Quebec City is one of the most unique locations anywhere in the world. Situated on a series of steep cliffs overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, this is a historic walled city where one of the most consequential battles in North American history was fought. While Montreal is the largest and most economically important city in the province of Quebec, this city was the capital of New France and functions as the political metropole for French Canadians. Quebec City is among the most picturesque places to visit in the whole country, and it's an outstanding place for tourists to stop and take in the local sights. Quebec City was one of the top destinations motivating this entire trip, and I was eager to have the chance to walk its cobblestone streets.
The main reason why Quebec City doesn't attract more visitors is likely due to its location, northwest of Maine's rugged lakes district and hundreds of miles away from most other tourist attractions. Montreal is the only city within reasonable driving distance, and Montreal is 250 kilometers (160 miles) away. This was another quiet early morning drive for me through the farms and forests of rural Quebec, with the whole trip taking about three hours by car. I had a little trouble finding a place to park in Quebec City due to its cramped location before finally finding a large underground parking lot just outside the walls. Then it was off to see the sights once again.
I emerged near the Hôtel du Parlement, or the Parliament Building of Quebec, the legislative assembly for the province. This elegant eight story building was constructed in the late 19th century and completed in 1886, designed in the Second Empire architectural style which was popular in France at the time. The main comparison for this parliament building seems to be Philadelphia City Hall, which was also built at the same time using the same general design style. There are some two dozen statues of famous individuals from the history of Quebec surrounding the parliament, and the grounds were highly manicured to produce a pleasing carpet of green grass. I noted that the informational plaques outside the building were written only in French, quite possibly a French Canadian thumbing of the nose at the English-speaking parts of Canada. The National Assembly of Quebec hosted in this building has often been a hotbed of Quebecois separatist opinion, and if Quebec ever did become independent this would be the capital. I inquired about a tour of the building but wasn't able to line up one at a time that made sense, and therefore had to be content with seeing just the outside.
Only a block away from the Parliament Building was the Citadelle de Québec, usually just known as the Citadelle for short. This is a military structure located atop the tallest hill in Quebec City, and it remains in active use today, home to the Royal 22e Régiment of the Canadian military. The defensive design of the Citadelle is a standard trace italienne bastion fortress, with low star-shaped walls reinforced with earthworks designed to provide protection against incoming artillery fire. The current Citadelle was constructed between 1820 and 1850, which is a bit ironic because that meant it was not present during the multiple battles fought on the site of Quebec City. The French had a much smaller walled fort on this spot at the time of the famous 1759 battle, which was torn down when the current citadel was constructed. If they had had this setup, they never would have lost to the British.
The Citadelle today is a tourist attraction for Quebec City, where visitors come to see the ceremonial changing of the guard each day. There's a museum here dedicated to the history of the Royal 22e Régiment, as well as a small regimental chapel that can be explored. As someone with a background in military history, I enjoyed poking around the fortress to see a real-world example of military defensive theory put into practice. I was particularly amused at how the ditches between the outer and inner walls of the Citadelle had been turned into an unusually-shaped parking lot. If there was any serious expectation of an attack I doubt the military commanders would have allowed that. I had planned my arrival to be in time to watch the changing of the guard, which took place at the central parade ground:
A crowd gathered all around the circular parade area to watch the action. It began with the regimental band processing into the grounds, followed by what looked to be two squads of soldiers. Everyone was wearing the full ceremonial dress uniforms, in this case brilliant red and black outfits with tall bearskin hats. The crowd loved their appearance although it had to be extremely hot in those things, even here in the morning. After a bit of marching around the circle, the whole group processed back out again the way that they had come. It was a nice show and the marching was solid, something that I can judge pretty well from my time in a collegiate marching band. There was even Batisse the Goat present as part of the ceremony, the regimental mascot for the Royal 22e Régiment. It's definitely worth trying to catch this changing of the guard if possible when visiting the Citadelle.
The Citadelle sits atop the highest hill in Quebec City, as usual for military structures, with commanding views of the Saint Lawrence River below. While the intended reason for the placement of the fortress was to shoot down at attackers trying to cross over the water, it also means that the Citadelle provides magnificent views of the river and the surrounding city. As I descended from the fortress, I could see the Château Frontenac with its distinctive tower up ahead. Off to my right, the land fell away quickly over the famed cliffs of Quebec down to the river. The oldest part of Quebec City was located down there, close against the riverbank, and I would be heading there later in the day. A boardwalk ran across part of the cliff's edge in the area leading up to the Château Frontenac, an open space with lots of park benches where city residents could go for a stroll and stop to take in the views out over the water. I was fortunate to have another beautiful day, with the only complaint being a little bit on the hot side again.
