Wintertime in Quebec City

The first day of 2019 found me taking a 6.00 am train from Montreal to Quebec City. I had not slept much that night, and hence I can’t recall much of the train journey. All I know is I woke up at the Gare du Palais station with a terrible neck pain, just to be received by an enormous amount of snow. From the windows of the train station everything was white, snow piled up on every surface, completely covering bushes, benches, roofs and trees. It was a much needed sight and promising start.

I had been in Quebec before. I had spent a summer climbing —for climbing is, for this city, a more appropriate term than walking— along Saint Roch and Vieux Quebec. That summer was hot and humid, and this time the city couldn’t look more different. My friend and I dragged our luggage through the snow towards our Airbnb to drop it there before exploring the city. First, we made our way to Chateau Frontenac. The Chateau is the most famous landmark of Quebec City. It is not a very old construction and it was never an actual castle, it was always a hotel.

In fact, most of the buildings that are part of the “old” Quebec are really not very old, most have been built or restored in the 1930s, emulating older buildings. This doesn’t mean Quebec is not an old town, it was one of the oldest European establishments in North America, but it still feels a bit like Disneyland. To get acquainted with the city’s history we took a walking tour (one of the best I’ve ever taken) through Airbnb.

The quaintest and prettiest part of Old Quebec has to be Petit Champlain. Again, it is not really old, but it’s a living Christmas card. It is an alley full of shops and restaurants, and during Christmastime there’s trees, lights and decorations everywhere. It’s so pretty it almost makes you forget you’re freezing (Quebec’s weather was around -20ºC the first week of January).

Another street to go to for food and consumerism is, of course, Saint-Jean. This is the busiest street in Old Quebec, with all kinds of stores on it. If you happen to be looking for a book, try Pantoute (I found there Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates, a book I had been looking for ages and which is super creepy). Also on Saint-Jean there’s an Irish pub called, surprisingly, St. Patrick, which offers live music at night.

Coming down from Petit Champlain there is a small park with views to the Saint Lawrence river. In winter it is completely covered in snow, and the river is partially frozen. One of the most memorable moments of my time in Quebec was the view of the Saint Lawrence river at sunset; big pieces of ice were moving with the current while the parts not yet frozen reflected the sky, which went from a deep orange to a lovely pink. There is something about Canadian cities that just coexists so beautifully with nature. Where it’s the sky over them or a river flowing through them, there’s a silent feeling of companionship between them.

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There are, of course, other tourist attractions that abuse the famous Canadian saying, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes”, like the Ice Hotel (Hôtel de Glace). Anyway, I had to see it. It is the only structure made entirely of ice in North America, and it is really pretty (although I would not pay to spend a night there). The Hotel is part of an amusement park called Villages Vacances Valcartier, 30 minutes away from the city centre of Quebec… if you have a car. My friend and I took instead a 1.5 hours bus to Loretteville, and then an Uber (10 minutes) from there.

Once we were there we had to pay almost $30.00 for the ticket. The Hotel is a really pretty structure, there’s the main building and a chapel, a bar and, most importantly, fireplaces for when you no longer feel your hands. Although it is really pretty to look at and a wonderful spot for pictures, it was not very special. However, the worst part of that day was waiting an hour for the bus to go back.

 

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The bus dropped us on Saint-Joseph street, in Saint-Roch, where my favourite coffee shop is, Saint-Henri. A latte there and some maple leaf cookies I bought at the supermarket were a cosy ending to the day.

 

Another beautiful place close to Quebec are the Montmorency Falls. They’re only half an hour away by bus. I had visited the falls in the summer, when I was able to go down their infinite stairs. In Winter however the stairs are closed, so you can only see the falls from above. Nevertheless it is a wonderful sight, since much of them is frozen and the landscape around is all white, with only the tops of the trees adding a little green to the landscape.

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Perhaps it is because I live in a city with a population of almost 9 million people, but the amount of untouched land in Canada, the extensions of land, water and skies that show no trace of people, planes, ships or cars, is marvelous to me. The region of Quebec has some of the most wonderful landscapes I have ever seen, and the way in which Canadians incorporate wilderness into their lives is something that impresses me very much. I am definitely looking forward to going back to Quebec, but only when my iceskating skills improve a bit.

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Last but not least, food in Quebec is insanely good (and unhealthy). Here are some of my favourites.

  • Poutine! This is the traditional dish (basically chips with gravy and some weird cheese, strangely yummy). My favorite is from Chez Ashton or Poutineville. There’s also a pub called Taverne Grande Allee which has a nice, cosy atmosphere and good poutine.
  • Chocolats Favoris. In Summer, ice cream dipped in chocolate, in winter, sweet poutine.
  • Queues de Castor or Beaver Tails, basically fried dough with sweet toppings.
  • Mary’s Popcorn. Try the Quebecois mix, cheese and maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup everything.
  • Donuts from Saint-Henri, a coffee shop on Saint-Joseph street.
  • Cheap and huge breakfast at Sul Posto, a restaurant inside the train station. Huge coffee cups, too.

Montreal, the eclectic city

I spent the last days of 2018 wandering through the streets of one of the biggest cities in Canada. Named after Mont-Royal, the small mountain at the heart of the city, Montreal is now the centre of the francophone Canada, a city that dwells between the French influence of the Conquest and an eclectic, alternative modernity. Montreal has both the charm of a small town and the excitement of a big city, and while Vieux-Montréal has the feeling of a French village, with is cobbled streets and colorful roofs and domes, other areas such as Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Lauren have the vibrant feeling of a metropoly.

