To our delight, we found the pedestrian-only streets lined with decorated shops and inhabited by a lively gang of characters. We watched and listened to strolling, costumed carolers, a mischievous squad of mimes, twirling music boxes and some rather rowdy angels on stilts.

Representing Père Noël (Santa Claus), several elves pranced around, kidnapping the little kids and taking them to tiny forest glades sparkling with lights, while parents trailed along, taking pictures.

Fortified by hot chocolate and croissants, we plunged into the shops and galleries, buying sleek, Inuit-carved stone animals, luminescent blown glass vases and beribboned boxes of maple sugar candy, bijoux and bagatelles.

All over town we heard about the Le Marché de Noël--the annual Christmas Market, so after a bowl of potage at Café Le Saint-Malo, we trundled off in a snow flurry to Quai Saint-André in the Vieux Porte district, near the train station, and what a magical market it was. Under a canopy of Christmas lights, a profusion of booths was manned by farmers and artisans from the surrounding region--cheese makers, confectioners, patissiers, cider brewers, chocolatiers and other vendors selling their wares and offering samples--slices of cranberry pie, homemade confit, wild berry preserves and a dozens of types of maple products, from fudge to jugs of syrup, taffy, butters, tinned cookies and even maple liquers. Our arms were soon full of jars of honey and creamy goat-milk soap, a wooden ship for a little boy we know, a thatched birdhouse and some hand-loomed shawls and scarves.

By the time we tasted pear brandy, ice wine, hard cider, and spicy spruce and birch beer, we both spoke a flowing, if not fluent, French, and we attracted the attention of a television crew filming for the local evening news. Later we watched ourselves on TV, trumpeting our excitement about how we did all our Christmas shopping in one day and how warm and inviting we found the city, even in the clutch of winter.

Venturing Out
Another day, in the upper town, we went to Au Royaume du Pere Noël (the Kingdom of Santa Claus), said to be the largest Christmas store in North America, where we browsed thousands of elaborate Christmas decorations, from imported glass snowflakes to the famous Radko-designed, Victorian-look ornaments and Cirque du Soleil-inspired sunbursts and circus figures. Within the store is a permanent Christmas village depicting Québec City of centuries past, comprised of nearly 300 porcelain buildings and over a thousand figures--a spectacular exhibit.

At the Museum of French America we watched as costumed docents reenacted the history of the province, then we stopped to see the skaters on the outdoor ice rink on Place d'Youville at Porte St. Jean, one of arched gateways into the old granite and limestone walls. Stopping at a street kiosk, we managed to down a couple of hot brandy-laced toddies before taking a taxi tour of the grand, Louis XIV-style complex of Parliament buildings and the boutiques along le Grand Allee and Rue Saint Jean.

Adieu Québec
On our last night, Jessica dined with newfound friends and stayed out late listening to live jazz at the classy, Art Deco café-bar L'Emprise, tucked into the corner of the Hotel Clarendon just down the street from the Frontenac.

I bundled up and walked out onto the Dufferin Terrace, a promenade above the river and the lower town. Clear at last, the sky dazzled with stars, and an almost full moon illuminated the snowy rooftops and the gleaming, ice-filled river. Like mirages in the moonlight were a row of canons and a statue of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded the original settlement here in 1608.

Thoroughly chilled, I retreated inside the hotel to enjoy the same view from the St. Laurent Bar, where Winston Churchill, they say, once tippled. The bartender convinced me to try a "caribou", a traditional winter concoction of whiskey, red wine and maple syrup. It seems that the early Huron Indians in these parts drank blood from their caribou kills, and the first settlers added wine to the blood to make the fortifying drink more palatable.

My caribou (just one, to avoid "mal de bloc"--a terrible headache--the next morning) was indeed palatable, and warming, helping to assuage my tristesse about the end of our winter getaway. Perhaps we will return in 2008 when the city celebrates its 400th anniversary, blizzard or no blizzard.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.