After crossing the boardwalk, I headed over to see the Château Frontenac in more detail. This is a luxury hotel operated by the Fairmont chain, which seems to own virtually all of the historic hotels across Canada. The Château Frontenac was originally a hotel owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway company, built to cater to wealthy visitors to Quebec City. It was first built in 1893 and then expanded over the following decades, with the design imitating another hotel owned by the same railway company in Banff, Alberta (which I had coincidentally visited the year before). The central tower is the building's signature design, and was added in the 1920s to complete the building's memorable facade. Due to its location on the cliffs overlooking the river, the Château Frontenac is visible from everywhere in the central part of Quebec City, and this is the building that graces nearly all of the postcards sold in the souvenir shops. At the time of this writing in 2018, rooms were starting at around $200 and went considerably steeper in price from that entry level. I found that the interior design was akin to the Fairmont Château Laurier that I had visited in Ottawa a few days earlier, lots of wood paneling everywhere with a classy interior. This would have been an amazing place to stay, but it was obviously outside my price range.
From the Château Frontenac, I turned away from the cliffs leading down to the water and headed into the historic city center. Quebec City is unique because it's one of the very few walled cities in North America. While these are reasonably common if you look for them in Europe, they're almost nonexistent in the New World for obvious reasons. By the time most areas were settled by Europeans walled fortifications had already become obsolete, and there were relatively few places in the colonial period that came under attack often enough to require a permanent stone wall. Quebec City was one of those places, however, and the walls have survived down to the present day. (Most of the current city is outside the walls, of course, which only encompass the oldest area.) Walking through the streets of Quebec City is like stepping back in time. The walled city can only be entered at a handful of gates like the one pictured above, and the streets inside are mostly narrow, twisting affairs flanked by houses of stone and brick. While cars are allowed on most of these streets, visitors are much better served by walking them on foot. The whole historic district is full of small shops and restaurants situated in restored buildings, and browsing through them is a true delight. In particular, there are a lot of artists here selling their paintings and drawings to the visiting tourists. It's a wonderful place to stroll through for a few hours on a relaxing afternoon.
One of the sights in the walled portion of Quebec City is the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of Quebec. This is the location of the oldest church in North America outside of Mexico, initially established shortly after the founding of New France in 1647, although the current structure only dates back to the 1840s. This was the replacement for several older churches that stood on the same spot in earlier periods. A previous iteration of Notre-Dame de Québec was destroyed during the siege of the city in 1759, when it was burned down during the successful British invasion. In 1922, the current church was badly damaged by a fire set by the Canadian branch of the Ku Klux Klan, before being restored afterwards. Quite a history here.
The current version of Notre-Dame de Québec was constructed in Neoclassical design style, with a non-symmetrical bell tower to the right of the main entrance. The interior was surprisingly large given the church's location in a cramped part of the old city, with two rows of thick pillars running down each side and a ceiling painted to look like an outdoor sky. I was amused at the television screens placed on the backs of the pillars so that the parishioners sitting there with obstructed views would still be able to view the church services. That was a clever modern way of working around an old architectural issue. The altar itself had a circular design with a golden canopy of sorts overhead and several large paintings on the walls. It reminded me a bit of some of the Baroque designs I had seen in different parts of Europe. Overall, this was an interesting setup that stood out from the other churches I had been visiting in Ontario and Quebec.
After exploring the walled part of Quebec City at the top of the hill, I descended through the twisting streets to the very oldest part of the city at the bottom of the cliffs. This is officially known as the Lower Town (Basse-Ville) in contrast to the Upper Town (Haute-Ville) above, both part of the Old Quebec City (Vieux-Québec). This area is similar to the Upper Town on the overhanging cliffs, except even older and less accessible to cars. Most of the streets are pedestrian-only and often have stone or brick surfaces instead of pavement or concrete. This is another area full of shops and restaurants, often crammed into tiny historic storefronts with limited space. One of these places had an absolutely amazing painting on the outside that I captured above, with a depiction of a colonial inn during the period of New France in a kind of cross-section view. I had trouble telling where the artwork ended and the actual building construction began. The whole area was teeming with foot traffic on this afternoon, lots of people strolling about visiting one shop or another.
One of the ways to travel from the base of the cliffs up to the heights above is via this funicular tramway. It was built all the way back in 1879 and has been in operation for well over a century, carrying passengers back and forth from one end to the other. The funicular climbs at a steep angle of 45 degrees and rises about 60 meters (200 feet) in all. I thought this would have been fun to ride, but I simply walked up and down the nearby streets in order to save some pocket change. Grad students don't have a lot of cash to spare.
As mentioned before, the Lower Town that lies along the river contains the oldest part of Quebec City. The square above known as Place Royal was the original heart of the town, and its very name is a callback to the French kings that ruled here in the days of New France. There's a statue in Place Royal commemorating French king Louis XIV and the Samuel Champlain expedition that traveled up the Saint Lawrence in the early 17th century. The stone buildings surrounding the square had clearly seen a lot of wear and tear over the centuries. One of those buildings was the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church pictured above. The first church in the city was Notre-Dame de Québec in the Upper Town above, but that church was burned down and replaced several times. The Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church located here in the Lower Town is the oldest surviving church structure in the city dating all the way back to 1688. This little church was almost completely destroyed in the 1759 siege, only to be rebuilt again following the British conquest. The interior is quite tiny and only holds room to seat about 100 people. I noticed that this church also had small ships hanging from the ceiling, in the same fashion that I've seen in a similarly small church back in Montreal the day before. These buildings around Place Royal felt like the true center of Quebec City, the original core that had grown into the urban area that existed today.