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Vieux-Montréal

If your idea of getting acquainted with a city is to take a walking tour there, we think alike. So the first morning in Montreal we signed up for a tour of East Vieux-Montréal or Old Montreal. We went with a company called Guidatour and it might have been the worst guided tour ever. We did walk a lot and saw many historical landmarks, even entered the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal (for ten minutes), but there was no content or explanations. I would recommend taking other tours, but it’s hard to find companies that work during the winter (and I understand why).

The winter is rough in Quebec, and Montreal was no exception. The temperatures were around -10ºC in the last days of December, and so the Christmas lights and bonfires in Place Jacques Cartier we much welcomed. Place Jacques Cartier is sort of the centre of town, its main square, from where nothing historical is too far away. For the holidays, it is covered in lights, with huge bonfires and logs to sit on in every corner, as well as food trucks where you can get hot chocolate or mulled wine (vin chaud), as well as anything with maple syrup on top.

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Not too far from there, to the South, is the Notre-Dame Basilica, a beautiful 19th century church in gothic revival style. I think the most beautiful thing about it is its vaults, painted a deep blue and full of little, golden stars. It is easy to lose track of time inside, there’s just too much too see from the statues to the stained glass windows that show some episodes from Montreal’s history.

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Close to Old Montreal, a 25 minute walk, is the Old Port of Montreal. During the summer, the port is alive with chatter and beergardens, but in the winter it is charming in a different way. There’s an ice rink (Canada must have one for every 100 inhabitants), a chalet to have hot beverages or rent skates, a wheel, Christmas lights and music all around, as well as restaurants. In New Year’s Eve there’s a music festival there and a firework show at midnight.

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Mont-Royal

Mont-Royal is a small mountain in the centre of the Isle of Montreal. You can hike up there or drive (we did the latter this time). On top of it there’s the Chalet du Mont-Royal, a building used for various events and usually open to the public. Now in wintertime the fireplaces are blazing and it’s a nice refuge from the cold. The main thing about Mont-Royal is its views of the city below, but now there’s also a skate rink and some slides there, as well as a place selling mulled wine and hot chocolate.

 

Also up there is the largest church in Canada, the Oratory of Saint-Joseph, a huge though very austere-looking building, with beautiful gardens. Inside there are various chapels, a cafeteria and a balcony that offers a beatiful view of Montreal.

 

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Views from Saint-Joseph Oratory

 

Museums

Montreal is a wonderful city for art lovers. It’s not only the birthplace of Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire and many other great bands, but also one of the largest galleries in the world since many of its walls have been made into murals. You can’t walk two streets without seeing one mural, and its themes are as diverse as they’re eye-catching. It is wonderful to see the contrast between old buildings and modern murals, which give the city a big part of its eclecticism.

We visited two art museums: the Musée d’Art Contemporaine (MAC) and the Museum of Fine Arts. At the MAC we got to see Julian Rosefeldt’s exposition, Manifesto, a series of short films starring Cate Blanchett. On the other hand, the Museum of Fine Arts is very big and has pieces from every art period, as well as an area dedicated to Canadian artists. Both museums are worth every penny and you could spend an afternoon in each.

 

Botanical Gardens

The botanical gardens of the city are one of the best outdoors places to go. However, we were a bit uncertain of how we’d find them in the winter. They’re really not very cheerful, but if you’re into a gloomy, a-bit-sad-yet-majestic kind of beauty, they’re the place to be. Everything is frozen and no flowers are in bloom, very few trees still have some brown leaves on, but the silence and peace there is amazing. The temperature is an issue (we had to take refuge in the Insectarium before continuing), but it is worth it to be cold. We even got to spot a red fox.

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Food

Quebec’s traditional dish is poutine, but I really believe it’s better to try it in Quebec City. As far as food goes, Montreal has everything! Both Saint-Lauren and Sainte-Catherine are filled with international restaurants, so many it’s hard to choose. We had dinner once at a place called Kampai (on Sainte-Catherine) which is really good, but the portions are small and the prices high. The opposite can be said of a place called Warehouse on Saint-Laurent, a pub-like restaurant where every dish is only $5, the food is good here and the asmosphere too.

If you like craft beer, there’s a canadian chain called 3 Brasseurs that makes good beer, although the places themselves are not very special. On Saint-Laurent we found a small Irish pub called McKibbins, it is very cozy and has live music at night. The atmosphere everywhere we went in Montreal was very warm and fun, montrealers have a knack for cosiness. As far as coffee goes, I had not the chance to visit many cafés in Montreal, mainly because of a tight schedule (I had my caffeine fix every morning from a Second Cup on the corner of where we stayed), however we did stumble upon a place called Espace in Vieux-Montreal; we wanted to escape the cold and found some really good coffee there.

 

I think of Montreal as a city of in-betweens. It is not completely francophone or anglophone, it has not the francophone pride you find in Quebec City; it is not a village yet some parts feel like it; it is not a huge city, yet sometimes it feels like it; it is rustic and rebellious, strident and calm. Montreal is a mixture of peoples and influences and languages, and you can see the struggle between them in its streets, in its art and its faces. It is a wonderful city and a lovely place to see during the winter.

 

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Have you been to Montreal? What did I miss there, and how do you liked it?