|By Obla Vishvesh, Albany [ Published Date: September 24, 2010 ]|
It comes as a surprise when you get to see in your own back-yard what you had thought would remain forever in your wish-list! Visiting Europe had somehow been elusive to us. But our stars did reward us with an alternative, as we found in a visit to Quebec city.
In a pleasant six hours drive from Albany, NY, one reaches this French Canadian city, which retains its European flavor more than many European countries themselves. One notices the striking difference in landscape after driving two hours from Albany all over the Adirondacks only to find oneself in a vast stretch of flat corn fields without a single hill all around! And it is a curious experience to see the same green colored road signs suddenly changing into French, since Quebec has a predominant French background. No wonder, since it was once a French territory and even called as ‘New France’. Though annexed by the British two hundred years before, it still seems to retain more of its French past, not only in its language, but also in its fine patronage of arts and architecture.
The most wonderful thing about this city is that the old city and all its major attractions are inside a fortified wall. We found parking right outside the old city wall (Basse-Ville) on the banks of the St.Lawrence River which stretched like a vast lake. A few huge barges were idling on the river, which were an indicator as to how busy as a trading centre it once should have been. Above us on the hill, the beautiful city was built, and the Château Frontenac, a hotel with lavish architecture, built in the 1910s, towered on its peak, adorned by a beautiful sculpted water fountain in front. The houses that were lined on the outer edge of the city right behind the fortified wall as one entered the old city looked like right out of a holly-wood set of eighteenth century Europe. Only that they were real and inhabited people! They struck us immediately as something unique.
It was a wonderful feeling as we stepped into the old city. The typical and narrow cobble-stone streets that crisscrossed and lined with spectacular stone houses some of which were more than two hundred years old, the shops that sold quaint stuff, the unfamiliar language and the people who spoke it as if they chewed the words before they let them out of their mouths (probably to find if they were palatable to the ears of the person to whom they were addressed :-) ), the fortified wall that fenced the streets on one side, the various cannons that were placed at strategic places that overlooked the river -- everything added together for an unusual but pleasant experience. There was a narrow alley which was crowded with the paintings of the local artists. In fact, there was a huge painting on the wall of a big house and it was so life-like with life-sized people and the background in it. It was painted with the eighteenth century settings and one felt like stepping back in time itself standing before it! Various musicians with their harps, flutes, guitars, and brass instruments were performing wonderful music in every prominent corner in the streets. Added to them were street corner performers of acrobatics and magic shows who drew in a lot of admiring audience.
On the whole, the entire old city was breathing with life. I was drawn in by a group of Inuit Indians (natives of that region) playing their native music in their native flutes and pan flutes, which was mesmerizing in such an environment of gaiety. As if these were not enough, all the restaurants were serving food outside in the streets (the whole city was very clean). We walked up and down the hill twice, despite the fact that it was a cold day and it was raining on and off, and even then we felt we hadn’t had enough of the Old city. We roamed till the lights were lit when the whole city took another color, which appeared spectacular from the river far below.
The next day morning was bleak and heavily drizzling. The day before there was sun-shine though it was raining. We had known that it was going to rain and so had fortunately brought our raincoats, which kept us at least dry, if not warm. Quebec seemed to be cold even in early September. To add to the bad weather, it was very windy as well. But we didn’t drive to such a beautiful place to lay idle inside the hotel room. So, off we went to the Citadel as we had planned, which was another outdoors place to visit, and hence exposed to the cold and rain.
The Citadel was a military base built inside the fortification wall at the highest point in Quebec City. It was star shaped and had various military buildings built in the early 18th century. It was a key structure in the Canadian defense against the American army when it tried to invade. The plains of Abraham, where the decisive battle between the French and the British took place, after which Quebec became a British territory, stretches a few miles beautifully in its sides all along the St.Lawrence river. Even in the haze of the morning fog and drizzle, the vast stretch of the greenery all around the Citadel, the walls of which were like a maze that ran through the landscape, looked beautiful. My son was shivering in the cold and we wrapped him up in a spare blanket we carried with us in our car. We had to take a long walk since we didn’t know how to enter it! No wonder, the enemy got confused :-)
Since the Canadians still follow many of the British traditions (once in the parliament at the capital city, Ottawa, I was surprised to hear the officials calling the British Queen as ‘our queen’!), there was a ‘changing of the guards’ ceremony held in the Citadel just like they have it in the Buckingham palace. Since it was raining it was cancelled but the tour inside the Citadel wasn’t and we joined the English speaking guide. There were two guards immaculately dressed up in the red military uniform of the British, just like in Buckingham palace, covered to their nose with their fur caps, guarding the entrance. My son didn’t even realize that he was a real human being, and when I told him that he was, he couldn’t believe it, and he tried to shake his shoulders to verify it :-) They were standing without a slight movement! The tour was an educative one, but with my son to whom every other building was the same, and every other firearm that was lying all over the Citadel, the same that makes noise in his video games, and who was very uncomfortable with the cold weather, I couldn’t follow the details that I would have loved to. But it was a fascinating experience to walk through a very beautiful building as that which had so much history behind it. The very symmetry of the building was remarkable. It was built with taste. I felt a little sad that such a beautiful construction was associated with the spilling of blood and destruction of life. I found it hard to associate its innate sense of beauty with destruction, but hasn’t human life always been mixture of both?
A feeble sun cheered us up as the day grew. We walked and walked, for there was so much all around, and then we drove around the battle plains. There was a lovely trail that ran all along the plains with a fine view of the river. And all over the plains there were various museums, which we took a note of but didn’t have the time to visit. The best possible way to see a place as that would be to spend at least five days.
We had planned a quick visit to Montmorency water-falls near Quebec city on our way back home. From the pictures we had seen in the web, we thought it would be just another water-falls. But on reaching there we found that we were mistaken. The quick visit we had planned became a three-hour visit! There were both stairs and a rope car to travel up and down the cliff from where the water fell. We took the rope car up. Above the water-falls there was a nice board-walk and a pedestrian bridge right over the falls. But the stairs were more spectacular, since they were right before the falls. It was taller than the Niagara Falls in its height, but very narrow in comparison. It was still mighty. We loved climbing down the stairs and enjoying the view at the various view-points and shivering at the spray. Quebec City becomes extremely cold in winter and this water-falls freezes entirely and becomes a spectacular white pillar of ice; the spray too turns into ice forming a huge glacier itself! We saw some three dimensional pictures of such an awesome scenery in the information office. They even build ice-hotels in this city during winter. We spent a nice evening in the water-falls till it became too late for a long drive back home.
Visiting a new place is a sensation that refreshes the human mind. Our pedometer showed we walked 14 miles in two days, but we were hardly tired. For, there was so much there in that city that refreshed us physically too and we were already planning for a longer visit in the near future on our drive back home :-)