After seeing those historic buildings, where better to go next other than the Quebec City Museum of Civilization. This museum was located a few blocks to the north of Place Royal, still in the Lower Town, and it contains displays that cover the history of Quebec City from the time of the First Nations peoples up to the modern day. The main permanent exhibit is called "Le Temps des Quebecois", or "The Times of the People of Quebec", and it proceeds through a series of displays from the colonial period up through the current politics of the province. I was most interested in the information about the Battle of Quebec, and the museum didn't disappoint with a nice model display and reconstructed uniforms of what the British and French soldiers would have worn. Later parts of the exhibit covered Quebec's role in the formation of Canadian Confederation and eventually the politics of Quebec's succession movement, which was only narrowly defeated in two 20th century referendums. This being Canada, there was of course a section on hockey as well in the discussion of sports and leisure. They should have had more on the Nordiques, however; I saw a few places still selling merchandise for the city's NHL team that departed for Colorado in 1995. Note to the NHL: Quebec City is the kind of place that should be getting a hockey team, not Las Vegas.
There was also an exhibit covering the History of Video Games (!!!) in the Museum of Civilization. Sadly this was a temporary exhibit and won't be there for future visitors, but the museum should seriously think about bringing this back as a permanent addition. Video game consoles of all types were on display starting with the Pong clones of Generation 1 and running all the way up to the then-current Generation 7 consoles (Playstation 3, XBox 360, etc.) Not only were the consoles themselves given the full museum treatment, there were playable games hooked up and running for every console on display. I saw a room full of people playing half a dozen different Atari 2600 games, then another room with ten NES games available for use. This was clearly the most popular part of the museum by far, and there were lines to try many of the games. It's a good example of how museums don't need to be stuffy and boring. Video games are an important part of modern day culture, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be studied and preserved as a part of history.
And yes, there was a Dance Dance Revolution machine here too, 7th Mix version if I remember correctly. I may or may not have spent a little while here destroying some of the local kids who thought they knew how to play DDR. Let's just say that I ended spending significantly more time in this museum that I'd expected.
After leaving the Museum of Civilization, I headed back to the Upper Town and circled around along the outside wall. Quebec City's encircling wall has a path that runs along the top, and nearly all of it can be used as a walking trail that runs for about 2 miles around the historic part of the city. There are still cannons placed here looking out at the river and the much larger city that's grown up around the oldest parts. I found that there were lots of people sitting outside on parts of the wall, enjoying the summer weather by relaxing or reading a book. There were also a number of horse-drawn carriages roaming around the Upper Town inside the walls, and this was apparently common enough that the city had special water fountains for horses to keep them refreshed. The day was beginning to wind down, and it had been a thoroughly enjoyable one.
There was only one more place that I wanted to see: the Plains of Abraham located to the south of the Citadelle. This was the location of the famed Battle of Quebec in 1759, and I knew that it had been turned into a public park. I was going to end the day by walking the grounds and getting a sense for the combat that had taken place. There was just one problem:
There was a huge outdoor summer festival sitting right in the middle of the battlefield! How annoying. This was Friday, July 5th and Quebec City was having its annual Summer Festival (Festival d'été de Québec, known locally as FEQ) which takes place in this location every year. The 2013 edition had Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Bruno Mars, Wu-Tang Clan, Weezer, Rush, Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, and a half dozen other acts performing, a pretty nice collection of artists. The festival goes on for two weeks and draws about 1.5 million visitors over the course of its duration. I'm sure that this is a great event for Quebec City, but I had come here to see the battlefield and it was laying underneath a bunch of stages and sound booths!
Well, I did the best that I could and walked around the rest of the public park. This was an open green area with lots of picnic spaces, and the views looking down to the river were outstanding. Even with those stupid festival structures in the way, I was still able to get a better sense of how events had played out here during the battle. Here's a link to the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Quebec for the curious. The French had been holding the high ground up by the location of the current Citadelle when the British scaled up the cliffs to the south of the city under the cover of night. Having seen those cliffs in person, I had a fresh appreciation of what a daring move that had been. This was in truth a reckless decision by the British commander General Wolfe; he was putting his forces in an extremely dangerous position where they had no line of retreat and no ability to resupply. The French then came down out of their fortifications to offer battle, which was pure foolishness on the part of the French commander General Montcalm. There was no reason to take a risk like that when he could have held his defensive position inside the city's walls. When the American colonists tried a similar attack in 1775, the British were smart enough to remain in place and the American invasion foundered. Montcalm got what he deserved by dying in battle, but unfortunately he took a lot of his soldiers - and the whole colony of New France - down with him. Battles can have major consequences and this one reshaped the history of North America.
Anyway, that was the end of this day of sightseeing. I stayed at another hostel in the Upper Town but didn't capture any pictures of this one. I think I was simply tired after another long day of traveling and walking. Quebec City was the last major city that I would be seeing for quite a while on this trip. I would be exploring some of the natural scenery of Quebec the following day before heading further afield in the days to come. The urban portion of this trip was coming to a close.